2021 John Bird Dreaming Award for Haiku

First published 1 May 2021 on the Australian Haiku Society website. Commentary first written in April of 2021. Thank you to Rob Scott for the opportunity to cojudge this inaugural contest. Artwork with the certificates for the winning poems is by Ron C. Moss.       +

Vanessa Proctor and Michael Dylan Welch, Judges

The best haiku can set us to dreaming, putting ourselves in the place of the poem, finding what the poet sought, feeling what the poet felt. In honour of John Bird, who promoted this expansive and engaging stance towards haiku, we are pleased to have selected the following poems in the Australian Haiku Society’s inaugural John Bird Dreaming Award for Haiku. We selected these poems from 890 total submissions, recognising Australian as well as worldwide themes. Our congratulations to the winners and gratitude to everyone who entered.

—Vanessa and Michael

First Place

        the blurred outline

        of the southern cross

        bushfire moon

                Louise Hopewell, Australia

This haiku speaks deeply about the Australian experience. After the devastating bushfires of 2019 and 2020 the memory of destruction and endless weeks of breathing in choking smoke from the fires is fresh in many people’s minds. The iconic emblem of Australian skies, the Southern Cross, ‘Australia’s favourite constellation’, is blurred, and in a similar way, the fires shook us as a nation. The red bushfire moon is an echo of the devastation of the land and implicitly its fauna and flora, property and human life. Concentrating on the skies rather than the land gives us an expansive view of events and implies hope that the view of the Southern Cross will be clear again. Two powerful images leave us with much to contemplate. A deserving winner of the inaugural John Bird Dreaming Award for Haiku. —Vanessa

We begin this new contest with a distinctly Australian poem, quintessential in two ways. One is the timeless reference to the Southern Cross constellation that appears on the Australian flag. The other is the timely reference to the recent bushfires that ravaged Australia. The two images meet in this poem’s now-moment where one blurs the other. Yet still that outline is visible, even if blurred, just as the moon is visible, offering a sense of relief and hope for the time ahead. This is a poem of emergence, a reminder that even unfortunate events still pass. —Michael

Second Place

        slowing my heartbeat

        to the river’s speed

        a patch of comfrey

                Matthew Paul, United Kingdom

This is a personal and moving haiku about healing. In the modern world, many of us must deal with increasing stress in our lives and have a deep need to turn to nature for renewal. The two natural images, the river and the patch of comfrey, work in different ways. There is continuity in the river that does things in its own unhurried way. The medicinal herb comfrey symbolises the persona’s journey towards healing through a connection with nature. We have a great deal to learn from the natural world. —Vanessa

This poem calls the reader to join the poet in a moment of stillness, of quietude and reflection. This is not a raging river, but one gentled by maturity. The poet has noticed the herbaceous perennials, and welcomes the ‘comfort’ they offer, not just for their visual beauty but for the reminder to be still. Implied in the poem, too, is that some prior stress must have been happening, racing the poet’s heart, but now that energy has subsided as the subtleties of nature draw greater attention. —Michael

Third Place

        lilly pilly—

        a skip in her step

        on her first walk to school

                Jennifer Sutherland, Australia

The vibrancy of this haiku has great appeal. Lilly pillies are Australian native evergreen plants and are often used for hedging. Their small bright berries appear in summer just as the school year begins and create a fitting setting for this poem. The haiku records the movement and joyfulness of the young child with the ‘skip in her step’. It is the beginning of a lifelong journey of learning for someone very small. —Vanessa

If you are not familiar with this evergreen Australian shrub and tree, it’s worth investigating. It has marvellous, brightly coloured berries, and flowers that look like exploding fireworks. What a lovely sound to the word, too, which matches the skip in the child’s step on that first walk to school. This girl is not nervous about school but excited. What delight and joy in this poem! —Michael

Honourable Mentions (in order)

        the tiny buds

        on an unlabelled plant


                Saumya Bansal, India

The word ‘unlabelled’ makes this haiku. It is about unknowingness and mystery and the idea that sometimes we don’t need to know everything and can appreciate things for what they are. The roundness of the shapes here with the tiny buds and the large moon complement each other to create a well-balanced and resonant haiku. —Vanessa

This haiku offers subtlety. The buds are tiny, and even more than that, they are barely seen in the faint light of moonrise. The poet is curious to know what plant is producing these buds, but it is not labelled. Even the detail that it’s unlabelled points subtly to the likelihood that this this experience takes place in a botanical garden where most plants are identified. We can enjoy this moment of appreciating the buds even if we don’t know the plant’s name. —Michael

        power outage:

        in the candlelight

        our ancestral faces

                Larry Bole, United States

Here we have the contrast between the old world and the new world of technology. However, even in the 21st century we occasionally have to cope with no power. The word ‘ancestral’ cleverly indicates the continuity of our lives across generations and back into history. The flickering of the candlelight in the modern settling implies memory and illuminating thoughts and ideas about our forebears who, after all, are the reason that we are here today. —Vanessa

Whether we’re having a power failure or gathered around a campfire, we’ve all seen these ancestral faces in the low light of these occasions. These faces are not ghostly but primal, the lack of electric light returning us to more primitive light and perhaps to our more primitive selves. It is very easy to see this poem visually, but to feel deeper meanings also. —Michael

        beach memorial . . .

        the war veteran sunbathes

        without his prosthesis

                R. Suresh Babu, India

This haiku explores one of the consequences of war, debilitation, both physical and mental. Yet, despite the suffering, there is also resilience. The veteran returns to that iconic place, the beach, where there is a memorial to those who served their country. The memorial implies respect and reflection. Despite painful memories, the veteran can attempt to resume his previous life, at least for a while, sunbathing without hiding his injuries, feeling the warmth of the sun on his skin. —Vanessa

This moment could happen anywhere in the world, but perhaps it especially invokes Anzac Day, the national day of remembrance that commemorates Australians and New Zealanders who died in wars and peacekeeping operations and recognizes the suffering of everyone who served. Australia is a beach culture, and here the veteran has come to a point of acceptance, able to enjoy the beach without the self-consciousness of being without his prosthesis. We can imagine multiple stories with this poem. —Michael


        she sidesteps

        my question

                Benjamin Blaesi Switzerland

Mistletoe is always a great excuse for a kiss. However, the awkwardness of the situation creates humour while implying much about relationships and human nature. —Vanessa

A touch of humour brightens this poem. Mistletoe, set up for Christmas kisses, has not produced a desired result here, a kiss being sidestepped along with whatever the question might have been. We can imagine several possible questions. The poem offers clarity, concision, and simplicity in releasing a moment of human interaction in a seasonal context. —Michael