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Michael Dylan Welch, USA
Haiku Neighbours: North American Haiku Today
The following keynote address was given for the 15th annual Haiku International Association convention, held at the Ichigaya Arcadia hotel in Tokyo, Japan, on 30 November 2013. Both the English text and a Japanese translation were first published in HI (the Haiku International Association journal) #110, January 2014, pages 2–13. This essay also appears on the author’s website at http://www.graceguts.com/essays/haiku-neighbours-north-american-haiku-today. At the convention, Michael also read a set of twelve haiku from his “First Snow” trifold, prepared for the occasion, with Japanese translations by Emiko Miyashita. You can read these poems at http://www.graceguts.com/haiku-and-senryu/first-snow.
秋深き 隣は何を する人ぞ
aki fukaki tonari wa nani o suru hito zo
how does he live, I wonder?
Poets in Japan may wonder how their haiku neighbours live in North America. The community of haiku poets is thriving throughout the continent. We enjoy several vibrant organizations, many haiku journals, regular events and conferences, and an important archive for haiku poetry books. I would like to share the successes of haiku activity on the North American continent, far across the pond from Japan, as well as three problems that I hope can be addressed, in the hope that this information can help us know each other better, and to help make us better haiku neighbours.
Any discussion of haiku in North America must begin with its two oldest national organizations. The Haiku Society of America (HSA) was founded in 1968, and the current president is David Lanoue, who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. As of 1 November 2013, the HSA has 817 members, its second-highest total ever. It holds quarterly meetings around the country, and membership benefits include a subscription to its haiku journal, Frogpond, and the newsletter, Ripples. The latest issue of Frogpond is 176 pages, and the journal welcomes English-language haiku from poets around the world. The group holds annual contests for haiku, senryu, haibun, and renku, gives awards for haiku books, and has an active website at www.hsa-haiku.org and Facebook page. It also publishes an annual members’ anthology. The HSA will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018, and has been the most important organization for haiku outside Japan since it was founded.
Haiku Canada was founded in 1978. The current president is Terry Ann Carter, who lives in Victoria, British Columbia. As of 15 November 2013, the group has 217 members, and members receive the Haiku Canada Review and an annual membership anthology, plus occasional poetry broadsides featuring poems by individual members. The group holds an annual haiku contest, and annual haiku weekends at various cities across the continent. Haiku Canada tends to welcome more experimental and wide-ranging approaches to haiku than has traditionally been the case with the Haiku Society of America. Haiku Canada has a recently overhauled website at http://haikucanada.org/.
A more recent organization is the Haiku Foundation, founded in 2008 by Jim Kacian. This group’s activities are primarily online, and it has a very active website at http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/, which features much online discussion. This organization has no members, but provides many services of benefit to haiku poets, including a Haiku Registry that presents bios, photos, and haiku for hundreds of haiku poets, a daily haiku feature online known as Per Diem (also available as an iPhone app), annual haiku contests and book awards, extensive event calendars, a digital haiku library, and educational resources. The foundation also sponsors National Haiku Poetry Day on April 17 each year. Perhaps Japan could have a National Haiku Day, too? The foundation does tremendous work to promote haiku poetry not just in North America but also worldwide because of its strong online presence.
Regional organizations also play an active role in the North American haiku community. Organizations such as Haiku Northwest, based in Seattle, where I live, hold monthly meetings at which haiku is shared and discussed, plus an annual retreat each October, called the Seabeck Haiku Getaway, which I direct. Featured guests in the past have included Emiko Miyashita, Penny Harter, Charles Trumbull, John Stevenson, Paul Miller, and Marco Fraticelli. The group has an annual contest and an active website, and is publishing No Longer Strangers, a haiku anthology celebrating the group’s 25th anniversary.
Other regional organizations contribute in immeasurable ways to the sharing and enjoyment of haiku. An example on the West Coast is the Haiku Poets of Northern California, based in San Francisco, which publishes a haiku journal named Mariposa, holds annual contests and quarterly meetings, and stages the annual Two Autumns haiku reading, which is the longest-running haiku reading series outside Japan, started by Garry Gay in 1990. Another notable group in California is the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, in San Jose, California, started in 1975 by Kiyoko and Kiyoshi Tokutomi, which publishes Geppo, holds monthly meetings and an annual contest for traditional haiku, and publishes a membership anthology. It also holds the Asilomar haiku retreat each autumn by the California coast, and cohosted the Haiku Pacific Rim conference in 2012, with Akito Arima as honoured guest. While formally espousing traditional meter and season words, for more than 15 or 20 years now, the group’s journal has had very few 5-7-5 haiku—occasionally none at all. This trend demonstrates the limitation of applying the 5-7-5 rhythm to English-language syllables, and recognizes, even in this traditional group, that a shorter poem in English is more closely equivalent to the 17 sounds counted in Japanese (the word “haiku” itself is counted a three sounds in Japanese, but just two syllables in English). Further south in California is the Southern California Haiku Study Group, which meets monthly in Pasadena. It’s a very active group, but does not run contests or publish a haiku journal. Its members were instrumental in organizing and hosting the August 2013 Haiku North America conference aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner docked in the harbour in Long Beach. A few other haiku organizations exist in Vancouver and Victoria, and in Oregon.
Further to east, the Haiku Society of America promotes regional haiku activity through its regional groups, but no groups are as active as the West Coast until you get to Chicago; Little Rock, Arkansas; Rochester, New York; Boston (and other groups in Massachusetts); New York City; Maine; North Carolina; and the Washington, D.C. area, among other locations. In Canada, active groups meet in Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal (the latter in both French and English). The activities of these and other groups are similar to West Coast groups, with periodic meetings and readings, as well as workshops to help promote haiku poetry to the public.
Another significant haiku-related venture is the American Haiku Archives, founded in 1996 at the California State Library in Sacramento, which is the world’s largest public archive for haiku materials outside Japan. It has an informative website at http://americanhaikuarchives.org/. The archive welcomes haiku materials in any language, but especially English. I cofounded this archive and serve on the advisory board. Every year we appoint an honourary curator. The current curator is Charles Trumbull, former editor of Modern Haiku magazine. Past honourary curators have been, since 1996, Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Jerry Kilbride, Cor van den Heuvel, Robert Spiess, Lorraine Ellis Harr, Leroy Kanterman, William J. Higginson, Makoto Ueda, Francine Porad, Hiroaki Sato, H. F. Noyes, George Swede, Stephen Addiss, Gary Snyder, Jerry Ball, and LeRoy Gorman.
An even older organization, which I cofounded in 1991, and continue to serve as a director of, is the biennial Haiku North America conference. In 2013, this much-anticipated event welcomed more than 150 attendees to the Queen Mary ocean liner in Long Beach, California for five days of speeches, papers, readings, workshops, a bookfair, haiga display, conference anthology, and more. This event serves as a gathering of the tribes, welcoming haiku poets from across the continent and, increasingly, internationally as well. The HNA website is http://www.haikunorthamerica.com/. Past HNA conferences have been in San Francisco, Toronto; Portland, Oregon; Chicago; Boston; New York City; Port Townsend, Washington; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Ottawa; and Seattle. In Seattle, we held our banquet up the Space Needle. These conferences are normally in the summer, but the next HNA conference will take place in October 2015, at the peak time for autumn leaf colours, at Union College in Schenectady, New York. You are eagerly invited and welcome to attend this event.
Also important in the sharing and promotion of haiku in North America are small presses that publish haiku. The biggest of these is Jim Kacian’s Red Moon Press. It publishes one or two dozen haiku books each year, including the annual Red Moon Anthology, which collects the best haiku published in hundreds of other sources each year. In addition to publishing individual collections of haiku, the press also publishes books of criticism, anthologies, and occasionally translations. The service this press provides is central to the support and dissemination of haiku literature in English, bolstering the occasional but too infrequent publication of haiku books by major publishers. The Red Moon Press website is http://www.redmoonpress.com/. Other important presses for haiku are Charles Trumbull’s Deep North Press, Randy Brooks’s Brooks Books, Stanford Forrester’s Bottle Rockets Press, and my own press, called Press Here, among others.
Speaking of books, there have been some key publications over the years, and one of them, a milestone for English-language haiku, just happened in 2013. That was the publication of Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, from Norton, a major New York publisher. This book, edited by Jim Kacian, Allan Burns, and Philip Rowland, celebrates a full century of haiku influence and development. It stands on the shoulders of three previous anthologies, edited by Cor van den Heuvel, joining it as a high-water mark for haiku in English. Additional leading figures publishing books about haiku are Stephen Addiss, Bruce Ross, Patricia Donegan, and others, especially Addiss, who has contributed many translations, has emphasized haiga, and recently published The Art of Haiku, which may well join William Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook as one of the most important books about haiku yet published in English. In my own haiku library, I have more than 4,000 haiku books. From exploring the collection at the American Haiku Archives in Sacramento, and the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo, I know there are many more, not even counting the many new books I read about in haiku journals. While these books include a range of quality, they all contribute to a broadening appreciation for haiku in English.
Not to be forgotten, of course, are the many journals that feature haiku. In addition to the Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond journal, the grand dame of English-language haiku journals is Modern Haiku, currently edited by Paul Miller. It began publication in 1969. This is the leading magazine of record for haiku poetry, reviews, and scholarship. Other printed journals for haiku and senryu in North America include the Haiku Canada Review, Bottle Rockets, South by Southeast, Mariposa, Mayfly, Acorn, and various online journals. Much discussion and sharing now also takes place on Facebook, Twitter, and many haiku-related blogs and forums, making everyone haiku neighbours around the world.
One of my own initiatives in support of haiku, started in 2010, has been National Haiku Writing Month. I decided to choose February as the official month each year—the shortest month for the shortest genre of poetry. I have a website for this event, referred to as NaHaiWriMo for short, at www.nahaiwrimo.com, and also run a very active Facebook page. Both locations promote haiku as being more than just counting syllables, and promote other targets while trying to encourage the writing of at least one haiku each day. On Facebook, a monthly guest provides daily writing prompts, and participants have enjoyed them so much that they continue year round. February, however, is still the most active month, and postings typically reach an audience on Facebook of more than 500,000 people (including “friends of friends”). In its way, NaHaiWriMo has served to inspire many hundreds of poets, and has led them to join various local and national haiku organizations, and to get more involved. More importantly, these people have better discovered themselves and their environment because of practicing haiku.
One problem that English-language haiku has faced over many decades is “pseudo-haiku.” While haiku is taught in nearly all North America grade schools and high schools, it is often taught incorrectly, or very superficially, usually assuming that all you have to do is count syllables. Little or no mention is ever made of kigo (season word) or kireji (cutting word, or a two-part juxtapositional structure), chiefly objective sensory imagery, or other targets (I like to call them targets rather than rules). Nearly everyone in North America has heard of haiku, but only a relatively small number of people have any sense of its literary targets. Organizations such as the Haiku Society of America, Haiku Canada, and the Haiku Foundation therefore have much difficulty in improving the understanding of haiku among the general public, and many large presses continue to publish popular but misleading and misinformed books of “haiku.” While this problem has been occurring for thirty or forty years, or more, there are signs of change and improvement, albeit slow. The Internet has fostered an explosive growth of haiku in English, including very misinformed haiku, but it has also fostered some degree of more informed understanding. Some people deliberately choose to write pseudo-haiku, including joke haiku, which is always their choice, but doing so as a deliberate choice is better than being unaware that these poems are not really haiku. The very influential Wikipedia definition of haiku online has provided useful corrective information, among other online resources. I am pleased that in recent years, at random, I have encountered an increasing number of references to haiku in the general public that show a much more informed understanding than they used to in the past. I hope this trend will continue, but much work still needs to be done, including the correction of curriculum guides and textbooks, which are nearly always misguided or superficial regarding haiku.
Another problem I would like to see addressed is for English-language haiku groups to have greater connection with Japanese-language groups, which are active in many major metropolitan areas, especially on the West Coast. One exception to this general lack of interaction is Seattle’s Haiku Northwest group, which has had numerous collaborations with the Rainier Haiku Ginsha, a Japanese-language group founded in 1934, even having an occasional ginko and kukai together, with a desire to do so more often. In addition, the most recent Haiku North America conference included numerous presentations by Japanese American and other scholars about haiku written at the relocation camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. Japanese-language haiku groups in North America typically have a much longer history that English-language groups, and while their numbers are small, I believe they have much to teach English-language haiku groups. I would call upon English-language haiku organizations to make a greater effort to connect with haiku groups in North America that write haiku in Japanese.
A third problem is the role of haiku in mainstream English-language poetry. William J. Higginson, in the very first paragraph of his seminal book, The Haiku Handbook, emphasized that the purpose of haiku is to share them. North American haiku poets could do a much better job of sharing their haiku and love of haiku with Japanese organizations, rather than sharing them just amongst themselves. But more than that, they could also do a much better job of sharing their literary haiku with other poets, journals, and poetry organizations that don’t normally focus on haiku. I myself could do better at this. For years, I have had the sense that English-language haiku exists in a sort of ghetto, and does not connect sufficiently with the larger poetry community. I used to think that this larger community was rejecting the haiku community. While that remains true to some degree, I now think that it’s really haiku poets who have put themselves into that haiku ghetto, isolating themselves in their own journals and organizations when they should try to do more connecting and interaction. The challenge is that the larger community has a natural tendency to reject haiku because of how extensively the superficial teaching of haiku in our schools has branded much of this poetry as inferior. Too often the popular perception is that haiku is a sort of joke poetry or a trivial ditty that doesn’t have the depth and reverberation of literary haiku in English. When very well-known mainstream poets in North America dismiss haiku, they are nearly always dismissing pseudo-haiku, and tend to have little knowledge of the leading poets, journals, and organizations that promote a more informed literary understanding of haiku. This is perhaps the most important challenge facing haiku in English, and while the issue does show signs of improvement after many decades, much more work still needs to be done.
One final comment is that avant-garde gendai haiku has recently had an increasing influence on English-language haiku. At its best, it has broadened overly narrow perceptions of haiku. At its worst, it has promoted poems in English that some feel are no longer haiku at all, but just short poems. Whatever the future holds, the haiku community is vibrant in North America, and is eager to continue celebrating haiku as a fulfilling and dynamic genre of poetry that helps to connect us to our haiku neighbours in Japan and around the world—in any language. If nothing else, these connections, these celebratory moments of sharing, are a wonderful part of what makes haiku poetry so rewarding. We are glad to be your haiku neighbours. Domo arigato gozaimashita.
Reprinted from „Graceguts" by the author's permission.