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Spring Cleaning – Playing Catch Up with Haikus

There’s always an excuse not to write, but I find travel to the best bad excuse, insofar as all the between time, the not only unavoidable, but intentional waits to ensure check-ins, flights, drives, and plans don’t all pile on top of each other and collapse, these should be so much more conducive to a quick scribble than they really are. But it’s April, which is way too long since my last post and also National Poetry Month, and I can’t let the month pass without jumping back in.

I’ve had a mix of work and fun travel lately, including the annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, which brought me back to Washington, D.C. last month. There it was unmistakably spring, meaning rain on Monday, snow on Wednesday, and shorts temperatures on Friday (but you can’t actually wear shorts, because that would be so gauche in the nation’s capital).

In the capital, the spring weather brings out the cherry blossoms, perennially disappointed crowds, and the Golden Triangle’s Golden Haikus. Now, I love griping tourists almost as much as I enjoy the cherry blossoms themselves (which never bloom on the weekend the out-of-towners planned to visit), but I think I love the haikus the most. In spring, these little yellow and pink signs pop up in those urban squares of earth beside lonely trees and bloom in front of light poles across downtown D.C.

I love them because of how bad they are. They are so bad that they become delightful. For example, this year’s winner juxtaposes a twitching cat and the sudden appearance of a spring drizzle and in the context of the name of the competition, I have to believe they knew what they were doing. My favorite so far, just for being bad, is the third place winner. With only seven words, over half of the poem is wasted on a throwaway phrase, “from there to here.”

Now, I do understand that within that phrase is packed (if you already know the history) connotations of Japanese-American relationships and a far off island nation being brought closer through the act of gift-giving. There’s a lot in four words, but I would argue those four words are the most boring way to suggest all of that.

The Washingtonian also stuck its collectively upturned nose in a bit farther than merited but in jumping to the defense of the haikus, and gets some things right. Worrying about getting exactly 17 English syllables for a poetic form built around the Japanese language is probably pedantic at best and easily creeps into jingoism. However, while the haikus may be acceptable in form, it doesn’t make them legit.

So what does make a haiku legit? Amidst all of this Poetry International recently posted a haiku that grabbed my attention better than any of the Golden Haikus and made me want to tackle the haiku for this week’s poem. I also hoped that inspiration might hit and allow me to get a couple out at once and make up for some lost time—even while expecting this to be misguided, the lune did come together relatively quickly.

Before I get into the technical aspects of haikus that I found, I usually try to get to the poem a little quicker, but I had to share the Golden Haikus. If you haven’t seen them in D.C., it’s hard to really convey how amazing it is to see the city suddenly littered with bad poems. Maybe these two won’t rise above them but here are my two contributions.

Haiku 1

Fat rains, the guard’s chin
taps on his chest, the thief’s foot—
steps hide between drops.

Haiku 2

The guard’s chin
—nodding with the rain—
thief walks in.

And I should note, that since haikus do not traditionally have titles, the numbers have been added for reference, not really as titles.

As with previous poems, I started with the Writer’s Digest post on haiku, which had actually been edited and pointed to posts by Keiko Imaoka and Michael Dylan Welch for more information. I took that as a pretty good indicator of the amount of discussion and misconceived notions swirling around the form. Here are a couple points that I pulled as guidance:

  • KI: 11 English syllables is a suitable approximation of 17 Japanese syllables
  • KI: Japanese haiku are composed of two major parts of varying lengths
  • MDW: What matters most is kigo (season word), kireji (cutting word), and objective sensory imagery
  • MDW: A haiku also centers structurally on a pause or caesura (“kire” in Japanese)

Because the question of syllables was both downplayed and yet a recurring topic, I gave myself the longer 17 syllables in Haiku 1 and kept Haiku 2 to only 11, but tried to create a scene on the same subject in both.

While creating the poems, I noticed that any time I deviated from describing the scene at it is, to describing how I wanted the reader to feel, the haikus would become more like koans, short snippets of would-be wisdom. The longer haiku gave me more room to play with poetic juxtaposition, such as the guard’s chin and the thief’s foot, and even break a possible kireji, footsteps, into two words and more possible implications. However, I’m not sure if the extra layers make the poem better or too baroque.

Haiku 1, the shorter poem, really forced a level of poetic negation that I rarely achieve—the tightness of the poem squeezes the poet out of it. Each word has to do more work, which I like, but some of the logic of how the thief sneaks is lost and he becomes almost a nonchalant guy strolling in. I like, though, that the middle phrase lets me seesaw the poem—is the cut on the chin or after the rain?

Leave a comment, I’d love to hear if you have a preference for one haiku or the other.

In Lieu of an Elegy

My great aunt Lois passed away this week and Cara left town for a training, which meant there was more time for writing but also more of a chance for that writing to just be bad—sentimental and stereotypical themes. So it’s been a mixed bag, which is frankly how I felt about Lois, as well as this week’s poetic form, the lune.

Robert Brewer introduces the lune as “the American Haiku” and it fits. At thirteen syllables, the lune is shorter than a traditional haiku, but like a terse Hemingway sentence, somehow still carries the same weight as a much more flowery phrase while being refreshingly light. However, like any haiku, I find it to be annoyingly predisposed to rendering bullshit Kerouac-style koans. I’ll leave it to you to decide which way this week’s poem fell.

In Lieu of an Elegy

Death does not exist
anymore
than open spaces.

I experimented with the variant that Brewer ascribed to Jack Collom. At first, it seemed more appropriately Westernized as it measures words, instead of syllables (a tercet with 3 words, 5 words, and 3 words per line, respectively). Ironically, I think by providing the extra space to work, it loses the American feel of the previous form. Take the example below:

Lune No. 4

At the sink
arms crossed, talking—Midwest kitchens
work like spiderwebs.

Maybe I was in the wrong head space and using it wrong but I kept wanting to spread the poem across multiple stanzas as soon as I had the extra room Collom’s version provides.
Now, if you are here, near the end of the post and wondering about some of the hanging threads (What about Lois? What’s with the dinky poems?), some of the writing is just on a the cutting room floor, some might be popping up elsewhere, and if we’re friends on Facebook, you can see my thoughts on Lois more explicitly. Photo credit goes to my wife, Cara Eandi, for a great shot of Bayan Olgii, Mongolia.

Breaking Rules and Making Too Many References to Pop Culture

Poem three is out early this week! I set out this week to write a triversen but the internet and inspiration conspired against it. First off, I had an idea for a poem bouncing around in my head over the weekend, which sparked while scrolling through Facebook.

If that sentence, or at least the last part horrifies you, that’s fair. Social media is railed against (and rightly so) for being designed to inspire jealousy—Instagram posts of perfect meals, vacation updates on Facebook, and so on. The only thing worse than the jealousy it inspires is the navel-gazing. Add to that the ephemerality of the platforms (baked in, like Snapchat, or unintentional, like Myspace) and any piece of writing that references social media will probably feel self-involved and out-of-date in months.

But in the immortal words of Icona Pop, I don’t care, I love it. And I got this feeling that that reference will make sense forever. Which is a good jumping off point for the poem, so before I get to the second point, here it is:

Not Mutable

We’re not friends
on Facebook
but I
know you

because of her
repetitive posts
and pictures
and you

always look
the same-age
won’t touch you
like us

So the Facebook inspiration is up front, but the second conspirator was my internet connection, which went down while I was getting ready to write. Here in Ethiopia, though, I’ve learned to assume I probably won’t have internet when I want it so I was prepared. I couldn’t look up the exact definition of a triversen because I had only bookmarked the link but I did have some William Carlos Williams poems lying around in shelved collections.

As a result, you might notice some similarities to “This is Just to Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow.” When internet returned, I looked up the rules of triversen and found out that neither actually qualified. I thought about re-writing this but ultimately came to the conclusion and theme of this post, I don’t care, I like it.

The Secret to Alchemy

Reading about mysticism is somewhere between a bit of a hobby or addiction of mine. I grew up religious, which for some people probably provides a comforting childhood. The idea that there’s someone watching out for you and a greater meaning, even when you’re alone or suffering, I expect, can give a sense of assurance. That if you just have the strength for now, something better will come. Admittedly, I never tapped into that side very well, usually getting stuck somewhere between original sin and the apocalypse.

However, one thing I loved about religion was the magic in it. Of course it’s not supposed to be magic, but it has all the best parts if you read closely—staves that can part seas, the sun standing still, instant healing at the touch of a finger, and most importantly—the feeling that anything could happen.

As I grew up, what pulled me away from my childhood beliefs was not so much rationalism but mysticism. The centripetal force of Sufism and Rumi’s poems, the inaccessible voids of the Vajrayana school and its sand mandalas. Don’t get me wrong, there is an attractiveness to logic, that given two points you can draw a straight line between them and be assured that that is the shortest distance, but it’s still more fun to bend that line and see how far it goes before breaking.

Along those lines and a little late, this week’s poem is an acrostic. Up till now, I think I have written only one acrostic before, for a college class, and it was terrible. It was was about a junkyard, the first letters of each line spelled “ROTTWEILER,” and I may or may not have switched the I and the E around because the only absolute rule in English is that rules are meant to be broken. I don’t think I’m a huge fan of acrostics, but I gave myself an extra challenge for the poem—if you find it, feel free to note it in the comments.

The Secret to Alchemy

Lies on the page, in formulas hiding
Elements obscuring, well moreso
Ancillary to the transmutational
Discovery revealed in the end.

As an epilogue but not an explanation, I should note that alchemy never had much of a hold on me, but I was a fan of the color changing compounds in chemistry. Next week (well, this week), I think I will tackle a triversen in honor of the William Carlos Williams poem that’s become a meme.

Not a Resolution: 52 Poems for 2018

Last week, I kept deflecting when people asked about my New Year’s resolutions. When Cara asked, I finally caved in and said that I don’t like to make resolutions, they’re just meant to break you or be broken. Bouncing the question back to her, she admitted that her first thought was to resolve to work out more, but she made that resolution last year and nothing came of it. I think she instinctively hit the nail on the head—resolutions have become repetitive, required, and offer no real rewards.

So, fuck the resolutions, I’m going to do what I want to do in 2018. I didn’t stay up till midnight on New Year’s Eve because I was tired and I wasn’t feeling it. Cara and I drank Guinness with shots of Bailey’s (unfortunately the whiskey ran out over Christmas) instead of champagne and it was delicious. We made a plate of charcuterie (well, slices of salami) and cheeses Cara brought back from her last trip stateside and binged on Supernatural Season 11 because we’re behind and frankly, every episode of This is Us was an emotional spin cycle on high heat that left us wrung out and dry. And I spent the first day of the new year talking to only the people I wanted to talk to, which may be a little misanthropic or introverted or thoughtless but this next year is going to be hard and I’m not going to make it harder on myself.

I’m not making resolutions so much as focusing on how to make this next year easier, or at least more enjoyable.

After the fanfare of the first wound down, and I had read a great screed against selflessness, I had a chance to think about what I wanted to do this year. I want to drink a lot more coffee. I want to spend more evenings on the balcony outside my bedroom with Cara, a hookah, and Obie barking through the railing at the Embassy guards making their rounds. I want to write more poetry.

I’m not making resolutions so much as focusing on how to make this next year easier, or at least more enjoyable. I won’t feel bad if I don’t manage to fulfill any of these, except for perhaps some caffeine headaches. Along those lines, to jumpstart the poetry, I’ve decided to give myself a form challenge each week. Maybe I’ll end up with 52 poems or maybe just this first one.

For the first week of January, I’m immediately breaking the rules I never set down and instead of using that list of 50 (that’ll be my back up) I’m using Writer’s Digest’s December challenge to write an ottava rima. WD states that William Butler Yeats and Kenneth Kock used the form and provides the following rules:

Ottava rima are 8 lines with an abababcc rhyme scheme, most commonly written in iambic pentameter (or 10-syllable lines). The form can work as a stand alone poem, or be used as connecting stanzas.

Yes, ottava rima, from the latin “to pretentiously rhyme eight lines.” But I immediately found an example from Yeats that resonates, Sailing to Byzantium:

“That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect …”

Friends have remarked that my good taste in literature is equaled only by my terrible taste in movies, and this poem has spun off works in both that I like. It goes on for another three stanzas, illustrating how the ottava rima form can build. But that’s enough exposition from me for this post, on to the poetry. I’ve tentatively titled this, “Christmas in Ethiopia.”

Around the corner Gena lurks and on
The sidewalks are scattered feathers as when
A bird escapes in a childhood cartoon
By leaving a pile of plumage and wind.
In Addis they have thirteen months of sun
And no snow on Christmas, but still is seen
The Christ in a manger, a reminder
Of what lies in wait around the corner.

It’s hard to just hit publish on this first one. I want to add a stanza or two, at least a footnote*, if not erase it and start over. This certainly wasn’t what I intended to write when sitting down earlier this week. But this is about letting go—one down, let’s see how many more to come.

*As you can see, I give in a little and added a few hyperlinks. I can hyperlink my poetry if I want.