Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I was standing outside the main auditorium on the campus of James Madison University in between readings at the first Furious Flower poetry conference back in 1995 when I first met Lenard D. Moore, haijin extraordinaire. I can't remember who introduced us, there were so many poets standing around just kicking it, but I had had a few haiku selected and published somewhere and it was suggested to me that I talk to Lenard. I had just heard of his book "The Gulf War-A Brief History" which was a collection of haiku that dealt with his experiences fighting in the first Gulf War. The book was, even then, very hard to find and even at Furious Flower it wasn't on sale. He fortunately had a copy of it on him which at least gave me a chance to flip through it while he talked to some of the poets standing around us. He had seen some of my work and remarked that they were very nice "short poems" and I knew right away what he meant. That they weren't haiku, at least not in the traditional sense. Like a lot of black poets I was a big fan of the "haiku" written by Sonia Sanchez and wrote poems in that style. But, I wasn't offended, I knew he was right and was interested in learning more. He started by rattling off some of the rules of traditional haiku and to my surprise he didn't mention the one rule I most expected. The five-seven-five syllabic requirement is the most famous 'rule' of haiku, only he never mentioned it, he talked about privileging the concrete image, no metaphor (a tough one), no simile, no rhyme, the 'Season word', and the importance of contrast or juxtaposition. Finally I asked him about the syllable count and he said what was most important was keeping it under 17 syllables. I have always loved writing in forms and dug haiku, or at least what I understood as haiku, like I dug many other forms. He recommended a few books for me too read and I made a mental note. Thus began a journey which has taken me almost twenty years, the journey to develop some competency and perhaps master the art of writing haiku. A few years later Lenard would attend Cave Canem, the workshop/retreat for black poets and we would get a chance to sit down and really talk about haiku and I would get a chance to peruse his books from end to end. I would spend a lot of time on and off scratching out little poems, some more successful than others and in fact buoyed by what I learned from him at CC I would go on to win the National Head to Head Haiku Slam Championship (which was written up in Time Magazine, of all places) and then defend it the next year. The first ever two time winner, although it has since been done by Tazuo Yamaguchi also. Still, the thing I wanted most, as a measurement of my progress was publication in a magazine or journal that specialized in haiku. That, to me would establish that I had achieved a basic ability to write in the form. To be honest, I don't submit much, not even regular poems, but I did submit maybe 20 or so haiku a year to various journals for quite a few years. Everything got rejected, although I came close a few times and got some great advice from a few editors including the very gracious Jim Kacian who almost took one of my haiku for Frogpond back in 2001. That near miss sustained me for a long time, I knew I was a good poet, but was just missing a key element of haiku. So, I kept reading and studying. Because if nothing else, I'm a very patient guy and fervently believe that anything worth having is also worth waiting for.

Earlier this year I finally had a breakthrough in my understanding of the form, it was something that Lenard had mentioned all those years ago, that I heard, but somehow never quite comprehended, privileging the concrete image, foregrounding it really and letting it stand on its own. It basically means letting go of any and all poetic devices and letting the image do all the work. That's a tough thing for most poets, myself included, to do. Poetic devices are what we specialize in after all. Posting haiku as Status Updates on Facebook helped a great deal, because you get instant feedback as to what people respond to and, if you're lucky, you can learn from that. I'm hard-headed, very much so, but I do learn, eventually (well, sometimes). And so, Last year for National Poetry Month I got a haiku accepted by NPR for the NaPoMo Twitter poem feature on their program 'Tell Me More'. It's not exactly a literary journal, but it was cool. The link for the poem on my Facebook got over 100 Likes or something crazy like that. Then, after a year or so of submitting haiku for the Wednesday Haiku Feature of the Lilliput Review's blog Issa's Untidy Hut, I finally got one accepted. It was for me a pretty big deal, i think I spent the whole day playing poker and not caring if I won or lost a single hand. Then, I got an email for a new haiku journal that was starting up, focussing on haiku about the moon. Was I interested in submitting? Do squirrels like nuts? Do eskimos build igloos? Do camels feel special on Wednesdays? I submitted and got a few accepted, Oh frabjous day! Calloh! Callay! It's just baby steps, but I'll take it. Along the way there have been some pretty cool moments. I often post haiku on FB and sometimes they get responses and sometimes they just seem to fall through the cracks, but one senryu in particular generated a ton of response;

In the Horse Room
I try to apologize-
She shakes her ponytail

As a writer, you just never know what people will latch onto or respond to, but this poem struck a chord with a bunch of folks. Often I post haiku and they get no response whatsoever, if one gets three or four Likes, I'm happy. If it gets any actual Comments, that's a bonus. This Senryu got over twenty comments, that's a record for me on Facebook. It always helps when people respond strongly to something you've written. Reading the Dark Pens issue has sparked a surge in writing for me and I cranked out a bunch of new haiku and some revisions of older Ku that didn't quite work for me. I feel like I've turned a corner. We'll see. The last couple of days I've been posting mad haiku to Twitter trying to get a poem accepted for a couple of NPR programs, I hope folk aint mad about me haiku-bombing their Timelines. Below enjoy seven acorns I found while strolling

Clemente settles
under a very high fly-
August sun

buzzing in blue Kool Aid-
Summer sun

Her hands
under my unbuttoned shirt-
Radiator heat

Pigeons pecking
between crack vials-
Cherry blossoms

New glasses
still she doesn't see me -
Morning fog

August twilight-
Brick wall darkening
with my pee

After her final moan-

Until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon.)

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