Posts Tagged ‘haiku’

More Advice for Poets

This is a follow-up post to the one I made recently about Poetry Submissions. This week, I placed two poems in Valley Voices, and on the recommendation of editor John Zheng, I sent 3 haiku to Asahi Haikuist Network who took them for upcoming issues in October and next May.

What I learned from this (or was reminded of) is that it is good to form friendships and connections with other editors. Without John’s suggestion, I might not have found Asahi Haikuist Network, which I’m now glad to be able to read and to publish in. Haiku isn’t the main style of poetry that I write, but I suspect that reading more will inspire me to write more. I have a series of haiku that I worked on for my 4th manuscript and may continue to add to. Most were published in Poetry South when John was the editor, but these newer ones hadn’t found a home until now (and I hadn’t sent them out until now).

The other lesson I discovered about submitting poetry is to put your best poems first. That may seem obvious, but in reading submissions I am often surprised by the number of poets who don’t do that — or maybe they think they are doing it, and I just don’t like Poem 1 as much as Poem 4. You do your best and you should try to put the best poem for the magazine you’re submitting to first — the order may change depending on where you’re submitting.

Often in a submission, I treat it like a mini-collection. Most journals want 3-5 poems, so that’s less than a cycle, but there’s still probably a logic to the poems you send out together. I hope a journal might pick up more than one, but I still feel the submission is stronger if I send related poems. Now and then, though, especially for a magazine I’m not as familiar with, I will send a fairly random group of poems. Still, I want the tone to be about the same (humorous or deep, for instance). Thematically, the poems may be different, but something should connect them.

I want an editor to like the group of poems I’ve sent and even to consider accepting all of them. I know the reality is that an editor will then choose the poem or maybe 2 poems they like the best, but giving a good total impression will help sway the decision in the favor of the 1-2 poems they like best.

Having one of those poems first in the submission file is imperative. A reader may not make it past Poem 1, and if they do, their opinion of the poet will be colored by the poem they read first, so the subsequent ones may not get as close attention if Poem 1 doesn’t strike a chord. I know that’s true for me when I’m reading. It’s only human nature and is influenced by the sheer bulk of submissions any reader for a magazine is likely to encounter.

Making a decision about the oder of poems in a submission is part of taking the proper care to submit work that is polished, proofread, and carefully revised. It’s part of the process that an editor will appreciate. And if all the poems in a submission packet are of roughly equal quality (I know as the writer it can be hard to make those determinations), then each poem should build on the previous one and lead into the next. Consider your submission as a whole and not as individual pieces of paper that you’ve thrown out into the wind.

20 Reasons to Write or Read a Poem (besides commemorating a life event or making a buck)

This is a follow-up to my last post, “Indeed, Why Poetry?” which was a response to Daniel Halpern’s essay, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” that began with the mother of all questions: “Why poetry?” I don’t mean to start an argument, but I thought I ought to offer a few more answers to that question and give a few examples. So here goes:

  1. Just for fun: consider the ludic forms like the limerick or light verse
  2. To poke fun at all the serious poets who worry that poetry is becoming extinct: read some Dada
  3. To get laid: if you can’t make a buck, write a sonnet
  4. To rant: sometimes poets just need to complain
  5. To struggle with your soul: try Dante, Petrarch, Milton to name a few
  6. To complain about not getting laid and then struggle with your soul: definitely Petrarch, maybe John Berryman, and about a million others
  7. To focus your mind: any meditative poetry (any poetry)
  8. To focus attention on something that usually goes unnoticed: haiku
  9. To explore language in new combinations and push meaning: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Surrealists, among many others.
  10. To make a political point: see e. e. cummings, Amiri Baraka, Poets Against the Vietnam War, etc.
  11. To praise a person, idea, or object: odes or elegies
  12. To save the planet: eco-poetry
  13. To come to terms with a work of art: ekphrastic poetry
  14. To celebrate being alive
  15. To contemplate death
  16. To celebrate and explore your culture or identity
  17. For the challenge of saying exactly what you meant to say in as few words as possible
  18. For the discovery of saying what you never expected to say
  19. Because you’re tired of inane tweets
  20. Because you have a typewriter, fresh ribbon, paper, and time on your hands

Thanks for that last one to the guy in the coffee shop in Orange City, Iowa, who wrote me an impromptu poem one morning a couple of summers ago. I’m cheating a little with that, since he did make a buck or two tip out of that deal, but I suspect he did it less for the money than to while away the time and to rise to the challenge of composing a decent poem on the spur of the moment. He also ran a poetry series, though we couldn’t stay in town for that, and if I remember right, he was involved with a small literary magazine or two. Once poets get the bug, the main answer to the question “Why poetry?” often seems to be “Because poetry.”

The list above is hardly exhaustive, and I suspect there are many more reasons to write or read a poem: as many as there are moments in a day, days in a life, and different experiences that fill those moments. There’s nothing wrong with using a poem to commemorate an important life event or even with trying to earn a few dollars writing poems. My point has been that to describe poetry only in those terms is to limit it, and that commercial success is the wrong criterion to use to judge its worth. Poetry is like eating or breathing. Most people don’t earn a living doing either activity, yet we could not live without them.

Poetry is serious and poetry is frivolous. It can be both simultaneously, and it can be so many other things. It can be written for any of the reasons listed above and more, or for any combination of reasons. So I will end with Halpern’s question: “Why poetry?”

I’ve given twenty answers — what are yours?

Follow-Up to “Adapting Traditional Form”

When Christie Collins asked me to write a micro essay on craft of 500 words for her blog feature “Craft of Literary,” I decided to write about my process of adapting the Japanese form renga for my book Barrier Island Suite. In order to stay within the word limit, I kept my focus on that form, but now I thought I’d add a little on my own blog about how the form and the book developed.

The variations of the renga stanza (that I discuss in the original article) became the dominant form for the first 20 poems I wrote for Barrier Island Suite. However, whenever I tried to explain that the form was based on either renga or on tanka stanzas, people would invariably take issue. Tanka magazines, for instance, didn’t want the poems because to them, a tanka, like a haiku should be a single stanza. There didn’t seem to be a place for longer tanka-influenced poems. In the end, I stopped explaining the stanza (until now) and simply let it be. Yet I had considerable success placing the poems in mainstream literary magazines when I didn’t mention the source of the form.

On the other hand, working in this form led me to try my hand at haiku, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally written some that really fit the form and have been published in Valley Voices as “Tombigbee River.” There are times when adherence to existing forms ought to be valued, in other words, just as there are times when the form may be adapted, even bent out of shape until it is nearly unrecognizable to all but the poet.

Later, when I returned to Barrier Island Suite with the idea of including more of Walter Anderson’s life on shore, I realized I wanted a different form for this part of his life. The book’s title suggests a musical suite, so I also realized I wanted each section to have its own tempo the way the pieces in a suite wold. So upon returning to the project as I expanded it from a 20-poem cycle to book-length manuscript, I also returned to free verse.

Nonetheless, I knew I wanted there to be some sense of form, so I worked with different, yet regular stanza lengths: couplets, tercets, quatrains, quintets, or sestets, depending on the poem. Only in the final section did I take on longer stanzas with a more flowing form in “The Great Spirit Road,” modeled after the meandering Mississippi river, and “The Little Room,” modeled after the “Great Hymn to Aten,” since Psalm 104 (which is based on the “Hymn”) is a likely source for the murals in Anderson’s cottage.

In the end, then, the sections of the book alternate between the renga-inspired original stanza forms and more traditional Western stanzas and free verse. For me, the alternating form fits well with the different modes of life that Anderson describes in his logs.

I started the original essay thinking about form in free verse, the subject of a graduate class I was teaching in Forms of Poetry, and that is where I will end. Whether using an adapted traditional form from another culture, working with traditional European stanza forms, or writing free verse, the form of the poem and the content are always in a dynamic relationship. Form isn’t left to chance, in other words, as most of the poets we read in the class argued one way or another.

Haiku Revisited

Awhile back, I wote a post on judging a haiku contest and mentioned that I had written a few haiku. It’s not my main form of poetry to work with, so I’ve always felt a little like a fish out of water with haiku, yet it was a form I wanted to explore for awhile. The problem was, when I submitted to haiku journals, the response was always negative. I’m used to that with regular literary magazines, but there aren’t that many haiku journals and I didn’t want to keep getting turned down by the same places, so I gave up submitting.

Then last year I let John Z. look at a few of them. He also said my haiku weren’t quite haiku by a strict definition, but at least he tried to explain. And he offered some revisions. Naturally, his revisions didn’t match my vision and for awhile I decided to give up on the form, at least for these poems. I rewrote them as two to four line stanzas, but still didn’t feel satisfied. I called them “meditations” but that didn’t really fit the tone. To me, they were haiku, after all. Or if they didn’t quite master the form, they were at least haiku attempts.

This weekend, I decided to give them another look. My plan in revising the first time was to get them away from the form they had been in and let them sit. Enough time had gone past that I could look at them fresh. I got out my friend’s comments and reviewed the changes and suggestions he’d made. I paid closest attention to the one poem he had said was a haiku. If one got it right, then the others couldn’t be that far off, so I wanted to figure out what was missing.

I read some more about the “cutting word.” In a Japanese haiku, there is a word, sometimes described as an exclamation that marks the turning point in the haiku. It comes at the end of the first or second line in English, though in Japanese a haiku is written in one line with three parts or 5, 7, and 5 syllables (which are different than English syllables, so English language haiku don’t count them). I knew all of this. But in reading, what really sunk in this time was that the cutting word in English is often accomplished with punctuation.

What I realized was that my previous haiku, though they had all of the elements of haiku that I knew about, were too grammatically correct. Or I might say, too complete. What I’m realizing now is that the successful haiku has a silence in it in place of the cutting word. Think of a rap haiku where the cutting word was ‘yo.’ To translate that into non-rap and still try to replace ‘yo’ with a word like ‘ah!’ every time would sound ludicrous. Leave it out, but in such a way that the feeling of a revelation is still there.

With this in mind, I revised my haiku by rearranging and restating things so that the two states or two perceptions are disconnected grammatically. Or connected with a colon or dash. Both perceptions are their own statement. One is not dependent on the other syntactically. I also looked for balance, to make that break after the first or second line, and I tried to keep the weighting of lines at about 5, 7, 5 (so the first and last lines are even and shorter than the middle one without counting syllables), though I didn’t stick to that religiously.

I was happy with these revisions to poems I thought I was done with –either they were haiku or they weren’t, but I didn’t think I could take them any further. In the process, I do think the poems improved. It was more than just rearranging syntax and syllables, in other words. It was an exploration of new linguistic possibilities. Now we’ll see what the haiku journals think. They may still be full of other people’s haiku or opt to choose ones from the haiku writers they recognize, but I hope they are more encouraging.

Who knows, I may feel like adding a few more poems to this sequence of haiku or starting another.

Yet I should add that not all of the original sequence worked as haiku. Four of them were too interconnected, and I felt they really needed to be seen together. I gave them a different title, rearranged a bit more, and wrote them as a four-stanza poem (at least for now). If I decide I don’t like the poem in its current form, I’ve also thought of trying it as haibun, using prose to form the connections and provide the context that I felt was necessary to understand the individual haiku stanzas.

Back to Normal

Zinneke and Buford

Zinneke and 'Buford'

Life must be getting back to normal a little (if summer can be considered normal around here). Despite the fact that we were heading into finals, we made the plunge to foster another puppy. Tomorrow he leaves for a new home in the North, but we’ve enjoyed him for nearly three weeks in the meantime. There’s no stress-reliever quite like having a puppy crawl all over you or take little nips out of your ear. Of course, there can be stresses related to barking all night or doing things in the house that shouldn’t be done, but “Buford,” as the Humane Society dubbed him, has been very good in this regard. He sleeps most of the night and is happy to spend most of his days in our fenced-in back yard with our dog Zinneke.

Still, as I was walking them this morning and thinking about writing a cute puppy post, he grabbed something unmentionable off the side of the road and tried to eat it. Let’s just say that, though I’m not squeamish and normally wouldn’t hesitate to stick my fingers in his mouth to remove the offending substance, this was not one I wanted to get my hands on, but I was able to get him to drop most of it, reminding myself that puppies can be gross as well as cute. In fact, maybe it’s a good thing they can be so cute…

Other signs of normalcy: I raked up magnolia leaves yesterday and will soon mow the lawn (as soon as the dew is off the grass). I’m no longer grading, but am working on grant reports and scholarship applications (reading and evaluating them, not writing them, of course). And soon 130-some haiku will arrive at my door for judging, as I’ve answered the call of the Iowa Poetry Association once again. I’m looking forward to it!

I have a few more books to send back and payments to make for the Southern Literary Festival (including those grant reports). Then I can begin serious work on the Welty Symposium and hopefully take some time for my own writing, not to mention the summer projects we have around the house! August will be here before we know it, but for now the long expanse of summer seems like a welcome sight. We’re looking forward to some travel and, who knows, maybe even another foster puppy or two or perhaps a cycle of puppy haiku.

Slam Poetry

Slam poetry has to be the complete antithesis of haiku. It is loud, long, and boisterous and only occassionally sweet or pensive. This summer I had the good fortune to return to Chicago and visit my old stomping grounds at the Green Mill Lounge on a Sunday night.

Here, 23 years ago, according to Marc Smith, organizer extraordinaire, the Uptown Poetry Slam was born on a Sunday night in July. It wasn’t too much later that I first wandered into the club to see what was going on, and not long after that I began reading in the open mics and slams. I can’t say that I won very often, though it seems as if I took home the $10 grand prize for the weekly slam once or twice (taking home, being figurative, since it was probably spent on drafts of Guinness), and I don’t recall ever winning one of the finals that were held occassionally with the top performers, though I’m sure I competed as long as I could last. But I did meet some great friends there, especially fellow poets Cin Salach and Sheilah Donohue with whom I started the Bob Shakespeare Band under the direction of Marc Smith who often stepped in to add his voice to our choral arrangements of poems — not much singing, but three or four poets speaking simultaneously from different places around the room. Later, we were joined by Doug Rand, who took my place when I left Chicago, as is recounted in “An Incomplete History of the Slam.” We performed at the Green Mill and on Tuesday nights at Adolphs, a tiny bar in another part of town. In the late 80’s poetry was spreading like wildfire after the success of the Uptown Poetry Slam, and there were open mics sprouting up all over the city.

A friend recently wrote from Germany, saying a Poetry Slam was coming to their town and wondering what it was. I mention this to show the influence the slam has had on poetry. It soon became a national phenomenon (though I wasn’t involved by then), and there have even been international slams. For those who may still not be aware what a poetry slam is: imagine a cross between a boxing match and an open mic. A slam is organized in ’rounds’ where each poet gets up to the mic and reads a poem, which is then rated on a score of 1-10 by three judges (at least at The Mill, that’s how it goes). The judges are picked from the audience and usually claim to know nothing about poetry, though sometimes they are academics, poets, or writers in other fields. Marc likes to have the occasional academic judge for the audience to ridicule, and there is sometimes at least one professor in the crowd who doesn’t mind the abuse (or he wouldn’t come back). Audience participation is part of the act, and cheers, boos, and finger clicking (if the poem goes too long or gets boring) are meant to influence the judges, heckle the participants, and generally keep the energy going.

Slam poetry is still alive and well in Chicago today, as witnessed by the standing-room-only crowd at the Green Mill that Sunday night. And when I say standing-room-only, I don’t mean only a few people standing around a bar. The place was packed out and people weren’t leaving. I stood up the whole night, just like in the old days when I didn’t get there early enough to claim a stool at the bar. The open mic session that started the evening off was impressive: some really good poems–as good as any read in the slam–and some tentative first attempts by poets who had finally gotten up the nerve to read aloud in public (impressive more for the guts it takes to do that for the first time than for the poem, perhaps, but we’ve all been there!). Then David Hernandez and Street Sounds took the stage and performed his fabulous poetry to Latin music. Some were poems I remembered from long ago, others were new to me, but they really took me back.

And then, right before the slam, I got up and read a couple of poems. Marc was kind enough to introduce me and tell the audience a little about my history at the Green Mill and with the Bob Shakespeare Band, though he couldn’t resist giving me a bit of a hard time for becoming an English professor. I didn’t mind, and in fact, I appreciate the anti-establishment sentiment of the slam (anti-poetry-establishment, I should say), and the idea of taking poetry to the streets and not pretending you need several degrees to understand it. I couldn’t agree more, and it’s one of the things that has kept poetry alive in this country in the face of reality TV and video games (etc. — don’t get me started!). I read the poems “Ishtar” and “Flags,” dedicating the latter to Cin, since her boy loves them, too. That embarrassed Cin enough, so she came up and recited a lullaby-poem for her son, Leo, which was completely impromptu. Even before the slam, it was a perfect evening. Thanks to Marc and Cin, I even met a few of the poets who now frequent the Mill.

I was struck, though, by how similar the poems in the slam were to the ones I remembered from twenty-some years ago. There was a Barbie-Poem, and a Bag-Lady-Poem; there were poems that sounded like rap and those that sounded more like stand-up comedy. That may sound like criticism of Slam Poetry–that it is predictable or derivative–but I don’t mean it that way. Each poet had his or her individual style and voice, some more unique than others, of course. I think of academic poetry or what is sometimes called MFA ‘workshop’ poetry. There are common themes and styles in these poetry worlds, too. One reason the poems I heard at the slam sounded so much like the poems I heard there twenty years ago is that the poets were all young. They are experiencing the things we experienced then, and they are trying out their poetic wings and learning what we learned (or hope we learned). I know I learned more from the audiences at the Green Mill about what works in a poem and what falls flat on its face than I ever could have in a class on poetry (though I learned a lot in classes that I probably wouldn’t learn at the Mill). What this similarity tells me is that there is a genre of poetry called Slam Poetry, and that’s all right. There are sonnets, haiku, concrete poetry, Slam Poetry, and a bunch of other types.

So after all of this, what is Slam Poetry? At least as far as I can tell after having been involved with it and going back to witness a great night of it, Slam Poetry is long (but not too long — no more than 3 minutes or when the audience starts snapping its fingers louder than the poet is willing to bear). It is entertaining: sometimes angry, sometimes funny, occasionally sweet just for contrast. It sometimes goes for the cheap laugh or the easy sentiment, though the best slam poems avoid this. It is deadly serious and frivolous at the same time — why else would a poet stand in front of a rowdy crowd in a bar for a chance at $10 (yes the prize is still the same) or a chance of humiliation? — oh yes, there are spotlights, there have to be spotlights and fame, if fleeting.

Though I began by saying it is the antithesis of haiku, Slam Poetry shares something with haiku in the competition. As I understand it, there were intense haiku competitions and anthologies the poets vied to be included in. There were schools of haiku, and the haiku master, Matsuo Basho, often traveled around Japan writing haiku, visiting Buddhist shrines, and promoting his school. There were linked verse forms where poets would get together and improvise stanzas of poems that would run 100 stanzas or more. We may think we invented something new with Slam Poetry or choral poetry or performance poetry, but it is really just one side to a poetic tradition that goes way back, and it is a side that is as vital to the existence of poetry as the calmer, more private, perhaps more pretentious at times (though in ways less pretentious at times) academic poetry that exists in books and polite readings. Maybe they aren’t separate things at all, but two moods of the same thing or two sides of the same coin.

Slam Poetry reminds me not to take poetry too seriously and that it’s okay for poetry to be fun, entertaining, angry, pretentious, unpretentious, silly, etc. It reminds me that poetry sounds best when memorized and lifted off the page, though there are pitfalls to performance (as there are with anything), and it is worth resisting the urge to play to the cheap laugh or the lowest common denominator. In the Slam, those tactics don’t always work, either. And Slam Poetry reminds me that the judges aren’t always right, and neither is the audience. Sometimes a really great poem will get low scores or even boos from someone who just doesn’t get it. That’s all right, if the poet keeps getting up and giving it to them! Remember that the next time you send your stuff to a literary magazine or contest. More than anything, the Poetry Slam gets people who don’t normally read poetry to come out on a Sunday night in July (and any other month of the year) when the weather is wonderful and there are a hundred other things they could be doing in the city. They come out week after week and they have a great time and they go home believing they understand poetry at least a little. Now, what could be wrong with that?

Judging Haiku

This summer, I had the pleasure to judge a haiku contest for the Iowa Poetry Association. I’ve judged their general adult category before, so I knew this would be interesting, and I reminded myself that 100 or so haiku only meant reading 1700 syllables! So I dove right in. Of course, it was a little harder than it sounds, and I found I learned a lot about haiku in the process.

I have taught haiku in poetry classes, of course, and I have taught traditional Japanese haiku (in translation) in World Lit classes. I’ve even written haiku, so I had a pretty good idea of what to look for. But the rules for American haiku can be a lot looser than for the traditional form: some argue that keeping the 5, 7, 5 syllable count doesn’t make sense in American prosody. And I agree to a point, though I respect the balance the traditional syllable count creates, even if I wouldn’t stick to it religiously. Having to judge, though, made me consider what I value in American haiku more carefully.

I enjoyed reading all the poems. Many were quite good and most of them, even those that didn’t make the final cut, had strong imagery — one aspect I look for in a haiku. What made the top poems stand out was their economy of language. I think a haiku should reveal a lot with few words, yet it is not a riddle that answers itself. The last line does not resolve the conflicts of the poem or answer a question that has been posed; the lines of the haiku should resonate like a bell struck once, and leave the reader to ponder the images.

Rhythm, and the sounds of the words, though not part of most descriptions of haiku, were part of what made the top poems stand out. There was no one rhythm or meter that I looked for; rather, a richness of sound and rhythm added to the overall significance of the poems. Tight grammar was also important. With one exception, I chose poems that did not include the first person pronoun, and I prefer haiku that don’t use personal pronouns at all. Traditional haiku is sometimes described as poetry without an ego, though that may not be exactly right. The poet doesn’t foreground him or herself in haiku, but is the observer who informs the reader’s vision. In that sense, there is an (unstated) ego.

I also looked for poems that included slight action as well as description to heighten the tension between images. Too much action would detract from the meditation, but if there was too little action, then the poem remained static and lacked energy.

Of course, I broke my own rules — one of the top poems did include an “I” pronoun, but it broke my rules very well! And surprisingly, it wasn’t hard in the end to rank the poems after reading them several times. I won’t say here who the winners were, but if you’re dying to find out, pick up a copy of Lyrical Iowa for 2009 when it comes out.

I was glad of the opportunity to read all the poems — even most of those who didn’t make my final cut had much of merit in them — and the process of judging a form like this gave me more opportunity for reflection than just reading the same number of poems would, or even than teaching or grading would.