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A retrospective of the best haiku published in the
journal South by Southeast: Haiku and Haiku Arts,
on the occasion of its 10th Anniversary, 2003.



Finding Its Direction

Jim Kacian



 South by Southeast has always been one of the small haiku journals. I mean this not only in the sense of its circulation, but also, and more significantly, in terms of its prestige in the community. Because of this perception, a certain kind of poem is more likely to be sent here than elsewhere. Most poets, when they have written a haiku they feel is outstanding, would not send it to SxSE, at least initially. They are more likely to keep it for a contest, or else try their luck with frogpond or Modern Haiku. These latter, then, are the bastions of English-language haiku culture, and it is fair to consider what appears in their pages to be representative of the best of mainstream haiku practice in the United States. But there is a price to be paid for being the establishment: it is much less likely that poetry which deviates significantly from the norm as defined by these journals will appear there, and so their apparent hegemony is, by definition, always one which is slightly regressive. And since their more innovative work has less likelihood of appearing in those places, poets often use the smaller markets to try out their more cutting-edge work. This is the strength of the small market journal: they can afford to—in fact, must—find a niche which appeals to some portion of the market. And when we look at the small haiku journal market, that's exactly what we discover: RAW NervZ aims for work that is racier, more guttural, more influenced by senryu; acorn mines a particular vein of traditional haiku writing; ant, at least until its most recent incarnation, has concerned itself with a more lit-zine approach, with a quirky and modern twist in its zen orientation; tundra features the short, imagistic poem. This approach is necessary for small journals to survive: each must identify and attract its audience, and that audience must be sufficiently large to keep the journal at least marginally stable, creatively as well as financially. When there is insufficient energy, material or audience, the journal dies of natural causes.

***


 The fact that South by Southeast is in a position to ask me to offer a personal retrospective says many things about it: it says that it has identified its niche in the haiku marketplace; that it has satisfied this niche for long enough that its readers may not be the same readers as when the journal began, or that sufficient time has passed that they may not be able to recall with ease its earliest offerings; that enough pleasurable, or significant, or memorable work has appeared in its pages that it seems worth spending current space on past poems; that it yet possesses sufficient energy that it is willing to compare its current incarnation against its history, for a retrospective is a line in the sand, a measuring rod not only for what has been done, but what is to be done, today and tomorrow.

I think SxSE has been particularly good in attracting and showcasing work that we might call innovative work that lives in the cracks and outside the boundaries of its more mainstream relatives. This is a particularly useful and interesting niche to have curried, in this time of flux in the definition and practice of haiku. It is also somewhat dangerous, since when things are changeable, many false starts will be made, and in a marginal economic venture such as a literary journal, false directions can prove costly in terms of resources, energy and willpower. But once having established that a journal such as SxSE is open to innovative work, it becomes self-feeding, and a reputation can and has been made. People who see their work as cutting edge are more inclined to send their best and newest things to such a place, and so the reputation can be maintained. In this way, some of the most significant work in the field is to be found outside the main journals, and in welcoming places like SxSE.

So I am pleased to have been asked to supply my personal choices for what I might consider to be a retrospective of 10 years of great work. I am doubly pleased since, as you surely know, I am a previous editor of this journal, and it is gratifying to see it carrying on so well so long after my absence. One definition of whether or not your work is a success is whether or not it can carry on without you. If that's the criterion used, then SxSE is an undoubted success.

Any retrospective will reveal the tastes of its selector(s), and I'm certain that my choices here will prove no different. And it was impossible for me to choose only 10 poems (as I was asked) because I feel so much good work has been brought to light in these pages. I hope you will find this excursion through the recent past to be as enjoyable as I have, and reason to hope for another10 years of equal success. Enjoy!

***


 One kind of poem which I think SxSE has been particularly blessed with publishing is what we might call the "self-aware poem". It is difficult to find a good balance in this subgenre since in haiku we are attempting to maintain an objectivity, to take a larger view. So the poet must be sufficiently disciplined to consider the (his) self as an other, to import none of the subjective coloration which is usual in self-regarding poetry. Of the many excellent examples to be found in the pages of SxSE, my favorites include

  thinking the same thoughts
  thinking the same thoughts
                 the yearly pruning   (5:1)


by Thom Williams. The juxtaposition of the routines of outer and inner nature works to particular advantage here, and the self is seen to be allied with all else in nature, and the better for a salient trimming.

In the same vein is Carolyn Hall's

  morning shower
  finding just the right word
  I was looking for   (8:1)


Here the emphasis is decidedly human, but the immersion in one of the basic elements is enough to permit a "flow" in the mind as well. And there is a rich vein of significance to explore in terms of the purifying effect of the ablutions, as well.

 From very early on, I have liked Christian Aspegren's

  the deep hole –
  my daughter's small hand
  lifts me out   (3:1)

This sort of material, with its figurative language and temptingly sentimental theme, must be handled with great delicacy. I feel that Aspegren manages this quite well here, without coming across as so cold as not to recognize the emotional metaphor he is conjuring.

***


 Another successful field of enquiry which SxSE has realized is the "message poem". These are very difficult to write well—that is, in an artistically successful way—because most often there is a decision which the poet must make, to be true to the poem or to be true to the message. They do not line up with each other so often as one would think, and compromises are very rarely satisfying to the poet or the reader.

 All the more reason to appreciate such a poem as

  then I knew the way
  the day lily
                       leaning   (4:2)


Here the poet, George Ralph, has allied his own sense of willingness to accede to a direction with what he perceives to be the harbinger of that direction. That's fine as far as it goes, but what makes the poem work is that we as readers grant it the same power.

A somewhat different approach is James Tipton's

      Canada Geese
          suddenly in the heart
  the field takes wing   (4:1)


This poem utilizes a bit of word play to realize its effect, and a difficult one to pull off: "heart" is such an overburdened word that it could easily fall into cliché here. The fact that we are pulled up out of our chairs at reading this poem is testimony that the poet skirts this potential difficulty and instead makes us feel the moment, and the word, anew.

 William Ramsey allows us to discover the ripples of his point by making his poem a mystery to be solved:

  slave cemetery
  I scrape the moss to find
  no name   (3:1)


By sharing the moment of insight with the poet, we move through the thought process with him as the poem "explains" itself, arriving at much more than we might have expected when we started scraping that moss.

 Much the same sort of technique is used by Tom Painting in his

  ending
  in wildflowers . . .
  the logging road   (5:3)


But the topic, and message, is a good deal more overt here, and it is a credit to the poet's skill that we don't feel preached to, but rather sympathetic to the cause. This is undoubtedly due to the secondary level of understanding we must achieve before we realize how we arrived at this idyllic scene.

***


 Then there is the "identification poem" wherein the poet and the subject matter become one. This is a much more traditional sort of haiku, but still somewhat different from the "self-aware poem" in that here the poet isn't aware of himself as apart from the poem, or from nature. We might say that one is the obverse side of the coin from the other. Put another way, we can consider that the images in these poems are symbols of the poet's conscious, and that whatever becomes of one, becomes the other. Consider, for instance, Miyako/Tamasudare's poem

  dozing in spring –
  a butterfly emerges
  from my palm   (9:1)


The dozer is the butterfly is the poet; and the one emerges from the other in every sense. Yet at the same time we have not lost the moment of actuality-the scene of the event can be readily envisioned and shared.

 Equally effective, to my mind, is Fred Donovan's

  crow's caw
  its shadow passes
  through mine   (4:2)


The mingling of the dark essence of beings cannot but fascinate us, and the writing here is so effortless and plausible that we must identify the one with the other, with ourselves. And much the same can be said of Larry Kimmel's fine effort

  snake released –
  the feel of it
  stays in my hand   (3:3)

***


 The truly experimental poem also appears in these pages. These kinds of poems, at their best, are not written simply to tweak the form. Instead, they respond to a need for articulation in a way that the form has not yet discovered. It is not too much to say that all the great poems in the form have been explorations of the edges of the form: what we retain is not the fact that they were in any way controversial, but rather the way they perfectly utilize the energy inherent in the form, even if no one had discovered it before. Consider this haiku by Peter J. Larson:

  mockingbird
  trying to sing
  like an iris   (7:1)


The way the poem makes me imagine is its success: does the mockingbird manage to pull it off? What would it sound like? If anyone could do it, the mockingbird could. The metaphor here simply reinforces the unlikely effort.

 Marian Olson's poem works in a similar fashion, and adds a bit of misdirection:

  first snow
  I keep losing
  your face   (5:2)


We might have expected any number of things after the second line here, and they all would have been factually plausible and convincing, but hardly poetic. But Olson's solution is truly poetic: the shifting transigence of the snow is too much to lay hold of even what is known, and known well. Will she recover it when the snow stops?

***


 Senryu, particularly the more serious sort we have cultivated in the west, also shows well here. Consider John Stevenson's astutely observed

  much read, her Bible
  no longer closes
  completely    (5:1)


And the rueful sort of effect which Kay F. Anderson's poem has upon us:

  her unsigned donor card
  a bookmark   (6:2)


But there is plenty of the light side, too, as evidenced by Paul Watsky's

  early appointment
  the analyst's office full
  of yesterday's heat   (4:1)


Mike Laroche's telling aperçu:

      the first mistake
  worked
      wonderfully   (7:2)


and Tom Clausen's seasonal senryu:

  another full moon
  my checkbook still
  unbalanced   (8:3)

***


 And for all that, there are plenty of just good old-fashioned excellent haiku. Here are only a few of the many haiku which have appeared in the pages of SxSE which have become staples of the haiku repertoire in English:

  front door opens –
  its redness enters the house
  before us
          Dorothy McLaughlin   (3:2)


  a flock
  of wild geese passes –
  the sky stays behind
          Gary Hotham   (3:2)


  spring sun
  a calf walks away
  from the cow
          Jeff Witkin   (6:1)


  vase of sunflowers
  their heads facing
  in all directions
          Karen Klein   (7:3)


  just enough rain to moisten the lips of the wild lily
          Marlene Mountain   (8:2)


  on a day with no messages
  – scattered showers
          Jane Wilson   (9:2)


I would be remiss if I didn't add a couple of my own, poems which are particularly important to me and which first appeared in these pages:

  ground fog
  up to my ankles
  in moonlight   (5:1)


  the lake laps all night the same quiet thoughts   (3:4)


  shifting clouds –
  a school of minnows
  becomes one shine   (9:3)

***


 So what remains? Our high expectations that the second decade is so full of inspiration and serendipity as the first, and that we are able to glean so impressive a collection from those pages, and with the same enthusiasm. Keep up the good work!


     Editor Emeritus
     South by Southeast

***

Reference: South by Southeast: Haiku and Haiku Arts. Stephen Addiss and the Richmond Haiku Workshop, editors. Midlothian, Va.: Richmond Haiku Workshop; 1994 ; 3x/year. ISSN: 1089-9421.
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