Thursday, October 21, 2010

Five Questions for an Editor: Vinnie Kinsella

Vinnie Kinsella, editor of Four and Twenty, publishes short poems like we do.  But we're going to publish a rather lengthy interview with him.  Let's see what he has to say...

1. Okay, we've gotta know: any herbal connection between Four and Twenty and everybody's favorite seven-leaf clover?  Cheech was asking.

I’m sorry to disappoint Cheech, but no. When I settled on the parameters of four lines and twenty words for the poems featured in the journal, I was thinking of those famous blackbirds baked in a pie. I’m a big fan of allusion, so I ran with it. I was aware that some readers would make an herbal connection, but I was just fine with that. Misinterpretation gives us greater exposure. Our hit count goes way up in April, and I know it’s not just because of National Poetry Month.

2. That's some seriously short poetry... just a hair's breadth above haiku.  What is it about the short poems that you like?

As a reader, my favorite poems are ones that capture a moment in time and invite me to linger in that moment. Short form poetry does this well. The minimal space forces writers to make each word count, which can result in some potent poems. I also like how short form poems function like a box of assorted truffles when gathered together. Within the pages (or web pages) of a short form poetry journal, readers can taste both the deep, dark flavors of a poem packed with dense meaning and the strawberry cream goodness of a witty poem glazed with wordplay.

As a writer, I enjoy the challenge of saying something with as little filler as possible. A restricted word or syllable count prevents me from rambling. I’m an editor, so my favorite part of the writing process comes during the revision stage. Writing longer poetry delays my gratification. Short form poetry allows me to start slashing away at words much sooner.

As a poetry enthusiast, I like how the short form serves as ambassador to those who don’t like poetry. I’ve had several readers of Four and Twenty tell me that exposure to the journal has piqued their interest in poetry. Because readers don’t have to invest a lot of time into reading a short poem, they’re willing to give it a try. Quite often, they get hooked. Whenever I’m told that my journal has won over a previous poetry hater, I get all tingly and happy inside.

3. How often do you get submissions where the poet obviously didn't read the directions?  Any particular methods of torture you want to put these people through?

I get multiple submissions in every monthly batch that far exceed our parameters. I’m always baffled by this. After all, the name of the journal is a clue to the length of the poems we publish. What gets me most is when authors use our online submission form to transgress the guidelines. I buried the link in the middle of the submissions page. To get to it without reading the directions, authors have to work really hard.

I sometimes think authors violate the guidelines on purpose, just so they can whine about being rejected and gain sympathy from their friends. When an author starts complaining to me about how no one understands their genius, I immediately ask if they’re following the submission guidelines when they send out their work. If the answer is no, they get “The Lecture.”

I have many ideas for ways to torture submission guideline offenders, many involving a locked room, Rick Astley, and a unitard.  What I end up doing, though, is sending a rejection letter and then mocking the offender (anonymously) on my Facebook page. This usually involves a status update to the effect of “Vinnie Kinsella thanks you for the lovely sonnet you wrote for him, Unnamed Poet. It was obviously your intention to share it exclusively with him. Otherwise, you would have submitted it to someone who could have published it.”

4. Though authors are not limited to formal poetry, you mention in the submission guidelines a few forms other than haiku (senryu, sapphic, and tanaga) that will fit under the limit. Senryu are probably a better name for what we have going on at High Coup Journal; could you explain the other two briefly?

Tanaga, like haiku and senryu, is based on syllable count, but adds rhyme scheme into the mix. Tanaga contains four, seven-syllable lines. The end of each line follows a set rhyme scheme, such as AAAA or ABAB. Tanaga provides an added challenge for writers who prefer writing fixed form poetry.

Sapphic poems, named after the Greek poet Sappho, are based on meter. They are made up of four-line stanzas and follow a strict pattern of meter made up of trochees and dactyls. There is no limit to the number of stanzas a sapphic can contain, so a one-stanza sapphic could work as a Four and Twenty. However, it would be difficult to pull off in twenty words or fewer. A sapphic-based Four and Twenty would have to have a lot of polysyllabic words in it.

Since we’re on the topic of form, I would like to make a request. I’m always on the lookout for a Four and Twenty palindrome to leap out of the submission pool and scream, “Publish me!” Nobody sends me palindromes, and I like them. Please, send me a palindrome. Or at very least, send me a poem with a palindromic line or two in it.

5. Both your submissions page and your FAQ reflect an interest in the needs of younger readers (and their parents).  How can we get young people interested in poetry?

To start, poetry needs to be taught in its proper context. There is this pervasive notion that all poems are stuffed with hidden meanings just waiting to be discovered. Teachers forget (or perhaps don’t even realize) that poetry is best introduced in musical terms, not literary terms. It’s perfectly acceptable for someone to like a song with nonsensical lyrics if the tune itself is compelling. Children aren’t asked by teachers to explain what is meant by the phrase “EE-I-EE-I-O” when they sing about Old McDonald. It’s understood that the phrase has musical meaning, but not any literary meaning. Poems, especially those following set patterns of meter and rhyme, have lots of phrases that make sense only in the context of music. If we allow children to first appreciate the feel of a poem without insisting they “get” the poem, we allow them to immerse themselves in poetry. After the immersion, they will naturally find meaning in what they read. If we push them to search for meaning in poetry, they will inevitably come up short and declare, “I don’t get poetry,” writing it off forever.

I also think it’s important for young readers to be exposed to poetry off the page. Poetry comes alive when we hear someone read it aloud. My freshman year of college, I had an English professor who was also a Shakespearean actor. He had memorized just about every poem in our poetry textbook. He would recite a poem for us at the top of each class. His performances compelled me to read poetry in ways none of my elementary, junior high, or high school teachers ever did. He made me fall in love with poems I previously hated reading when I was in high school. Children would benefit from such exposure to poetic passion. Whatever we can do to show young readers that poetry can be lively and engaging, I’m all for it. At very least, parents should be reading Shell Silverstein to their kids. I mean, come on, his poem about the sharp-tooth snail that will bite of your finger if you pick your nose is straight-up poetic genius! Inside everybody’s nose / There lives a sharp-tooth snail…

VINNIE KINSELLA's life revolves around words. In addition to being the publisher of Four and Twenty, he is a freelance book editor and an instructor in the Master’s in Writing program at Portland State University. He is also an avid Facebook status updater. His poetry can be found at

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Five Questions for a Renegade Haikuist: Gregory Frock

On October 15, a marvelous thing happened.  Facebook statuses lit up with haiku, commemorating Haiku Status Day.  The father of this movement?  One Greg Frock.  We've interviewed him here... let's see what he has to say...

1. October 15, 2010. A day that will live in infamy. Why did you choose that day for Haiku Status Day?

Random Selection
However, 10-15 did
fill a poem line.

2. When did you first come across the haiku poetic form?

In California,
while attending undergrad
at U C Berkeley

3. Why is it that the haiku serves as such a nice status update on Facebook?

Sound bytes are in vogue.
And haikus will not bump the
character limit.

4. Do you see any possibilities for a longer-term Facebook haiku community?

I certainly do.
Although speaking for myself,
it may be too much

5. In everyday discourse, poetry seems to be sort of on the outside of the game. How does the haiku status update change this?

I like poetry.
To help it flourish, haiku
is accessible.

GREG FROCK is a professional writer of more prosaic work such as government bids. However, he tries to create beauty in the world in his own small way. Haiku Status Day is an effort to show people that anyone can make poetry, and the choice of the haiku form is due to its accessibility and simplicity.

Greg lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife, three sons, and a badly-behaved cat. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, reading and dance. He is an accomplished contra and square dance caller.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Five Questions for a Computer Programmer: Chris Cornell

If you've been paying attention on our Facebook group, there's been some buzz about the game Haiku Hero.  (If you haven't tried it out yet, do!  The interview will make a lot more sense if you know what we're talking about.)

Well, we had some questions for the programmer, Chris Cornell, and he was kind enough to answer them.  Let's see what he has to say...

1. You're a programmer who has an interest in poetry?  How'd that happen?

Well, in my case, it's Neil Stephenson's fault.  If you aren't familiar with him, he writes nerdy but generally good science fiction novels.  He had an entertaining book, Cryptonomicon, which featured one character who would mentally compose little on-the-spot haikus as a way of passing the time.

After reading that book, I thought "hey, that sounds like a fun idea" and started doing it myself:  making up haikus when I was waiting for buses, stuck in traffic, or in boring meetings.  They didn't have to be good, (and frequently weren't) but they were fun.

From there it was a fairly straight jump to "this is fun.  More people should do this."  And then "it might be fun to encourage people to do so by making a game about it..."

2. We've seen countless 2D-scrollers, shooters, and games where you shoot a turtle out of a cannon... but a haiku-based game is something new.  What inspired you to create it?

Well, if you want the full sordid details behind my thought process, I wrote a lot of the motivation down in my dev journal, here.

If you want the short version though, it is basically...  Rockband is a neat game because if you are playing the drums or singing, you are actually practicing a real life skill.  You are getting better at something just by playing the game, and when you stop playing, you are still good at it.  I wanted to see if I could make a game that would also make you better at something in real life.  Even if it was something trivial like "making haikus on the spot about arbitrary topics."

And really, I figure if I do something that makes there be more poetry in the world in general, then I'm probably doing something right.

3. How does the game judge how "good" your haiku is?

Heh.  I get asked this a lot, really.  Which is funny, since the game doesn't actually do much judging.  The rule is just that it says "That was a good haiku" any time you have the correct number of syllables.  As long as you can make three lines of 5-7-5, you get a "good" haiku.

This actually brings up an interesting point about how the game is written, and some of the choices I made when writing it.  I spent a while thinking of ways I could objectively "rate" a haiku with a computer program.  Or heck, even without one.  What metric do you use?  Number of long, polysyllabic words?  Fewest grammar errors?  Best seasonal references?

In the end, I decided that any rating system I used would basically be me saying "here is the best kind of haiku - you should write these!"  Since people tend to want to optimize their scores in games, I was worried that this would artificially force people to write particular types of haikus, or feel annoyed when their haikus didn't earn as many points as they felt it should.

For this reason, I decided that the only thing I'd reward was quantity.  Number of haikus written in a time limit, etc.  (And even there you can see I waffled a bit, since I allow a mode with no time limit.)  I don't want to be in the business of trying to judge something as subjective as a poem.  No matter how much time I spend in it, some day, it will give a low score to a good poem, and encourage the author to do things differently.  I don't want that!  So nuts to trying to score them, I say.

Somehow though, people took my generic message "It was a good haiku" to mean that there was a hidden rating system in place, and I keep getting asked how it works.  I take this as at least some confirmation that people care about their score, and continue to be glad that I don't give them one. :)

4. One of the features of the game increases difficulty by adding restrictions to your poem.  A few of our readers have commented that this opened up unexpected avenues for their art as well as making the game tougher.  How do you think rules like this can lead to better poetry?

I definitely think it leads to interesting poetry.  This isn't unique to haikus though.  Many artists have said things along the same lines:  Adding restrictions forces you to be creative, and tends to lead you in interesting directions.  I've seen this first hand, when watching people play the game (myself included!) and come up with haikus completely unlike things they normally come up with, just because they had to fit in the word "eggplant" in there somewhere.

The thing though is that restrictions make for interesting results.  If you ask someone to compose a haiku on the spot on a subject of their choice, they will usually either dither about what subject to use, or pick one about something that they already have some ideas about.  If you ask them to make one about some random topic though, you immediately cut out the dithering, and weed out most of the pre-thought-out ideas they have.  They basically have no choice but to do something creative, and you tend to get results that reflect that.

So yeah.  Readers, I agree with you!  It does make it more challenging, (which is why I let you select how many rules you want, if you want something easier) but you tend to get interesting things out of it.  They're not always GOOD things, but I think they have a higher percentage of good things than just thinking up haikus about topics of your own choosing.  Really, in a lot of ways, Haiku Hero isn't even so much a game, as a creative writing exercise dressed up with a timer and some nice music.

5. A sestina is another rule-based form of poetry, requiring the writer to use the same six end-words in different line patterns in six different stanzas.  Any plans for a Sestina Hero?  Or maybe just a Sonnet Hero?

I've definitely considered some other poetry forms.  Obviously anything short and well-defined is better for quick "pick up and play" gameplay.  But anything that is structured enough that a computer can tell if you are doing it "right" is fair game.  I doubt "Epic Ballad Hero" would do well as a casual game, but some other forms might work.  The ones you list are possible. But the (non-haiku) form I've given the most thought to is actually limericks, since they short, stand alone nicely, and are fast and fun to write.  (In fact, the whole rhyme detection I use was basically put in so I could test out the rhyme detection code, so that everything would be all lined up and ready if I decided to make Limerick Hero....)

So I dunno about Sonnet Hero, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that some other poetic forms might show up sooner or later...

CHRIS CORNELL is the founder and president for life of Paper Dino Software.  Author of games such as Boss Rush and Post Apocalyptic Unicorn Uprising, he hails from a background of flash and console development.  Not to be confused with any other Chris Cornells you may have heard of, who are merely pale imitations.

Friday, October 1, 2010

High Coup Journal - October 2010 Issue

(Photo by Ann Wright, Plymouth, IN)



Rosemary Foster (Bloomington, IN)

Michael Frissore (Oro Valley, AZ)

Amy Harris (West Lafayette, AZ)

Amanda Hillenburg (Sherbrooke, QC, Canada)

Kevin James (Terre Haute, IN)

Ethan Mandelkern (Mt. Shasta, CA)

Darcy McMurtery (Seattle, WA)

Christina Rodriguez (South Ozone Park, Queens, NY)


Editor's Note:

In just a few weeks
these leaves will become more red 
than my poetry.


Christina Rodriguez

puppy love, dear youth
lost in the shuffle of mort-
gages and children.

start off slow, they say.
take your time...time? when did time
give out luxuries?

Daddy, are you too
old for cupcakes and poems?
Too poor for Hallmark.


Ethan Mandelkern

wet peach tastes yummy
succulent soft beautiful
damn juice stained my shirt


Kevin James

words you never want to hear
at a porno set

boxes vibrating
turns out it wasn't sex toys
worst birthday ever


Rosemary Foster

Call him “she” again
And I’ll break your fucking face
Did you get that bitch?


Amanda Hillenburg

Laser gun bullets
Three shots missing the mallard
Want to kill that dog

God! It's full of stars!
My bad, it's just dust buildup.
Play that cartridge flute!


Amy Harris

Sweet Malaria
Fair maiden of the tropics
Once bitten, twice shy


Darcy McMurtery

A guarantee of
long-winded discussion: I’ve
Prepared a few words.

Keep your speeches short
We can still strangle you with
A wireless mic.

Around a board room table
Like oil and water.

A workplace romance
Will poison your well so please
Don’t shit where you eat.

Writer's Block

I can't pass a verb,
completely consonated,
must move a vowel. 


Michael Frissore

Haiku: True Story

This guy was pissed off
by my humorous haikus
Well, fuck you, buddy.


October 2010 AWESOME SAUCE: Christina Rodriguez

Hello denial...
Don't you look pretty today
in your coat of lies!


Tell the bogeyman
that you've sent in some haiku
or he will eat you.

highcoupjournal {at}