Simply Haiku Haibun Challenge
Last month I challenged all writers published in the haibun section during my first year as editor to write a haibun based around an old photo of themselves; a photo that, with some 'free writing', might propel them into territory they hadn't considered before, or even towards subject matter they might have even resisted.
It was entirely up to individual writers what information they retained or discarded, but their submission had to include 1 or 2 haiku, the use of the present, past and future tenses, and be no longer than 350 words.
Why these boundaries? I believe that working within boundaries can be really beneficial for writers. Constraints give the critical mind something to concern itself with, while the arena within those constraints can offer the creative mind tremendous freedom.
It has also been my experience that working with a pre-determined form can act as a kind of safety net when dealing with intimate and emotionally powerful material. As writers we feel the 'security' of the set boundaries; there's an element of control that keeps us stable. The sonnet is a wonderful example of form being able to 'contain' great emotional power with dignity so why shouldn't something similar be achievable with prose? And even more so with the haibun that possesses its own unique 'controls' or 'releases' or 'epiphanies' in the haiku.
I was moved, entertained and inspired by the dozen submissions I received and I'd like to thank everyone for their enthusiasm in taking up the challenge.
After much careful reading I chose three haibun to showcase because of some particular qualities and for how they have each stayed with me; how each writer's choice of imagery has worked its magic and anchored me to both their world and transported me to a place within my own.
Enjoy them and let them work their magic on you.
The title works exceptionally well with the subject matter and the movement between time (past to present to past) is handled deftly. The future tense appears only briefly in the closing sentence, but it propels the reader into the narrator's mind and emotional experience.
en plein air
After the hunt, Father suggested a photo before the light changed, before Mother's two hour pass expired. We found a secluded spot on the grounds of the asylum posing on a stone bench surrounded by an ocean of yellow and green.
lost in the daffodils
to come home
Now I sit on the stone ledge of a fountain. My daughter scampers through the park with her Easter basket—her exuberance framed by the rose trellis when she discovers an egg. She refuses to take off her ivory gloves. I use the contrast to spot her when she sprouts from the blunt edges of the ornamental grass, when she weaves through the branches of a willow.
The coin was offered as a prize. After pressing it into my palm, she disappears behind the spray. I see it when I stand—white lace holding the stem of a flower. Will she kiss me?
Here is family anecdote transformed into something powerfully universal through the depiction of the characters in action and in relationship with each other. The image of mist in the opening haiku is perfect for a journey back into memory while the second haiku captures an experience that is both visceral and tender.
steam from a pot
Going through boxes of photographs with my mother, we come across an old black and white one of my brother and me. We're dressed in cowboy outfits, chaps, vests with sheriff's badges, five-gallon hats, I suppose, for half-pint wranglers like us, holsters with cap gun six-shooters, and boots. He's mounted on his trusty tricycle, and I stand behind him, the slightly older and protective brother.
A few weeks before, on a sweltering day, he had run away from home. He stuffed some clothes into a pillowcase, tied it to a stick, and like a hobo crossed the street and hunkered down in the ditch. I was told not to go after him, so I stood in our yard weeping, begging him to come home, which he did for supper, as my mother had predicted.
peeling patches of sunburned
skin off our backs
Forty years later, my brother will be found in his easy chair. Half of his clothes will be packed and his good cowboy hat will have been cleaned and carefully placed in a hatbox. I look at my mother staring at that photograph and judge that it's not the time to remark he died with his boots on.
John W. Sexton—'The Cattle Yard in Brosna'
The powerful imagery in this haibun verges on the mythical. It is the imagery of dreams and nightmares—darkness, a wild dog, a broken gate, a dank wood, shadows—although the threat of the prose is held at bay by the two beautiful haiku. Although what I also admired greatly about this haibun was its ability to make me think as well as feel: the idea of photographs as frozen moments, and how our bodies are our own markers of time—'each paring a record of some past time'.
The Cattle Yard in Brosna
a hare bolts the evening
It's July 1961 and I'm three years old. The sky is winterish, black staining downwards through the clouds. I'm standing in the front yard; from the shed behind me, locked in the dark, a red setter is barking viciously; but he's background noise now and I know I'm safe. When Uncle Jack took me into the shed to see him earlier, a wild massive dog called Punch, I was scared senseless, gripped to the leg of Jack's trousers and screeched my lungs out. But in the yard this moment everything is calm, held down by that darkening sky.
The iron gate into the cattle yard, right behind my back, hangs crookedly on its hinges. A hen and a single chick peck at the ground. The previous evening I had chased her and her line of chicks all around the midden. Had terrorized them in my excitement, cornering them against the slope of the dung-pile; finally held a chick in my grasp, down on my knees, all my clothes smeared green with cow shit.
I only recall this now because the camera preserved me that day standing there in the yard. In front of where I stand, unremembered by the photograph, unseen, is the dank conifer wood, its trees covered in moss. Inside its damp boundaries birdsong is a snatch of sound, is swallowed up by silence as soon as it comes. The wood is a barrier like the grey sky, holding everything down.
In the photograph I have a pale streak of shadow. I am sucking my thumb. I am alone; yet unborn are my four brothers, one of whom will never, will never step into that wood.
I put the photograph away. Now in the closed drawer, standing forever in the yard, my young self is ageless again in the dark.
twenty-four years dead
In the bathroom I cut my fingernails. The parings of nail fall into the sink, each paring a record of some past time.
For anyone interested in the full details of the haibun challenge, here they are, followed by my own attempt at the exercise:
Begin with some 'directed' free writing. Try and be as spontaneous as possible, write down everything that comes into your mind; don't edit or reject. Let your creative mind have time to explore without the interruption of the critical/editorial mind.
- Imagine a photograph of yourself when you were much younger.
- See this photo clearly in your mind.
- Starting with the phrase In this one there is or I am… write down everything you see, e.g. what you're wearing, who is with you, the weather, anything at all that's 'in scene'.
- Now think about what happened before this photo was taken—just before, or earlier in the day, or even earlier than that, e.g. something specific that happened to you, or someone else, or an event that took place. Begin with Earlier, yesterday, last week etc… and write down all the sensory detail.
- And finally, beginning with the phrase I don't know yet… write about something that will happen in the future, something that you have no knowledge of at the time of the photograph.
Once you've finished the free writing exercise put it aside for at least a few days (without reading it if you can!) before looking back over it to see if you can shape this material into a haibun. It's entirely up to you what information you retain or discard but the completed haibun must include:
- 1 or 2 haiku that can be placed as you choose
- the use of the three tenses (the present, past and future)
- and be no longer than 350 words
the smell of the sea
in black and white
A classic snap. Three of us in deckchairs on the shore of Aberafan beach—Dad in sunglasses framed by my sister and me—and Mammy invisible behind the shutter's click. These are the years when his hair was dark and he could still pick us up and spin us around. When Mammy could run faster than anyone we knew.
They will never be the same again. My father will learn to walk slower, his slippers dragging along the garden path. My mother's heart will grow tired.
But for now the horizon behind us is clear. The sea calmer than I can ever remember, and if I close my eyes I can hear them both laughing when the sea, unexpectedly, licks around our feet.
the old songs
sunlight breaks through