Ottawa Citizen Article

Wining, Dining, Haiku

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, Sunday, 9 August 2009, page A10. Written by Katie Daubs, who wrote to me afterwards, on 13 August 2009, to say that “I really enjoyed your haiku. I’ve been passing around your [‘A Haiku Handful’] pamphlet in the newsroom, and colleagues all think they are wonderful.” See A Haiku Handful and the Trifolds page.

Attendees at an Ottawa conference celebrating a “trite Japanese pastime” take it pretty seriously, writes Katie Daubs.

Saturday it was—

Haiku, wine, and boat cruises,

The poets fêted.

After I arrived at the Haiku North America conference, I realized how lousy my attempt was.

“It’s not five, seven and five syllables. That’s an urban legend” said Michael Dylan Welch, one of the founders of the conference, held in Ottawa for the first time this year.

“In Japan they count sounds, not syllables,” he said, explaining that the word haiku was two syllables but three sounds.

Inside the penthouse of the Crowne Plaza, people who already knew this dined on potatoes, roast beef and stir fry before a celebratory boat cruise on the Ottawa River.

What I had written was a pseudo-haiku, a bastardization of the form, spread by well-meaning educators worldwide.

“Five-seven-five is the wrong target to start with,” Welch said, rhyming of published culprits like Haikus for Jews.

Haiku is known as a one-breath poem, expressing a moment with around 10 to 14 syllables, he said.

A haiku is made with a season word and a cutting word. A season word sets the tone—something like beach, picnic or hike [actually, these aren’t all season words, so I’m not sure where the reporter got these ideas]. A cutting word doesn’t exist in English, so punctuation, like the trusty long dash—is used.

Welch said most haiku tends to focus on objective imagery.

“Plate full of food,” he said, looking at the potatoes and vegetables I was distracting him from eating.

“That’s not a very good one.”

Next comes a shift—an emotional distancing.

“I can describe the table of food, but I need something else to go on,” he said. “I need quietness and reflection.”

He did not get either.

Welch is a technical editor in Seattle, and says he has never tried to slip haiku into his work.

“They’re separate worlds, separate worlds,” he said.

One of Welch’s favourite haiku is one that graces the front of his booklet, A Haiku Handful.

spring breeze—

the pull of her hand

as we near the pet store

Welch said he was with his girlfriend in Palo Alto, California, and she was rushing to get into a coffee shop in autumn. He changed a few details.

“The truth of it was eagerness,” he said.

Welch first got into haiku in 1976, at school. He co-founded the conference in 1991, and every two years, it jumps to another city—Chicago, Boston, New York. Since Wednesday, aspiring and established haiku poets have gathered in Ottawa for workshops, readings and performances.

“If a bomb went off [here], it would be a big loss for the haiku world,” Welch said.

A well-known American haiku poet, John Brandi, was the conference’s keynote speaker. Brandi is a poet of the beat generation.

The Californian has travelled around the world, publishing poetry and essays. He now lives in New Mexico.

At the start of his address, he said his area code had just been changed to 575. Laughter filled the room.

He told the group when he handed in a haiku to a college professor years ago, the professor told him that instead of a “trite Japanese pastime” he should consider European forms like the sonnet, or the limerick.

But he didn’t trust the English department.

“Haiku brings us back to this moment,” he said.

“Here you are, here I am, just this.”