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

_________________________

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.

August 19: Saturdays, 11 to 5

*

on the birthday of a childhood friend, of which I was reminded by Facebook but had never really forgotten


*

the dog greeted me first
she was sienna
by name and color

my friend next
and then her mother
jeans and long hair

the kitchen
and its massive fireplace
big enough to roast a pig

the house was old
and felt more like my own
than my own

the past and the present
lived there together
without argument

jazz records on the shelves
classical music on the piano
above the Chiquita Banana stickers

paintings on the walls
with tilted points of view
and flower-gaudy colors

both parents painters
two studios to peek in
and feel small and colorless

an old, gray, small cat
wandering from room to room
like a fragile ghost

books I’d never seen before
and wanted
the minute I touched them

two sets of stairs
narrow and wide
so many ways to get everywhere

but in the summer
the house was no match
for the brook

paper bags of lunch
the sienna dog
following us across the fields

I didn’t always like
the sandwiches,
or not until I tasted them

I never remembered the way
but my friend led
as if there were signposts

after sun-filled fields, the wood
sometimes brambly
dark and disconcerting

and then, after a period
of  approaching its sound
the brook

the brook
a swift, wide, cold, dark path
in a hot world

glacial rocks lined the streambed
the debate was always
shoes or no shoes

no shoes always won
despite the pain of the rocks
I was the less brave one

I whined as we walked
on the water
thrilled and aching

sneakers tied around my neck
I vowed to wear shoes next time
but I never did

I always chose the pain
over the inconvenience
of wet sneakers

to travel the road of the brook
to the paved road
took forever and no time

when we climbed out
and put our sneakers back on
the world seemed heavier

it was hard to believe
there would ever again
be adventures

we were tired of each other
and our feet hurt
and it was almost five o’clock

time to go home
where the water was a pool
with a smooth lined bottom

chlorine kept the water clear
and a filter removed
everything undesirable

only sometimes in the night
a possum drowned, or
some other unfilterable animal

my father would remove
the dead things with a pole
before we saw them

that was what it was like
at our house, that was what
it was like at my friend’s

thirty years ago
in the hills of Connecticut
ten miles apart

August 4: 1-5: Times two

I do lots of three-liners, I frequently do one-liners. But for some reason today, when I sat down to write haiku, feeling tired and hot and grumpy, the ku all split into two lines and refused to consider any other configuration. Feel free to psychoanalyze this turn of events.

*

yellow warbler —
clothes line full of black clothes

the funeral —
his dog walking proudly down the street

watermelon —
in the kitchen discussing their options

new potatoes —
a boy and girl trade shy compliments

river currents —
swimming with her glasses on

Renga: An introduction and an invitation

I’ve been meaning for a while now to write something about renga*, the form of long collaborative verse from which the haiku was derived (by the great Basho), and which is still being written and enjoyed by millions around the globe … well, okay, maybe thousands on a good day. It fascinates me, because we have nothing like this art form in English — for us, poetry is a solo sport, in popular mythology the province of tortured, lonely geniuses sweating it out in their attic bedrooms or sordid studio apartments. (Or suburban kitchens, as the case may be.)

For the Japanese, however, poetry was for a long time a basic social skill, at least for the upper classes, a way of impressing lovers and court rivals. In The Tale of Genji, the eleventh-century work that is generally called the world’s first novel, the hero, an illegitimate son of the emperor who is implausibly and annoyingly talented at everything, is always seducing his (many, many) ladies with little verses he tosses off practically without thinking about it, and they are always replying in kind.

At that time, the tanka was one of the most prominent verse forms — five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese syllables. Tanka contests were popular among those with nothing better to do with their time. Renga, it’s hypothesized, began as a way of, um, relaxing after these contests — by writing more poetry, except this time in collaboration with your rivals instead of in competition with them. That is, it was a party game. Those crazy Japanese!

The basic idea behind renga is that one person writes the first part of the tanka (the 5-7-5 — sound familiar?) and another person writes the second part (the 7-7) — and then someone else writes another 5-7-5 connected to the 7-7, and someone else writes another 7-7 connected to that, and on and on — sometimes, in the good old days, for a thousand stanzas or more.

By Basho’s time (seventeenth century), even the Japanese were beginning to feel that this length was a little bit crazy. Basho had the idea to cap the renga at 36 stanzas, which he neatly and sensibly laid out in a little 4-page book, 6 stanzas on the first and last pages and 12 on the 2 middle pages. He also made up all kinds of rules about what kind of subjects each stanza was supposed to cover. You were supposed to start the renga with a verse about the season you were in, for instance. (This first verse of the renga is called a hokku. Basho liked writing hokku so much that he wrote a whole bunch of them without bothering with the rest of the renga, and thus the haiku was born — though it didn’t get that name until Shiki thought it up in the nineteenth century.)

These days people still frequently write Basho-style 36-stanza renga (they’re called kasen), but renga can be any number of stanzas really, written by any number of people — sometimes even solo, though that seems to kind of miss the point as far as I’m concerned. On the wondrous Interweb, you can find all kinds of detailed instructions and blank forms for composing renga of different types and different numbers of stanzas — I’ll throw some links down at the bottom of this in case you’re really interested.

For me, though, the really interesting thing about renga isn’t the form per se, it’s the way they’re composed and the way the stanzas link together. William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (from which I admit I have cribbed a lot of the preceding information), explain memorably:

“The point of renga writing is not to tell a story in a logical progression. Each stanza must move in some new direction, connected to the stanza just before it but usually not to earlier stanzas. When reading a renga we do not discover a narrative sequence, but zig-zag over the different imaginary landscapes of the poets’ minds, much as a spaceship coming out of polar orbit might flash now over ice and snow, now over teeming cities, now over green forests, ultimately to splash down into blue ocean. As readers we should enjoy the flow of sights, sounds, and insights as they tumble past.”

— Higginson and Harter, The Haiku Handbook, p. 192

Just as memorably, Jane Reichhold explains how to link renga stanzas and comments a little on what it actually feels like to engage in this dance of minds:

“[T]he important thing to watch is what happens BETWEEN the links. Think of each stanza as a springboard from which you are going to jump. As your mind leaps (and you think you know where the poem is going) you should be forced to make a somersault in order to land upright in the next link. It is the twist your mind makes between links that makes renga interesting.

Some leaps are close (as in the beginning and end of the poem) so the subject is moved only slightly ahead. In the middle of the poem renga whizzes can pirouette until your head spins — and that is just what is desired.

Take your partner by the hand. Start tapping your feet. Bow. And away you go.”

— Jane Reichhold, “Jump Start to Renga

I have to say that when I first started reading renga I was a little baffled — as Jane says, my head was spinning a little. Finding the connections between stanzas can be challenging, and understanding the point of a poem that whirls from subject to subject and thought to thought so quickly was difficult for my linear Western mind.

I didn’t really get it until I found “Omelet” — a renga written by Jane and Sue Stafford, this online version of which they have helpfully annotated so that you understand what was going on in the poet’s minds when they made their leaps between stanzas. Another great annotated example is “The Click of Mahjong Tiles,” written by six different authors. I also really like the example given in The Haiku Handbook, a renga by five authors called “Eleven Hours” that can be found on pages 202-206 of the 25th anniversary edition.

Once you start to get it, it’s exhilarating to watch the flashes of understanding and communication from mind to mind, from stanza to stanza: as I said, nothing like any English poetry, and as Jane says, more like a dance, or maybe a jazz band riffing.

These days, renga aren’t written so often as a party game, because how often do you have two or more capable haiku poets, with at least several hours to spare, at a party? But the Internet and its instant communication have made it much easier to write renga long-distance. Which brings me to my (highly shy and diffident) invitation —

anyone want to renga with me? Obvious disclaimer: I don’t have any actual idea how to do this, I’m just really interested in learning. I don’t care whether you have any renga experience or not. I just kind of want to see what it’s like to pass poetry back and forth with one or more other minds. (My experiment the other day writing haibun in collaboration with my friend Alex has whetted my appetite for this even more.)

Drop me a comment or an email if this sounds interesting to you, and we’ll see what we can do.

*

More information about renga/renku:

How to Renga (Jane Reichhold’s Aha! Poetry site) — information, instructions, forms for composing renga (Basho, kasen style)

Renku Home — a world of information, mostly by William J. Higginson

Renku Reckoner — John Carley’s site that has detailed instructions and forms for composing many different types of renku

4 Elements Renga — forms and instructions for composing renga based on the four elements

—–

*Some people call it renku. I am not equipped to comment on or settle the debate on this issue. Call it whatever you want. Renga, renku, let’s call the whole thing off.

June 15: 2-22: Domestic novel sequence

Morning: he sighs.
She changes the washing machine
to normal cycle.

A different number
every time —
brushing her hair thoughtfully.

Pregnancy test in the wastebasket —
tea bag dries
by the egg smear.

The newspaper predicts
the winners — the losers
get no consideration.

The future has been foretold.
He has difficulty
unfurling the umbrella.

Salad for lunch again.
She slides her wedding ring
up and down her finger.

Nothing is settled,
including the dust
on the light bulbs.

A misbegotten conversation.
She drops the cell phone
down the stairs.

Where are the plastic bags,
where the sea salt, where
the golden marigold seeds?

Buying bread
that tastes of yeast —
the chill of the supermarket.

Bruise-colored tulips
in cellophane. They ride
next to white tofu.

Clouds echoing
the asphalt.
The discharge of a burden.

Cars do violence to puddles.
In the rearview mirror,
a gray hair.

There were two
and then there was one. There was one
and then there were two.

Report: he needs a coat
warmer than the one
with the many pockets.

Lightning in the kitchen.
They are both
indifferent to the pasta.

Red sauce on white flesh.
There is nothing better
to devour at such moments.

A discussion of the show
about the weak-willed doctor.
The gutters overflow.

They join together
to dislodge the leaves.
A sudden flood.

Hand to hand, combat
abandoned. Rain slipping gently
down the windows.

Morning: she sighs.
He peers into the toaster.
There is nothing to see there.

*
As with my bird story sequence, my goal here was for each individual stanza to read like an individual haiku while still contributing meaningfully to the whole composition.

I wanted to write a poem that was almost a parody of the kind of novel that presents in mind-numbing detail the trivial and discouraging lives of its protagonists without yielding any significant insight or closure for their predicaments. I thought such a venture would be much more successful as a poem than as a novel — you would be able to appreciate the tiny accumulation of details that make up such lives, without being bored by the massive accumulation of overdetailed descriptions or depressed by their uninspiring inner lives. I developed a lot of sympathy for these characters as I developed the poem.

June 11: A story in eleven haiku and one photograph

Photo credit: James A. Otto

Through the screenless window comes
a bird.
I watch it disport itself.

The house fills with wings.
The hearts of birds beat
more rapidly than our own.

I inquire of Google
what to do.
The response is dissatisfying.

The Russian story of
the Firebird.
A keen, glittering eye.

Many versions
of roast chicken.
I choose the most savory.

Dancing, I lift up my skirts
for the bird to pass
under.

The oven is still hot.
I stand beside it,
flapping my arms.

I don’t dream anymore
I can fly.
I have scraped my mind of such stuff.

I trap the bird in the closet.
When you get home,
it will amaze you.

I am reciting famous poetry
silently.
I am petting the cats.

The cats are hot, they breathe
rapidly. Wait, I say,
you will be rewarded.

*

I was feeling a little claustrophobic yesterday. Haiku seemed too small. Even the most wonderful of them — just a blink! I had a novel-lover’s need for extended narrative.

But I do love the haiku form and the challenge of containing an entire experience, a full impression, in just a few syllables. Several things I’ve been thinking about lately began to come together in my mind, things I’m hoping to write more about in the next few days — gendai haiku, renga. Unconventional ways of writing haiku, and ways of linking them together to create a larger picture than a single haiku allows.

I wondered what would happen if you piled a bunch of nontraditional haiku on top of each other to form a narrative. I wanted each haiku to be able to make sense separately on its own, and also to form a part of a coherent story. This photograph I’ve been thinking about for a few days entered the mix; a bird began to fly around in my head.

Writing this was a lot of fun. I’ve begun a couple other similar narratives, and I want to try more. This kind of structure seems to work the way my mind works — I’m really only capable of brief bursts of attention, but I also hunger for depth of character, for details of setting, for continuity of action.

(A bird really did get into our house through a screenless window a few years ago; but the rest of this is fantasy. In case you were worried about its fate at the paws of the cats.)

May 12: 2: When it isn’t working

outside hatchlings cry
in the kitchen, hot tea,
bread and butter

This was another one of those days where I tried repeatedly to write a haiku beginning with a particular line, and mostly failed spectacularly. I don’t even like this one very much.*

I never can figure out what to do when this was happening. Should I give up and move on to another beginning line? Accept that the haiku mojo is just not there today? Stop trying to write so many haiku in the first place, and just wait to experience a Zen moment or something?

Sometimes it seems like the thought I’m trying to express is really too large to fit into a haiku in the first place. That I need to either shrink the thought, or find a new thought, or write a different kind of poem. (But I’m not so hot at the writing regular poems thing. I’ve written about one and a half in my life that I actually might consider showing to another human being.)

The spirit of haiku can be elusive. And when you’re trying to churn out at least one halfway decent one a day, you can get all cranky and anxious when it doesn’t seem to be happening. This is also probably not conducive to attaining haiku enlightenment. Must. Curb. Perfectionist. Tendencies. …

What can help is reading large numbers of the haiku of the great masters — they were mostly all extremely prolific, and frankly, most of their haiku is not particularly memorable. For every brilliant flash of insight from Issa:

o snail

climb Mt. Fuji —

but slowly, slowly!

(Issa, translated by D.T. Suzuki)

there are several more Issa efforts that seem uninspired at best. It’s possible (probable) that they’re a lot better in Japanese, but I have heard Japanese-speaking scholars of haiku say the same thing.

And of course, I am not Issa, nor was meant to be. (Apologies to T.S. Eliot, the thought of whom has suddenly made me realize that “April is the cruelest month” might work as an opening line for a haiku.) I’m the humblest of apprentices, and it’s almost arrogant of me to presume that I’ll be able to write a decent haiku more than once in a blue moon. (Blue moon! Also good haiku material. Okay, starting to feel better now.)

People who write haiku — what’s your working method? Do you frequently rewrite your haiku, or do they mostly come to you whole in a flash of insight, or do you think rewrites are destructive to the haiku spirit? (Or can you just not be bothered?) Do you sit down and say, “I think I’ll write a haiku now,” or is that just the form your thoughts take? Do you have to write a lot of them before you get one you’re relatively satisfied with? Share, please, I’m feeling a little isolated at the moment…

(Later note: I had no sooner published this when I saw an edit that would make it better. So I changed it and published it again. And then immediately saw another edit, which I promptly made. Now I’m feeling slightly more cheerful about the whole thing. But only slightly.)

*And a few days later: Okay, how about:

hatchlings cry
fresh bread
cooling

I like that better. Still not great. But way too many words in the first one.