Letter sent 9 June 2007 to David Alexander, Tofu Haiku Contest Organizer
Thanks for your well-chosen shortlist of 34 poems, many of which have much to recommend them. I’m happy to include my top selections here, plus some comments, if they’re of any use. My process was to read the poems numerous times, and then to score them on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being best), and then to narrow down to the poems that I thought made the best use of objective imagery, a two-part juxtapositional structure, seasonal reference, and emotional or intuitive implication. Most poems rated only 1, 2, or 3 with me, though each one of them had something going for it. Those scoring 4 or 5 (only the top two scored 5) are potentially publishable, I’d say—and I think that says a lot. Anyway, here are my top five selections (most favourite first):
the pattern of muslin
on a tofu block
This fine poem exhibits close observation—all vegetarians know that pattern of muslin! It also has a deft two-part juxtapositional structure that the best traditional haiku employ, as well as a seasonal reference (when we change our clocks for daylight saving time). The objective description enables readers to feel the experience for themselves, and have their own emotional reaction, whatever that reaction might be. For me, the time of year when we change our clocks is a time of transition between seasons, perhaps a more sombre or reflective time, and something about the pattern of muslin on tofu echoes that contemplativeness. Nicely seen.
a vee of geese
tofu and fried noodles
Is tofu a solitary food? Often it seems to be. The migrating geese are a dependable seasonal phenomenon, and when we see them, we are prone to examine ourselves, to think about where we might rather be, both physically and metaphorically, in our lives. And here the poet is preparing a simple meal for himself or herself, and notices the migrating geese. This poem has a feeling of melancholy sadness to it, something like the wabi or sabi of many traditional Japanese haiku.
she stirs tofu
into his salad
Who would have thought tofu could be erotic? But the action of stirring tofu into salad definitely has that overtone in this poem, and we wonder what the evening’s dessert might be.
at the window
The whiteness of the moon, though unmentioned, seems to illuminate the moonflowers, and their colour matches the colour of the tofu in this immediate domestic poem. This haiku also exhibits what is known as a kakekotoba, or a pivot (the Western term for this device is zeugma). Indeed, the middle line can be read one way with the first line, and another way with the last line. This technique is a means of compression in haiku, producing two meanings (sometimes different, or oscillating), getting double mileage from the middle line.
in my first apartment
a white cube wiggles
bought for a dollar
Call this my little award for humour. The word “first” makes this poem. We know that the person in the poem doesn’t have much money, and is making the most of it with a white cube of inexpensive tofu. Yet he or she still enjoys its wiggle, a small wiggle of celebration for securing that first apartment and the independence that it brings.
I’d also like to say that, with another five choices, I’d include the following:
one tofu cube
eludes my spoon
We can all relate to this experience!
afternoon’s end . . .
of tofu cubes
This poem is much like the “soba soup” poem. The addition of “afternoon’s end” adds a feeling of melancholy to the poem, despite the minor frustration, yet it seems to be a feeling of contented acceptance.
outside our window
For this poet the image of mounds of tofu echoes with the snow mounded outside the window. This poem nicely contrasts the chill of the outdoors with the warmth of the indoors.
twirling tofu in his chopsticks
the blind lute player
This poem uses rich and surprising diction. Despite not being able to see his tofu, the blind lute player is still able to twirl his tofu with his chopsticks. Because the lute player uses his hands with precision, it is no wonder that he is also deft with chopsticks. And perhaps others are envious, because it’s hard for anyone to twirl tofu with chopsticks!
This tofu is a raft
in a soy sauce tsunami.
This is not really a haiku, but an amusing statement. Yet it’s a fun metaphorical extension, and a fresh way to think of that favourite food, tofu!
Hope these comments might be useful. I’m eager to find out who the writers of these poems are, whether they make your final cut or not (when votes are compiled from the other judges). Thanks for the opportunity to participate in judging this contest. I look forward to learning all the final results.
Read the complete final winners and selected commentary at the Tofu Haiku Contest page [site no longer works].