2019 HSA Haibun Awards
Michele Root-Bernstein and Lee Gurga
by Rich Youmans, North Falmouth, MA
Empty feeders creak from the backyard oak. Remember how, after your diagnosis, I filled and hung them for you, waving each from branch to branch—Here? How ’bout here?—anywhere but where you wanted? I was just trying to make you laugh, to make you forget those strange terms, amyloid and tau. And you did, your eyes brightening, your arms flapping Down! Down! as if you were about to lift off. Later, you watched the birds gather: warblers, wrens, the pale brown cardinal and her red mate. You mimicked their songs and calls, peeps and sweets that rose and fell. When a chickadee zee-zee-zeed, you whispered Predator! and I scanned the sky, looking for a hawk. I saw only cloudless blue. But we both knew it was out there.
hospice . . .
in each breath
the sound of wings
~ ~ ~
Comments from the Judges
Title: Seemed weak at first, but metaphorical force from the haiku makes it better.
Prose: Interesting, imaginative, lively prose with a touch of humor to lighten the overall feeling.
Haiku: Works well both in the context of the haibun and independently as a haiku.
We noticed the integrity of this haibun right away, but only as we returned to it again and again did we realize how beautifully crafted this indirect meditation on mortality really is. The bird imagery develops with subtlety and, as we reach the end of the piece, with a sense of the inevitable. Not a word less or a word more is needed to communicate what can be said and what can only be felt about the end of a love, a life. And only gradually did the significance of the first sentence unfold.
Overall assessment: In our view, far and away the best entry of the contest. This haibun caught our attentions with its mix of humor and dread, captured our imaginations with its imagery, and touched our hearts with its haiku.
by Jacquie Pearce, Burnaby, BC Canada
Halfway up the stairs to the Skytrain—after she sees the bar of rainbow light falling across one grey step—she decides this will be a day to collect things. First, it is the two eagles soaring high above the intersection, which she spotted from the bus window on the way here. Then, the white half-moon, unexpected in the blue afternoon sky. Then, the rainbow, and after that, the view of snow-capped Mount Baker from the Skytrain platform (somehow a surprise every time she sees it).Thinking back, maybe she will count the welcoming smile from the bus driver, too.
Now, she is looking for things. Should she count the pattern of bare branches where a tree’s shadow leans against a wall? The strip of colourful graffiti that parallels the brown train track between Commercial Drive and Main Street? The bright pink of a store awning? Or, should she stop looking and let the next thing find her?
The rest of the day, she picks up images, holds them awhile, then lets them go. The way the late afternoon sun sharpens and elongates the shadow of a prickly seed ball. The halo of light around the fluffy black afro of a little girl looking up at her mother. The gilded edges of an out-of-season bee’s fur. A single white feather on the sidewalk. A tiny yellow jasmine blossom in a triangle of light (no jasmine bush in sight). It’s only after the sun slips from the surrounding buildings window by window, that she stops looking.
the bright orange coat
of a homeless man
~ ~ ~
Comments from the Judges
Title: Doesn’t seem to add anything—just a restatement of the first sentence.
Prose: Well-written, interesting, imaginative.
Haiku: A little weak, as the two parts seem a bit too close together. Also risks skirting too close to the edge of an unearned emotion by leaning heavily on a socially conscious trigger word and situation.
Despite our misgivings, the more we thought about this piece, the more we felt that the prose deliberately prepared for the haiku and its abrupt change in tone. We noticed how the prose concentrates on the colors of things in a local, home environment, with no hint of the amoral nature of nature, just acceptance of beauty as is. Like many a haiku poet, the narrator is a collector of images, yet her aesthetic attention is selective—after the sun sets “she stops looking.” Why? Night brings out another reality, a not-home, which the “she” of the piece chooses to ignore. Or does she? There is a self-awareness here that we came to believe earns the emotional censure of the haiku.
Overall assessment: Excellent writing, pretty nigh flawless prose. With a leaping title and less obviousness in the haiku this haibun could have vied for first.
by Marita Gargiulo, Hamden, CT
Sorrento Sirena Sisters
I would sing and you, stronger than I,
would dive beneath the waves
looking for larceny.
By the way . . .
We could have,
but, after a small argument
decided not to
Impressed and honored by his tactics
we let him sail past,
changed to our feet
and met the boat near Positano.
It was one hell of a night!
As for the other vessels,
getting their attention wasn’t the hard part,
nor was keeping it.
Making quick selections came easily too,
as we swam back with our bounty
on rocks in the shoals by the temple of Minerva
I hear beautiful, young sirenae,
combing their long dark hair,
from a golden thread
her locket of purple shells . . .
~ ~ ~
Comments from the Judges
Title: Provides crucial information that the prose lacks.
Prose: Interesting, imaginative, but has its weaknesses. Some of the descriptive terms don’t seem quite right. For example, it seemed to us that “booty” would have been a more apt choice of words for the mermaid’s piracy than “bounty.” One question that remains unanswered is who is being addressed? (Not that it matters greatly.)
Haiku: “OK” but not entirely successful. Not enough friction in the haiku and not enough difference between its character and that of the prose portion. Without the ellipsis and our expectation for a haiku at the end of the piece, it could easily have passed for a continuation of the prose.
This haibun intrigued us both with its unusual point of view and its time-out-of time setting. A tough, yet tender old mermaid seems to be doing the talking and the remembering, indeed creating her own legend. Ulysses has his crew fill their ears with wax and tie him to the mast so he can hear the singing of the sirens, those half women-half birds sometimes conflated with fish women. (The 1909 oil painting “Ulysses and the Sirens,” by Herbert James Draper, features two nubile mermaids boarding the hero’s ship.) Our narrator mermaid makes the most of the confusion, seducing sailors on land or sea and with no regrets. As for the capping haiku, admittedly weak, google the words “purple shell lockets” and mermaids come up.
Overall assessment: An “A” for effort. We both felt that this was the boldest and most imaginative entry in the contest. In the interests of the genre, we chose to recognize its willingness to take risks, to lead haibun into new territories of voice and narrative imagination. No guts, no glory!
Honorable Mentions (unranked):
Dru Philippou, Taos, NM
I could sit in my backyard and wait for dark. The rose-breasted grosbeak might come to the feeder. I might see jackrabbits in the spent yarrow patch or a raccoon dipping its food in the pond. Or I might hear the feather reed grass blowing to and fro and crickets rasping out their last calls. I could peer between bare branches to Pegasus, then over to Andromeda.
shooting star . . .
I speak his name
one last time
Comments from the Judges
Title: Does add something that is not present in the prose or the haiku.
Prose: Well written, but doesn’t really announce itself until we get to the last sentence.
Haiku: A good haiku, if somewhat conventional in thought, that does add significance.
On second and third read, it struck us that this quiet haibun uses conditional thinking to advantage. Waiting for dark, the narrator might see all sorts of things that place the piece in late autumn, a season that prompts us to consider our human place in the order of things. Does he or she? The imagery draws us outward (or is it inward?), from the grosbeak at the feeder to the constellations visible through bare trees. Is it significant that we see the winged horse, Pegasus, or Andromeda, the chained maiden? This last is known for meteor showers in November—and the haiku does bring home a shooting star.
Overall assessment: A solid haibun built on intriguing ambiguities: Is the narrator spent with grief or longing? Is he/ she trying to forget or fingering a sore memory? Does noticing or not noticing the jackrabbits in the yarrow patch or the crickets in the grass salve the soul? The reader is drawn to the piece again and again in search of answers.
~ ~ ~
Tia Haynes, Lakewood, OH
Water fades to cool on my neck as I wash away last night, last year, the last ten years. Turning off the faucet, I see the tattoo I’ve forgotten and remember there are places that will never come clean.
I tell her
to pray it away
Comments from the Judges
Title: OK, with some ambiguity as to who is unforgiven.
Prose: Has strong emotional content, but some of the language and imagery seemed a bit problematic. Does water fade? Do people really forget their tattoos? Some parts of the prose are powerful, but its weaknesses move it out of the first rank.
Haiku: Not sure there’s much friction between the first line and the rest, but there is an intriguing disconnect that lends the haiku energy.
Rape is a powerful subject. This haibun handles it well, by focusing the reader’s attention to the side. The scene is set for someone (whether man or woman is not clear) washing away regret for something unforgiven, and rightly so: there are places on the narrator’s body and his/her soul that will not come clean. The haiku explains why. Perhaps there are multiple ways to read lines two and three. As we parsed it, a woman told the narrator she had been raped, and the narrator dismissed her distress. Yet now, later, the narrator begins to understand the violence of that response, which is also a rape of sorts. Line one has more than one meaning. Title, prose and haiku all revolve around the incident and its aftermath, each telling us something different and irrevocable about the event.
Overall assessment: This piece earns selection for the risk it takes dealing with a shocking topic and making good use of the tripart structure of haibun to layer first responses with some unusual emotions and introspections.
~ ~ ~
Judging this year’s haibun contest has been an honor for us both—and a challenge. Haibun is a difficult form. It’s not just that the poet has three elements—title, prose, and haiku—to wrestle into a working relationship. With a relatively spare amount of words, in a short space of time, the poet has also to make a difference in the reader’s life—catch the attention, capture the imagination, touch the heart. Otherwise, who cares? We each read all 107 of the contest entries, searching for the ones that spoke to us, not just about the writer’s earthly journey but about ours, too, and thus, the human condition.
We also considered the quality of craft. Was the prose well written, without obviously unintended grammatical errors, and did it fulfill its role both in communicating sense to the reader and working as a pivot between the title and the haiku? Did the haiku work as a haiku, or was it too dependent on the prose to have an independent status? In other words, did it fulfill its role as a “hokku,” rather than act as an interior verse of a linked-verse poem? Did the title add something additional to the work, or did it simply restate something in the prose or haiku?
Finally, we asked how well the poet integrated title, prose, and haiku into one seamless, aesthetic whole. Did each of the three elements have individual meaning and integrity—and also a mutually synergistic effect? Did the distance between title, prose, and haiku (too close, too far, just right) allow for compelling ambiguity and interpretive space? Did the piece overall communicate something to the reader in the haikai way, permitting cognitive shifts as one journeyed through title, prose, and haiku and back to the title?
One last note. We have purposefully kept our comments somewhat raw, to impart something of the judging experience. Excellence is not always immediately recognized; we have first to get ourselves out of the way.
Here are our winning selections.
About the Judges
Michele Root-Bernstein is a devotee of haiku, haibun, and haiga. Her work appears in many of the usual journals, in chapbook anthologies and collections, and on three large rocks along a haiku walk in Ohio. She is co-author of The Haiku Life (Modern Haiku Press, 2017). And, at present, she facilitates the Evergreen Haiku study group in mid-Michigan.
Lee Gurga is a past-president of the Haiku Society of America and former editor of Modern Haiku. He is currently editor of Modern Haiku Press. His books of haiku, In & Out of Fog and Fresh Scent, were awarded “First Prize” in the HSA Merit Book Awards; his Haiku: A Poet’s Guide was recognized by the HSA as the “Best Book of Criticism” for 2004. His anthology Haiku 21, co-edited with Scott Metz, was honored as “Best Anthology” by the HSA and given the Haiku Foundation’s “Touchstone Award.” Their anthology Haiku 2014 also received a Touchstone Award.