2019 HSA Senryu Contest Judges' Commentary
David Grayson & J. Zimmerman
For the HSA 2020 Senryu Contest, 703 poems were submitted. The two judges were thrilled to read through all the senryu, giving each poem individual attention. They then began to focus on poems that met their criteria, particularly that a good senryu would emphasize human affairs, offer fresh images, say something original, and preferably be layered and open to multiple readings. Humor was a plus though not essential; pontification was a minus. Poems about aspects of current events such as the COVID pandemic (masks, sheltering-in-place, etc.) were subject to those same criteria: they did not get a pass.
We pruned the poems on each wave of rereading until eventually we each reached a shortlist with top choices. We shared and merged our choices, finding partial overlap. We discussed every poem in our combined list and we both modified some evaluations. Over several days we discussed the possible winners. We emphasized, but did not limit ourselves to, senryu that both judges selected. As part of our process, we drafted our comments on the candidates along the way. The entries were a wonderful window into the breadth and depth of English-language senryu.
in the fence, mostly
on their side
Tony Williams, Glasgow, Scotland, UK
This delightful senryu caught the immediate attention of both of us. While it splendidly encapsulates our small-scale human troubles with our neighbors, it is very much of the moment and resonates more widely. The blame-game subtext is present throughout life, from toddlers to politicians. The word "mostly" shows the poet claiming to be reasonable by recognizing that some (of course, only a tiny portion) of the hole must be on the poet's side. The punctuation supports its sense, with a cheeky comma in the middle of line two, interrupting the flow — just like the hole in the fence. This senryu was the only one that appeared in both of our independently selected "best" lists and we are enthusiastic to award it first place.
lying under fleece
Suzanne Niedzielska, Glastonbury, CT
This is a well-layered senryu with strong images and sharp vocabulary. The opening gives us the exhausting situation of failing to sleep, an experience suffered by many. The second line ameliorates the situation by placing the person beneath "fleece," a lovely word that suggests softness and comfort. The third line completes the poem beautifully, not only avoiding the cliché of counting sheep but also resonating with Aesop's tale of a wolf in sheep's clothing, which is maybe what the would-be sleeper recognizes in what they count. Perhaps they count the wolves at their door. Perhaps they count people (wolves) that have swindled ("fleeced") them. Or perhaps they are an insomniac wolf-enthusiast. We admire the possibilities.
she died peacefully
according to family
Barrie Levine, Wenham, MA
The four-line form is rarely used or mastered, but it is perfect for this material. Each revelation appears in its own time. For both of us, "detested" was a surprise on initial reading. "Detest" is a strong verb and on rereading, it was perfect. We imagine the deceased held strong views of her own, such as excluding some or all of her family from her will. There is pleasing ambiguity: given that she detested the views of family members, they might or might not have been present at her death, they might wish they had reconciled with her before her death, they might feel guilt or regret, and they might be unreliable narrators. A rich poem.
Honorable Mentions (unranked)
x plus x
she loves algebra
Jerrold Levy, Deerfield, IL
The mixture of seriousness and lightheartedness in this senryu charmed us. Its bold use of not only the words "chromosomes" and "algebra" but also the single letter of "x"-the-unknown gave this poem expansiveness. It offers a portrait of a blossoming high-school student learning about the mysteries of biology, algebra, and love. The alternate interpretation of "x" as a kiss makes us smile. One of us would have preferred this as a one-line poem to encourage a greater variety of interpretations of what is loved.
Honorable Mentions (unranked)
a whole lot of shakuhachi
John Stevenson, Nassau, NY
We love this poem's contrasting tongue-in-cheek resonance with the title of the rambunctious and popular song "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Many of us have attended haiku readings introduced by a delicate shakuhachi flute, inviting us to pay attention and settle down for a session; this poem is a contrast. We also thought of gossip frothing at haiku gatherings and evenings of sake-lubricated renku parties: this poem could be describing one of those events. We applaud the sly use of the word "haiku" in a senryu; and the words "haiku" and "shakuhachi" are apt acknowledgments of our cultural heritage. This is a laugh-out-loud senryu in the longstanding humorous historical style.
Honorable Mentions (unranked)
Julie Warther, USA
This senryu is part of a long word-play tradition. It fully captures the jolt of hormonal meltdown one might have experienced oneself, or witnessed in one's child, one's beloved, or even a stranger. The "horror" and the "moans" of embarrassment resonate with us.
About the Judges:
David Grayson has been writing haiku and senryu for twenty years. His first book, Discovering Fire: Haiku & Essays, was published by Red Moon Press in 2016. He served as Editor of Full of Moonlight, the Haiku Society of America 2016 Members' Anthology. He was a featured poet in A New Resonance 6; the 2009 Two Autumns book, My Neighbor; and the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society's Spring Haiku in the Park 2018. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family.
J. Zimmerman is a poet, essayist, teacher, senryu enthusiast, and tai chi student. Her article "Gender of Poets Winning Haiku and Senryu Contests" appeared in Presence in 2019. Its companion article "Gender of Haiku Poets Published in Journals: Game-On, Ladies?" will appear in Modern Haiku in 2020. She was featured in the 2013 New Resonances haiku anthology and was the first Poet in Residence for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (2014). Her doctorate in physics is from Oxford University (UK); her post-doc work was on the moon rocks at Washington University (USA).