Smooth Sailing—2013 HNA Welcome Speech

Presented on 14 August 2013 as the opening welcome of the 2013 Haiku North America conference aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner docked in Long Beach, California. Not previously published.

Back in 2003, the seventh Haiku North America conference took place at the Dalton School in New York City. Here’s a “definition” for this conference that I shared back then:

Haiku North America is a frenzied poetry party where a team of crazy people spends ten years of their lives in just two years to plan a long-weekend haiku extravaganza that goes by like a gobbled truffle where the rest of us snorting pigs all catch pneumonia and pink eye from getting no sleep either from writing our papers or publishing our new books at the last possible moment and then we kill ourselves off by staying up all night defining the “haiku moment” or arguing whether it’s “authentic” or not to write haiku from memory. Right? But we come to HNA anyway, because haiku’s our drug and we’re addicted.

Not much has changed, yet in other ways things have changed. Some of us are more wrinkled than we used to be. We’ve gained many new faces in our audience, while several old friends have left us. We’re talking now about gendai haiku—a topic that hadn’t yet crossed many people’s minds ten years ago, and especially not twenty years ago. It’s also no longer possible to keep up with all of the many haiku journals publishing in English. Publishing itself has altered dramatically, and we can now read haiku on Kindles and iPhones, or read books printed on demand the day before we read them. Nevertheless, many things haven’t changed, and that too is rather remarkable. Whatever has or hasn’t changed, it’s amazing to me that HNA has now been going on for twenty-two years. This conference has witnessed many of the most important developments in English-language haiku and its community, and this weekend we’ll surely witness more of this history in the making.
        Haiku North America began in 1991 when the first conference was held at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, and has met in various cities in the United States and Canada every two years since then. If you’ve attended HNA before, you know that each time I ask people to stand if they’ve attended particular HNA conferences. In addition, this year I have a question for you. If you could, when I mention each past conference, perhaps one or two of you who stand up could quickly remind us of something that comes to mind as a strong memory of that conference. Let’s start at the beginning. Please stand if you attended the first HNA conference in 1991 in Livermore, California.

        1991               Las Positas College, Livermore, California
        1993               Las Positas College, Livermore, California
        1995               Ryerson Polytechnic, Toronto, Ontario
        1997               Portland, Oregon
        1999               Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
        2001               Boston Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts
        2003               Dalton School, New York, New York
        2005               Centrum, Fort Worden, Port Townsend, Washington
        2007               Winston-Salem, North Carolina
        2009               National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario
        2011               Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington

And of course, many of you are attending HNA for the very first time. If so, welcome! For you especially, but also everyone else, here are eight practical tips for getting the most out of Haiku North America:

Pace yourself. Realize that you can’t do everything, even if you try. Give yourself breaks. And guard your sleep, even though it’ll be tempting to stay up into the wee hours of the night debating haiku minutia. Maybe I’m speaking to myself here.
  1. Ask questions. It’s easy to feel intimidated in a room full of people who have known each other for years, or when you’re surrounded by “famous” haiku poets whose books and websites you’ve admired for years. But if you put yourself out there by asking questions of any kind, you’ll find everyone to be very helpful and welcoming. If you ever feel left out, please just say so to someone, and they’ll do their best to include you.
  2. Find a buddy. If you’re new, try palling up with someone who’s been around the HNA block. Ask them why they’re choosing to attend a particular session. If you’re new to HNA for the first time this year, please stand . . . Okay, everyone else, take a moment to look at who’s standing. Make a point to introduce yourself to at least two or three people who you don’t know. Ask them to join you for dinner, or chat with them at a break. Let’s see if we can make this HNA the warmest and friendliest ever.
  3. Look at the attendee list and note the names of people you’d especially like to meet. If you don’t do so as proactively as you can, it’s all too easy to miss folks. Perhaps get them to sign your conference anthology, too.
  4. Support the booksellers at the bookfair. You’re never going to see such an array of haiku-related books as you’ll see this weekend, so take advantage of it, not just to satisfy yourself, but to express support for all the publishers and individuals who are seldom likely to break even on their publications.
  5. Take the time to view the haiga exhibits and other displays, bid for something in the silent auction, and check out the freebies such as haiku trifolds or other handouts that many attendees have brought to share.
  6. Try writing collaboratively with others during the weekend—not only with someone you know, but also, deliberately, with someone you don’t know. Try a rengay or a tan-renga—and if you don’t know what those are, just ask someone until you find out.
  7. Share your experiences here by frequently posting photos and status updates on Facebook and Twitter, or by blogging. Many people would love to join us this weekend, but aren’t able to. Let’s help them all to experience HNA vicariously through our sharing.
Ultimately, HNA will be what you make it. If you take the initiative to introduce yourself to others, and to ask questions about how things work, you’ll find everyone to be warm and accommodating. You’ll soon become an old pro.
        Of course, none of us would be here if it weren’t for this year’s Haiku North America conference cochairs, Debbie Kolodji and Naia. A huge thank-you to both them. They’ve had a stellar team of additional volunteers, and they’ve done a tremendous job of wrangling together a great program, and in refining every detail of our activities this weekend. Show your thanks by doing something nice for them this weekend.
        I believe it was eight or nine years ago when I recall saying, almost as a joke, that it would be fun to have HNA on an ocean liner some day. I had imagined a cruise around the Caribbean, or up to Alaska. But I never dreamed we’d actually be doing it. Okay, the scenery won’t change much, since this particular cruise ship is permanently docked, but the Queen Mary is as close to an actual cruise that HNA is ever likely to get. This weekend, I’d like to imagine that we’re stopping at many favourite ports of call, like the Kigo Archipelago, or the Far Province of Kireji, and passing through the Straits of Gendai to visit Imagery Island. What a wonderful cruise Debbie and Naia have prepared for us. But beware—we’ll also have to be on the lookout for the occasional haiku pirate. Or maybe Haiku Elvis.
        Here’s one more observation I shared about haiku back in 2003:

It has recently occurred to me that haiku writing is perhaps more about sensing the world around you and not so much about making sense of it. It seems to me that reading haiku helps us make sense of life, whereas the act of writing haiku is a way to record our sensory experiences selectively and artfully. At this conference, though, we are gathered together as a community to think about our poetry.

One philosophy that has always guided me in working with others to develop events and traditions for HNA is to find a balance between the head and the heart. We write haiku because we feel, and we read haiku because we want to feel again. Anaïs Nin said that “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” But we can also read because we want to think. Here, this weekend, we will have the opportunity to sense, make sense, and to think, through activities such as writing, sharing, and discussing our poetry. We’ll have many opportunities to socialize, times to dance and times to refrain from dancing. We’ll have times to debate and times to refrain from debating. We’ll be dwelling in the theme of “intervals” this weekend—the rhythm of our lines and our lives, the spaces between us and the images in our poems. Whatever haiku means to you, I also invite you to keep an open mind to learn and feel what it means to others. Indeed, it’s that interval between what we know and what we don’t know that gives us an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to grow. In all, I’m confident that this will be an HNA cruise unlike any other, and that we’re all going places that will be the envy of every haiku poet who cannot be with us. Here’s to smooth sailing, no matter where we might be headed. Thank you.