Haibun Today


A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 4, Number 3, September 2010

Mark Smith
Keyser, West Virginia, USA

Review of Contemporary Haibun 11

Contemporary Haibun 11, edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross, and Ken Jones. Winchester, VA:  Red Moon Press, 2010.  5 1/4” x 8 1/4”, perfect bound, 121 pp.  ISBN:  1-978-893959-89-7. $17 USD.

Like in past volumes of Contemporary Haibun, the Volume 11 incarnation is broad in scope both in terms of its haibun and haiga selections.  The book includes 70 haibun and 32 haiga from well-known contributors and newcomers, and the variety of subject matter and themes leaves a reader with a great deal to ponder.  And also like its predecessors, this recent volume attempts to represent the best works published in English in various journals from around the world over the course of a given year.  But after reading Volume 11 in its entirety, the collection does more than represent the best works of haibun and haiga.  In fact, three things –in this reader’s mind—are clear:  (1) the editors of Contemporary Haibun Volume 11 continue to publish haibun that show the continuous growth of the form, (2) they continue to publish haiga that do the same, and (3) they are not afraid to publish works in both genres that show us the limitless possibilities of what haibun can become, which is the most lasting and endearing quality of this annual publication.

The continuous growth of the haibun as a form is seen in several traditional-style selections.  In other words, we are given a paragraph of prose and a haiku, but the choice of prose style and haiku placement and presentation show a move away from what the general perception of a haibun is.  A startling example of this is John Martone’s “for Sakaki Nanao”:

out hiking after Nanao Sakaki has died—woods all ice—it’s xmas—all this way that light in my spine mind my footing—at the very end there’s a pen on the trail—once mine—lost months ago—Nanao what are you up to now—not showing up in this cold to grin—ok—congratulations!

                        icy woods
                                    for xmas

Sakaki was the Japanese beat friend of Snyder and Ginsberg.  He was a world traveler—most of it by foot.  He translated forty-some of Issa’s poems in a little book.

Here Martone does several things in terms of style and presentation of information that show the growth of the haibun today.  However, he still manages to preserve a traditional feel in the haibun with a nod to the Beats; in particular, Kerouac, who obviously is not mentioned but lives in the dash-lines that conjure up his novel Big Sur.

First, Martone goes to a sketch or diary-style prose presentation that is not often seen in contemporary haibun.  Of course, the prose style matches the piece’s homage, but at the same time it gives us a brief glimpse into the past—Kerouac or Beat-style prose—in order to remind us that haibun was being given a stylistic makeover by these writers years before.  It appears so jarring yet delightful on the page because most contemporary haibun have only the standard one paragraph and tidy haiku at the end. 

Second, “for Sakaki Nanao” has a Modernist quality.  The piece is setup as follows:  the experience, the haiku, and background information.  Logic would hold that background comes first, followed by the experience, and then the haiku.  But Modernism in literature was all about questioning the axioms of a previous age, which Martone achieves in this haibun.  In an intentional or unintentional way, he manages to question the current axiom of the Western haibun:  one standard paragraph followed by one haiku.   The editors’ eyes were sharp when choosing this selection.  Other haibun that show the continuous growth of the genre include Hortensia Anderson’s “Remains of Myself,” which has a two-stanza poem-like prose with a haiku at the end, and Mark Rutter’s “Maine Journal” where the prose is a quote taken from Coleridge’s  Journals with a haiku at the end.

As with the editors’ selection of haibun, the haiga chosen for Volume 11 also show a genre expansion.   But before we move to these, however, there are some fine traditional examples, including work by Jerry Dreesen (“two egrets” and “still no rain”) that captures the elegant simplicity of haiga that never fails to delight and appeal, David Gershator’s “making sure” with its vertical haiku and Zen-like impression rock garden, and An’ya’s “winter storm” with its haiku’s third line lingering with the sketchy shore pines.  Like the mixing of traditional and non-traditional haibun throughout the collection, the editors take the same approach with the haiga, which gives the reader the feel of reading a long renga.

One striking example of expanding the haiga genre is Ed Baker’s “butterfly in her garden.”  Baker uses a traditional hand-drawn sketch and handwritten haiku, but the image of the nude woman straddling the stringed instrument while holding a flower is an almost illogical compliment to the elegant haiku (“butterfly/in her garden/playing with/a flower”).   Baker forces us to do what haiga is supposed to force us to do:  make the connection between the image and the haiku.  What is genre-expanding about this work is that it shatters the Oriental-esque expectation that most of us have come to anticipate from haiga.

The final, and most lasting and noteworthy, characteristic about Contemporary Haibun (and Volume 11 is no exception) is the presence of works in both haibun and haiga that show us the limitless possibilities of what the haibun can become.  Two examples are Michele Harvey’s haibun “The Edge” and Karen Klein, Ann Youmans, and Rich Youmans’ haiga “sequence.”

Harvey’s “The Edge” is as follows:

I knew where the edge was and we were skirting it.
                        the rest of the bottle filled
                        with spring water

This piece shows us the limitless possibilities of what the haibun can become in two ways: (1) it is not a paragraph and a haiku, but rather a sentence and a haiku, and (2) it evokes the feel of flash fiction with a haiku attached.  “The Edge” gives a nod to the traditional by being direct and simple, but at the same time it challenges the reader to fill in the blanks (much like flash fiction and haiga).

As an outsider looking in, so to speak, it is unknown whether “The Edge’s” first sentence is fiction or non-fiction.  In either case, it encompasses characteristics of flash fiction:  brevity, a sense of place, a beginning and an ending, and a narrative (created in the link between the sentence and the haiku).  We are transported to an in-between realm of the real and the imagined.  It is the haiku that focuses the narrative to a close, but uses, as haiku in a haibun should, a lasting impression.  The narrative appears to be spoken by the person who has a relationship with the alcoholic. It is a sentence of experienced knowing and regret that the writer was aware of the danger of she and her friend’s drinking, but did it anyway.  The haiku suggests that the alcoholic has a bottle of spring water with alcohol in it.  Or it could be the alcoholic is drinking spring water from an alcohol bottle.  And what is the relationship between the two people in the haibun’s narrative?  What was the edge that the writer knew she and the alcoholic were skirting? 

These are the types of questions a reader asks after reading a piece of flash fiction.  For example, Ernest Hemingway’s “For Sale:  Baby shoes, never worn.”  Some similar questions could be asked about this piece, but the point is that whether it was intentional or not, Michele Harvey has managed to write a haibun with characteristics of flash fiction.  This shows us the limitless possibilities of what haibun can become because it reveals the genre’s flexibility while still maintaining some of its traditional elements. 

Karen Klein, Ann Youmans, and Rich Youmans’ three haiga “after the bath,” “two years gone,” and “waiting for his call” also remind us of another genre’s limitless possibilities:  the haiga.  It shows us limitless possibilities because (1) it is a sequence—or at least it reads as such, (2) it uses the same female image in every haiga, but in different poses, and (3) each haiku is linked to the image by a graphic of some type. 

The three haiga “sequence” is about a love relationship that has been over for two years.  The images are a mix of what appears to be hand drawing, type, and computer generation.  The haiku emanate loneliness and the black and gray of the images emanate loneliness.  For example, the second haiga has this haiku in a white polygon:  “two years gone/his side of the bed/still untouched.”  It has an image of a saddened woman in hunched over repose sketched out in white against a black background and the polygon penetrates into the black and into the arm flesh of the woman.  The three haiku could stand alone as a sequence and the images could stand alone as a sequence.  But together, the three achieve a renga with images.  To this reader, it is showing us possibilities in terms of craft, presentation, and the mixture of haiku forms.   What originality!

Contemporary Haibun 11 continues to do what it has always done:  provide readers with quality work, genre-expansion, and experimental works that always provoke thought and discussion.   And for those who work in haibun and haiga, ideas about things to try in their own work.   As always, it is a must-read for anyone interested in haibun and haiga.


Current Contents about archives resources search submissions current