September 17: Boundary Waters

arguing over the route —
the red squirrel scolds
our departure

northern light leaks between the birch trunks

last summer light
sunning on a log
turtle guts

after crashing into the rocks strange and beautiful mushrooms

filtering lake water
sediment collected
in my throat

into the wind she never looks like she’s trying

*

I finally got some kind of ku mileage out of my canoe trip. I think this may be about the end of it, though. Unless in a few years I’m sitting around bored and a sudden memory of northern lakes inspires me …

“Cradle”: Winding down …

Okay. This will be my last bulletin from the Cradle of American Haiku Festival. I hope my coverage hasn’t been too exhaustive (or exhausting). I’ve just found the whole experience so much fun and so fascinating that I wanted to give everyone who’s never been to a haiku conference some sense of what it’s all about. Also, I learned so much that I didn’t want to forget and that I thought was worth sharing.

So. We’ve reached the end of the “mostly educational” phase of the conference and are moving on to the “mostly social” phase. By this point I had met enough people and felt comfortable enough in the group that instead of cowering in a corner, I actually found myself having lots of lively conversations and making new friends. It was an amazing feeling to be in the presence of so many other people who were passionate about haiku, especially since before this weekend I’d never met another haiku poet in person. Now I know so many I can’t even remember all their names.

While sitting on the porch of Foundry Books, reviving myself after a long day of lectures and workshops by scarfing down several more of the fantastic chocolate chip cookies that I had developed a serious addiction to the day before, I had a nice conversation with Gayle Bull about her amazing garden, songbirds, and life in a hundred-and-sixty-year-old house in Mineral Point (tip: dress warmly in winter). Gayle also invited me to meet with her haiku group in Mineral Point — I may take her up on that (although I am still thinking of starting a group in Madison, if that doesn’t require too insane a time commitment).

At cocktail hour and the picnic following, Charlie Trumbull and I discovered that we had shared an undergraduate university and major and compared notes on the one professor in our department who was there at the same time as both of us. I talked to a guy from Madison whom I’d known in another context many years ago and got caught up. I had a lot of fun talking to a librarian — my current subject of graduate study — and her husband who is in (more or less) the same line of work as my husband. I got to know Lidia Rozmus, a wonderful haiga artist who is originally from Poland, and bonded with her over discussions of life behind the Iron Curtain (I spent a semester studying in Moscow before the collapse of the Soviet Union).

A haiku reading ended the evening once again. One of the highlights of this for me was Jerome Cushman’s sign language interpretations of haiku — I have a special interest in this since my sister works at a school for the deaf and is a fluent signer. He started by signing Basho’s famous frogpond haiku, asking us to guess what we thought it was (I got it — the hop of the frog into the pond and the splash were unmistakable).

Randy Brooks’s undergraduate student Aubrie (apologies to Aubrie, I don’t remember her last name*) entertained us with her haiku:

haiku conference
I’m everyone’s
granddaughter†

Some of us indignantly retorted that we were only old enough to be her mother, not her grandmother! But it’s true that Aubrie was the youngest person there by probably at least fifteen years. I’m still trying to ponder the significance of this — is haiku something that people generally come to later in life? Or does the younger generation mostly have no interest in haiku? Are we dying out, like the classical music audience?

I read my “Seasonal Mathematics” sequence, which I thought got a slightly warmer reception than my full moon sequence of the night before. (It turns out that Lee Gurga was an undergraduate math major, so he appreciated it.) Still, I felt kind of like the freshman on the team, trying with limited success to hit the ball the way the upperclassmen do.

I was sad not to be able to attend any of Sunday’s events, which included a ginko walk and the results of the haiku kukai that was held over the weekend. It was hard to say goodbye to everyone. (Though I got lots of email addresses, so I’m hoping to keep in touch with some.) But I’m already making plans to attend the Haiku North America conference that the Brookses are holding in Decatur next summer … it’s just too much fun to be surrounded by real live haikuists.

Not that I don’t love you guys … why don’t you come too, so I can finally meet some of you?

autumn beer —
haiku poets
can’t stop talking

__________________

*Cox! Her last name is Cox! I knew that, really I did.

†Revised to remove the word “first” from the beginning of the ku, since Aubrie tells me I imagined that part.

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!

On being lectured at. And enjoying it.

I really, really hate sitting and listening to lectures. Especially long lectures. It’s hard for me to sit. It’s hard for me to concentrate for long stretches of time. It’s hard for me to take in information that is spoken — I’m a reader. In college I usually gave up going to my lecture classes after a while because I fell asleep after the first half hour anyway so it was more efficient just to stay home and read the textbook. Or take a nap.

Yesterday morning, however, I sat and listened to lectures for three hours straight, and never blinked. I was totally engrossed the entire time. Apparently lectures about haiku are an exception to my lecture-hating rule.

(It didn’t hurt that these lectures took place in the newly refurbished Mineral Point Opera House, originally built in 1919 and full of lovely architectural details. If you want pictures you’ll have to check out the link, since my iPhone decided at some point during the morning to go completely dead on me [don’t worry, my son performed some kind of magic rite on it when I got home and now it’s fine].

This also means, sadly, that I don’t have pictures of any of the wonderful people I met yesterday or of the town of Mineral Point, which is as far as I’m concerned the loveliest small town in Wisconsin. Also one of the oldest, and hilliest, so it makes this New England transplant feel right at home.)

Anyway. Back to the lectures. The first was a talk by Randy Brooks (one of the few haiku professors in the country) with the wonderful title of “A Tumbly Life of Haiku: The Poetics of Robert Spiess.” He took us through a chronological selection of Spiess’ poetry, analyzing his development as a haiku writer from, essentially, more to less traditional. The early ku are mostly conventional in form and nature-based, though keenly observed:

all water turned ice:
delicately a gray squirrel
is lapping snow

the day after rain;
a reach of river bank
scattered with morels

Later Spiess experimented more with both form and subject matter:

a    square
of    water
r e f l e c t s
the    moon

making lunch for refugees —
my back turned, a child
picks through the garbage pail

*
The next lecture, which really enthralled me, was Lee Gurga’s talk on “Robert Spiess’s Muse and the Future of American Haiku.” Lee managed to touch on just about every issue in the writing of contemporary haiku that most interests and concerns me, and enhanced my understanding of all these issues by about five hundred percent. Also, he was entertaining and inspiring.

I took copious notes, which I will try to distill down to a reasonable length. This may mean that I don’t represent Lee’s ideas in the order they appeared in his talk. And needless to say, apologies to Lee if I don’t get the details right or end up misrepresenting what he was saying — this was a dense and challenging lecture and I struggled to type fast enough to get it all down.

Lee started out by saying that he was currently collaborating on an anthology of haiku from current journals with Scott Metz, whom he considers the most talented haiku poet in the under-40 generation. Despite the fact that Scott’s experimental haiku are at the opposite end of the haiku spectrum from Lee’s more traditional poems, Lee thinks the future of American haiku lies with experimental and gendai poets such as Metz, Richard Gilbert and Jim Kacian. (I find these guys exciting myself and have written a couple of essays about them.)

Lee spoke about the process of editing Gilbert’s seminal essay “The Disjunctive Dragonfly” in 2004 when he, Lee, was the editor of Modern Haiku. The essay outlines Gilbert’s view of haiku poetics, which emphasizes disjunction — a complicated concept, maybe best summed up as a sort of disorientation or shift in viewpoint, intended to “erupt the complacent mind” of the reader. Traditional haiku, in contrast, tend to favor juxtaposition — a finding of commonality between disparate elements — and to emphasize clarity of language, with a goal of enlightening the reader.

Disjunction, imagistic fusion, language as language rather than a way to convey meaning — these characteristics of experimental haiku, Lee said, have “sent haiku off in all different directions”  — an exciting development. He thinks these techniques will produce haiku that are successful both as haiku and as short poems.

Lee discussed a bit about the history of English-language haiku: The early haiku translator R.H. Blythe, one of the first to introduce haiku to the English-speaking world, had a romantic vision of haiku as poems of discovery rather than of invention. In the sixties and seventies, the haiku ideal tended to be “the aha moment” — a sudden experience of enlightenment.

Gradually poets began to realize that these aha moments could take place at the time of the experience or at the time of writing. And the new experimental poets tend to think that the idea of writing about aha moments at the time of experience is a little played out. Lee himself, although he thinks this type of haiku will always be written, doesn’t think they will provide the future direction for American haiku. The new haiku poetry tends to consider words themselves the object of the poem, not experience.

If  Lee were to encapsulate in a phrase what’s different about American haiku today, it would be “the opacity of language,” contrasted with the earlier haiku ideal of transparency of language. He said, memorably, “The ideal for me is not transparency but translucency.” This means that the haiku can be read at both the literal and deeper — metaphorical or symbolic — levels. These multiple levels add richness to haiku and make them worth keeping and adding to the English literary canon.

As Lee has been working with Scott Metz, he’s been finding that Scott also values translucency — but his haiku are more at the opaque end of the translucency spectrum, whereas Lee’s are more at the transparent end. Scott often finds more transparent poems “boring” — Lee often has the reaction “so what” to more opaque poems. Both poets, however, are beginning to open each other’s eyes to the value of ku closer to the other end of the spectrum from what they naturally prefer. (Lee entertainingly summed up his attitude: “Too opaque is not superior to too transparent, perhaps only more pretentious.”)

Lee’s goal in editing the anthology is to reflect the current state of haiku in Japan: There, three schools of haiku exist, with their own organizations and standards: the traditional, the mainstream, and the gendai (more experimental). He wants to show that something like these three schools currently exist in English language haiku as well.

Lee gave some memorable examples of experimental and mainstream haiku from current journals. From Roadrunner, the journal Scott Metz edits, he cited the following (all of which I have represented as one line; I have no idea if some actually have line breaks or where the line breaks might occur — apologies to the authors if I have misrepresented your work):

moon flower the fragrance of names

their wings like cellophane remember cellophane

his kiss deepens midnight’s throat of stars

like a mosquito or an old empire city night

where I go searching bare trees ending sentences

baby beans racing moonlight

razored through to the void raven

bird me catch me

I see the iris and its stamina and am blue

From Modern Haiku he gave these more mainstream examples (same disclaimer as before — no idea where the line breaks occur, if any):

dusk rearranging silences

small town small talk big moon

october light I open my ribs to pray

insomnia two parts doubt one part moon

a coyote’s skull reconsidering the way

when fire had sentience winter solstice

someone’s last first cicada

floating in the sonogram summer moon

sparrows pour through a blue hole into our gray world

Traditional poetry, like that of Robert Spiess, is quite easy to find in most haiku journals.

For Lee himself as a haiku poet, balance between the extremes of experimental and traditional haiku is important. He enjoys experimenting, but also sees its dangers. He cites William Ramsay from a Roadrunner essay, “How One Writes in the Haiku Moment: Mythos vs. Logos”: “The haiku that Gilbert shows as models of disjunctive technique are excellent … [but] I don’t want to write … demo haiku .. I want to write haiku” that reflect events in his life and his feelings about them.” Ramsey wants to avoid the phenomenon of “disjunctive haiku as bludgeon,” overpowering and confusing the reader.

Some of Ramsey’s own haiku, which Lee considers to achieve this balance between experimental and traditional, are:

on a white plate two figs in syrup deep winter

cool pillow stuffed with pale lives I have sloughed off

born to live I hoe and ah born to die I kiss the melon [my comment: WOW]

Lee sees an approaching bifurcation in American haiku — it will become not a single movement of like-minded poets but will be more divided into schools like the Japanese haiku movement, with journals becoming more specialized and oriented toward one school or another. He sees this development as an indication of the maturity of American haiku — leaving its adolescence behind.

Lee asks, “Haiku will survive but what will it be?” His answer: There will be a cross-fertilization between haiku and other minimalist poetry. Haiku will come to emphasize both attention to the world around us and attention to the material, the language, of the poem. Unequivocally, Lee said, “I believe this is the technique that will produce the best haiku.”

Lee does hope that the haiku of the future will not abandon completely two important elements of traditional haiku: the notion of seasons (whether of the solar year or, more metaphorically, of life), and the idea of “an invitation to the reader.” He doesn’t want haiku to lapse into narcissism or solipsism, but to reach out to its audience.

The best haiku, Lee believes, will enable us to “enrich our connection to others so that we become the best poets and the best human beings we can be.”

*
I had really been looking forward to Charles Trumbull’s talk on “Verbs in Haiku” ever since I saw the title on the program. This is because I am a big geek and really like grammar. I even got excited when Charlie announced at the beginning of his lecture, “Things will get suddenly heavy now.” Hey, I like heavy! I was not disappointed. (And once again, any idiocies in the following discussion are certainly mine and not Charlie’s.)

Charlie is actually writing a book on grammar in haiku and his talk concerned his research into the role of verbs in strengthening or weakening haiku. He started out with the question — are verbs necessary in haiku? Traditionally, haiku present two separate images, usually noun-based, so perhaps verbs can be considered optional. He presented Cor Van der Heuvel’s haiku as an example:

the shadow in the folded napkin

To answer this question, Charlie read all the previous literature on verbs in haiku (which consisted of three articles, discussed below), and also examined 200 haiku from journals in two years, 2005 and 2008. He analyzed what verbs these haiku used, if any; what tense and mood they were; whether they were active or passive, transitive or intransitive, weak or strong. He considered the role of participles and gerunds in haiku. For all these categories he presented numerous examples from his research, which were fascinating but I will mostly skip them.

There were a few concepts Charlie went into in more depth, for instance the idea, very common among traditional haiku poets, that haiku should all be in the present tense. He presented a few quotes on the subject, for instance this one by Bruce Ross: “Haiku takes place in the present. This is its special feature.” Rebecca Rust, likewise, says unequivocally, “Haiku is a record of a present moment.” Jane Reichhold offers a slightly more nuanced explanation for her preference for present-tense haiku: stories are more gripping if told in the present tense.

Charlie did find that most haiku in his sample were written in the present tense, but presented several compelling examples of ku written in other tenses:

the crow flew so fast
that he left his lonely caw
behind the fields
— Richard Wright

a woman at last!
tonight, old moon,
you will have to sleep alone.
— Jim Tipton

Charlie also discussed the use of verbs in Japanese haiku, which are often difficult to translate into English precisely:

the faces of the dolls!
though I never intended to,
I have grown old.
— Seifu-jo (tr. Blythe)

In this haiku, Charlie said, the verb in the last line indicates a completed past action and might be more accurately translated as “old age had happened” — a sudden realization of the fact of the poet’s age.

Charlie discussed the three previous articles on verbs in haiku. The first, by Ted-Larry Pebworth, disparages weak verbs in haiku, saying that “ ‘to be’ is one of the most dangerous verbs available to the haiku poet.” Charlie tends to agree, saying that in his sample he could find no uses of the verb “to be” (the copula) used to represent simple equality. “Very few respectable haiku poets use this form anymore.”

However, one acceptable reason to use the copula is to convey the idea of transformation, as in this example by Fay Aoyagi:

new year’s eve bath —
I fail to become
a swan

The second essay, by Gustave Keyser, encourages the use of strong verbs as the “key to optimum effect in haiku.” One example Keyser gives, coincidentally, is the haiku that Gayle Bull cited as her favorite by Bob Spiess during the remembrances the night before. It was written about a bush in her own yard:

of the snow that fell
some lies on a common bush
uncommonly well

Here “lies,” Keyser says, is “the precisely right verb for the mood of the poem.”

Charlie also agrees that strong verbs improve haiku and notes that the number of strong verbs increased from his 2005 to his 2008 sample.

The third essay, by Bob Spiess himself, advocates for the use of no verbs in haiku. This does not mean, Spiess says, that the haiku will not have, or need, a “verbal element,” but this function can be taken over by other words.

Charlie found that in his sample, one quarter of the haiku had no verb at all, but most did have some kind of “verbal element” obliquely indicating action. In some, a verb, whether the copula or a more active verb, seemed to be implied:

early spring walk
your hand
in my pocket
— Roberta Beary

(Here Charlie suggested that “is” is implied after “hand.”)

Nouns can also have verbal overtones:

after making love
the slow click
of her knitting needles
— Michael Overhofer

(Here “click” is a noun that implies a verb.”

Participles, obviously, can have a verbal function:

a hole
in the starling’s skull
mint gone to seed
— John Barlow

Here once again Charlie discussed the difficulty of translating haiku from the Japanese and points out that different translations of the same haiku might use a verb, a participle, or no verb at all.

To my delight, he also presented Jane Reichhold’s idea of “The Technique of Noun-Verb Exchange,” using a word that can be interpreted in the haiku as either a noun or a verb:

spring rain
the willow strings
raindrops

After all his research, Charlie feels that either a verb or some kind of verbal element is desirable in haiku — haiku that don’t have any kind of implied verb seem weaker to him. I am still thinking about whether I agree with him.

Had enough? Yeah, by this point I had too. Let’s take a break for lunch.

Reception, remembrances, readings

Highlights of last night’s festival events (which I was way too dead on my feet to post about last night):

The reception that opened the festival took place in Gayle Bull’s home, which is attached to the back of her store. It’s almost as full of books as the store.

I, unfortunately, am not the ideal person to report on reception-type events, because despite the impression you may get from this blog that I am the kind of person who never shuts up, I am actually paralyzingly shy in large crowds of people. Three at a time is about my maximum. Several dozen? None of whom I’ve ever met before? Most of whom seem to know each other? Not so much.

This is not to say that people weren’t friendly. Everyone I actually managed to meet and talk to was extremely welcoming and warm. Charlotte DiGregorio, the Midwest Regional Coordinator of the Haiku Society of America, with whom I corresponded earlier this summer about the conference, gave me some great tips about starting my own haiku group in Madison, and also some pointers about submitting my haiku to journals (which I have just recently, and very tentatively, started doing). Charlie Trumbull, a wonderful haiku poet and the venerable editor of what is probably the most prominent haiku journal in America, Modern Haiku, was kind enough to endure the gushing admiration of a newbie haikuist without throwing up.

(There was also really good chocolate at the reception, including one designed for the conference (by whom? must find out) called “Haiku.” It was in the shape of a leaf and was spicy and why didn’t I get a picture of it?)

During the reception Charlie was running around handing out sheets of haiku by Robert Spiess, the late editor of Modern Haiku whom the conference was commemorating. Everyone was meant to pick two from their sheet to read in the next phase of the evening …

We moved outside to take over the microphone of the singer-guitarist who had been quietly playing country and soft-rock standards all evening in order to present remembrances of Bob Spiess. I knew pretty much nothing about Bob at the start of the evening but by the end I almost felt I’d known him personally. Everyone emphasized his kindness and generosity, including Gayle’s two daughters who remembered his frequent visits to their home and the way he doled out quarters to them (at a time when a quarter would have been a much bigger deal to a kid than it is now).

Possibly the funniest story involved the time Bob visited Japan and was riding the bullet train with some other haikuists, and was very eager to see Mount Fuji. Then he had to use the restroom. The other poets watched in dismay as Mount Fuji flashed by while he was gone. He got a haiku out of it though, a very funny one which I am going to track down and add here.

Several people read Bob’s thoughts about what haiku is or should be. Lee Gurga, another amazing haiku poet who is Bob’s literary executor and took over the editorship of Modern Haiku after his death, read Bob’s list of what annoyed him in haiku, a lot of which are the same things that annoy me in haiku, including the overuse of words like “suddenly” and “silence.”

Someone else read an observation of Bob’s which really struck me (maybe because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately myself): “Haiku is the poetry of the healing of culture by nature.” Bob’s poetry is definitely heavy on nature imagery, which I have recently disparaged, but it feels very natural in his poetry because he has clearly spent a lot of time observing and thinking about it:

around the bend
a log lying in the stream
— the turtle’s ears

Not that he doesn’t closely observe human beings too:

some sticks and pebbles
and a place with mud
a child by himself

a high mountain path
the guide saying that monkey
tastes better than goat

He wrote a whole series of haiku, in fact — Tall River Junction, inspired, obviously, by Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology — with titles that were people’s names:


Fr. Augustine Confesso, Paris Priest
Smiles, “The pear you eat,
snitched from the tree, my neighbor boy,
be it doubly sweet.

This last poem illustrates something that I found interesting about Spiess’s haiku, which is how often it employs rhyme — and how well the rhyme works:

drifting in the skiff …
names of all the swallows now:
tree and barn and cliff

The rhyme almost always follows this pattern of the first and third line rhyming.

One of the most touching moments of the evening occurred during the reading of Spiess’s haiku. A Korean woman with a strong accent stood up and announced she was going to read only the shortest poem on her sheet because she knew her accent would be difficult for us to understand:

firefly
wakens
me

Then she added: “I have the pleasure to know Bob Spiess and he was the pure kindness.”

We had a brief break before the next phase of the evening, which was readings from our own (or others’, if we preferred) haiku. Many poets seemed to take this opportunity to further lubricate themselves with the local beer and wine that was for sale. (I don’t drink, not because I have any moral or health objections to alcohol or am a recovering alcoholic or anything, just because I have never acquired a grownup taste for the stuff. Or for coffee, for that matter. Or liver and onions. All equally disgusting as far as I’m concerned.)

Anyway, by the time the readings began, the poets were becoming kind of rowdy. Rowdy haiku poets. Heckling each other. It was quite a scene. Lots of the haiku involved double entendres or just subtle (or frank) references to sex, which all got great reactions.

Most of the haiku that were read were frankly wonderful; I wrote lots of them down thinking I would post some of them here and then realized I really can’t do that without the permission of the authors. If I can get that, I may put some up later.

Lee Gurga read a great haiku by Peter Yovu, and some commentary about it (some of which is reproduced in the link above), and announced he’d give everything he’d ever written to have written it. Everyone was familiar with the ku before he even read it, except, of course, me. But now I am and I also love it.

I really liked the Korean guy who got up and told us about the article he’d just written about how the origins of haiku were in Korea. I believe it’s traditional for the Japanese and Koreans to argue about who invented pretty much every cultural phenomenon they share, so that was entertaining.

I chose to read my “Full Moon” sequence, although, as I announced beforehand, this was completely inappropriate because we are at or near a new moon right now. This was politely, though not wildly enthusiastically, received. We all have to start somewhere.

Which reminds me that I never actually posted a new haiku yesterday. But I did write one! I swear!

new moon
haiku poets can’t forget
when it was full

September 3: A lament, and a lot of pictures

summer sky
what a picture
is worth

I’m back in the office and feeling a little downcast. I had high hopes for the haiku-writing potential of my vacation. After all, traditionally, haiku are nature poems, right? (Yeah, I know we could have a really long debate about that, and I would happily join in on either or both sides, but let’s just go with it for now.) And I was going on a canoeing and camping trip in the wilderness! It was going to be nothing but nature! Surely I would be so inspired that haiku would pour from me like … well, like haiku from an inspired person.

It didn’t quite work out that way. For one thing, canoeing? Portaging? All day? Really exhausting. After eight or ten hours of that you have about enough energy to set up your tent, make and eat food, sit around staring at a campfire for a couple of hours, and then crawl into your sleeping bag and curse the tree root underneath you for a minute or two before passing out. Wielding a pen? Not on the agenda.

Also, I think — for me, anyway — being surrounded by nature is not the state most conducive to writing poetry. Or maybe it’s being in novel surroundings that is not the state most conducive to writing poetry. At any rate, I found myself so absorbed in just trying to take in and process all the new things I was seeing on a basic level that processing them on a higher intellectual level, making the kind of interesting connections that good haiku requires, was nearly impossible. I could write one or two lines of straight observation — but making the cognitive leap to turning observations into poetry was beyond me.

I’m hoping that after a few weeks home those observations will have marinated, or composted, or whatever it is they have to do, long enough that I will be able to turn them into haiku. Because really, it was an amazing trip, and there were plenty of connections to be made.

But right now I’m still sleep-deprived and my lower back is killing me. And after two days of grad school I’m already behind on my homework. So you’ll have to pardon me if for a few more days I keep resorting to posting haiku that I wrote last month when I had a more functional brain.

And in the meantime … here are some pictures to make up for my lack of verbal adroitness.

Cradle of American Haiku Festival

Here’s an announcement of a haiku festival that is taking place about an hour from my house (in southern Wisconsin) in September. I’m very excited to go and meet some other haiku groupies in person. (I’m also very curious about their assertion that southwestern Wisconsin is the birthplace of American haiku. Anyone know anything about the history behind that?)

It doesn’t seem like most of my readers live anywhere near the Midwest, but if you do, or are in the mood for a really long road trip, I’d love to see some of you there. Think about it …

Join haikuists from the U.S. and Canada for their Second Annual Cradle of American Haiku Festival, at 2 p.m., Friday, Sept. 10, to 1 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 12, at Foundry Books, 105 Commerce St.,  Mineral Point. The festival is open to the public, and beginning and experienced haikuists are welcome.

… The festival will include several workshops and presentations on the form and art of haiku/related Japanese poetic forms, readings of haiku, and Japanese art.  This year’s theme is “Remembering Robert Spiess—His Life and Work.” Spiess was a longtime haikuist and author, and former editor of “Modern Haiku,” an international journal of haiku and haiku studies.

The festival will also feature an opening  reception; a “Kukai,” a peer-reviewed haiku contest on the theme “Transitions;” Tai Chi, meditative exercises; a presentation on “Kodo,” Japanese incense; mini-critique sessions with award-winning poets and publishers; a social with cocktails and Midwest style picnic/tailgate; and a “ginko” walk to observe nature and write haiku. Haikuists may also participate in a sale of books they’ve authored.

At the festival, The Haiku Society of America will hold its annual national quarterly meeting to which the public is invited. However, the HSA is not sponsoring the festival.

Southwest Wisconsin is the birthplace of American haiku. Mineral Point is a scenic  town of 19th century architecture,  listed in the National Register of Historic Places, located in the region’s hills. It is about a 45- minute drive from Madison and Dubuque, IA.

The cost of the festival is $30 which includes workshops, all activities, reception, and picnic. For more information, with a schedule of events and lodging options, contact Charlotte Digregorio, Midwest Regional Coordinator, The Haiku Society of America, at email cvpress@yahoo.com or by phone at 847-881-2664.

July 26: Shared Water: a renga

A month or so ago I wrote about renga (or renku), the form of collaborative linked verse from which the haiku evolved. Everything I’d read about it fascinated me and I was itching to try it, so I issued an invitation for renga partners. Steve Mitchell of Heed Not Steve was the only one brave (or crazy) enough to take me up on it. This means that Steve was the only one who got to have the fun of spending the last month emailing renga verses back and forth with me as we tried to master the notorious intricacies of renga link and shift.

See, here are the most basic rules of renga: each verse should link to the verse immediately before it — should connect to it somehow, say in subject or tone or viewpoint or just linguistically, as for instance when one word suggests a variety of meanings that can be played on in different ways. It should also shift completely from the verse two before it — should have nothing in common in the ways I just mentioned. You’re also, technically, not supposed to repeat significant words (nouns, verbs and the like) in the course of a renga. And you should try to cover as many different subjects as you can in the course of a renga — to create a little microcosm. By the time you get to about verse 18 of a 36-verse kasen renga, the type we attempted, these rules are starting to drive you (and by “you” I mean “me”) out of your mind. In a good way, of course.

Steve and I, both complete newcomers to this form of poetry and a little intimidated by the whole thing, elected to take the (relatively) easy route of using one of Jane Reichhold’s ready-made seasonal kasen renga forms — in this case, the one for summer. These specify for each verse who should be writing it (with two people writing, you more or less switch back and forth each verse, except when you don’t), how many lines it should be (you alternate 3 and 2 line verses), and what the subject matter should be. Jane’s forms are loosely based on the great Basho’s kasen renga rules: the renga moves through the seasons, making a couple of complete cycles of the year, and contains a certain number of references to moon and blossoms and love. You can entertain yourself trying to figure out which verses are which in our renga.

Steve was lots of fun to work with — I enjoyed trying to figure out how the heck each new verse he sent me was supposed to link to the verse I’d just sent him. Links can be very subtle and devious sometimes. We both kept notes on each verse we wrote — how we linked, what we were thinking as we wrote it and how we saw it fitting into the renga as a whole. I’ll link at the bottom to a separate page I’ve created with all our notes, so if you feel like reading them you can.

The overall impression a renga should leave is not of a neatly ordered landscape, as in a traditional Western poem with a unified theme, but a sort of whirlwind tour of the world  via several different modes of transportation and with a constantly changing group of travel companions — moving like lightning from one subject to another, from one kind of weather to another, from one mind to another. For this reason, they can be challenging to read if you’re not used to them — but once you start to get the hang of it, they are exhilarating. Or at least I think so. Hope you do too.

*

Shared Water

a summer kasen renga between Steve Mitchell and Melissa Allen
June-July 2010

balmy blue lakes
shimmering dry heat
shared water

organic milk on the strawberries
the shortcake dissolves

copper strands
entwine the land
quaint bitumen

bright socks on her needles
she watches the people on the bus watch her

playing parlor games
unmindful as the moon peeks
through the drapes

bleached plastic pumpkins
holding a seance on the lawn

stalking through frosty grass
the cat leaps
on the tail of a leaf

the young boy makes a muscle
dad gives a low whistle

biology class picture
the children
divided by sex

anonymous in the dark
feral peafowl invade the trees

the third day of fever
he writes a poem
about the war

those brothers interred
their silence accuses

the moon
through a row of icicles
flashes of insight

on the roads a glacial crawl —
fly away Snowbirds!

andante
their conversation waltzes
to the music

light steam in his nose
hot tea hides his fortune

bright pink sweater
the unexpected shyness
of the blossom

iridescent hummingbird
faster than gravity

the soothing cool wind
so brief
windows left open

under the microscope
the fruit flies are born and die

(ME) gnashing ego
believes (ME) its own truth
fear (ME) and (ME) death

half asleep, waiting for the sound
of the false teeth being brushed

the a.c. hums
our summer lullaby
the meter spins

fish reeled from the river
silver-clad for the boating party

dressed for dinner
“Where’s your new brooch?”
she pins it on

cuttings from the jade plant
he returns her Polaroids

the oak tree
with enduring scars
carved initials

Moscow beer line —
passing the communal cup

moonlit haze
I think I hailed this cab
it looks amber

goosebumps on her arms
he rushes through the painting

cold autumn rain
she counts the money
one more time

fragile sand dollars
half-buried by the surf

the oily sea
punishment from the gods
for digging too deep

wool coats forgotten
a reprieve from the frost

damp violets underfoot
trying to imagine
cactus flowers

the riverbed mesquite
imagining water

*

You can look over here if you’re interested in reading our notes about our writing process.

*

(And if you’ve made it this far and you are intrigued by renga, I hereby issue another invitation. Ashley Capes of Issa’s Snail, a renku site, who has done a whole lot of writing and coordinating of this fascinating kind of poetry and really knows what he’s talking about, has kindly offered to organize a renga for readers of this blog to participate in — leave a comment if you are interested in participating.)

June 15: 23-24: The Techniques of Using Puns and Word-Play

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

The Technique of Using Puns

“Again we can only learn from the master punsters – the Japanese. … [W]e [English] haiku writers may not be so well-versed as the Japanese are in using these because there have been periods of Western literary history where this skill has been looked down upon.


a sign

at the fork in the road

‘fine dining’ ”

The Technique of Word-plays [Place Names]

“[The] work [of the Japanese] is made easier by so many of their place names either having double meaning or many of their words being homonyms (sounding the same). …  A steady look at many of our cities’ names could give new inspiration: Oak-land, Anchor Bay, Ox-ford, Cam-bridge and even our streets give us Meadowgate, First Street, and one I lived on – Ten Mile Cutoff.

moon set

now it’s right – how it fits

Half Moon Bay”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques

*

Me:
driving rain
windshield wipers
try to keep up

Fond du Lac:
my boat has sunk
and I don’t even know it yet

*

Once again I combined two techniques because the second seems to me obviously a special case of the first — puns based on place names.

I didn’t feel terribly inspired by this — not that I have anything against puns, I make groanworthy ones all the time, but I guess they need to come up naturally in the context of something for me, not be forced for an exercise.

Haibun: Collaboration

My old friend Alexandra Crampton (a former boarding school roommate and fellow native New Englander, now an anthropology professor newly arrived to the same Midwestern state I live in), posted the passage below on her Facebook page a few days ago. It’s so lyrical and has such a unique voice that I immediately screamed to myself “HAIBUN!” and offered to write a companion haiku for the piece and publish the whole thing here. She graciously accepted, although I’m not sure she quite understands yet what I’m up to. So herewith — a collaborative haibun:

Alex:

While reading on a hillside overlooking Lake Michigan, a sequence of sleek jets interrupt like pickups down a summer strip – Then, directly overhead, 2 more with US NAVY clearly stamped on each belly. Throughout the city, jets circle and peek between buildings, creating a surround sound of freaky so I bike down the coast in time to see how the world ends — not with a bang but something like synchronized swimming…

Melissa:

the apocalypse —
stage-managed by
blue angels