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Judges' Commentary for the HSA Renku Competition

Commentary by year: 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 200720062005 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001

Winners by Year: 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001


Judges' Commentary for 2013

Norman Darlington, Bunclody, Ireland
Linda Papanicolaou, Stanford, California
 Award Winners for 2013

2013 Judges' Comments:

Grand Prize

"Early Morning Heat"
John Carley, Manchester, England (sabaki)
Lorin Ford, Melbourne, Australia
Cynthia Rowe, West Hoxton, Australia
Sandra Simpson, Tauranga, New Zealand
William Sorlien, St. Paul, Minnesota

The winning poem, “Early Morning Heat,” is a success on many levels. Interestingly, it was the entry with the greatest number of participants: five poets, who penned four verses each. There is a danger, when incorporating so many different voices, that the resulting poem will lack unity and make for a disjointed read with little poetic flow. However, when the sabaki (lead poet) communicates with clarity and the renju know just what is required, the result can be a polyphonous harmony, in which the very differences in the poets’ voices are harnessed to strengthen the unity of the whole. Such is the case here. The first side of the poem (the initial four verses), while maintaining a degree of decorum appropriate to the introduction (jo), already gives a foretaste of the variety and skillful linkage, which will extend throughout all four sides of the poem.

The hokku provides us with a close-up of insects crawling within the rich orange of a courgette (zucchini) flower, and rounds out this visual picture with the tactile “early morning heat,” pregnant with the promise of summer. The next verse, the wakiku, zooms out from the flower and finds us, the readers, invited under a parasol and into the poem. Once we leave the introduction and enter the development phase (ha, verses 5–16) the imagery takes on a new density, with the moon and shadows playing hide and seek, and a blackberry basket carrying “a taste of river fog.” Sensuality and gentle humour combine in the love verses of side 2, while an atmospheric whiff of France closes that side with “a gallic shrug.” That scent crosses the page into the poem’s second half with a humorous allusion to Basho’s frog, as, misunderstood, he jumps into the fish stew.

Of course it’s not all fun and food, and as side 3 progresses we move into darker territory, with lemmings streaming across the ice intent on mass suicide, and images alluding to Polanski’s The Pianist, and evoking the enormity of the devastation visited on Europe in World War II. The closing side (verses 17–20) provides a resolution of sorts, with images tumbling quickly one on top of the other, and building to a crescendo with an almost painfully visual blossom verse at penultimate, followed by a gentle, symbolic conclusion, accepting of the twin realities of the worlds within and without the poetic za.

It is no exaggeration to call “Early Morning Heat” a tour de force, and the judges feel no hesitation in awarding it the Grand Prize.

Second Place

"Sparrow Footprints"
Elizabeth McFarland, Karlsruhe, Germany
Tzetzka Ilieva, Marietta, Georgia

The nijuin to take Second Place, “Sparrow Footprints,” shows many strengths. Penned by two poets evidently comfortable writing together, one would hazard that this is not their first collaboration. Both the opening and closing sides (verses 1–4 and 17–20) are vivid and confident (with the closing pair particularly strong), although the intervening sections are in places a little uneven, with a couple of slightly wordy and packed verses (#9, #15) and occasionally rather mechanical linkage (sharp teeth snapping the water, to eating polenta; collection of coins, to scrap metal pile). That said, there is a rich variety of materials on display and the reader is engaged from start to finish as the poets explore the full gamut of emotions, while exhibiting a clear understanding of the basics of writing a good renku that a reader will want to follow through to its conclusion. Well done.

Honorable Mention

"Down the Line"
Tom Clausen, Ithaca, New York
Yu Chang, Schenectady, New York
John Stevenson, Nassau, New York
Hilary Tann, Schuylerville, New York

“Down the Line” is the product of four writers whose blend of voices also indicates an easy familiarity. It opens vividly with a freight train of red box cars against the autumn foliage of sumac trees along the railroad tracks, and nearby a small house—“our house”—with its windows frosted from the warmth inside, and closes with a lamentation on wars and corrosion of values, against which the Woodstock era seems like a lost paradise. Despite that a kite, still hopefully aloft. Especially in comparison to the first-and second-place renku, its minimalism can seem a shock to the system—witness the three-word ageku. As judges we differ in our responses to this: for one it inclined towards a series of separate stills; for the other, the minimalism and separation of verses gave the poem a laconic quality of voice that was consistent with the setting of the hokku and waki. Both judges, however, agreed that the result of this choice brought problems, in that the linking is often vague or mechanical. There are some wonderful pairings—shuddering dust motes to cold box of nails; the humour of passionately kissing a young woman with tongue-piercing, then zooming out to that vintage clinch between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. But overall the linking in the ha seems more thought than felt, with a consequent lack of a sense of momentum. On another note, it took effort to avoid reading a certain degree of kannonbiraki (reversion) in the alternation of indoor and outdoor imagery that runs from the middle of side 1 through the first verses of side 2.

At a subliminal level, there are what seem to be threads of theme running through the poem. The most prominent of these is the hokku’s railroad imagery, which returns in various elusive whiffs in the cold nails, the “whistle-blower,” the baked potato (a dining car specialty of the Northern Pacific), and “clink,” so that at times the poem seems to be circling back and reexamining itself from different angles. But this is done in such a subtle manner as to provide a great part of the poem’s power, and is in no danger of crossing into the realm of “thematic renku.” Overall a skillfully executed poem grounded in a strong sense of place.

About the Judges:

Norman Darlington is co-editor at Journal of Renga & Renku and Whirligig Multilingual Haikai Journal, as well as former renku editor of Simply Haiku and Moonset. He has led and participated in renku sessions at the World Haiku Festival (Netherlands, Ireland, India), at SOAS London, and at his international online forum The Renku Group. He has participated in linked verse collaborations with world leaders in the field, including William J. Higginson, Hiroaki Sato, Nobuyuki Yuasa, Herbert Jonsson, Cheryl Crowley, Chris Drake, Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, John Carley, Ion Codrescu, Susumu Takiguchi, and Bruce Ross.

Linda Papanicolaou is an art teacher who has been writing haiku since 2000. She is the editor of Haigaonline, an officer of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, and a member of Haiku Poets of Northern California and the Haiku Society of America. She has been writing collaborative linked poetry since 2005 and as leader or participant has been involved in renku published in the Journal of Renga and Renku, Lynx, Notes from the Gean, Simply Haiku, and Sketchbook.


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