Across the Haikuverse, No. 4: Procrastination Edition

It’s that time again. Sunday afternoon. Long, boring, dark, rainy Sunday afternoon. I’m back from my run but I haven’t been able to talk myself into starting my homework yet. Isn’t there something else productive, yet vaguely fun I could be doing?

Oh, right! Time to collect the random scraps of paper and electronic sticky notes on which I have jotted down the haiku-related “information resources” (as we like to say in library school) that most struck a chord with me this week. Time to patch it all together into a semi-coherent list and throw it up on the Internet for your entertainment and edification, or at least indulgent tolerance.

That’s right: it’s time, once again, to visit the Haikuverse. Please strap yourself into your transport pod and make sure you’ve adjusted your brain waves to “poetry.”

(If you missed any of the previous three visits and you’re feeling adventurous, there are links to them in the sidebar. Right over there. On your right.)

1.

The Haiku Foundation has announced their inauguration of the Touchstone Awards for Individual Poems, which I find cool for several reasons:

  • The prizes are actual stones (get it?). With your name and poem engraved on them. There is pretty much no other prize I would rather have than this, except maybe a million dollars, and I have come to accept that no one in the Haikuverse is made of that kind of money. Even if you don’t win one of these awards, I may get you a rock like this for Christmas (or another holiday of your choice within one month of the winter/summer solstice), just because I like you.
  • The submission process requires that you nominate no more than two haiku, and — get this — if you nominate more than one, the other one has to be somebody else’s. (As far as I can tell, they can both be somebody else’s.) This is perfect for those of us who, whenever we see a contest announcement, think, “Why on earth should they give this prize to me when they could give it to, like, somebody who can actually write haiku?”

Just a caveat — the nominated haiku must have been published in 2010 (somewhere where somebody besides you gets to decide what’s published, so your own blog doesn’t count). Go check out the rules. And think rocks!

2.
Also at The Haiku Foundation, Scott Metz has once more challenged and stretched me with his essay “Do You Play an Edge?” He starts out by quoting a number of (amazing) haiku that push the boundaries of haiku both in form and subject matter, and rhetorically poses the question of whether we, individually as poets and collectively as the English-language haiku movement, push those boundaries enough. Which is something I struggle with constantly — both wanting to experiment, to push past the rules to something new and exciting and soul-stirring, and also wanting to do it “right” and win the approval of a community that has come to mean a lot to me. As Scott says,

“I suppose the opposite of playing one’s edge would be playing it safe. And what might that mean? It could mean writing for approval. It could mean writing in a style that maximizes one’s chances of being published, or, having mastered melancholy, avoiding other moods.”

If you go over there, don’t forget to read the comments — as usual they are as interesting to read as the essay itself.
3.

Scott’s essay reminds me of this essay (a much longer one) by Peter Yovu that I have been meaning to write about for, oh, months:  Do Something Different. I think I have finally realized that instead of waiting until the mythical day when I finish my utterly unreadable two-thousand-word essay about this essay, I should just tell you to go read it, because it’s amazing and inspiring. Peter starts out with, literally, a wake-up call:

“Buddhists describe a simple practice: when you find yourself falling into some habitual pattern, acknowledge it, and then step out by doing something different. The idea, of course, is that anything we do by habit we do half-awake at best, and the goal is to wake up.”

He then gently points out the tendency of so many contemporary haiku to sound so much alike, and gives several practical suggestions for experiments you can try to wake up yourself and your haiku — focusing on sound, for instance, which is so often utterly ignored by English-language haiku poets. I sometimes think I should start out every haiku-writing session by reading this essay, but I suppose that would end up being yet another rut to get stuck in. Still, every month or so when I reread it, I find something new in it, and then something new in myself.

4.

Over at her blog jornales, Alegria Imperial has appealed to my well-known predilection for foreign-language haiku by reproducing a haiku she originally wrote in her native language of Iluko alongside her English translation of it:

morning ember
fanned
by broken word

beggang ti agsapa
naparubruban
ti puted a sarita

Okay, first of all — this is a cool haiku. Second of all, the language geek in me is deeply excited by seeing a haiku in a language that I know absolutely nothing about but looks really beautiful. Third of all, this post reminds me of another passage on Alegria’s blog that I have always loved, a piece of highly poetic prose about the difficulty of translation not just from language to language but from culture to culture:

“[L]anguage is deeply entrenched in culture, the totality of one’s being layered over by influences of earth, air, water, living things, language whispered, sung, murmured, chanted, stated, shouted, screamed, written for one to read under fluorescent light, Coleman light-flood, moonlight, candle light — how we whine and laugh and cuddle up wordless or word-ful, with what flowers we offer our sighs, what trees we carve arrow-pierced hearts, from what looming shadows we scamper away, what wings we shoot down, what edges of cliffs we plunge off to get to our dreams.”

5.

With their recent release of a haiku collection they edited, Michael Dylan Welch and Alan Summers have won, hands-down, the unannounced contest I have been holding in my mind for best haiku book title of the year: Fifty-Seven Damn Good Haiku by a Bunch of Our Friends. If you decide you don’t want a rock for Chrismukkwanzaa, this book (with bonus parsnips on the cover!) could be an excellent substitute.

6.

Elissa at The Haiku Diary posted a haiku this week that, like so many of her haiku, seems deceptively simple and trivial at first and then the more you think about it the more you feel your brain exploding. Also, it reminds me a little of my stab this week at excessively repetitive haiku, except hers is better. I love the way she works with the line breaks here. And there is a whole autumn-dark-death-fate of the universe galaxies-expanding-metaphorical thing going on here in six.freaking.words. I have to figure out how to do this.

I can’t believe it’s
already dark. I can’t believe
it’s already dark.

7.

Does the world need yet another version of Basho’s famous frogpond haiku? Well, that’s a stupid question. Run over to Haiku-doodle and take a look at Margaret Dornaus’s haiga riff on furuike ya. It’s a lot of fun, and she includes some interesting commentary on translation.
8.

So every week I think to myself, I am going to say something about Gabi Greve and the one-woman haiku-information-disseminating machine she is, and then I just get totally overwhelmed by how much stuff by Gabi there is out there in the Haikuverse. Good stuff. Really fascinating stuff. Where even to start?

What Gabi is probably most well-known for is her work with promulgating information about kigo and in particular her creation of the World Kigo Database. But in the sprawling network of blogs and websites that Gabi administers, you can find information about just about every aspect of haiku. I thought I might as well start with a post new to her haiku empire this week, which she alerted her followers about on Facebook: A profile and sample haiku of the classic haiku poet Ochi Etsujin (just one of a long list of classic haiku poets profiled on her “Haiku Topics” blog).

Etsujin, Gabi tells us, “was one of the 10 great and most important disciples of Basho.” His death-poem, aki no kure hi ya tomosan to toi ni kuru, is relatively unusual among haiku in including direct speech. The context for this poem is the dying poet being tended on his sickbed by his wife. The Yoel Hoffman translation for this haiku that Gabi gives is:

Autumn evening:
“Isn’t it time,” she comes and asks,
“to light the lantern?”

Gabi herself proposes a different translation, noting that the original says nothing about a lantern:*

autumn evening –
“shall we make light?”
she comes to ask

Anyway, run along now, and enjoy exploring the galaxy that is Gabi’s not-so-little corner of the Haikuverse.

9.

After starting to use Twitter a month or so ago, I was excited to discover the work of Alexis Rotella (who goes by tankaqueen on Twitter). Alexis has been writing haiku and other poetry to great acclaim for a long time but for some reason I had remained oblivious of her until now. I really liked this haiku she tweeted this week (both because I like to argue and because I have had a lifelong fascination with garbage trucks, no really):

passing through
our quarrel
the garbage truck

10.

This week on his blog “season creep”, Comrade Harps combines one of the great pop songs of all time with his shopping list to create a classic haiku. I will never again be able to listen to The Joshua Tree without thinking about this (or wishing I had it on a T-shirt):

at the supermarket
Bono sings
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

And on that note: I hope you all find what you’re looking for this week — your keys, undying love, the secret to writing a perfect haiku.

(Also, feel free to send me links and suggestions any time you run across cool stuff in the Haikuverse that you’d like to see in this space. I sometimes wonder if the scope of this column is a little narrow considering it reflects only my eccentric and questionable taste, so I’m more than willing to shake things up a little by having it reflect your eccentric and questionable taste as well. Whoever you are.)

______________________

*After Gabi posted her link to this post on Facebook there ensued a lengthy and fascinating discussion between her and several other translators about how best to render this poem into idiomatic English, which I perversely butted into even though I know absolutely no Japanese, don’t ask me what I was thinking. But Gabi was very kind and didn’t tell me to shut up and go away. So I’ll share my very, very loose interpretation of this haiku, a pure example of ignorance at work:

autumn nightfall…
she comes to ask me
if I need light

See there, how quickly I was able to turn a tribute to a generous haiku scholar into a vehicle for my own egomania?

Across the Haikuverse, No. 3: Underappreciated Edition

(For no. 1 in this series, look here. For no. 2, look here.)

The haikuverse? You want to know what that is? Why, children, it’s a wonderful place, where mostly underappreciated writers toil night and day to produce a body of short poetry that at its best makes you jump out of your shoes, clutch your hair in awe, and possibly weep. Also, where other underappreciated writers explain how these poems work, and talk about the people who’ve written them, and so on and so forth. Where can you find out about some of the most interesting things that happened there this week? Why, right here, of course.


1.

Last week Rick Daddario of 19 Planets was inspired by my link to Marlene Mountain’s “ink writings” to post a similar haiga of his own, rather than save it for Christmastime as he’d been planning. Since Rick lives in Hawaii, his images of the holiday are a little different than ours here in Wisconsin. I found this pleasantly jarring, and also just thought that both the ku and the drawing were a very successful combination. Here’s the haiku, but you really should visit 19 Planets to see the complete haiga.

silent night
the grass grows taller
with each note*

Rick also celebrated his blog’s 100th post this week — I’ll let you visit to find out how. Congratulations, Rick!

*This version is slightly different from the one I originally posted here, since Rick called my attention to the fact that he had modified his ku since I had last checked on it. I like this version even better.

2.

Congratulation also to another blog which celebrated its 100th post this week — Alegria Imperial’s “jornales.” In it she recounts the story of her first “ginko walk,” which her haiku group took to obtain inspiration for haiku. In Alegria’s case I’d say the walk was extremely successful — I love the haiku that resulted from it!

hydrangeas–
the same whispers
the same sighs

3.

I really liked several of the haiku that Steve Mitchell of heednotsteve posted this week. First there was his sequence “always wind,” inspired by his visit to the apparently constantly windswept Norman, Oklahoma. My favorite from that sequence:

always wind –
rush to the south, no,
now rush north

Then there was his humorous but thought-provoking “ku 00000010,” a followup to another robot-inspired haiku he posted earlier this month. This haiku is clever, but for me it works as a genuine haiku, not just a gimmick:

> 1: standby mode
>particles/waves illume
>blossoms as they close

4.

The wonderful online journal “tinywords,” curated by d.f. tweney, features a new haiku or piece of micropoetry every weekday (there are submission guidelines here, if anyone is interested). My favorite this week, by Janice Campbell:

amid fallen leaves

a business card

still doing its job

 

5.

Aubrie Cox’s personal website is well worth a look for her varied portfolio of haiku and other short-form poetry and critical writings. Since I’ve been thinking so much lately about how this blog is in some ways a collaboration between me and my community of readers, I especially enjoyed reading her essay “Writing with the Reader as a Co-Creator.” An excerpt:

“The inviting audience is ‘like talking to the perfect listener: we feel smart and come up with the ideas we didn’t know we had’ (Elbow 51). More importantly, however, is that the inviting reader can have an active role within the exchange between writer and reader. By doing so, the writer is not relinquishing all power back to the reader, or giving in to the tyranny, but merely developing a partnership. The reader can be the writer’s partner in the writing process if there is a mutual trust and cooperation, if the writer lets the reader become a part of the meaning-making process.”

Aubrie goes on to discuss how she sent one of her haiku to several acquaintances and asked for their reactions; their interpretations of its meaning were for the most part nothing like her own, but she points out that they were no less valid for all that — something I constantly have cause to remember when I’m reading my readers’ comments here.

6.
At Issa’s Untidy Hut this week, the Sunday Service is on hiatus for a week, but Don Wentworth has given us instead an insightful review of Silent Flowers, a short volume of haiku translated by the person who perhaps did more than anyone else to popularize haiku for English speakers: R.H. Blyth. Silent Flowers, published in 1967, was apparently excerpted from Blyth’s legendary 4-volume compilation of translations and critical study of Japanese haiku.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Don’s review — an Issa haiku and Don’s commentary on it:

Just simply alive,
Both of us, I
and the poppy.

Issa

“There it is, folks – doesn’t get plainer or simpler or truer or more beautiful than that.   After you read a poem like this, time to shut the book and get back to life.”

7.

Somehow I just managed to discover this week the Mann Library’s Daily Haiku site. Each day they republish a previously published haiku by an established haiku poet — each month is dedicated to the works of a different poet. The archives are a treasure for anyone exploring the world of contemporary English-language haiku — name a well-known haiku poet and they’re likely to have some of his or her works represented.

Here’s one of my favorites from this month’s poet, Gary Hotham:

time to go —
the stones we threw
at the bottom of the ocean

8.

Following up on my interest in foreign-language haiku: On the Haiku Foundation’s website, Troutswirl, last week, the regular feature “Periplum” (which is dedicated to haiku from around the world) was devoted to the work of a Bolivian poet, Tito Andres Ramos. Although Ramos’s first language is Spanish, he writes his haiku first in English and then translates them into Spanish. One I especially like:

sunny winter day
my packed suitcase
under the bed

dia soleado de invierno
mi maleta empacada
bojo mi cama

9.

Gene Myers of “The Rattle Bag” blog (and also the administrator of the “Haiku Now” page on Facebook) recently wrote about the chapbook of his haiku and other poetry that he put together on Scribd. (You can download the PDF here.) This looks like it could be a nice way to distribute collections of poetry without killing trees or inflicting boring design on people. I’m thinking about it myself, though I am also still attracted to the idea of the limited-edition dead-tree chapbook on handmade rice paper with custom calligraphy. But this is probably faster. 🙂

One of my favorite from Gene’s collection:

Moth between window and screen

I’m tired

 

And so am I. It’s exhausting, traversing the Haikuverse. Going to bed now. See you on the flip side …

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.