Saturday, May 7, 2011

Editorial: Why Do We -Ku?

You might assume that as the editor of a journal devoted to haiku—exclusively to rigidly formalist haiku with a snarky bent, at that—that I am primarily a writer of haiku.  A haikuist.  A haikuer.  A haikunik.  Pick a suffix as you will—I don’t think it’ll fit very well. 

My favorite poems are actually the exact opposite of haiku: epics.  BeowulfDon JuanThe Canterbury Tales.  Vikram Seth’s novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate.  Perhaps a bit weird, eh?  Perhaps a bit weird to devote a journal to poems three lines long with seventeen syllables each when the poems you love the best are three books long with seventeen cantos each?

Agreed.  So why do I -ku?

I started to ask myself that question this past winter.  In February, I sent out an e-mail to some past High Coup Journal authors in search of insight, asking them to reflect on the problem for me.  Because if there’s anything I’ve learned in my short career in the literary universe, having other people do your work for you is the key to success.  Admittedly, some responses were more helpful than others:

I haiku because
spiders ingested my parents
this is how I cope.

--Jacob Glenn

(Let it be known that I in no way want to belittle Jacob’s suffering.  Descended from the brood of Shelob, last fell child of Ungoliant, giant spider attacks have been reported as recently as the 2941th year of the Third Age [or the 1341st in Shire Reckoning].  Do not think that the destruction of the One Ring and the fall of Barad-dûr will stop them: Shelob dwells in Torech Ungol still.)

More on topic, one author’s response was short, direct, and to the point:

I read and write haiku because I have a short attention span. I also like Japanese culture.

--A. Jarrell Hayes

Another author sent me a 2,038-word response to my question.  That’s 2,038 words written about a form containing 17 syllables.  This level of ludicrous awesomeness has officially earned Richard Stevenson of Alberta, Canada, his very own bottle of AWESOME SAUCE:

Richard Stevenson 

I liked Richard’s response because he also managed to extend my question from “Why do you –ku?” to “Why would you –ku?”, as seen below:

…here's my question: How can this little art form be so popular -- indeed, I believe it's the most popular form of poetry on the planet, isn't it? -- and yet make no inroads into leading literary journals except those devoted exclusively to haikai poetry?  Maybe I'm overstating the case, but certainly most litmags in Canada won't touch haiku with a ten-foot pole. They tend to regard it as a five-finger exercise in syllable counting and straightforward pretty description for elementary school kids… 

--Richard Stevenson

I’d expected the other responses to trickle in slowly, but within a week I had nearly a dozen, and they kept coming for a month afterwards.  Since High Coup Journal is an e-journal, I wasn’t surprised that a few authors made the logical connections to Twitter and technology:

To protect against
Twitter-based mass marketing
Write obscure haiku

--Cal Clugston

…it's the perfect type of poem for the iPad age. (As a marketing guy, I cannot ignore this fact even though I myself can sit through a three hour movie and not get bored.)

--Henry Visotski

Some centered purely on the fun of hammering out a short poem:

Mainly I -ku because it's fun.  It's five-seven-five syllables of a smart aleck.  Who wouldn't want to -ku?

--Mitzi Sicking

Much as it might damage my art-snob credentials, I have to agree with Mitzi.  Part of the allure of haiku (to be specific, bad haiku—and to be even more specific, zappai) is that they’re so fun.  High Coup Journal originated as a little game at the Indiana State University Writing Center, where my fellow tutors and I passed around a few sheets of paper, collecting haiku as we waded through an endless sea of Nursing 104 papers.  (I promise you this: if I read another paper about why someone wants to be a nurse, I may put that someone in a hospital.)

Kaylin, Elise, Kaiulani, Caitlin Martin (who is currently my associate editor): why did we -ku?  Partially because we needed a silent way to poke fun at Pearcy.*  Partially because—to be honest—we were bored as hell and it was a witty little word-game to play.  And indeed, some of the other contributors to High Coup Journal zeroed in on the “exercise” aspect of the haiku:

I think I enjoy the symmetry of haiku. It requires an agile mind to create the wording and still conform to the pattern. It builds the ability to say a lot with few words.

--Mike Lushbaugh

One way the form builds this ability is through repetition, repetition, repetition:

Of course, as anyone who has fallen in love with the history of the North American English language haiku tradition will tell you, writing haiku is a lot like panning for gold: you write a helluva lot of these little suckers before you get any good, and the ratio of ore to gravel is about 1 to 100, if not 1 to 1,000! 

--Richard Stevenson (again)

I call this the “Russian Machine-Gun Effect”: accurate or not, if you shoot often enough, you’re bound to hit something.  Whereas bullets cost money, though, haiku don’t cost a thing.

For others contributors, the compression of the idea becomes the goal:

While there are many poetic forms I enjoy writing in, the haiku remains my all-time favorite.  I call the haiku, "a galaxy compressed in limited space."  It's wonderful training for writers who abhor revising their work!  Sometimes I will write a poem of, let's say, 30 lines, and then transform it to one of about 15 to 17 syllables. 
--Salvatore Buttaci

I’ve always phrased this aspect of form as “The Jell-O Mold Effect”: the ideas are molten and unstable before they are poured, but once you take the raw materials and give them formal support, they congeal into a more enjoyable end-product.  As any five-star chef or free-verse poet could tell you, the raw materials have to be good for the end product to be good.  But the form is the recipe. 

If you can't say it 
in seventeen syllables 
it ain't worth sayin'. 

--Darcy McMurtery

The raw materials need to be high quality, but they don’t need to be complex.  Haiku, like a recipe for coq au vin, can take simple ingredients and make something delicious:

I have a very concrete answer to that question. About nine months ago, Short, Fast, and Deadly did an all-Haiku issue ("for the love of God, no Haiku" is in their general submission guidelines) and, for some reason, it struck me to attempt it. I wrote two Haiku that day, one was accepted, and at that point it was one of my first acceptances. I very rarely sit down and attempt to write something specific, but that day I did.

A few months later I had some serious trouble writing anything, but I had fragments of things in my head I thought interesting. I decided if i gave them a rigid structure (like 5-7-5) and kept them short I could make somthing fully realized out of these fragments. I then wrote about a dozen Haiku in a few days. I found the necessity of structure stimulated my creativity. Four of those Haiku appear in High Coup Journal.

Then I stopped writing them. Occasionally I will have a shred of an idea, just something small and clever, and not have a bigger idea to write around it. Some die, some become Haiku.
I believe, at least for me, that Haiku is a small idea fully realized.

--John Tustin

So haiku can be a tool for capturing a fragment of an idea.  But some people find the restraints to be of a more pleasurable sort (if you’re kinky like that):

I "-Ku" because this particular form of poetry, at least in its classic incarnation, provides an interesting limitation. And as we've seen with music (The White Stripes) and film (any Hitchcock production), limitations can inspire intriguing results. Plus, the haiku is something you can take as seriously as you want. A silly one can be just as good - and fun - and a genuinely pretty one.

--Henry Visotski (again)

Perhaps the point of the haiku—especially the formal haiku—is the inspiring struggle against the restraint.  The restraint of form does not hold back emotion but rather creates it in the mind of the author, creating a level creative climax not possible in total freedom.  The oppression of the body of writing…

…mmmwait a minute.  I should probably stop writing too much more on this thought.  Whilst “sizzlin’ hot word-bondage” might be fun amongst consenting adults, even High Coup Journal has some dignity.

(But seriously, if you want me to write more on this thought, I can give you my private phone number.)


I got a lot of good responses to my question, and I want to thank everyone who contributed.  So why do I –ku?  Reading the responses and taking the time to reflect on it, I think maybe it’s because I love the epic.  The epic is the movie.  The movie is a series of still images sped up to create the illusion of motion.  Slow the movie down and the illusion fades into the still images truly at work.  Haiku is a single frame in the epic of life, a single snapshot pulled a hectic world, and regardless of whether it involves jumping frogs or cherry blossoms, the haiku is our world in atomic form.  As it was perhaps said best,

A bad haiku is
a poetic primal scream
uttered in three lines.

--Amy Harris

* Pearcy, you're a good man.  I wish you bolf a happy tomorrow and a happy lifetime. 

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