2020 HSA Haibun Awards
Terri L. French & Lew Watts
We would like to thank the HSA for the opportunity to judge this year’s contest and, as importantly, all those poets who submitted haibun. With 150 entries, this was certainly a bumper year, and it was an honor to be able to review such a large amount of quality work. Our approach to judging was made easier by an almost total alignment in what we were looking for. For us, the prose, haiku, and title have always been equally important—if one is weak (and we had two submissions without titles), then the haibun often fails to work.
Prose styles can vary enormously, and this was indeed the case, but we were particularly interested in hearing the poet’s voice, its tone, its uniqueness (as an example, try reading aloud Pandemic Power Walk, one of three Honorable Mentions). We sought prose that was compelling, that used a variety of techniques to capture and convey emotion, that brought a sense of closure through accomplished writing. A number of entries employed haiku that merely reiterated a subject or theme from the prose. Those that caught our attention, however, stepped away from the prose, but did more than simply “link and shift”—they created new space and depth to explore, often emotionally. It was clear from some entries that the title was almost an afterthought, or a summary of what was to follow.
The majority of titles that appealed to us invariably “made sense” only after reading the prose and haiku in a sort of delayed “aha” moment that created yet more space. We believe the winning haibun show all three elements of prose, haiku, and title working with each other to create something more, something compelling.
Here are our choices:
by Chris Bays, Beavercreek, OH
Dusk-like darkness appears to narrow the forest path. Though noon reigns beyond the pine and oak, across the moss shadows deepen. My step-grandfather and I are searching for blackberries as we often do. He is quieter than usual as we trek downhill toward growing darkness. When I bring up the Battle of Verdun—trying to awaken stories of how he leaped from trench to trench as a messenger and watched Big Bertha cannon blast day into night—he stays silent. Even the mention of his wife, Lina—his true love—only brings the sound of shuffling feet. When we trek uphill toward some flickering light, and I say his name, “Peter,” he mutters, “Who are you? Why are you talking to me?”
the stories hidden
in a brain scan
~ ~ ~
Comments from the Judges
Prose: At its simplest level, this is a story about the writer taking a walk with his/her step-grandfather, a WWI war veteran. When the writer asks about his experiences during the war, the veteran “stays silent.” This immediately creates tension for the reader. This is accentuated by the lengthened, complex sentences that follow until we arrive at the harrowing “Who are you?” There is a tragic irony here between the old man’s position as a messenger in the battle of Verdun and his growing inability to receive messages in his battle with dementia. What becomes obvious on repeated readings are the literary hints to the veteran’s final days, starting in the first line where the “darkness appears to narrow the . . . path.” Later, the darkness grows, yet we hope, in vain, that stories can be awakened in the “flickering light.” In the final piece of dialogue, this hope dies.
Haiku: The haiku is devastating. The link and shift from dementia takes us to dark snow—is the snow in darkness, or more likely contaminated? The stories are now hidden, far from our sight, in a brain scan.
Title: At first sight, this simple title seems almost passive. Brambles—that rough, prickly shrub—could well apply to the old man. Yet, its tangled branches mean so much more after reading the prose and haiku. Here we see inside a tangled brain, one unable to answer or recognize, where the sweetness of blackberries is a distant memory.
Overall: A gem of a haibun. Although this is, unfortunately, a familiar story, the three key elements here work together to create a work of art, something greater, and more memorable.
by Margaret Chula, Portland, OR
Clothes To Go Out In
My father, who cared nothing for clothes, was embalmed at the funeral home and laid out in his coffin dressed in a dark suit with a light blue shirt and perfectly-knotted tie. Still, his second wife was upset. “Where are his glasses? He doesn’t look right without his glasses.” When Mother died ten years later, she was wrapped in a white shroud and cremated. No elegant clothes or accessories. Even her rings were gone—removed and laid aside for her granddaughter and me. I wish I had been there to dress her in a cashmere sweater and wool pants, to wrap a matching scarf around her neck, and clip on her favorite pearl earrings. At the end, her feet were too swollen for shoes. I would have slipped on a pair of soft slippers so she could go lightly into the next world.
the snake sheds its skin
~ ~ ~
Comments from the Judges
Prose: There are two stories in this prose—of the writer’s father and mother—linked together and contrasted. We are told the father was attired for burial in a formal style of clothing he would not have chosen. Was this ordered by his second wife who, in perfect show-don’t-tell, reveals so much in those two short sentences of dialogue? One can almost feel her haughty, irritated manner, with the repeat of the word “glasses.”
The writer’s mother also was not dressed in death as she was in life where, we are told, she wore cashmere, a scarf, and pearls. We are left wondering why the writer was not there to dress his/her mother—perhaps this was how mother chose to go. The prose leaves enough space for reader speculation.
Haiku: Clothing, like skin, is temporary. How we “go out,” what we leave behind, is of little significance once we are gone. The snake, after shedding its skin, is still alive—is this a hint, or hope, for the afterlife? The space created between the prose and the haiku allows for these questions and more. Our only reservation is that we wished there was more space created within the haiku through use of a cut.
Title: Here we have a title that sets up an expectation—perhaps a story about a fun night out—only to dash any hint of brevity in the first line of prose. The words “Go Out” work well against both prose and haiku, though part of us wished for more of an “aha,” that the title had taken a further step away from the prose and haiku.
Overall: Very strong and compelling prose set up by an intentionally misleading title and opened up by a haiku that allows further speculations and questions.
by Doris Lynch, Bloomington, IN
Sustenance on Mulberry Lane
Can I breastfeed your baby? asks my good friend, Alice, who has never had children. Hmmnn, I think. Kristen’s three months old, will she freak out? It’s a strange request, but what harm could it do?
“Sure,” I say more confidently than I feel. “But if she starts crying...”
“Of course, I’ll stop right away.”
my heart beating
in time to hers
Alice heads toward the bedroom with Kris snuggled contentedly in her arms. The baby just nursed before we came. What harm could it do? Under the poster of Santayana, I meditate on the living room rug. A sparrow flies to the window and taps the metal of the windchime, once, twice, a beautiful pinging sound. Searching for food also?
two spots spread
across my blouse
~ ~ ~
Comments from the Judges
Prose: Straight away, we’re taken offguard by the strangeness of the request from the writer’s friend. What sustenance can the baby receive suckling a non-lactating breast—can this really be called “breastfeeding?” Or, unsettling as this may seem, is Alice is the one having her needs met, gaining substance from the baby. The mother’s discomfort is palpable—the self-question “What harm could it do?” is repeated (the first should be “can it do”), and again we ask who could be harming whom? Two small quibbles. The Santayana poster is interesting, but is not explored. Finally, we wish the prose had ended with “pinging sound.” The search for food is implied.
Haiku: The two haiku work well with the prose, albeit with little space created. We particularly liked the contrast between the two haiku—in the first, the bonding of mother and child, and in the second the separation of mother and child.
Title: We found ourselves taken in immediately by the title—“sustenance” seemed a strange word choice, and we wanted to know more. Yet this strangeness also worked to negate any expectations of the prose—in other words, the story wasn’t telegraphed even though, in retrospect, the title was indeed descriptive. The “aha” for us was in leaving open who was being sustained.
Overall: A well-constructed haibun centered on a strange episode and told in a way that amplifies ambiguities and questions.
Honorable Mentions (unranked without commentaries):
by Margaret Chula, Portland, OR
Omitsu’s comb cracks beneath Buson’s bare feet, leaving an imprint on his heel and a dent in the tatami. So here it is, his wife’s treasured boxwood comb with hand-cut teeth and inlays of pearl. Shaped into a sickle, it glowed like moonlight in her dark hair. The comb must have slipped out as she lay dying, her tresses tangled—not from lovemaking—but from delirium.
Buson cradles the broken comb in his palm. Inhales the scent of camellia oil. He gently begins to remove the long black hairs snarled in the teeth. Wrapping them in a cloth, he carries them outside into the garden, the garden that gave them so much pleasure through every season. Kneeling on the cold ground, he arranges his dead wife’s hair—strand by strand—into the character for love. Black against white in the new snow.
a crow carries back twigs
to build its nest
~ ~ ~
by Matthew Caretti, Mercersburg, PA
The Car in the Petrol Station Lot
The old Toyota hatchback never leaves its space. The spot next to the restrooms, nestled close to the chipped and graffitied wall. Hoarding the nighttime shadow. The daytime shade. This is when she sleeps. Hidden behind foil-faced sunshields. Behind the peeling film of tinted windows cracked just enough.
of old asphalt
The weeds grow through the granulating tarmac. Encroach from the verge. Tangle into the wheels. Match the rusted coil springs in their helical ascent. Just as the old car sprouts odd sunset shadows, she emerges to wash herself in the restroom. To stroll the narrow alleys between nearby shops. To visit her favorite 24-hour mamak.
the neatness of clouds
scooping rice and dahl
her hennaed hands
This is where we first met. Or where I first glimpsed her and she caught me glimpsing. Then some weeks later where we first shared a smile, rising simultaneously from our plastic stools to depart. No words and different destinations, yet a lingering smile. But from my flat’s balcony, I caught sight of her again. Connected her with the old Toyota. And later to the métier she there practices.
the lone jetliner
tows in the storm
Since then we have crossed paths more regularly, as if my discovery of her trade in midnight visitors has connected us in some way. We pass in alleyways that are familiar to us both. And at that same mamak. Her light skin and almond eyes suggest a Peranakan lineage, but her dress and adornment are loosely Tamil. Whatever her ethnicity, she pulses the world around her with her presence. The metric foot of her life an iamb to be sure—the grandeur of her beauty preceded by the dull ache in my heart.
by the morning sky
NOTES: Mamak are open-air food establishments serving a unique Indian-Malaysian cuisine. Peranakans are an interracial ethnic group descended from the first Chinese settlers on the Malay Peninsula.
~ ~ ~
by Jennifer Hambrick, Worthington, OH
Pandemic Power Walk
concrete sidewalk grid of tree-lined days all out of phase
in droplet haze lives stopped cold on hold behind closed doors
walk through the neighborhood past locked-up park past school gone dark
to worn dirt trail break a sweat behind a mask of cotton caution
jet black sneakers kick up dirt heart beats fast mop up sweat
walk and walk earbud talk of healthcare mess don’t get sick
old man leans on walking stick walk faster faster
don’t get sick walk faster walk around through graveyard
still with cold hard ground with death-mask grin around again again
kick buckets of dirt sweaty mask sweaty shirt breathing fast
and hard and heavy through that mask through that mask
we might just live
a family of deer
keeping their distance
~ ~ ~
About the Judges
Terri L. French is past Southeast Regional Coordinator for The Haiku Society of America. She served as editor of Prune Juice Journal of senryu and kyoka. Currently Terri is on the editorial team of contemporary haibun online and a member at large of The Haiku Foundation. Author of the books Keepers, The Color of Bruises and Fully Human.
Lew Watts is the author of Tick-Tock, a haibun collection that received an Honorable Mention in the Haiku Society of America’s 2019 Merit Book Awards. His earlier publications include the novel Marcel Malone, and the poetry collection, Lessons for Tangueros. He lives in Chicago.