The Democracy of Haiku

The following is my introduction to Fire in the Treetops: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Haiku North America, the special twenty-fifth anniversary anthology for the biennial Haiku North America conference. My press, Press Here, published this book in 2015. This anthology, available for purchase on Amazon, collects more than a thousand haiku and senryu from all previous HNA conference anthologies, which I edited from 1991 to 2015. You can also read selected poems from the 2015 section of this book, see the contents, and contributor list. See the review of this book by Vicki McCullough. The book is dedicated to William J. Higginson. See the Press Here page for this book. See also “This Perfect Rose: The Lasting Legacy of William J. Higginson.”       +

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” —Anaïs Nin

Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Headed

Haiku North America began as a gathering of haiku tribes in 1991. It was the brainchild of Garry Gay, in 1990, and he carefully assembled a team of organizers who shared a vision to make this long-weekend conference as democratic as possible, welcoming all perspectives on haiku as a literary genre of poetry. It was named to embrace Canada, the United States, and Mexico, rather than being just a U.S.-centered event. The first conference took place at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, near both San Francisco and San Jose, which were homes to the Haiku Poets of Northern California and the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society. In those days, the two organizations represented a more rigid divide in their approaches to haiku than they do today, but their differences motivated HNA organizers to bring them together in the spirit of welcoming both modern and traditional approaches. HNA expanded this welcome to haiku poets across the continent to celebrate North American haiku, and conferences have received attendees and speakers from Japan, Europe, India, and Australasia. That first conference was, perhaps, a cotillion—a coming out of North Americans as haiku debutantes, if that hadn’t already happened before. As Cor van den Heuvel said on the back cover of the first HNA conference anthology, Harvest, “Haiku North America is probably the most ambitious haiku event ever attempted outside of Japan. Everyone taking part in this coming-of-age celebration for English-language haiku will be helping to make literary history.”

        Indeed, that sense of making history has continued from con­ference to conference. Papers first shared at HNA soon appeared in leading haiku journals and helped to shape the landscape of North American haiku, often quoted and serving as benchmarks for haiku understanding. Initially, HNA was going to be a one-time affair, but after a year’s break, the idea arose to do it again. A new team was assembled to repeat the event at Las Positas College in 1993. William J. Higginson had given the keynote address in 1991, on the democracy of haiku, and in 1993 the two keynote speakers were Jane Hirshfield and James W. Hackett.

        In 1995, the conference moved to Canada for the first time, and took place at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, Ontario, in conjunction with the annual Haiku Canada meeting, attracting Martin Lucas from England, among others. In 1997, HNA migrated to Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, featuring translators Janine Beichman, Steven Carter, and Sam Hamill. Two years later, in 1999, HNA found a home at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where the keynote speaker was Gerald Vizenor, who spoke on his concept of “survivance,” how Native American literature can coexist and thrive in a White society. Also appearing were Lucien Stryk, Haruo Shirane, and Robert Spiess, and the banquet featured a standout reading from Cor van den Heuvel’s new edition of The Haiku Anthology (Norton, 1999). From the Midwest, HNA then moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where the conference was held at the Boston Conservatory in 2001. Ion Codrescu came from Romania and Hiroaki Sato made an appearance, as did Haruo Shirane. As one would expect from the conservatory location, this conference showcased many musical and dramatic interpretations of haiku.

        The 2003 conference stayed on the East Coast, moving to New York City, where HNA took place at the Dalton School. Regina Weinreich spoke on Beat haiku and was part of a memorable panel discussion on the subject. HNA then moved back to the West Coast in 2005, taking place at the Fort Worden Conference Center in Port Townsend, Washington, north of Seattle. Making a special appearance was Harumi Blyth, daughter of translator R. H. Blyth, who was interviewed on stage about her famous father. HNA then moved back to the East Coast in 2007 to take place at the Hawthorne Inn and Conference Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Sonia Sanchez was the keynote speaker, and HNA held its first haiku slam. John Barlow and Mat­thew Paul attended from England. At this conference, Tazuo Yamaguchi filmed the majority of his feature-length documentary movie, Haiku: The Art of the Short Poem, interviewing many haiku poets in attendance and recording their readings and presentations.

        Canada hosted Haiku North America for the second time when the conference moved to Ottawa, Ontario, in 2009, at the National Library of Canada, just steps from the Parliament buildings. Keynote speakers were Robert C. Sibley and Patricia Donegan, and the Saturday-night boat cruise broke out into dancing. HNA traveled back to the West Coast in 2011, taking place at Seattle Center in Seattle, Washington, with the banquet in the iconic Space Needle, featuring a surprise appearance by Haiku Elvis (Carlos Colón). Richard Gilbert gave the first William J. Higginson Memorial Lecture, and Sunday’s excursion was a boat cruise to Blake Island for a salmon bake and Native American cultural and dance performance.

        The 2013 conference took place on a much larger boat. While it had long been a dream of HNA organizers to hold the conference on a cruise ship sailing to exotic ports, HNA took place aboard the Queen Mary, firmly docked in Long Beach, California. Charles Trumbull gave the Higginson lecture on hoaxes in haiku. Another highlight was the premier launch reading from Jim Kacian’s newly published Haiku in English anthology (Norton, 2013), in addition to ghost tours of the Queen Mary and a boat trip to Catalina Island. There were also presentations on Japanese American haiku written during World War II internment camps, a first for HNA.

        And now, in 2015, celebrating twenty-five years of biennial conferences, Haiku North America is at Union College in Schenectady, New York, featuring keynote addresses by Red Pine (Bill Porter) and Randy M. Brooks (with the Higginson lecture) amid fall colors at the edge of the Catskill Mountains. Ion Codrescu is the featured artist, with a gallery exhibit in Union’s historic Nott Memorial Hall. HNA conferences often have themes, and the focus for 2015 is on haiku education, as its speakers and attendees look to the future and emphasize the development of new voices, both young and old, in the haiku art.

        Here it is worth quoting three comments from the back cover of the 2007 HNA conference anthology, Dandelion Wind, for their summations of what Haiku North America had already become by then. These observations are even more true today, and will surely remain true for the future:

“Of the small handful of regular occasions that nurture the English-language haiku community, Haiku North America is certainly preeminent: intellectually diverse, socially expansive, emotionally gratifying, it provides more than any other single experience the sense that haiku is a literary force to be reckoned with and capable of work that matters in the rest of the world.” —Jim Kacian

“Every two years, at some interesting location in the United States or Canada, the organizers of Haiku North America put together exciting and innovative programs involving leading poets, scholars, editors, and teachers, as well as practitioners of arts that have a kinship with haiku. The result is that HNA is the most eagerly awaited conference on the haiku calendar.” —George Swede

“Haiku North America offers haiku poets worldwide the opportunity to renew their spirit of community. The Haiku North America conference is a remarkable setting for innovative workshops and spellbinding readings. This unique collaboration, known to its devotees as HNA, is the place to experience not only the art but also the heart of haiku.” —Roberta Beary

        Each Haiku North America conference brings together old friends and many new voices. Traditions have developed over the years, including a banquet, a conference T-shirt, a group photo, and a memorial reading for haiku poets who have died since the previous conference. It also has a book fair, a silent auction, displays of haiga and other artwork, musical performances, the trading of trifolds or other haiku handouts, panel discussions, many readings, papers, and workshops, and of course the conference anthology, which many people try to fill with as many attendee autographs as they can. These traditions, together with surprises and changes at each conference, are part of the allure, keeping haiku poets, scholars, and translators coming back time after time.

        Where Haiku North America goes in the future will be where haiku goes—wherever its poets take it. We have discussed form, debated the distinctions between haiku and senryu, and explored what is essential to haiku in English. We have pushed boundaries, yet also celebrated the middle way. We have talked about what is lost and gained in the differences between Japanese and English, as well as the cultures behind them. We have shown videos, and made them, and then discussed them. We have displayed and enjoyed haiga, traded haiku trifolds and our latest books and anthologies. We have pondered the challenges of developing seasonal references in diverse geographies. We have contemplated gendai haiku, visual haiku, one-line haiku. We have disagreed with each other, and often agreed, coming away with a common delight and appreciation for each other’s work. But above all, as democratically as possible, we have offered our poetry to others. By becoming at least somewhat vulnerable through the act of reading, writing, and hearing our poems, we have seen what each other has seen, and felt what each other has felt. We have shared. And that’s the real heart of Haiku North America.

        What began as a three-day event now covers five days, and while attendance has had its ups and downs, it’s lately been around 100 to 130 people, including some of the most dedicated and passionate poets writing haiku in English. Although many talented and accomplished poets have never attended HNA, the index of this anthology is a who’s who of North American haiku, with an increasing number of attendees from elsewhere in the world. HNA began with a focus on North American haiku, but it has now evolved to embrace wider international audiences and concerns, even while still taking place in the United States or Canada. Perhaps HNA will one day be held in Mexico and give more attention to Hispanic haiku, or perhaps take place somewhere in the Caribbean—maybe on a cruise ship that actually cruises. Or maybe HNA could meet in Hawaii, and welcome delegates from Japanese haiku organizations in a joint event (we have, however, had a significant number of Japanese attendees through the years, such as Kazuo Sato and Emiko Miyashita, among others). Perhaps, too, HNA might garner more attention than it does from the wider poetic community, and attract more participation by poets who are not already part of the established haiku community. Whatever the case, it is certain that each conference will reflect the virtues of its host location and the tastes and goals of its organizers. And more than anything else, it will reflect current trends in haiku writing and haiku studies, celebrating new anthologies and authors, and always old friendships, continuing to welcome varied and divergent points of view in a democratic and energetic gathering of the haiku tribes.

Honoring William J. Higginson

This anthology celebrates twenty-five years of biennial Haiku North America conferences. It collects poems published in all its previous anthologies since the first conference in 1991, together with new poems for the 2015 conference. The book’s title comes from one of nine poems that William J. Higginson published in anthologies from each of the first nine conferences he was able to attend before he died in 2008.

                fire in the treetops

                the truck races down the street

                trailing its hose

                                (from Paperclips, 2001)

This poem is not about HNA but, as all HNA attendees know so well, it represents something of the event’s frenzy—the rushing around from session to session from dawn to midnight, checking out the book fair and silent auction, meals shared here and there, and all the time spent talking with friends and acquaintances. I know that Bill himself was often up late the night before each conference revising a presentation or making other preparations. So these conferences may indeed feel like fire in the treetops, yet I also hope that, for haiku, they represent a guiding light seen from near and far. That was certainly the effect that Bill himself had on those who read his words about haiku, or heard his presentations, and it was in his memory, in 2011, that Haiku North America inaugurated the William J. Higginson Memorial Lecture series to feature a distinguished academic presentation at each conference.

        My first knowledge of Bill was through his seminal book, The Haiku Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 1985, Kodansha International, 1989). Even three decades after its publication, it is still the single book I recommend to people who are interested in learning about this poetry, including its history, major practitioners, and how to write haiku in English. When I first read this book, Bill’s words were those of an informed but gentle expert, and they were persuasive in expanding my understanding of haiku poetry. The same is true for countless other readers who are all in Bill’s debt for his leadership, the length and breadth of his scholarly research and translations, and for his own haiku and related poetry.

        Indeed, Bill was prolific not just with his writings about haiku, but with his own poetry, too. He was present at the very first meeting of the Haiku Society of America. The organization formed in 1968, when Bill was twenty-nine years old, and he was an eager and passionate contributor right from the start. He came out with his first book, a collection of Japanese haiku translations, in 1968, and his scholarship and translations would blossom thereafter. But Bill’s first contributions were in the form of poems, joining and leading a growing cadre of poet-friends who were exploring haiku for the first time—and their explorations were not just firsts for themselves but often firsts by anyone writing haiku in English. Bill took a turn as HSA president in 1976 and helped focus the organization not just on reading and enjoying this poetry but on craft and aesthetics as well.

        Until he died in October of 2008, Bill was the only person who had been to all nine biennial HNA conferences—at the first of which it was fitting that he gave the keynote address. Bill was nowhere more in his element than at HNA, where everyone in attendance explored the art and craft of haiku with both the head and the heart. At the tenth HNA conference in Ottawa, in the summer of 2009, Bill was afforded a special memorial, and he has been deeply missed ever since.

        I first met Bill at the premier conference in 1991. I had been writing haiku for fifteen years, very badly for most of that time, but had discovered his handbook—and the Haiku Society of America—just a few years before. While he had been warm and supportive in his letters, he was even more so when we met in person. Only later when we were trusting friends would we sometimes argue over the structure or logic of a haiku essay or the politics of some tempest in the haiku teapot. He could be strident in his advice, but I grew to respect it because it was borne out of careful and deep thinking, and a valid impatience for sloppy logic or scholarship. He was eminently patient with beginners, but sometimes impatient with those more established in haiku. I believe this came from his high expectations, persistently drawing out the best from others in their haiku art.

        Always by Bill’s side was his wife Penny Harter—or perhaps he was always by her side. They struck me as being deeply devoted to each other. Together, for many years, even decades, they were the president and first lady of English-language haiku, and you could count on the poems or critical writing of either one of them to be valuably informed and influenced by the other. Penny softened Bill. Amid his analysis of poetry, she always reminded him of its heart. As inseparable as they always were, they each wrote with individual voices and unique styles. Like Penny, Bill also wrote longer poems, and published several books of them. Together and individually, Bill and Penny were poetically formidable, yet always remained accessible and approachable. Penny continues today, in Bill’s absence, on the same shining path.

        Bill also evangelized for haiku. He was not content to preach to the choir, but published numerous articles in broader poetry and educational contexts, sometimes about his beloved renku, sometimes about haiku techniques, sometimes about prominent poets from Japan who had become his friends. Likewise, his translations sought to broaden understandings and connections. In all these ways, he was both a passionate haiku ambassador and preeminent haiku role model. His anthology for children, Wind in the Long Grass (Simon and Schuster, 1991), is still among the best collections of haiku for children ever published, especially for its seasonal emphasis. And his books about season words in haiku, Haiku Seasons and Haiku World (both Kodansha International, 1996), are the definitive books on the subject in the English language. He was also a leading committee member for Japan’s Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Award, a prestigious and generous prize that he surely would have won if he hadn’t been on the selection committee. For his poetry, for his service to haiku, and for his influence on haiku writing around the world, especially in English, few can be remembered as an equal to William J. Higginson, and thus I believe he deserves respect and appreciation on par with R. H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson.

        At the 1991 HNA conference, I asked Bill to sign my haiku autograph book. He was among the very first signers. I’ve always asked poets to write out one or more of their favorite or best haiku—poems they wanted to be remembered by. This is the haiku Bill inscribed for me, without hesitation, at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, on August 24, 1991:

                after the shower

                finally able to see

                this perfect rose                                        +

        Indeed, haiku was Bill’s “perfect rose.” A year before, in one of the earliest letters he wrote to me, Bill asked for a copy of the first haiku book I published with my press. He added, “I have enjoyed your work . . . and look forward to seeing what sort of things you will do as an editor and publisher.” Such simple words were enormously encouraging to a poet new to the haiku community. No doubt many other poets treasured his words to them just as passionately, and took much inspiration from them. Although haiku was Bill’s perfect rose, it was not just his alone, and the very first paragraph of his Haiku Handbook emphasizes that the purpose of haiku is to share them.

        Those of us who write haiku with enthusiasm have typically started on this path from various beginnings, each at first finding our own way. But as we travel the haiku path further and further, we quickly come to find fellow travelers taking the same route. Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill cemented that path. Yet he wasn’t so vaunted as to be unapproachable and above us. Rather, he remained one of us, humbly working at his poems and criticism, including as many poets as possible in his anthologies and essays, demonstrating the democracy of haiku. He sometimes called himself a “haiku coach,” and that’s just what he was. Through his lectures, workshops, and extensive writings, Bill made haiku appealing and welcoming to both beginners and experienced poets. Whether at Haiku North America or at other events, or just through the printed word, Bill brought newcomers up, and kept more experienced poets and critics on their toes. His presence at any haiku event upped everyone’s game, showing us all the path of haiku. Far ahead, where the cement wasn’t yet laid, Bill was one of the leaders, one of the explorers for English-language haiku. The path has become a much-loved road, and will likely become a highway, if it hasn’t already. For the many people who knew and loved Bill, he was one of haiku’s chief engineers. It is therefore a distinct pleasure to dedicate this anthology, in celebration of Haiku North America’s twenty-fifth anniversary, to William J. Higginson. Thank you, Bill.

This Anthology

Henry Miller once said that “Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.” The poems that follow represent one thousand and fifty-three such moments recognized by attendees of all thirteen Haiku North America conferences over the last twenty-five years (see a complete conference list in the appendix). This collection reprints every prior anthology in its entirety, plus one supplement, and ends with poems by attendees of the 2015 conference. Each section features linocut artwork by Christopher Patchel, and also includes an appreciation of a poem selected from each conference’s anthology, written by one of the organizers of that year’s conference.

        One may wonder, over these twenty-five years of haiku, whether the poems exhibit any changes or trends. Perhaps we see more one-line haiku, or the more subjective, conceptual, tanka-like touches of gendai haiku. On the other hand, some changes may not be strongly represented here even while they were going on in the haiku community beyond Haiku North America. In addition, poets have occasionally changed their names, or they’ve moved to a new city. Some names are missing in later anthologies because those poets had died. Some poets are beginners, and we often see their work improve if they appear again later, but some of them don’t appear again at all, perhaps having changed their interests. Yet others continue to appear, sustaining their interest. One characteristic that remains constant is an abiding passion for close observation of personal experience in all its permutations. Indeed, through all the poems rings a sense of discovery, an eagerness to witness the world, to see each moment closely, and then to tell about it. This is why we write, as Anaïs Nin put it, to taste life twice—once in the moment and then in retrospect. This book collects twenty-five years of gratifying moments that we are now able to recollect in celebration.

        As with the first anthology in 1991, and ever since, poems are arranged alphabetically by each poet’s first name, recognizing that most of our community is still on a first-name basis. One hopes that this will always be the case—a truth that describes not just the Haiku North America community, but the larger haiku community worldwide. Locations where each poet lived at the time of publication are also included with each poem, and these locations demonstrate the geographical diversity of HNA attendees. Thank you to each poet whose work is celebrated here, to the editors and artists of each of the original anthologies, and to the writers of the haiku appreciations that close each chapter. Special thanks to all of the conference organizers and other volunteers who have made each conference not only happen but shine, giving attendees many rich memories and much to contemplate. Here’s to many more years of Haiku North America, the continuing democracy of haiku, and our continuing to find—and share—these golden moments.