The neon buddha attends his first haikucon

First published in Frogpond 40:2, Spring/Summer 2017, pages 63–68. Originally written in July of 2010, with revisions in 2013, 2015, and 2017. See also “The Wriggling Koi.”

At the sprawling registration table, the neon buddha knew he was in trouble—he wasn’t dressed as his favourite haiku poet. No notebook in his hand like William Higginson, no cap with his name on it like Haiku Guy, no cape like Captain Haiku. But he gave his name to the beaming registrar, and she looked him up on the long list of attendees. He had won his free haiku conference registration by writing a cheesy limerick about haiku, and couldn’t pass up anything free, so here he was.
        “Here’s your badge, sweetie—it gets you into all events except the Bashō Bash costume banquet.”
        “It doesn’t?”
        “No, when you registered, the banquet was optional. If you’d still like to attend, I can sign you up. There’s a discount if you’re in the latest Universal Haiku Groupies anthology—are you?
        “Ummm, no.”
        “Ah, well, please fill out this form, including a sample poem. Do not use 5-7-5, but be sure to use a kigo.”
        “A what?”
        “A kigo. You do know what a kigo is, don’t you?” Wisps of blond hair slipped down over her left eye.
        “Oh, you mean a cutting word?”
        “No, that’s kireji, which cuts the poem into two parts. I mean a season word. It’s a word that names or suggests the season when the poem occurs.”
        “You mean like a blizzard for winter?”
        “Yes, exactly. Or frog for spring, like in furuike ya.”
        “Fooroowhat?”
        “Bashō’s poem, the one about the old pond.”
        “Oh, yeah, I know that. I don’t know the Chinese, though.”
        “Japanese.”
        He knew that—oops. The neon buddha’s face flushed as he filled out the form and wrote down one of his haiku, hoping he wasn’t embarrassing himself with it. Around him were several clumps of costumed attendees, each with a name badge, their arms animated in eager discussion. There were too many conversations for him to make out what any of them were talking about.
        “Okay, here you go, your banquet ticket—and it also gets you into the dance afterwards, the Shiki Shuffle. Have fun!”
        The neon buddha took the ticket but stood still. He felt like he was standing at the top of a cliff, and was about to be pushed off.
        “Is there anything else, dear?”
        “Um, yes. I don’t . . . I, um . . . Where should I start?”
        “Ah, good question. I recommend the exhibits floor. Lots of publishers with their latest haiku books. But if you’re looking for a place to meet people, check out the renku rooms—there are different rooms for different skill levels. Or try out the rengay room. You’ll meet new writing partners and hopefully finish a rengay or part of a renku pretty quickly. There’s a tan-renga room, too, if you’re really pressed for time.”
        “Rengay? Tan-renga? What are . . .”
        “You really should go and check them out. Go to the first-timer corners, dear.”
        She waved him away with his registration form, then turned her attention to the person behind him, someone wearing a giant spider costume with gargantuan pendulous eyes. A small tag identified him as “Issa’s Ghost.”

        Down the hall, the neon buddha saw the room for rengay. He figured you had to be gay to participate, so he went next door to tan-renga, even though he didn’t have a tan. Inside, a sign for first-timers pointed to one corner so he ambled in that direction, where a voice called out.
        A tall guy with a ready grin bounded up to him. “Newbie, are ya? I can tell by the look of abject fear on your face. Just kidding. Welcome! We’re a friendly bunch here—mostly. Please have a seat. My name’s Kelly—Kigo Kelly, they call me. I’m a killer for kigo, but don’t let that worry you. Just pull out your haiku notebook and we can get started.”
        The neon buddha put his hand on his pocket but knew he didn’t have a notebook.
        “What’s your name, by the way?”
        The neon buddha realized his name tag had flipped over, turned it around, and stammered something about not having a haiku notebook. Kelly’s eyes widened. “Wow, you really are a newbie. But don’t worry, we have some notebooks here, if you don’t mind it having a sponsor logo from Japan Airlines. Here.”
        The neon buddha took the notebook and admired the cherry blossom images at the corner of each page. He noticed definitions at the back for haiku, and something called senryu.
        “So lemme tell you about tan-renga. Obviously, you know how to write haiku, right?”
        The neon buddha nodded, his face flushing again.
        “Excellent. Well, one of us starts with a haiku, and then the other person responds with a two-liner. It’s that simple, and it stops after just the second verse. The same link-and-shift rules used in renga also apply.”
        “Lincoln Shift? Who’s that?”
        “No, link . . . and shift. The second verse has to link to the first one, but also shift away, to take us somewhere unexpected. It should connect yet also disconnect at the same time.”
        “Why’s that?”
        It was Kigo Kelly’s turn to look puzzled. He’d never been asked that before and had to think quickly.
        “Well, that’s just the way it’s done. Japanese poetry is often a social activity, so that’s why there are two people involved. Let’s sit down here, shall we? In renku, or renga, as the old-timers used to call it, the verses were meant to taste all of life, so they say—to wander among as many topics as possible—and tan-renga does the same.”
        “But why?” The neon buddha tightened his eyes while he pulled out his chair. He wasn’t sure why he needed to know, but most likely his insistence was a subconscious way of putting off actually trying to write one.
        “I don’t really know, to be honest,” Kelly said. “That’s a good question. It’s just the way it’s done.
        The neon buddha drew a big breath and resigned himself to giving it a try. “So, do I write the first verse, or do you?”
        “Why don’t we both try writing a verse and then see which one we like best—or get inspired by.”
        For the next few minutes, they each tried to write a starting verse. By turns they looked up at the ceiling vent, or at the doorway leading to the hall, where the neon buddha could swear he just saw Haiku Elvis. Other conference attendees streamed by, wearing Bashō or Santōka costumes, or whatever their get-ups were—the neon buddha wasn’t really sure. No poem was coming, but at least he wasn’t alone in staring off into space. He looked across to a window at the end of the room. It had a view to another city building next door, a wall of shiny glass.
        On his brand-new Japan Airlines spiral-bound notebook, using his brand-new Japan Airlines ballpoint pen, the neon buddha wrote down “city highrise.” Then he looked at the ceiling vent again.
        He wondered if this conference center was one of those buildings with that sick-building syndrome he’d once read about. He crossed out “city highrise” and wrote down “sick-building syndrome.” Usually he worked out a haiku in his head before he wrote it down, but he felt pressured to produce something faster this time. In a few more moments he finished his poem, drew in a deep breath, and held out his notebook to Killer Kigo Kelly.

                ceiling vent—
                sick-building syndrome
                starts with me

The neon buddha had actually finished before Kigo Kelly, so he felt a small triumph. But it didn’t last long.
        “Which of these do you like best?” Kelly asked, sliding a piece of scrap paper across the table between them. He had written five poems, each one radically different from the other. The neon buddha pointed at the first one.
        “Okay, then write a response verse. Just two lines. Remember to link to it in some way, yet also shift away. Don’t create a narrative development, and don’t link to it in too close a way.”
        Too many rules, the neon buddha was thinking.
        “Just give it a try, and we can take a look when you’re done. I’ll try to write a two-liner in response to your verse, too, and you can tell me what you think.”
        Thank goodness for the ceiling vent. The neon buddha examined it again, wondering where to go with Kigo Kelly’s verse about a tax refund. He figured that must be the poem’s kigo, that season-word thing. Tax forms, could he write about that? Or was that too close? Paperwork in general? Or maybe tulips, since that was a spring season word too? He still needed to pay his taxes.

                tax refund—
                this month’s mortgage
                paid on time

                tulips in bloom
                in front of the town dump

        “Hey, not bad!” Kigo Kelly grinned. “I like the surprise of the last line, and your first line links in to the tax refund season word. Way to go!”
        The neon buddha felt relieved. His verse wasn’t a total failure. He had been nervous about his verses, yet also curious and a little excited to see what Kigo Kelly would write in response to his own starting verse.
        “How about this?” Kelly said. The neon buddha looked down at Kelly’s notebook, a beautiful blank book he recognized from the haiku museum gift shop.

                ceiling vent—
                sick-building syndrome
                starts with me

                at the haiku conference
                I bow instead of shaking hands

        “Works for me,” the neon buddha said. “But I don’t really know how to judge them. I mean, are these tan-renga worth anything? Like, would anyone publish them?”
        “Oh, don’t worry about that. They’re a way to get to know your writing partner a little bit, and maybe learn his or her haiku aesthetics. My verse isn’t stellar, but I’m not worried. We’re just having fun.”
        The neon buddha nodded pensively.
        “We can enter these in the tan-renga contest if you like. This room isn’t as popular as the renku and rengay rooms, so our odds of winning a prize are higher here.”
        “Sure, why not? Do you really think they’re worth it? Do they need any more polish? Or a title?”
        “No titles. Maybe in a month we might think of a way to improve them,” Kelly suggested. “But let’s just go with spontaneity for now, shall we, and see what happens?”
        Just then a buzzer sounded. The neon buddha knew it was time for the conference’s first scheduled sessions. And now he had a big choice. “Choosing Your First Electronic Saijiki” or “The History and Tradition of Urdu One-Liners.” He really couldn’t decide. Or maybe “Developing that Next Killer Haiku App.” But no. He didn’t even have a smartphone. He didn’t know what a saijiki was, so he figured he could check that out. After all, he was here to learn. The neon buddha said thank you to Kigo Kelly, stood up, and strode towards the doorway, wondering which hallway led to the Matsuyama Room.