HAIBUN (Judges: Taofeek Ayeyemi and Jennifer Hambrick)


Taofeek Ayeyemi Biography


Taofeek Ayeyemi is a Nigerian lawyer, writer, and author of four chapbooks, including Across the Full Moon (Mamba Africa Press, Ghana 2021) and the collection Aubade at Night or Serenade in the Morning (Flowersong Press, Texas 2021). A 2021 BotN and Pushcart Prize nominee, his haiku works have appeared in Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Akitsu Quarterly, Cattails, Acorn, Hedgerow, The Mamba, the QuillS, Fireflies' Light, Haibun Today, contemporary haibun online, Prune Juice, Failed Haiku, Eucalypt, Chrysanthemums, Seashores, and elsewhere. He won the 2021 Loft Books Flash Fiction Competition with his haibun "Banga", 2nd Place in 2021 Porter House Review Poetry Contest, and Honorable Mention in 2021 Ito En Oi Ochai Shin-Haiku Contest, 2021 Oku-no-hosomichi Soka Matsubara Haiku Contest among others. He is @Aswagaawy on Twitter.


Jennifer Hambrick Biography


A poet hailed for her "brilliant" imagery, "masterful" craftsmanship, and "uniquely musical voice," four-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee Jennifer Hambrick is the author of In the High Weeds, winner of the Stevens Manuscript Award of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies; the haibun collection Joyride (Red Moon Press), winner of the Marianne Bluger Book Award from Haiku Canada; and the poetry collection Unscathed (NightBallet Press). She was featured by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser in American Life in Poetry; was appointed the inaugural Artist-in-Residence at historic Bryn Du Mansion, Granville, Ohio; and has received numerous awards and prizes, including First Prize in the Haiku Society of America's Haibun Award Competition, First Prize in the Martin Lucas Haiku Award Competition; the Sheila-Na-Gig Press Poetry Prize (2020); the Bronze Prize in the Ito En Art of Haiku Competition, Third Prize in the Irish Haiku Society Haiku Competition; and other honors from Tokyo's NHK World TV, the Haiku Society of America, the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Invitational, Haiku Poets of Northern California, the Ohio Poetry Association, and elsewhere. Hambrick is a frequent recipient of poetry commissions, and hundreds of her poems appear in literary journals and invited anthologies, including The Columbia Review, Santa Clara Review, San Pedro River Review, Maryland Literary Review, POEM, The Main Street Rag, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Mayfly, Contemporary Haibun Online, the Red Moon Anthologies of English-Language Haiku, the Red Moon Press Contemporary Haibun anthologies, The Women of Appalachia WomenSpeak anthologies, and many others. A classical musician, public radio broadcaster, multimedia producer, and cultural journalist, Jennifer Hambrick lives in Columbus, Ohio. You can read more about her at jenniferhambrick.com.


First Place


Holes In the Lid

by Michelle Root-Bernstein


It surprises me, what I remember about that summer in the Swiss mountains. The fairies hiding in the gables. The neighbor stealing gravel from the chalet drive. The au pair girl dancing to “be-bop-a-lula.”  But mostly, my brothers and sister and I trampling a maze in the farmer’s hay field while our parents were away. We had been told not to do this, yet something called to us—the fairies, maybe, or that little stream wandering through the boundary copse—


morning after

fireflies still plinking

in the mustard jar


Commentary by Taofeek Ayeyemi


Playful, daring, and nostalgic, this haibun invites the reader's five senses into its artful ecstasy. From the noise of the fleeting fairies that blend with the au pair's "be-bop-a-lula," to the itchy touches of hay and finally the sight of fireflies in a mustard jar: proceed of their yesterday's escapade, one will relish a quick flash through one's juvenile delinquencies. The on-and-off display of the fireflies in the dawn (kure) distracts from the "plinking" trouble and struggle of the insects, evoking a partial breach in the direction of johakyū (‘beginning, break, emphasis’), i.e. the traditional Japanese concept of modulation and movement that characterizes the various art forms. For its capture of the activities of insects and rodents, this poem in many ways reminds one of the works of Yosha Buson. In the end, while the kids examine the fireflies through the holes in the lid, the author helps us look into our past through the holes of memory. Every image in this haibun gives a classic taste, and that ticks all the boxes for me.


Commentary by Jennifer Hambrick


When a child’s imagination and energy join forces, all kinds of magic – and mischief – can happen. The (adult) speaker in this haibun looks back on a special childhood summer with a shrewd eye and a playful heart. The author recalls his/her own childlike imaginings and high jinks – the fairies hiding everywhere and quite possibly goading the siblings on to make those illicit treks across the farmer’s property behind their parents’ backs. The author also notices the strangeness of an adult nearby who steals gravel from driveways. Everything in the haibun prose is transgressive – the gravel-stealing neighbor, the “little stream wandering through the boundary copse.” How could a band of siblings, free from the confines of school and with all the time in the world at their disposal, resist? 


These youths found – or created – for themselves the metaphorical holes in the lid of the adult world that summer.  They found an escape from the limits and rules imposed on them by people older and supposedly wiser than they. The author even “justifies” the children’s antics by holding the mirror up to the grown-ups (manifested in the gravel-stealing neighbor) who establish boundaries and invent rules – only then to break them. How exhilarating stealing back their freedom must have felt to those siblings! 


The closing haiku brings us to a potent reality by way of a delicious irony: a jar of fireflies – presumably ones the author and/or the siblings caught as dusk fell, not wanting to return to the confines of their house – contains creatures who normally roam free trapped against their will.  Catching fireflies is a quintessential summertime activity of childhood – we are fascinated by these wondrous electrified insects, and what child at one point doesn’t want pet lightning bugs, held safe in a glass jar with a metal lid poked with air holes? In this haiku, though, the bugs can’t squeeze through the holes in the lid to escape the jar. Ultimately the author’s childhood ends, and he/she is held captive by the rules of the adult world. This poem carries at once the lightness of summertime play and the weight of growing up. And at the heart of it is a sonic image, manifested in the wonderfully fresh verb “plinking,” that makes us hear, as well as see and feel, the insects’ restless activity inside the jar. 


This haibun is a delightful story told in prose that brings the reader into the wonder of childhood summer play, and in a well-constructed haiku that does a lot of heavy lifting with the lightest touch. The title might seem at first a bit too direct in connection with the narrative. But when you consider how much adults long to slip through holes in the various lids that fate and circumstance place upon us, the title brings us powerfully and profoundly back to our birthright as creatures born to live free. All of these elements working together make this haibun greater than the sum of its parts and place it soundly at the top among the entries.


Honorable Mentions 


Perfect Binding

by Valorie Broadhurst Woerdehoff


A spider so small I almost miss it crawls out of the book I’m reading and walks away with the rest of the story. I have no idea where that spider went or how that tale ends. Going for an early morning walk in the woods, I get tangled in fresh spider webs invisibly strung across my path. Listening to the sounds of the forest, I can swear that I hear dialogue among the novel’s characters whispered softly behind me as I go.


book club

the stories between us

that are true


Commentary by Taofeek Ayeyemi


From the baby spider in a book to the spiderwebs in the forest, this work examines an insect that, in its species classification, is both domestic and wild. In context, the image of the webs serve as makeshifts for a book club where book lovers gather. The spider here does not just distract the poet, but also enhances interest in the story. The recognition of human illusion – a butterfly effect of what occupies the mind – as creatively illustrated in this work is dazzling and reveals a universally shareable and understandable human experience (kidoairaku) as he interacts with his environment. Although a senryū prose, otherwise called senbun in some parlance, the poesy employed in the narration makes readers want to go with the spider to harvest or retrieve the "rest of the story" through "dialogue" and "whispers."


Commentary by Jennifer Hambrick


The first sentence of the prose is delightfully strange and immediately drew me into the narrative. The story about getting tangled in a spider web on a walk through the woods ultimately stands as a metaphor for how human beings are all interconnected by our common humanity, as manifested in the stories we live and share (in every sense) with each other. The concluding senryu reinforces this greater universal truth about humanity: our stories are what bring us together – in book clubs, in relationships, and as a human family.


Winter in Gangtok

by Kanchan Chatterjee


The front desk lady is wearing a strange ring on her thumb. There is a dark maroon stone mounted on it.


"What's that for?" I ask.


"Good luck" she replies.


Her name is Tashi, she says. Then she talks about 'Dolma Tara' - the Tibetan deity for compassion and healing, I nod and turn


autumn light —

the dragon by the door

changes color


Commentary by Taofeek Ayeyemi


I am enthralled by fantasy pieces and speculative poetry, and this haibun rivets me with its mysterious (yu) and classic (kurashikku) tones. In this haibun, the author captures a unique moment with so much urgency, through a sharp maroon light that twinkles on the lady's ring in the first sentence and the iridescence of the dragon-shaped temple door knob in the accompanying haiku; all happening within seconds. In this brief work, the author opens us to the concept of Tibetan Buddhism and teaches us two of their deities: 'Tashi' for good luck and 'Tara' for compassion and healing. Unsurprisingly, the scene is set in Gangtok – a famous City in India where Buddhism is a leading religion. According to Google, “Gangtok is the capital of the mountainous northern Indian state of Sikkim. Established as a Buddhist pilgrimage site in the 1840s, the city became capital of an independent monarchy after British rule ended, but joined India in 1975. Today, it remains a Tibetan Buddhist center and a base for hikers organizing permits and transport for treks through Sikkim’s Himalayan mountain ranges.” While India.com reveals that “[Gangtok] is known for its scenic beauty and striking views of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. Gangtok is nestled within higher Himalayan peaks with a year-round mild weather making it an excellent holiday spot.” This haibun enlightens about culture and place; two important interconnected subjects I find joy in exploring. And because it is early winter, as intuitive from the story, the light of the receding autumn in the haiku manages to find its way into the event; thereby evoking a clear and powerful seasonal feeling (kikan) which inextricably links man and nature.


Commentary by Jennifer Hambrick


The title places us in the Himalayan city of Gangtok, India. The first sentence of the prose introduces intrigue through the image of the front desk lady’s “strange ring” with the equally mysterious “dark maroon stone.” What front desk is this? What is the significance of this strange ring with its dark stone? 


We learn in brief moments of dialogue that the ring is for good luck, perhaps worn to appeal to the Tibetan deity for compassion and healing. The author could have included these details in narrative prose instead of in dialogue – they are not the stuff of snappy conversation – but they do serve well to place the reader in the footsteps of a traveler who, in a foreign place, has met a benevolent wayfarer on the journey of life.  


The concluding haiku is evocative, but its relationship with the prose is not entirely clear. Perhaps the “front desk lady” works at the front desk of a shrine or temple, where the rendering of a dragon (statue, painting, etc.) might be placed? And what significance should I gather from the detail that the autumn (in a haibun called "Winter in Gangtok?") light makes the dragon change color? Is the changing color ominous foreboding, or just a hint that, say, the afternoon sun is starting to descend into evening? 


This haibun falls in the tradition of travel haibun that reaches all the way back to Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi and other travel writings, which ultimately birthed haibun as a stand-alone genre. As such, “Winter in Gangtok” is a traditional take on the haibun genre, and it narrates an episode from travels in a distant land and the experience of a foreigner’s efforts to understand the people in a place potentially quite different from what he/she might be used to. This haibun reminds us that travel can open our minds and hearts toward people from cultures and traditions beyond those of our day-to-day experience. It reminds us of the importance of having reverence for our fellow humans who embrace cultures and ways of life different from our own.



by joan iversen goswell


He lies on his side, flat out in the mud, unable to get up in the bitter cold. He is thirty-five years old – old for a horse. I call my vet asking her to come. As I sit with him, he watches me. If I move, his eyes follow me. Talking to him, I softly stroke his face and ears. One small nicker comes from deep within his throat. We sit together in the ice and mud and wait. It’s beginning to get dark. Finally, a truck’s lights appear and turn off. My vet walks down thru the mud with her euthanasia kit . . .


the last light

fades away . . .

starless sky


Commentary by Taofeek Ayeyemi


A haibun with melancholic (wabi) and empathic tones that tells the story of how the author's companion had to leave, permanently. The thirty-five year old sick horse has reached a state of illness that suggests ending. As if he already knows what would happen, he fixes his eyes on the author: “As I sit with him, he watches me. If I move, his eyes follow me; ” and the “small nicker” that struggles its way out of the horse's throat nourishes an emotional participation (kokoro ni kaku) for readers. We experience a communication between the horse and his owner as they stick together in the cold, in the mud, before the vet arrives to put an eternal end to their companionship: “My vet walks down thru the mud with her euthanasia kit.” The accompanying haiku contributes greatly to the prose with a great leap, and the ellipsis at the end of line two reveals the gradual closure of the horse's eyes, how it fades into lifelessness; and emphasizes an overall sense of depth, penetrating into the human psyche.


Commentary by Jennifer Hambrick


The strength of this haibun rests on its dramatic story of a downed horse, the empathy the author has for the horse, and the solemn, often painful responsibility we humans have for the non-human creatures in our world. Written almost journalistically, the prose presents each fact of the scene in clipped sentences, like those of a news report. And while overblown, hyperemotional prose can all too easily reduce a subject as sorrowful as the one of this haibun to melodrama, I feel myself wondering if the prose – and the reader’s heart – might benefit from a little more breathing room. 


The author might consider removing the phrase “with her euthanasia kit” and leaving that sentence as “My vet walks down through (avoiding the abbreviation ‘thru,’ which has the feel of shorthand) the mud.” The imagery in the concluding poem is clear enough to convey the horse’s untimely death.  Every poem’s power comes as much from what it leaves unsaid as from what it says.


Wish You Were Here

by Alan Peat


This morning a ghost fell from the pages of my book. I recognised its hand at once - the sweep of each blue ink descender; the angle of every word. I read what it had to say of sun and sea and rain and mountains; all of it familiar as fog. And, for the briefest moment I could see the ghost clearly, plain as a fly in a shaft of light.


last resort

the curling edge

of its ocean


Commentary by Taofeek Ayeyemi


This piece is cryptic and one will pause to ponder, for long, to crack the code of its narration. A haibun that makes you ask questions: What's this ghost? A fly? But the line "plain as a fly in a shaft of light" answers "No." But the "blue ink descender" reveals that it must be a note on paper. The word "ghost" suggests how long the paper has been in the book. The accompanying "ocean" senryū beautifully corroborates the prose that this ghost is a short text on the anatomy of water: “I read what it had to say of sun and sea and rain...”. The beauty that characterizes Japanese poetry forms is the intuitive grace where readers are meant to complete the story. That is, the beauty being in the part of it not told. I had that experience reading this piece of work, albeit on a too extreme venture.


Commentary by Jennifer Hambrick


The first sentence of the prose, bordering on the supernatural and the surreal, at once stopped me in my tracks and made me want to keep reading. The “hand” in the second sentence at first seems to be the hand of the ghost mentioned in the first sentence, but with the mention of the “blue ink descender,” we realize that “hand” is also, in linguistic sleight-of-hand, being used in the sense of “handwriting.” Then follows a picture-perfect characterization of typical postcard writing – descriptions of the natural beauty of some exotic place. The concluding poem works on multiple levels: The wordplay with “last resort” conjures the image of a vacation resort on a beach in the photo on the front of a postcard, and also works (though with a bit of a stretch) with the more serious issue at play in this haibun – namely, that the person who once sent this postcard has passed away and can be experienced only as a “ghost” of memory. The “curling edge” of the ocean at the (implied) edge of the postcard is also a clever touch. One could question whether the final poem really can stand on its own, however, without the exposition of the story in the prose leading up to it. The travel details of the prose and the poem connect to the title, a common postcard catch phrase, and can be read on multiple levels: the person who wrote the postcard at that time wished the recipient were also there in that exotic land, and the author who has rediscovered that postcard maybe even quite some time after the sender’s death, now wishes the sender were back here in the land of the living. 


I really enjoy this haibun – the surprising lead sentence, the clever wordplay with “hand” that backs the reader into the story and creates a veil of mystery, the gentle humor with which the subjects of death and missing those we’ve lost are treated. Death is a common subject among English-language haibun, and a haibun that addresses this subject in skillful writing while avoiding the maudlin and the sentimental is to be commended.