The Rainbow Cafe

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We like to visit a co-op cafe in our Moscow neighborhood, one of the new private enterprises that Gorbachev has encouraged; they have more and better food than most of the state restaurants, and are never “Closed for Repairs” when the employees feel like taking a day off, never display “No Vacancy” signs when the place is empty. The staff are solicitous and polite, and apologetic if something on the menu doesn’t happen to be available, instead of incredulous that you might ever have expected it would be.

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winter flea market —
a wind-up doll
that’s already broken

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It drives the staff crazy if I order for myself instead of letting my boyfriend do it for me. For this reason, I make a point of always ordering for myself, and always before he does. They stare ferociously at him while I speak, and only after he gives a slight nod do they write down my order. Even after I’ve been doing this for months, they don’t yield on their principles. No one there ever asks me what I want.

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I eat my chicken Kiev watching them as they bustle from table to table with worried lines in their foreheads, as if they’re calculating profit margins in their heads. Butter drips down my chin. My boyfriend reaches over and wipes it off with a napkin.

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meteor shower
the wishes I make
in another language

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.Haibun Today 5:2, June 2011

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Tanka? Okay, I Can Do That

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I check
to see what’s sprouted
we’re separated now
by the life span
of squash and cucumbers

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on the way
to see the apple blossoms —
I admire how
your story changes
with every streetlight

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(Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, 7:1, Spring 2011)

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Tanka. I keep mentioning tanka in what I know is this extremely skeptical tone of voice. I spent a long time trying not to think about them. I think I was having a hard enough time trying to understand haiku (not that that process is or ever will be over for me) and seeing these tanka things, which looked kind of like haiku but were the wrong length and sounded very different, confused me. And kind of annoyed me, too, because a lot of them (although not, by any means, as high a percentage as I used to think) are flowery and dreamy and romantic and … I’m not. Flowery, dreamy, romantic things usually just make me want to go balance my checkbook or something. Or throw up. (Yes, I am a fun date. Thanks for asking.)

So I was all grouchy about tanka and didn’t even want to learn anything about it, which is unusual for me because generally I want to learn everything about everything, and the sooner the better. I sneered at and winced about and cast aspersions on tanka … and then, at some point this winter, I started writing it. Still without having the slightest idea what it actually was. Don’t ask me what that was all about. I think I was just having one of those days where haiku seemed too short. You know those days. Where you’re like “Seventeen syllables? Max? Give me a break.”

I wrote a bunch of these things and eyed them warily, and then heaved a weary sigh and went crawling humbly around the web to find out what I had done. I was thrilled to find this essay about the origins of tanka by Jane Reichhold, because it’s very funny and made me feel like maybe I didn’t have to worry so much about tanka but could just enjoy it:

“From tanka’s long history – over 1300 years recorded in Japan — the most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers. Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji, the little poem expressing one’s feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return to his master.

Usually under some pressure – the writer had probably been either awake or engaged in strenuous activities all night – to write a verse that related, in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one’s feelings, and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again was not an easy task. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the personal messenger on his way with a note so written that he couldn’t know exactly what was what but that the beloved would understand and appreciate. Then the giggling servants would get back to work.

“…Looking at tanka history it seems that the only infallible way of writing great tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Do it now. But that doesn’t mean that it must be a behind-the-bushes affair in the no-tell motel. Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons; your own kids, grandkids or even – your mate, or just life itself. Whatever feels good and right for you.

Because of their original use as a way of privately expressing emotion and especially between friends and lovers unhappy because they are separated, the feelings expressed in traditional tanka were usually either longing for better time, more faithful lovers, younger years or grief because of old age, lack of lovers, or hard times. You get the picture. When reading a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.”

– Jane Reichhold,  “Tanka for the Memory

So that was my first tanka breakthrough. My second happened when I humbly sent a bunch of my lame tanka off to be edited by Aubrie Cox, who graciously refrained from telling me I had no idea what I was doing and with her magical touch lightly and deftly transformed the least lame of them into something that a tanka editor might not be too appalled to see appearing in his or her inbox. The two above are the first I had accepted for publication. It felt pretty weird, I have to tell you. “Wait — I’m not a tanka poet. Am I? Oh God. I guess I am. Can I go throw up now?”

I’ve gotten over it, though. For one thing, I’ve actually read a lot of tanka since then, and a lot of it I like a lot. Also, some of my best friends are wonderful tanka poets, so I’ve really had to force myself to examine my unwarranted prejudices. If you get this issue of Ribbons, for instance (which I highly recommend you do), you will find the following stupendous tanka by my buddy Margaret Dornaus of haiku-doodle gracing the back cover, and being wonderfully and lovingly dissected inside the journal by its editor, Dave Bacharach:

at Toad Suck
I contemplate syllables
and old ponds
like a child puddle-jumping
loudly through soft falling rain

— Margaret Dornaus

And right next to it you will find another stupendous tanka by Jeffrey Woodward (Haibun Today editor extraordinaire), which Bacharach has deliberately placed in counterpoint with Margaret’s:

sweet,
but with a slight tang,
the rejected
and twisted little
apples of Winesburg

— Jeffrey Woodward

Even I have to admit that there is nothing romantic, dreamy, etc. about either of these tanka, and that they are, in fact, quite brilliant and thought-provoking poems that just happen to be two lines longer than your typical haiku and to be attempting something rather different though not entirely unconnected. If you’re looking for a better explanation than I or probably anyone else but R.H. Blyth could provide of what exactly that something is, check out this essay by Don Wentworth over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, which gives us plenty of Blyth for our delectation.

For even more tanka information, Tanka Online and American Tanka are good places to look, and Charlotte Digregorio has recently written an essay on her blog that is a good, brief introduction to the subject. Besides Ribbons, the print journals Moonbathing, Eucalypt, and red lights publish tanka exclusively; bottle rockets publishes it among other Japanese verse forms, and so does the online journal Notes from the Gean. I’m probably forgetting someone. As I so often do. Feel free, as always, to tell me what I’m missing.

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[Note: If you subscribe to this blog, you are not imagining things. Another version of this essay appeared a few days ago. It was an accident -- it wasn't finished yet -- and I promptly deleted it. Sorry about the confusion.]

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Blossoms (and Blossoms, and Blossoms, and Blossoms)

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ki no moto wa shiru mo namasu mo sakura kana

– Basho (1654-1694)
1690
Season: Spring
Kigo: Cherry blossoms

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Under the cherry-trees,
On soup, and fish-salad and all,
Flower-petals

– R.H. Blyth, 1950
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Under the trees
Soup, fish salad, and everywhere
Cherry blossoms.

– Makoto Ueda, 1970

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Under the cherry–
blossom soup,
blossom salad.

– Lucien Stryk, 1985

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From all these trees,
in the salads, the soup, everywhere,
cherry blossoms fall.

– Robert Hass, 1994

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I spent part of this semester completing a class assignment by developing a structure for a database of classical haiku, using XML and related markup tools. Don’t get too impressed. It’s pretty primitive. And at the moment it contains fourteen haiku. And I don’t have any real enthusiasm for spending the hundreds of hours that would be required to expand and refine it enough to make it at all useful.

But I do think it would be really, really cool if such a thing existed. As you can see from my example above, there’s the Japanese (romaji) version of the haiku, accompanied by numerous translations (love, love, love comparative translation), and information about the season and kigo associated with the haiku, which can easily be indexed using markup tools. I can’t even imagine how useful and fun that kind of database would be, if it had enough haiku in it.

But barring some really bored person coming along with a fondness for both haiku and data entry (do such people exist?), this dream will probably not come to fruition any time soon. But I felt like I had to get some kind of real-world satisfaction out of this project, so here’s one of Basho’s more delightful spring haiku for you to enjoy, in all its delightful versions. (I’m kind of fond of Lucien Stryk’s translation. You?)

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first apples
sniffing for the lost scent
of blossoms

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April 8 (The Taste of Rosemary)

summer’s end
the taste of rosemary
in his kiss

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(NaHaiWriMo prompt: Herbs and spices)

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Moving on: NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 9th

Music

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See this post for an explanation of what this is.

See the NaHaiWriMo website.

See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)

 

April 2 (Last Year’s Honey)

blossoms
last year’s honey
on our toast

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(NaHaiWriMo prompt: Sweets and sweet things)

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Moving along: NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 3rd

Insects and arachnids

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See this post for an explanation of what this is.

See the NaHaiWriMo website.

See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)

See Dick run … no, wait.

If you don’t have a Facebook account or don’t want to post haiku there, feel free to post them in my comments.

Or just write them down somewhere and keep them a secret.

Or don’t write anything at all. Whatever works for you.

I’ll be back tomorrow, same time, same place, with another suggestion.

April 2: Honey (Flashbacks to Moscow, 1990)

February
you bake me a sweet cake
in a sugarless country

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skiing in Gorky Park—
suddenly realizing
where we’re going

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March
a snowstorm
settles it

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April
babushkas chiding us
for our warmth

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May
blossoming
at last

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Happy birthday, honey.

March 15: Glitter (Haibun)

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Glitter becomes you:

inspired, you spread a thin layer

of glue on arms and other rounded parts,

and upturn upon them the elegant jar of gold dust,

rapturously letting it describe and delimit, as it descends,

your ghostly form, previously so vague, and white, and un-wish-for-able.

You say, Get a load of this!, making muscles, inclining to accentuate curves,

giddy with the blindness you can see that you’re inflicting.

Startled, I stare, grown tired of selflessness,

wanting to own everything you possess;

I grasp your flesh, sweeping off grit in showers

of electric sparks, gravity stripping you once more bare:

grains of wheat, pearls of rice, gratings of savory cheese,

and you, goddess, just you now, and the memory of

glitter.

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stars falling
more and more
I wonder why

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First published in Contemporary Haibun Online 7:1, April 2011

NaHaiWriMo, Week 4: On Being Weird

22    editing an elephant gray seems too vague
23    encoding fairy tales </eastofthesunwestofthemoon>
24    ovulation trying to locate the scent of apple
25    menstruation sinking lower in the waves
26    political protest a deathwatch beetle in the drum circle
27    the mouse in the kitchen does he also hear the owl
28    particles streaming from the sun we wait on this rock to receive them

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Whew. I made it.

I don’t know why this felt so hard. I’ve been writing haiku every day for ten months now. And, you know, sharing them with the reading public. I think it was just that I was trying to do something really different from what I usually do — trying to be weird and experimental, just kind of throw stuff against the wall and see what stuck.

And even though I told myself that this would be freeing and relaxing, I was surprised to find that I actually found it very stressful to try to come up with something Original and Interesting every day that I wasn’t incredibly embarrassed to let you guys see. Well, a lot of it I actually was incredibly embarrassed to let you guys see. This week may have started out the weirdest of all and then by the fifth day I was getting freaked out enough that I actually followed a couple of Michael Dylan Welch’s (excellent) NaHaiWriMo daily writing prompts, which until then I’d pretty much ignored in the spirit of experimental individualism. I just couldn’t take the pressure of marching to such a different drummer any more.

I thought sometimes this month of the title of the physicist Richard Feynman’s autobiography: “Why Do You Care What Other People Think?” This is a question his wife challenged him with when he was very young. Mostly Feynman didn’t care a lot what other people thought, which is part of what made him so brilliant. (The other part was that he was, you know, brilliant.)

So why do I care? I mean … no one scolded me for being too experimental this month, at least not out loud; people said nice things about the haiku they liked and politely kept their mouths shut about the ones that they didn’t. No one is ever mean to me on this blog. My readership didn’t go down, people didn’t unsubscribe. I still felt stupid and incompetent a lot of the time. Apparently I am way more insecure than I thought I was.

This worries me a little, because it must mean that most of the time I am trying to write haiku that I think other people will approve of. Of course this isn’t entirely bad, the point of writing is supposed to be communication after all, so if no one understands or likes what you’re writing … well, you can either carry on in the same vein hoping that future generations will be more enlightened, or you can seriously consider the possibility that there’s something wrong with your writing. But if you’re spending so much time worrying about what other people think that you never actually figure out what you think yourself, that’s a problem too.

Also, I think I freaked out a little at how good everyone else’s NaHaiWriMo stuff seemed to me. A lot of people seemed to take this exercise really seriously and put their best foot forward and come up with superlative work that really blew me away … and then there’s me, sitting in the corner tossing my word spaghetti at the wall, with a slightly village-idiot expression on my face.

Anyway. (She said defensively.) Just so you know, I wrote a lot of other haiku this month that are a lot more, you know, normal. You’ll probably be seeing a fair number of them in the next couple of months. So don’t unsubscribe! The worst is over … and I will be discussing my inferiority complex with my imaginary therapist, so don’t worry about me.

NaHaiWriMo, Week 3

15    bicycle light never stopping to let me catch up
16    multiplication tables all the things I can’t forget
17    peace pipe blowing bubbles beside the sea
18    expired passport all the nebulae I kept meaning to visit
19    protest march spring comes anyway
20    microwave platter my food comes from a dying star
21    resisting arrest unidentified weeds in the garden

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Week One is here. Week Two is here.

Am I getting any better? … Never mind, I don’t want to know.

February 17: Numerical Order

“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)

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seven or eight
sparrows
count them again

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This haiku appeared on this blog last May, and on Haiku News last week (with the headline above).

For some reason, even though I wrote it in pretty much my first week of writing haiku, it is still one of my favorites of my own poems. Beginner’s luck, I guess.

Why do I like it so much? (You don’t have to ask so incredulously.) Well…first of all, there’s the whole “it’s true” thing. It’s impossible to count birds. (Impossible for me, anyway; maybe you’ve had better luck.) They keep moving. They’re transient, they’re transitory.

So many things in life are. You can’t pin them down. You look one minute and things look one way; the next minute they look entirely different. Don’t even ask about the differences between years.

But for some reason we (and by “we” I mean “I”) keep trying to get some kind of firm fix on the situation, whatever the situation is. Seven or eight sparrows? Well, does it matter? Rationally, no … but so much of life is spent trying to count those damn sparrows.

Also, I like numbers. I like numbers in general; I like arithmetic; I count things and add and subtract and multiply things all the time, just for the hell of it. Give me your phone number and I’ll tell you something interesting about the digits in, like, four seconds. “The sum of the first three digits is the product of the last two digits!” Or something. It’s a little weird. Kind of Junior Rain Man. (I do know the difference between the price of a car and the price of a candy bar, though.  So your longstanding suspicion that I really should be institutionalized has not yet been entirely confirmed.)

I like numbers in poetry because they are so specific. Other things being equal, generally the more specific a poem is the more powerful it is, so numbers to me seem like high-octane gas or something for poetry.

Gabi Greve, on her mindblowingly complete haiku website, has a great page about numbers in haiku. Here are a couple of my favorites of the examples she gives:

咲花をまつ一に梅二は櫻
saku hana o matsu ichi ni umi ni wa sakura

waiting for the cherry blossoms
one is the sea
two is the cherry tree

– Ishihara 石原重方

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ビタミン剤一日二錠瀧凍る
bitamiinzai ichi nichi ni joo taki kooru

vitamin pills
each day two of them -
the waterfall freezes

– Ono Shuka (Oono Shuka) 大野朱香

Also, Issa is great at haiku that feature numbers. (Does this surprise you? I thought not.) A few examples, all translated by David Lanoue (and if you want more you should go over to David’s spectacular database of Issa translations and type your favorite number in the search box):

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

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houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…
two

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three or five stars
by the time I fold it…
futon

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rainstorm–
two drops for the rice cake tub
three drops for the winnow

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lightning flash–
suddenly three people
face to face

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mid-river
on three or four stools…
evening cool

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cool air–
out of four gates
entering just one

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on four or five
slender blades of grass
autumn rain

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a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
winter moon

and one of my favorites of all time –

first snowfall
one, two, three, four
five, six people

Interesting how many of these involve the kind of uncertainty about exact count that my own haiku does. I don’t remember whether I had read any Issa at the time I wrote it. I might have been shamelessly imitating him, or I might just have been trying to count sparrows. You try it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

NaHaiWriMo, Week 2

8    winter shadows the color of winter hats
9    spinning in circles trying to reason with the galaxy
10    cold archive room Abe Lincoln’s ordinary horse
11    chocolate sauce dipping a toe in a sun-warmed puddle
12    lark silver bullet entering my airspace
13    clouds of the world checking their immigration status
14    oil slick nebula in embryo

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I seem to be doing very weird things with these. I guess that’s kind of the point of this endeavor. Well, I kind of see it as the point. Experimenting, risking seeming stupid or incompetent in hopes that you’ll occasionally hit upon something interesting or worthwhile. I’ve had to force myself to be very brave and non-self-censoring this month. I keep imagining people thinking to themselves, “God, she’s gone off the deep end, hasn’t she?” Wandering away shaking their heads. Wondering if they really want to come back.

It’s interesting, though, because whenever I start to feel guilty about inflicting some trite gobbledygook on you people, it will turn out that people actually like the stuff I thought was trite gobbledygook. I mean, people with good taste, better taste than I have. I’m starting to wonder if I actually have the slightest idea what I’m doing here … Stop nodding your heads so vigorously.

Halfway through. I guess I’ll make it.

February 14 (Your Kiss)

your kiss
the last chocolate
in the box

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This first appeared on Gillena Cox’s blog Lunch Break a few days ago. It was her birthday, and she very sensibly solicited haiku about chocolate to make her life delicious during the first couple of weeks of February.

Gillena is a lovely person and poet (well, she’s an Aquarius, what do you expect?), go over there and wish her a happy Valentine’s Day and a belated happy birthday.

NaHaiWriMo, Week One

1    hailstones dreaming of semiautomatic weapons
2    blizzard so many ways to fly
3    lunar new year stamps so that’s what persimmons look like
4    stone wall the gaps in what you tell me about yourself
5    honeybee sting the desperation of the search for sweetness
6    environmentally conscious recycling your love letters
7    fiddleheads the family I never see anymore

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I wasn’t going to do NaHaiWriMo, because I figured, I already write a haiku (or two, or ten, or thirty) every day, why should I make a special event of it?

But then I got carried away by all the fun everyone else seemed to be having doing it (man, over on Facebook people are partying it up), and then I thought of a theme, or a gimmick, or something, that got me more interested in it. I decided to write only one-liners. So many of my ku already start out as one-liners (and then get rewritten into whatever number of lines seems to work best for them) that I thought this couldn’t be too painful.

I also decided not to put too much pressure on myself to make these brilliant, and I also also decided not to post them on the blog or Facebook every day. I’ve been tweeting them instead (@myyozh, in case you’re interested). For some reason I am more laid-back on Twitter. It’s a pretty laid-back place. Not that this blog is exactly known for its uptight vibe, but, you know. I don’t like to let you guys down.

I don’t completely hate the way all of these are turning out, though. So I decided to put them up one week at a time. That way the effect of the really mediocre ones is mitigated somewhat. Also I kind of like the juxtaposition of the varied subjects I’m coming up with.

A couple notes:

  • Yes, there is a little snow here. But not the actual word snow. That would be wrong, wrong, wrong. And if you have an actual blizzard, how can you not write a haiku about it? That would be wrong too.
  • Also, U.S. readers may feel tempted to point out to me that the fruit on this year’s Lunar New Year stamps is kumquats, not persimmons. Geez. Picky, picky, picky. I mean, the whole point of the poem is that I don’t know what persimmons look like, right? I’ve been so baffled the last couple of months trying to understand all these persimmon haiku that everyone writes. No persimmons in Wisconsin. I’m sure you can buy them somewhere but what can I say, I’m a little afraid of strange fruit. I also could just Google to see what they look like but what fun would that be? Sometimes you just have to say no to Google. (Hi, my name is Melissa and I go to library school.)

Tune in next week, same time, same place, for seven more of these.