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Speech given at,
The Second European Haiku Conference
Vadstena, Sweden, 8-10 June 2007.

First publication,
The Second European Haiku Conference Proceedings,
The Swedish Haiku Society, (Kai Falkman, President), 2007

State of the Art: Haiku in North America 2007

Jim Kacian

Thank you for this opportunity to spend a few minutes with you. It's an honor and privilege to represent my country and continent here amongst you. I've been asked to say a few words about the state of the art of haiku in North America. In order to do a reasonable job, I told Kaj I needed, say, 4 days. He said we didn't have quite that much time, so we compromised, and I have 15 minutes. So this will be a narrow treatment of a very large subject. And this being the case, I have chosen to focus on only a couple of issues, hoping to extrapolate from these indicators what, indeed, the state of North American haiku might be.

It's important to say at the beginning that only by considering the work of individual poets is it possible to know anything about the state of haiku, or for that matter any art, in any culture. Art is not a competition—there are no haiku Olympics. Of course I am not saying that poets are not competitive . . . and there is no real way of measuring the accomplishment of poets other than on a case-by-case basis. To know the health of haiku in the United States, therefore, is something of an impossibility.

What we can hope to discover, however, is what collectively these individual poets are doing, what they're finding important, what problems they're solving. If we consider these things on a sufficiently large scale, we might arrive at a sense of general direction. And, underlying this direction is the opportunity poets have for expressing these findings. It is the infrastructure that determines, to a very great degree, just how much an artist is exposed. What I propose, then, in these few minutes, is that we consider these two issues: what problems concern haiku poets in America today, and what opportunities they have to express their findings.

* * *

As a context, it might be useful to conceive of the practice of haiku as consisting of two drives: the looking back at the work of the great poets which have preceded us and have determined the shape and intent of our art to this point, and the looking forward to our own uncharted destiny. These two models taken together suggest an ontological model for the entirety of our practice. At any particular time, one or the other of these drives may have the upper hand, which might result at one time in a more classical approach, and at another in a more modern dynamic. We will vacillate between these two ideals many times in the life of a particular genre, and the emphasis at each time will affect every aspect of our writing. Through the lenses of these polarities we will consider the questions that have always been inherent in the practice of haiku: what form do we choose, one that follows the Japanese original in some fashion, or one that seems more endemic to our own language and culture? What content is available, that which is to be found in a saijiki or the more inclusive reality we encounter in our own lives? What artistic sensibility should be adopted, one which aligns with the practice of our great Japanese forebears or one which is more suggestive of our personal poesy? Must “nature” play a role in every poem we deem haiku, or is there a more inclusive sense of nature at play in the very making of such poems? In fact, do we recognize ourselves and our activities to reside within the realm of nature, or exclude ourselves from such considerations?

These questions, which all of us have asked and continue to ask in our poetic careers, are the critical background to our practice. Answering them might well help us discover what haiku poets in America are up to.

The answers, as I have stated earlier, must reside within the individual practices of each poet. Unlike haiku in Japan, which features schools of specific poetics, most poets in the United States, even when they belong to clubs or groups, consider the creation of art a highly individualistic activity, and would consider themselves aesthetically beholden to no one. True art is a lonely pursuit, as we conceive of it, and haiku is no different. One would expect such a position to result in a very wide range of practices.

Surprisingly, however, this is not what I find to be the case. In fact, it is reasonable to say that there is less assertion of individual qualities in American haiku today than there was twenty or thirty years ago. I find, in looking at the various books and journals being published at this time, a strong tendency in the work of most poets to publish three-line, short-long-short, nature-based poems. Of course poets may write poems other than this, but if they do they are not, on the whole, making them available through the usual outlets. This is perhaps a reflection of our culture at large: we as a nation have become much more security- and finance-driven, and in such times individual rights and expressions seem to get modulated. The brave experiments in form and content of earlier journals such as inkstone and RAW NerVZ seem almost an affront today, and what we find is a more homogenized, predictable product. To be sure, you will find some few advocates of formal experimentation, especially those who favor a one-line format for certain technical effects not possible in three lines. There are advocates of an expanded content, including political, war and zen poets. As to the effectiveness of these contents, I believe that in general whenever the needs of poetry are subsumed to the needs of advocacy, poetry suffers, and that has been generally the case here.

I conclude that we are in a somewhat quiet, backwards-looking, classical period of activity. Despite some crossover between short form poetry and haiku, the emphasis amongst poets in North America seems to be on consolidation within the tradition, rather than expansion of the genre.

* * *

Such an evaluation must be tempered by an assessment of the other issue before us, opportunity: it is one thing to say poets are doing one thing or another, but this is entirely based upon what I see published in the journals and books. Even in this day of unparalleled opportunity for self-publication without stigma, there is relatively little haiku that is made available without some mediator, usually an editor. This is a source of either relief or annoyance, depending on your point of view.

At its most robust, haiku will have outlets for as much variation as the market will permit. By looking at the general trends of opportunity poets have had in the past we might get an idea of where we are at this point.

Haiku has been made available typically by three kinds of publishers: mainstream, niche, and academic. Typically, these publishers work in two arenas, books and ephemera (that is, magazines). Also typically, these publishers have chosen between two content areas: classical Japanese haiku, or contemporary haiku, with a much greater emphasis on the former.

Mainstream publishers are just that: aimed at a mainstream audience, with the resources to attract major authors through high pay, large print runs, and wide distribution. Because of these resources, mainstream publishers have a far greater power of influence through their products than the others. Haiku certainly has suffered from this model, since the goal of every major publisher is not artistic merit or advancement of the genre, but profit. The haiku that are published by mainstream firms then are chosen not on their qualities as poems but on their ability to attract customers. The result often is the advancement of populist or sensationalist ideas of what haiku must be, usually rigidly formatted and of questionable content. Nevertheless, haiku poets, as all poets, still court mainstream publishers because of their power to reach a mass audience.

Unfortunately, haiku has been virtually unnoticed by mainstream publishers. In the past 25 years, only three books have been released that would be considered representative of literary English-language haiku: Cor van den Heuvel's the haiku anthology, William J. Higginson and Penny Harter's The Haiku Handbook, and very recently, van den Heuvel's Baseball Haiku. The first two volumes have been successful enough to have had second and even third revisions. Even so, they are both in need of general revision now, and the prospect of their being so does not seem great.

On the other hand, mainstream publishers recently have become more interested in haiku, but not in the haiku that we would consider worthy. Rather, there has been a growing list of books with such titles as Haikus for Jews, Honkus, Corporate Haiku, Cat Haiku and so on. These books have little artistic merit, and argue for a model of haiku that is long since outmoded in any poetic sense in English. They must be selling, however, since another title or two appears every year.

* * *

It is fair to say that at present, there is no opportunity for practicing poets in the mainstream market, and of course there are no mainstream haiku magazines.

Niche publishers are generally more motivated by literary considerations, and appeal to a more coterie audience. They generally lack distribution resources and mass appeal. Nevertheless, at its best, niche publishing can be the fertile soil that nurtures the growth of art, and such has been the case in haiku.

Half a century ago, relatively unknown small publishers such as Charles E. Tuttle began specializing in “Asian Culture” and so published the first readily available books on haiku. One of them, Harold Stewart's A Net of Fireflies, remains the best-selling book of haiku in English of all time, and put Tuttle on the publishing map. By far the majority of their offerings have been selected from poems by the Japanese classical masters. These poems had the advantages of being picturesque, seemingly simple yet deep, and best of all, royalty-free. But aside from a very occasional offering such as borrowed water, an anthology of the Los Aptos Haiku Group, almost none of their books featured anything originally written in English.

Most niche publishing of English-language haiku, then as now, was self-publishing. Beginning in the early 1960s, books of original haiku have been offered by poets who believe in their work sufficiently to invest a bit of money in them. These range from extravagant, expensive volumes to folded sheets of paper. Nearly every poet who does anything more than dabble with the genre at some point feels compelled to put a book of their work out into the marketplace. Self- and niche publishing make this possible. Even so, possibilities are available primarily to poets who are willing to do the work of printing and distributing themselves.

Over the past fifty years a number of presses dedicated to haiku have opened their doors, notably Press Here and Chant Press (1960s), Brooks Books (1970s), Swamp Press (1980s), and From Here Press and Red Moon Press (1990s). For the most part these publishers have taken original English haiku very seriously, offering not only a market for poems but also increasing the value of the genre. While it is acceptable to publish one's own work, it is a badge of honor to have a book published by one of these presses, and a mark that one has “made it” in the haiku world.

Interestingly, though none of these presses have actually shut their doors, only 2—Brooks Books and Red Moon Press—have released books in the past few years. Each of these presses is identified with an individual poet/publisher, and so long as the poet is alive, so is the press. But actual activity by the press is rather scant in North America at the moment, and it is fair to say that fewer individual collections of haiku are being published by a third party press—that is, by a publisher other than the poet himself—than in the 1990s, 80s, even 70s and late 60s. And so the opportunity for poets has diminished.

The other side of niche publishing is quite active, and perhaps the public face of haiku: journals, broadsheets and magazines. This is the place where greatest opportunity resides for the contemporary haiku poet, and where the health of the genre is probably best gauged. If the book provides resources for individual poets, journals provide the same for groups of these same people, help to establish reputations, and make future book publishing possible.

* * *

So how does this translate to our current situation? Surprisingly, in this time of growth in the number of books available in the niche market, there has actually been a decrease in the number of journals where poets can market their work. Small magazines are always on the brink of extinction, and so the specific number of journals alive at any one time will vary from month to month. But the general trend over time should be revealing, and I believe it is: in 1982 there were 13 journals publishing original English-language haiku in North America on a regular basis. In 1997 that number was still thirteen, though a different thirteen. The number of journals catering to this same audience today is ten, and 2 or 3 of these can be considered at best occasional.

This may not be as much a decline in opportunity as it might seem, however: what did not exist twenty-five years ago, and scarcely ten years ago, was the online haiku site. Ten years ago there were only two fledgling sites: Dogwood Blossoms and Shiki Haiku Salon. Today there are at least a dozen, with various levels of sophistication. A good deal of the opportunity that was once the provenance of the journal has shifted to the internet. There remains the matter that more prestige resides in print publication, but this may change over time, and indeed seems to be shifting to some degree already.

Opportunity for poets in niche publishing, then, would seem a bit less in terms of journals, but greater for books and online presence.

The third arena is the academic press. Its products tend to be expensive and scarce, and yet they can have far-reaching effects on the field, especially in the long-term reputation. Nearly all academic publishing has centered on historical Japanese practice. However, in the last few years we have seen a volume of two on the work of poets working in English, which may suggest that more such volumes are on the way. Of course there are no academic journals dedicated to haiku—unless one counts Modern Haiku—and overall the level of opportunity for contemporary poets in the academic market is negligible.

What might we conclude from this? Since the number of journals and active haiku publishers appears to be shrinking, it seems that opportunity for haiku poets is diminishing. Is this actually the case?

The answer is, simply, yes, there are fewer opportunities for North American poets to get their haiku into print. But there is a major proviso, as well as a major shift, which has occurred in these last few years. That shift has been, of course, to publication on the internet.

* * *

The most important consequence of this shift, I believe, has been the unification of language. English has emerged, for better and worse, as the language of haiku in the 21st century. Consider the fact that we are here assembled, the poets of a dozen countries, speaking in English. This reflects a world circumstance, certainly, but it also suggests a recognition of a kind of utility. The internet has pointed out the need for such utility, a basic need to communicate. Yes, there are problems to be overcome, and hubris to be avoided. But if we can remain open and humble, then having a unifying language might serve us all.

There have been at least two significant results to this. The first is that North American poets are no longer North American poets, but world poets. In the world of cyberspace, it's possible, if not always sought, to become true global citizens, and to communicate with others from places we could only dream of, or romanticize. As the world connects, we will come into closer proximity with the way others are like us, or are not. “Darkest Africa” can be seen for the distancing cliché it is—instead, we will meet the inhabitants of Zaire and Zimbabwe as poets, as people.

The second result has to do with the fluency of the world in English. This is already showing remarkable results. The most recent Red Moon Anthology, for instance, contains the work of poets from twenty different countries. Yet English is the official language of only 5 of those countries. The poets from those other countries are writing not only poetry, but successful, meaningful, touching poetry, in what must be at least their second language. I cannot overestimate this achievement.

The consequence of this is that while opportunity for North American haiku poets seems to be decreasing, opportunity for world poets is on the rise. Many of us have recognized that the internet has the potential to bring the people of the world together. Perhaps it will be through the specifics of our chosen art—perhaps haiku is the opportunity all of us await.

Thank you for your kind attention.

     Vadstena, Sweden
     13 June 2007