Welcome to Haiku North America 2003

I presented this speech on 26 June 2003 on the opening night of the 2003 HNA conference at the Dalton School in New York City. Not previously published.

I have four things I’d like to do with you this evening:

So, to begin, I have a new definition of Haiku North America: It’s a frenzied poetry party where a team of crazy people spends ten years of their lives in just two years to plan a long-weekend haiku extravaganza that goes by like a gobbled truffle where the rest of us snorting pigs all catch pneumonia and pink eye from getting no sleep either from writing our papers or publishing our new books at the last possible moment and then we kill ourselves off by staying up all night defining the “haiku moment” or arguing whether it’s “authentic” or not to write haiku from memory. Right? But we come to HNA anyway, because haiku’s our drug and we’re addicted. And maybe we’ll write a haiku or two while we’re here. But wait, we need serenity for that, right? Serenity may be hard to come by this weekend, but there will be other rewards instead.

        Back a dozen years ago, when the Haiku Society of America had no regional coordinators, all HSA meetings were in New York City, there was no Internet (imagine that!), and none of the haiku gangs on either side of the Mississippi or up on those glaciers to the north had ever met each other, back before all of that, Garry Gay had an idea. It was to have a slam-bang conference where haiku poets from around the continent could gather to yack about haiku till the wee hours of the morning. If we could only get together now and then, he thought, we could find out that Chris Herold is a man and Chris Baltzley is a woman, we could make new friends, and actually meet our passionate poetry pals whom we had heretofore only read in print. Now, indeed, we know how much hair Jim Kacian has and what Cor van den Heuvel’s favourite baseball teams are.

        See what you’ve done, Garry? Haiku North America meets every two years as an independent event at rotating choices of cities around North America, not just so we can get a different flavour of haiku and travel somewhere new after we’ve saved up enough money for our new haiku fix, but because the event wears out the organizing committee and they need a decade to recover. Since 1991, Garry Gay and I have codirected Haiku North America and we are thrilled to bits by how it has crawled out of the Pacific Ocean, mutated and evolved on this new continent, and become the baboon it presently is. The conference has now met in the San Francisco area twice, in 1991 and 1993, and then in Toronto in 1995 (George Swede and Marshall Hryciuk were two of the organizers [I'm naming past organizers only if they were present in the audience that evening]). In 1997, HNA moved to Portland, Oregon (Maggie Chula helped organize the events there), the 1999 conference took place near Chicago (see, those organizers are still recuperating and aren’t here), and then it came to this coast at Boston in 2001 (and those guys must be haiku masochists because they’re mostly here!). So now I wonder: Will we see the 2003 organizing posse in 2005? I certainly hope they will have forgiven us by then.

        Haiku North America has a serious purpose, and that is to facilitate the study and appreciation of haiku and related genres of poetry by the leading haiku poets and scholars of the day in a conference or retreat setting. At these events, though, I’d say the number-one priority is socializing. A certain number of you probably already know where the nearest bars are. Social merrymaking doesn’t take much planning, fortunately, because it happens by itself easily enough when you put a bunch of passionate poets together within shouting distance. We all have name badges, but through the course of this weekend I hope we’ll come to know each other well enough—if we don’t already—that by Sunday we won’t need no steenking badges. Indeed, this is an exhilarating haiku tribal council, yet as far as I know, no one is going to be thrown off the island.

        The other priorities here, of course, are to share and discuss haiku. We’ll have plenty of readings, workshops, and papers (Bill, you finished writing your paper this morning, right?). We’ll have some exciting things to discuss, and new ideas to hash about. And if we disagree on anything, well, we wouldn’t be poets if we didn’t sometimes, would we? But that very disagreement, if it occurs, is what stimulates us to think about haiku in a new way and thus perhaps improve our poetry and our understanding of haiku’s history and aesthetics. This is high church here, and we’re all about to be baptized by immersion. Or we’re going to try drinking from a fire hydrant. Pick your metaphor. Like I said, no serenity.

        We have other activities this weekend, too, such as the haiku book fair. (Raise your hand if you’ve brought a new publication, whether it’s your lifetime collected haiku, a small group anthology, or a freebie broadside.) And don’t forget the silent auction, our evening of renku and dance at the Japan Society, regional readings (don’t miss these—they were one of the highlights of HNA in Boston), and a visit to the New York Botanical Garden (okay, maybe some serenity there!). T-shirts are available, too, so join the team and put one on! I half expect a vendor to stalk the aisles yelling, “Kigo here! Get your ice-cold kigo here!” Even without that, we’re going to have a good time this weekend, that’s for sure!

        Beyond the events of this current weekend, Haiku North America also has some long-term challenges. One is to permanently incorporate as a national 501(c)3 organization so donations can be tax-deductible and eligible for corporate matching, and so we can begin applying for arts grants to improve our services and events, and perhaps help reduce registration fees. Another challenge is to create a permanent Web presence, with historical information about past conferences, and new information about the conferences just down the road. And a third challenge Haiku North America faces is to clarify its relationship with other organizations such as the Haiku Society of America. Please note that Haiku North America is entirely independent from all other haiku organizations, including the Haiku Society of America, though I trust that both the HSA and HNA will continue their mutual support for decades to come. One can’t “join” Haiku North America, the conference, but I certainly hope each of you is a member of the Haiku Society of America and perhaps local haiku groups also. I hear that there’s talk in the Alpha Centauri system of starting a Pangalactic Haiku Alliance. . . . Shall we join? Maybe they’ll have a Haiku Galactica conference!

        And speaking of decades to come, you may wonder where the next Haiku North America conference will occur. Over the last couple of years, the idea has been to move it to Seattle, or at least to the west coast again. And that’s the news. Haiku North America 2005 will be at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington, a pleasant and scenic drive and ferry ride north of Seattle. As you may know, Fort Worden is home to the highly respected Centrum Writers Conference and numerous other literary and musical events, and also home to Copper Canyon Press, one of the country’s finest and largest independent poetry publishers, led by poet and haiku translator Sam Hamill. So in two years we get to do this all over again! In the Victorian seaport town of Port Townsend, the setting won’t be nearly so city-like, as the tallest skyscraper is only four stories tall. And we’ll be at nearby Fort Worden, anyway, where we can enjoy the Point Wilson lighthouse, stroll the woodland trails, and look for a bald eagle or two in the trees along the beach. We can also visit the park’s Marine Science Center and Coast Artillery Museum or the town’s many galleries and quaint shops. There will be lots to do—in case we happen to run out of haiku distractions—not to mention nearby Olympic National Park, the San Juan Islands, Victoria and Vancouver Island, Seattle, and the entire Puget Sound. Port Townsend itself has become a mecca for Pacific Northwest artists and writers. I do hope you’ll come, for it’s guaranteed to be a great time for haiku. Maybe we could even have our 2005 HNA banquet on a small cruise ship in the Strait of Juan de Fuca while watching for killer whales!

        Back to present distractions. Welcome! This is the seventh Haiku North America conference, and Garry Gay and I are exceedingly grateful to Pamela Miller Ness and her crew for their stellar efforts to put on this event. Whenever you see any of the organizing committee members or other volunteers this weekend, do take a moment to thank them personally. They deserve it—in spades!

        And welcome to this city as well. New York City has been the center of English-language haiku activity for most of the last few decades since the Haiku Society of America was founded here in 1968. The Haiku North America conference has long been overdue in this city, and it now takes place here despite senseless acts of terrorism, and in honour of so many haiku pioneers who persisted with their art, who furthered the promotion and enjoyment of haiku through their own poetry, and who had the foresight to create the Haiku Society of America and make it flower—for it is really the Haiku Society of America that is the reason we are all here today. And we also begin this conference with thanks to each of you for registering, and with special thanks to those who have made generous donations to help make Haiku North America stand more firmly on its own two baboon feet.

         Now to conclude. It has recently occurred to me that haiku writing is perhaps more about sensing the world around you and not so much about making sense of it. It seems to me that reading haiku helps us make sense of life, whereas the act of writing haiku is a way to record our sensory experiences selectively and artfully. At this conference, though, we are gathered together as a community to think about our poetry. In the course of the next few unserene days—and very late nights—I hope we will come to make better sense of the art and craft of haiku poetry. This conference will be what you make of it, so make the most of it, however you can. Share your haiku. Dance in the halls—as if no one is watching. Or sneak out with a new haiku friend for a break when you need your serenity. Above all, be creative and make this conference into something more than it would have been without you. I thank you all for coming, and I hope you don’t catch a cold like I usually do by not getting enough sleep. Take your vitamins! Haiku ones too.


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Okay, I’m done with my written remarks. Now it’s time for some audience participation. You’ll get to stand up for some of this:


Please stand if you attended HNA in:

Please stand if this is your first HNA conference. (Let’s welcome our HNA virgins!)


Please stand if you have attended the following number of HNA conferences (out of the seven so far, counting this one):

Please stand or stay standing if you have attended the following number of HNA conferences:

Now I’m curious to know where people are from:

Once again, I think Angelee Deodhar wins the prize for travelling the farthest!


Who has come the shortest distance? Who lives the closest to the Dalton School here?


And who’s here from New York City itself?


I also hear that there’s a contingent of poets from Safety Harbor, Florida, is that right? Safety Harbor probably has the largest attendance at HNA of any city on the continent, on a per capita basis!


And finally, a serious question, regarding the date of HNA in 2005. What time of year works best for you?


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Now I’d like to turn to a reading of Brocade of Leaves, the 2003 HNA conference anthology, which I edited with Yu Chang.

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And now we have one more activity to conclude the evening, something that I hope will be an annual HNA tradition—something I’d like to call the “Haiku Handshake.”