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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

“Being Human - the ordinary intensity” a look at senryu, the sibling of haiku, senryu contest results and commentary, and a very funny checklist!

“Being Human - the ordinary intensity” a look at senryu, the sibling of haiku

I don't often accept offers to judge, but I couldn't resist this senryu contest!

When we compose haiku we might worry about ticking the right boxes for people, but with senryu we can breathe more easily, and untick them! 

NOTE: See last the 2018 results and commentary at the end!

So what was I looking for? 
Any topic, and any approach to that topic. 
"I'm open to styles" and after all it was just one senryu that you send, and it was free!

何歳に, 見えるか競う, クラス会

Nansai ni
Mieru ka kisou

the class reunion
where we compete to see
who looks youngest

English translation by Alan Summers

The best list of differences between haiku and senryu ever, and it’s funny too!!!

From the book “Let’s start right now! The easiest text book of haiku and senryu”  
(これから 始める俳句‧川柳いちばんやさしい入門書
© Takeshi Mizuno, and Saki Kono (神野紗希
This above check-list is also on pages 44-45, where the list and an interview help determine whether you lean more towards haiku or towards senryu. Maybe both, why not!

Go to Page 39 for the start of the brilliantly helpful interview.
Musings over the hodgepodge: Interview with takeshi Mizuno

From another senryu expert:
"The basic theme is anxiety," Sanryu Bito says, who edits the current events senryu column for Yomiuri Shimbun.

He then mentions that senryu can tackle the fear of firing, and of parents' worries over children whose expensive educations have not helped them land jobs.  He heads the Japan Senryu Pen Club. Senryu, which was born in the 18th century, has a mass following in the popular press. Like manga, the Japanese comic books, senryu gets little critical respect but has its finger on the pulse of modern Japan.

Shall I do it now?
Shall I do it after lunch?
Is it already 5?

Back to Takeshi Mizuno and he says:
One of senryu’s principles is that «nature can be like people». 

For example, here is one of his senryu:


I like flowers 
they never ask 
for a loan 

One I posted today onto the Australian Haiku Society website kukai challenge, with this prompt of ‘seeing the world with a child’s eyes’

converted dollhouse
her astronaut’s eyes
filling with starlight 

Alan Summers  

2018 Senryu Contest Results:

It was incredibly difficult to choose not only an overall winner (most of them were of that standard in fact) but just select five senryu to be placed. My last long shortlist before the penultimate really short shortlist was a Baker’s Dozen where all deserved to be in a winning place. They were very unruly senryu, like characters that rebel against the novelist before they can complete their final manuscript, but I quickly realised I should let them lead the way, instead of being a misguided omnipotent God-being.

The constraints of the competition forced me to choose just five, where in other circumstances I would either create a master class presentation of senryu, and/or create a tightly spellbinding anthology. I give a deep bow to everyone who submitted: I’ve grown, I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, I’ve oohed and I’ve aahed both appropriately and inappropriately.

1st Prize

just when I smiled
at the trophy
a wild card entry

- Aparna Pathak, India 

Pure senryu? There is no suggestion of a season, which senryu can use, but don’t need, although we could guess the trophy is for flowers or vegetables, but again it could be for anything seasonal, or otherwise. There’s just a pure focus on one human’s need and requirement to win, be successful, be valued, to succeed (perhaps over our real and perceived peers). This is a strong aspect to senryu; our frailty while striving for perfection, and the dreaded “just when I [thought it was safe]…” scenario, that has to be a classic in comic timing within television, film, and in general, well, life.

At the very first reading, somehow, I didn’t grasp all of this, but with each re-reading came both understanding and a bigger and bigger smile. This carries all our frailties of the human condition, and all of its strengths, and their sometimes-mutually-inclusive-sometimes-mutually-exclusive-contradictions of being better, winning over someone else, or being prepared to be humbled, being self-depreciating (if the author and the person [narrator] are one and the same).

It has a great opening line, so the first word [just] is vital, as is ‘when’ even before we get to the other two words. It’s almost enough on its own, but we get more.  The compulsion to win via awards and trophies, especially the adrenalin drive at public venues, where any surprise or upset can occur, such as the dreaded or unexpected or feared ‘wild card entry’ took me there, as the self-congratulatory smile is starting to be removed. I don’t mind the unresolved story, I can fill in my own ‘what happens next’ as it says much more by not neatly topping and tailing the verse, and thus the story.

This senryu kept banging at my senryu door demanding to be let in, and taking my hand and leading it to first place. Why? I think it’s that opening line that could set off a thousand more senryu situations. It’s funny, it’s wry, self-depreciating, it encompasses so much humour and poignancy too. Poignancy? It’s prevalent in our often hectic and comedic lives of lost and won battles, loves won and lost, triumphs taken from the jaws of defeat, and defeat taken from the jaws of triumph, our view and idea of success, and our perceived notions of happiness. The syntax is both crafted and yet slightly awkward at the same time, using an inversion, the opposite to a linear progression of how we might phrase something. From second to third line, there is a mirroring of the stages of a facial reaction from expected triumph to an early realisation it just is not going to happen. Perhaps the wild card person is a regular and constant winner, and appeared to have bailed out this time only to have come back at the last minute. 

The verse could so easily have been written like this, avoiding the inverted order of words and phrasing:

a wild card entry
just when I smiled
at the trophy

It would have been successful, and avoided the haiku ‘cutting a poem in half’ technique of kire that this appears use aspects. But instead the original uses an inversion technique (turning around the expected order of events and lines). It’s not just withholding a punch line, like the popular creation of an aha moment in some Western-style haiku, that teasing delay of the comic final line to a gag. But it does place comic timing perfectly all the same, and oddly that useful cut (even though senryu do not require a cut, a break, a kire or kireji in its make-up) adds to the delay gratification of a joke and creating space for the reader to witness both funny humour, and a sadness to it all. This senryu uses the first person (I) which is both necessary with this personal incident, and powerfully honest, where some writers or readers prefer removing the “I” in haiku, senryu has to deliver its own direct punch, where the “I” is both the author, and also anyone else, in some context at some stage of their life, or at least for many of us.  

When I judge any competition every single entry is read multiple times before I even leave the long list stage, to start the long journey to the short list, and then to the final placed entries. The fact that I can constantly re-read this senryu, perhaps a hundred times, and still learn from it, and gain fresh perspective, is an achievement that even other good poems cannot always gain except perhaps over years of revisiting them by design or by accident while browsing. It’s another reason why competitions can be useful and should be supported, because we are more likely to return to them, I hope, and understand how a well-crafted poem works, and wins. 

2nd Prize

a church steeple harpoons the moon forced childbirth

- Robin Anna Smith, USA

This senryu delays its effect by using three very innocent opening words in its one-line delivery. We still don’t know what the senryu will be, and it feels almost haiku in content at this early stage of reading it. There then follows a very intriguing and unexpected verb, reminding me of whales being killed, and of course a very famous novel. The verb is followed by the action of spearing the moon, but it’s the two devastating words that conclude the senryu that brings everything together, into a complex and controversial issue.

I am not sure there is enough in depth study of the dual nature of forced sex and forced childbirth: That women have long been a source of grooming and that it’s systematically brushed under the carpet? Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan both used forced non-mutual, non-consensual sex acts (we don’t always like to call every instance as “rape” but the single four letter word is graphically and unequivocally one we should look at) as both a “recreational pastime”, and to populate the world with children related to them (allegedly 1 in 200 people are ‘related’ to Genghis Khan); and Hitler’s Lebensraum and its various approaches also approached racial dominance, just to name three male protagonists, and from the past only. Of course, again, The Handmaid’s Tale has had new drama treatments recently of the original book by Margaret Atwood bringing across both old and current topical issues.

Back to the poem itself and its visceral combination of imagery, and of a woman invaded by a foreign agency (implement, tool, single object, group of people, organisation etc…). The poem uses concrete (everyday) words and nouns – even harpoon is an everyday image in whaling circles. It’s a very uncomfortable senryu due to the double unease with the concrete images that combine into deeply disturbing metaphorical language that is equally physically discomforting: The description of one act with something (equally) inexplicable. Secondly, we don’t expect forced birth, forced sex (rape) maybe, but then rape comes in many ways, from inside marriages, or by a family member, or family friend. In British Victorian times a woman was often expected to continually have children until she died from childbirth; the usual maximum before death was the number seventeen.

Does senryu have to be funny? Just as haiku came out of hokku verses – by Basho, Chiyo-ni, Issa and Buson, – and changed forever the format laid down by its predecessor, for good or for the worst, so does senryu, although it keeps the name of its various origins from the Floating World (Japan) and the poet Senryū Karai (1765-1838). 

If senryu should successfully pare back the trimmings of society that purports to be correct, righteous, and morally superior, then this is senryu. It’s true that haiku, once it appeared on the scene in the early days of the industrial movement, would inevitably approach urban subject matter and social issues as it did with the New Rising Haiku Movement, which inspired Gendai Haiku. Is this a type of haiku instead, then? But if we go by Japanese logic, if a haikai verse is submitted to a senryu journal or contest, it’s a senryu, so this is a senryu, and this particular verse helping to both define and redefine the genre. Exciting times. Where haiku is rarely a ‘message,’ senryu can sidestep all of the conventions of its haikai brother, or use them to its own ends.

The senryu is revealing in that the act of birth has been denied any chance of a celebration from the pregnant woman due another type of violence or clearly made threats, and so contradiction is laid over contradiction, and dogma reigns over human rights, when we stay silent. This senryu kept demanding to be heard, and to be placed within the winning section. I did not choose this senryu, it choose me, and again I have to face myself, in all honesty, and my role in the world as a human, and as a male human. A contest judge should always be challenged, to their very core at times, and be held out to the harsh light of life to see if they are found wanting. 

3rd Prize

red spider lily
the toddler lets out
a new word

- Marilyn Appl Walker, USA

I’m actually going to start with the last two lines, as they delightfully cover either the horror, or the pride of parents as their child dramatically increases its vocabulary. Was it a cuss word said in public, or within a gathering of regular friends and family members of the parents; or simply that the child has begun the journey to become a stronger communicator in the world? 

What I found wonderful is how a clear nature reference was used to make this senryu more than just a one level joke to appreciate, and chuckle over, and perhaps not revisit. We do want our poems to be revisited, don’t we? Not just have a one off reading, and be lost in the mists of time. So that intriguing opening line, akin to how a haiku might start, with its nature image of a specifically named flower, is not one of an expected plant like ‘stinging nettles’ or a sharp rose thorn. I wanted to know why the author might have selected this plant: Was it simply there, or is there something more to it?  The background to the flower is fascinating!

Just two of the alternate names (for the lily) add a little added piquant humour: Hurricane lily; and Resurrection lily. I can imagine the even darker humour knowing a little background to the flower itself, as the possibility of the youngster letting rip causes social upheaval; and where the parent or parents feel they will be judged by their own peers. Peer judgement is such an invasive fear, and also strong material for senryu, not just for comic fun, but perhaps to raise our awareness that it is not pleasant to be constantly judged by both strangers, and friends and family. 

The Japanese have many names for this lily including Higanbana (the flower of death) as these flowers were planted around graveyards to stop the dead being eaten. Obviously the flowers didn’t stop the parent(s) wishing the ground would open up and swallow them whole, away from the shame of it all. Or is it shame, perhaps it was an unexpected word, but the proto-adult (child) is progressing, in their own individual way, mirroring the language of so-called older and therefore smarter people.

Any flower or plant could have started the verse off and it would still have succeeded, but I feel some greater effort has been made. Are we are at a funeral as these flowers are often used for these occasions, or at the social event afterwards when a few drinks have flowed, but the toddler is stone cold sober, observing the now potentially tipsy funereal group. The red spider lily are also often described as flowers about “something bad is going to happen,” and that they grow in hell, as well as guide the dead to the next reincarnation.Their blooming also represents the changing of summer to autumn. We have the potential senryu mix of social embarrassment, the faux pax we all dread, and the transition of the journey from child to adult.


washed jeans –
his love note
still dirty

- Susan Burch, USA 

What is more innocent than fresh laundry? But when people leave their washing to others, all sorts of problems and embarrassments can crop up, especially if there’s pockets that have not been emptied. There is the danger of that awful faux pas, of being ‘caught out’ which is a major feature within human society. Interestingly the personal pronoun [his] in the second line is used, instead of perhaps an indefinite article [a] or definite article [the] which might have made it clearer to me, that this is about a cheating partner. This by no means created a problem while judging, but simply drew me in further, attempting to solve the puzzle of who was who, and who was cheating on who, or whether it was one of those romantic games that some couples play, and one partner escalated the wording of the next hidden love note. 

The interaction between the tense used in the first line with the one indicated by ‘still dirty’ is very potent: And we cannot wash the sins of a person or an act simply by cleaning something. It is not completely clear to me if this is even an illicit affair, or one by a couple taking turns to leave explicit notes to each other in surprising places. But there does appear to be some degree of shock, at least, even if there isn’t disgust or disappointment, and I wonder if there is actually a degree of excitement. There have always been relationships that are outside the dictated norm by polite society, even when polite society deeply engages in them out of the public eye: Ah, the contradictory nature of civilised society is a real treasure trove for senryu. Is this an instance of a straightforward discovery of the other partner cheating, or an illicit thrill of being discovered. Who is the cheated and who is the cheater here? Is the owner of the now washed and clean jeans in actual fact the cheater, and forgot to get the note out in time to avoid it being washed; or simply keeping an explicitly worded love note in each newly washed and clean pair of jeans. Is this a senryu playing on the complexity of human relations and how they tick in unexpected ways, and the sheer contradictory of a dirty worded note going back into freshly washed and laundered jeans? I will enjoy coming back to this time and time again, and asking others whether I have missed something, or just to get their guesses.

skunk cabbage
he says I'm almost as cute
as my sister

- Carol Ann Palomba, USA

Sibling rivalry is a great area for comedy; notching up all those points via engineered compliments. But actually who or “what” is the protagonist in this verse? Are they all children, or is the ‘he’ an adult, and the “I’m” is the child?  Is the wonderful opening line suggesting a boy making a disgusted face when told he’s close to being as cute as his sister? Or a rivalry of two sisters vying to be the cutest, and the ‘he’ playing devil’s advocate? That word choice of ‘almost’ echoes some youngsters’ insecurity, and as they grow as youngsters under constant often invasive peer judgement calls. Are they are all adolescents, and the ‘he’ is dating one or the other sister?  

Skunk cabbage is often found in swamps and so named, when it blooms, because of its distinctive smell like that of the Skunk creature, that lets off an awful smell when disturbed or frightened, and the stink cannot easily be removed. The suggestion here could be fear or an extreme lack of hygiene or case of body odour (from a male adolescent), or even an older man.  The opening line is important, but it’s the ‘almost as cute’ that sends warning signals as it doesn’t feel like a natural thing for a person to say unless out of peer pressure spite, if all parties are the same or similar age. While some readers might read only a completely innocent incident of children teasing in the playground, I’m aware that those very antics, and tactics, also tend to continue on into our later lives. Whether a senryu about childhood insecurities and how they might appear humourous to us when older, the astuteness of using nature imagery to raise a point, alongside that key phrase ‘almost as…’ makes this both a well-crafted verse, and one using humour successfully, but also thought-provokingly. This is another one where I will enjoy gaining insights and different viewpoints, but for now I appreciate all the viewpoints just in myself that this senryu kicks off for me. 

Sonic  Boom FOURTH ANNUAL SENRYU CONTEST 2018 Results by contest judge Alan Summers

Alan, checking out all sides of himself!

I fail to be taken seriously by Karen, thankfully!

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