(standing)

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standing at one point
of a triangle
evening snow
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Presence #45

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(I wrote this last August at Haiku North America during Eve Luckring’s amazing workshop on “Video Renku: Link and Shift in Visual Language.” I was responding to a visual prompt of a photograph that depicted, as far as I can remember, three bath products lined up on a shelf in a chilly-looking tiled bathroom. [It’s not as prosaic as it sounds. It was art.] We were supposed to be responding not to the content — the subject — of the photo but to its structure, visual elements like patterns and colors and numbers of objects. We were supposed to be “linking” our poem to the photograph in the sometimes ineffable way that two verses in a renku are linked.

I really, really have to do that exercise again. I’ve been saying that for six months now. Nag me until I actually do it.)

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calendar time

first snow / the footprints of the neighbors / we've never seen

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first snow
the footprints of the neighbors
we’ve never seen

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So there’s a calendar that has haiku on it. Maybe there’s more than one. The one I know about is published by Snapshot Press and you can find out about it here. It looks really cool but I haven’t actually seen it yet. I plan to order one or two soon though because it contains this haiku of mine. I’ve posted it here before but what the heck. The first snow will probably be showing up sometime soon around here, so it’s timely. Also, I wanted to let you know about the whole calendar thing well in advance of Christmas so you can order some for all the people you normally give fruitcake to. In the interests of world peace and all that.

Incidentally, I based this very loosely on this haiku by Basho:

秋深き 隣は何を  する人ぞ

aki fukaki  tonari wa nani wo  suru hito zo

Deep autumn—
my neighbor,
how does he live, I wonder?

— Basho, tr. R.H. Blyth

(And how I have managed to go so long without finding the Classical Japanese Database from which the transcription and translation above are taken, I have absolutely no idea. Kudos to Carl Johnson for putting this amazing resource together.)

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April 28: Post Office

The main post office on Gorky Street in Moscow. A line of squat beige phones —  a line of people in thick coats to their ankles standing beside them. Staring at them like half-boiled pots, waiting for them to ring. Waiting to hear the voice of someone from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

You’ve filled in the required forms. When do you want to talk? Whom do you want to talk to? For how long would you like this conversation to continue? Be careful: they’ll give you exactly the amount of time you ask for, no more and no less. But the phones are ringing, your mind is buzzing, you can only make awkward, half-thought-through calculations.

Not long after our phones ring and we lift the receivers to our ears like stones, we realize we answered all the questions wrong. The conversations should have been earlier or later, longer or shorter. The people we are talking to are not people we really know. We’ve forgotten the languages they’re speaking. We live in different countries for what we now know is forever, though we meant it to be temporary. “Wait —” we say. “It’s about to end —”

The phone makes a noise that means my life has returned to me. Everything goes silent until it’s the next person’s turn. Down the line, feet shuffle, stirring the hems of coats.

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melting snow —
letting go
of what I meant to say

___________________________________________________________________________

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(Chrysanthemum 9, April 2011)

April 6 (Anniversary)

anniversary
we argue about which way
the snow is falling

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First published in The Mainichi Daily News, Feb. 22, 2011

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(Special thanks to Aubrie Cox for letting me know this poem had appeared in print — after six weeks I still hadn’t noticed. Now go look at Aubrie’s doodle haiga.)

___________________________

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Husband: But our anniversary is in August. And why would we argue about anything so stupid?

Me: No, no, dear, I meant the other guy I’ve been married to for twenty years.

Husband: Oh.


March 11: Family Haiku

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I didn’t have anything today. I wanted to post but I just was … empty. I was sick of my voice. Didn’t feel like talking anymore.

Then I looked around at my family and suddenly thought, These are the voices I want to hear instead. So we went out for pizza and I took a notebook and I solicited phrases from them. Phrases about what had happened to them this week and about the first signs of spring. We talked about stuff and I kept writing things down. Lots of scribbling and dead ends.

We got home and I looked at the scribbles and I put some things together and read everyone a haiku I had assembled from the pieces they gave me. I made sure they approved of them. And here they are.

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_______________________________

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My mom (visiting from New England, where are stone walls all over the place, including her back yard):


snow melting
my stone wall
reappears

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My husband (spent last weekend cleaning frantically to prepare for my mom’s visit; has terrible teeth):


spring cleaning
the last tooth
capped

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My son (claims he told me a long time ago that he needs new boots):


slush
new holes
in my old boots

_______________________________

So what’s your family up to these days? Anything worth writing home about?

March 9: What I Lost (Haibun)

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“If you want to see Dad before he dies, come now,” my sister tells me. “You can’t believe the pain he’s in.” I hang up, make the flight reservations and pack. Then, jittery with nervous energy, I note that there’s just time for me to go for a quick run before I need to leave for the airport.

I put my cell phone in my pocket before I set off, in case my sister has anything else to tell me.

childhood summers —
he combs my tangled hair
painlessly

The sidewalks are coated with ice. I try to run carefully. But a cardinal darts from a branch hanging across the walk, a flash of red that pulls my attention into the sky. Suddenly, I’m on my back, pain in every part of me, afraid, for just a minute, to try to move.

But I force myself to my feet and set off running again, even faster now, despite the ice, because of the ice. I’m young, I’m strong, no cancer will ever worm its way into me and break my bones from the inside out. I’m about to get on a plane and rise thirty-five thousand feet in the air and descend, alive, a thousand miles away.

Nothing else can ever hurt me.

deep inside
the snowbank —
a cell phone rings

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_______________________________

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First published in Notes from the Gean 2:4, March 2011

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March 8: This Is Not a Haiku

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Forward

March: It’s not just about the wind.
Light from the sun reaches us
and keeps going.
Raindrops flow like glass on glass.
My son is tracing circuit diagrams
on the back of a page from Hamlet.
We all dream that way sometimes.

When you climb a mountain
it divides the day.
Spring at the bottom and
winter at the top.
I pick up the phone, put it down again.
It’s not the right season to go backward.
I wish some year I’d remember
to write down the date
I hear the first bird sing.

Once a red-tailed hawk
moved into our neighborhood
and surveyed the chipmunks for days
before deciding to move on.
Don’t tell me you’ve never been tempted
to stay too long.
I’m sure there’s a song about that.

The equinox is coming:
are you equal to it?
This is when we realize
that snow is water.
That ice is light.
That every day the sun reaches us
at a slightly different angle:
March.

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________________

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So I’m really busy this week. Really. Insanely. Busy. Right now I should be doing six other things. Going to bed being one of them. Every minute for the last week I should have been doing six other things. A lot of those minutes I spent writing poetry instead. I’m hopeless that way.

At one point I guess I decided that it wasn’t enough to jot down a haiku or two in my off minutes, I needed to write a longer poem instead, one that would require some concentrated effort and allow me to put off my much more boring tasks for as long as possible. So I wrote this.  Sorry.

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February 17: Numerical Order

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

..

seven or eight
sparrows
count them again

..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Ishihara 石原重方

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

vitamin pills
each day two of them –
the waterfall freezes

— Ono Shuka (Oono Shuka) 大野朱香

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

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

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

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

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

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lightning flash–
suddenly three people
face to face

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mid-river
on three or four stools…
evening cool

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cool air–
out of four gates
entering just one

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on four or five
slender blades of grass
autumn rain

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a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
winter moon

and one of my favorites of all time —

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

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

February 11 (Its Depth)

first snow
I no longer have a child
to measure its depth

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World Haiku Review, January 2011

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I enjoyed a lot of things about World Haiku Review this time around but I can’t say I enjoyed the essay “Haiku as a World Phenomenon” by editor Susumu Takiguchi. My appreciation for it went way, way deeper than enjoyment. If I were feeling more flippant about it I’d say it rocked my world but really, that’s entirely the wrong tone for this essay. I learned so much from it and can’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those essays — there have been so many since last May [hey, remind me to create a list of links to them in my sidebar] — that both gives voice to some things I had been incoherently thinking about and also gives me entirely new and exciting ideas and information to work with. I feel like a different poet after reading it. Probably I’m not really a different poet but I’m trying to be. That counts, right?

I know you’re busy and you don’t really feel like reading the whole thing. So let me tell you about it. First of all, it’s not a new essay, it was written in 2000. That doesn’t matter, it could have been written last week. And Susumu starts out by referencing what is now a twenty-five-year-old question but also seems last-weekish: “… After about twenty-five years of English language haiku do we know what haiku is?” (Cor van den Heuvel, from the preface to the Second Edition, The Haiku Anthology, Haiku and Senryu in English, Simon & Schuster, 1986)

Lamenting the endless quarrels over the definition of haiku, Susumu refers to the “dialectic poetics” of Basho as a way of beginning to settle the matter. He outlines some of the fundamental principles of Basho’s haiku aesthetic, none of which, in my profound ignorance, I had ever heard of, but all of which make so much sense. Here’s the outline:

  1. Fueki ryuko“: “Fueki … can represent unchanging tradition while ryuko can represent changing fashion. Since the two are contradictory there should be a kind of creative tension generated between them … [which] should keep haiku fresh, creative and interesting. If people cling to tradition and neglect newness (or atarashimi) inherent in fashion, then haiku could become stale, imitative and boring. If, on the other hand, people indulge in newness without tradition, haiku could become gimmicky, incomprehensible and nonsensical.”
  2. Kogo kizoku”: ” ‘[O]btaining high enlightenment but coming back to the populace.’ There has been a tendency to polarise these two essential factors … Some people have become ‘elitists,’ armed with their own creed and are negligent of kizoku, or addressing plebeian needs. Others have gone the opposite way and vulgarised haiku by neglecting kogo. Again, we need both of these factors interacting and forming creative tension.”
  3. “The third answer may be found in the teaching of Basho, ‘Don’t follow ancient masters, seek what they tried to seek.’ We see people blindly following not only ancient masters but also modern masters without knowing what they tried to seek.”

(This last point is fascinating to me. I try to read and write haiku now asking myself these questions: “What was this poet trying to seek? Is it something I’m seeking too, or want to seek? What am I trying to seek?”)

Susumu isn’t outlining these principles as a way of creating a new, narrow definition of haiku that will further factionalize haiku poets; he sees them as very broad principles which can usefully describe a wide range of styles of haiku. He makes a very interesting analogy with schools of art:

“Avant-garde haiku poets cannot possibly be speaking the same language as fundamentalists of the traditional haiku school. In paintings, we accept the co-existence of the Old Masters, religious paintings, landscapes, still lifes, seascapes, figurative, abstract, surrealism, conceptual art, pop art, minimalist, Japanese paintings, African art, or whatever. There is no point in denying somebody else’s haiku as being not haiku, when we have such varieties of haiku poems in [so many] different languages.”

But in the end Susumu leaves behind all of these principles and details and tells it like it is: “Ultimately, we are after truths. … [T]he essence of poetry must be truths, and universal truths at that.”

Back to Basho:

“When Basho talks about fuga no makoto, this is normally interpreted as poetic sincerity. However, makoto also means truths, or true words, or true things. … In terms of poets, makoto is that which springs from their magokoro (true heart, or soul). Haiku is certainly capable of (local, particular) truths. Sometimes it is capable of universal truths and that is when great haiku poems are born.

“Poetic truths, then, must be a criterion against which inferior and dubious haiku poems can be weeded out. Haiku is part of the haiku poet’s way of life. Haiku is partly what he or she is. If he or she is not truthful his or her haiku cannot be good poetry. In today’s climate where haiku values are confused, it is important for us to go back to such stringent criterion as poetic truths.” [italics mine]

Telling the truth. I’m working on it really hard now. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s not, of course, about the facts. Sometimes the facts interfere with it, actually. (There’s nothing factual about the haiku that starts this post, but I’m hoping it’s at least a little bit true.)

So you kind of have to stumble around, trying to figure out what the truth is, exactly. But I think it’s worth it, in the end.

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NaHaiWriMo, Week One

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

_________________

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

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

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

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

A couple notes:

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

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

February 5 (Snow flurries)

snow flurries
dusting my son’s
penguins

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I posted this on Facebook last week after George O. Hawkins posted a haiku mentioning penguins, and then I commented that the world needed more penguin haiku, and then thinking about it later I decided that if I really believed that I should write them. So I did.

Here’s George’s original ku —

letting the dog out
she might as well be
a penguin

— George O. Hawkins

Anyway. My son has been a penguin fan from a very young age and his room is filled with penguins. Stuffed penguins, glass penguins, ceramic penguins, penguin pillows, penguin paintings …

I don’t really dust them, though. Who has time to dust? I’m too busy writing haiku about penguins.

February 3 (Another snow)

another snow
another chance to change
the subject

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(First published in World Haiku Review, January 2011)
________________

I hope all of you who live in the 33 U.S. states that were pounded by the blizzard yesterday are dug out by now. Or that if you aren’t, you have plenty to read and eat (in that order) and some way of staying warm. And a nice view out your window.

By the way, this does not fall under my snow haiku moratorium because I wrote it a long time ago — back in December, when it was not yet a federal crime for haiku poets to write haiku about snow — and it was just published in the very interesting journal World Haiku Review, about which I will be writing more next week, when it is not so close to my bedtime.

(For those of you that are mourning the snow haiku [what, are you crazy?] I will point you in the direction of this page that lists 10 highly worthwhile snow poems, most of which are not haiku but one of which is Issa, and famous, spectacular Issa. Go ahead, take a look, I won’t report you to the feds.)

See Me There, redux

Just a quick note to say that you should all go over and look at Kuniharu Shimizu’s haiga blog see haiku here right now, because he has once again produced a masterful haiga from one of my haiku, this time one from my LYNX “First Snow” sequence.

This one is a (spectacularly beautiful, in an understated way) photo collage. One thing I find so exciting about Kuniharu-san’s work is the fact that he doesn’t stick to just one medium or one style in producing his haiga. He fits the art to the spirit of the haiku, and he is constantly experimenting and trying new things and pushing forward with his art. To be able to produce such high-quality artworks in such a variety of styles on a daily basis takes an artist who is committed both to playing and to working — the two essential activities an artist must engage in to be really successful.

I continue to be honored and amazed that Kuni-san has chosen my poetry to serve as inspiration for some of his art.