Katikati, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
On Contemporary Haibun 13
Contemporary Haibun 13, ed. Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross and Ken Jones. Red Moon Press, ISBN: 978-1-936848-11-9; 106pp, US$17.00.
I recently heard Jim Kacian speak at the Haiku Aotearoa Festival in which he made the penetrating comment that much of what is published in the haiku world is based on recognition of the familiar. It seems that after periods of innovation, or merely individual examples of innovation, a more normative period settles in. Perhaps this phenomenon is happening now with haibun. The more engaging examples of any form seem to occur where, on reading them, we say to ourselves, “is that a haiku?” or “is that a haibun.” Unfortunately, I rarely had that experience whilst reading this anthology. Many of the works contained here are of the single paragraph, single haiku variety, which is disappointing. It’s less disappointing when they’re excellent examples—and they often are—but my concern is that this particular incarnation of the haibun has become overly familiar.
Cynthia Cechota offers a degree of originality. And it is not just the concrete poem layout of her text which works well, but the fact that she follows the shape into the concluding haiku. Even this, though, is really a subset of one paragraph, one haiku. By analogy, it’s as if one paragraph, one haiku has become some kind of 5/7/5, to those who like the strict form as a confine. But David Cobb pushes the boundaries with a haibun comprised of three paragraphs followed by nine haiku and a concluding prose statement. The haiku are written from an imaginary perspective, visualising desert war scenes. They also show an unusual and original purpose for the context of haiku composition. Later, Stella Pierides uses a similarly imaginative technique, a creative visualisation.
My favourite of the early pieces is Melissa Allen’s “What Was His is Mine.” Her phrase “In my father’s desk” evokes the religious “In my father’s house,” so that the death of the father is already subtly confirmed by the second statement. The first haiku is fascinating:
waiting for the rain
If it were asked to stand alone, it would do so very well and leave us much to ponder. The reference to the father’s unused glasses as “discarded eyes” is delightful. In describing what her father kept in his desk in his time as well as what she later kept there, she actually emphasises the lack of difference between them. The second, concluding haiku makes one wonder what he did die of. If not tobacco, then what? The writer leaves us to decide.
In Hortensia Anderson’s interesting prose, the circle of experience doesn’t close: the parent wild in their youth is not able to be sympathetic to the budding sexuality of their own teenager; the haiku contrasts beautifully with the prose. John Brandi’s prose in “Kanyakumari” is intense and the haiku which ends it is a fitting example and somehow an extension of its setting.
But I felt over the first half of the book that much of the prose could have been written by the same person. It is almost uniformly of the factual/anecdotal reportage style, with little in the way of poetic relief. There is a paucity of illuminating haiku, many of which form too much of a continuation with the prose. One of the joys of haibun—which I tend to describe as “self-renga”—is the tremendous leap that can be made between one link and another, between a passage of prose and a haiku, or between one haiku and another. But, again, I rarely have that experience here. Collin Barber’s use of a tanka in the middle of “Ashes to Ashes” is a more vibrant example (his first haiku also stands out), which is surprising, in one sense, because it seems even more difficult to create a change of tone with tanka than with haiku simply because the more expanded nature of the former tends to create less of a difference with the prose.
Francine Banwarth’s haibun might illustrate that point about familiarity, so I’ll quote it in full:
I Tell Her
I tell her she’s strong. I tell her not to worry. But when the doctor spells out CEA—carcinoembryonic antigen—just the sound of it scares me to death.
crabs at ebb tide
which way to turn
We imagine the writer or the “she” going for a walk after this news; the crabs in the haiku personify a state of mind. There is a resonance about this. I think most of us would recognise this piece as a successful haibun. But in terms of form it doesn’t break new ground. It’s the kind of piece that ten years ago would have made a stronger impression than it does today. This begs the question, is it worthy of an anthology?
On a more positive note, the prose in these haibun sometimes give great context to the haiku, e.g. in Jonathan Buckley’s first haiku—“Thoughts / Travelling up and down / The cold pool”—which wouldn’t be nearly as powerful standing alone. Similarly, the implication in Penny Harter’s “One Bowl” is lovely, as it moves from prose to haiku, adding much weight to the haiku itself (though the prose still seems overlong). A similar effect is gained in the build-up to Doris Heitmeyer’s “Sunday’s Heft,” the latter part of which reads:
One warm Sunday afternoon I went out on the front porch to make clothes for my doll. A few minutes later my mother ran out in a panic. “Put that away,” she said. “The neighbours will see.” Everyone knew the proverb about sewing on Sunday. (It was not in the Bible.) I argued that I was not working but playing. That got me nowhere.
My own Bible
for Sunday School Attendance—
marking the good parts.
In general, there is an inevitable lack of scope to these mostly short haibun (Deb Baker, Roberta Beary), they are nice but somehow pedestrian. There is plenty of content, but in a number of the pieces I feel there’s a need for greater contrast between prose and haiku (Tish Davis, Cherie Hunter Day, Lisa Fleck Dondiego, Patricia Prime, Eduardo del Valle); not enough pause for reflection (Autumn N. Hall), or too obvious a connection (Carolyne Rohrig). Poets such as Doris Heitmayer provide greater variety. Apart from some unusual references, John Carley’s prose seems journalistic, as does Steve Carter’s, though there is a lovely contrast in the haiku. Journalism must be a valid option for the multi-tasking prose of haibun. Writing clear sentences is never easy, whatever the setting, but journalism doesn’t excite this reader.
Fortunately, the collection seems to become bolder as it proceeds.
A sense of surprise pervades Audrey Friedman’s prose; Claire Everett’s is catchy, contemporary. David Gershastor’s “Bowling Green” relays a sense of mystery, as a notorious individual is encountered on a city street. One keeps saying to oneself, but who is he? Perhaps there’s a clue here that I’ve missed. The haiku in this piece refers to photography, but in a relatively external way, compared to the handling of Jeffrey Harpeng’s “Almanac and Son.” The tanka he employs are extremely effective, especially the second which captures the effect of the camera, as opposed to describing the mere fact of it:
between two fingers
rolled just before
the camera flash
now lit and never lit
There are some great ideas here, among them that the old lady described “is an almanac of things out of date.”
I don’t know if it’s merely the effect of Autumn N. Hall’s two closing haiku being on a separate page to the rest, but they seem less than essential; there’s quite a degree of repetition in them and the last is sentimental. This kind of repetition of wording from the prose to the haiku also occurs in the final two links of Jonathan Buckley’s haibun. Christopher Patchel’s haibun is repetitious, for slightly different reasons (the extra stray word doesn’t help), and I’m sure Marjorie Buettner’s “What worlds” doesn’t need two qualifying statements such as “but” and “however” in the same sentence.
Some haibun simply have too much prose, such as Roger Jones’ “Canoeing the Buffalo River, Arkansas.” Miriam Sagan’s “Four Untitled” is less dense. In others, the haiku does not seem to stand alone sufficiently and reads like another (prose) comment set out as haiku: “exposed nest— / so many scenarios / yet to play” (Colin Stewart Jones).
Ken Jones’ “A Season Out of Mind” is probably the most adventurous piece in the volume, as he describes the fantasies of a couple who pretend to be characters from history to stimulate their erotic pleasures. Jones ably captures the moods of the historical periods referred to, for example, “her art nouveau gowns filled him with pre-Raphaelite fervour.” The fantasies must eventually clash with reality, and Jones signals this with the wonderful, “In George Sand’s kitchen, Chopin retrieving the spark plugs from the oven.” His use of a quotation from Tennyson as a link is the only example of this technique in the anthology, which is a bit of a shame. I think use of quotation is an under-utilised aspect and one I’ve often enjoyed seeing in the work of poets such as Mark Rutter.
Following Ken Jones is Jim Kacian’s excellent “a few leagues” which really does seem to exemplify what he teaches about haibun. The prose is adventurous and never overly familiar; the haiku that closes the single paragraph of prose is of the minimalist variety that we know he can do so well and subtly related. So, here is a piece which overcomes my frustrations with the short form haibun, suggesting that the form is less important than what is done with it. Tracy Royce’s “Afterwards” is an elusive and suggestive example of short form, and I will quote Chen-ou Liu’s in full:
I hate hearing myself speaking English. My voice sounds inhuman . . . mechanical. In the strain of translating a Chinese word into its English equivalent, the spontaneity and natural quality of my speech are lost. I feel that I’m falling out of the tightly-knit fabric of emotional vocabulary into a hole-filled net of linguistic signifiers.
april snow . . .
not a word passes over
I find such massive honesty deeply moving. It’s easy for the reader to get over any slight reaction to implied criticism of English, because we know he’s grappling with some big issues. The juxtaposing haiku suggests a sensate snowmelt. I am also in awe of someone who can write so well in a second language, and I would have been extremely proud to have written that last sentence of prose alone.
This haibun leads to me to reflect that if form is not the main original component of a piece then some new revelation or way of conveying ideas might fit the bill. To read any form of poetry in which the writer says something you’ve never read before gives it a huge plus in my eyes. Such is the case with work by Brynne McAdoo, which is evocative, exploring and probing, and Bob Lucky, who looks out onto the world—much like the child in his second haiku—and makes comment on weird forms of trade. Harriot West’s prose is adventurous, and Ray Rasmussen is another writer who has insights to offer. His page and a half of prose doesn’t seem overlong, perhaps because it’s so appealingly punctuated by dialogue. The single haiku which ends illustrates his central point about the need to “walk in the beauty of the small places”:
the long shadow cast
by a pebble
So, here, again, my earlier complaints about too much prose and too little haiku are offset by more alluring writing examples.
A number of haibun narrate dreams. Lynne Rees’ “Kissing Simon Cowell” is probably the most successful, with its revelations of human nature, recounting an uncertain tryst with the famous critic. She concludes:
The water is running in the toilet cistern and I cannot stop it. I have no fancy underwear with me. If I let myself cry I fear I will never stop. I have never been any good at interpreting signs.
a flock of birds
twists against the sky
I say I’m sorry
The haiku seems to refer to something much bigger, or perhaps to someone in real life; it could be about almost anything and doesn’t have to be linked to the content of the dream. The haiku may have occurred after the dream; the interpreting of signs may refer to the dream itself, instead of the behaviour of the man in question.
But there’s a strange aside here. Rees’ prose quoted above turns up again verbatim in a Ted van Zutphen haibun fourteen pages later. Is this some collaborative writing project gone wrong or an awful cut and paste mishap? I’ll presume the latter, but it’s a major oversight of proofreading and occurs just when I was thinking that there were fewer typos in this edition than usual.
Marlene Mountain’s “winter evening,” with its wonderfully innocuous title, is nevertheless a spooky account of some kind of cult meeting, and conjures Angels & Demons. Renee Owen’s prose is also alarming and vivid. In “The friend who,” Brendan Slater recounts events of an unconventional life, which is permeated by generosity and selflessness, and is one of my favourites here. I can relate intimately to the power of music described in Stephen W. Leslie’s “Elevator Music.” Leslie plays the flute to a dying patient and is convinced of its efficacy by her reactions in nodding her head and waking to acknowledge hospital staff. I’ve had the experience of playing to an elderly and infirm audience myself and seen seemingly comatose patients sit up and sing the words to old tunes I was playing (which I didn’t know the words of myself).
As well as haibun, the anthology includes 20 haiga. The simple brushwork of David Gershator’s haiga nicely balances the text of his haiku—“overcast / the crested hummingbird / not so flashy”—the “not so flashy” of which is realised with a childlike elegance. On reading the haiku in Jim Kacian’s haiga I’m moved to comment “great haiku, awful font.” I really feel that it’s impossible to display creativity in haiga with some kind of squiggly computer font. It’s much more effective to use one’s own handwriting, even where a photo or a digital image is used. If, on the other hand, one were making squiggly fonts an intrinsic part of the composition, that would be different. Many of the artists—Merrill Ann Gonzales, An’ya, Stephen Addiss, Ron Moss, Bruce Ross, Lidia Rozmus, Pamela A. Babusci, Ed Baker and Max Verhardt—incorporate their own hand-writing to good effect, but others do not (Kacian, Marjorie Buettner, Ramona Linke). It isn’t essential to be a calligrapher to do this; any handwriting shows character. I understand that the electronic image is a valid art form but the feigned elegance of certain fonts just looks like laziness. The reproduction of some of the haiga are so poor that it seems hardly worth bothering. This may largely be due to the fact that they are all rendered in black and white, which might make works created in colour ghost away. I suspect the shading in Kacian’s is one such problematic; Ellen Peckham’s is difficult to read, and Marlene Mountain’s is completely illegible, as text or image.
In terms of theme in the haibun, passing or missed love is common, as well as regret. Few works of social commentary grace these pages, but with some notable exceptions. In Gary Eaton’s “Coming or Going,” the “early” darkness of his haiku—“the many curves / of the old coast highway / early darkness”—seems a measure of times to come. Peter Butler imagines a period of social unrest, and Peter Newton has an intriguing perspective on the Wall Street Occupancy, completing a vision of social potential gone wrong, rather than any particular political stance. Carol Pearce-Worthington writes about “the land their parents thought would never let them down,” and gives an unexpected point-of-view in descriptions such as, “They will lay five abed at night and repeat stories of what the old folks have described as ‘the good times,’ which sound like fairy tales.” Her use of the word “scars”—“in the old port / low-water scars / on all the pilings”—might be compared, in terms of effectiveness, with Eaton’s “early.”
A few statistics on the anthology might illustrate certain points further. Of the 64 haibun, 20 were one paragraph, one haiku, but a massive 42 contained only one haiku, as those which offered a little more tended to do so mainly via the prose. Only fifteen haibun were of two pages or more (four of these included just one haiku), with one of those reaching three pages. Of the four pieces which favoured tanka over haiku—sometimes known as tanka prose—only one included a single tanka; one haibun used tanka and haiku.
I suspect one of the reasons why there are so many short form haibun around is that they are simply easier to write than the longer pieces. I notice a tendency in my own selecting of quotes for the review that the longer haibun that pleased me most are also seldom without a sense that they could be improved. The problem with experimentation is that the experiments don’t always succeed, necessary and admirable though they are to advance the development of any form, but surely, overall, the more challenging material is the most desirable. Editors of journals have a great responsibility to ensure that this marvellously expansive art, full of endless potential, doesn’t become standardised and limited. Jeffrey Woodward has made a study of haibun selected from ten journals in an eighteen month period (January, 2008 – June, 2009) and comes to similar conclusions in his essay “Prose and Verse in Tandem,” where he describes the possibility that “formal conventions and expectations, without relation to known structural or aesthetic principles, may be limiting editorial and authorial practises.” (Modern Haibun and Tanka Prose 2, 2009, p. 157).
In a short form, one has the experience of the nuance between prose and haiku only once, there’s an implicit lack of exploration of the relations between component parts—what we’re often left with is a quick bite. And, as mentioned above, the prose tends to be pragmatic. Is this what “haiku-like” means, if we take that to be our prescription for prose in haibun, as some believe?
Just four of these haibun end with prose, which suggests that the haiku is what everything builds towards. But if they’re so important why can’t we have more of them? Only three haibun begin with haiku. So, again, the variety of structure is limited.
Looking at the sources of the haibun selected for Contemporary Haibun 13, we find that they come: 43 Contemporary Haibun Online, nine Haibun Today, seven Modern Haiku, one Frogpond, one Blithe Spirit, one individual collection, one Kikakuza Haibun Contest 2011, and one uncredited (Peter Newton – it was a little difficult to use the credits index as it is not consistently alphabetical). This means there are none from Presence, Kokako, A Hundred Gourds, Notes From the Gean, Chrysanthemum, World Haiku Review, and others I probably don’t know about, but including many active venues in the genre. The Contemporary Haibun Online website tells us that it is, “associated with the print journal Contemporary Haibun,” whilst the latter’s back cover blurb refers to the series as being “dedicated to the best haibun.” This suggests a pre-eminence for the “feeder” journal which is not explained. I think many of us are also still confused by the difference between this anthology and the haibun section of the annual Red Moon haiku series.
Haiga were selected from: two individual collections, one Sketchbook, one Haibun Online, and one SeeHaihuHere.blogspot.com. The majority, then, are previously unpublished, which makes their inclusion in an anthology of this stature surprising.
To return to the issue of form in haibun, I’ve looked at some previous editions of Contemporary Haibun to see if there are obvious differences over time in the scope of work selected. In Volume 8, there were 56 haibun; 22 were one paragraph, one haiku; 38 contained only one haiku; sixteen were of two pages, four of three pages and two of four pages. Only one haibun used a tanka (mixed with haiku). So the tendency is similar, but with a little more showing for longer work.
In Volume 1, titled Up against the window, there were 44 haibun; ten were one paragraph, one haiku; 23 contained only one haiku; fifteen were of two pages, five of three pages, three of four pages, one of five pages and one of eleven pages. One haibun used a tanka (mixed with haiku). These results are quite different, with much greater variety of structure. It would seem that we are becoming less adventurous as writers in this genre.
On the evidence of this volume, haibun is not reaching its potential—in terms of form—to embrace the variety of attributes of prose, poetry, haiku, nonfiction and fictional writing. This is a shame when one considers that haibun can encompass almost any genre, making it, potentially, more broad in scope than the novel. Despite my reservations, I would still recommend this anthology, since there is plenty of good literary content within its covers.