2007 Tofu Haiku Contest

In 2007 I cojudged a Tofu Haiku Contest. Yes, you read that correctly. The contest was sponsored by the Toronto Vegetarian Association in Toronto, Ontario, and apparently I qualified as a judge by being vegetarian. This was regardless of my fondness—or lack thereof—for tofu. Maybe it helped that I’m Canadian. It was fun to review the poems, and I enjoyed writing commentary on my selections. The contest’s results are still bean-curdling away at http://tofuhaiku.com/, with commentary at http://www.tofuhaiku.com/contest-rules/, but only some of my comments were used.
        As I recall the process, the organizers, led by David Alexander, created a short list of 34 poems—out of more than 300 entries submitted in total. From these I was asked to select five favourites, in ranked order. Other judges did the same, and the winner, Terry Ann Carter, was apparently determined by an accumulation of votes based on rank order. All submissions were anonymous, so I did not know any of the writer’s names. What follows is my own original selection of poems, expanded to ten selections, plus commentary. I sent the following letter on 9 June 2007. The other judges were David Alexander, Jill Binder, Gregory Betts, Sarah Kramer, and John Samson. You can also read the contest announcement at http://veg.ca/2007/03/12/new-poetry-contest-is-delicious/. The contest opened 12 March 2007, and entries were due by 21 May 2007. Winners were announced on 31 July 2007.

Letter sent 9 June 2007
to David Alexander, Tofu Haiku Contest Organizer

David,

Thanks for your well-chosen shortlist of 34 poems, many of which have much to recommend them. I’m happy to include my top selections here, plus some comments, if they’re of any use. My process was to read the poems numerous times, and then to score them on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being best), and then to narrow down to the poems that I thought made the best use of objective imagery, a two-part juxtapositional structure, seasonal reference, and emotional or intuitive implication. Most poems rated only 1, 2, or 3 with me, though each one of them had something going for it. Those scoring 4 or 5 (only the top two scored 5) are potentially publishable, I’d say—and I think that says a lot. Anyway, here are my top five selections (most favourite first):

1st:

        daylight saving—

        the pattern of muslin
        on a tofu block

This fine poem exhibits close observation—all vegetarians know that pattern of muslin! It also has a deft two-part juxtapositional structure that the best traditional haiku employ, as well as a seasonal reference (when we change our clocks for daylight saving time). The objective description enables readers to feel the experience for themselves, and have their own emotional reaction, whatever that reaction might be. For me, the time of year when we change our clocks is a time of transition between seasons, perhaps a more sombre or reflective time, and something about the pattern of muslin on tofu echoes that contemplativeness. Nicely seen.

2nd:

        a vee of geese

        tofu and fried noodles
        for one

Is tofu a solitary food? Often it seems to be. The migrating geese are a dependable seasonal phenomenon, and when we see them, we are prone to examine ourselves, to think about where we might rather be, both physically and metaphorically, in our lives. And here the poet is preparing a simple meal for himself or herself, and notices the migrating geese. This poem has a feeling of melancholy sadness to it, something like the wabi or sabi of many traditional Japanese haiku.

3rd:

        after cocktails—

        she stirs tofu
        into his salad

Who would have thought tofu could be erotic? But the action of stirring tofu into salad definitely has that overtone in this poem, and we wonder what the evening’s dessert might be.

4th:

        slicing tofu

        at the window
        moonflowers

The whiteness of the moon, though unmentioned, seems to illuminate the moonflowers, and their colour matches the colour of the tofu in this immediate domestic poem. This haiku also exhibits what is known as a kakekotoba, or a pivot (the Western term for this device is zeugma). Indeed, the middle line can be read one way with the first line, and another way with the last line. This technique is a means of compression in haiku, producing two meanings (sometimes different, or oscillating), getting double mileage from the middle line.

5th:

        in my first apartment

        a white cube wiggles
        bought for a dollar

Call this my little award for humour. The word “first” makes this poem. We know that the person in the poem doesn’t have much money, and is making the most of it with a white cube of inexpensive tofu. Yet he or she still enjoys its wiggle, a small wiggle of celebration for securing that first apartment and the independence that it brings.

I’d also like to say that, with another five choices, I’d include the following:

6th:

        soba soup

        one tofu cube
        eludes my spoon

We can all relate to this experience!

7th:

        afternoon’s end . . .

        the slipperiness
        of tofu cubes

This poem is much like the “soba soup” poem. The addition of “afternoon’s end” adds a feeling of melancholy to the poem, despite the minor frustration, yet it seems to be a feeling of contented acceptance.

8th:

        pressed tofu—

        outside our window
        mounded snow

For this poet the image of mounds of tofu echoes with the snow mounded outside the window. This poem nicely contrasts the chill of the outdoors with the warmth of the indoors.

9th:

        spring buffet—

        twirling tofu in his chopsticks
        the blind lute player

This poem uses rich and surprising diction. Despite not being able to see his tofu, the blind lute player is still able to twirl his tofu with his chopsticks. Because the lute player uses his hands with precision, it is no wonder that he is also deft with chopsticks. And perhaps others are envious, because it’s hard for anyone to twirl tofu with chopsticks!

10th:

        This tofu is a raft

        wandering free
        in a soy sauce tsunami.

This is not really a haiku, but an amusing statement. Yet it’s a fun metaphorical extension, and a fresh way to think of that favourite food, tofu!

Hope these comments might be useful. I’m eager to find out who the writers of these poems are, whether they make your final cut or not (when votes are compiled from the other judges). Thanks for the opportunity to participate in judging this contest. I look forward to learning all the final results.

Cheers,

Michael


Read the complete final winners and selected commentary at the Tofu Haiku Contest page.