Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi

[longer version]

The following is an expanded earlier draft of a much shorter review first published in the “Briefly Reviewed” section of Frogpond 40:1, Winter 2017,
pages 107–108. This longer review was not published in
Frogpond for space reasons. See also my extensive analysis of issues of plagiarism
in Ernest J. Berry’s poems at
“A Pattern of Plagiarism,” on my Déjà-ku Diary blog.

Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi by Ernest J. Berry (2016, Prisma Print, Blenheim, New Zealand). 194 pages, 6¼×6¼ inches, perfectbound. ISBN 978-0-9941401-5-9. $30.00 NZD from Prisma Print.

This lavishly designed book is a pleasure to peruse, with fine moments scattered through its many pages. We should all be so fortunate to write haiku like most of these. According to a brief author’s note, all of the poems in this book (like its predecessor, Getting On) have “won or been placed in some international competition.” As with the previous book, no credit is given to any of the contests in which these poems placed, but such an extensive list would undoubtedly overburden the book. When we see that the book contains 277 poems, arranged at one or two per page in fifteen themed sections, placing so many poems in contests is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Surely no one submits to more contests than Ernie. As Nola Borrell wrote in her longer poem, “Classic Haiku: A New Zealand Perspective,” “As for go to the pine, / look at Ernie who can write / forty haiku without leaving his desk / and wins all the competitions.” And presumably these poems are just from 2006 to 2016, since the previous book covered 1995 to 2005—although at least some of the earlier poems reappear in this book.

However, despite the book’s many commendable poems, all is not well. At least two “prize winners” from the 2006 to 2016 period are omitted from this book—and at least one of them was accused of plagiarism (so their omission is part of the story here). The first is “neighbour’s cat / the cicada in its teeth / keeps singing” (honorable mention in the 2006 Kaji Aso Studio Contest), which is excessively similar to Vanessa Proctor’s “in the cat’s mouth / the cicada / keeps on singing,” which Ernie would have read in A to Zazen: Haiku Anthology by the Zazen Group (Tauranga, New Zealand: Kiwiana Publishing, 2004), an anthology that also included Ernie’s poems because he too was a member of this group. In other words, there’s no escaping the fact that he had seen the earlier poem. A second poem (and there may well be more) is “family bible / a wisp of baby hair / in Genesis,” given first prize in the 18th Apokalipsa Association haiku contest in Slovenia in 2016, a prize that was immediately rescinded—the poem was disqualified for being essentially the same poem that had won a previous contest and was also previously published, contravening the contest’s entry requirements. In this case, Ernie rehashed his own poem: “family bible / a wisp of baby hair / in Revelation” (which won first place in the 2008 James W. Hackett contest sponsored by the British Haiku Society, and was reprinted in the 2008 Red Moon Anthology, White Lies). Rewriting a poem is okay, but not one that has won a prestigious contest like this, or at least not for the sake of sloppily (accidentally?) entering it into another contest or greedily trying to make more money off it. These two examples are not included in the book, so we might well conclude that they were omitted out of recognition (if not guilt) of their circumstances—plagiarism in the first case, and rehashing in the second. The pattern has continued since this book’s publication, however, with “breast scan / one liquidambar leaf / blackens,” which was given “special mention” in the 2016 British Haiku Society contest (now removed from the haiku contest results). This poem repeats “breast scan / the liquidambar’s last leaf / blackens,” which was selected for the 2014 Yamadera Bashō Memorial Museum Haiku Contest. This sort of repeated behavior would embarrass most poets, but apparently not Ernie—and he has certainly not taken steps to prevent recurrences, nor offered any sufficient public apology.

Despite the preceding wise omissions, two additional poems are included, but now have acknowledgments that were excluded from their original publication, where the poems were passed off as wholly Ernie’s own. The first poem is “extended rain / the heron’s legs / get shorter” (published in Pinesong: 2014 Awards, Southern Pines, North Carolina: North Carolina Poetry Society, 2014). Most haiku aficionados will immediately recognize that as a Bashō poem. After initially winning third prize in the contest, this poem was removed from the society’s website and the prize was rescinded right after the book was published, which was when an NCPS board member noticed the plagiarism. Yet the poem is still included in the Pinesong book as a prize winner, since they didn’t want to reprint the book. In Ernie’s book, it now has “with a nod 2 basho” appended to the poem, which is at least a step in the right direction, but the poem is not successful as an allusion or parody because it does not do anything sufficiently new with Bashō’s original poem—and presumably shouldn’t even be included in this book because the prize was rescinded. The bird has changed, but this is really just Bashō’s poem—specifically, a plagiarism (when originally entered into the contest) of Robert Hass’s translation: “The crane’s legs / have gotten shorter / in the spring rain.” A second poem is similarly problematic, too, now given “a nod to Allan Burns,” as if that undoes the prior plagiarism. Ernie’s poem is “hot wind / a pine cone waddles / to the pond” (third prize in the 2012 Kaji Aso Competition), which essentially plagiarizes Allan’s “autumn breeze / a pine cone waddles / toward the shore” (The Heron’s Nest IX.1, 2007). Should any of us consider this to be acceptable?

And there’s more. The book also includes this poem, “autumn leaves / the names of the dead / sink deeper,” which is excessively similar to Eric Amann’s classic and widely published prize-winning haiku from 1978, “The names of the dead / sinking deeper and deeper / into the red leaves.” Yet this poem does not include “a nod to Eric Amann.” And Ernie’s “ground fog / the top of a kangaroo / occasionally” seems overly similar to Carlos Colón’s “ground fog / a pair of headlines / leaving the cemetery.” Perhaps the similarity isn’t excessive in the latter case, but it adds up when it’s one of many that lean in this direction. There’s a consistent pattern here, which also occurs in many poems not included in this book, some of which Sandra Simpson has written about on the New Zealand Poetry Society website (see also here and here). It’s a shame that such a marvelous collection would be compromised in this way, but it’s important to recognize the infringement for what it is, whether we can attribute it to not understanding the difference between allusion and rip-off, sloppy record-keeping, or a cavalier attitude toward plagiarism. The good news is that I do believe all these infringements were accidental or unintended—often, I believe, due to the problem of cryptomnesia (or remembering something but forgetting the source), as opposed to willful plagiarism. But that still does not excuse them, nor does it excuse the insufficient reparations the author seems to have made—or not made at all (for example, has he returned the prize money for the 2012 Kaji Aso contest?). Fortunately, we can still enjoy the rest of the book’s poems, nearly all of which are wonderful moments to savor, except that we may now wonder which of the book’s other poems might have been excessively influenced or “borrowed.”