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, 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: