Contributing Editor Christine Taylor

Haibun: An Introduction

Vapor by Dan Frost

Nearly twenty years ago as a graduate student of English literature, I became taken by haiku during a seminar on poetic form and structure.  I was living in Hong Kong at the time in a house tucked away in the hills of a small village, Shap Long Kau.  The environment seemed ripe for the pondering asked of and demonstrated by writers of haiku.  I spent much time hiking in the mountains overlooking the ocean around my home taking in the landscape, stopping to scribble little three-line poems in my pocket journal, getting a lot of it wrong, but eventually figuring out the nuances of the form–the importance of imagery and word choice.

Upon my return to the States in 2009, I left behind the mountains and re-entered the sprawling semi-urban landscape of my hometown, Plainfield, New Jersey, where I wrestled with new questions about my relationship with my environment.  I put aside haiku, and my writing in general, overwhelmed by the irony of having grown up in this place yet having difficulty trying to navigate an adult life along the same streets.  It took six years find my way back to writing after attending a workshop at Kenyon College, and haiku welcomed me home.  Looking for a way to process my own questions, researched other forms of haikai, and when I came to haibun, I found something freeing in its hybrid nature.  I argue that anyone with an understanding of haibun and tanka prose will say that the success of the writing lies in the intimate relationship between prose and poem, the unveiling of thematic force that occurs when the two are married.

My own journey with haibun began in late 2017.  I had been voraciously reading journals like Contemporary Haibun Online, Haibun Today, and tinywords, and I decided to try my hand at the form.  As expected I had several false starts, and I wrote a few drafts that I’m embarrassed to even have in my journal.  Then one chilly Saturday, my partner and I went for a hike in the Watchung Mountains near my home as we typically do, and we came across a patch of ice that was cracked in such a way as to look like a face.  After marvelling at the ice, I scribbled three lines in my pocket journal, and we continued our hike.  Back at home while reviewing the writing, I felt like the haiku alone did not capture all that I felt about our day in the woods.  Yes, the “creepy ice patch” was part of it, but there was so much more to it that had to go beyond the three lines.  Haibun allowed me a way to capture my experience, and I drafted what would later become my first published haibun in the April 2018 issue of Contemporary Haibun Online:

A Small Journey

A mountainside trail, muddy once, now frozen in lumps and ruts.  The park rangers have burned the trees along the edge, the hairy roots of poison ivy vines withered and charred.  We jump over a fallen pine tree blocking our path.

leaf-filled puddle
veiled in ice
an aged face

We follow the yellow markers on the trees, snake through the forest.  You’ve gotten far ahead and turn to beckon me.  I see your lips moving, but the chill wind is drumming up a headache, and I only hear the bass hum of your voice.  You wait.

This little poem has opened so many doors for me, and I am now part of a community of writers who push the hybrid form of haibun to new dimensions.  Writers use haibun to explore a myriad of issues that range from deeply personal to environmental to sociopolitical.  I am drawn to the perspective offered by writers of haibun, a view from a pair of eyes and a heart that are not mine.  I continue to be fascinated by diversity offered by haibun.

So when Associate Editor Jeff Streeby asked me to consider doing this feature and said I should pick some of my favorite haibun writers today, I was thrilled.  As a writer, I use the work of others to “mentor” my own writing, and when a piece feels roomy and comfortable, I seek out other gems by the author.  The writers featured here are ones over whom I obsess–when I open new issues of journals, I look for them first.  Their work speaks to an intimate engagement with the contemporary world and the issues that affect our everyday lived experience:  social welfare, relationships, mental health, and spiritual awareness.  Let me tell you a little about each of these writers.

Primarily working in tanka prose, Autumn Noelle Hall often calls on her lived experience in the Rocky Mountains in her writing.  Her work examines environmental issues, social equality, and spiritual awareness.

One of the editors of Haibun Today, Ray Rasmussen revels in bringing everyday experience to his reader.  His work employs close observation and a keen awareness of one’s surroundings.

Robin Anna Smith is no stranger to OPEN.  Her work came across our transom earlier this year, and I was immediately arrested by her prosaic use of fragmentation to capture emotion.  Robin’s haibun often explore chronic pain and mental health issues.

As one who has always studied writing and literature, it fascinates me when I encounter people writing from the background of other disciplines.  Bill Gottlieb is a holistic health coach, and his interest in physical and spiritual wellness translates into his haibun.

Haibun editor at Modern Haiku, Roberta Beary writes about the experience of the disenfranchised.  Her work explores personal and familial relationships and identity, and she pays particular attention to the “holy trinity of title, haiku, and prose.”

Lori A. Minor has coined the term “femku,” and her new zine #FemKuMag invites practitioners to explore feminism through haiku and senryu.  Lori’s work tackles issues related to body image, mental health, and social awareness.

And Kala Ramesh, a pillar in the haikai community, is well-known for her work dealing with family, relationships, and social issues.  She came to haiku in 2005, and since then has stunned us with beautiful verse that lingers much longer than the short form of the poem itself.

Each day this week, our haibun feature will unveil a new poem by each of these writers.  I hope this selection inspires and encourages you to read more haibun, and we invite you to explore the selections here on OPEN.


About the writer:
Christine Taylor resides in her hometown Plainfield, New Jersey, and serves as the English Department Chair at The Pingry School, an independent country day school.  She identifies as multiracial and works in support of bringing underrepresented voices into the mainstream.  Her work appears in notable haiku journals such as Modern Haiku and Presence and in literary journals such as Glass: A Journal of Poetry and The Paterson Literary Review.

Image: Vapor by Dan Frost. Manipulated fine art photograph. By permission.