2018 Robert Spiess
Memorial Haiku Award Competition
First published in Modern Haiku 49:2, Summer 2018, pages 6–10. Commentary originally written in April of 2018.
The inspiration for the 2018 Robert Spiess Memorial Haiku Awards is a call for simplicity. “A haiku lets things become what they are,” Spiess told us, and participants were asked to submit poems with this observation in mind. Not to be forgotten is a second part of this equation, that the reader does well to be sensitive to things as they are, catching the value of haiku that celebrate unadorned suchness. In this sense, a good haiku asks readers to be, as Henry James advised in The Art of Fiction, “one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Out of many poems that came close to being selected (among 407 submissions in total), I hope the poems I’ve chosen reveal this delight and respect for simplicity and suchness—perhaps similar to the Japanese notion of karumi, or lightness, yet with reverberations. It might be possible for readers to overlook some of these poems, but I hope a close and empathetic reading will bring them richly to life, with any “lightness” stirring with fertile undercurrents deep below.
—Michael Dylan Welch, Judge
First Place — Tia Haynes, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
This is surely not packing for a trip—the occasion is more momentous than that. I picture a husband and wife packing up their home for a major move, perhaps downsizing or because of a foreclosure, or perhaps packing up the belongings of someone who has died. The second line tells us that the people have become quiet, after a time of busy and concerted work. They grow quiet, grow aware of that quietness, and then realize the emotional depths of the moment they are sharing, the big change ahead as a chapter in their lives comes to an end. This quiet then becomes a quiet embrace, where words do not need to be spoken to convey the importance of the experience and what it means. This embrace looks back in time as well as ahead, centered on a still core. The poem withholds the reasons for the packing, thus enabling readers to complete the poem with their own interpretations—a “moving day” indeed.
Second Place — Chris Bays, Beavercreek, Ohio
flapping police tape . . .
a kiddie pool
A domestic scene dominates this haiku, but with increased drama. The police tape hints at some crime or accident, with a wind heightening the mystery where the police have marked off a scene for investigation. Readers are engaged to imagine whatever cause they wish for the investigation, but that is not really the poem’s focus. Rather, through the image of the kiddie pool, the poem offers an empathy for the home’s current or former occupants, particularly children and their parents. A wading pool, too, is usually associated with summer, yet now it is winter, as snow fills the empty pool, suggesting that a great deal of time has passed—for reasons relating to the crime, or even contributing to its cause. Spirited images engross us, and we may wonder not just what happened so far, but what will happen next.
Third Place — John Hawk, Hilliard, Ohio
all grown up
A sense of nostalgia tints this poem. It is not just about weeds that have grown to hide the neglected sandbox, but about children who once enjoyed playing there. They too have grown up. They have moved away, leaving the sandbox unused but with vivid memories or implications for whoever sees it now. Is the sandbox now being viewed by aging empty-nest parents, or perhaps by people who have bought a house after its inhabitants have moved away? We can dwell in both possibilities, and also think about our own sandboxes that we have left behind with our childhood days. Through the double meaning of the last line, the poem brings us into a resonant awareness of the bittersweet. Any bitterness from the passing of time, the nostalgia of the poem, is tempered by the sweetness of the wordplay and by happy memories. Time marches on, yet a good haiku remains timeless.
First Honorable Mention — Angela Terry, Lake Forest Park, Washington
night train . . .
the false positive
The scene readers may picture is that of someone taking a train home after a visit to a doctor—perhaps a prolonged visit because now it is nighttime. The person in the poem has just heard the bad news, surely a medical test that at first seemed negative but is now positive in indicating a significant diagnosis or illness. Night is descending, both literally and figuratively, and the poet seems to be utterly alone. As with many effective haiku, we wonder what had happened, and what will happen in the future.
Second Honorable Mention — Robert Witmer, Tokyo, Japan
the rock face
before the mountain was born
This poem demonstrates the value of place names (utamakura, in Japanese) in haiku, and how just the name of a particular place has rich overtones—a characteristic that can be true of locations around the world, not just in Japan. The reference to Bamiyan recalls the 2001 destruction, by Taliban forces, of the two Buddhas of Bamiyan, each more than a hundred feet tall, carved out of rock more than 1,500 years ago in an Afghanistan cliffside. This poem takes us back even further, imagining (and valuing) the cliff face before the statues were carved. The poem raises the question of which was the real desecration, and also brings to mind the Zen Buddhist koan, “what was your face before you were born?”
Third Honorable Mention — Michele Root-Bernstein, East Lansing, Michigan
the whole day inside
Winter seems to make us turn inwards. We not only stay in our homes more often when it is cold out, but we become increasingly introspective during winter months. And here it is not just snowing, but a time of deep snow. No wonder we stay inside, and no wonder we stay inside ourselves. And yet this is not a negative poem, not a downer. Introspection has its rewards, and winter has its renewals.
Fourth Honorable Mention — Peter Barnes, San Diego, California
a little paint on
We feel a little joy, I hope, in spotting the paint on a ladybug, not just for noticing the ladybug, but also the paint on it. Then we might feel some concern for how this paint will affect the poor ladybug. At the very least, the ladybug is a symbol for good fortune, and we cannot help but feel that good fortune is coming to us if we are painting in the garden, but surely also planting seeds in hopes for an abundant season ahead.
Fifth Honorable Mention — Debbie Strange, Winnipeg, Manitoba
I knight my sister
with an icicle
A sense of delight pervades this haiku. The days are growing longer, but the ice hasn’t melted yet. Here two children are playing outside, and one of them “knights” the other, using an icicle like a sword to invest a “knighthood” upon the other. Just as the “longer days” tell us that spring is coming, so too does this poem’s playful and imaginative zeal. This poem, as with all good haiku, lets things become what they are, and as readers we join the celebration.