This article was originally printed in The Rafu Shimpo on Saturday, August 24.

Rafu Staff Writer

We spotted the haikuists by their dress, fellow Rafu staffer Cari Yasuno and I, as we wandered through the Queen Mary in Long Beach, searching among tourists and wedding receptions for the Haiku North America conference. Though we could only rely on our imaginations for a haiku poet “look,” we suspected we’d found it when a pair of middle aged women walked past with flowing, patterned skirts and gently graying hair. Sure enough, they led us to the Haiku North America area, tucked in a corner on the fourth floor of the ship, its main room looking out onto the water.

Saturday’s conference program included a performance of renku, a form of poetry written collaboratively in a group that reads like a string of connected haiku. (Photos by MIA NAKAJI MONNIER/Rafu Shimpo)

Maybe it was due to this view—volunteers watched sailboats pass as they manned the registration table—but the conference gave off a decidedly relaxed vibe, free from the snobbishness that can infiltrate artistic gatherings. During a group reading of renku (a form of collaborative poetry), a leak sprang in the corner of the ceiling. Not a slow trickle, but a sudden waterfall, requiring a bucket, plus louder voices to be heard over the rush. Readers and audience alike remained unruffled. “You were aware that renku could do this, weren’t you?” joked one of the readers in an even voice, before continuing with his verse.

At the start of the conference, participants always get a speech about inclusiveness, said Michael Dylan Welch, Haiku North America director. The talk helps to set the tone for the next five days, giving first-timers advice on how to navigate the conference, and veterans, a push to help the newcomers feel welcome. This year, Deborah Kolodji, a conference organizer and moderator of the Southern California Haiku Study Group, estimated about 160 participants, including poets from as far as Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand. Inclusiveness, said Welch, is a major goal of HNA, which purposefully takes an agnostic stance in the debate between haiku traditionalists and free verse writers.

In the United States, students learn about haiku in elementary or middle school, and it’s typically presented as a simple form of poetry with a set of rigid rules: three lines, syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern, with references to nature and the seasons. While some haiku poets follow these rules strictly, others, like Stanford M. Forrester, editor of Bottle Rockets Press, see room for a looser approach.

Forrester, a past president of the Haiku Society of America, who was working for Yale University Press when he began Bottle Rockets fifteen years ago (he printed his first edition covertly on the Yale press), comes alive sharing knowledge about haiku. With a “Dharma Bums” tattoo on his forearm and thick-rimmed plastic glasses, he speaks with the rapt attention of the truly passionate and hands bookmarks to Cari and me with one of his haiku printed on it:

snail shell—
to a tiny ocean

According to Forrester, free verse haiku has existed in Japan since the early 1900s. What’s more, in Japanese, the 5-7-5 pattern refers to onji, or characters, which include particles for punctuation. (For example, when you ask, “Genki desu ka,” the particle “ka” is the element that turns the sentence into a question, distinct from the statement, “Genki desu.”) Because English has no equivalent of pronounced punctuation marks, the direct translation from Japanese onji to English syllables makes little sense. In translation, adaptation becomes not only natural but also necessary.

“When people tell me that haiku can only be written in Japanese to be true haiku,” said Forrester, he brings up the sonnet. “I say, ‘What do you think about Shakespeare? What do you think of his sonnets?’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, they’re great. They’re the best in the world.’” But the sonnet, despite its association with Shakespeare, actually originated in Italy and had a life of about three hundred years before being introduced to England in the 16th century. With the move across languages—and even before—came changes in syllable count and rhyme scheme. To be a poetry purist, Forrester implies, means drawing an arbitrary line in the sand of a shifting coast.

The fixed 5-7-5 form seems to be responsible for the imbalance of respect given to haiku versus forms of poetry, like the sonnet, viewed as more sophisticated through a Western lens. Emphasis on syllable count above other aspects of the haiku lead students to believe that any string of words, if manipulated into the right line breaks, can be a haiku. Arguably, other traits of haiku are more essential: brevity, temporality, that small shift in consciousness that happens between the beginning of a poem and the end.

Just this month, W.W. Norton & Company published a collection called “Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years.” The book features poets the average reader would likely not associate with haiku, such as e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound and Richard Wright. Most of the Beat Generation wrote haiku as well; Allen Ginsberg is featured here as is Jack Kerouac, whose haiku sounds like this:

Glow worm
sleeping on this flower –
your light’s on.

The view from the conference hall.

Also in the book: Stanford M. Forrester. When he saw the editor on Friday, “I kissed him,” he said. “I kissed him!”

Traditionally published books were a minority among works for sale at the conference, outnumbered by self-published books, literary magazines, and self-stapled chapbooks. It’s difficult to sell poetry these days. A major portion of people who buy poetry are, if not poets themselves, then friends or family of poets. Even self-publishing can result in money lost and a shelf full of copies of your own book. So poets team up, print anthologies with their writing groups. Forrester and his friends send work directly to each other, occasionally even in post card form.

Haiku may not command the respect of a reported Atlantic feature. It may not lead to the fame and wealth of Young Adult fiction or the academic fervor of an epic poem. Yet there’s a reason why haiku enthusiasts travel across the world every two years to spend five days in each other’s company. Read the poetry and you can feel it. There’s something magical about a tiny collection of words, painstakingly chosen, that—in three lines—deposits a crisp image into your brain and jostles your wiring.

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