Haiku Chicago: The Gift of Haiku

Written in December 1995. First published in [source to be added]. See also A Report on Haiku Chicago (1995).

If you could have been in an upstairs conference room at the Chicago Cultural Center on Friday morning, October 20, 1995, you would have seen more well-known haiku poets than you could have tossed a hundred frogs at. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., one of those poets stood up at the podium. Lee Gurga then opened Haiku Chicago, a joint conference sponsored by the Haiku Society of America and the Haiku International Association in Tokyo. Few events can be said to be milestones in the development of international haiku. Haiku Chicago was certainly one of them.

        After a welcome from Bruce Ross, 1995 HSA president, and from Yatsuka Ishihara, head of the Haiku International delegation, Chicago native Jerry Kilbride (now of San Francisco) spoke of “The Gift of the Ho-o-den,” a Japanese pavilion built in Chicago, Illinois, for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition—probably the earliest foray of Japanese culture into midwest America. Now, 100 years since the exposition, here were a hundred Japanese, Canadian, and American haiku poets meeting in Chicago to discuss a much-loved form of Japanese poetry.

        Organized chiefly by Lee Gurga, William J. Higginson (author of The Haiku Handbook, Kodansha, 1989), and Tadashi Kondō, with the help of Kristen Deming of the American Embassy in Tokyo, Haiku Chicago featured two days of readings and presentations by leading poets, all ably translated into English or Japanese. Almost 90 people were registered for the event, and a dozen or so others also crowded into the room. Leaves were beginning to turn in nearby Grant Park and around the Art Institute of Chicago, seen through the fourth-floor windows.

        After Jerry Kilbride’s opening presentation, Randy Brooks of Decatur, Illinois spoke of Connecticut poet Bill Albert’s lifetime of haiku. An unsung, egoless poet who died young, his one book of haiku was published posthumously by a number of his friends. Penny Harter of Santa Fe, New Mexico, author of a number of haiku books (including Shadow Play, Simon & Schuster, 1994), spoke next on the subject of teaching haiku in schools, as did HSA second vice president Barbara Ressler of Dubuque, Iowa. Haiku is often mistaught or oversimplified in classrooms, and for the sake of poetry, a higher standard and more accurate information is necessary.

        The conference’s morning session concluded with a haiku reading by five poets, each reading five of their haiku: Peggy Willis Lyles of Tucker, Georgia, Virgil Hutton of Normal, Illinois, Geraldine C. Little of Mt. Holly, New Jersey, Margaret Chula of Portland, Oregon, and Bill Pauly of Dubuque, Iowa.

        After a catered lunch of gourmet sandwiches, Fuyuo Usaki of Japan’s Modern Haiku Association spoke about the art of renku (also known as renga). Then Robert Spiess of Madison, Wisconsin, long­time editor of Modern Haiku, gave his assessment of haiku and what it can and should be in English.

        The remainder of the afternoon consisted of a ginkō, or haiku walk. Mizue Yamada of the Haiku Poets Association in Japan explained the goals of the activity, and that those who wanted to could turn in haiku written on the walk to be judged the next day. Those present split into many small groups and dispersed into Grant Park, despite an overcast sky and sprinkles of rain, to notice their surroundings and enjoy nature. Afterwards, many dozens of poems were turned in for the contest, showing the walk to be a pleasant turning to nature after a long day of talks and discussion.

        At 7:30 that evening, more than 110 people gathered at the nearby Harold Washington Library Center video room for an open reading of haiku and a haiku book fair. Many poets, including the Japanese visitors, read up to five of their own haiku at this reading, and thousands of dollars’ worth of haiku books traded hands.

        The second day of Haiku Chicago, Saturday, October 21, 1995, began with more rain and a chill wind. But the mood at the Chicago Cultural Center was warm and bright. Again Lee Gurga, HSA first vice president, welcomed everyone. The conference continued with haiku readings by Bruce Ross of Rochester, New York, Francine Porad of Mercer Island, Washington, and Frogpond editor Kenneth C. Leibman of Archer, Florida.

        Next came three presentations on haiku form. First Jerry Ball of Livermore, California spoke on “traditional” form (writing English haiku to 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern with a season word or kigo). Next, widely published poet George Swede, of Toronto, Ontario promoted “free form” haiku, which represents the vast bulk of published English-language haiku. Then Michael Dylan Welch spoke about a new understanding of haiku called “organic form,” based on ideas of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Denise Levertov, and others, in which the form of one’s haiku arises naturally out of the experience in a unified, organic whole without regard to any arbitrary external form.

        The visual presentation of haiku was the theme for the next three speakers, each with slide presentations of their work. These speakers included Lidia Rozmus of Chicago, Illinois discussing her combination of haiku with sumi-e brush paintings, Nick Avis of Corner Brook, Newfoundland showing how haiku need not be aligned only along a left margin, but can be played with visually for various effects, and Phil Pass of Cedar Falls, Iowa, who explained his methods in creatively typesetting a new haiku book by HSA midwest regional coordinator Harvey Hess.

        Another reading of haiku followed. This round featured Kiyoko Tokutomi of Ben Lomond, California, whose husband founded the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society in San Jose, California, Dee Evetts of New York City, Rebecca Rust of Morehead City, North Carolina, Lee Gurga of Lincoln, Illinois, and Joyce Walker Currier of Homewood, Illinois. Each poet read five of their strongest or favorite poems.

        After another catered lunch, Ryusai Takeshita of the Haiku International and Modern Haiku Associations in Japan spoke on “streams” of modern haiku. His talk included an invaluable handout outlining the family trees of the various haiku schools in Japan, showing the relationships, evolutions, and ideals of the many approaches to haiku in its native land.

        Next, those present were treated to a reading of haibun by Cor van den Heuvel of New York City, editor of The Haiku Anthology (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1986) and Virginia Brady Young of Cheshire, Connecticut.

        To conclude the presentations, Yatsuka Ishihara, president of the Aki (autumn) haiku group in Japan, presented the keynote address, “The Essence of Haiku.” He proposed the challenging idea that haiku is a “lie” that tells the truth, that each haiku is a sort of game or construct that nevertheless reports on and reminds us of what is deep truth in our lives. In contrast to the standard dictum for fiction (and other writing) that it tell the false as if it were true, Ishihara’s admonition for haiku was to tell the truth as if it were false. This was not just a license for haiku to be hyperbolic, but a reminder that it tell the truth.

        The last event of the afternoon was a kukai, or haiku symposium. Eight judges (four from Japan and four from North America) each chose three favorite haiku from the previous day’s haiku walk (the translators were very busy overnight), and explained their choices. After many academic discussions, it was refreshing to return to haiku poetry itself and to experience a kukai in the Japanese tradition.

        The conference’s final event took place Saturday evening at the Ramada Congress Hotel, several blocks south of the Chicago Cultural Center on Michigan Avenue. Here, most conference attendees gathered for a banquet at which the Japanese visitors were hosted by the Americans. The book fair also continued in the banquet room. Aside from announcements and a final thank you to the organizers, there were no speeches—just plenty of socializing and good food.

        A longer report would be required to do justice to the significance of Haiku Chicago. The conference was an exchange of ideas, a sharing of poetry, a bridge to understanding differing cultures, and a chance for many leading haiku poets to meet and socialize. Even T-shirts were available to commemorate the event. Plans are also under way to commemorate Haiku Chicago with the publication of conference proceedings. While other milestones of English haiku have gone before, including the 1987 Japan Air Lines conference on haiku poetry in San Francisco, and the biennial Haiku North America conferences (to be held next in Portland, Oregon, 1997), Haiku Chicago will have lasting reverberations on both sides of the Pacific. It was the first joint event sponsored by the Haiku Society of America (founded in New York in 1968) and Haiku International (founded in 1989 in Tokyo). It was a loud recognition of haiku as a legitimate form of poetry in English, independent from yet connected to its Japanese counterpart. As one of the Japanese presenters acknowledged, it has been Americans—not the Japanese or any others—who have been primarily responsible for the internationalization of haiku in the last 20 years. It is an accomplishment of which Americans can be proud. Yet just as the Japanese gave Chicago its gift of Ho-o-den a hundred years ago, so today, Japan has given all of America, and indeed the world, its gift of haiku.


haiku conference—

the English name badge

pinned to her kimono


For information on the Haiku Society of America, please send a #10 self-addressed stamped envelope to Doris Heitmeyer, HSA Secretary, 315 E. 88th Street, Apt. IF, New York, NY 10128-4917 [address is no longer correct for HSA secretary; for current information, see http://www.hsa-haiku.org/officers.htm]. HSA membership, including four issues of Frogpond and four issues of the HSA Newsletter, is available for $20.00 annually (make checks payable to Haiku Society of America, Inc. and send to Doris Heitmeyer). For information on Haiku International, write to them at Akasaka Residential Hotel Room 914, 9-1-7 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 107, Japan [address is no longer correct; for current information, see http://www.haiku-hia.com/about_en/organization.html]. An annual membership is US$30.00.