Grit, Grace, and Gold

First published on the Books on Asia blog on 28 July 2021, referred to as “an unusual take on a book review,” and then published in Fireflies’ Light #25, March 2022, pages 138–144. Originally written in June and July 2021 and revised in August 2021.

Grit, Grace, and Gold: Haiku Celebrating the Sports of Summer, by Kit Pancoast Nagamura (Tokyo: Kodansha USA, 2020). 148 pages; 5" x 8". Glossy cover; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-56836-597-8. $16.95 from Amazon and other online booksellers.

“Hello, everyone, and welcome to Haiku Playmakers and today’s episode of the Go-Shichi-Go Bleacher Report. I’m Michael Dylan Welch, also known as Captain Haiku, and with us today we have our usual panel of haiku experts—or as we like to call them, kigonauts. That means Matsuo Bashō, Fukuda Chiyo-ni, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Masaoka Shiki—and hey, no one’s off playing hooky this week. Today’s featured book is Kit Pancoast Nagamura’s Grit, Grace, and Gold: Haiku Celebrating the Sports of Summer, published in 2020 by Kodansha USA. Shiki, please tell us more about this book—is it worth our time?”

“Thank you, Captain. Yes, this book is a real home run, and you know me—I love baseball poems. But readers will find all sorts of sports to enjoy—thirty-two different summer sports, arranged alphabetically, each with a fine selection of haiku about that sport, ending with a section on spectating.”

“We’re all good at spectating, eh?”

“For sure. And the book also features topical photos by the author, along with Japanese calligraphy by Yoshie Miyaji to identify each sport. All the poems are by Nagamura, but she also invited guest poets to add a haiku for each sport, and each of those sections ends with a poem by that guest poet.”

“That’s a very generous step to take in a book of one’s own poems.”

“Indeed it is, Captain.”

“But what does the ‘gold’ refer to in the book’s title?”

“Good question. Maybe gold medals? But the book’s finale poem lets us know. The collection seems an obvious tie-in to the 2020 Summer Olympics scheduled for Tokyo but, surely for trademark reasons, no mention of the Olympic games appears anywhere in the book.”

“And of course, the postponement of the Olympics until 2021 has dampened the book’s thunder.”

“Perhaps, Captain, but because so many sports have seasonal associations, surely we can celebrate the book in any summer. And the book will still have relevance long after the Tokyo Olympics has had its closing ceremony.”

“You got that, Shiki. Now, Buson, please tell us more about the book’s structure.”

“Happy to do so, sir. Right out of the starting gate we have a foreword by Marie Mariya, followed by an introduction by Nagamura. These pieces appear in both English and Japanese, as do all the poems. Superfans will appreciate the acknowledgments at the end, along with brief biographies of each of the thirty-two guest competitors.”

“Where are they from?”

“All over—a truly global representation. Japan and the United States provide the most participants, but flags also fly from Italy, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Russia, Croatia, Australia, Nigeria, Canada, and India. But the great bulk of the poems are by Nagamura-san.”

“Tell us more about the foreword, would you?”

“Sure. We learn that Mariya is Nagamura’s dear friend, and that a typical saijiki or season-word almanac contains sports-related kigo or season words used for haiku writing. Mariya tells haiku fans that ‘This book will surely give you a new view of the haiku world—dynamic, youthful, and full of power.’”

“And the intro?”

“The introduction is a bit more substantive, explaining why the author does not follow the 5-7-5 syllable count, and how Japanese haiku count mora, which are not the same as syllables. Nagamura says, ‘Based purely on a 17-syllable counting method, a poet writing in English could easily slip in enough words for two haiku in Japanese.’ She explains the value of season words in haiku and helps us understand that sports references are often seasonal and how sports can easily connect to haiku.”

“And she leaves readers with inspiration, is that right?”

“Absolutely, sir. She tells us that ‘Writing good haiku involves the same attention to grace, balance, strength, bravery, restraint and observation that propels athletes to their peak’ and that ‘The training of both forms of expression is long, and the performance of both is, relatively speaking, brief.’ Makes you want to try haiku, eh, even if you can’t take up weightlifting! ‘Done well,’ she says, ‘the results of both haiku and competitive sports lift our hearts and suffuse us with an appreciation for the complexity, challenges, and beauty of existence.’”

“Would you have liked to have seen more sports covered, Buson?”

“Hmmm. Not sure that more sports could have been covered, and you’d have to ask—would enough haiku of international competitive quality have been possible for any obscure sports that could have been added? It’s also not clear how these guest athletes qualified to compete, but the author does say in the intro that she ‘invited a fabulous group of award-winning international haiku poets from around the globe to join me in exploring the flexibility of haiku when combined with the inspiration of sports.’”

“So, all the poems are newly written for the book, then?”

“That seems to be the case, yes, except for one of the guest baseball poems, which is given a prior publication citation. Each sport has four to eight poems, including one guest poet for each section except spectating. This isn’t an anthology of whatever poems an editor could find about particular sports, even of her own work, so nearly the entire book showcases new work.”

“Does that make the poems uneven at times?”

“Haiku is such a personal art, perhaps only each reader can decide that for themselves. I do wonder, though, what experience some of the guest poets have with the sports they write about. However, some do have connections (occasionally explained in the bios at the back) or they clearly researched their subjects to enter their poetic moments with empathy, as does the author with all her poems. We see many enjoyable poems, and they might well encourage us to try out a sport we’ve not done ourselves.”

“And yet some of the sports we might never try.”

“True, like high-diving, boxing, or fencing, at least for me, but maybe others are into that, and not just to watch. Surely many of us have engaged in sports such as baseball, badminton, swimming, cycling, and table tennis, and while we might not compete on an international level, our knowledge of these sports helps us to enjoy the poems themselves.”

“Yes, the poems. Why don’t we discuss a few. Chiyo-ni, please share a few selections.”

“Happy to do so, Captain. The book begins with aquatics. Here’s one of its five poems, where I’m attracted to the moment’s tension and attention, and the surprise of the last line.”

starting block

her toes curl around

the silence

“Here’s another here-and-now poem, by American guest poet Carole MacRury, from the canoe and kayak section.”

class V rapids

a kayaker learns to live

in the moment

“And from the rowing section, this sharp-moment poem.”

egret flight

a perfect pause

between strokes

“Thank you, Chiyo-ni. Are we ready for some more? Bashō, any highlight-reel poems from you?”

“Certainly. How about this one from the rugby section.”

lost ball

behind storm clouds

a summer moon

“We know only from context that this is a rugby poem, so that doesn’t serve as the season word—the summer moon does. And here’s a skateboarding poem.”

hunting the streets

for rails and curbs

summer moon

“One more selection, a volleyball poem by Terry Ann Carter, a guest poet from Canada.”

sway

of the volleyball net

June breeze

“Thanks for your keen eye, Bashō. Now back to you, Shiki. Spot any typos or any other concerns?”

“Just a few—very minor. David McMurray is Canadian but lives in Japan, yet is listed as a United States resident, and I’ve always counted Tokyo as having four mora (sound units), not five—which comes up in the intro when syllable counting is mentioned. I’m also not sure why the ‘multisports’ section isn’t just called ‘running,’ since all its poems relate to running and marathons.”

“Any other thoughts?”

“Yup. Elsewhere, some of the poems employ jargon unique to that sport, such as a ‘drag flick’ and ‘Indian dribble’ in field hockey, an ‘eggplant’ in skateboarding, or ‘par terre’ in wrestling, but fortunately most of them come with footnotes to provide explanations.”

“Not all of them?”

“No, a few don’t, such as ‘judo-gi’ and ‘ippon’ in the martial arts section, ‘Elvis leg’ in the sport climbing poems, or ‘libero’ in the volleyball section. In some cases, such as ‘penhold’ in table tennis or ‘knurling’ in weightlifting, not everyone will know the terms, yet I am glad that Nagamura did not hesitate to use such vivid words.”

“Thank you—something to think about. Issa, we haven’t heard from you yet—and you’re usually the most talkative! Might you have some selections from the spectator section at the end?”

“Most certainly. Kit Pancoast Nagamura has not been just a spectator with haiku, having been active with the Haiku International Association and the Ginza Poetry Society, and often winning or placing in international haiku contests. For three years she also cohosted the acclaimed NHK television show, Haiku Masters.”

“The book has been in good hands, then!”

“Indeed. Let me share two of Nagamura’s poems from the spectator section, the last of which is the book’s title poem.”

late afternoon sun shaft

sneaks toward

a vacant front seat

stadium lights off

summer night glimmers

of grace, grit, and gold

“Fine haiku to conclude with, Issa. Well, folks, we’ve come to the end of our show. Got any closing sports metaphors to toss our way, Shiki?”

“Thank you, Captain. Well, I already told you the book was a home run but, at least for me, it’s more like a grand slam. Now all I need is a good hot dog.”

“That’s it for now, folks. Tune in next week for our live coverage from Matsuyama of the Haiku Koshien annual high school haiku tournament. Until then, play haiku!”