Fire in the Treetops Review

First published in Haiku Canada Review 10:2, October 2016.

      by Vicki McCullough

Fire in the Treetops: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Haiku North America, edited by Michael Dylan Welch; artwork by Christopher Patchel. Sammamish, Washington: Press Here, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-878798-37-4. 415 pages, softcover, 7 x 10 inches. Available on Amazon.

Fire in the Treetops? This title, from a haiku by William J. Higginson, was chosen by editor Michael Dylan Welch to epitomize the intense, even frenzied experience of being at a Haiku North America (HNA) gathering. But “fire in the treetops / the truck races down the street / trailing its hose” has not been my experience of spending time with this book. Rather, Higginson’s “a Bach toccata / keeps the fingers moving— / autumn twilight” better represents my engagement. I’ve done much flipping through pages and running fingers down blocks of poems and prose and along index lines. There are many ways to winnow what is offered between the covers.

         At 415 pages literally no paperback lightweight, Fire in the Treetops brings together the first 12 HNA anthologies (biennially, 1991 through 2013) plus poems by prospective HNA 2015 attendees. This adds up to approximately 1,053 poems by 541 contributors, including some translations of poems by Bashō, Buson, Shiki, and others. (The Higginson haiku above are from 2001 and 2005 respectively.)

         In addition to the collected poems, this meta-anthology includes: an introduction by Welch, a list of HNA conferences noting dates, location and “directors,” and an index of contributors. Each anthology is preceded by a brief piece of text that highlights some aspect of that year’s anthology theme or format and how that relates to the conference, or that conference’s place in the history of the conferences. Each closes with an appreciation, by one of the directors for that year’s conference, of a poem from the anthology.

        Welch was well positioned to put together this overview of the 13 biennial HNA conferences: a cofounder of HNA with Garry Gay and an ongoing board member, he also either edited or coedited each of these anthologies and all have been published by his Press Here enterprise.

        Welch dedicates this publication to the memory of William J. Higginson, and honours him in a segment of the introductory text. Higginson presented the keynote at the inaugural 1991 conference and attended every HNA until his death in 2008, nine in all. The annual Higginson Memorial Lecture was instituted at HNA 2011.

        The introduction, titled “The Democracy of Haiku,” cites democracy as a guiding principle of Haiku North America’s inception: all perspectives on haiku were to be welcomed; all attendees would be included in the conference anthology. The introduction includes a broad two-page swathe of highlights across the 13 events. I’m (seriously) glad to report, that at HNA 2009 in Ottawa, the second held in Canada to date, “the Saturday-night boat cruise broke out into dancing”—fun is an important aspect of building and maintaining an enduring community. Another page-long brushstroke inventories the conference features and traditions that have developed over the years.

        This book does not contain detailed content about presenters, presentations or other aspects of conference programming. It would have added significantly more bulk and would also have been a sizeable undertaking, as conference proceedings have never been published.

        Still, there is information one can play with if so inclined. I’ve had fun looking at, for example, the shifting locations and patterns of attendance. For a conference begun in the US but intended to embrace Canada and Mexico as well, one can see how holding the third HNA conference in Toronto—the first departure from the first two in Livermore, California—substantially increased, to at least half, the attendance by Canadians; in 1991, only three out of 52 anthology contributors were Canadians. I scoured the text looking for a haiku contributor from Mexico, but found none. (Note: the numbers cited reflect those who contributed to the anthologies; actual attendance is generally acknowledged to be higher in most years.)

        One can see consistent attendance by people from Japan, occasional attendees from Europe, and recently increasing numbers from Australasia. And, apart from the HNA cofounders, the “most-attended award” would go to Penny Harter, who appears in 12 anthologies, all but the first.

        Now, what about the thousand-plus haiku/senryu? The democracy theme holds: each anthology contains well-crafted haiku by well-known poets, but may also contain haiku by lesser known and/or experienced poets. For instance, I appear only in the 2005 anthology from the Port Townsend HNA, which was very early in my haiku education, and I admit to mildly ambivalent feelings about my haiku from then representing me in this newly appeared, panoramic anthology. So I think it’s important to keep in mind that the haiku contained therein are rather like “CT scans” of a particular slice of haiku endeavour at a particular time, and they may in no way represent what any given poet may be producing now.

        While avoiding lasting judgments about individual poets, however, here is an opportunity to learn from your “judgments,” engaging with poems as you find them. What strikes you as superior and why? At the same time, you could get your “toccata” fingers moving, and using the contributors index, compare a given poet’s submissions across multiple anthologies to see what you may find. Progression? Consistency?

        Out of 1,053 poems, you will surely find treasures. Seven consistently shining haiku in six different anthology years—occasional anthologies have two poems per poet—remind me why Christopher Herold is one of my favourite haiku poets. From Herold (of Woodside, California; 1993):

                half-closed eyes . . .

                one lash draws a beam

                           from the candle

You will read poets you might encounter at a future HNA conference. You will encounter poets we have lost. By Martin Lucas (Lancaster, England; 1995):


                the sash windows


This, from a poet no longer with us (deceased 2014), is very alive with image, motion and sound.

        An intriguing offering by Nick Avis (Cornerbrook, Newfoundland; 1993):

                mother and daughter

                weave together on the loom

                          mist around the house

This feels very “Newfoundland” (at least to a west coast Canuck who has never been there)—remote, weathered. It has an aura of fairy or folk tale—darkness lurks in a potentially cozy scene.

        From Penny Harter (Santa Fe, New Mexico; 1999):

                TV off

                the screen reflects

                a living room

So simply concrete, yet what a social statement.

        This from Ruth Yarrow (Seattle, Washington; 2011):

                sketching wild orchids—

                slowly I sense

                their sweet smell

My favourite workshop at HNA 2005 was Pamela Miller Ness’s on prosody. Yarrow’s haiku exhibits in spades what I gleaned about prosody from that workshop.

        A glimpse of senryu, from John Stevenson (Nassau, New York; 2001):

                glass-topped conference table

                        looking up

                               their noses

Fire in the Treetops represents a wide-ranging scoop of existing-but-not-widely-available texts, brought together in one “bucket,” augmented with factual information and present-day commentary, to produce a partial historical record of a 25-year movement in the North American haiku scene. Given the steady growth of anthology contributors evident over the years, HNA appears robustly healthy, and this book perhaps poised for a sequel down the line.