approaching haiku

Haiku is commonly described as a nature poem in three lines with 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second line, and 5 in the third line. This definition is at best old-fashioned and at worst erroneous.

The reality of haiku today is much more complicated. It is a powerful discipline that is ripe with the potential to engage with the world in new ways.

In my explorations of English language haiku, I have found the following approaches to be useful for substantive writing and the proper mindset:

  • use no titles (haiku are identified by their first line)
  • write in present tense
  • show, don’t tell
  • the 5-7-5 syllable structure has largely fallen out of fashion in favor of haiku with fewer than 17 syllables
  • use simple, everyday language
  • three lines is most common, but one, two, and four lines are also acceptable
  • avoid end rhymes
  • haiku experiences will arise from your surroundings, stay alert!
  • write directly, so that your readers can easily imagine themselves having the experience you’ve captured
  • let things be as they are, elaboration is unnecessary
  • don’t proselytize
  • present an experience for the reader to interpret
  • use a phrase and a fragment that juxtapose each other
  • see the universal connections in common, everyday experiences
  • name or imply a season
  • honor small, simple things
  • as much as possible, keep your ego out of it

For further exploration, visit The Haiku Foundation at: https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/

The following online journals display a wide range of the expressions contemporary haiku is capable of:

For a lively audio exploration of haiku, listen to the Poetry Pea Podcast: https://poetrypea.com/category/podcast/

a word from our haiku sponsor

Bloodroot Haiku Contest

A haiku contest rooted in North Carolina deserves a name that is native to the state, as is the spring wild flower bloodroot, but also a name that evokes a bit of the exotic and the mysterious: who can say they have discovered bloodroot in their wanderings?

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is common in the NC mountains and piedmont but also elusive – close observation is required to spot its pale bloom in the deep shade of moist woodlands.

Bloodroot is easily recognized once one has been initiated to the distinctive shape of its leaves but it blooms for only a couple of weeks in early spring, easy to miss, easy to overlook.

And bloodroot hides a wonder few have discovered: its root when pierced bleeds a bright red-orange sap, the blood of the forest. Some Native Americans believed its magical properties included use as a love charm.

Observe, learn, discover, mystify, charm – bloodroot as metaphor for haiku.

Bill Griffin, sponsor of the NC Poetry Society Bloodroot Haiku Contest
© 2019

For contest rules and submission instructions click here.

2019 bloodroot haiku winner

Crystal Simone Smith won first place in 2019’s Bloodroot Haiku Award. She is the author of Wildflowers: Haiku, Senryu, and Haibun (2016). Her work has appeared in numerous journals including: Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Haibun Today, and Wishbone Moon Anthology. Her co-authored book, One Window’s Light: A Collection of Haiku with Lenard D. Moore, Teresa Church, Gideon Young, and Sheila Smith McKoy, was the winner of the 2018 Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Award for best haiku anthology.

She opted to answer all my inquiries.

What do you remember about the first poem that you fell in love with?

In college, many moons ago, I attended a program in which a professor recited the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. I hadn’t read it so it was the joy of experiencing it that I loved. In fact, I hadn’t read very much poetry at all but, when I began writing poetry I wrote lyrically. I’m all but certain I can attribute the gift of lyric to that moment.

Describe your ideal writing day.

I love fall or spring when the weather is pleasant. If I can dedicate a day to writing, I prefer to do it away from the chores of home. Saxapahaw is a quaint little town with a river literally running through it. I like to escape there and write on the patio overlooking the river run when possible.

Which of your achievements has been the most fulfilling?

By far it was my first acceptance into a recognized journal (African American Review). It was the first time I considered being a writer. Without it, I may have never made the leap from poetry as a hobby to poetry author.

Who is your favorite poet, and why?

Lucille Clifton was a tremendous poet. Her writing was accessible, yet powerful. She wrote of life’s horrors and triumphs in a most unique way. I was immediately drawn to her as a young poet because of her style but more importantly, her consistent theme of survival celebrated.

How do you refill the well of your creativity when it seems to have run dry?

I seek inspiration anywhere I can and as a haiku poet I am very present in my surroundings. I try to stay aware so I don’t miss small, yet significant moments. Inspiration is omnipresent if we pay attention. Yesterday a kind couple let me stare at their newborn for ten whole seconds and I was so appreciative. (lol)!

She shares the following poem, which is forthcoming in “Down to Earth” by Jacar Press, 2020.

FAITH AT AGE TEN

You know the clear-water creek is secreted
and runs through the pines behind
the Penns’ condemned red house.
It is evening and morning chores
of the unspoiled who fill jugs to ferry back.
You’re a summer chum and make added hands.
The Penns are landowners on welfare
with a no plumbing and no well—
neighbors your saved grandparents loathe
for all they lack. You adore the summon to help
fetch the water we siphon and secure in jugs
then wade in the ripples of our silhouettes.
One brags she prays away the contaminants.
You know nothing of deficiency or privilege,
who God loves least, or what winter means.

poetry of witness judge

Our Poetry of Witness judge, Brendan Walsh, has lived and taught in South Korea, Laos, and South Florida. His work has recently appeared in Glass Poetry, Indianapolis Review, Wisconsin Review, Baltimore Review, and other journals. In 2019 he launched Living Things: The Great American Poetry Crawl, sponsored by Sutra Press, which harnessed the fellowship of writing by connecting to independent literary communities up and down the East Coast.

Here’s what he has to say about his ideal writing day:

This is so difficult for me, because I feel like my best writing is often done through my best living. In other words, when I’m truly inside my body and in love with the world, I’m creating–though I might not be doing much writing. The fuel is what most interests me: I’m a narrative poet, so although there’s a necessary element of creation, my imagination doesn’t always do justice to the incredible experience of being. I guess what I’m failing to say is that my ideal writing day may not involve writing anything at all. Without the fuel that is the sensual ecstasy of this moment, right now, I’ve got nothing to write about (or write for). That being said, my ideal writing days are more rare than they used to be. When I was studying for my MFA (shout out Southern CT State University!), I had ideal days stacked upon ideal days. They always looked like this:

wake at 4:30: enough espresso to wake the dead
write one short poem: usually something with strict syllabics, like a sonnet or haiku, some restrictive form. This forces me to think economically.
lift weights for an hour: being in the body, and feeling pain, are sometimes the only things that remind us to live. I’ve had many great lines come from heavy deadlifts or picking up an Atlas stone.
focus on other cognitive tasks until late morning: this could be my “job”, whatever that is. The mental transition is important for me.
write another poem or edit/revise from the morning: this all depends on how much I like the morning poem. If it’s in a form that doesn’t work, I’ll extract what’s great from the form and make it something else.
read a collection of poems: between work and class, I would read an entire collection of poems in the library. I made my way through so many amazing writers–this was essential, and I can’t recommend it enough.
workshop with other poets: no ideal writing day is complete without a workshop. My favorite workshop format was a small group rotation that my professor, Jeff Mock, used. Every person would have their weekly poem/s intimately discussed by groups of three-four. So much laughter and infinite breakthroughs in this space. There is nothing more conducive to good writing than a great community of writers/readers.
have a beer: why not? you’ve earned it.

It’s simple. Routine is essential for composition, but in between routines I have to do a lot of living. I have to know what it’s like to be alive before I can even try to make it language.

He shares the following poem, originally published in American Literary Review:

we are great apes

we are great apes; we are great sometimes; we are not kings of any jungle; we used to tie our feet with leather we used to eat whatever we killed or found; i’ve only killed bugs, i’ve only eaten bugs i haven’t killed; at a bushmeat stall in Laos i saw monkey carcasses draped over a plastic table; we aren’t very great but not so long ago we kindled pockets of sun from rocks and sticks; my students call orangutans ‘monkeys’ to make me mad and it works every time; we are great apes; i watch a video of an orangutan washing herself with soap, a video of kanzi the bonobo using a lighter and toasting marshmallows; my second memory is flinging a burnt marshmallow like a fist of napalm; chimps hunt in packs and tear a colobus monkey apart like a body of wishbones; i watch clips of silverbacks drumming their chests and bellowing into primeval forests; we howled with conch shells and microphones and blunderbusses; i’ve seen koko the gorilla and robin williams tickle one another, their hands like siblings; i drum my chest and holler into my apartment; ooooh ooooh ooooh oooooooh; not long ago we lived in the cradle of acacia trees; my first memory is falling from the lowest branch of a maple; ooooh ooooh ooooh oooooooh

2019 light verse award winner

First Place for the 2019 Katherine Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award went to Don Ball. Originally from Durham, NC, Don now lives in Raleigh. He attended The College of William and Mary and is a former high school English teacher, tennis coach, lecturer at NC State, and English Professor from Wake Techinical Community College. He is most recently published in Pinesong, Kakalak, and Tar River Poetry.

Don opted to answer all the questions I posed. So here are his thoughts on the first poem he ever loved, his ideal writing day, his most fulfilling achievments, favorite poet, and dealing with a dried up creativity well:

The first poem I can remember running into as a kid was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous “Charge of the Light Brigade.” I was about nine or ten and I liked the galloping repetition and pace so much that I memorized it and used to recite it at night when my little brother and I were supposed to be asleep in our room. For some reason, my brother Ben would get annoyed and lob pillows, shoes, and other articles at my bed to get me to shut up. A disappointing audience.

I like to write in the mornings when I can. Handwriting first drafts is better for me. A perfect writing day will involve several hours of reading my poems and other poets’ work, starting a poem, and rewriting drafts I’ve started. I’m also inspired by reading fiction and listening to music. At night when I walk, sometimes I try to memorize poems by my favorite poets. T. S. Eliot argues that one must have the tradition of poetry in your bones in order to write originally.

In the last two years, I’ve started entering poems in the NC Poetry Society’s annual competition and have gotten recognition for several. It’s really fun to go the Awards Meeting in May, talk with all the poets, and get to introduce and read my poems.

My favorite poet is the latest one I discover or rediscover online from friends or from The Poetry Foundation. There are lots of good poets who have produced great poems, of course. I’ve met and spoken with Phillip Levine and Richard Wilbur. Donald Justice was my dissertation director at Florida. I corresponded extensively with William Stafford and heard Seamus Heany read in Greensboro. My other favorites include Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frost, Bishop, Roethke, Collins, Yeats, Rilke, Neruda, Milton, Shakespeare, etc. etc. It’s important to read the world.

I read prose, poetry, and history to recharge and it’s important that I have enough nascent ideas in my records to go back to them and tease them out. My current writing group The Poet Fools are all published poets, and we meet twice a month. It’s been great to have that meeting as a deadline for poems. The meeting itself is also recharging–writing’s a solitary enterprise and we need other people.

Don shares this poem, which is from his writing group’s anthology chapbook, published last year:

Confessional

I confess to my parents that I have never
always obeyed the impulse to excel and have courted disaster and gross uncleanliness
and have kissed both full on the mouth
(not the parents, but the . . . ) you understand–
you always understand.

And as for my grandparents, I confess
that I have certainly been unfaithful to their petty bigotries
and their dangerous tendencies to like me
whatever I have done or not completed, and to their memory
and our history, and to the family and of everybody
and everything . . .

I confess also that I am not naturally kind,
and am, in fact, as vindictive as a Sicilian peasant,
hating those who seem to be level-headed, creative,
coping well with trauma, earnest, disciplined–
above all disciplined—and earnest and organized–
people who write thank you notes, and mail them,
with stamps—and keep up with their friends
and have friends, whosoever, whomsoever . . .

And I personally confess to you, my darling,
that I have kept many secrets from you,
have hid a thousand perversions down in my heart.
I hide them until you are sleeping
and then take them out like the happy,
demented miser that I am,
counting the golden coins, biting each bitter edge.

welcome!

Thank you for visiting the North Carolina Poetry Society’s Pinesong Awards for 2020 blog. Here you can get insights, inspiration, and information about submitting your poetry to our contests.

Posts are divided into three categories for your convenience:

  1. Director’s Notes offer information about the contests and submission tips, along with links to further resources.
  2. 2019 Award Winners profile poets who won first place in the 2019 contests.
  3. 2020 Judges profile the judges who will be reading your submissions.

I will be adding new posts every few days, so please come back often.

We are accepting contest submissions until January 12, 2020. For full details visit https://www.ncpoetrysociety.org/adultcontests/

Alice Osborn Award judge

Our judge for the Alice Osborn Award (poems written by adults for children) is Carolyn Guinzio, from Arkansas. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Agni, Harvard Review, Boston Review, Bomb, and many other journals. She served as text editor for the online project YEW: A Journal of Innovative Writing & Images By Women.

Asked about what she does when her well of creativity runs dry, she offers this:

To cure a well run dry, or writer’s block, I always think it’s best simply to enjoy a period of not writing, to look up at something else, and to wait. Spend your writing time outside if you can. Spend it reading. Get enough sleep, and try not to worry. A bit of pushing through it doesn’t hurt: If you want to be writing, or you need to be writing, just write something down without worrying if it progresses a particular project. Keep up the habit of writing, even it it’s little more than a physical act.

She shares the following poem with us:

Swedish Fish

I ran over a shadow,
and the car went bump.
In the back, the kid
was worrying his sweet
tooth with the tip
of his tongue.
What he wanted
was to catch me
in a generous mood.
He saw all the signs:
“Vote Yes,” “Speed Table,”
“No Exit,” and he mumbled
with disgruntled syncopation,
as in sazzifrazzin laws
and laws, the dark
graphics standing
between us and the wildness
we shed to get through.
What he wanted
was to stay
in the shadow of the fish
crow, hooking
left where they let
down the guard-
rail, to crash
through the sage-
brush and angry
old trees that wait
to be thrown
into relief.
Oh, there are Great
rules I want
him to keep,
so I broke the little
red fish into halves
and sent them flying
into the back
when he opened his mouth
to speak.

poetry of courage judge

Amelia Martens is our Poetry of Courage judge. She is the recipient of a 2019 Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council; her work has also been supported by a Sustainable Arts Foundation fellowship to Rivendell Writers’ Colony and by the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is the co-creator of the Rivertown Reading Series and Exit 7: A Journal of Literature and Art.

Here’s how she deals when creativity runs dry:

In those times where I am struggling with my own writing, I turn to other writers and I read, read, read. Sometimes this means I’m returning to poets I love and sometimes it means reading outside of poetry: creative non-fiction, sci-fi, or a short story collection. Reading reminds me that someone wrote all of these beautiful important books, and likely those writers also felt themselves running dry at different points. And yet, here in my hands are their books! I also carry a little Nancy Drew sized notebook and I make a conscious effort to note anything I hear or that comes through my brain that could be a poem start or seed. I listen the NPR in my car instead of replaying my favorite CD; the news provides plenty of disaster and wonder—people are so strange and we engage in surreal experience every day. That helps me. I also go outside; I garden (and am amazed every time I dig a hole in the earth, that I am on a planet spinning through space and digging a hole!), I play with my daughters (who are excellent sources for poems), I cook. Mostly, I try to do things that involve creativity, but in a different sort of way. I try to turn all of my senses up, to heighten my awareness to the world, because I know the poems are out there—all around me, and this lull in my writing will pass as it has before.

She shares the following poem, originally published by Hunger Mountain in their Silence + Power issue (in 2018):

Morning Walk: September 11, 2018

Because you are five, I say airplanes crashed
and you say where is our flag and I say look

at those roses, breaking open—little mouths
on our walk to school. You scuff and work

out the equation: if airplanes crashed
on a surface like this—you drag the concrete,

then there would be fire. Yes, and now
I walk through a curtain of printer paper

a flock of fallen paper people, arms spread.
Yes, I say—there was fire and I mean is.

Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green

Jaki Shelton Green is North Carolina’s current Poet Laureate. She will be selecting the winning poem for our Poet Laureate Award from the ten finalists chosen by Michael Rothenberg.

She shares the following words and poem:

“My consistent commitment to community engagement with NC citizens and writers across all the real and imagined boundaries that polarize our humanity is the fuel that fosters my readiness and availability to foster and expand a deeper appreciation of the literary arts. Witnessing the power of story and the medicine of creativity create deeper community connections is significantly fulfilling.”

poet laureate preliminary judge

Our preliminary judge for the Poet Laureate Award is Michael Rothenberg, the Florida State University Libraries Poet in Residence. He is editor and publisher of the online literary magazine BigBridge.org, co-founder of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, and and co-founder of Poets In Need, a non-profit 501(c)3, assisting poets in crisis. His most recent books of poetry include Drawing The Shade (Dos Madres Press), Wake Up and Dream (MadHat Press), and a bi-lingual edition of Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story (Varasek Ediciones, Madrid, Spain).

Asked who his favorite poet is, he answers:

I think of Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, John Keats, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Anna Akmatova, Emily Dickinson, Paul Valéry, Appolinaire, Walt Whitman, Michael McClure, Tu Fu, Ed Dorn, Denise Levertov, William Blake, Garcia Lorca, Wang Wei, Allen Ginsberg, Antonio Machado, Mahmoud Darwish, Bob Kaufman, Marina Tsvetaeva, and the impossibility of choosing favorites. I hear a thousand voices, and each of them soothe, excite, and inspire me. They give me permission to find my own way.

He shares the following poem: