Haiku Aotearoa 2008

Fascinating weekend. It was great to finally meet lots of people who I’ve heard of, or even corresponded with for years, but never met face to face before. With a very few exceptions, it was a who’s who of New Zealand haiku literature. And on top of that, we had the launch of the third New Zealand Haiku anthology, the taste of nashi. And that really was a who’s who night!

Back row: Nola Gazzard, Owen Bullock, Elaine Riddell, Shirley May, Jeffrey Harpeng, Sandra Simpson, Helen Bascand, Lynn Tara Austin, Elise Mei, Joanna Preston, Helen Yong, Rosemary Scott, Janine Sowerby.
Middle: John O’Connor, Andre Surridge, Karen Peterson Butterworth, Greeba Brydges-Jones, Richard von Sturmer, Helen Lowe, Sally Holmes Midgley.
Front: Judith Walsh, Margaret Beverland, Kirsten Cliff, Nola Borrell, Barbara Strang and Cyril Childs.
Photo courtesy Beverley George.

One of the interesting things that came up was a discussion of the importance of haibun as a way of gaining admittance to the mainstream. There’s quite a big overlap of people in New Zealand who write both haiku and conventional poetry. While there are still morons who think that haiku is “a seventeen syllable epigram” (three guesses who), the awareness of haiku’s existence as a valid form is pretty high. The discussion came around to the matter of getting haiku literature into the mainstream journals. There are a few who accept haiku with no problems, but most are wary of it (some because, by their own admission, they have no idea what constitutes a good haiku). But quite a few journals – no, make that virtually every NZ literary journal – has at some point recently been infiltrated by haiku in disguise. Haiku sequences, renga, and haibun, submitted without those labels, have been appearing all over the place. Proving that the form itself is no problem: just the perception of its difficulty/esotericness (is that a word?!)/lack of relevance etc etc etc.

There’s no doubt that there have been a lot of prose poems appearing. It’s a bit of a fad here at the moment – the book that won the Best First Book award at the 2007 Montana Book Awards was one. (Or so the author and publisher claim. And yes, I have read it.) Personally, I have read very very few prose poems published in NZ in the last few years that qualify as poems – no music, no structure, no poem. (No, “zaniness” doesn’t do it.) But haibun … now that’s a different story.

One quote that I came across in the process of compiling work for the haibun workshop really appealed to me:

So why is a haibun not a short story? … You cannot introduce a new character in the last line of a short story. But in the haibun …

George Marsh,
introduction to Ken Jones’ Pilgrim Foxes, (Pilgrim Press, 2001)

It’s a form that has so much possibility. One of the exercises I set everyone was to look at a selection of haibun, which I’d split into prose and haiku. The task was to match the two back together. The wonderful thing was that less than half of the time did they get it right. Only two times were the majority of the people on the right track! It was a really good eye-opener – for me as much as them – as to how many different ways the links between prose and haiku could work, and how many possibilities there were in the writing. Some of the time the “wrong” haiku made for a much more interesting poem!

Start with the haiku; spin the prose off in any direction. Start with the prose; let the haiku act as stepping stones between the ideas. Or to act as an ice slick, and send the poem shooting off in a totally new way. Or act as a counterpoint to the prose, so that the story is revealed when you look back at the poem. Diary, diatribe, documentary, heck, why not even detective novel?

I’m buzzing with ideas. And possibly caffeine. And cortisol.

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