Online internet courses by Call of the Page

Are you interested in a Call of the Page course? We run courses on haiku; tanka; tanka stories/prose; haibun; shahai; and other genres.

Please email Karen or Alan at our joint email address:
We will let you know more about these courses.

Call of the Page (Alan & Karen)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Seven Magazine: Literature Feature

The Oppo} resident poet Alan Summers
inside the bar at 72 Park Street Avenue, just off the top of Park Street, Clifton, Bristol

Seven Magazine Article:
29 April 2006

Cris Warren visits a Bristol cafe where you will get more than just a coffee.

Poets in residence tend to be the preserve of universities and libraries so it's something of a non-dusty and dry pleasure to find one has set up shop in an airy and relaxed Bristol coffee house equally famed for its food as it is its music playlists. Even better, Alan Summers' poems only last six seconds.

As Oppo on Park Street's house poet, Alan's brief is to teach customers the ways of haiku, the brief but epic Japanese verse form that has adherents across the globe.

"The wonderful thing about haiku," says Alan, "is that it's the world's shortest poem and the world's largest poem at the same time. It works on many different levels and means different things to different people."

"If I spoke a haiku to you, whatever meaning you got out of it would add to my poem. Some poetry can make people feel awkward if they don't understand it because you're supposed to know what the poet is saying. But haiku is about your interpretation of the words, and the space between the words."

The table is strewn with yellow Post-It notes containing three-line musings on nature and cappuccino, written by Oppo customers and posted in the red haiku postbox in the middle of the cafe.

"Once you get the knack," he says in explanation, "it becomes addictive. You start to think in haiku."

Alan's beginnings as a poet started simply enough.

"I'd look for blank greetings cards and just write a verse or a ditty for friends' birthdays and the like. I didn't really think anything of it, I just thought they'd throw them away when their birthday or whatever had passed."

Much to Alan's surprise, he discovered that far from filing his cards in the bin his poems were becoming treasured and desirable collectibles among his friends and family.

"It felt quite strange, being collectable - I mean, I really hadn't thought anything of it, but that people liked what I wrote kind of gave me confidence to take things a little more seriously and from that I got into writing haiku."

Or rather, as is the nature of the form, haiku got into Alan. Either way he showed an almost effortless command for haiku and, in a classic case of coals to Newcastle, even picked up a prestigious award for his terse verse recently from the Japan Times.

Now he has an almost evangelical zeal to spread the word through poetry events, blogs on the internet and chance encounters, and he's now haiku poet in residence at the Oppo music cafe on Park Street, a venue big on promoting local arts and music and the perfect place for a spot of poetic reflection between shops.

Oppo customers can, for the price of a coffee, sit down with Alan for five minutes and get a crash course in haiku before graduating to writing their own zen masterpieces, aided and abetted by a latte.

"Haiku is poetry, but it's not and that's why it's so suited to all walks of life. It's something you can spend hours on your own writing, or minutes while you're sipping a coffee."

"I'm not teaching people to write haiku as such, I'm just pushing them in the right direction and showing them the guidelines."

Academic approaches to haiku tend to swaddle it in rules about the correct amount of syllables but, argues Alan, its beauty is in its brevity and space. He also prefers the term guideline rather than rule when it comes to writing haiku.

"All it needs to be is three short lines and the whole haiku lasts six seconds long, no longer. I try not to bombard anyone with too much information, I want people to discover it for themselves and write it their way."

"I don't want people to be bogged down by the rules, I want them to enjoy it."

"It's quite a therapeutic exercise and the sheer range of people who write haiku, from high-ranking government ministers to prisoners on death row, illustrates what a democratic process it is."

It takes a pen and a scrap of paper to get started, but even if you don't have those to hand, the style is so short you could compose them as a text message or just in your head.

Haiku is written in the present tense in everyday language and it works best with two different images that spark off each other. Traditionally haiku is rooted in the seasons of the year, but there's no reason to be tied to this.

It's about trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, or even vice-versa, and it's full of senses like sound and taste, touch and smell, not just what you see with your eyes. Take two of Alan's recent verses, for instance.

lime quarter
an ice cube collapses
over jazz


the rain
almost a friend
this funeral

The thing is that haiku doesn't tell you anything or really even describe anything. It's about letting the reader or the listener enter the poem and have a good look around before making their own interpretation.

As a way of filtering out all the noise of the information we're constantly bombarded with, writing haiku is a way of finding some clarity in the modern age. The trick is not to think too hard about it.

Says Alan: "Haiku brings you back to what's simple but it works best when you're not trying to be clever or philosophical. You have to almost step aside from yourself to write what you feel."

Meet poet in residence Alan Summers at Oppo} Music Coffee House, at 72 Park Street (entrance via Park Street Avenue) Thursday and Friday lunchtimes between 1pm and 2pm


Anonymous said...

Well done! A very approachable attitudes toward haiku. That photograph of you is nice, too.

Area 17 said...

I thought it was darned scary myself! (-;