Sunday, July 31, 2011

museum floor

on the
art museum



A lyric

Instead of sharing something of my own tonight, I'm stuck on a lyric from a song by Jack Johnson ("Turn your love", on the album To the sea). It's the kind of lyric that works perfectly in a song but might be too direct if it were stated flat-out in a poem. In any case, it's such a concise way of expressing the constant tragedy of time:

"Let's not go
to sleep tonight
It's not that it goes too fast
It's that it goes
at all."

It's not that it goes too fast (although it does),
it's that it goes at all.


Friday, July 29, 2011

under the forsythia



I jotted this image down in a notebook when we started gardening in the spring. It stuck with me as an interesting, incongruous combination of elements -- brilliant yellow flowers on the forsythia bush in spring, and in the wet, brown, leafy dirt beneath it were a couple of plastic toy fish figurines. Margarite & I imagined they were left there by the neighbor kids, or maybe the young daughter of the family we bought the house from last year.

Although the image has stuck with me, every version of a haiku I've made from it so far has been blah. I intentionally haven't wanted to force any symbolism or sentiment into the image, but maybe it needs something more to make it live. Either more description to get across the visual and physical vividness that made it memorable, or an injection of some greater significance... Let's try for the former:


in the dead leaves



Thursday, July 28, 2011

new now

new pen new blue new words
new name for new gnosis
I knew names knew blues
knew words knew Nothing-ness
but now no nothing, no,
know nothing
now no nothing not new
not now
I know



[was feeling a little stale in a haiku rut these past few days, so trying something to blow out a few cobwebs...]

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A floating-leaf sequence

Here's a haiku sequence that I wrote back in 2006. I called it a 'floating-leaf' sequence because the repetition of lines from verse to verse reminded me of a leaf floating back and forth on the way to the ground. When I first wrote it I formatted the lines in such a way that it looked much like a leaf falling down the page, too. But in the end I decided it impeded the sense of the poem, so I standardized it a little bit into this form...

in our bodies now

orange blossoms
     over her childhood yard
          grasshopper’s long arc

          grasshopper’s long arc
     over her childhood yard

     on the motel window
          trickles of sweat

          trickles of sweat
     on the motel window
a sickly flicker

a sickly flicker
     the tv’s radiant breath
          her naked arm

          her naked arm
     the tv’s radiant breath
goose pimples

goose pimples
     her sunburst tattoo
          rayed with wrinkles

          rayed with wrinkles
     her sunburst tattoo
still aglow

still aglow
     the iris’ purple yearning
          in our bodies now

          in our bodies now
     the iris’ purple yearning
the dead fire’s heat

(originally published in South by Southeast v.13:no.3, 2006)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Haiku from photographs

A couple of months ago I was really excited to discover the black-and-white photographs of Daido Moriyama. They seemed to evoke a haiku feeling not just in the way that much photography does -- by capturing a single moment vividly -- but also in the nature of the moments he chooses to capture.

Like many of the best haiku, his photographs focus on things and beings that seem unremarkable, that aren't always dramatic or conventionally beautiful -- and if they are, his grainy photos humble them a bit. When photographing a city scene through a window, he focuses on a housefly on the window in the foreground instead of on a panoramic urban view. One of his most famous photos is of a stray dog, a mutt looking distrustfully over its shoulder at the camera.

So with all of that said, I've been excited for a while to work on some haiku inspired by Daido Moriyama's photographs. Each time I sit down with a book of them, though, I'm blank. I ooh and ahh from photo to photo and have small insights into how a haiku inspired by one might work -- but I haven't been able to sink into one enough to write comfortably.

For now, I think it's because the world of the photographs is physically foreign to me. Most of the photos I've considered have a clearly Japanese setting, and, since I've never been to Japan, I can't create a sensory image in my head convincing enough to write from. If I'm going to pursue the idea of linking haiku to photographs, I'm either going to have to write haiku from my own experience and pair them with Moriyama's photos in a very tangential relationship (which could have some interesting results); or I might start out by working from photos of more familiar settings by other photographers.

In any case, for today how about:

staring hard --
a grainy photo
at arm's length

Monday, July 25, 2011

Winter in July

Well, the string of over-100-degree days was broken today -- I think our high was around 95 and we got a nice solid stretch of rain this evening, too. In honor of weathering the heat wave, here's a haiku from the middle of winter. Maybe it can keep us cool for a split second today:

ragged clouds --
the last snowflake
takes its time

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Here's an experiment from my very early haiku days:

train horn



Entries have been minimalist as well this weekend -- we have family visiting from out-of-town so we've been busy. More elaborate entries again soon!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

reading Beowulf

reading Beowulf --
the oak tree's gnarled,
runic roots

Friday, July 22, 2011

Playing plumber tonight...

... no time for poem explications... Here's the closest I can manage to a senryu tonight:

a dewdrop swells
on the pipe I fixed --
my welling anger

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Still rolling the image from Sunday's post over in my head, trying to perfect the poem...

How about:

rosemary's shadow
more real than mine
in the moonlight

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The wren & I

Yesterday's poem grew out of what I originally thought was a haiku moment, but the poem itself wasn't a haiku. As I said yesterday -- it turned into more of an abstract line of reasoning than I'm usually comfortable with in my haiku. It also personified the bird a bit by presuming that we were having similar moments of consciousness. The haiku/non-haiku debate is just semantics, though -- I'm pretty happy with it as a short poem.

Now that it's out of my system, though, I wanted to go back to the original inspiring moment to see if I could coax a haiku out of it. Here's the scene: I was walking past a tree (oak?), turned to look at it, made eye contact with a Carolina wren on a branch, and after a brief moment holding eyes, it flew away in a flash.

It was a rich moment, but I'm having trouble re-thinking it into a different, more haiku-like poem. The meaningful elements have already combined to inspire my neural pathways in a certain direction, so now asking them to re-shuffle the elements or come to a different conclusion feels artificial. Let's try shifting focus and involving some of the senses instead of just the brain:

dusty, hot --
the squatting wren and I
eye to eye

That might have potential. I can feel the dry, dusty air in my eyes in that 'eye to eye.' And hopefully it captures some of the bird's personality, as Carolina wrens really do have a distinctive way of spreading their feet, squatting, and cocking their heads to look at you. We'll see how it reads in the morning.

(I realize that I've said that several times on this blog already, and it's always amazing to me how radically my opinion of a haiku can change from one reading to the next. The challenge is to not just throw every single one of them out when my opinion swings to the negative... But yes -- we'll see in the morning.)

Another option is to step back and focus on the hold this moment seems to have on me still:

the wren & I
eye to eye --

still thinking about it

That takes the poem more into the realm of senryu, where the element of human behavior takes precedence over the observed, natural element. Even with that consideration, though, I'm not sure this one stands up at all -- that last line is a clunker, and it would be too unclear without the back-story I've provided here.

We'll see in the morning.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Another non-haiku

Here's another that, like yesterday's, just doesn't seem like a haiku to me. Sure it focuses on a single, 'aha' kind of moment. But it takes that moment and turns it into an abstract thought. It's one of those short poems that sometimes grow out of haiku moments in place of a haiku -- like a brown-headed cowbird chick that grows up in a robin's nest.

eye to eye

      the wren's


      and mine


for a flash

Could this moment have turned into a haiku as well? I bet it could've. Maybe that's my mission for tomorrow's post...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Not necessarily a haiku

This evening on the way home on the bus I was reading a wonderful book called The Zen Art Book. It's unique in its approach to artworks by Zen masters. The book has 2 authors: one an art historian -- Stephen Addiss -- and the other a Zen abbot -- John Daido Loori. They each contribute a paragraph about each artwork in the book. Addiss writes about technical and art historical details of each piece while Loori concentrates on its context in Zen practice. (If you're interested in the book, definitely check out the version called The Zen Art Box as well.)

In any case, as our bus crossed the 15/501 bridge over the Haw River I read about a scroll featuring this Zen koan:

"The bridge flows, the water does not flow."

From the bus we could see 4 swimmers splashing their way toward the bank, just above a man-made waterfall that spans the whole width of the river there.

the Haw River flows east
swimmers flowing east-northeast
our bus flies south
with the bridge

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Day 13: One more moon poem

summer moonlight
the rosemary's shadow
darker than mine

For a blog called "No more moon poems", this is the 3rd haiku out of 13 that features the moon. A whopping 23% of them. What was that I said in my first post about coming up against the limits of my imagination when I look at the physical world? Sometimes that limitation is not knowing the name for a certain plant or bird or bug; and sometimes it means finding inspiration in the same thing over and over again.

I'm not happy with the first line of this one, though, moon poem or not. 'summer moonlight' is too generic. What is it about the moonlight that night that was so striking? It was very bright, very white. The moon was almost full, but not quite. That might be more specific and interesting:

July moon almost full --
the rosemary's shadow
darker than mine

That first line feels awfully long and clunky, though -- 6 syllables, and they're long syllables at that, full of long vowel sounds and consonant clusters. How about:

almost a full moon --
the rosemary's shadow
darker than mine

Still another option is to take the moon itself out of the poem and imply it some other way. This might open up room to include a second image, as well. Something like:

two owls hoot --
the rosemary's moonshadow
darker than mine

This feels like it might be the way to go (I'll keep playing with the first image -- the owls were the first thing to come to mind...) I'm not totally sold on the term 'moonshadow,' either, which might be too poetic for plainspoken haiku. We'll see how it sounds in the morning, by the light of the sun...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Surf check

We're off to spend the weekend at the beach. The surf report looks surprisingly good for the middle of summer without any major storms in sight, so maybe there will even be some waves at the end of the road.

To please the surf gods, here's one from years ago when I was just getting started on the haiku path.

surf check –

dawn waves pitch

into their own shadows

(originally published in South by Southeast, v.6:no.1, 1999)

Friday, July 15, 2011

A walk in the other direction

This evening my wife and I went for a walk outside the neighborhood. We often do, and usually direct our steps toward town to stroll down the one street of craft and antique shops that are already closed before dark. We'll walk past the dark soda shoppe and our new hometown's one bar; say hello to the people on the deck with their sweating pint glasses; steal an earful of local rock-a-billy or bluegrass that seems to follow us for blocks down the otherwise quiet, tree-lined streets.

But tonight we went in the opposite direction -- out from the neighborhood and away from town. It was surprising how quickly the landscape by the road became wilder. The populated lots started to have two structures instead of one: an older, overgrown house or shack that had obviously been abandoned for another, newer structure on the property -- a trailer or low cinderblock house. Some of them were home-y. Some of them were brooding and unfriendly.

The oddest one seemed like it should have been one of the abandoned structures. It was overgrown with vines, there were gaps in the walls and apparently no doors in the doorways. The original construction seemed to be somewhere between log cabin and wood-plank siding, though it was hard to tell. There was a large stone birdbath outside, a couple of rusty washing machines, four gleaming white toilets, all protected by a dense thicket of bottle-trees. But the house wasn't abandoned. From the doorway a man waved to us with his cigarette hand, and I'm pretty sure I saw an older woman inside making something in her lap. At least one tv flashed and chattered.

I thought this was leading to a haiku, but it seems I've already spilled all the details. I didn't know what bottle-trees were for but Margarite says they're for trapping evil spirits. You can hear them howl in the wind, she says.

And so many of them, so close to town...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

An older haibun

A haibun is a hybrid form that consists of prose passages written in a haiku-influenced style, with one or more haiku included as well. When it's done well, the prose not only provides context for the haiku, but also tempers the sharp concentration of the haiku. Anyone who has read many haiku in one sitting knows how quickly you can lose the focus necessary to really dig into each one. In haibun, there is more room for the writer to play with a broader dynamic range. And there is some relief for the reader from the constant tight focus required by haiku served straight-up.

The best place I know of to sample current haibun is contemporary haibun online, edited by Bruce Ross, Jim Kacian, and Ken Jones -- all three great practitioners themselves.

I haven't written many haibun yet, but here's one from a couple years ago. I have some hesitations about it, but I'll save those for another time.

January 20th, 2009 (Inauguration Day)

We don't often get snow in central North Carolina. Even less often is it this heavy. The sound of it falling in the woods outside is a steady static. The silence when it ends is palpable, felt deeply in your ears and in your temples. The physical world has remade itself, undeniable again for a while.

gray mare


a patch




Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Day 9

leaving his branch
bluebird draws out
two more bluebirds

Day 8: Late, late, late

It's midnight and I just got in from a late hockey game. It's hard to transition from the frenetic hockey mindset to the haiku spirit, but as I was driving home...

road lines
white moon


Monday, July 11, 2011

Day 7: Shaking it up


at both horizons

lightning beside the pines

In honor of the new book we've made together, I borrowed a technique from Stephen Addiss to write this haiku.

A couple of years ago Steve took a batch of haiku he had written, cut them up into individual lines, and scrambled the lines to create new, partially randomized haiku. They were surprising and wonderful, and became the basis for our collaborative artists' book project called stitching speechless. I created the haiku here in a similar way. I took a manuscript of my older haiku and, using dice, pulled lines from randomly selected poems to create this new one.

For me, this technique highlights two strains of art that Zen thinking has inspired in the West. One of them is Romantic and sentimental*. As Zen made its way into the Western mainstream during the 20th century, it fit in well with native philosophic traditions like the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau & the ecological movement that was emerging at mid-century. This is the vein that informs the nature-oriented haiku that are the most common Western haiku today.

The second strain of Zen-inspired art in the West is more procedural. It's about removing the artist's ego from his or her creations rather than about expressing the artist's unique, privileged understanding of the world. This strain of Zen art-making is appealing in much the same way that 20th-century avant gardes like the Dada movement and Marcel Duchamp's 'readymades' were -- challenging the idea of the artist as a genius maker of beautiful things. John Cage is the main example when I think of this procedural vein of Western Zen art-making. My haiku for today is in that second vein.

Of course I also like it aesthetically as a poem, so I guess I'm cheating and letting the ol' ego in anyway...

*I don't mean those terms in their negative senses at all.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Day 6: a hometown haiku

Just got off the phone from a long talk with my mom, which always floods the following days with thoughts of home. So here's a recent haiku on that theme. It's directly inspired by a haiku by Issa, but I can't find his right now to share with you.

after Issa

away too long

hometown smell

potato chips

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Day 5

Just now I was falling asleep in my chair while I read, so it's appropriate that today's haiku came in my sleep last night. Around 3 a.m. I woke up from a dream of a very persistent black snake that I was sure was dead, but kept lunging at me with its mouth open and threatening.

The dream felt like it had other significance behind it, but it also had to be related to an encounter my wife and I had about a month ago. We had put landscape netting over a hydrangea bush in our yard so that the neighborhood deer wouldn't eat it. One evening, though, we found a large black snake tangled in the netting, unable to move. In places the netting squeezed so tight that it was breaking the skin. Once we figured out that the snake was just a rat snake and no danger to us, we spent about an hour snipping it free from the net. One of us would hold it down while the other worked the scissors between the tight net and glistening black skin. The snake itself was largely calm, especially when we placed a dish towel over its head. Eventually we got it entirely free and got out of its way as it hurried under the deck.

We were quite pleased with ourselves and felt a special bond with our new friend the snake. For a couple of days we made joking remarks about where he might be, about his family, about his exploits defending our yard from copperheads... Which of course made it all the more disturbing when a week later we once again found a snake in the deer netting. This time our timing wasn't so good. Not only was the snake already dead but it had been torn in half by some predator. Flies swarmed over its gory middle.

So surely that's where the imagery in my dream came from -- but as I said the dream itself was about something else in my subconscious. Some other source of anxiety I couldn't put my finger on. As I lay wide awake at 3 a.m., the dream, the snake encounter, and yesterday's musings on how to make haiku in English more ambiguous all churned together in my thought. I got out of bed and scrawled the following in my notebook in the dark:







Friday, July 8, 2011

Day 4: editing Day 3's haiku

As soon as I posted yesterday's haiku I was dissatisfied with it and started further editing. Here is yesterday's version:

         of silence


What bugs me about it (so to speak), is that it's a closed poem. There's no openness to the interpretation. There's a husk of a cicada's head on the ground; it will be silent for 13 years again as it goes through the cicada cycle. Done. As a poet I've done all the work and, more importantly, the poem doesn't trust you as a reader to be smart enough to draw your own conclusions.

In haiku especially, that kind of closure can be deadening. One of the hallmarks of the best haiku is that they leave some ambiguity for the reader to fill in. In fact in Japanese, the nature of the language makes it so that ambiguity is unavoidable. For example, in Japanese a noun doesn't necessarily indicate whether it is singular or plural. So in Matsuo Basho's famous haiku about a crow on a bare winter branch, it's impossible to say whether he is referring to one crow on one bare branch or multiple crows scattered on multiple branches in a tree. Moreover, Basho himself made several paintings to accompany the haiku -- and while most of them feature one crow on a branch, there is at least one version in which he painted multiple crows. Clearly the ambiguity is an intentional and valuable thing.

That ambiguity is really hard to replicate in English -- a very straightforward, pragmatic language that values clarity instead of suggestiveness. Not only is it linguistically difficult, but as writers our inclination is to give the reader as much information as we can. One of the greatest challenges of writing haiku is to recognize when you're telling too much. When to get out of the way.

I'm not 100% sure the following is a better haiku, but it's a step in the ambiguous direction. With so few syllables the ordering of each one counts -- try switching words around and see how much the meaning changes. I'm still playing with it (and considering adding a second image to resonate with this one), but this is what I've settled on for tonight:






Thursday, July 7, 2011

Day 3 haiku

Just got in from giving a talk at a local art gallery about the new artist's book I'm finishing up. (By the way, to follow what I'm doing in book arts you can check out my other blog here:

The event went really well -- great turn-out, lots of people excited to encounter artists' books and hear about them. Exhausting, though. So we'll keep it short and sweet here on Day 3.

Well, maybe not so sweet:

         of silence


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Day 2

'No more moon poems' is part of a daily project I'm starting along with my friend Luke Payne. Luke is an uber-talented musician who was looking for a way to jack up his production and to become less self-conscious about putting his work out into the world. Inspired by another friend's book (thank you, Noah!), we agreed to help each other through a year of daily productivity. You can check out Luke's progress over at He'll be posting a new video of himself performing a different song every day. The guy is an amazing player and off to a great start with his blog-writing as well.

For my part, I'll be posting a haiku or other short bit of writing every day. Some of them will be brand-new that day, but not all of them -- I have 16 years'-worth of haiku to share. Even though I've never been the most prolific writer, they do add up over that many years.

The haiku here also won't all be polished. Perfectionism is one of the biggest obstacles to productivity, so here I'll often be adopting Anne Lamott's "shitty first draft" strategy. Sometimes I'll start with very rough ideas and go through the editing process visibly. I've been involved in haiku workshops for as many years as I've been writing them and have also helped to edit a small haiku journal for nearly as long, so hopefully the editing process can be as interesting as the finished haiku themselves. And I'm sure some of the ideas will never crystallize into anything worth keeping.

Well, enough of the blabbing. This is a haiku blog, after all. Today's is a one-liner. Haiku often hold 2 images up in delicate, resonant balance. Not this one -- this is just attempting to capture a single moment, purely:

bluebird     rockets     from the mailbox!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

No more moon poems

gazing up
I swear --
no more moon poems

I wrote that poem about 13 or 14 years ago. It was a cold winter night in Richmond, Virginia; I was young and perilously unattached to anything (my brother having passed away a couple of years before and the rest of my family being 2 states away in Pennsylvania); and I was committing most of my energy to learning about the pursuits of Zen and haiku.

I've always liked how this particular haiku (or more accurately a senryu) is about the limitations of the form, the cliches we fall into when writing haiku -- but most importantly, it pokes fun at the limits of my own imagination when confronted with the physical world. Sure, poems about the moon are likely to be repetitive, cliche, trite -- and yet there the real thing is, brilliant and enthralling in the night sky. How can you not write another haiku about it?