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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 12, Number 3, September 2018
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Tony Beyer
New Plymouth, New Zealand

Review of From the Cottage of Visions: Genjuan International Haibun Contest Decorated Works 2015-2017, Compiled by Stephen Henry Gill.

Stephen Henry Gill (Compiler), From the Cottage of Visions, Genjuan International Haibun Contest Decorated Works 2015-2017, Hailstone Haiku Circle Publications, Osaka, Japan 2018; ISBN 978-4-9900822-9-1, 112 pp, $US13 (incl. p & p)

While I acknowledge their antiquity and importance in Japanese culture, I am not an enthusiast for poetry competitions. This is probably part of the Blakean romantic tradition my aesthetic viewpoint stems from, but it seems only fair for me to open a review of the collected results of an international contest by being forthright. A clear and well-presented book, From the Cottage of Visions presents the successful entries, judges’ commentaries and further (most informative) material from three years of the Genjuan contest.

To begin with the works themselves, they are certainly international in representation, with examples ranging from Bhutan to New Zealand (2015), Romania to Mexico (2016) and South Africa to Slovenia (2017). The UK, USA and, to a lesser extent, Canada and Australia are also strongly present. There were 106 entries from 15 countries in 2015, 127 from 16 in 2016 and 89 from 15 in 2017, indicating a thriving global community of haibun practioners. The principal judges, Nenten Tsubo’uchi and Hisashi Miyazaki are Japanese, joined by Stephen Henry Gill and (in 2017) Ellis Avery.

The haibun “Mining Memories" by Sonam Chhoki from Bhutan was the Grand Prix selection in 2015 and gives a promising idea of the positive elements the judges are looking for. The persistence of spirit and memory in Chhoki’s Buddhist-related prose is sharpened by deft touches in the verse lines. Her “waterfall of lichen/deep in the mountain forest/a musk deer calls” could stand alone but doesn’t in this richly furnished context. Most of the decorated works from 2015 celebrate what might be called pre-modern settings. Doris Lynch’s “Inupiat Lessons" and Barbara A. Taylor’s “Cattle Dreaming" are further examples.

Also, from 2015, Barbara Strang’s “The Visitant" is the only New Zealand offering collected here. It effectively domesticates the haiku focus on nature and human nature in its depiction of a comet viewing. The cosmic and the ordinary are beautifully combined in a meticulous choice of detail. Again, the verse is arrived at via an enhancing process: “comet watching/you meet the neighbour/for the first time." In subsequent years the haibun have become both more concise and more varied in content, sometimes shifting towards a discernible urban or urbane tone. None of this matters, however, in Doris Lynch’s Grand Prix haibun from 2017. “Season of Snow and Milk" intimately combines landscape and human, earth and feeding mother in an imaginatively judged sequence of glimpses, concluding perfectly with: “at daylight / tiny fingers strum my breast - / alpen glow.” This delighted response to human existence is close to the core of haiku vision.

It’s an obvious strength of the Genjuan contest that the same judges preside over several years. Also, that they include Japanese haijin. This means that essential standards are reiterated in their commentaries and provide a groundwork of definition for the possibilities of contemporary haibun. Nenten Tsubo’uchi’s characterisation of Japanese-language haibun as “a short piece of prose of haiku-style inspiration” is useful. Hisashi Miyazaki looks for “juxtaposition between the prose and haiku poems, as well as plenty of haikai-taste (‘haimi’ in Japanese) being exuded either consciously or unconsciously." Like all poetic definitions, these are satisfactorily elusive because they depend for reliability on the new ground being broken by actual written work which constantly redefines the genre.

This stimulating and informative book concludes with original haibun written and translated by the judges–an encouraging demonstration of the qualities they seek among the entrants and an honest exposure of their values in action. All are accomplished poets whose cultural backgrounds give depth to their work. As postscript, Hisashi Miyazaki adds a brief but valuable “Potted History of Haibun" and there are guidelines for entry to the 2019 Genjuan contest (open between 1 October 2018 and 31 January 2019).

More a workshop than a straight-out report, the Genjuan results have a great deal to recommend them.

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