African American Haiku: Cultural Visions

First published in the “Briefly Reviewed” section of Frogpond 40:1, Winter 2017, pages 103–104. See also a longer version (previously unpublished), which goes into more detail, but was omitted from Frogpond for space reasons.       +

African American Haiku: Cultural Visions, edited by John Zheng (2016, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS). 198 pages, 6¼×9¼˝, hardback, 978-1-4968-0303-0. $65.00 from the University Press of Mississippi or on Amazon.

It is rare for an academic book, let alone one published by a university press, to examine English-language haiku, and this book may well be a first—other than the occasional dissertation and a book or two that have concentrated purely on the haiku of Richard Wright (I also note Jeffrey Johnson’s Haiku Poetics in Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Poetry, which is also in the ballpark, but it does not cover any leading haiku poets of the last fifty years). The poets under discussion here include Richard Wright, James Emanuel, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, and Lenard D. Moore, covered by two essays for each poet, except for Moore, who has three. As for the commentators, those in the haiku community may well recognize such names as Yoshinobu Hakutani, Toru Kiuchi, Ce Rosenow, and the book’s editor, John Zheng, but not Sachi Nakachi, Virginia Whatley Smith, Claude Wilkinson, Meta L. Schettler, Richard A. Iadonisi, and Sheila Smith McKoy. Consequently, one strength of this book is how it engages critical commentary from voices that the haiku community may not have heard of—or heard from—before. This helps us get out of our haiku ghetto. Brief biographical sketches at the end of the book tell us more about the book’s pedigreed commentators, although it seems that some of them could benefit from having more experience with leading English-language haiku journals and criticism. Other strengths include the assessment of haiku as effective poetry, regardless of whether it is “haiku” or not, the exploration of jazz, blues, and improvisation, the innovations of some of these poets as they make haiku their own, and the adaptation of haiku to an African American vernacular. This book is not light reading, to be sure, but it provides essential discussions for anyone with an academic interest in contemporary haiku in English, especially for its focus on ethnic studies.