Just published: Contemporary Haibun 15

The arrival, and settling in, of the latest anthology of the best haibun harvested from haiku writing journals from around the world. 

After being edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross and Ken Jones for the last 15 years Volume 16 will be edited by Jeffrey Woodward, Founder and General Editor of Haibun Today. Really looking forward to seeing his particular stamp of generosity and enthusiasm next year but in the meantime let's enjoy this.

On the horizon: editing for CHO: Contemporary Haibun Online

If you're interested in haiku writing you're no doubt already aware of the web journal Contemporary Haibun Online. Jim Kacian, and his editorial team, published my first haibun here back in 2007 as well as in their sister print publication the annual anthology Contemporary Haibun (Red Moon Press), about to celebrate its 15th issue.

So I'm fizzing with new year delight to announce that I'll be one of three new editors at CHO after April 2014 alongside Bob Lucky (Editor in Chief) and Marjorie Buettner, both of whom are internationally successful haiku and haibun writers themselves. 

All my writing energy from the last two years was spent in the research and writing of Real Port Talbot, an upbeat and offbeat story of my hometown in South Wales, UK. Amongst the 70,000 words of history and commentary you will find some poems, some memoir and a few haiku, although they are in the minority. But editing other people's work always inspires my own and I am sure that my involvement in CHO will encourage me to get back to writing haibun, a form that brings together poetic epiphany and narrative, a form that enabled me to write about my life in a way that felt honest and precise and allowed me to produce my haibun collection, forgiving the rain in 2012.

So my new post with CHO feels particularly rewarding. I'm going back to where I started but, hopefully, with a deeper understanding and an appreciation of the form. And with a desire to encourage new and established haibun writers too.

It’s haiku, Jim, but not as we know it

First published in 'The Brief', Newsletter of the British Haiku Society, November 2013

It was delightfully appropriate that an email request in August this year to comment on inter-planetary haiku was preceded by the word, ‘Greetings!’ The only bit missing was, ‘Earthlings’.

November 18th 2013 is the scheduled launch date of NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission), a spacecraft that will explore the red planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. It will also deliver thousands of space and mars-inspired haiku to whatever audience might be lurking there. Or at least that was NASA’s intention when they announced their online haiku contest in March this year. Public voting took place during May and June.

There were over 12,000 entries and over 39,000 votes. An enthusiasm for poetry writing that was only eclipsed by the staggering absence of any poetry. Or at least that was my reaction to the few dozen I read through when the BBC World Service asked if I could comment on the winning entries and give a general overview of the submissions.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of people or their ability to communicate an idea. But sincerity and ideas don’t make a haiku. This was the winning entry:

It’s funny, they named Mars 
after the God of War 
Have a look at Earth 

Benedict Smith 
United Kingdom

Yes, it is funny. Next?

Maven’s engineers
write in binary while we
count some syllables.

Craig Houghton
Connecticut, USA

Of course, the old syllable count, chopped up sentence approach.

Before the programme went live the interviewer at the BBC confided, ‘We don’t want you to be nice about these.’ That was a relief. But, let’s be honest, this wasn’t a haiku competition. It was a publicity event to raise awareness of the MAVEN project. And NASA defined a haiku as, ‘a poem made of three lines; the first and last lines must have exactly five syllables each and the middle line must have exactly seven syllables.’

So what could I say? That the counting of syllables to make haiku has its roots in literary misinterpretation. That poetry is about suggestion and understatement. That the best haiku are small epiphanies. Snapshots of the quotidian taken from unexpected angles, perhaps with a startling depth of focus. The tiniest of elegies. Breaths of emotion, some light, some dark. (David Cobb, Foreword, The Humours of Haiku (Iron Press 2012)

I hope there are some crafted haiku among all those barren syllables hurtling towards the red planet. Some simple words that will help illuminate life on our tiny planet, if only for the sake of the mental health of any Martians who might end up trawling through them.

If you have the time and inclination (and don’t mind losing the will to live) you can check out all the submitted haiku at this link.

tiny words: big appreciation

It's always encouraging to have a haiku chosen for tiny words and satisfying to have comments of appreciation posted there too. But when someone takes the time to analyse and dissect your haiku with insight and eloquence, and share that response, then that makes your appearance in the online journal even more worthwhile.

Many thanks to Strider, Haiku Apprentice at Learning Haiku by Reading and Doing for taking the time to respond to my haiku on 31st July 2013.

tinted mirror
what I think
I believe

-Lynne Rees

'Wow, another haiku poem that raises and sets me pondering philosophical issues. Or should I say, "confronting" those issues. Because the "mirror" mentioned in the work confronts us all every day, with apparent certainty. Who am I? What face do I present to the world? And for that matter, what is "the world"? This is literally an "existential" haiku!

This poem seems to deliberately set up an echo to Descartes' famous "Cogito ergo sum" - "I think therefore I am". For me, Lynne Rees appears to be challenging me to recognize that our other mirrors may also be "tinted". How do we know? What do we think? What do we believe about the world?

What we "believe" about ourself, our appearance, we usually judge by means of a mirror - even though intellectually we "know" of course that everything is in reverse. So when shown a picture of ourself in a photograph we experience with something like shock the revelation of what we "really" look like.

So for me, this poem is almost like a zen zazen, a challenge - and also a means - to balance our left and right brains. Our left hemisphere breaks reality into pieces - like shards of glass; it focuses on and manipulates "facts" and "data". The right hemisphere by contrast works to integrate these into wholes; into fully comprehensible pictures of reality. So which side of the mirror is real?

This poem leaves me unsettled. There is no final answer. Like those parallel mirrors in which I see myself reflected endlessly into the distance, this poem, and these philosophical questions, recur endlessly. The writing and the reading, the poet and the reader, are the mirror images. Which side knows? Which side believes?

Ah, wonderful!


Those small stones...

... not the forgotten ones I find in the corners of coat pockets or the ones I collect on solitary walks (along with tufts of sheep wool and pieces of driftwood) but the ones I've written during January for the last two years. The ones that Fiona and Kaspa, from Writing Our Way Home encourage everyone to write: read about the project here.

You can read the small stones I wrote in January 2011 on the NaSmaStoMo link above (National Small Stones Month). January 2012's daily observations, dreams, memories and captured moments are here.

I don't plan to do anything with these when I first write them. They are writing practice: free of judgement, editing or plans to publish although some of them do find their way out of this blog record and onto the pages of journals or into a potential MSS. But it's the spontaneous writing within a disciplined structure of 31 days that's the most rewarding and enjoyable aspect of this project: the sense of freedom I feel to write anything.

My grandaughter used to stay a lot with me when she was younger. 'I can do anything I like when I stay at your house,' she once said to me. Hang on... strict bath-times and bed-times, meal-times always at the table, no TV in the morning. Are you mixing me up with someome else?! But she obviously felt completely free within those boundaries. That's how I feel during Fiona and Kaspa's January writing challenges.

year end
the grass crisp
with frost

forgiving the rain - thanking Snapshot Press

I have it. The cover of my new haibun collection due from Snapshot Press at the end of this month.

It has all the qualities that I hope readers will find in the contents: texture, delicacy, contrast, light and shade. A big thank you to John Barlow at Snapshot Press for all his work and insights.

forgiving the rain will be available via Snapshot's website from around 25th November, 2012. And, to make things easier for overseas haibun enthusiasts, they take Paypal : )
map reading:
the desire to know
where I'm going
the fear of losing
my way

forgiving the rain due from Snapshot Press

all this green forgiving the rain

(first published by tiny words, 13.3.2008)

I never thought that one little haiku written in my head while driving along the motorway in the rain would end up being the title of a book... but it is and I am very happy.

forgiving the rain, my haibun collection, will be published by Snapshot Press in November 2012. Lovely.

Now to find a cover image that will serve the collection well.

haiku commentary: George Swede

I cannot name
most of me

George Swede[1]

The opening line, composed of a single word, slows me down with its first two long syllables. And that pace is perfect for the contemplation woven through this economical haiku.

The pivot line is structurally satisfying – it rocks me in (wildflowers/I cannot name) and out (I cannot name/most of me) of the haiku – as is the balance of 3/4/3 syllables. But these formal characteristic serve the ideas behind the haiku too.

The first two lines, taken as a couplet, describe a concrete experience that’s probably common to all of us: a lack of knowledge or names forgotten as we walk through the countryside. The haiku instantly involves me, invites me to share the moment.

The 2nd and 3rd lines present a different kind of couplet: a personal reflection that is both concrete and abstract. How many of us could recite the litany of parts that make up our own complex organism? And how many of us are convinced that we truly know and understand ourselves: the different identities we adopt, the strange imagery that comes to us in dreams, or spontaneous and surprising emotion in response to unexpected events?

Yet all of those things are offered to us in this haiku of seven words.

Haiku are such light expressions it is easy to overload them with philosophy. The movement from the natural world in line 1 to the economy of expression in lines 2 and 3 avoids that through understatement and simple declarative phrase. It manages to be both witty and thoughtful.

It is perhaps no accident that this haiku is the final one in George Swede’s collection. Rather than close down the book, it opens it up for me, encourages me to reflect on what I cannot name, what I do not know, about myself and the wider world. It sets me on a road of discovery, should I choose to take it.

[1] George Swede, Joy in Me Still, inkling press, Edmonton, AB T6G 2T5, Canada, p.79

First published in Notes from the Gean 3.4

haiku commentary: Sharon Elyse Dean

family court
the lawyer’s tie lolls
against his gut

Sharon Elyse Dean

What can save a haiku from being mediocre – a strong image from the natural world – is what, by its absence, can make a senryu[1] feel like a weak gag. But the best senryu manage to focus on aspects of the human experience and encapsulate ideas that carry importance for the reader as well as the writer.

Sharon’s senryu paints an amusing picture for us to appreciate in lines 2 and 3: the image of a tubby lawyer, suggested by the word gut and the roundness and floppiness in the sound of lolls. Scenes from American court movies run through my mind: the despicable prosecutor or the self-satisfied defence attorney. But the first line sets the scene more particularly: this is a family court, a place where ordinary lives, lives like our own, are decided upon.

In fact, although the expression in the first line – family court – is very familiar, it is only when it is isolated in a piece of art like this that we ‘see’ it clearly and begin to think about the conflict it contains. Family should be about love and nurture, shouldn’t it? But a court is a place of battle and dispute. With these ideas in our minds the image of the lawyer becomes more distasteful: the lolling tie, combined with the soft consonants in lawyer, now suggests inactivity, ineffectualness, and the further idea arises that the only real winners in situations like this are the lawyers.

This is the world we live in, unfortunately, but fortunately we have poets who are prepared to act as witnesses, to record both its bathos and pathos.

[1] senryu are traditionally meant to offer an insight into human nature and often don’t include a seasonal or nature image. Some haijin still make a distinction between senryu and haiku but sometimes it’s difficult to identify which camp the little poem falls into. For me, the poem having an effect on the reader is more important that a label.

Going organic: line break in free form haiku

This essay first appeared in Frogpond Volume 34 Number 3

Going organic: line break in free form haiku 

Lynne Rees

The line is the fundamental structuring tool in writing poetry and understanding how and when and why to use it is even more essential in the writing of free verse[1] where neither poet nor reader has the guide of a predetermined metrical pattern or stanza structure. I remember the moment, back in the mid 1990s, when I suddenly ‘got’ line break, a real eureka moment that illuminated the correlation between form and content in free verse poetry.

Over the years I developed and refined my ideas about the structuring possibilities available to free verse poets but when, in 2006, I started studying and writing haiku, my, by now inbuilt, free-verse poet’s attention to form was more of a hindrance than a help. Line breaks that could be supported in a longer free verse poem were now shouting from the page. ‘Yoo hoo!’ they called. ‘Aren’t I a clever girl?!’ And no one likes a show off.

With time I have managed to develop a lighter touch but attention to line break in free form haiku still remains an essential crafting element. As John Barlow says:

In a poem as short as haiku every word, and just as importantly every pause and silence – whether these be internal or at the end of the poem – has to play a full part in both meaning and rhythm.[2]

Line break, and the pause it creates, contributes to the meaning of the haiku.

The following list of possible reasons for breaking a line forms the basis of two seminars in all of my poetry writing courses:

  1. To emphasise normal speech patterns and pauses.
  2. As a form of punctuation i.e. to direct the reading of the poem
  3. For the music of the line
  4. To emphasise a single word on a line, or the last or first word on a line.
  5. To confine an image to a single line or to split an image over more than one line.
  6. To introduce a dramatic effect e.g. misdirection, temporary ambiguity, hesitancy.
  7. To reflect the poem’s dominant mood or emotional tone.
  8. To play with the surrounding white space on the page.
  9. To express the poem’s organisation.
  10. To suggest balance or imbalance.
I was interested to explore how well they might apply to writing haiku.

1. To emphasise normal speech patterns and pauses.
2. As a form of punctuation i.e. to direct the reading of the poem.

Because of its reputation for simplicity and lack of adornment a haiku with an understated form, i.e. one that comfortably fits normal speech patterns and subtly directs our reading, might be automatically accepted as the most effective, but if those lines/speech patterns also reinforce the theme then the effectiveness is increased.

the scent of cut grass
carried on a March breeze
a still-sleepy bee[3]

The line breaks in Brian Tasker’s haiku make it easy to read; they don’t cut or extend the breath, they reveal the images in turn, there’s no confusion. We feel the leisureliness of the moment because of this arrangement and also because of the soothing repetition of three principal stresses in each line. I admit to a certain suspicion of centred haiku – it often seems to be chosen for decoration rather than anything to do with the haiku itself – but here the choice seems conscious and I feel ‘centred’ too, at rest in the middle of the page.

3. For the music of the line.

I close my book –
a wave breaks its silence
against the rocks[4]

It is often because of their music that some haiku pin themselves to our memories and this is the case with Caroline Gourlay’s haiku. My free verse poem editor automatically identifies a line break at an obvious point in the middle of line two:

I close my book –
a wave breaks
its silence against the rocks

and I do believe that the new 3rd line would make for a more interesting line in a free verse poem. But restraint is the better option here and the haiku is more memorable for the comforting rhythm of its opening and closing iambic lines that surround the three heavy stresses in the middle line.

4. To emphasise a single word on a line or the last or first word on a line.

Here’s a haiku from John Stevenson:

first warm day
the ground
gives a little[5]

Placing a word, or image, on a line of its own naturally draws attention to it so we need to be sure that the attention is deserved. Here, the weight we apply to the word ‘ground’ as we read it parallels the imagined physical weight the haiku wants us to experience: the change of the season we detect when the ground ‘gives a little’ to our footfall.

The verb ‘gives’ at the opening of the 3rd line is separated from its subject and becomes a vehicle for other ideas: giving as in ‘gift’, the ‘little’ gift we are rewarded with as we realise spring is on its way.  

5. To confine an image to a single line or to split an image over more than one line.

A three line haiku often segments the image, or images, it contains, but when we feel poets are working consciously with this technique we place more trust in them:

summer sales
a Caravaggio
chalked on the kerb[6]

The ‘…Caravaggio/chalked on the kerb’ in Matthew Paul’s haiku is a single image yet the poet breaks the line to slow us down in our reading. When we read ‘Caravaggio’ master paintings come to mind but the following line reverses our expectation. This is the work of a street artist, although not something we might appreciate any less. In fact, the skill and location of these works often have more power to attract us than paintings held in museums. When we read the haiku again the fracture created by the line break invites us to ponder on the ideas of value and greatness, and on what can be bought and sold.

In contrast, John Barlow lays out his imagery in a more traditional manner:

out between showers
her milk tooth grin
wobbling with her bicycle[7]

The poet wants us to experience the break between showers before we see the child’s smile and before we see her learning to ride her bicycle. The order of perception[8] is important: knowing the child is young (‘milk tooth’) impacts on our emotional response to the final line. There is tenderness and there is unease, in the subject of the haiku, in the viewer of the scene and in the reader. Once we have experienced the haiku in its parts we go back and absorb it as a whole and the concrete imagery – the breaks between showers, a child’s shaky smile during the rite of passage of learning to ride a bike – takes on the deeper significance about parenting and releasing a child into the world.

6. To introduce a dramatic effect e.g. misdirection, temporary ambiguity, hesitancy.

skipping stones—
the stuttered marriage

In Terra Martin’s haiku the break in line 2 temporarily misdirects the reader as to the meaning (is the marriage itself ‘stuttered’ or fragmented?) and injects its own stutter into the phrase ‘marriage proposal’. This reflects the nervousness of the person doing the proposing and links wonderfully to the image of skipping stones in the first line – the way they bounce and rise and bounce again before finding their resting place.

A different dramatic effect is achieved in another of John Stevenson’s haiku:

a crowded street
I’m the one
who steps in it[10]

‘I’m the one’ is a phrase we might naturally associate with boasting or self-aggrandisement, particularly as the ‘I’ is fore-grounded against an anonymous ‘crowded street’. The line break creates a temporary ambiguity, as well as hesitancy… before we step, along with the narrator, into the unfortunate reality of the closing line. The line break is part of the self-deprecating humour in the haiku.

7. To reflect the poem’s dominant mood or emotional tone.

after the crash
the doll’s eyes
jammed open[11]

The shape of Michael Gunton’s haiku, the ‘weight’ of its square shape on the page reinforces the heaviness of the emotional theme. In addition, the two heavy stresses in each line further emphasise the sudden shock and grief associated with such an event. Notice too how the short 2nd and 3rd lines cut the breath slightly, reinforcing the theme of loss and distress.

An alternative layout, following a more traditional s/l/s pattern might have been:

after the crash
the doll’s eyes jammed

but we lose the compression of the original shape and the line break after ‘jammed’ adds a melodramatic element, the denouement hinted at but held back, and becomes unnecessarily titillating for such a serious subject matter and the understated approach of haiku writing.

8. To play with the surrounding white space on the page.

An unexpected line-break in another of Michael Gunton’s haiku:

summer evening
a man in a vest leans out
............................................ to water his plants[12]

(my dots to show indent)

contributes to the fun. This light hearted line-break uses the white space on the page so the reader ‘leans out’ along with the man in the haiku: we feel the stretch into the whiteness of the right hand side of the page but also feel the emptiness in the drop below as suggested by the indent in the third line.

9. To express the poem’s organisation.

Now looking back,
Where we had talked
Among the stones—
A wagtail in the rain[13]

This haiku, by Tito, has four lines rather than the traditional three. Why? My first response is that the first line might be redundant: 

Where we had talked
Among the stones—
A wagtail in the rain.

I think that works. But critical analysis generally benefits from trusting the poet and attempting to discover their intention rather than imposing our own opinions too quickly. So what do the four lines and an extra line break achieve that the three lines don’t?

The extra line adds far more than just three words. When I read the original and then my cropped version aloud, the latter feels significantly more compressed, and hurries me towards the juxtaposition of the place among the stones and the wagtail. The addition of the opening line, with its pronouncement of ‘Now’, adds a gravitas to the haiku that’s missing completely in my three liner. It expands the haiku too, creating a more balanced and considered division of commentary (the first two lines) and imagery (the last two lines). And of course, ‘looking back’ can be read at different levels too: looking behind one, literally, but also looking back in time. The three lines I first suggested might make an acceptable haiku but the four lines are richer in terms of the human emotional experience.

10. To suggest balance or imbalance.

Wandering the supermarket aisles
the diagnosis
.............................................sinks in[14]

(my dots to show indent)

Ken Jones uses line break to throw the reader off balance: all the physical weight of the haiku is anchored on the left hand side while two small words float on their own in the white space on the right. The form is perfectly suited to the reality of the experience, how it takes time for some kinds of information to sink in, how we fill our days with the weight of the ordinary, and how the ‘truth’ of a situation can suddenly hit us and set us adrift.

Two lines can be an appropriate choice for haiku where the idea of balance is important.

in the darkness
pushing open a door[15]

Keith J. Coleman’s haiku balances one thing against another: darkness against possible light, the unknown with what might become known, and while a three line haiku could have been created with a break after ‘pushing/’ the reciprocation of form (one line set against another) and this content would have been lost.

The list is by no means definitive; it represents an ongoing investigation into my own editing processes. I am sure other writers will have more and different reasons for shaping their haiku. I am sure too that some will challenge the emphasis on crafting suggested here, haiku writers who feel that haiku emerge from the moment and ‘all a haiku often needs is a little tighter focus and a little polish.’[16]

Disagreement is good for critical debate and unanimity amongst poets is not a goal worth pursuing. What is important is each individual poet’s attention to the conscious crafting of their work if, that is, their aim is to transform the raw material of personal experience into something that becomes important to others too.

Lynne Rees is the author of a novel, a collection of poetry, and a volume of collaborative short prose. She was haibun editor at Simply Haiku during 2008 and 2009, joint editor of The Unseen Wind, British Haiku Society Haibun Anthology 2009 (BHS 2010), and co-editor, with Nigel Jenkins and Ken Jones, of the first national anthology of its kind, another country, haiku poetry from Wales (Gomer Press 2011). Lynne is a Hawthornden Fellow and the recipient of the University of Kent’s (UK) Faculty of Humanities Teaching Award. www.lynnerees.com

[1] ‘free verse’ is a misnomer in that it is only ‘free’ because of the absence of any pre-determined form on which to ‘hang’ the words. I prefer the term ‘organic’ because of the process of finding the form, during the conscious editing process, in direct response to subject matter, theme and emotional tone.
[2] ‘An Introduction to the Origins, Mechanics and Aesthetics of English-language Haiku’, The New Haiku, ed. John Barlow & Martin Lucas, Snapshot Press 2002
[3] Brian Tasker, a ragbag of haiku (The Bare Bones Press 2004)
[4] Caroline Gourlay, another country, haiku poetry from Wales (Gomer Press 2011), p.146
[5] John Stevenson, quiet enough (Red Moon Press 2004)
[6] Matthew Paul, The Regulars (Snapshot Press 2006)
[7] John Barlow, The New Haiku (Snapshot Press 2002) p.24
[8] For more on ‘Order of Perception’ see Lee Gurga’s Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Modern Haiku Press 2003), p.37-38
[9] Terra Martin, tiny words 15th June 2007.
[10] John Stevenson, Ibid
[11] Michael Gunton, Echoes in the Heart (Waning Moon Press n.d.)
[12] Gunton, Ibid
[13] Tito,  Stepping Stones, a way into haiku, Martin Lucas (BHS 2007), p.91
[14] Ken Jones, The New Haiku (Snapshot Press 2002) p.94
[15] Keith J. Coleman, Stepping Stones, a way into haiku, Martin Lucas (BHS 2007), p.142
[16] Bruce Ross, How to Haiku, a writer’s guide to haiku and related forms (Tuttle 2002), p. 33

river 2012 - 31

straightfalling rain both water and ice

With many thanks to Fiona and Kaspa for the inspiration and encouragement this month.