On Nobuyuki Yuasa and Stephen Henry Gill’s
Genjuan Haibun Contest: Decorated Works 2012-2014
Genjuan Haibun Contest: Decorated Works 2012-2014. Compiled by Nobuyuki Yuasa and Stephen Henry Gill. Hailstone Haiku Circle Publications (2015), Japan. 122 pp. ISBN: 978-4-9900822-7-7.
In 2012, Nobuyuki Yuasa and Stephen Gill presented the winners of the first Genjuan Haibun Contest. Named after the cottage in which Basho lived in 1690 and wrote one of his most famous haibun (translated as “Record of the Hut of the Phantom” or “The Unreal Dwelling”), the competition was actually a continuation of the pair’s Kikakuza International Haibun Contest, which had been sponsored for several years by the Kikakuza organization in Kanagawa, Japan. The name change marked a break from the organization and total independence, although the goal of the new competition remained the same as its predecessor’s: to open an international arena for English-language haibun writers, and to revive the haibun tradition in Japan, where it had been dormant since the beginning of the 20th century (due in part to the exposure of Japanese poets to Western forms).
Ironically, as Japanese poets were turning more toward Western forms, the poets and writers in other countries were discovering the haiku, particularly in the last decades of the 20th century. The haibun form took a little longer to gain a foothold, but since the 1990s there has been a growing stream of anthologies, online journals, and other publications dedicated to it. Now, the winners of the Genjuan contest’s first three years have been collected in one volume, adding to those resources. It is an important contribution, in large part because the volume contains not only the haibun themselves—many of which are excellent—but also comments about each from the judges. And through those comments, one can glimpse how contemporary thought about the haibun is evolving—what it should be, what it is, what works and what doesn’t. They contain practical guidance and insight, as well as a few contradictory thoughts that, at times, left me a bit stumped. And they show, to my mind, how haibun is still very much a form that is evolving.
The two primary judges, Nobuyuki and Gill, have had a long association with haiku and haibun. (A third judge, contemporary haibun poet Hisashi Miyazaki, came on board in 2014.) An emeritus professor at Hiroshima University, Nobuyuki is well known for his English translations of Japanese literature, including such classic haibun as Basho’s Oku-no-hosomichi and Issa’s Oraga haru. Gill, whose resumé includes lecturing at Kyoto and Ryukoku universities and writing scripts for the British Broadcasting Corp., currently serves as president of the Hailstone Haiku Circle in Japan. He has edited several haiku anthologies and the book “Rediscovering Basho,” a collection of essays based on presentations given during a commemorative symposium at London University in 1994. Both men are also poets themselves, and the Genjuan Haibun Contest collection ends with one haibun by each (as well as by Hisashi, who, as Gill notes, is “one of the only Japanese alive to have published his own book of haibun”). It also includes a selection of classical haibun from Basho, Buson, Issa, and Mukai Kyorai, all translated by either Gill or Nobuyuki (or both), occasionally with help from others.
The collection organizes the winning haibun by year. Each section starts with that year’s “Grand Prize” winner (presented in both English and Japanese), followed by two or three “An” prizes, several honorable mentions, and finally the judges’ comments about each winning entry. In total, the book offers 29 winning haibun, with the majority a being from the United States (9) and the United Kingdom (7)—not too surprising, given how the form has strongly taken root in both countries. The other countries represented are India, Bhutan, Bulgaria, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland. In general, the haibun are longer than the current trend of a short paragraph (which is sometimes only a sentence or two) capped by a haiku—half of the haibun in this book spill over onto a second page. That is no accident: in 2013 the judges mandated that entries should be 20 to 40 lines long (including haiku), and Gill noted that he and Nobuyuki “tend to favour longer works, which are fully developed.” (Note: that minimum-length limit has since been reduced to 10 lines.)
Indeed, there are some wonderful, fully developed haibun in this book. Take “Well of Beauty” by U.S. poet Margaret Chula, which won the Grand Prize in 2014. It begins by recounting one of the legends surrounding Ono no Komachi, a waka poet from the Heian period renowned for her beauty. Komachi allegedly behaved cruelly toward her lovers, most notably Fukakusa no Shoso, who courted the poet for ninety-eight days before falling ill and dying on the day she had agreed to receive him. There are many tales and Noh plays based around this romance; in one telling, Komachi—who spent her time gazing narcissistically at her own reflection in the “Well of Beauty” at Zuishin-in temple in Kyoto—was possessed by Fukakusa’s hatred after his death, and she aged hideously in retribution for her cruelty. Chula provides a capsule summary of the waka poet and her ways, then shifts the scene to present day, to a re-enactment she attends in honor of Prince Fukakusa at Zuishin-in. The last paragraph, one long sentence, is incredibly powerful: “I feel the darkness of Ono no Komachi’s heart as I descend the spiral of stones leading to the water in her Well of Being—imagine leeches clinging to her milky white skin, ghost lovers entering the cavity of her heart.” Such an ending casts a strong shadow, and any capping haiku would have to be exceptionally powerful to overcome it. But Chula is up for the challenge:
from the mountain forest
I hear the cuckoo’s call—
its blood-red tongue
The haibun is, as Hisashi wrote, “not only well composed but quite terrifying,” and the introduction of the kigo “cuckoo” is excellent. It “suggests the brightness of the summer day on which the poet visited the well” and introduces a sound that chills; the cuckoo (hototogisu), Hisashi notes, “cries so sharply it is thought to be spitting blood.” It’s easy to see why Chula took top honors.
I felt the same way about the 2013 winner, “Towards Burry Holms” by U.K. poet Jane Fraser. It’s a tender account of a walk along a beach shared by a grandmother and a grandchild, during which they walk, play together, and journey toward their destination: “the Holms,” a “lump of holy land that when the tide [is] full, rises like a turtle out of the sea.” The haibun is full of fine details that engage the senses—“Our flip-flops squeak on the fine dry sound, leaving the slightest impressions of our mark,” “the south-westerly breezes erases our presence in a puff, our footprints sprinkled-over by the shifting grain.” The images intimate the true nature of this haibun: It’s a “passing of the generations” piece, a topic that can so often lead into cliché, but in this case is handled in a restrained and very moving way. The four haiku placed throughout add nicely to the overall tone, even if at times their personification was a little strong for my taste (marram grasses “embracing the future,” a shipwreck’s timbers “stripped bare of flesh”), but the final haiku was, I thought, a touching way to cap the piece: “conch pressed to your ear./will you hear me calling you/across the great divide?” (Nobuyuki described it as “especially poignant.”)
Given the international flavor of the collection, I tried to pick out cultural differences as I read through the collection, to see whether the haibun form might be evolving differently among the countries. To my mind, the haibun from the United States generally seem to have more concrete haiku able to stand alone, while in the United Kingdom and elsewhere the haiku relied more on the prose for its meaning. I also felt that those haibun outside the United States were a little more imaginative; whereas the U.S. pieces were more “slice of personal life” or travelogue, others took on more daring topics and approaches: an imaginary conversation with a long-dead poet in the English countryside (David Cobb’s “Happening on Honington”), a national school strike in Bulgaria (Maya Lyubenova’s “In the Fog”).
As with any collection, the pieces were not all at a consistent level, and I felt that several were far below the quality of those named above. But I think that is always the case with both anthologies and competitions: a “Monday morning quarterback” (or book reviewer) can weigh in and say, “Aha, here’s where the editors/judges went wrong!” When I read through the collection and found pieces that I thought were not particularly well written (although I wondered whether that had to do with English not being the writer’s first language) or when I encountered haiku that were not just weak, but nonessential, I shrugged and figured it might just be me, that I was being too critical. Then I read the judges’ comments and found—to my surprise—that they too occasionally thought the same thing. And that’s where it got really interesting, albeit a bit confusing.
Take the first haibun in the book, the Grand Prize winner for 2012: “Jackdaws” by D.J. Peel (a.k.a. “Takenoko” or “Bamboo Shoot”) of the United Kingdom. It’s written in a conversational tone and offers some nice descriptions of jackdaws and their habits (“From the dark density of a nearby yew tree comes an incessant racket of clacks and clatterings as if all the world’s fishwives with their sharp tongues and knives were bantering and berating each other whilst butchering the fish”). The prose ends with the jackdaws still in their yew tree, “noisily exchanging all the latest news,” followed by this haiku: “how I’d love to know / their language, their wind-torn flight—/those pesky jackdaws.”
My initial feeling, upon coming to the end, was that the haiku didn’t really take much of a leap or give any additional insight than what had not already been presented in prose. In fact, if it had been rewritten as a last line of the prose, I think it would have worked just as well, if not better. Again, I thought, Monday morning book reviewer—until I came to the comments of Nobuyuki, who described the concluding haiku as “somewhat weak and superfluous.” Moreover, he said, “the whole piece feels somewhat crammed.” He added, though, that he had no hesitation in giving it the Grand Prize, which only confused me: If the haiku were superfluous, then what made this a haibun worthy of Grand Prize? (Never mind the crammed prose.)
For his part, Gill ignored the haiku and focused only on the prose, saying it “transported” him. He also noted the piece “is very haikai in spirit. For a start, it has plenty of humour.” Is that what made the difference? Maybe so, given Gill’s next comment: “We needed a different sort of GP this year: not one of regret at times/people passing.” I can understand how reading too many elegaic haibun may make one long for something with humor, but should that really be the basis for awarding the piece Grand Prize? And what about that haiku? If a haibun can end with a “superfluous” haiku and still be a Grand Prize winner, what does that say about the haibun form?
I know judges can often disagree, but if I had hoped their comments would give me insight into what made the piece an award winner, it only left me more confused as to what made it simply a worthy haibun. And it wasn’t the last time I’d leave a page of comments feeling that way. Take their comments about “The Blue Jacaranda” by Kala Ramesh of India. The piece itself is told in first-person by a former maid; she writes from a nursing home to a child she knew so long ago, an old charge who in adulthood has apparently forgotten her. It’s an interesting premise for haibun, and it displays the maid’s nostalgia and loneliness in a touching way. Both judges commented on this fact, as well, and Nobuyuki also noted that the opening haiku ("waiting for a call that never came . . . new year’s eve") was a fine one. However, both also felt that the final poem, a tanka, was not convincing and too abstract:
turning and tossing
as the ache sinks deeper
If they both felt the closing tanka was not up to par, not convincing, then it only begs the question: Why did it not just win, but win what essentially was second place? Did the judges focus on the prose and the content? And if that’s the case, how is this a contest for haibun rather than just short prose? Or, more precisely, what is it about the prose that makes it a haibun with or without haiku (or tanka)?
That thought arose every time one or both judges noted that a haiku was “weak” or “obtuse.” At one point, in his general comments about the 2014 entrants, Gill noted that “a higher proportion than ever before seems to possess something of that almost indefinable quality of ‘haikai spirit.’” My heart sank: Indefinable? Well, almost indefinable; perhaps there was hope that that elusive spirit could be wrestled down and defined. So after reading through the book once, I pored through it again and wrote down the editors’ advice/prescriptions for creating a good haibun. Here are a few:
Nobuyuki: The two pillars of haikai are natural descriptions and human affairs. Since Shiki emphasized sketching (shashei), it is sometimes believed that natural descriptions alone are enough, but in my view, human affairs must coexist with natural descriptions to form a satisfactory piece of haibun.
Gill: It is generally better not to describe too fully in haibun. Many pieces [entered in that year’s competition] were written captivatingly, even brilliantly, but perhaps rather too comprehensively, as if no detail was going to be allowed to slip away. We were looking for gaps or leaps in the narrative in which the reader’s imagination could go to work.
Nobuyuki: One need not philosophize in writing haibun, but haibun requires a sense of mystery which cannot be achieved without some kind of philosophy in the author’s mind . . . . A philosophical idea, no matter how deep it may be, cannot make a haibun unless it is coupled with concrete images.
All good advice (although Nobuyuki’s comments on mystery/philosophizing are a bit . . . mysterious, at least to me; I’m not sure how I would be able to put that initial concept into action). Then I came to Nobuyuki’s closing comments on the 2014 entries, in which he announced his retirement from judging and also offered a few tenets on what makes a successful haibun. This was something like a closing manifesto, and it should be read by every writer of haibun. It’s not that Nobuyuki so much plows new ground as he crystallizes commonly accepted best practices, in sometimes memorable ways. For instance, here are his comments on the relationship between haiku and prose:
I think the best way to describe it is to use the image of two mirrors placed somewhat obliquely to each other. In other words, they should not show identical images, but rather echo their images with some transformations, so that their infinite repercussions continue to reveal a new world.
I also liked this passage:
Haibun must be informal, using rather mundane words and relaxed structures, but at the same time, it must be well written, giving the impression that the author can write just as well as the best writers of formal essays.
Based on that, do all of the haibun rise to Nobuyuki’s own quality standards? Do they give the impression that their authors can write just as well as the best writers of formal essays? Honestly, no, and it seems the judges often felt the same way. Which doesn’t mean this isn’t an important collection. I would recommend it to anyone for the insights it contains, and also for the haibun themselves. Yes, perhaps not all rise to a level expected of award winners, but all have something to them. My feeling is they show a period of time when haibun is still finding its voice worldwide, and I heartily commend the judges for providing such a showcase. In his postscript, Gill speaks for all of the judges when he writes, “I think it is fair to say . . . that all three of us feel that there is still an enormous amount of work to be done, both here [Japan] and in the West, in order for haibun to begin to find its place in English literature and to re-establish its credentials in the land of its birth.” Maybe so, but I’m thankful for people like Nobuyuki, Gill and Hasashi for advancing the charge.