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Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Selection of haiku by Alan Summers

Crows at an art exhibition, Kings Place, London photograph through window glass by Alan Summers

a scarecrow’s journey
even the leaves become
butterfly dreams

Publication Credit:
Scope (FAWQ  magazine July 2015 vol. 61 no. 6)

wildflowers adding a little evening to the daylight

Publication Credit:  Presence #52 (2015)

700,000 olive trees remember the butterfly

Publication Credit: 
Bones - journal for contemporary haiku issue 7 July 15th 2015

dandelion fluff
I lose count of my time
on this earth

Publication Credit:  Brass Bell July 2015 Showcase

Unforgiving rain I write my next epitaph in a dream

Publication Credit: Asahi Shimbun (Japan, July 31)

we learn to adjust
the clocks of our hands
borrowed moon

Publication Credit: 
sequence: Bones - journal for contemporary haiku no. 7 July 15th 2015

cobweb moon
a man’s opening lines
fill with mortar

Publication Credit: 
sequence: Bones - journal for contemporary haiku issue 7 July 15th 2015

conjugating verbs
across a battlefield
matins moon

Publication Credit: 
sequence: Bones - journal for contemporary haiku issue 7 July 15th 2015

Minnelli's films
the spirits of long lost actors
across a dance floor

Publication Credit: Asahi Shimbun (Japan, August 21st 2015)

the sound dome of bees
how many shades of color
can a human see

Selected by Isamu Hashimoto
Publication Credit: Mainichi Shimbun (Japan, July 7, 2015)

The colour rain
runs through our blood types
in wood and iron

Publication Credit: Asahi Shimbun (Japan, July 2015)

family home
the grain of the wood
enters his hands

Publication Credit: 
Prune Juice, Journal of Senryu, Kyoka, Haibun & Haiga, Issue Sixteen: July, 2015

the swansongs
of orb spiders

Publication Credit:
Scope (FAWQ  magazine July 2015 vol. 61 no. 6)

quickening its rain
through the eye of a needle
the dragonfly’s glint

Publication Credit:
Scope (FAWQ  magazine July 2015 vol. 61 no. 6)

stray casuality
my tears reflected
as bandages

Publication Credit:
Ekphrastic haiku for Art Installation by Fairley Barnes and Call for Haiku Response

garden chores
I dig another timezone
from the backyard

Publication Credit:  Mainichi Shimbun (Japan, March 31st 2015)

corn moon
the jackdaw shifts
its iris

Publication Credit:  
Asahi Shimbun (International Haiku Day April 17th 2015); EarthRise Rolling Haiku Collaboration 2015, The Year of Light 

Image taken by Alan Summers through the window

Image taken by Alan Summers through the window

Pangolin London exhibited a varied selection of works at the Kings Place building that celebrated the skills of modern British and contemporary sculptors.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

All That Remains - A Book Review by Alan Summers

back cover of award-winning haiku collection

All That Remains
By Catherine J.S. Lee

A book review by Alan Summers

“…a tightly spun web of Maine haiku that do not lose their joint narrative and lyrical threads…if you want to reward yourself as a reader of good poetry, you can go no further than Lee’s book.” Alan Summers

All That Remains is both the title and the dominant theme of this book. After all, everything is in transition, and this collection captures intriguing aspects which we often neglect at our peril.

The book captures a bygone era, both in landscape on a broad visual scale, as well as on an intimate aural scale.  Lee tackles landscape in original ways and deals with exterior/external and internal sub-themes.

The opening haiku works well as an introduction for the attentive reader on many levels, and is a clue for those readers who enjoy losing themselves into a good book.

hometown visit
no trespassing signs
where we used to play

There is the surface meaning of adults revisiting childhood haunts, and finding them changed; then delving deeper, there are layers of interior landscape as well as the physical geography of the countryside.  We find how it affects the individual who almost always takes a personal geography of their upbringing to new places.

Do we allow trespassers into our own private interior landscape(s), and can we as a writer, even if we are actually willing to do so?

Lee attempts this.

Sense of place and identity are enduring and vital themes for writing in any genre, and perfectly suitable for haiku, the shortest of poems. One continuous theme is always a challenge whether for the writer or the reader.  The writer still has to look for variety, especially in such a short poem choice as haiku.

Often haiku are composed with one very short first line called a fragment, followed by a phrase of two more short lines.  Both sections usually create a juxtaposition of different, almost opposing images, jolting and jostling each other to create friction, tension, and resonance, for the reader to enjoy and interpret.

If the fragment is flat in textural meaning, and looks merely thrown in to start a haiku off, there is no frisson for the reader to get hold of, and shake, to see what comes out for them.  There has to be a reward for a reader willing to enter into a contract with a writer.  A flat fragment that doesn’t kick-start results in mundane formulaic layouts and templates, that are ultimately frustrating to the discerning reader, especially if they have paid good money on trust as part of that writer/reader relationship.

family secrets–
the shore ledge covered
by rock weed

Here the fragment pulls us into the haiku, and the phrase apparently goes away from the subject.  But does it really?

Remember the opening haiku, no trespassing?  

Do you want to be covered in rock weed, eventually to be choked.  The subtle choice of reading this as a metaphor is offered, whether by design or not.  I tend to think Lee writes direct observational haiku with a constant subtext to reward her readers. There are as many layers to a well-delivered haiku as there are labyrinthine layers to family secrets themselves.

hard frost
she remembers
how he lied

grandmother’s albums
the missing names
of all those faces

tri-folded coffin flag –
dry leaves in a corner
of the empty pool

Do we need coffin and empty, are they not redundant due to the clear diction derived from the other words?  As soon I read ‘tri-folded’ I knew it would be the American flag on a coffin, possibly for a military ceremony.  Dry leaves would obviously be in an empty pool, not a filled one. But sometimes, even though haiku need not repeat the obvious, it can be a useful device when deployed thoughtfully, and when the author isn’t really, merely, repeating themselves, and the obvious.

“By the repetition of words the reader is encouraged to shift them around and consider various possible interpretations of the scene…It goes without saying that in order to work it must be done with considerable skill, or sensitivity.”
"Repetition - For Meaning and Melody"  Florence Vilen (Sweden July 2001)

This haiku is both a time-honoured shasei model where direct observation is utilised: where the power and echoes of an instant’s sentient experience of a moment is carried forward and plunged into the editing process of a draft verse to emerge as haiku. 

Shasei is often the technique borrowed for film-making, where a particular object (e.g. coffin) is zoomed in, then panned out, or away, to be zoomed into another area (e.g. leaves in a pool corner) leaving layers to be excised by the reader/viewer.

Death is the natural and only definite part of life, and we should never be surprised by that fact, and eventuality. Generations of families can disappear if death is not replaced by birth and an ongoing gene pool.

Is this what the author is implying?

Perhaps the tightly crafted openness and accessibility is a gift for the reader to take more from the poem if they wish to go beyond the surface meaning. Lee’s poems are rarely one-dimensional, if ever, and most proficient writers respect their readers too much to cop out in such a manner when composing haiku. A successful haiku is multi-dimensional, and there are many in this collection worth re-reading and exploring further.

My only criticism is that although there are many haiku directly or indirectly using sound, there are scarce mentions of taste and smell.

Is this a problem?  I don’t think so, it just makes me want to embrace a companion volume from this author.  I would love to give Lee an excuse, and reason, to capture the smells of home-cooking, at the house, and out on a (possibly rare) picnic, and packed meals for those tilling the land.

pasture cairn
the old farmer’s
bent spine

Good haiku can often work on metaphorical levels as we’ve discussed.  Not every haiku needs to have a poet looking for a metaphor of course, as a reader or as the author.  Well crafted haiku work on other levels for their readers, and it’s the layers of meaning, beyond the presentation of words first delivered to the reader, that make it a haiku worth reading, and re-reading again and again.

A haiku needs an audience, and that audience should be rewarded if they use diligence in their reading.  This is the case with Lee’s work: a tightly spun web of haiku that do not lose their joint narrative and lyrical threads that delightfully entrap the most discerning of readers.

If you want to reward yourself as a reader of good poetry, you can go no further than Lee’s book.

Alan Summers, With Words

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review by Alan Summers: Wild Violets, Yuki Teikei Haiku Society Members’ Anthology 2011

Wild Violets, Yuki Teikei Haiku Society Members’ Anthology 2011 
Edited by Jerry Ball and J. Zimmerman ISBN 978-0-9745404-9-8. 
Review by Alan Summers

The anthology showcases seasonally focused haiku from its members; a summary of winners from the Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contest (2010); haibun; and essays. 

Ann Bendixen’s fine interior art as folding inserts open out into larger pages that work as fine art subject dividers: a great idea, and very practical.  An idea of her dramatic and effective touch of colour is shown with the full colour book covers.

I would like to state that this is a most beautifully put together book by a great team, and my only regret, and worry, is that the book may have already sold out but I see on their homepage that a second printing has been authorized.  Do check the Society’s home page on a regular basis, and even ask if you can get advance orders, it will sell out!

So many haiku to choose from, but here are a handful:

witching hour
a cloud slips away
from the moon

Christopher Herold

his oxygen tube
stretches the length of the house
winter seclusion

Deborah P. Kolodji

spider silk
it too has come to ruin
under the cherry tree

Michael McClintock

By way of a review I will be addressing one essay in particular as it covers a contentious subject, possibly even deemed controversial in some quarters.

This Editors' Greeting that introduces the anthology includes this paragraph:

The first three essays concern our core tools. Patricia J. Machmiller discusses the considerable value of the kigo. In 2010, she led several one-day seasonal workshops to study the use of the kigo in haiku. Her essay "Kigo: A Poetic Device in English Too" opens the essay section because the kigo is the bedrock of our study. Anne Homan, lead-editor of the San Francisco Bay Area Nature Guide and Saijiki (first published in 2010) shows us the importance of a saijiki (a kigo dictionary) and YTHS's process of constructing one. Deborah Kolodji addresses the ginko (the practice of writing haiku while walking).

The anthology's title is from a haiku by Patricia J. Machmiller:

   the little child
   wanting only to be held—
   wild violets

For anyone not familiar with Patricia J. Machmiller: 

Machmiller approaches the subject in an intelligent open manner, giving a clean clear introduction about kigo for those new or even familiar with haiku.

She explains that kigo (plural and singular spelling) are devices used in haiku and renga and are symbolic of a season, and hold the power of allusion to literary, religious, and historical references.  This simple statement holds a key, if not the key, to the ongoing debate whether non-Japanese writers can be allowed to use the kigo device.

Kigo have had two histories, one of a poetical device that resonated deeply with writers before, during, and shortly after Matsuo Bashō, on a level that may have included a genuinely deeply felt emotional set of triggers and insights for both writers and selected readers. But which readers, of what socio-economic or cultural background?  Was kigo limited to aristocratic circles and later also to the emerging and dominant merchant classes of the new middle classes?

Bashō made renga and its starting verse of hokku (later to morph into haiku) more accessible, to a wider audience. But were the ordinary working class members able to be allowed access to enjoyment of haikai literature (namely renga, and standalone hokku, later haiku) and its devices including kigo?

My preamble is to wonder whether the kigo was purely an academically created and driven poetic (literary) device privy to just an elite, perhaps articulated in an exclusive manner from working class people’s awareness of the natural world around them via their agrarian ties. We know that the post-agrarian society entering the industrial age had access to writing implements, and paper and card, and may have utilised seasonal words and phrases in their greeting cards and letters, as well as poetry, but were these the same as kigo, or early naïve attempts?

The second history is of the increase of centralising kigo despite Japan’s different climates from the South to the North of its islands.  Bureaucracy decreed that kigo became regimented, and pre-eminence given to those that related to the environs of the old capital of Kyoto, and the newly emerging capital of Edo aka current day Tokyo.

Is kigo really the Japanese people’s collective consciousness, and so all non-Japanese people must be excluded? Or the secured preserve of a few?

We know that hokku and haiku began to be readily available under two American actions, the mid 19th Century arrival of US black ships brokering an end to isolation for Japan and opening up of world trade; and the 1945-1952 Occupation of Japan after WWII.  Japanese artists welcomed these actions and embraced Western art, which influenced haiku poetry, and of course the West were introduced to Japanese art including poetry.

Why the resistance regarding haiku’s most potent tool, namely kigo, when haiku already started to absorb some Western techniques under Shiki?  Would we, should we, insist that Japanese writers desist from writing Italian (or English) sonnets if they so desired?  Of course not, and at least sonnets in English have been done.

I wonder if the mystification of the Japanese people by Westerners is bordering on not only mistaken beliefs, as if the Japanese people were separate from all other cultures and races, but encompasses patronising characteristics which are disingenuous, and precariously close to an odd form of  inverted racism.

The West is a larger group of poets than ever before, and joined by those in other nations, who look to Japan’s haiku as one kind of inspiration or another.  The one great strength of Japanese haikai tradition is to share, and the non-Japanese nations also share by reading each other’s work unless there is censorship imposed on them.

And certainly poets since Milton have strived to read widely, and absorb widely the many methods of other poets, of anything that could inform their work. I am often reminded of Bill Manhire’s poem On Originality:

These last two verses sum up my own approach to poetry, where I long ago left my early misinformed isolationist stance, and fear of contamination, so common amongst many poets first starting out; where we avoid the influence by others, of whatever nation or race.

It is a difficult world.
Each word is another bruise.

This is my nest of weapons.
This is my lyrical foliage.

We know poets concern themselves with form (or genre) with its shapes and techniques, and yet out of all forms and genres of poetry worldwide it seems there is almost an embargo on haiku with its most telling technique, that of the kigo. Where it is common practice in poetry to utilise and adapt new and old techniques from other lands, it is almost seen as verboten, and actually anti-Japanese to use kigo, and label it as such. I feel that both Bashō and Shiki would have been perplexed at this block in a poet’s attitude, and a potentially dangerous chink in their arsenal.

Merely calling something a season word or a seasonal reference, if a non-Japanese writer attempts haiku, could be misleading and unfairly limiting both to writers and readers of haiku outside Japan, especially if the word(s) go beyond just the spelling out of a season.

I agree with Machmiller when she says: 
“…I do not believe that the Japanese have a lock on kigo…”

Unlike Machmiller I feel it’s time to make saijiki (the kigo dictionary) a regular actuality in countries where there occurs a large number of haiku and renga writers. This process needs to be fluid and inclusive: not an exclusive club for elite literati to dictate to lesser mortals. As well as potential new strains of  inverted racism, I worry that an ongoing inverted snobbery has gone on for too long both in Japan, and in the West.  Or is it misguided rose-tinted spectacles placed on a fainting goat? 

Machmiller states how certain words and phrases in Western culture already operate as kigo. I don’t intend to quote or reveal any more of Machmiller’s essay, as I want the anthology (in its entirety) to be part of many a haiku poet’s reference library.

On a final note, it seems that the terms kigo and its partner term kidai are Post-Isolation Japan:

“After haiku became a fully independent genre, the term "kigo" was coined by Otsuzi Ōsuga (1881-1920) in 1908. "Kigo" is thus a new term for the new genre approach of "haiku." So, when we are looking historically at hokku or haikai stemming from the renga tradition, it seems best to use the term "kidai." Although the term "kidai" is itself new—coined by Hekigotō Kawahigashi in 1907!

Itō, Yūki. The Heart in Season: Sampling the Gendai Haiku Non-season Muki Saijiki, preface in Simply Haiku vol 4 no 3, 2006.

This was reviewed in: 
Notes from the Gean Vol. 3, Issue 3 December 2011 
Lynx: A Journal for Linking Poets XXVII:1 February, 2012


Wild Violets received Haiku Society of America’s Kanterman Prize Honorable Mention for Best Anthology 2012. 

The judges, Carolyn Hall and Christopher Patchel, said  

“This very attractive book (made so by a beautiful cover and foldout Chinese brush paintings by Ann Bendixen) includes two poems by each of 57 member poets, as well as haibun and informative essays by well-known haijin.”

Amazon USA

See my article on the cutting and seasonal techniques of haiku:


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Fay Aoyagi and Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks - A Haiku Collection Review by Alan Summers

(photo by Garry Gay) 

Fay Aoyagi’s haiku collections are a must for anyone serious about haiku, in my opinion. Fortunately for anyone who has missed out on her earlier work we have the extra bonus that her latest collection also includes a Selected Haiku section showcasing work from both of her previous collections.

David G. Lanoue has this to say about Aoyagi in his featured essay for Modern Haiku:
In recent years San Francisco poet Fay Aoyagi has been exploring what she calls “the inner landscape” with the same keen focus and subtle perception that traditional poets of haiku bring to birds, flowers and the moon.

David G. Lanoue further states:
Personally, I believe that haiku is about discovery: the deeper the feeling of discovery, the better the haiku, in my opinion. In a great haiku we sense the poet finding out something in the process of composition, not reporting on a thing that has been previously mentally digested.

Something with Wings: Fay Aoyagi's Haiku of Inner Landscape by David G. Lanoue, 
Featured Essay, Modern Haiku Volume 40.2 Summer 2009

Aoyagi’s first haiku collection was a landmark book when it looked worryingly possible that haiku may finally, at least in English, become dried up like one of those tumbleweeds you often saw in Westerns to show a town had died, become a ghost town. That’s what seemed to be the final logical outcome until books of the refreshing quality as in Chrysanthemum Love appeared.


Aoyagi had this to say about her work, in the introduction to her 2003 collection Chrysanthemum Love

If you believe haiku must be about nature, you may be disappointed with my work. There is a lot of "me" in my haiku. I write very subjectively. I am not interested in Zen and the Oriental flavours to which some Western haiku/tanka poets are attracted. I love the shortness and evocativeness of haiku. I don't write haiku to report the weather. I write to tell my stories.

Aoyagi doesn’t do weather report haiku yet she still harnesses kigo in both her Japanese and English-language haiku:

Saijiki are a treasure vault of kigo and sample haiku and I rely heavily on saijiki when I write haiku both in Japanese and English.  
Moon in the Haiku Tradition essay by Fay Aoyagi

Bill Higginson put it very forcefully, and unfortunately I agree with him. I’ve seen all too often that formula has become mistaken with form. Although in recent years, along with Aoyagi, there are promising signs that haiku in English have never been healthier.

Yet, for years now, I have had the feeling that our haiku community was somehow steering off in one or at most two narrow directions. On one road we have the Zen- imbued notion of the haiku as a momentary blip on the screen of our lives. 

On the other, haiku becomes a tool in the hands of the satirist, unfit for serious composition. The yeastiness of that implicit conversation among the formalists, the anti-formalists, the Zennists, the nature writers, the inventors of senryu on our continent, the haiku psychologists, and the damned-if-I-won’t-do-it-my-own-way innovators seemed to have dried up. 

Book after book of same-o-same-o haiku seemed to come pouring from the burgeoning presses of our haiku community, as well as occasionally from some larger press. This is not to demean the numerous collections of fine haiku that have appeared. Just to say that there seemed to be little coming out that was outstandingly fresh or developing a truly world-class richness and variety in our fledgling tradition.
Chrysanthemum Love by Fay Aoyagi reviewed by William J. Higginson 
Modern Haiku Vol. 35.2 (Summer 2004)

There may appear to be a lot of jockeying at present about who will be remembered as a haiku writer, outside of Japan, on a world stage level. I would suggest, whether you are new, or a seasoned reader, to haiku, to search carefully which books you add to your haiku library. If you are a writer of haiku as well, only quality reading will inform your own writing. Bill Higginson touches on this, in his important review of Aoyagi’s first collection.

At the same time, new books on Japanese haiku should have been broadening our view of haiku. It seemed as though Makoto Ueda’s greatest masterpiece, Bashô and His Interpreters (1992), and the eye-opening Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi (1998) had fallen under bushel baskets. Where were the poets taking heed, building into our haiku the new richness and diversity of even older Japanese haiku that these books revealed?

Chrysanthemum Love by Fay Aoyagi reviewed by William J. Higginson 
Modern Haiku Vol. 35.2 (Summer 2004)

There are few haiku writers who can harness, seamlessly, the old and the new, or can break out of a perceived mould of what a haiku should be, and what a haiku writer should be. All I can say is look out for them, and keep their books close to your side, and be particular about which haiku books build and increase your library.

I have my own list of authors who I see as the real thing, and some writers know that I include them, and I am always on the lookout for new exciting writers. I have high expectations after the stop start developments of the 1990s. Although the 21st Century is still new, barely over its first decade, we need more writers of Aoyagi’s qualities to cement haiku in the West as a true tradition, and not as a strange experiment. 

Bill says:
Fay Aoyagi has lassoed and galloped beyond most of what we have learned about how to write American haiku in five decades, and opened the way to a new century. Chrysanthemum Love is a stunningly original book and a whole collection of “my favorite haiku”—I hope you’ll make it one of yours. I guarantee, it’s the real thing.

Chrysanthemum Love by Fay Aoyagi reviewed by William J. Higginson 
Modern Haiku Vol. 35.2 (Summer 2004)

Aoyagi is the real thing, and I urge you to beg, borrow, or steal her earlier collections, and if you are quick, you can even purchase her latest collection.

Just a few of her haiku, but you’ll find youself both reading from cover to cover, and dipping in and out. The book is a pleasure to hold and look at, and is a suitably convenient size and shape to find permanent residence in a coat pocket.

low winter moon 
just beyond the reach 
of my chopsticks

who will write 
my obituary? 
winter persimmon

plum blossoms
a specimen of my dream 

sent to the lab

simmering tofu–
father asks where I intend

to be buried

slow ceiling fan
a town hall meeting
of the pet shop goldfish

pastel-colored day
a password
for the budding willow

Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks
New and Selected Haiku
Fay Aoyagi
Blue Willow Press

The collection was a winner of both the Touchstone Book Award 2012 (The Haiku Foundation) and Mildred Kanterman Memorial Merit Book Awards 2012 (Haiku Society of America)   

Fay Aoyagi's website: 

This review was published:
Notes from the Gean Vol. 3, Issue 3 December 2011

A shorter review was published in 
LYNX XXVII:1, February, 2012: