Offham, Kent, England
On Contemporary Haibun 14
Contemporary Haibun 14, edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross & Ken Jones. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2013. 5.25” x 8.25,” perfect bound, 112 pp. ISBN: 978-1-936848-20-1. $17 USD.
I’m not exactly sure what I’m reading. Yes, I know the series. I’m familiar with the mixture of haibun and haiga (75 and 23 respectively in this year’s volume). The front cover is its usual classy Rothko reproduction. What confuses me is the anthology’s back cover claim: “dedicated to the best haibun . . . written in English from around the world.”
Now, Ferris Gilli’s “The Colour of Nurture” deserves that praise and more: the blend of vivid prose and lyrical tanka produces a haibun that’s memorable for its character development, narrative tension and emotional depth. This is not just a damn good haibun, it’s damn good writing per se. The piece was first published in the anthology’s sister journal, contemporary haibun online 8:3, the journal that’s the source for nearly all of the 75 haibun included here. And I’ve always thought that CH was the print showcase for its online sibling but, according to the Credits page, two of the included haibun, Ed Higgins’s “Alternate Tale” and Bruce Ross’s “These Hands,” were published elsewhere.
And that’s why I’m not sure what I’m reading: a cho showcase or a disturbingly limited editorial choice of what constitutes “the best haibun . . . from around the world.” Because that claim encourages me to expect the inclusion of haibun from other haiku journals.
Maybe I’m making a Mt. Fuji out of a molehill, not seeing the bamboo forest for the trees. Surely, what really matters is the quality of the work between the covers? And there are some arresting haibun here.
Clara Holman’s haibun entitled “Counting” movingly explores that theme in the prose and haiku: an aging father who measures planes and minutes, his life measured in the months he has left to live, and the stars in a night sky.
Glenn G. Coats’s “Witherspoon Street” shares the anxiety and prayers of a father waiting for his child to be born. The emotional tone is set at the beginning: There was a chill in the evening air. But the imagery towards the end of the prose—a red fox, a flash of copper—subtly raises the temperature and relieves the unease in the reader. The haibun closes with two economic haiku that shift from night to morning:
mist at dawn
one bead of water
on a crabapple
There’s nothing blatantly encouraging in the haiku’s imagery but the single drop of water is, thankfully, just enough to save us.
Terri L. French’s “The Look” makes satisfying links and shifts between prose and haiku, back to prose and a final haiku. The first part of the haibun discusses the narrator’s teenage son and closes with:
He just stared out the car’s moonroof. He never stole again.
do we see
the same stars?
The second part concerns an unknown teenage boy, just released from jail and kicked out of his home:
He says he’s going to do better and I give him a few dollars . . . Our eyes meet and hold, then I walk away.
new year’s eve
an old look
in a new friend’s eye
Both haiku inform and expand on the preceding prose but also resonate in a wider context.
These are all examples of attention to the craft of haibun writing. Personal anecdote just pinned to the page with one or more haiku doesn’t cut it for me, and the anthology does have a couple of handfuls of flat, uninspiring prose. There has to be some translation and shaping of the personal experience to make it into literature. Which is what Peter Newton achieves in “It’s Up to You” with his use of parallelism to effectively imitate the colloquial voice and reinforce the idea of how death stays with us, becomes a part of life: He says . . . He says . . . He says: it never hurts less. Just less often.
There’s a satisfying variety of form in the anthology. Yes, the much favoured “single block of prose/ one closing haiku” shape does dominate but not too heavily. Nearly a third of the haibun use haiku to frame or punctuate the prose while two attempt to balance free verse and haiku, but they both fall short of success for me. Just the shape of poetry on the page holds more drama than prose that stretches between the margins. Line break, the cutting of the breath, adds to that drama. If both parts of the haibun work with this technique then there’s a real danger of diluting the haibun’s unique potential as a form that uses link and shift and juxtaposition.
Style wise, the haibun range from the skilfully lyrical (Bob Lucky’s “Sing to Me, Bird” shines) to the straightforwardly narrative, from the first person account to the anonymous point of view. The present tense tends to be favoured over the past tense as a way to involve the reader in the immediacy of events being recalled. It’s a literary trick I often rely on myself but sometimes the past tense can be a better, less intimate, choice. Frank J. Tassone II uses the past tense to recount the tensions of a previous Thanksgiving in “Conflicted Expectations” and this adds to the distance between the reader and the event and underpins the emotional distance and tension between family members. We feel the cold too.
Haibun that step away from the recounting of personal experience and memory add welcome interludes: Jerry Gill’s untitled haibun blends science, philosophical reflection and two fresh and precise haiku so well I can almost forgive the absence of a title. Almost. A good title can achieve so much: act as a key for the reader to enter the haibun, suggest theme, be a unifying tool. Don’t waste it.
One or two haibun got my editorial scissors snipping. Edward Zuk’s “All Art is Quite Useless” is constructed around the strong and consistent voice of a Romanian friend who has moved to Canada but it’s framed, in my opinion, by an unnecessary intro (A friend from Romania once said to me . . .) and equally brief outro. Questioning the role of the personal ‘I’ is something worth being aware of: is our presence adding anything to the piece? If not, please leave quietly by the back door.
As I’ve already said the flat prose in a few haibun failed to pull me into their worlds. I want description to be more than decoration; I want it to suggest theme and emotional tone too. Similarly, personal anecdote doesn’t mean anything to a reader unless the writer finds a way to make it universal. Imagery is one way to achieve that. The body of work left by the late Hortensia Anderson offers the perfect study example (“Some Other June”).
Some of the haiku within the haibun felt overwritten: eight syllables worth of five adjectives in a single haiku is just exhausting. Some seemed to repeat what the prose had already covered or suggested or employed heavy-handed comparisons (broken crockery/shards of laughter from “Mobile” by Judson Evans). But others captivated me for their subtle links to the prose and the haibun’s main theme, and for their additional (though not necessary) capacity of standing alone:
the rain quickens
I should have known
there’d be tears
(Kirsten Cliff, “hair ties”)
And so to the haiga, inserted into the anthology in six groups. One stood out for me—Terri L. French’s “bird watching” with its delicate ink drawing and those two deliberately spaced words which complement each other perfectly. Some of the others suffer for being reproduced in black and white. Two or three were just too much of struggle to read and I slipped from being interested to being irritated. Perhaps tradition and habit are the reasons for their inclusion in the anthology but could they be chosen more for their potential contribution to the anthology as a whole and given a more pro-active role?
And this brings me back to my initial comment of, “I’m not exactly sure what I’m reading.” I’ve already questioned the sourcing and the jacket claim, both of which might have been pre-empted by the inclusion of a Foreword or Introduction. There’s also no explanation of the selection process or criteria. And the haibun and haiga are predictably presented in alphabetical order by author/artist’s name. Any one of these shortcomings on their own might be overlooked but bunched together they tend to make the anthology appear rushed and unimaginative. And, uneasily conscious that I’m criticising an icon of haiku publishing, those elements might even suggest to an audience beyond the haiku world that this is an exercise in sales to contributors. The overall quality of the work and the role the anthology has to play in promoting the haibun genre internationally are both too important to risk any misinterpretation.
Digging for treasure,
the spade breaks.
(from ‘School Prom’ by Mary Dawson)