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Judges' Commentary for
the Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku Competition


Judges' Commentary for 2017

2017 Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku Competition


Linda Papanicolaou
Brad Bennett

This year there were almost 6,000 poems entered in the Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku and Senryu Competition. It is impressive and very heartening that so many students entered their poems. We were especially struck by the range of emotions embedded in the poems, from hope and glee all the way to pain and loneliness. We hope that poetry, and haiku in particular, continues to provide an outlet for these young writers to express these feelings through concrete imagery.

What did we look for in these haiku and senryu? We looked for a fresh and successful rendering of a moment observed, a deft portrayal of concrete sensory experiences, an allusion to emotions rather than personal revelation, simple language, and a strong voice, all of which are necessary when writing excellent haiku and senryu. We were also looking for a distinctive young person’s voice in each of the winning poems.

We felt honored to be asked to judge this contest. We very much enjoyed the whole process, from reading the poems, to rereading the poems, to rereading the poems again, to discussing the poems we most appreciated, to whittling all the wonderful poems down to a mere six winners. There were many more that deserved praise. But the final six resonated for us. Their writers showed creativity, voice, and knowledge of the craft of writing a successful haiku.

Congratulations to the winners!

In the summer heat
endless jump shots
on a broken hoop

Stephanie Okeke
Gardena, CA
Grade 12

This haiku very effectively accentuates how oppressive a heat wave can be. The word “endless” is the first indication that this heat has gone on long enough. Not only that, all the basketball player has to shoot at is one “broken” hoop. That’s disheartening! The writer, by carefully selecting these words, has masterfully alluded to feelings of loneliness and boredom, perhaps as oppressive as the heat. But we can also appreciate the writer’s dedication to practice. Well executed!

tea leaves
she stirs them
for something better

Olivia Shannon
Atlanta, GA
Grade 7

One of the common themes of the human condition is to want to change our lives for the better, especially if we’re struggling with something. We often go to great lengths to shake things up, but sometimes we do little things to make a difference. Like stirring some tea leaves. So this poem connects with a universal desire. In addition, the unknown subject “she” brings some wonderful mystery to this poem. Is the writer speaking autobiographically? Is it about someone important in the writer’s life…a friend, a mother, a sister? The meaning changes depending on this choice, and that ambiguity gives this senryu added intrigue and resonance.

Amber alert
one desk

Campbell Serrano
Atlanta, GA
Grade 7

A common misperception about a senryu is that it’s a humorous poem that focuses on human foibles. Not so—as this poem shows, it can also be about deadly serious matters, and emotion. The effectiveness of this poem lies in its minimalism and its shape, an inverted triangle that narrows to one start word, “empty”, on the third line. Rather than telling—or even showing—the emotional responses of the other students, the emptiness of that desk places us in the classroom, feeling directly the unspeakable fear of a child’s kidnapping.

our parrot shrieks
my father’s name
in my mother’s voice

Cole Mitchell
Newport Coast, CA
Grade 12

This is a classic, wonderfully funny senryu. Since parrots learn what they hear often, it speaks volumes about the dynamics of a household in which the mother’s and the family parrot’s voices mirror each other. The choice of a single word can make or break a poem. In this case it’s the opening “our”, which sets the poem within the child’s point of view and frames the joke with a knowing humor.

father’s silhouette
cut from the photo
his hand still on her shoulder

Cole Mitchell
Newport Coast, CA
Grade 12

This is a powerful senryu. The author uses a concrete image, an altered photograph, to allude to some very strong feelings. Why is the father cut out? Is this a “broken” family? Is the father no longer living? Is the girl mad at the father? And even though an attempt has been made to cut this man out, his emotional impact lingers on. In addition, the last line is longer than the first two, and that adds to the lingering effect of the hand, and the pain.

millions of stars
my father
points out a planet

Daisy Solomon
Atlanta, GA
Grade 8

The emotional strength of this haiku is its nostalgic evocation of childhood memories of stargazing on clear summer nights. How many of us have been taught by our fathers to pick out the constellations and planets? In its simplicity of words, this haiku is well crafted, with both cut and kigo (“a million stars” would be a late summer/early autumn reference), and the choice of imagery draws a wonderful contrast between the immensity of the night sky and the intimacy of a father teaching his child that some worlds are not quite as far away as the stars.

• • •

About our judges:

Linda Papanicolaou

A middle school art teacher and art historian, Linda Papanicolaou became interested in haiku and haiga in the late 1990s when she taught a 5th grade art lesson that combined leaf printing and haiku. The leaf prints were beautiful, the haiku not, and she realized she'd have to learn more about haiku. Although she never taught that lesson again, she has become a committed haiku poet who also writes senryu, haiga, haibun and renku. She has published widely and is a member of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, Haiku Poets of Northern California, and the Haiku Society of America. For the past twelve years she has edited Haigaonline

Brad Bennett

Brad Bennett is an elementary school teacher in the Boston area and has been teaching haiku to kids for over twenty years. Brad’s haiku have been published in a variety of journals and magazines. He is a member of the Summer Street Haiku Group, the Boston Haiku Society, and the Haiku Society of America. His first haiku book, a drop of pond, published by Red Moon Press, was awarded a Touchstone Distinguished Book Award for 2016 by The Haiku Foundation.



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