2021 Japan Fair Haiku Contest

First published on the Japan Fair website on 27 June 2021. The Russian version of Nicolay Grankin’s poem has been added here. Originally written in June 2021.

Thank you to the organizers of the Japan Fair in Bellevue, Washington, for the opportunity to select winning poems in the festival’s inaugural haiku contest. The English part of the contest received 356 entries, which included 37 youth entries (the Japanese part of the contest received about 110 entries). In considering these poems from around the world, I sought clear and objectively presented moments of person experience that relied on careful description to imply feeling. I looked for seasonal reference (although not every haiku has to do this) and a two-part structure, where the space between the poem’s two grammatically independent parts creates a leap of the imagination, engaging us to intuit what one part has to do with the other. Figuring out that relationship, and the emotion that leap can produce, is one reason why Seisensui referred to haiku as an “unfinished poem,” not that it’s deficient in any way, but that it requires the reader, more than in any other kind of poem, to engage with the poem’s moment and to empathize with the poet and his or her experience. I am happy to share the following selections and commentary and invite everyone who entered to get involved with a haiku group near you, such as the Haiku Northwest group that has met often at the Bellevue library for decades, and other organizations such as the Haiku Society of America. Above all, I hope you will enjoy the following haiku. Congratulations to all the winners and thank you to everyone for entering your poems.

Michael Dylan Welch, judge

First Place

        a shimmer of trout
        in the osprey’s talon
        summer’s end
                Tom Bierovic, DeLand, Florida

We get an immediate and resonant feeling from this poem. The likely end of the trout’s life echoes with the ending of summer, which evokes a feeling sadness for endings. The poem also exemplifies important aspects of haiku craft. We begin with a strong image of a trout, with the arresting perception that its scales are shimmering, followed by the surprise of discovering that this trout is in the talons of a bird of prey. Perhaps the bird is flying, but it could be on a rock or in a tree, which is a detail the reader can add in interacting with the image. What’s most important, however, is the shift to the last line, a juxtaposition equivalent to the kireji or cutting word in Japanese haiku. It also includes a seasonal reference, in the tradition of using a kigo or season word. All together the poem offers everything we could wish for in both traditional and modern haiku.

Second Place

        beneath the blossoms
        she counts her years
        on one hand
                Sasha A. Palmer, Baltimore, Maryland

We can picture cherry blossoms here, and a young child who is younger than six. The ephemerality of the blossoms echoes with the fleetingness of childhood. We can also feel a sense of delight and wonder in this poem, with the blossoms serving as a seasonal reference. This is a moment that is pleasing to partake in, and pleasing to share.

Third Place

        early jacaranda
        I don't want to go back
        to normal
                Lynn H. Allgood, Pasadena, California

Jacaranda blossoms are a vibrant purple, and you can immediately picture Southern California, if you’ve experienced jacaranda there. This seasonal occurrence is juxtaposed with a stated feeling, surely a reference to the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. We can empathize with the idea of not wanting to go back to a pre-pandemic normal, perhaps because of an increased appreciation for nature. A key word here, though, is “early,” which leaves the poem open-ended as we contemplate its emotional effect in relation to the pandemic.

Adult Honorable Mentions (in order)

        стая журавлей
        отпускаю руку
        внука

        letting go
        of my grandson’s hand
        a flock of cranes
                Nicolay Grankin, Krasnodar, Russia

Cranes in some cultures are a symbol of longevity, which produces overtones when paired with the relationship between the grandparent and grandchild. In addition, we are presented with a mystery—why does the grandparent release the grandson’s hand? Surely because of a sense of wonder at seeing the cranes. But what’s unstated is that perhaps the grandchild is rushing forward, and that’s why the hand may be released. This is a vibrant and buoyant poem.

        morning light
        blossoms along
        an abandoned platform
                Benedetta Cardone, Massa, Italy

The key word in this poem is “abandoned,” which makes us wonder why. And just as the usefulness of a train station platform has passed, so too the fallen blossoms are ephemeral. Even the trains are implied, how they too come and go, and may now be gone from this station forever. And yet there’s a hint of promise here, because of the morning light, suggesting the potential of a full day ahead.

        lockdown
        the swings sway
        without children
                Mona Bedi, Delhi, India

We have had a challenging year with the coronavirus pandemic. It is only fitting that haiku acknowledge this challenge and all its losses. We can imagine this swing set at a school or a neighborhood playground, which the children have not been allowed to use. The wind sways the swings, and we can only hope it’s a wind of change, welcoming more normal days to come. However, another meaning is possible. The lockdown could possibly refer to an active shooter being in the building, a much darker and sadder possibility, yet even that is worth noting in haiku poetry.

Youth Honorable Mentions (in order)

        cherry blossoms
        I will never be
        such a good poet
                Andreea Buzuc, Botosani, Romania, age 13

Many possible meanings in this poem. The cherry blossoms are so “poetic” that this young writer may feel incapable of reaching that standard of eloquence and beauty. It also suggests all the thousands of haiku, maybe even millions, that have been written about this hallowed subject, in Japan and elsewhere. The refreshing conclusion is that, with this poem’s humility, the poet is that good a poet.

        lockdown
        my friends replaced
        by teddy bears
                Sebastian Ciobica, Botosani, Romania, age 9

The sad reality of our pandemic year is that many children have been going to school virtually, online, and have been denied the play and interaction of being in the classroom or at recess between classes. No wonder this poet’s friends have been replaced, but we can trust that it’s only temporary.

        one by one
        the stars pass from sight
        cherry blossoms
                Ana Olaru, Botosani, Romania, age 13

At dawn, as the sky lightens, the stars fade. But in this case one sort of beauty is replaced by another, as they cherry blossoms gain color in the brightening light. The number of blossoms may even be seen to mirror the number of stars. The seasonal reference in the last line, and the poem’s two-part structure, and its emotional effect, as with all of the other poems selected in this year’s contest, serve to exemplify the traditional aesthetics of haiku in both Japan and around the world.

About the Judge

Michael Dylan Welch is founder of National Haiku Writing Month and the Seabeck Haiku Getaway, cofounder of the Haiku North America conference and the American Haiku Archives, webmaster for Haiku Northwest, and president of the Redmond Association of Spokenword. He was keynote speaker for the 2013 Haiku International Association conference in Tokyo and has been teaching haiku for thirty years. His haiku have won numerous prizes and have been translated into at least twenty languages. Michael’s website, devoted mostly to haiku, is www.graceguts.com.