On Hats and Haibun

So. Lunch is over. (It was very pleasant — I hiked across the street to the Red Rooster, where I always go when I’m in Mineral Point, to eat Cornish pasty. [Big Cornish population in Mineral Point.] Randy Brooks, his wife Shirley, and his student Aubrie saw me when they came in and invited me to eat with them. The conversation ranged from iPads to haiku poetry slams.)

We’re back at the Opera House for the afternoon’s workshops. The first one was fascinatingly titled “Hat Haiku.” I had no idea what that was all about. It turned out to be a small-group haiku critique session, in which everyone anonymously puts a haiku they’ve written into a hat and then draws out someone else’s for the group to discuss.

Francine Banwarth led this session — she is a well-known haiku poet from Dubuque, Iowa, which is even nearer to Mineral Point than Madison is. She was one of the co-coordinators of the conference and is an extremely kind person. (Dubuque has an active haiku group and Francine very nicely invited me to meet with them — there is already another Madisonian who drives over there once a month. I don’t really think that I’m up for four hours of driving even for the sake of haiku, but I appreciated the invitation.)

One thing that didn’t really appeal to me about this workshop was the emphasis Francine placed on getting your haiku published. It does seem that just about everybody there except me seemed to see this as an important goal. Most of them are published already, in fact. (I know because Francine asked for a show of hands.)

I don’t know, maybe it’s just sour grapes or something (though I’ve barely even tried to get published and I’ve only been writing haiku for four months so I’m hardly offended that editors are not falling over themselves to publish my stuff), but I get very nervous when I think about trying to shape my haiku to meet an editor’s preferences or expectations. I feel like I am really still trying to find my voice as a haiku poet and I don’t want to be trying to write like everyone else in every other journal (not that there is not wonderful haiku being published in the journals).

What’s interesting is that Francine talked about how important it was to have your own voice to “stay true to our art and to ourselves” and to keep haiku from dying out over time, and at the same time talked about reading journals and studying what editors want, which seems to me to be somewhat antithetical to the ideal of finding your own voice. At one point she asked how many of us knew when we’d written a good haiku, and her criteria for a “good haiku” seemed to be one that an editor would accept.

I guess I just feel like at this point I want to experiment as wildly as I can, and not get overly bogged down in whether my haiku are “good” by an editor’s definition — I want to find my own standard of “good haiku.” Which isn’t to say that I don’t feel I can learn by reading the haiku of others or talking to other poets. I was seriously inspired by the wonderful haiku I encountered this weekend, and the critique session that followed Francine’s introduction was wonderful. The discussion was lively, intelligent, sometimes contentious but always respectful.

I learned an immense amount, not least because both Lee Gurga and Randy Brooks were in my group — both wonderful poets, though with somewhat different approaches; both, I believe, with more years of haiku writing experience than I have years of life — and they kept bringing up subtle points about word arrangement and vocabulary choice that had never crossed my mind. It was extremely humbling, but I felt very honored to have the opportunity to sit there and have a discussion with them.

*

The second workshop was led by Roberta Beary, another wonderful poet from Washington, D.C. The topic was haibun, something that frustrates me immensely. I always feel like it should be a natural fit for me — I write prose, I write haiku, why can’t I write a combination of prose and haiku? But every time I’ve tried I’ve known I was very wide of the mark. I was hoping this workshop could show me where I was going wrong.

Robert’s emphasis was on taking risks in haibun, journeying to the “back of beyond” (a reference to Basho’s famous long haibun, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”). By taking risks she meant exposing yourself, talking about personal matters, exploring your feelings and memories. Her haibun are very autobiographical. Right away I was beginning to sense where my problem might lie with haibun. I don’t really like to write autobiographically. I don’t like to expose myself! I don’t want to be personal!

I was cheered a bit by a couple of haibun that Lee Gurga wrote, because even though they definitely were personal, they had a more intellectual stance and didn’t take quite the same risks in terms of personal exposure that Roberta’s did. I could, sort of, begin to see myself writing something like those.

I did also find a lot of Roberta’s specific advice about composition useful — I wrote a lot of it down verbatim so I’ll share it:

“I try to keep it very short and get rid of unnecessary words. I also like stream of consciousness because I like haibun when it takes you to this place, ‘the back of beyond.’ You’re not confined by the rules of grammar.

“I try to use an experience that’s deeply affected me, either in a good or bad way. I’ll try to get a handle on it by writing about it.

“It’s important to keep a flow going so that you draw the reader in and that it also be able to be a spoken form so you can get up in front of an audience and read your haibun.

“I know people that start with the haiku but when I write I do the prose part, I do the haiku, and then I do the title. The title is really important in haibun. You don’t want something that is telling you the whole thing in the title. I want the reader to do some work. I don’t want to give it away. You can also use the title to bring in another texture or dimension to the haibun. It’s another element of risk-taking. Sometimes I make the title the first sentence of the haibun prose.”

Roberta has a strong antipathy to flowery language in haibun (me too), dislikes the “travelogue” kind of haiku that is just a description of a place or situation with no real emotional impact, and almost without exception prefers the present tense (she feels it lends more immediacy and draws the reader in more effectively). She thinks haibun should be quite short, a couple paragraphs at most.

She made the interesting observation that writing haibun is “an effective way to get into mainstream poetry publications,” most of which are not interested in haiku.

I left definitely feeling like I was ready to give haibun another try, but still with some trepidation about whether I could really do it. But after seven hours of lectures and workshops I felt I needed to give my brain a rest. Back to Gayle’s flowery porch!