Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
On KYSO Flash Anthology of Haibun and Tanka Forms 2015
Clare MacQueen (Editor), KYSO Flash Anthology of Haibun and Tanka Forms 2015, Paperback, 58 pages, 28 works, 6 x 9 inches, KYSO Flash Press, December 2015. ISBN 978-0-9862703-3-8.
This review is meant to serve both as a review of the KYSO Flash anthology and a notice to Haibun Today’s writers and readers that a new venue, the KYSO Flash online journal, is carrying haibun and tanka prose.
KYSO [Knock Your Socks Off] Flash is a short-forms journal founded in 2014 by Editor-in-Chief Clare MacQueen. The KYSO Flash Anthology of Haibun and Tanka Forms is a best-of competition collection of 25 pieces by 14 poets that appeared in issues 2, 3 and 4 of KYSO Flash online. Guest editor Roberta Beary, the haibun editor of Modern Haiku, made the selections. An added value of this collection is Beary’s comments on the works of the prize winners and honorable mentions.
The winners/finalists are well known by their appearance in haibun and haiku genre journals: Marjorie Buettner, Peter Butler, David Cobb, Deborah Guzzi, Charles Hansmann, Ryan Jessup, Bob Lucky, Stella Pierides, Lynne Rees, Sheila Sondik, Charles Tarlton and Harriot West. To thrive and grow as a unique genre, haibun needs writers from other genres, and so it’s good to see fiction writer Pamelyn Casto and poet Kika Dorsey applying their talents and succeeding at haibun.
Why this anthology? And why is KYSO Flash featuring haibun and tanka prose along with other short-form genres? As Clare MacQueen puts it in her introduction:
Appreciation for [haibun and tanka prose] seems to be growing within the “mainstream” literary community . . . but slowly, at the bonsai’s pace. As an enthusiastic new fan, I hope their popularity begins to sprout faster, more like bamboo . . .
Indeed, MacQueen is assisting the sprouting by publishing one of the few short-form journals to provide equal treatment for haibun and tanka prose. To that end, she includes these genres each year among the nominations for literary awards such as Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. Two of the haibun from the anthology reviewed here have received additional recognition: Charles Hansmann’s “Camouflage” is among the 45 winners to be published in The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2016, and Bob Lucky’s “The Current Situation” appears on BSF’s “short list” of 55 finalists. In addition, three haibun and two tanka prose pieces were announced in March as finalists in the KYSO Flash Triple-F Writing Challenge, which called for short forms within four genres (micro-fiction, prose poetry, lineated poetry, and hybrids such as haibun and tanka prose).
In addition to what we might call “standard haibun,” the KYSO Flash editors are interested in works that incorporate imagined realities and elements such as dialogue and characterization. And they’re open to quirky experimental pieces as well as images to accompany the works. KYSO Flash has put up a writing contest, exclusively for haibun and tanka prose, open through the 15th of June. Matthew Paul, co-editor of Presence haiku journal, will judge entries. Winners, honorable mentions, and finalists will be published online and in a print anthology this fall.
Comments on The Works
I don’t intend this as a full review of all the pieces in the anthology since Beary has commented on the works of the three winners and three runners-up (Kika Dorsey, Harriot West, Charles Hansmann, Charles D. Tarlton, David Cobb and Stella Pierides).
Among the 25 pieces, about half might be called standard or minimalist haibun: a few prose paragraphs with one or two poems (haiku or tanka). The rest are multi-paragraph, multi-poem pieces. The variations in prose styles include the standard prose paragraph, paragraphs with no caps and/or punctuation, and prose with line breaks. Some pieces contain dialogues, some are straight narratives, and some are quite lyrical. I’ll focus on a few examples to show what the collection has to offer.
“Scan” by David Cobb is typical of his brilliance and should be read in its entirety. He’s arrived for a CT Scan and here’s how the piece opens as he’s about to recline on what he calls the “conveyor belt":
Stripped to socks and jockey shorts
not my floral ones,
I come out from behind curtains
in a loose gown.
Anyone who has had to wear those dignity-defiling garments created by the hospital industry will readily understand why he’s not worn his floral shorts. In a further passage, Cobb is about to be injected with a dye and he reports:
The accomplice is concerning herself with a pot plant,
pinching off a leaf.
This observation draws from the little moments that good poets capture so well. The passage speaks to Cobb’s sense of transience, an issue that few writers handle with such poignancy. What part of him besides dignity will be pinched off by a practitioner through the next step in a medical intervention?
Marjorie Buettner’s “May Day” brought to mind children dancing around a May Pole to celebrate the arrival of spring. It presents an image of her granddaughter that I sent to my friends who are grandparents. Here’s the prose passage:
My granddaughter on the swing laughs and the world becomes a bright bubble floating up towards the sun. She wants me to see that she is not a girl but a butterfly or bird flying higher and higher until she has all but disappeared. She babbles in toddler language and touches my hand and I understand I am up there, too, a small speck glittering blue in an expanse of sky.
Bob Lucky is at his usual top form as a witty observer of all things human in all places where humans reside. As an avid traveler, he’s been to many of the world’s less-traveled places. In “Finding My Way in Kichijoji,” he’s finally arrived in his hotel room in Japan, quite fatigued from jet lag and needing to pee. He spots the bidet and decides to try it. Here’s just a bit of it and you can imagine the rest:
With a little wiggling I soon have the spray of warm water right on target. Once I’ve had enough of this sort of hydro-hygiene, I push what I think is the OFF button . . .
Ryan Jessup writes evocatively about that most common of all human experiences, an argument:
one evening in late spring the storm of us arrived our words and actions carried lightning and our eyes shuddered with thunder . . .
You may have stumbled over, as I did, the awkwardness of two adjacent phrases “the storm of us arrived” and “our words and actions carried.” I’d have preferred to see a comma or several spaces to separate the two phrases to allow the reader a smoother read. This is a problem I often see with writers who eschew punctuation and capitalization. Beyond that picky point, Jessup’s account of the everyday in our lives worked well for me.
Lynne Rees’s “Hurricane” is an evocative piece with a haiku which takes the reader into a new dimension and represents what many haibun editors look for in how a haiku best links with the prose.
we hear her before we see her, her last spill hammering the roof and windows, then watch her shaking her tail for hours around the orchard, whipping up the long leaves on the cherry trees, knocking over the ficus on the porch . . .
a black umbrella
blows inside out—too late now
to say you’re sorry
Peter Butler’s memoir of an early-in-life romance, “Under Cover,” shows his ability to write strong prose and storylines:
I often think how, once, you and I, sitting in the park, put up an umbrella we’d found, hiding away from parents, teachers, homework, sibling rivalry, park attendants, priding ourselves how grown up we were . . .
Deborah Guzzi offers “Prickly Heat” which takes us to her grandmother’s home:
The house, and the ghost of Grandmother, trapped him. Her presence clung with the leftover nicotine to the walls of every room. A childless marriage and a rancid divorce left its bile in the scum atop the kitchen counters–rust-rings on the bathroom’s porcelain . . .
While well-written, there’s a bit of a Gordian knot to untangle and the literal reader that I am is still puzzling over parts of the passage. If this is her grandmother, how is the marriage childless? Perhaps the "he" in this account is from a second marriage? Further on, Guzzi has “The horse chestnut tree outside the door . . . pelting anyone trying to enter.” As a literal reader, I can’t imagine a tree being so active that it pelts people as they enter. Is the metaphorical exaggeration necessary? I would prefer less poetic license, for example, that the spiky chestnuts on the ground would present an obstacle when trying to enter. While the first haiku is strong,
uproots the moss laced lawn:
a pet’s gravestone
the second one has the phrase, “trespassers are shot on sight.” This likely is more poetic license referring to an antique cannon in the front hall aimed at the door. Why not fold it into the prose and use a phrase like, “as if trespassers are to be shot on sight?”
In “Jizo’s Children,” Guzzi’s writing reminds me of the detailed observational prose of Basho’s travel journals, particularly his descriptive accounts of historical places. The feeling is one of entering the shrine with her.
Gigantic Nio guardians grimace at the gate: carved, gilded, and painted in oxblood red. They frighten demons and protect the Pilgrims trooping through the arches of the Koyasan Temple in the Japanese Alps. Incense clings, oversweet, on the evening air. Yellowing strands of paper cranes move sorrow’s breath on the breeze. . . .
And what about writers whose work is most often published in other genres than haiku and tanka prose and whose work I’ve not read previously?
Pamelyn Casto offers a lyrical paragraph of prose poetry about a rare type of fish (an ichthyorevenant species) in a feeding frenzy coupled with a poem that transfers the primal scene from the scene she observes to her inner feelings as she lies, “wild, alone”:
. . . When the silent signal comes, they mass and begin to suck the river bottom in a frenzy of flashing pale tails. Their lidless eyes glow and keep watch for the first ray of sun to beam through the dark fluidity above them, the beam that sends them scattering and schooling back into the grey grotto where they shun any light, the place from which they come—nocturnally desiring, hungering, darkly needing.
And the haiku:
moan from alluvial beds—
I lie wild, alone
In “Flash Flood,” Sheila Sondik takes us on a rainy day, return visit to Berkeley, the San Francisco Bay Area university campus famous for the quality of its research and, along with Kent State, for protests about the US involvement in Vietnam. Of the three poems, I enjoyed this one that reminded me how when bumping along in the flow of the mundane aspects of life, I lack the energy to get a clear focus (and even contemplate simply staying in bed):
with windshield wipers
the usual drizzle
While all three poems presented in the haibun effectively capture “moments” in her Berkeley experience and display Sondik’s strong roots in haiku, I don’t think the prose has a sufficiently strong "string of moments" to add up to an effective storyline. It can sometimes happen that a very strong haiku can make a not-so-strong prose storyline work. Here’s what Ken Jones, one of haibun’s most celebrated writers, has to say about the prose portion of haibun:
In the early days many haibun were written in a flat, deadpan prose (as some still are) and it could be said of the haiku that they stood out like “pearls in mud banks.” However, mud bank haibun can never claim to be noteworthy literature. 
And his remedy:
. . . as with haiku, LESS IS MORE. As soon as you have something that looks polished well enough to fly, take the pruning shears to it. Cut out everything that is inessential to your purpose, to what the haibun is really all about. (If you yourself don’t know, then the haibun is anyway likely to be a meandering, inconsequential thing which will soon lose the reader’s interest). 
Instructive in demonstrating the effectiveness of “Less is More” prose coupled with strong haiku, are the minimalist haibun (title, one or two prose paragraphs, a strong poem) of Lucky, West, Pierides, Butler, Casto, Jessup, Rees and Buettner from this collection.
In submissions I receive at Haibun Today, too many writers are inserting a poem between each paragraph of a multi-paragraph haibun where, as Ken Jones suggested, the poems can be folded into the prose.
In about half the haibun we receive [at Contemporary Haibun Online] the “haiku” appear as little more than three lines of cut-up prose. The basic test is whether your haiku stand out distinctively from the prose. If the three lines can be folded back into line without making a ripple in the prose then that’s where they belong. But try collapsing an authentic haiku back into the prose and it will still show up there as a different animal. Of course, there is much more to be said about the place of haiku in haibun, but let’s first get the haiku into existence. 
It might be that some writers are automatically inserting a haiku between paragraphs in the belief that each paragraph merits its own poem (I don’t mean to suggest that this is Sondik’s reason; she hasn’t included one haiku per paragraph). In a personal correspondence, Haibun Today General Editor Jeffrey Woodward offers this viewpoint about when to insert poems into lengthy prose passages:
There are two positions that will almost invariably admit haiku (whether one haiku or multiple haiku). Those are the initial or opening position, prior to any prose, and the closing position, after all prose. The prose narrative or exposition cannot be interrupted before it has begun nor can it be interrupted after it has closed. That seems simple and straightforward. Elsewhere, between the various paragraphs that constitute a haibun, some positions will admit haiku harmoniously while others will not. The chief criterion would seem to be this: that the placement of the haiku not disrupt the narrative or expository flow. If the story line (or theme or argument) initiated by paragraph A is completed only in paragraph B, then insertion of haiku between A & B will be dissonant and disconcerting to the reader. If, on the other hand, a shift in the story (or scene or time), theme or argument occurs at the close of paragraph A, then the haibun will readily accept haiku between A and B. These conditions are pertinent for all possible transition points, viz., before any prose, after all prose, and between all paragraphs. 
The works of Hansmann, Cobb and Tarleton in this volume aptly demonstrate Woodward’s ideas.
While this might seem to suggest that that there should be more of what I’ve called minimalist haibun appearing in our journals, I believe instead that multiple-paragraph, multiple-poem haibun should be encouraged and so I’d simply supply these cautions to writers:
1) Unless you’re very good at creating strong, lengthy storylines, cut the prose to the bones and add a strong haiku.
2) Only add multiple haiku where, as Woodward has suggested, the shift between prose paragraphs merits it.
3) A single poor haiku will often evoke a "reject" from an editor, so don’t risk adding multiple haiku to a piece until you have some of your haiku published or you feel some strength in haiku composition.
Here’s Ken Jones’ suggestion on the issue:
The first question to ask yourself is whether you can write passable haiku, since these are the nuts and bolts of haibun. Do you find that all your freestanding haiku are being declined by the various editors of different reputable haiku magazines? If so, it may be time to join a haiku group, study books like Lee Gurga’s recent Haiku: a Poet’s Guide, remedy your weaknesses, and get yourself published. Then come back to having a go at haibun. 
I would add: Visit strong venues like The Heron’s Nest (online) to see what’s going on in English-language haiku and in particular read the editors’ comments about their best-of-issue selections to get a feel for what they’re looking for in a haiku.
One other noteworthy element in the collection is Hansmann’s commentary on his own writing. Given his mastery of the form and his innovations in this collection, it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Here’s an excerpt:
My haibun have always been fictional in a sense, more imagined than reported, but in thinking of them expressly as fictional haibun or, another term you use [in the KYSO Guidelines], haibun stories, the element of narrative played a strong part, and what surprised me was that this narrative element seeped into the haiku as well as the prose. 
It was Dickinson who famously started one poem with, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”  This seems to suggest that poets can stray from the truth of their experience. But “how far” can we slant before what is written about characters and situations rings as fiction, as opposed to what I view as one of two keys that differentiate haibun from fiction and other short forms—its autobiographical feel. As with other forms, haibun prose is necessarily altered from reality, on the one hand shortened to create a succinct storyline with haiku-like prose, and on the other hand expanded with small fictions that create a writer’s experience for the reader and to add poetic devices for lyrical effect. Still, haibun, in my view, demands something close to the real experience. In short, haibunists would best aspire to be good story show-ers, not good story fabricators.
The second key was expressed well by Contemporary Haibun Online Editor Bob Lucky:
Traditionally, English-language haibun writers have paid homage to Basho and the Japanese origins of the form, but . . . [while] there are poets writing hybrid poems that combine prose and verse of various kinds and calling them haibun, I don't think of them as haibun because they don't read like haibun. That speaks to a tradition, a bottom line. On the other hand, I can read hybrid poems in which the prose is nature writing, erotica, fiction, diary/journal, science fiction, epistles, murder mystery, historical essay, etymological musing, personal essay, prose poem, or recipe and as long as the haiku has that magical link and shift, that it resonates with the prose, illuminates the prose, then it reads like a haibun to me. 
To be clear, I don’t think that editors Woodward or Lucky would agree with me that there’s little room in haibun for made-up characters and situations. But as an editor, I have a falseness sniffer that wants writers whose work I select to be much closer to real than fabricated. And so I returned to Hansmann’s “Decoy” to see how well my sniffer was working, and it didn’t register any alarms. And even if I had sensed him straying far from what I imagine is his reality, I’d have happily accepted the piece for publication.
A final word about haiku. I was interested to see that the collection displays mostly orthodox, two-phrase, three-line haiku of less than 17 syllables. English-language haiku have moved far from the original misunderstandings of the 5-7-5 syllable pattern, which, unfortunately, is still taught in English Literature classes. Japanese-language sound units on which the 5-7-5 structure was derived are not the same in length as English-language syllables and, thus, the early translations and early English-language 5-7-5 poems often offered ornamented haiku with a heaviness that made them feel less like haiku and more like very short free verse.
We also see variations in this collection, one- and two-line haiku, five-line tanka poems, and sentence poems (as opposed to two-phrase constructions). While this might seem to signal that anything goes in haiku, I’d suggest that if you present an editor with a 5-7-5 poem, unless it’s done very well, you’re most likely to get back either a rejection or a request to remove the “fluff.” Even so, some very good poets still deliberately create 5-7-5 haiku.
Thank you Ms. MacQueen for this eye-pleasing and enjoyable addition to the, as yet, smallish haibun pond of poetry. I can easily recommend the anthology for good reading and I think because of the quality and variety of the writers and styles, it belongs on every haibunist's bookshelf. Like MacQueen, I hope to see the cadre of haibun poets increase and the anthologies of good works appearing more frequently in the future.
1. Ken Jones, “Ken’s Corner Part 4,” Contemporary Haibun Online Articles Section.
2. Ken Jones, “Ken’s Corner Part 2,” Contemporary Haibun Online Articles Section.
3. Ken Jones, “Ken’s Corner Part 1,” Contemporary Haibun Online Articles Section.
4. Jeffrey Woodward, taken from our email correspondences during 2015 and published with permission.
5. Ken Jones, ibid.
6. Charles Hansmann, “Author Commentary,” Clare MacQueen (Editor), KYSO Flash Anthology of Haibun and Tanka Forms 2015, p. 43.
7. Emily Dickinson, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –", poem # 1129 in Thomas H. Johnson (Editor), The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Variorum edition), Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955.
8. Bob Lucky, “Introduction,” in Angelee Deodhar (Editor), Journeys 2015, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, September, 2015.