1991 Nicholas A. Virgilio Haiku and Senryu Competition

First published in 1991 in the Haiku Society of America Newsletter (need to confirm issue number). Also posted to the Haiku Society of America websiteSee also the 2020 Virgilio contest results, for which I also served as a judge.

        Joyce Walker Currier and Michael Dylan Welch
        Judges for the Haiku Society of America, contest sponsor

The 1991 Virgilio Haiku Contest for High School students, sponsored by the Haiku Society of America, received 307 entries from seven high schools (one in Mexico, one in New Zealand, and five in the United States). As judges, we looked for quality, freshness, and originality, and felt that the poems we selected should be complete, needing no further refinement. Our selections are given below, including eight honorable mentions (in ranked order) by category: haiku, senryu, and two visual or concrete poems. We received many other notable submissions, and although they may not be listed here, we encourage their authors to submit them for publication. Special thanks to the teachers and schools concerned for their support—and congratulations to all the winners. Keep writing!

First Place

        new mother . . .
        her old cat appears
        at nursing time

                Gina Valentine, age 18, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Currier: If you’ve ever lived on a farm, you know cats have a way of sensing when there’s milk around. I am impressed with the integrity of the writer as she deals with and unites her subject matter “as one.” Just as the old cat intuitively grasps the mystery of the senses, the poet presents it beautifully in this strikingly pure haiku.

Welch: I especially like this haiku for its subtlety and maturity. A new baby has come to the home and demands the attention given previously to the old cat. The cat appears at nursing time, a time of closeness, of bonding. Perhaps the old cat has had kittens when it was younger, and comes to the new mother as a way of expressing understanding. The contrast of young and old, the newness of the baby, the newness of the mother’s experience of mothering, and the inevitable cycles of life combine to enrich this sensitive poem. Yet much is left unsaid, such as the mother’s reaction to the cat now that she has a baby to nurse. The image resonates in many directions. Finally, this poem is filled with sabi, and joy, too, for the new birth.

Second Place

        As the sun rises
        the flowers open
        slowly . . .

                Paola Mizrahi, age 16, grade 11, Hamilton School, Mexico, D.F., Mexico

Currier: In this poem the value of the slow pace of nature is shown in the skillful and simple way the poet works with timelessness. Timelessness uses time slowly, and the writer focuses without pretense on the fullness of the creative world and records it.

Welch: This poem is deceptively simple. We don’t know where the flowers are, nor what kind of flowers open slowly in front of the poet, but we do know that the writer is still, centered, patient—and aware enough to notice the pace by which the flowers receive the light of the dawning day. Perhaps the writer is opening in the same way, slowly, to a continued life of awareness.

Third Place

        Blowing out
        a match
        the sudden smell

                Jana Juergens, age 17, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Currier: Here is a haiku of sensual impression. The poet is delightfully present as the blown-out match suffuses her with the sudden recognizable smell that brings writer and reader together in our humanity.

Welch: This is an intimate poem, an experience all of us have felt. When you are close to a match and blow it out, you easily notice its distinctive smell. Perhaps this match was used to light a birthday cake, or maybe a campfire far away in the woods. In the midst of laughter and the smell of chocolate cake—or perhaps the rich scent of pine in a dark green forest—the sudden smell of a blown-out match is indeed startling enough to deepen your awareness of your surroundings.

First Honorable Mention—Haiku

        Christmas Day
        the hunters
        feed the deer

                Matt Richards, age 17, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Second Honorable Mention—Haiku

        Father home
        late again . . .
        my mother’s eyes

                Angela Widmyer, age 17, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Third Honorable Mention—Haiku

        chemistry between lab partners

                Noelle Bellaver, age 17, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Currier: “Christmas Day” is a well-crafted haiku about the fallibilities of man/hunter juxtaposed with his prey, the deer. “Father home” is a straightforward haiku of living experience that gives the reader a knowable understanding of cause and effect. And “chemistry between lab partners” is an excellent open-ended one-line haiku.

Welch: These three poems exhibit compassion, sensitivity, freshness, and humor—the mixed emotions and unusual compassion of the hunters feeding the deer, the young person’s quiet observations of her mother’s eyes when her father comes home late, and the delightful word-play and double meaning of “chemistry” between two high school students in a class. Each poem suggests an untold story, and that is precisely what a good haiku should do. (Incidentally, the last of these three poems could be classified as a senryu, but I think its success as a poem is more important than how it is labeled.)

First Honorable Mention—Senryu

        day after the big test
        the nurse’s office
        empty

                Noelle Bellaver, age 17, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Second Honorable Mention—Senryu

        beautiful girl
        I turn my head and run
        the red light

                Matt Richards, age 17, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Third Honorable Mention—Senryu

        out of our flavor
        ice cream man
        swears in Spanish

                Kristin Torgler, age 17, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Currier: These three senryu are a wonderful representation of humor and amusement. Noelle’s senryu is pure perception, Matt handles the third line deftly, and Kristin gives us a fine blend of sound and image.

Welch: Noelle’s senryu tells a simple truth about certain students. Kristin’s shares a simple yet unexpected experience. And Matt’s poem surprises us with its twist between the second and third lines. These are fun, immediately accessible poems.

First Honorable Mention—Visual

        train flattened penny

                Gina Valentine, age 18, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Second Honorable Mention—Visual

        re la tion ship
        broken

                Scott Kluck, age 18, grade 12, Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa

Currier: Gina’s visual haiku communicates to us the “Aaahhh,” and we, the readers, all see the flattened penny and imagine its untold story. Scott’s haiku is a visual account of words carefully spaced to show the brokenness in and out of a relationship.

Welch: In both of these poems, the shape or treatment of the words makes them work. Who has not laid a penny on a train track, then marveled at the weight of the train, at the penny’s subsequent flatness (as shown by the “flat” look of the poem on the page)? Who has not suffered a break-up, as indicated by the separated word? These poems by their nature may not have as much depth or resonance as more conventional haiku or senryu, yet they are satisfying and accessible. We wanted to include them to show that preconceptions about haiku can indeed be successfully challenged.

In closing, thank you to the Haiku Society of America, and to Garry Gay, 1991 HSA president, for the pleasure and privilege of judging this contest. It isn’t easy to define haiku and senryu, and far more difficult to teach it. We encourage all students, and all teachers, in their practice and experience of haiku. As always, keep writing!
—Joyce Walker Currier and Michael Dylan Welch, Judges