Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards for 2012

Haiku Society of America

Merit Book Awards for 2012

Carolyn Hall and Christopher Patchel, judges

These awards are for books published in 2011. The First Place award is made possible by LeRoy Kanterman, cofounder of the Haiku Society of America, in memory of his wife Mildred Kanterman. Congratulations to each of the winners, and to many additional poets who published other worthy books.


First Place (tie)

Fay Aoyagi. Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks. San Francisco, California: Blue Willow Press, 2011.

It is difficult to find superlatives that have not already been applied to Fay Aoyagi’s haiku. Poems from her first collection, winner of a Kanterman Book Award, prompted William Higginson to exclaim that at last someone “has galloped beyond most of what we have learned about how to write American haiku in five decades. . . . Chrysanthemum Love is a stunningly original book.” Her second book, In Borrowed Shoes (2006), was as strong as the first. And Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks is outstanding in its own right. This newest book includes 65 exceptional new poems along with 23 poems from each of the earlier books, which are no longer in print. Though she was born and raised in Japan, it was not until she was an adult living in San Francisco that Aoyagi “started a love affair with haiku and tanka.” Though she writes in both languages, all the poems in these collections were composed in English. But her status as native-born Japanese gives her poems about Japan great gravitas. Also, her first language gives her access to the rich panoply of Japanese kigo. Though she writes to express “who I am, how I live, how I see and how I feel,” rather than about nature, per se, the vertical axis of Japanese kigo gives great depth to her English-language poems.

Fay Aoyagi’s voice is one that cannot be ignored or soon forgotten.

handcuffed lobsters
in the water tank
A-bomb Anniversary

soft rain
a plum tree
in its third trimester

night ocean
death’s puppeteer
clears his throat

paul m. Few Days North Days Few. Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2011.

This is paul m.’s third full-length collection of haiku, and the third to win an HSA book award. This speaks volumes. He says in his introduction to this latest book, “The best poems are poems of misdirection, leading us to believe that nothing much has happened, when in fact everything has happened . . . or is happening.” The opening one-liner

with eyes closed spring grass

is a perfect introduction to the poems that follow—an exploration of what the world feels like when we shut out the extraneous and focus on immediate sensations, whether they be sight, sound, taste, touch, or emotion. The way paul m. sees the world is utterly unique.

returning body bags
my DNA
in a mosquito

No sentient being can walk away from exposure to these words without being profoundly affected. Although his haiku often employ traditional kigo, it is paul m.’s surprising juxtapositions that make the poems memorable.

returning geese
her ashes still
in the plain tin

The quality of the haiku, punctuated by linocut illustrations by the author, is outstanding throughout. It is no exaggeration to say that paul m. is one of the finest haiku poets writing today.


Second Place

Robert Boldman. Everything I Touch. Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2011.

utterly still
the bluejay cries
utterly what I am

Though buried deep in the book, this poem could stand as preface to Bob Boldman’s Everything I Touch. Boldman’s view of the universe has a refreshing, almost child-like quality, capturing fleeting imagery as if viewed out of the corner of his eye. Though often minimalist, his haiku pack a wallop.

beside the grave
      soft rain

Allowing himself the extra words necessary in this case,

Death camp in the photograph
the little girl’s hair will always be blowing

it is hard to imagine forgetting this image once Boldman has presented it to us in just this way. On the back cover Anita Virgil states, “Less is ever so much more.” John Stevenson exclaims that “This work is perfectly tuned.” And Peter Yovu assures us that “Even if you have never read Bob Boldman’s haiku, you will recognize them, because their offspring are everywhere.” Though many readers may have encountered Boldman’s haiku before, it is a great pleasure to have them between two covers and at hand’s reach.


Third Place

Allan Burns. Distant Virga. Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2011.

This first full-length collection of haiku by Allan Burns moved higher on our list with each reading. These are not poems that reach out and grab you by the collar; rather, they sink in and nestle in the core of your being. They are quiet evocations of the confluences of nature and (generally only implied) human nature.

Kind of Blue the smell of rain

Burns exhibits great dexterity at widening and narrowing our

a pinecone glows
in the campfire

And his view of the world is leavened with a touch of humor.

the dog’s path
less straight
than the path

Minimalist one-liners incorporated into artwork by Ron Moss (creating haiga, in effect) act as attractive chapter headings.


Best Anthology

Lee Gurga and Scott Metz, editors. Haiku 21. Lincoln, Illinois: Modern Haiku Press, 2011.

The very title raises expectations. An anthology called Haiku 21 should exemplify the changing state of twenty-first century haiku in English, accommodate the genre’s divergent influences and approaches, and answer the editors’ own forward-leaning question, “What can haiku be?” Indeed, the strength of this collection lies in the extent to which Lee Gurga and Scott Metz were able to rise to those challenges. Its weakness, on the other hand, is over-inclusiveness. A tight focus on the edgy and experimental, or on work that exhibits a traditional/ modern synthesis, would have given the collection an overall coherence, whereas the broad inclusion of traditional through gendai makes for a rather uneasy alliance. Then again, perhaps even that is an intentional reflection of the reality, and/or a gutsy effort to come to terms with traditional/gendai issues. Whatever the case, Haiku 21 stretches one’s ideas and sensibilities, and is anything but boring.

but probably enough

Lee Gurga

the word god being eaten by a field of robins

Scott Metz


Honorable Mentions for Best Anthology:

Robert Epstein, editor. Dreams Wander On: Contemporary Poems of Death Awareness. Baltimore, Maryland: Modern English Tanka Press, 2011.

This collection of 382 haiku, tanka, and haiga by nearly 200 poets (most of whose names will be very familiar) focuses not on death, per se, but on our sense of mortality. The author, a psychotherapist, provides a useful introduction to the themes covered. Though the poems are a bit uneven, the best of them are very good and make this an anthology worth reading.

Jerry Ball and J. Zimmerman, editors. Wild Violets: Yuki Teikei Haiku Society Members’ Anthology 2011. Sunnyvale, California: Patson’s Press, 2011.

This very attractive book (made so by a beautiful cover and foldout Chinese brush paintings by Ann Bendixen) includes two poems by each of 57 member poets, as well as haibun and informative essays by well-known haijin.


Best Design and Aesthetics

Joyce Clement. Beyond My View. Bristol, Connecticut: Endionpress, 2011.

Of all the books we were privileged to read, this one provided the richest visual and tactile experience by far. Designed by the author and produced by Swamp Press, it is letterpress-printed and hand-stitched, and uses die cuts, metallic ink, and textured paper stocks to wonderful effect. Evocative photographs (also by the author) on translucent pages partially reveal the poems to follow. The bonus (no small matter) is that the haiku are impressive as well. There is an ethereal quality about many of Joyce Clement’s poems, though even the most breathy of those are grounded in reality. Once read, they are not easily forgotten.



Best Book of Translation

Bouwe Brouwer, translated by Bouwe Brouwer, Norman Darlington, and Max Verhart. Messages from the Past. Den Bosch, Netherlands: ’t Schrijverke, 2011.

That good things come in small packages certainly proves to be the case with this delightful book of haiku and haibun by Bouwe Brouwer. Despite its diminutive size (you can hold it in the palm of your hand or tuck it into your shirt pocket), the production values are surprisingly good: a wraparound four-color cover, colorful end pages. Between those covers are 67 haiku and 5 haibun, each one in Dutch with faultless English translations. The haiku are mostly traditional, but Brouwer’s voice is unique, and even the most nature-oriented have an emotional tug.

the old park
in all its ponds

The English translations of the haibun are stunning. The stories are engaging. Not a word is wasted. And Brouwer knows well that in the best haibun the haiku doesn’t reiterate what’s in the prose, but takes one deeper into it.


Honorable Mentions for Best Translation

Ljubomir Dragovic, translated by Sasa Vazic. A Narrow Road. Belgrade, Serbia: Liber Press, 2011.

There is a rich lode of haiku being mined in the countries of Eastern Europe. Of the half-dozen collections we considered this year, A Narrow Road stands out from the rest by virtue of its high-quality haiku and the excellence of its translations (from Serbian). Though many of the poems are subtle evocations of the human condition with its objective correlative in the world of Nature, others are more blatantly (and strikingly) resonant.

dark cellar—
feeling the old fears
with my fingers

One might wish that the author had edited this collection of 160 poems to a more manageable size. Nevertheless, the strongest poems are a very enjoyable read.

Taneda Santôka, versions by Scott Watson. Walking by My Self Again. Sendai, Japan: Bookgirl Press, 2011.

Scott Watson states up front that “English is not Japanese, Japanese is not English. I am not Santoka, Santoka is not me. I don’t believe in translation in the sense that this is equivalent to that.” And even before reading that remark in the introduction, Watson’s “versions” of Santoka’s haiku brought to mind songwriters who do cover versions of other songwriters’ material, where the challenge is to respect the integrity of the originals while creatively making the songs their own. How faithful Watson’s fresh, quirky renditions are to the original poems, or whether Santoka would approve of them, isn’t for us to say, but we found them engaging.

into this wind self-rebukingly walk




The purpose of the Haiku Society of America's Merit Book Awards is to recognize the best haiku and related books published in a given year in the English language. Every year sees a fresh crop of fine individual collections, anthologies, translations, critical studies and innovative forms.

In the past, the HSA Merit Book awards were partially supported by a memorial gift. Leroy Kanterman, cofounder of the Haiku Society of America, made a gift to support the first place award in memory of his wife Mildred Kanterman. See the archives of Merit Book Awards.

The Merit Book Awards competition is open to the public. Books must have been published in the previous year and must clearly contain a printed previous year copyright. A member, author, or publisher may submit or nominate more than one title. At least 50 percent of the book must be haiku, senryu, or haibun, or prose about these subjects (books mostly of tanka, for example, are not eligible). HSA will also consider collections that have only appeared in an e-book/digital book format. Two print copies of the digital book may be sent by the publisher. Books published by HSA officers are eligible for this award. Books published by the national HSA organization, however, are not eligible.

Winners by Year (with judges' comments):

2023 | 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996 | 1995 | 1994 | 1993 | 1992 | 1991 | 1990 | 1989 | 1988 | 1987 | 1985 | 1983 | 1981 | 1978 | 1975 |

See the contest rules for entering the next Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards competition.