Tag: renku

A Plague of Grackles

darkening sky
a plague of grackles scatters
then gathers again………………………………………………….Willie

against the white lawn
frost-blackened figs…………………………………………………..Bill

someone else playing
someone else’s piano…
au clair de la lune……………………………………………………Melissa

with my good hand
uncreasing the photograph………………………………………..Sandra

in a church fresco
the Devil falls separate
from all the others……………………………………………………Bill

too small to house worms
so many green apples………………………………………………….Bill

a raffish display
his hot pants and spandex
lead the parade…………………………………………………….Willie

launching a rubber band at me
she misses again…………………………………………………….Melissa

a tarte au chocolat,
a steaming pot of tea
and this poem……………………………………………………..Sandra

wild plum blossoms
in the garden gone to ruin…………………………………………….Willie

all legs and tails
three newborn lambs
tumble out of the sack…………………………………………………..Sandra

past the old landslip
he thinks how it must have been……………………………………..Bill

without another word
one more sake;
the mattress comes to me………………………………………………Joseph

try and explain kapok
to a kid who doesn’t care……………………………………………… Sandra

inked above his heart
the tattoo reveals
a floating world……………………………………………………..         Willie

narratives in sparks
climb up the chimney……………………………………………………..Sandra

tarnished moon the colour of this wooden floor…………………. …Bill

the last note of the hymn
an owl’s hunting cry………………………………………………………..Sandra

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Melissa Allen, Wisconsin, USA
Bill Dennis, Pennsylvania, USA
Joseph Mueller, Vermont, USA
Sandra Simpson, Tauranga, New Zealand
William Sorlien, Minnesota, USA

Composed at Issa’s Snail, October 14 to December 2, 2012

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A Hundred Gourds 2.2, March 2013

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Summer Visitors

a junicho renku

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summer visitors
the children show off
marble-sized pumpkins

ma

careless laughter
filling blue watering cans

ms

at the Picasso exhibit
a shadow
crosses the wall

ac

in the lake shallows
someone has dropped eyeglasses

ma

the moonlight
wanes
on ranked hay bales

ms

a quick spinal adjustment
for the unfinished scarecrow

ac

the last chapter
I trace letters
on your back

ma

crumpling together
on a bed of fallen leaves

ms

not quite dawn
rushing the bin
to the curb

ac

clack! the llama’s teeth
meet in my migraine headache

ma

pasta al dente
golden courgette flowers
at dusk

ms

tiles swept clean
lean on the broom a moment

ac

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Ashley Capes (sabaki), Max Stites, Melissa Allen

A Hundred Gourds 1.3, June 2012

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By the time this renku appeared in print I’d almost forgotten about writing it. The process of composition was slightly dreamlike, taking place as it did in slow motion, across a span of nine months in 2010-2011, in a collaboration between three very busy people living on three different continents. (Ashley is Australian, Max a U.S. native who’s lived in the U.K. for many years.) Looking at it again brought back pleasant memories of all our discussions and revisions and of Ash’s expert guidance through the sometimes-exciting, sometimes-infuriating restrictions and stipulations of renku. (Ash also frequently guides the development of renku over at Issa’s Snail, in case you’re interested in seeing some of his other work.)

It’s interesting to me how renku, which started, really, as a party game, is more likely these days to resemble a leisurely pen-pal correspondence. When I have, so to speak, “played” renku as a party game — Live! In Person! One Night Only! — I’ve found that my interest in it rises dramatically. It’s not that I don’t at all enjoy the slower, more contemplative pace of long-distance renku composition, but to me, much of the point of renku linking is the real-time, in-person sparking between human minds and the way it both facilitates the creation of poetry and acts as a strikingly effective icebreaker to create a warm, relaxed group dynamic. (If you’re doing it right, that is. I’ve heard of people leading renku sessions in such a stern manner that they made participants burst into tears. That’s a sad story. Don’t do it that way.)

Writing renku long-distance can also, of course, be a highly enjoyable social experience–certainly composing this one was–but I think that for me it allows my perfectionist tendencies too much free rein for it to be entirely comfortable. When you’re composing more in real time, perfectionism is a luxury you can’t really allow yourself. The point is to have fun, not to come up with the most perfect link that could ever be conceived. Also, as far as I can tell, most of the time writing renku is about a thousand times more fun than reading it anyway; the elusive, subjective nature of renku linking, which makes it so much fun and gamelike to compose, also often makes it a challenge to enter into as a third-party reader. This means that the number of people who actually read even any published renku is likely to be vanishingly tiny–even tinier than the number who read haiku. So even more than with most forms of art, I think, the process really is more important than the product.

Your mileage may vary, of course. I guess all I’m trying to say is, if you’ve never joined a live renku party? Try to do that sometime. Also, Ash and Max? It was a pleasure getting to know you. If we’re ever all on the same continent, we’ll have to do this again.

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In the Hallows

a junicho renku by Melissa Allen and Aubrie Cox

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flickering porch light
I offer candy
to the ghost

a bottle of pumpkin ale
from the cellar

home sick from school
he reads a book
about buried treasure

popsicle stick pirate ship beached
in the laundry basket

the glint of the moon
off her sharpened
skate blades

solo dance down
the dark sidewalk

carvings in the pine
fill with sap
that will harden

my dog and his
romping through the sprouting lettuce

weeds creep
between cracks
in the concrete

we try speaking French
to the tourists at Versailles

an arguing couple
breaks bread
at a riverside cafe

at day’s end
a frog leaps from lily to lily

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Frogpond 35.1

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(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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Haiku North America, Day 4

In the last installment of this thrilling diary, as you may recall, we left our heroes at a bar in the small hours of the morning. After the small hours of the morning, I’m sure you’re aware, come the large hours of the morning, and if you haven’t slept very much in between the small hours and the large hours, the large hours can be very painful.

All this is by way of excuse for my missing the first event of Saturday morning, a panel discussion by Maggie Chula, Penny Harter, Jerry Ball, and Garry Gay called, “Who Wrote That? How My Haiku Has Changed Over Three Decades.” I heard from reliable reporters that it was a fascinating discussion, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it while holding my head and moaning. To distract you from the fact that I have nothing to report from this session, I will now present some placeholding Pretty Pictures from Around the Conference.

Ikebana 1Ikebana 2Seattle Center courtyard

Great ikebana, eh? Beautiful courtyard sculpture. Now what were we talking about?

… Oh yes. The second session of the morning. Of many tempting options I chose to attend Paul Miller‘s talk on “Stretching Western Haiku (Gendai Haiku in the West).” The question Paul posed to us was, “How far can you stretch haiku and still consider it haiku?”

I’m not sure he or any of us came to a definitive conclusion on this, but Paul did an excellent job of analyzing Japanese gendai haiku and dividing it into some broad categories, including: Haiku that are metaphors or similes; Haiku that are “fantastic transformations” (in the “fantasy” or surreal sense of the word) where one object turns into another in a way that is impossible in real life; Haiku that are “fantastic metaphors”; Haiku that are “just fantastic”; Haiku that directly tell; Haiku that are “private discourse,” depending on associations known only to the author; and Haiku that contain abstract language. In Paul’s estimation, only the second, third, and fourth categories are really effective as haiku. Here’s one from category two that most of us really liked:

After a heated argument
I go out to the street
and become a motorcycle.

— Kaneko Tota

I might not place all Paul’s examples into the same categories he did, I might not have the same categories, and I might not have the same opinions about which haiku and which categories are effective. But as he said, this is just a place to begin thinking and talking about gendai and how it works. There will certainly continue to be endless discussion in the years to come.

…And oh yeah. Charlie Trumbull didn’t announce this until later in the day on Saturday, but here would probably be a good place to report that Paul will be the next editor of Modern Haiku, starting in the spring of 2013. Congratulations to him. Here he is (he’s not this blurry in real life):

Paul Miller

Shortly after this session ended we were all shooed in the direction of the Space Needle (a few blocks from our convention center) for the HNA banquet. You know how banquets work, right? You have them in landmark buildings in rooms with spectacular views … no, wait. Usually you have them in dark, dull hotel banquet rooms with no windows. Thanks to the HNA planning committee for making ours more interesting.

View from Space Needle

We did have some more normal banquet features, such as banquet tables that everyone takes an endless time to get settled at because they’re all busy talking to each other.

HNA BanquetEve Luckring and KazJim Kacian, Marilyn Hazelton, Billie Dee, Richard GilbertAlso, a charity auction with a highly entertaining auctioneer who is also a haiku poet, named David Ash. It was called an Unsilent Auction because mostly it was a silent auction except for the part where David was talking. If you see what I mean.

Silently, I won (by cleverly bidding four dollars over the cover price) a copy of John Martone’s Ksana, which I have wanted since the moment I first heard it existed. No, you can’t borrow it.

… Oh yes. And what haiku conference would be complete without a visit from Elvis?

David Ash

Elvis with Katharine Hawkinson

Not HNA, that’s for sure. That’s Carlos Colon all dressed up there (with HNA volunteer and organizer extraordinaire Katharine Hawkinson). Without video or audio I cannot fully convey to you the brilliance of Carlos’s performance as Haiku Poet Elvis. There were many hardened poets laughing so hard that tears came to their eyes and they nearly needed to be resuscitated. If I hadn’t been laughing so hard myself I would have written down Elvis’s entire haiku repertoire, which amounted to several dozen poems, but here are a couple I managed to control myself long enough to record. These were all interspersed with appropriate Elvis-like patter. Again, it had to be seen to be believed.

Lily…
out of the water
out of her suit

jailhouse rock
it bounces off the head
of a heckler

— Carlos Colon (“Elvis”)

Carlos was a tough act to follow but unfortunately I had to follow him. Not just me, of course — me, Fay Aoyagi, Gene Myers, and Don Wentworth, who had to hustle down from the Space Needle and get back to the conference center for our presentation on Haiku Blogging. We were delayed a bit waiting for the audience members who were still in the elevator trying to get off the top of the Needle. Still, we had a fairly entertaining discussion and not a bad crowd at all considering most of them were still trying to digest banquet food and the amazing spectacle of Carlos Colon as Elvis. I don’t have any pictures, sorry, I forgot to give my phone to anyone to record me for posterity. (There are some pictures floating around Facebook, though, if you hang out there in haiku circles. I look like a tired, short woman sitting at a table.)

Far more interesting was the next presentation, by Eve Luckring, on “Video Renku: Link and Shift in Visual Language.” Eve is a photographer and filmmaker as well as a highly original haiku poet. She began by discussing the film technique of Sergei Eisenstein, including his theory of “montage” and the different visual effects that could be used by filmmakers to evoke different emotional responses. We saw numerous clips from Eisenstein films such as “Battleship Potemkin.”

Then, brilliantly, Eve drew parallels with these montage techniques and the linking techniques used in renku, such as word association and the elusive concept of “scent.” When our minds had been sufficiently blown by this comparison, she introduced an exercise: Giving us all prints of photographs, she asked us to write a renku link to them, concentrating primarily not on the subject matter of the photograph but on its visual elements (see below for Eve’s slide describing these).

It’s difficult to explain without presenting these photographs exactly how this exercise worked or how brilliantly compelling it was, but when I get home I am going to do some more of this. I found it really worked to knock loose unusual images and unexpected comparisons from my mind. This was one of my favorite presentations at the conference.

Eve Luckring
Visual language in photography

After this, I found myself once again compelled by exhaustion to miss a couple of events I would have loved to have seen and heard excellent reports of later — the folk music of La Famille Leger (Dejah Leger and her husband), and Terry Ann Carter‘s presentation on the history of haiku in Canada.

Instead, I went off and had a bite in the hotel courtyard and breathed for a while, and then came back to hear Charlie Trumbull‘s fascinating, comprehensive talk on the history of haiku in English. Can you say “forty-eleven well-designed PowerPoint slides accompanied by a well-structured, erudite, but eminently listenable speech that all must have taken Charlie the better part of forever to put together”? I thought so.

Here’s one of his slides pointing out the effect that the writings of Thoreau and Emerson had on early haiku poets in English. Obviously. Duh. I knew that.

Emerson and Thoreau

I was especially grateful for Charlie’s presentation during the next event of the evening. It was a “Haiku Bowl,” created and moderated by Charlie and Jim Kacian, and featuring two teams facing off, striving to win glory and honor by answering questions about haiku history. The Frog team featured contestants Eve Luckring, Michael Dylan Welch, David Lanoue, and Fay Aoyagi and the clacking alligators they used to signal when they knew the answer to a question. The Bird team featured contestants Emiko Miyashita, Cor van den Heuvel, Richard Gilbert, me, and our bird whistles. (I would just like to state for the record that it takes longer to produce a sound with a bird whistle than an alligator clacker.)

Rooster whistle

Mostly I sat back in amazement while the other Birds and the Frogs brought forth all kinds of obscure haiku knowledge from the depths of their powerful brains. When I knew the answer to something, it was usually because everyone did. We were all greatly helped, though, by having just attended Charlie’s lecture. Our team was further assisted by having one of the questions be “What was the title of Cor van den Heuvel’s first published book?”

It was a fun, light-hearted contest and the two teams took turns being in the lead, ending with an elegantly arranged near-tie. Okay, technically the Frogs won, but only because they had a better idea of what the population of Livermore, California is. Don’t ask. But we all had a great time, and we also all got prizes. The Frogs got a box of flies and the Birds got a box of worms.

See?

Worm box

This rip-roaring pseudo-entertainment was followed by some real entertainment by talented people — La Famille Leger once again, providing the music for a square dance. It looked the kind of thing that would be great fun if you weren’t ready to topple over with exhaustion. So I stuck around to take a few pictures and then went back to the hotel. Where I stayed up too late blogging. But hey! At least I hadn’t had any fun square dancing!

La Famille Leger

Square dancing

Square dancing circle

… And that was the end to the official conference-type activities of Haiku North America 2011. Coming tomorrow: The official tourist-type activities of Haiku North America 2011. Featuring fog, panting hikers, totem poles, and salmon. Don’t miss it.

Haiku North America, Day 2

For some reason I didn’t have quite as much energy on Day Two of HNA as I did on Day One. Which might account for why when I went to download my photos from my phone, I realized I hadn’t actually taken any pictures. Well, okay, a few. But this post will be a little less visual than yesterday’s. I’ll try to make up for it by annoyingly sticking my camera in everyone’s face all day long today. You’re welcome.

We started the day with a reading by the authors of the HNA anthology, Standing Still, which is a thing of beauty.

Standing Still, 2011 HNA Conference Anthology

That wonderful drawing on the cover is by Dejah Leger, who also did the wonderful illustrations inside, such as this one…

the fly's wings / raising / settling / the dust

There was a choice of activities after this and I chose to attend Jim Kacian‘s lecture on one-line haiku, which he is trying to get us all to call “monoku.” Hmmm. Aside from that, though, the lecture was dense with interesting information. Although I got a bit lost during his lengthy comparison of the history of tennis strokes and the history of English-language haiku, since on the few occasions I have attempted to wield a tennis racket…let’s just say that I don’t play tennis. (Jim is a tennis pro in his money-making life.)

He examined haiku with many other line lengths and then a wide variety of one-line haiku, and tried to identify the elements that make a particular haiku work as a one-liner. I won’t give you a precis of the lecture, I’m sure it will be published at some point. It worked to make me go out to the book fair and buy Jim’s book of monoku, though.

where I leave off

Naturally I bought a ton of other books as well (who buys only one book at a time?), but the one I would most like to show you is this one by my roommate here, Lidia Rozmus, the transcendent beauty of whose art (stunning, minimalist ink brush painting) and writing (haiku and haibun) are in direct proportion to the transcendent beauty of her kindness and generosity. This is a book about her emigration to the United States from Poland and her adjustment to life here.

My Journey

Here’s Lidia herself in the courtyard of the Inn at Queen Anne, where I retreated after the morning activities with a chicken salad sandwich and a bottle of hard cider to gather some energy for a busy afternoon (read: keep from fainting with exhaustion).

Lidia Rozmus

And here are some other poets who sat with us and chatted over lunch: Wanda Cook and Marilyn Hazelton.

Wanda CookMarilyn Hazelton

Another excursion in the afternoon: On the monorail downtown to (your choice) Pike Place Market or the Seattle Art Museum. I’ve been to the Market. I went to the museum. This may not have been a good idea, since as I think I have mentioned before, I have a severe mouse phobia and this was one of the first things I saw there.

Rat hovering over sleeping person

There was other art that made up for it, though. They were having a special exhibition of American landscape painting. One thing I noticed that many of the artists had in common was that they would incorporate a splash or two of something bright red (usually something man-made) into a landscape that was otherwise more drab in color.

Maybe there was something about this in the interpretive signs, I don’t know. I’m not very good about reading museum signs. It seemed to me that perhaps this was one way of asserting man’s dominion over nature: your eye was naturally drawn to that bright red, making it seem like the most important thing in the picture.

Sometimes I wonder if haiku does something similar to our experience of nature, by focusing our attention on one tiny aspect of it that a human being has noticed.

Mt. Rainier and Puget Sound

After the museum a bunch of us stumbled around looking for a place to eat, finally giving up on the tourist traps of the Market and heading back to our home base of the Queen Anne neighborhood for some Thai food. As we prepared to board the monorail,  a man noticed the excellent NaHaiWriMo-inspired T-shirt (see sample below) that Michael Dylan Welch was wearing and asked him, “So you must not like haiku?”

…Oh. You have never seen a man so happy as Michael was at that moment. The (gentle) lecture that followed started with, “Actually, I’m the first vice-president of the Haiku Society of America, and I love haiku!” and ended with the poor questioner walking away with his eyes glazed over, trying to grasp that everything he had ever thought he knew about haiku was wrong. Or else that he had just run into a pack of lunatics.

No 5-7-5 T-shirt

At the restaurant, Michael first tried to get us all to write haiku individually, and met with some pretty stiff resistance because we were all, you know, completely wiped out. But then Carlos Colon suggested the much more palatable idea of writing renku, so that’s what we did. This is one of those occasions that I really wish I had been alert enough to think of getting a picture of.

Renku participants: Katharine Hawkinson, Michael Dylan Welch, me, Carlos Colon, Marilyn Hazelton, Garry Gay. Present, but malingering: Carolyn Hall, Susan Antolin. Result: A summer junicho entitled “Racha Renku” (Racha was the name of the restaurant we were in.)

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a single cloud
the baby points at the sky

— me, verse 10 of “Racha Renku”

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The first event of the evening was a reading of haibun by featured reader Cor van den Heuvel and anyone else who cared to read haibun. I have to admit that since I was feeling utterly exhausted, I went back to my room for a quick nap and didn’t make it to this reading until quite late, but I really regret it now because I love haibun so much and the few readers that I did hear presented some outstanding examples.

Also, here is where I am going to cheat and show you a picture of Cor reading at Haiku Circle, which I attended in Northfield, Massachusetts in June. Because (naturally) I didn’t get a picture of Cor reading last night, but actually the picture of him reading outside in June is better than any picture I could have taken under the Seattle Center’s fluorescent lights.

Cor van den Heuvel

The final event of the night (at least that I attended) was a panel on haiku publishing moderated by Michael Dylan Welch and featuring Don Wentworth, Ce Rosenow, Jim Kacian, and Charlie Trumbull, all of whom run presses ranging in size from teeny-tiny to small. (Unstartling revelation of the evening: Small haiku publishers do not make any money from publishing haiku.)

There was a lot of discussion of various ways to structure manuscripts of haiku, including by subject, season, tone. And also discussion of how to submit manuscripts to publishers. (Some want you to send them a zillion haiku and let them pick out which ones they want to put in the book. Some just want you to send them a few poems and tell them what the rest of the book will be like. So ask them, I guess is the lesson.)

Don Wentworth, Ce Rosenow, Jim Kacian, Charlie Trumbull

After that panel I threw in the towel and went to bed early last night. Well…I guess it’s more accurate to say I went back to the hotel early. Then Lidia and I spent a while talking, partly about how much we love haiku poets and how happy we are to be here. There is so much talking here. You can’t get any of us to shut up. It’s as if seventeen syllables really weren’t enough to say everything after all.

Tendrils of Ivy (Yotsumono)

tendrils of ivy
I think I’ll paint
my mailbox blue

she moves the snake away
from the garden hose

an uninvited guest
is knocking
at the door

one last question
before the storm begins

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verse credits: willie, melissa, willie, melissa


Willie Sorlien suggested that he and I write some renku together and I said okay, even though I was a little scared because Willie has done way, way, WAY more renku than I have and has even won prizes and stuff (the triparshva linked to here, of which he was sabaki, won the 2010 Journal of Renga and Renku Renku Contest). But he was very kind and picked out a nice short form called the yotsumono that was invented by the great John Carley as a renku exercise. Believe me, I need plenty of exercise.

We wrote four of these. (The others will be showing up soon.) I did notice my linking-and-shifting muscles limbering up after a while. I think.

Here’s a couple more yotsumono written by John Carley, Lorin Ford, and John Merryfield, where you can watch their progress in the comments and read a way more intelligent discussion of the form than I could provide at this point.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 15: Catfish Edition

Hi fellow travelers,

It’s been a long time since I’ve been here, at least in the form of tour guide. A lot has happened. The earth has shaken. It isn’t tilted quite the same way anymore. I think I can feel it. I’m a little off kilter these days. Not that I can complain, seeing as how I don’t live in Japan.

It’s strange — last year at this time I didn’t even know anyone who lived in Japan, and now I know many people there, whose welfare I am deeply concerned about. They mostly all seem to be mostly okay, at least physically. But their sense of security has been pretty much shattered; they’re living with a lot of fear and uncertainty, and I am so admiring of the way they are keeping themselves centered despite this.

I think haiku helps. Maybe any art helps. It’s a way to take the broken pieces and make something whole out of them.

And on that note…here are a few places you might want to drop by for earthquake news and art:

1. Gabi Greve’s earthquake blog, Japan — After the Big Earthquake. It’s very Gabi-like, meaning insanely comprehensive and completely fascinating. Mostly it’s full of Japanese news reports about all the details of the earthquake/tsunami aftermath and aaathe ongoing nuclear disaster saga, but there are also lots of Gabi-style notes about Japanese earthquake folklore and plenty of earthquake haiku from all over the world. A couple of examples:

A giant catfish (namazu) lived in mud beneath the earth. The catfish liked to play pranks and could only be restrained by Kashima, a deity who protected the Japanese people from earthquakes. So long as Kashima kept a mighty rock with magical powers over the catfish, the earth was still. But when he relaxed his guard, the catfish thrashed about, causing earthquakes.

— Gabi Greve

unseen
the third wave
blossoms

— Svetlana Marisova

2. Scott Watson’s amazing, moving earthquake journal from Sendai, being published serially at Issa’s Untidy Hut. The prose is mostly spare and economical and to the point, which makes his picture of the deprivations they are suffering in Sendai all the more effective. Here’s a typical passage, from Part 6:

On the way back meet an elderly neighbor walking his Akita dog. The dog is up in years too. We talk a while about how we canʼt flush our toilets.  Such an inconvenience. When will gas service resume. When will we have water. Some American friends, I tell him, strongly urge me and my family to flee Japanʼs nuclear disaster. But how would you get out of Sendai, he asks. Thatʼs exactly what I tell them. They donʼt understand that we canʼt go anywhere even if we want to.

— Scott Watson

Sometimes Scott waxes a little more lyrical, as in this passage from Part 5 — the last sentence is one of my favorite statements about poetry, ever:

Nukes in Japan. Earthquake land. They are safe, they are necessary, the people are told. Experts are telling the people. Government officials are telling the people. Electric power companies are telling the people. Eventually the people come around. The people repeat what they are told.

Poets tell people nothing. People donʼt repeat poems. They sing them in the here and now, which is when, exactly.

— Scott Watson

3. Kuniharu Shimizu’s haiga site, see haiku here, where the haiga are all about the earthquake these days, and are heartwrenching and beautiful. Speaking of Sendai, he illustrated a wonderful Basho haiku that follows a Sendai episode in Narrow Road to the Deep North:

I will bind iris
blossoms round about my feet –
straps for my sandals

— Basho

and followed it up with “after” pictures of Sendai, which, unfortunately, are not nearly as pretty as iris sandals.

One of my favorite of Kuni’s own haiku about the earthquake is this one, also a stunning haiga:

tsunami swells—
how I wish
I were a bird

— Kuniharu Shimizu

4. Miriam Sagan’s Miriam’s Well, where she has been posting many earthquake haiku submitted to her — I believe she’s still accepting submissions. Here’s one of my favorites:

tsunami
pieces of future days
wash away

— Mark Brooks

5. This haiku of Bill Kenney’s from haiku-usa:

all the names
I’m learning to pronounce –
tsunami

— Bill Kenney

6. We Are All Japan, the brainchild of Sasa Vazic and Robert Wilson (who edit the journal Simply Haiku). It’s a very active Facebook group that is open to all comers and is a sort of clearinghouse for earthquake news, support, and poetry. Sasa and Robert are also putting together an anthology of earthquake-related poetry (all forms, not just haiku or other Japanese poetry) whose proceeds will benefit earthquake victims. They’ll accept (previously unpublished) submissions until May 15 at svtojapan@gmail.com. If you’re not Facebook-y, their website is http://wearealljapan.blogspot.com.

_____________________________

Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch

People have also been known to write haiku (and tanka) that aren’t about the earthquake these days. Those are fun to read too.

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From Miso Soup:

Satie –
the rain
eases

— Alison

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From Haiku Etc.:


I am not here
but these red peppers are
so I buy one

— Kris Lindbeck

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From Heed Not Steve (there is also a great illustration so go visit):

oh I see you
in the scrawl and scribble
Graphite Buddha

— Steve Mitchell

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From old pajamas: from the dirt hut:

leaving my lover alone for a minute my tongue hunts a lost cloud

— Alan Segal

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From jornales:

haiku truths–
crocus and frogs after rain
kestrels and hyacinths
telling you secrets non-stop
oh, poet for you, no rest

— Alegria Imperial

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From a lousy mirror:

the surplus
of words burrowed in
spring darkness . . .
a mole eating his way
through the may or may not

— Robert D. Wilson

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From Stay Drunk on Writing:

stepping stones
to the Zen Garden —
dog dung

— Chen-ou Liu

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From Yay Words!, the hokku of a great kasen renku in progress between Aubrie Cox and Wayne Chou — go read the other verses:

spring breeze
tea stains
on the atlas

— Aubrie Cox

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From Blue Willow Haiku World, two entries, because there is no way I could choose just one out of four whole weeks of daily entries:

ボブ・ディラン掛けよ蛙の夜なれば     榮 猿丸

bobu diran kakeyo kaeru no yoru nareba

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play Bob Dylan
it is a night
of frogs

— Sarumaru Sakae, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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春なれや水の厚みの中に魚      岩田由美

haru nare ya mizu no atsumi no naka ni uo

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spring—
fish inside
the water’s thickness

— Yumi Iwata, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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From Crows & Daisies, see note above about impossibility of choosing, etc.:

snowflakes
the white mare’s whinny
lifts a cloud

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hedgehog ball
i always was
the odd one out

— Polona Oblak

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From Mann Library’s Daily Haiku:

summit road
once more the moon
changes windows

— Tom Painting

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From a handful of stones, the haiku that wins the Most Makes Me Want to Read It Aloud Award for this edition:

sick train the night heron shifts silt for all of us

— Alan Summers

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From rolling stones:

women’s day
more to the moon
than this sliver

— Jill

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From Jars of Stars:

invisible
to those around me
I watch blossoms
fall
a thousand years from now

— Paul Smith (@monkeywillow)

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From Daily Haiku:

crows in a pine
moving the dark
from limb to limb

— Carolyne Rohrig

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From Beachcombing for the Landlocked, a great haiga — go look:

the equinox
what winter has taken
what winter has spared

— Mark Holloway

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In case you’re wondering, “Isn’t there someone who collects great haiku from all the haiku poets on Facebook and puts it somewhere where we poor Facebook-less souls can take it in? And maybe sometimes translates it into French or English depending on which language it started out in?”, the answer is yes, yes there is. He is Vincent Hoarau and his blog is La Calebasse. From a set of fantastic spring haiku he shared recently, here’s one of his own that I love (I am presuming this was probably written first in French and then translated into English, but this was the order it appeared in on the blog):

sun ! sun ! sun !
the daffodils don’t know
where to look

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le soleil ! le soleil !
les jonquilles ne savent plus
où donner d’la tête

— haiku and translation by Vincent Hoarau

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Journaling

Anyone who hasn’t discovered Contemporary Haibun Online (cho) yet? They released a new edition a couple of weeks ago (dated April 2011 — now that’s efficiency). Please go check it out now so I don’t have to hunt you down and stand over you while you read it. Here’s one of my favorites from the issue to get you started.

Midsummer Night

Into the garden
take a small square of Kozo paper.
Fold, crease, fold and fold again.
Now place upon an upturned mirror:

crossing a dark sea
of reflected galaxies
this empty boat

—Jann Wirtz

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The Wild, Wild Web

A roundup of amazing haiku websites I’ve stumbled upon since the last time I rapped at you.

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How to explain Basho’s Road? The posts there are infrequent but worth waiting for. The site is beautifully designed and all the posts contain both poetry (usually Japanese short-form, but sometimes not — the most recent post as of this writing contains a quotation from Montaigne) and art, wonderful art. It’s a quiet and thoughtful place and I can feel my breathing slowing down and my brain speeding up whenever I stop by. The proprietor is Norbert Blei, stop by and thank him (I guess now that I’ve said that, I should do it too…).

……………………………………………ah!
…………….today haiku come as easy
as picking them off a small fruit tree

Ronald Baatz, from White Tulips

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Since I discovered John Martone’s poetry a few months ago (via Issa’s Untidy Hut), I’ve been noticing it — and hungrily seeking out more of it — everywhere I go. Then recently I got this brainstorm to use this amazing new “Google” thing the kids are all talking about and what do you know, it chewed up my search request and spat me right out at a web page called “john martone’s poetry projects,” which contains links to about a zillion pdf’s of collections of John’s work, and now I’m locking myself in the bathroom and not coming out until I’ve read them all.

Most of these collections are best read as collections — they contain variations on one or several themes and have much the same effect, on me at least, as a turning kaleidoscope, a really well-made one that you just can’t tear away from your eye. Here’s one verse, though, that I think works well on its own.

look at
that cloud
thats you

— John Martone, from box turtle (2008)

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Ray Rasmussen, a Canadian poet well-known for his haiku and haibun, has just recently put together a couple of very striking and well-edited sites that you’ll want at least to go take a look at, and possibly to contribute to.

The first one is Day’s End, which looks at various aspects of aging through (mostly previously published) haiku, senryu, tanka and haibun. It was put together by Ray and guest editor Anita Virgil. Here’s a sample:

first time together
kissing a grandmother
for real

— Charles Trumbull

The second site, which is still a work in progress, is Romance under a Waning Moon, a website of haiku, tanka, haibun and images about the ups and downs of later-in-life romance. Ray’s still accepting submissions for this one (he prefers them previously published) — check out the details at the site.

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Deep Thought

The website of the British haiku journal Presence contains numerous fascinating essays, including several meditations on that perennially fascinating topic: what, exactly, is a haiku?

The one that made me think the most, although I did wish the author would stop shouting, was this one by David Cobb. I’ve italicized the passages I found the most thought-provoking.

My mind is kind of spinning in circles, now, actually — I have to try to integrate these ideas (which I find compelling and convincing) into my mental conception of haiku.

Two Differing Views of Time and Nature in Haiku

1. A haiku is an unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of A MOMENT keenly perceived, IN WHICH NATURE IS LINKED TO HUMAN NATURE. (From A Haiku Path, recording the official definition adopted by the Haiku Society of America and used in Frogpond magazine.) [My (meaning Mr. Cobb’s) capitals.]

2. In the first place, Japanese haiku are NOT NATURE POEMS AT ALL. Japanese poems are concerned with the four seasons of the year, so they are SEASON-POEMS. Haiku are TIME-POEMS; where content is concerned, haiku deal with the passage of time, with things that have passed away, with the present and the future. And the poet illustrates this process of becoming and passing away within a short or long period of time by referring to things in the natural world, both alive and dead. (tr. from an article by Thomas Hemstege in Vierteljahresschrift der Deutschen Haiku-Gesellschaft, Vol.16, No.60, March 2003.) [My (yes, Mr. Cobb’s) capitals again.]

This definition argues that references to Nature are incidental or instrumental to the poet’s impressions of the passage of time. The nub of the action is something that poets do with Nature. The case is made for a haiku continuum rather than a haiku moment.

— David Cobb

[Editorial note to Mr. Cobb: I love your — well, Mr. Hemstege’s, I suppose — ideas, but there are these things called italics which are used by most authors to provide emphasis, and which are MUCH LESS UNNERVING to the reader than ALL CAPS.]

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Dead Tree News

Recently I was reminded again that I really needed and wanted to read R.H. Blyth’s seminal four-volume work Haiku, first published in the late forties, which was one of the main instruments for introducing haiku to the general public in the Western world. Blyth introduced a lot of misconceptions about haiku too — the idea that it was somehow fundamentally attached to Zen Buddhism, perhaps, being the main one. But he also passionately loved and was intimately familiar with the body of classical Japanese haiku (not to mention having an encyclopedic knowledge of Western poetry), and did translations of thousands of them that, although they sometimes are more poetic than accurate, are really, really lovely. So as long as you take him with several pounds of salt, he is still well worth reading.

The problem is, Haiku is out of print and commands an impressive price on the used-book market. And though I had no problem borrowing the volumes from my university’s library (libraries, people! wonderful things! use them!</librarian sales pitch>), I realized almost as soon as I started reading them that I needed to own them myself. So one night I was noodling around on Amazon looking at the ridiculous prices that some dealers were asking for these volumes ($700 just for the “Spring” volume?!), when I found what seemed like a very reasonable deal. And almost quicker than I could ask my husband, “Honey, would I be crazy if I paid this much money for four books?”, I’d ordered the things, and a few days later they arrived at my house all nicely wrapped in gloriously old-fashioned layers of brown paper. And lo, when I had removed all the wrapping paper, I discovered they were beautiful, and I was very happy.

I haven’t read them all yet. I suspect it will take months, if not years. But I am in love. The first volume is all about Eastern culture and haiku in general (and contains lots of very authoritative-sounding, incredibly well-written and inspiring, and dubious theories), and the remaining three volumes contain haiku translations and (highly subjective) commentary, in seasonal order starting with Spring and grouping the haiku by kigo. Pretty much any page you open to you’ll find something you love. I just opened the “Summer-Autumn” volume at random and look what I found:

Striking the fly
I hit also
A flowering plant.

— Issa, translated by R.H. Blyth

I swear, I will never hit a fly again.

I’ll be back with more about Blyth someday soon, I promise.

(Note: Don Wentworth, over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, has been writing some thoughts about Blyth lately too — you’re well advised to take them in.)

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Winding Down

Long day. (Although the days have gotten a bit shorter due to the earthquake, did you know?) Long month. All kinds of things shifting and spinning. That catfish still restless underground.

But haiku is still there. The haikuverse is still full, still worth exploring. It’s some comfort to me, how about you?

Across the Haikuverse, No. 10: Bleak Midwinter Edition

One of my favorite Christmas songs (I remembered recently, when I was part of a hastily-thrown-together chorus that sang it for a New Year’s Eve celebration) is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is a setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti. The first verse, in particular, is really a masterpiece of English poetry, full of humble but strong Anglo-Saxon words, not a single one unnecessary and no necessary one left out:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long, long ago.

— Christina Rossetti

There are obviously too many words and too much meter and rhyme and too many metaphors in this for it to be a haiku, though it does have the requisite elements of simplicity and clear, evocative images, and I think there’s some wabi-sabi and yugen going on here as well. And I see possibilities in that third line for some kind of avant-garde haiku:

snow had fallen snow on snow snow on snow

Really, I think probably someone could rewrite this verse, or part of it, into an effective haiku, though I’ve been trying and not finding it so easy. Any of you like to give it a shot? Let me know what you come up with.

Anyway. It is definitely bleak midwinter here. Snow on snow indeed.  It’s nice that it’s not for so many of you — you dwellers in the tropics and subtropics and summery Southern Hemisphere. I like to imagine your lives, walking outside barefoot, wearing short sleeves, smelling flowers. (Well, those of you who aren’t flooded. I’m sorry about the flooded part. I hope no one has floated away.) I’m not really jealous, it will be our turn soon enough. And though I complain bitterly about the cold and can never seem to get really warm, there is something about this downtime, for both the earth and me, that I grudgingly appreciate. Cycles. The world is full of them, and best just to accept them.

Which reminds me. Aren’t we supposed to be taking a spin around the Haikuverse? Best get started on that before you get bored with my waxing philosophical and wander away, never to return.

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Haiku of the Week

That’s haiku, plural. As in, the haiku I saw on the Internet this week that most struck me as interesting for whatever reason (could be my discerning literary taste, could be the state of my digestion) and that I actually managed to remember to bookmark. (This whole process is an art, not a science.)

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Mark Holloway over at Beachcombing For the Landlocked has been on a roll this week. You should really just go over there and read everything he’s written lately because I had a hard time choosing just one. I settled on this one in the end:

moss growing on the roof tiles      unsuspected      metastasis

Mark Holloway

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This wonderful piece from a handful of stones isn’t a haiku, I suppose. Do I care? Not really.

A mushroom sprouts
from the base of the locust tree,
and it will not be distracted
from its small brown task.

— Tamra Hays

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In this piece Angie Werren from feathers did a nice job responding to the same ku on this prompt that I did this morning:

sometimes the rain
I stand behind this window
counting trees

— Angie Werren

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This wonderful offering at Jars of Stars was originally posted on Twitter by @cirrusdream, otherwise known as Polona:

winter thaw
i ignore
his white lie

— Polona (@cirrusdream)

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Another one of Bill Kenney’s “afters” appeared at haiku-usa (maybe I appreciated this one because I’ve been having weird dreams lately myself):

piercing cold
I kiss a plum blossom
in my dream

— Soseki 1867-1916

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Also at haiku-usa, Bill points us to a collection of his “urban haiku” recently featured on Gabi Greve’s Haiku Topics and Keywords blog. Gabi also links to works by many other authors of such “urban haiku” (i.e., haiku that reflects the reality of the lives of most modern writers of haiku, who live not in pastoral Japan or pastoral anywhere, but in bustling outposts of the global economy). An example from Alan Summers:

Waterloo sunset
the Thames disappears
from the Tube map

— Alan Summers

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Every week there’s at least one something at Blue Willow Haiku World that I feel like reading over and over — usually several somethings. This week my favorite was this one:

月の汚れやすくてかなしき手   黒田杏子
ichigatsu no yogoreyasukute kanashiki te

January
hands that are easy
to get dirty and sad
— Momoko Kuroda, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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And while we’re on the topic of Fay Aoyagi (I never mind being on the topic of Fay Aoyagi), someone on Facebook (MDW — was that you?) recently reminded me about the wonderful series of essays she wrote several years ago for Frogpond about non-traditional use of kigo in haiku. I could swear I’ve read this entire series on the Interwebs, either on Frogpond’s site or Fay’s own, but I can’t seem to find any of them now except this one: “Haiku Traditions: Flowers and Plants.” But just this one will take you a long way. Fay discusses how traditional Japanese kigo like “cherry blossoms,” which are so evocative in their own culture, have given way in her own poetry to seasonal terms or keywords that are more meaningful to the American culture she now inhabits:

While cherry blossoms symbolize where I came from, roses represent Western culture and where I am now.  I think roses demand a lot of care.  To have a gorgeous, perfect flower, one has to tend them with water, fertilizers and pesticides.  Roses are somewhat the manifestation of my borrowed culture.  “Rose” itself is a summer kigo, but I prefer to use it in a winter setting.  I can put contradictory feelings or images together in this way.

winter roses—
I am tired of reading
between the lines
— Fay Aoyagi

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OtherHais (Haiga, Haibun)

Every week I am amazed at how many cool haiku-related sites I have yet to discover. Since I have been thinking about venturing into haiga territory in collaboration with my amateur photographer husband, I went noodling around this week looking for haiga online and discovered … Haigaonline. (Warning: this link will lead you to a page where there are sounds of sparrows twittering and some music, which is sweet and pretty but if you’re in a quiet place or just not in the mood, you may want to hit the “mute” button.)

The December 2010 issue of this online journal features lots of good stuff, including a feature on “family haiga” — lots of husband-and-wife teams, so I appreciated that. What I really loved, though, was an exhibit of “experimental haiga” by Renee Owen — they’re colorful collages with intriguing haiku, such as:

waiting for God
to finish creation
leftover rocks
— Renee Owen

And yes you MUST go look at the picture! That’s the entire point! Click! Click! I think the link will just bring you to a page of thumbnails, all of which are worth looking at, but the one I’ve quoted above can be found if you click on the picture of columns in the bottom center.
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And I’m always looking for good haibun, so I was excited to stumble on Hortensia Anderson’s site The Plenitude of Emptiness. All haibun, all the time! I’m trying to write more haibun so I will be dropping by here often.

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Tanka Corner

I’ve been making some headway lately in my ongoing quest to get over my fear of tanka. I was helped recently in my endeavor by my discovery of this mind-blower over at Michele Harvey’s site. This is not only one of my favorite tanka I’ve ever read, it’s some of the best poetry I’ve read lately, period.

a fall cricket
sings alone on the porch
I too, wonder
about being born too late
or too soon

— Michele Harvey

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Alegria Imperial also published some wonderful trilingual tanka (English, Spanish, and the native Philippine language Iluko) over at qarrtsiluni this week. I have long been a fan of Alegria’s multilingual poetry, it is so amazingly dense with meaning and emotional resonance. And as usual at qarrtsiluni, there is an audio file so you can hear Alegria reading her beautiful words. Please check it out!

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Renku Everywhere

With the new year, the thoughts of many seem to be turning to starting new renku. Over at Issa’s Snail, Ashley Capes has done a nice site redesign and, after a long hiatus, has started up a couple of new junicho, with a third possibly in the works. I think most of these have filled up with participants already but it’s still fun to watch the process of a renku in the making, which you can do by reading the comments on the site. The “sabaki” or renku leader guides the group in choosing subject matter and making sure the poem flows and doesn’t repeat itself in theme or language, which is no easy task, but Ashley (I know from personal experience) is great at doing this. Plus he is just an all-around nice guy who is easy and fun to work with.

The same can be said of Willie Sorlien, who is currently guiding the development of a shisan renku at Green Tea and Bird Song. Again, don’t think they’re looking for new participants, but it might be worthwhile watching how it’s done by the pros before you leap in on your own.

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Haiku in the News

Haiku made an appearance in the mass media this week in the form of a lengthy radio interview on NPR’s “On Point” show with haiku venerables George Swede and Dylan Tweney and an economist named Stephen Ziliak, who wrote an article making a fascinating connection between economic models and haiku. An excerpt from Ziliak’s article:

The typical haiku budget constraint is limited by three lines of seventeen syllables. Basho himself understood well the joyful paradox of haiku economics: less is more, and more is better!

Stephen Ziliak

This was a fun interview to listen to — I especially enjoyed George Swede’s anecdote about his son, who as a fifth-grader took up a position as a conscientious objector by refusing to do as he was instructed by his teacher and write a haiku in 5-7-5. He wrote some twelve-syllable haiku instead and got them published in Modern Haiku (which at the time accepted haiku from students). Then his teacher was all impressed and wanted to put them in the school yearbook, but the young Swede told her (I’m sure in very well-mannered language) where she could put her yearbook. Go ahead and stream this one while you’re making dinner or something tonight, you won’t be sorry.

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The News in Haiku


Is everyone getting psyched up for NaHaiWriMo (remember, that’s the thing where you can sign up to write a haiku a day in the month of February)? Michael Dylan Welch has put together a website for the event so now you don’t need to be on Facebook to sign up (although go ahead and like the Facebook page too if you want). Think about it.

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A call for submissions for a new issue of haijinx has gone out (deadline: March 1), along with the exciting news that Roberta Beary will be their new haibun editor. Roberta is one of the best writers of haibun around so I can’t wait to see what she picks out. Also new on the haijinx website: Richard Krawiec’s latest installment of his column “Shooting My Poetry Mouth Off.” This month he implores us haiku poets not to try to publish everything we write but to be selective and try to recognize our best work, which will not only benefit us personally (since our poetic reputations will not be sullied by inferior work), but also haiku as a genre, since the journals will not be flooded with mediocre work. Worth reading and thinking about.

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Dead Tree News

Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694. The first great master of haikai/haiku. Where on earth did he come from?

It’s a little like asking where Shakespeare (1564-1616) came from, in my opinion. I mean you can see how before and all around Shakespeare, English writers were producing supple, lively, image-rich poems and plays, much of it in a natural and flexible blank verse — really, nobody could do English like the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, at the moment when modern English was brand new and no one had gotten around to inventing rules for it yet so writers had no compunction about bending the language to their will. That was the glorious and fortunate tradition Shakespeare was working in, but nobody else was Shakespeare, before or after.

So pity poor Donald Keene, who in chapters four and five of World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867 has the unenviable job of explaining how the often-pleasant-and-skillful, but usually not much more, haikai of the haijin that preceded Basho produced the unparalleled haikai genius that is Basho. In the end, about all he can do is trace the literary movements that Basho’s work responded to and grew out of, and then throw up his hands and say, “The rest — that’s just Basho.”

As I discussed in Haikuverse No. 8, Basho was influenced by both the careful craftsmanship of the Teitoku school of haikai and the iconoclasm and experimentation of the Danrin school, as well as by his intensive study of Chinese verse and by his interest in Zen Buddhism. But he didn’t just sit around studying and writing poetry; he spent much of his life traveling around Japan, living at various times both in the city and in the country, meeting people, seeing things, gathering material. As Keene points out, “Haikai shared the literary spirit of the great Chinese and Japanese masters, and the Zen quality of … poet … Han Shan, but it had its own domain too, in the familiar and even vulgar activities of contemporary life.”

It’s when Keene discusses Basho’s masterpieces that his efforts to relate Basho’s genius to his poetic predecessors break down. Basho was just Basho; his vision was unique. In his most famous poem, the frog pond haiku furuike ya, Keene points out, “The ancient pond is eternal, but in order for us to become aware of its eternity there must be some momentary disruption…This verse is about stillness, yet only by sound can we know silence.” He contrasts Basho’s first line here (“old pond”) with the well-meaning and not unskillful suggestion of one of his disciples, “the yellow roses”:

[A]lthough the picture of yellow flowers surrounding the frog … is visually appealing, it lacks the eternity of ‘ancient pond.’ … Only by suggesting the age of the pond, its unchanging nature, is the momentary life of the frog evoked. This was the kind of understanding Basho demanded. He believed that the smallest flower or insect if properly seen and understood could suggest all of creation, and each had its reason for existence.

— Donald Keene, World Within Walls

By the end of his life Basho’s poetic ideal was karumi, or “lightness,” “a word used in contrast to technical finish or decorative effects.” Basho was seeing ever deeper into the hearts of things, in a way no haikai poet had done before and few if any have done since. He was going past the words into the essence.

What Keene’s discussion made me want to do more than ever was just sit down with Basho himself and engage with him, rather than the ideas about him. So that’s what’s on the agenda for this week. Feel free to join me.

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And thanks again for letting me ramble on at length; special thanks to those of you who actually made it to the end of this post. Love, love, love making these trips with you. It may seem like I’m the guide but I assure you I’m learning the territory as I go. There is still so much more of the Haikuverse left to explore, hope you’ll keep me company as I wander.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 9: Rabbit Edition

So. We’ve started another trip around the sun. Is everyone strapped in tightly? This planet can really get up some speed when it wants to. I have a feeling this is going to be an especially speedy year for me. So much haiku to read and write, so little time.

With that in mind — let’s start this week’s tour of the Haikuverse without further ado. This will be a long one. Go ahead, add an extra five minutes to your coffee break, I won’t tell.

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Haiku on New

I’ve mentioned before that 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit according to the Japanese calendar, and that rabbit haiku have been proliferating like, um, rabbits all over the Interwebs. If you’re interested in reading some (I make fun of them, just because I like to make fun of things — including, in all fairness, myself — but a lot of them are really good), there are a bunch of examples (and a bunch of other great New Year haiku) over at the Akita International Haiku Network blog.

Other places to read good New Year haiku (and haiga, and tanka, and gogyoghka) include the following, which is just a small sample of the pages I remembered to bookmark that had good New Year haiku and doesn’t include any of the many good New Year haiku I encountered on Facebook and Twitter in the last week or so. (You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Don’t you?)

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Vincent Tripi/Kuniharu Shimizu (haiga), see haiku here
Gary Hotham, Mann Library’s Daily Haiku
Bill Kenney, haiku-usa
Takuya Tomita, tr. by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World
John McDonald, zen speug
Steve Mitchell, Heed Not Steve
Johannes S.H. Bjerg, scented dust
Chen-ou Liu, Stay Drunk on Writing

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Haiku Till You Drop

And on to haiku on other topics — quite a few of those were written recently too, believe it or not. We must start off with my obligatory Vincent Hoarau haiku in French. (My apologies to anyone who doesn’t know French and/or has no appreciation for the haiku of Vincent Hoarau, but he knocks my socks off. And I have somehow just managed to discover that he has a blog! so you don’t need to have a Facebook account to read his poetry after all! Though this one doesn’t seem to be on the blog at the moment.)

leur bébé dort
dans la neige
de l’échographie

— vincent hoarau

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Another new blog I’ve just discovered: Haiku by Two, where I found the following lovely offering by Alison (can’t seem to locate a last name):

whether or not
there is a god –
heavenly skies

— Alison

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This one from Blue Willow Haiku World really struck me for some reason. I was right out there on the ocean for a while after I read it. Caravels. Whales breaching. Waves, fog, salt spray. Japanese whaling ships. Guys in ruffed collars. An inundation of images, if you will.

the Age of Discovery
has ended
a whale

— Eiji Hashimoto, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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Over at The Haiku Diary, Elissa managed to perfectly capture the spirit of procrastination, especially the procrastination of us writers who can always think of some other creative thing to do that’s sort of like writing but nahhh. I should write this one down and tape it to my laptop.

To-do Listless

Gluing tiny
collages onto matchboxes
doesn’t count as “Write!”.

— Elissa

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New Year’s Resolution: Exercise

Somebody (who? who? I must remember to write these things down!) posted this link to Facebook a week or two ago. It’s “a training exercise … [that] helps condition the muscles necessary for making haiku.” The poster suggested that it would be of help to those pursuing Fiona Robyn’s a river of stones project this month, which it certainly would, but it also seems like an invaluable exercise for anyone interested in learning to write haiku, or improving the haiku they already write. If you try it, let me know how it worked out.

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Blog News

Out with the old, in with the new, isn’t that what they say this time of year? Well, right with the New Year a couple of new blogs worth watching started up and another one of my old favorites closed up shop.

First I’d like to pay tribute to the latter, David Marshall’s wonderful haiku streak. At this blog and another, David has been posting a daily haiku for five years (yes, you did read right). He says he’s giving up his streak now because he’s starting to feel that writing them is becoming a routine and he’s no longer sure of the purpose. But I have to say that practically everything he writes seems utterly inspired to me. His haiku are like no one else’s on the planet, and that kind of intense personal vision is rare.

Here’s his last entry, posted on New Year’s Eve:

Moved Out

In the empty room
an empty box—everything
inside me at last

— David Marshall

Fortunately, David is not giving up poetry altogether. I will be following him at his other poetry site, derelict satellite, where he says he plans to post weekly “haiku sonnets” — fascinating concept.

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And to console me a little, Anne Lessing and Aubrie Cox started up new blogs on the first of the year. I have been eagerly awaiting Anne’s The Haiku Challenge ever since she announced way back last May that she would be starting to write a daily haiku on 1/1/11. Anne, gloriously, is a teenager who is a relative newcomer to haiku, but not to writing, and she too has a very well-defined personal vision. I loved her first offering:

first second of a new year
and all I see is
glitter
— Anne Lessing

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Aubrie Cox, whom I met at the “Cradle of American Haiku” Festival back in September, is not new to haiku, although she too is very young. She’s a senior in college who has been studying haiku for several years now under the aegis of Randy Brooks, has published her very skillful haiku many times, and has a vast store of knowledge about the history and poetics of haiku that awes me. You can find out more about her at her personal blog, Aubrie Cox. But she’s just started up another blog called Yay Words! (which is, of course, the best blog name ever). She started it to participate in a river of stones, and also plans to use it for just generally celebrating words in all their forms. I love enthusiasm combined with knowledge (that will be the name of my next blog), so I’m sure Aubrie’s blog will become a favorite very soon. Here’s her first “small stone”:

new hat
trying to make it fit like the old one

— Aubrie Cox

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I discovered a site this week that is new to me although not to the world, and although it may be of interest to none of my readers I just had to let you know about it because I am jumping up and down in my mind with excitement whenever I think about it. It’s called Taming the Monkey Mind and it features — wait for it — Russian translations of Issa’s haiku. Yeah. I know. My life is pretty much complete now. Okay, so it doesn’t look like they’ve updated since 2008 but they have just recently started tweeting on Twitter, so I’m hoping that means that more translations are in the works. A girl can dream, can’t she?
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Another great site that I can’t believe I never discovered before is Haiku Chronicles, featuring wonderful podcasts about various aspects of haiku. I’ve only had time to listen to one, which was about a renku party and went into fascinating detail about the composition of renku in general and one renku in particular. If you listen to any others, send me reviews — I will be working my way through the rest slowly.

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Essaying Essays

I found a few essays that blew my mind this week. I’m starting to get a little tired here (this is actually the last section of this post I am writing, even though it doesn’t appear at the end — I like to jump around when I write, it makes things more interesting). So I might not go into as much detail about them as I had planned to (you are probably giving devout thanks for this right now to whatever deity floats your boat).

This is where I implore you to follow the links and read some of this stuff. Okay, I won’t lecture you any more. You probably have one or two other important things to do with your time, like making a living or raising children or growing prize orchids or something. Or, you know, writing haiku instead of reading about it. How sensible of you!

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Last week Chen-ou Liu posted on his blog Poetry in the Moment an essay called “The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku” that might forever change the way you look at good old furuike ya. He discusses the necessity of viewing this poem in the context of the literature of its time — for instance, “frog” is a spring kigo that was “used in poems since ancient times, and had always referred to its singing and calling out to a lover.” By making the frog’s sound a splash instead of singing, Basho parodies literary convention. The poem also works, of course, on a purely literal, objective level, but this second dimension of allusion to earlier literature is usually missing from most Western translations and considerations of this poem.

Chen-ou concludes with his own poetic sequence paying tribute to this ku and to Basho and other earlier literary masters, including this verse:

this frog
crouches on a lotus leaf —
reciting Basho

— Chen-ou Liu

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At Still in the Stream there is an essay by Richard R. Powell called “Wabi-Sabi in Haiku,” which gives many examples with a detailed analysis of what makes them wabi-sabi. You will definitely want to go look at this one, if only for the wonderful examples. It’s beautifully laid out and wabi-sabi is always fascinating to contemplate.

Here’s one of the examples and a bit of Powell’s commentary to go along with it, just to whet your appetite:

wings aglow –
gulls rising above
the garbage

– Eric Houck Jr.

Yesterday while on a walk with my son we observed two herring gulls alight on a lamp pole. They seemed to be a pair and one stuck out its neck and emitted the common and recognizable call gulls everywhere make. I thought of Mr. Houck’s haiku and watched as the two birds leapt into the air and soared over us. Looking up at these birds I was struck by their clean appearance, the sharp line between the white feathers and gray ones. Their bodies, when they glide, are smooth and elegant, heads pivoting on otherwise plane-rigid bodies. I was charged with a subtle joy, not overwhelming, but hopeful.

Mr. Houck’s poem is an excellent example of a haiku that contains karumi, the quality Basho considered to be the hallmark of his mature style.

— Richard R. Powell, “Wabi-Sabi in Haiku”

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This one isn’t really an essay, but a review. But Don Wentworth’s reviews over at Issa’s Untidy Hut are always so in-depth and thought-provoking that they give the same satisfaction to me as a well-wrought essay. This one concerns John Martone’s book of short poetry, scrittura povera. I had never heard of this poet before but I will certainly be searching out more of his work. Here’s an example:

how much time
do you need
morning glory

— John Martone

Don, a fellow Issa aficionado, says of this one (and I agree with him) that, “In terms of modern haiku, it just doesn’t get much better than this.  There is certainly a touch of Issa here, a perfect balancing between the comic and the serious. It is, as is life, both at the same time.”

I would definitely recommend that you follow the link and at least read through the example poems by Martone, even if you don’t have time to read the full review. They are all superb.

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Competition Corner

A bunch of fun competitions are in the works at the moment. As always, there are the monthly Shiki Kukai (which I wrote about a few days ago; this month’s topics still haven’t been announced but should be any day now so keep your eyes peeled, if that isn’t too painful) and Caribbean Kigo Kukai (this month’s kigo: calendar). Kukai are a great way to get your feet wet in the contest world, and they’re judged by the participants so you get to have fun picking out your favorite ku from among the entries.

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But there are also a couple of contests that don’t come around as often. You’ll have to act fast on the first one: XII bilingual Calico Cat Contest. It’s a blitz — it just started yesterday, and the deadline is tomorrow. But it’s a fun one for several reasons: It involves using one of the wonderful sumi-e paintings of Origa Olga Hooper (contest organizer) as a prompt, the prize being said sumi-e painting; and — so you know I’m definitely going to enter — all the entries will be translated into Russian (if they’re in English) or English (if they’re in Russian), and posted on the contest site in both languages for everyone to see before the judging. You can submit up to three haiku; maybe I’ll try writing one in Russian. Or not. I might have to work up to that level of bravery.

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The final contest on my list is the biggest. Just opening today, with a deadline of March 31, is The Haiku Foundation’s yearly HaikuNow contest. There are three categories: Traditional, Contemporary, and Innovative — go to the site for more explanation and examples of what exactly these categories mean. This contest gives out actual monetary awards and it’s free to enter, so there’s no downside, really. Go for it!

Full disclosure: I am helping out (on basically a peon level) with coordinating this contest. Specifically, I, along with two other helper elves, will be fetching contest entries from email, taking the authors’ names off for anonymity’s sake, and sending them off to the judges to be judged. This is a great gig for me, of course, because I get to see a lot of really cool haiku before anyone else. Sadly, I of course cannot share these really cool haiku with you or anyone else, but maybe the inspiration I derive from reading them will help make the haiku I post here a little better, which will surely improve your life.

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Dead Tree News

After I got the “Close, But No Cigar” award in The Haiku Foundation’s Facebook contest in November (basically, I was a runner-up, but Jim Kacian, the judge, invented this humorous award name to indicate that he liked the idea of my ku but was not so wild about its execution), the Foundation kindly sent me and all the other winners and runners-up a copy of where the wind turns: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku.

This turned out to be a great prize. The panel of ten editors, led by Jim, chose their favorites from the past year’s journal output and web content, and I assure you that they have excellent taste. I spent a lot of my extensive driving time over the holidays reading it. I started out marking all the stuff I liked, until I realized that I was marking pretty much every page. Want some examples? Yeah, I thought you did.

Okay, here are just a couple of the ku that blew me away. Okay, more than a couple. Really, I narrowed it down as much as I could:

autumn rain
deeper and darker
the taste of tea
— Mary Ahearn

cemetery gate
she let me
go first
— Yu Chang

new year’s day all my anxieties in alphabetical order
—Carlos Colon

leaves too small
to touch each other
spring chill
— Burnell Lippy

blue sky
maybe I don’t need
to be right
— Harriot West

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Haiku were not the only things in this anthology either. There were some amazing haibun, and in my experience amazing haibun are not all that easy to find. The most touching of these was William (Bill) Higginson’s last piece of writing before he died in 2008, “Well-Bucket Nightfall, or New Day?,” a masterly meditation on well buckets, life transitions, death, and haiku. I also commend to you Johnny Baranski’s “Gandhi’s Game” and Bob Lucky’s “Shiraz.”

And then there were the essays … oh God, the essays. I wish I had time to write essays about the essays. But most of them you can find online so you can read them yourselves. (I know most of you won’t though. Uh-oh. Starting to lecture again.)

There was a reprint of one of my longtime favorite essays, a consideration of the haiku of Fay Aoyagi (one of my favorite poets) by David Lanoue (one of my favorite translators). A very interesting meditation on haiku and capitalism (which I’m not sure I entirely understood), by Dimitar Anakiev. A fascinating essay on haiku from the World War II Japanese internment camps, by Margaret Chula (the essay doesn’t seem to be online but here’s a link to her book on the same subject).

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The only essay I would like to say a little more about is Jim Kacian’s, called So::Ba, which I am still thinking about, because it both crystallized some of the ideas that I have been having about haiku myself and also added some new information and ideas to support my previously vague, uncertain thinking. Basically, Jim takes the English sentence “So here we are” and relates it to the Japanese word “ba,” which he translates as “a pointer to a kind of awareness that something of importance is happening in time and space.” In his vision of haiku poetics, ba is essential: “Ba is the basis for pretty much everything we do in haiku. In fact, ba is the message of haiku: so here we are!”

A lot of the essay is taken up with denigration of the vast amount of “trash” haiku out there these days, and with historical notes about the development of haiku, in which Basho gets a hero’s welcome and Shiki gets piled on for his objectivism: his insistence on merely observing nature, rather than alluding to human history or culture or literature, or making use of the kind of richness of emotional expression that characterized the haiku of, among others, Basho and Buson. Jim regrets that the West encountered haiku right at the moment when Shiki was the dominant influence on haiku, since what he considers as the wrong-headed separation of Nature from Man in the minds of most haiku poets tends to persist to this day.

So how should we be thinking about haiku, according to Jim? Well, as far as I can make out, as a form of poetry that expresses a moment of the poet’s consciousness, that makes use of art and imagination as well as purely objective observation (this discussion will undoubtedly seem familiar to those of you who read my “Willow Buds” post the other day). I really love this passage from the essay in particular:

Haiku is not photography, a simple exact limning of what lies before our eyes. If it is an art, then it must be the selecting and ordering of words into a cogent form that helps lead another’s mind along the path that the poet’s has followed, with perhaps a similar reaction to be had at the end. And this rarely takes place before the butterfly’s wing, but usually in the roiling of the mind, consciously and unconsciously, whenever it can — for me that often means in the middle of the night.

And yet despite this we still retain some residual disdain for what are termed “desk haiku.” In truth, every haiku I’ve ever written has been a desk haiku. It may have had its origins in some natural spectacle, and I may even have written it on the spot. But always, some time later and in the darkness of my mind and study, I look again. It’s this revisiting that is the actual work of art — even if I don’t change a word. “Desk haiku” is another way of saying I’m a working poet.

— Jim Kacian, “So:Ba”

Lots to think about here. I hope you go and read this one if you have a spare half-hour. Jim’s thoughts are always worth encountering.

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Note: For those of you who are holding your breath, Dead Tree News will return next week to the thrilling saga of the early development of Japanese haikai (haiku), as recounted in Donald Keene’s World Within Walls. Don’t miss this exciting installment in which master Basho arrives on the scene!

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Okay. [Heaves sigh of relief.] I made it through yet another massive list of indispensable haiku-related reading for yet another week. What is the deal with you people — you keep writing too much good stuff. Or I keep reading too much good stuff. I don’t know who has the bigger problem. Is there some kind of 12-step program for people like us — oh, look, there is! (Thanks, Michael!)

Happy Rabbiting, fellow traversers of the Haikuverse. And hey, I am dying for a day off here, so don’t forget to send me your haiku for my 400th post next week!

Across the Haikuverse, No. 6: Telegraphic Edition

Hello fellow inhabitants of the Haikuverse,

There was so much to explore in the Haikuverse this week that I feel a little overwhelmed by it all. If I’m ever going to get through the list I’ve got in front of me I will have to be brief and efficient, possibly even telegraphic. So … here goes.

First of all, congratulations to Andrew Phillips, of Pied Hill Prawns, and his wife on the recent birth of a baby boy. Andrew wrote a lovely poem, Sacred Space in the Suburbs, with haiku-like stanzas, about the home birth — I highly recommend it. Here’s an excerpt:

This is a room for women. I clamp
a hose to the tap, filling the pool
with warm waters.

— Andrew Phillips

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Lots of haiku journals published new issues in the last week. I naturally feel compelled to start with Notes from the Gean, which contains my first published haiku (reposted in this space last week). (Yes, I am excited. Thanks for asking.) They also published one of my haibun. (Excited, again.) But there are so many other wonderful things in this issue that are not by me that I demand you go over there and take a look.

For instance: There are the amazing photo haiga of Aubrie Cox and Carmella Braniger. There are some stunning renku — I like “Scribing Lines” (The Bath Spa Railway Station Renku) in particular. And, of course, there are dozens and dozens of great haiku. I was especially excited to see this one by Lee Gurga, which was thoroughly dissected in a workshop I attended in Mineral Point:

an unspoken assumption tracks through the petals

— Lee Gurga

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Heron’s Nest also published last week and is also full of wonderful haiku. Here are a couple that particularly struck me (and I just noticed they both mention the wind, what’s that about?):

north wind
the holes
in my beliefs
— Christopher Patchel

autumn wind
the leaves too
made of oak
— Joyce Clement

This issue also contains a lengthy and interesting commentary by Alice Frampton on the following amazing ku (winner of the Heron’s Nest Award), well worth reading if you’re interested in getting a better insight into how haiku are put together:

ragged clouds
how it feels
to hold a rake
— Robert Epstein

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A very exciting development last week was the publication of the first issue of Haijinx since 2002! Congratulations to the team who put this together. Because of a mouse-related incident that took place in my house this week, I was attracted to this haiku by the great Peggy Willis Lyles, who, sadly, died in September:

sharp cheese
I sometimes
feel trapped
— peggy willis lyles

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Yet another December publication: Haibun Today. They usually have a great selection of haibun, though I have to admit I have not had time to make my way through all the contents of this issue yet. Of those I’ve read, one that I really loved, especially because I am always thinking that there should be more short-story or fiction haibun, was Weight, Balance, and Escapement by Jeffrey Harpeng. This is wildly imaginative and may make your brain explode, so watch out.

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I can’t believe I didn’t know about before about this seriously awesome site: Haiku News. They publish haiku based on news stories, along with links to the story in question. This sounds like a gimmick (well, I guess it is in a way) that might involve mediocre or silly haiku, but in fact the haiku are very high quality and the interaction between haiku and news story is thought-provoking. Like this one by Claire Everett, based on the headline “Hunger index shows one billion without enough food.”

nothing left
but the wishbone
November sky
— Claire Everett

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Troutswirl this week published an essential read for those interested in the history of English-language haiku: an essay about Anita Virgil and Robert Spiess, who were two of the most prominent and innovative haiku poets in this country in the sixties and seventies and whose haiku still seems original and exciting. Here’s Anita:

walking the snow crust
not sinking
sinking

— Anita Virgil

and here’s Robert:

Muttering thunder . . .
the bottom of the river
scattered with clams

— Robert Spiess

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I don’t know how I have happened not to write about John McDonald before, because his blog Zen Speug was one of the first I discovered when I first started writing haiku and I still love it devotedly. For one thing: Great haiku, often very Shiki-ish, with wonderful nature images. For another: Scots! John (who is a retired mason, which is another reason to love him) writes his haiku in both Scots and English, and Scots, in case you weren’t aware, is one of the best. languages. ever.

In fact someone called David Purves has written an essay about how Scots may be a better language for haiku than English (actually, I think lots and lots of languages are better for haiku than English, and I’m not even counting Japanese, which is one reason why I am so devoted to foreign-language haiku).

This was one of my favorites of John’s from this week:

snaw –
the treen
aw yin flourish

snow
the trees
all one blossom

— John McDonald

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Over at Blue Willow Haiku World Fay Aoyagi this week translated and shared this amazing haiku:

my husband with hot sake
he, too, must have
a dream he gave up

— Kazuko Nishimura

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At Beachcombing For the Landlocked the other day, Mark Holloway posted the following tanka, which I took to immediately because it perfectly expresses my feelings about living in the, ahem, landlocked (but very lake-y) Midwest. (Note: I can’t get the formatting of this to work right here; the fourth line should be indented to begin about under the word “lake” from the line above.)

no matter
how beautiful
the lake
it’s still
not the sea

— Mark Holloway

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At Issa’s Untidy Hut Don Wentworth shares with us his review of a great used-book-store find he made this week (note to self: go to used book stores more often): an autographed copy of The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa, translated by Lucien Stryk. Stryk’s translations are highly minimalist and often (no pun intended, I swear) striking. For instance:

First cicada:
life is
cruel, cruel, cruel.

— Issa, tr. Lucien Stryk

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Over at Haiku Bandit Society there is always so very much to love. This week I watched a rengay in the process of composition — every day or two when I checked back a new verse had been added. It was like a magic trick. Here are the first couple of verses — go read the rest yourself.

I’ve had sake
only once or twice
but, as for dreams… / b

a walk on the moon
with Neil Armstrong / l’o

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Recently I discovered a Japanese newspaper, The Mainichi Daily News, which publishes English-language haiku every day — go ahead, send yours in, they have a submission form and everything. I really like today’s entry, in fact:

fog thinning out–
more and more visible
the way to nowhere
— Marek Kozubek (Zywiec, Poland)

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Check out this Japanese haiku blog by Hidenori Hiruta: AkitaHaiku. The author posts his haiku in both Japanese and English, accompanied by wonderful photographs. They’re grouped seasonally. Here’s an Autumn one that for obvious reasons I am very fond of:

red dragonflies
hiding in dahlias
the blue sky

— Hidenori Hiruta

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Chen-ou Liu is a very well-known English-language haiku (and tanka, and free-verse) poet whose blog Stay Drunk on Writing, for some reason, I just came upon this week. Here’s a great pair of ku about the upcoming Chinese Year of the Rabbit:

New Year’s Eve
a white rabbit falls
into my dream

New Year’s morning
standing before the mirror
it’s me, and yet …

— Chen-ou Liu

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Okay … so why didn’t anyone ever tell me about zip haiku before? Geez. You people.

What are zip haiku, you ask? Well, they’re an invention of the amazing John Carley, probably best known for his great work with renku (check out Renku Reckoner). At some point around the turn of the millennium John got fed up with all the squabbling about what constitutes an English-language haiku and decided to invent his own form of haiku that would be unique to English and capitalize on its special properties. You can read his essay about this yourself, but basically he got all scientific about it and crunched numbers with translations and did a little rummaging around in the basement of linguistics and ended up with this 15-syllable poem, divided into two parts, that he called a zip haiku. (You must understand that I am seriously oversimplifying what John did, and I won’t be surprised if he writes and tells me I’ve got it all wrong.)

ANYWAY. Here’s an example, and I am going to go off and write some of these myself. Soon.

orange and tan
tan orange and tan
the butterflies
beat on 

— John Carley

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The Irish Haiku Society announced the results of their International Haiku Competition 2010 this week. Lots of great winners. Here’s an honorable mention I liked a lot.

recession
more tree
less leaf
— Hugh O’Donnell

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Few editions of the Haikuverse are complete for me without a French haiku by Vincent Hoarau, posted this week on Facebook. Please don’t ask me to translate.

Sinterklaas –
tombent les flocons
et les poemes inacheves
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— Vincent Hoarau

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I absolutely loved this highly minimalist haiku by Angie Werren, posted this week both on Twitter and on her blog feathers. I wrote Angie a long comment about it talking about all the ways I love it (you can see it if you go over there), which may seem over-the-top because it’s only four words long and how much can you say about four words? A lot, it turns out.

snow
black crow
tea

— Angie Werren

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Bill Kenney of haiku-usa continues with his fine series of “Afters,” loose interpretations of classical Japanese haiku. This week: Basho and Issa on radishes. Really, there is nothing better. I could use a radish right now.

the chrysanthemums gone
there’s nothing
but radishes

— Basho (1644-1694)

the radish grower
pointing the way
with a radish

— Issa (1763-1827)

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It’s that time again — the topics for the December Shiki Kukai have been announced. The deadline is December 18. The kigo is “Winter sky,” and the theme for the free format is “ring” (used as a noun). Get composing.

And without further ado, I am going to bed. It’s been an exhausting whirl around the Haikuverse … but what great company! See you all next week.

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.

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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

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*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.