Judge: Kala Ramesh (Pune/Chennai, India)
I received a whopping 378 poems from nine countries for this contest!
Congratulations to all the winners and honorable mentions. The selected poems reveal a moment of truth – fuga no makoto – poetic sincerity and honesty. My admiration for writing such heart-stopping, fine haiku.
After multiple readings, I took a 10-day break and revisited them with a fresh perspective. Each poem was given the time and space it demanded. Many haiku began to have dialogues with me—I always encourage that. As my list of possibilities dwindled from 25 to 14 poems, I knew I had left many fine haiku behind. That's the saddest part of being a judge.
I'd like to share one thought: How can anyone say one poem is better than another? It's too arbitrary and highly subjective; my choice today might not be the same next year, or even next month. When I participate in contests and press ‘send,’ it's more for the fun and excitement of writing my best poem! The effort deserves applause. To quote Alfie Kohn, “Let’s not confuse excellence with winning, as if the only way to do something well is to outdo others.”
Thanks to all participants for your lovely poems. I enjoyed reading them and am greatly indebted to the Haiku Poets of Northern California for entrusting me with this huge responsibility.
in what’s left of the fig what remains of the wasp
Pacific Grove, CA
I appreciate this monoku. Each time I read it, I'm intrigued by the use of 'in' at the start—it gives a boost to the image and propels the thought forward with momentum. I believe it refers to a dead wasp stuck in a decaying fig fruit. The language usage is impressive. The sounds of 'w' and 's', coupled with the repetition of the word 'what', create an internal rhythm and impart a softness to the poem.
Congratulations to the poet for writing such an impactful concrete poem with a strong emphasis on mono no aware–the pathos of things–drawn from their transience. This aesthetic nuance is beautifully draped in fuga no makoto, signifying truth, sincerity, and honesty, qualities a haiku poet must strive for when composing poems.
a tai chi master pushes
and pulls the breeze
Ajax, Ontario, Canada
I've always been fascinated by the concept of 'first light,' and here, it illuminates the tai chi master and his movements. Isn't that the impression tai chi gives to observers? It seems as if its practitioners and students are pushing and pulling the breeze.
Tai chi, a deeply meditative exercise, unfolds slowly and mindfully. Some liken it to mindfulness on wheels or meditation in motion.
The prevailing aesthetic nuance here is toriawase. Often misinterpreted as juxtaposition, Susumu Takiguchi suggests that “Combination would have been a better English word to choose, as toriawase means mixing or joining two or more things together to form a single whole.”
Consider two storytelling techniques employed by filmmakers: Mise-en-scène, meaning "to put into scene" or "staging an action," and Montage, the art of selecting, editing, and piecing together film sections to create a cohesive whole. The poet has expertly applied these techniques here, and I believe further interpretation is unnecessary. The mastery lies in the seamless execution of these elements.
the train carries
landscapes between us
This poem took me to Shiki’s classic:
This translation is from If Someone Asks . . . Masaoka Shiki’s Life and Haiku.
It's only when we witness others losing their cognition and memory, as in Alzheimer's disease, that we truly realize the significance of the past to a healthy mind. The heart of the poem lies in L3. The use of language is excellent, expressing in just eight words the profound meaning of years lived together for these two individuals, especially for the poet.
the tug of the tide
in every one
Pacific Grove, CA
we promise to visit her ashes disperse
the memory map
the forest fills with stories
spoken by hands
Ajax, Ontario, Canada
Judge: Tanya McDonald (Happy Valley, OR, United States)
reading a travel book
Sleepy Hollow, NY
Some poems announce themselves with strong images and fanfare, and other poems capture the reader’s attention with their subtlety and layers. This senryu is one of the latter. To me, it illustrates a common characteristic of human nature: to not be satisfied with what we have, to want more. In this case, instead of enjoying their current travels, someone is immersed in a travel book, perhaps already planning their next adventure. The third line, “far-off clouds,” adds a dreamy, wistful element. Although there’s no punctuation or indentation in this senryu, there’s a natural pause at the end of the second line. But that lack of punctuation allows for possibly reading the second and third lines together: “while traveling far-off clouds,” which is fantastical and elevates the senryu from a simple observation about a human foible to something full of wonder.
my death poem
archived in the cloud—
Ron C. Moss
Leslie Vale, Tasmania, Australia
This senryu starts on a serious note. Perhaps the narrator is near death, or perhaps they’ve written a death poem in acknowledgment of their own eventual mortality. And, like any sensible poet with a bit of tech savvy, they’ve stored it somewhere safe: the cloud. There, it will be secure from fire or flood, from being thrown out or misplaced, or any number of other physical losses. What could go wrong? The answer is in the third line: “power failure.” Without electrical power, the poem cannot be accessed in the cloud. The poet is powerless to retrieve it. And perhaps it speaks to the “power failure” we will all inevitably face when we reach the end of our lives. In any case, the wry humor of best intentions gone awry made me smile.
borrowing from my 401(k)
to pay my student loan
Joshua St. Claire
New Freedom, PA
The idea of sustainability is cleverly juxtaposed with a very real example of how it’s not working for the narrator. By taking from their 401(k), they are borrowing from their future to pay for their present. But it’s not just the narrator who is doing this. Humans, particularly those of us in consumer-driven societies, have been using up resources at an unsustainable rate and at a great cost. By using a specific example of one person’s experience, this senryu expands to act as a potential statement on the current state of the world without being preachy.
on the fly strips
icing on the cake
with its hint of bitter almonds
Stirling, ACT, Australia
Judge: Alan Peat (Biddulph, Staffordshire, United Kingdom)
The 2023 HPNC International Tanka contest closed with a total of 102 entries. From these I have selected first, second, and third place poems, and three honorable mentions. There were many engaging tanka, but the clear winners stood out from the crowd. All of the winning poems leave wide open space for the reader to inhabit. They also avoid the pitfalls of blunt didacticism and/or mawkishness.
so much I wanted
to teach you…
a blue jay’s feathers
are not really blue
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
For me, this was the clear winner. The tanka is deliberately concise and open-ended. This brevity lends weight to every word. A sense of loss and longing permeate the poem, giving it great emotional depth. There is enough ‘space’ to allow for reflection - it’s a poem that the reader can truly inhabit. It also prompts us to look closely, to observe the details. The combination of all these elements made this tanka leap from the page. A deserving winner.
for this purpose
the fallen rocks adjusting
the creek’s path
San Ramon, CA
At the heart of this apparently simple tanka there is a striking metaphor for resilience. There is also a sense of continuation in the face of obstacles. The line breaks also work beautifully - I admire the fact that this poet isn’t afraid to let “alone” stand by itself on the page. The natural imagery is effective and the poem punches well above its weight, with room for reflection and layered interpretations.
jiggles in a tidepool
for a moment
a great blue heron
gulps the sky
Richard L. Matta
San Diego, CA
Although it is understated, there is a masterful use of language at play in this tanka. There is a rhythmic feel and the subtle alliteration contributes to this. The vivid imagery drew me in. The poet deftly draws a scene I can see clearly in my mind’s eye. What really impressed me was the internal contrast between the fleeting alpenglow and the solid presence of the heron. “Jiggles” was also such an apt (and unexpected) word choice.
down this prairie road,
we collide head-on
with the Milky Way
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Although our ultimate fate is unavoidable, there is such a sense of untrammeled joy in this tanka. And what a final image!
from the lookout
the world dissolves
across the inlet
one high peak
adrift in sea fog
Corner Inlet, Victoria, Australia
I admire the way the poet evokes loneliness through natural imagery. The opening line sets the tone well and the imagery is vivid.
in my backyard
across the moon
into another world
Lesley Anne Swanson
Stephen Henry Gill (Japan/United Kingdom)
Shalini Pattabiraman (United Kingdom/India)
If haiku is the art of hinting at and not fully describing something of significance, which readers can then make their own, haibun could be thought of as the art of conjuring up some sort of story rather than of telling it. There are so many ways of doing this, and we were grateful to be invited to read through and savour the 96 entries to this contest. We also both greatly enjoyed the discussion phase with our fellow judge.
Overall, the standard was good. There was a rich diversity of themes and a distinctive use of voice to be enjoyed among the best of the works. We judged them all blind. Only when we had decided our final list of awarded pieces, did the coordinator send us names and countries of residence for the awardees, so that this information could be added to our comments and in some cases inform our perceptions. The judges then divided up the list and wrote about every other piece. We would like to send our congratulations and appreciation to all awarded writers. (SHG & SP)
by Billie Dee
That summer my first blood arrived
while I was camped in the woods
turning wet stones
for trout bait
I knew what it was, but still wondered
what sin against Nature had earned me
this curse. . .
in the rush of snowmelt
. . .like the little Kumari Devi,
expelled from her Nepalese palace
when she proved herself mortal.
this deep lull
of afternoon creek song
letting the hellgrammites go
Seldom does one encounter a piece of writing in which man and nature are so completely at one. “Rattlesnake Canyon” transports us back not only to adolescence, but to primitive times, when man lived in communion with nature and not apart from it. Following on from the ancient Daoist philosophers of China, Basho referred to this holistic paradigm as ‘jinen’ and he believed in it. Dee has interwoven a personal narrative of discovery and doubt (in the past tense) with three excellent haiku (in the present), all of which could stand on their own. The prose is lineated as if it were a poem, partly perhaps to avoid the ungainly layout that would have resulted if each short paragraph had been spread out wide, shallow and too regularly between the haiku. Lineation here helps construct an appearance of asymmetry, as well as slowing down the delivery of the narrative, thus more effectively separating the poems. I enjoyed the allusion to the Newari goddess incarnate, Kumari, of whom I once, when in Kathmandu, did catch a precious glimpse! At the very end, in letting go of the hellgrammites (mayfly/dobsonfly larvae used as fish bait), the reader also feels somehow launched with them … surrendering to the current as it winds away into another story in some reach of clean water further downstream. (SHG)
by Dru Philippou
They live on the mesa without running water or electricity, huddled in hovels assembled from building scraps and used tires. They live where the wind howls like coyotes and dust devils spiral into ink-black clouds. They live in a sea of sagebrush and go by the name Sage Monkeys. They are the loners, drifters, freaks, scooping out visions at the edge of thunderstorms and rainbows. If you hope to find a mystic amongst them to reveal the meaning of life, be prepared for the endless scorn: pillock, lickspittle, milksop. If you bring them beer, one of them might invite you into his ramshackle cabin, cluttered with elk skulls and antlers, sacks of pinto beans and rice, tubs of ground coffee, and rows of drooping American flags stuck in Coca-Cola bottles. If you wait a while longer, he might describe the desert silence—a silence so deep that small sounds can seem deafening—a lizard’s chirp, a startled jackrabbit zigzagging through the underbrush, or a rattlesnake slithering from the wood pile. He might even describe the soul-stirring beauty of sunrises and sunsets as he stares at the vast, empty sky, not quite sure he’s arrived.
the barbed spines
of a star
An arresting subject that delves into an idea from a unique perspective, “Sage Monkeys” is bound to catch everyone's attention. It offers an interesting opening into the haibun through the use of anaphora. Even in the first reading of the haibun, I knew I would come back to this and read it again and again. “Sage Monkeys” embeds lyricism in its description of both landscape and people. These vignettes present the ordinary in an extraordinary way, for example, the image of drooping American flags in Coca-Cola bottles among sacks of pinto beans and rice. It is this kind of juxtaposition of images that made this haibun a winner in my mind. Additionally, the use of lists and of sound devices (alliteration, consonance, and assonance) created a euphony of sounds in the prose that ends in a poignant and stunning haiku. A deeply moving haibun that shows and never tells, it uses a third person narrative effectively. It made me think about people waiting endlessly to cross a border into a land that promises hope. In a world where many countries are currently closing their borders to those seeking refuge or asylum, this haibun is timely and all the more powerful for its ability to cut into the emotion and rhetoric on the subject of migration. (SP)
by Valorie Broadhurst Woerdehoff
Astronomers report that based on the galaxy’s chemical makeup, it has what we humans would consider a taste and smell. Their research concludes that the flavor of the galaxy is closest to that of fresh raspberries, and that its scent is like liquor distilled from sugar – or as it’s commonly known, rum. Sidling up to an outdoor bar on an unseasonably warm autumn evening, I order a frozen raspberry rum daiquiri in a tall glass, complete with a straw the color of the sky. Savoring long, slow sips that taste like solar systems, my eyes search overhead and breathe deep the aroma of 200 billion distant suns.
“Aroma Therapy” is two words, not one, thus differentiating it from the massage therapy so popular today. This ‘therapy’ is another thing altogether: a reverie, albeit based on scientific data, a whimsical speculation, while having a drink on a warm autumn evening (nice seasonality), that our own galaxy, though named for its spectacle ‘The Milky Way’, may be closer in flavour at least to a ‘Raspberry Way’. I remember well the many tongue-in-cheek, overtly humorous and generally entertaining haibun I had to read a few years ago when helping to judge a Japanese haibun contest for the large haiku group, Sendan. This is exactly the sort of thing currently favoured in Japan by those trying to revive the genre in the land of its birth. Reading Woerdehoff’s piece aloud makes it even better, and although there may be a good whack of hyperbole and mixed metaphor in the final sentence, the sparsity and aptness of the final haiku image left a fine taste in my mouth. Yes, perhaps even of raspberry! Haikai no bunsho (playful prose), indeed. (SHG)
by Farah Ali
The photographs, freed from the confines of a shoebox, are strewn around my legs. Ghost faces, frozen in time and unused to the light, wait expectantly. After some sifting I find who I am looking for: a toddler with rosebud lips, hair black with dark brown tints emerging in sunlight. Round eyes, alien orbs in a tiny face, but she will grow into them. She looks lost, but that is probably projection on the part of the observer. When she is an adult she will have only vague memories of the furniture and carpet in this photograph because she will be brought up in another house. The houses and their contents will change, but the misery will not. I trace the child’s outline, sending comfort from the whorls of my fingertips into the past. Oblivious to the ache in my throat, the life growing within me rolls and kicks, demanding lemonade. Heaving upright, I tidy and head downstairs, placating my hard mound of belly with a lullaby. Perhaps one day I will show the little girl in the photograph to her.
one step forward
a rope bridge sways
in the wind
In “Liminality”, Ali uses the title to speak of thresholds and the experiences of a person caught at a juncture that is dark and lonely, where 'Ghost faces, frozen in time and unused to the light, wait expectantly'. The only thing that detracted from the haibun that moved with such seamless grace between times past, present, and future was the inclusion of the phrase 'demanding lemonade,' which broke the emotion with a lightness that wasn't needed at that point, I felt. The haiku, although strong and effective, lost some of its power because that distraction had broken the very momentum that had been building nicely to that point. (SP)
Blakiston's Fish Owl
by Marcyn Del Clements
Most of the birders stay up until 10 pm for the owls to appear in the flood-lit stream. But me and my roomie, we’re down by 8:30. The owl finally comes in at 2:45 in the morning. Phil had gotten up to pee and heard them calling—knocks on all our doors. We stagger up off our futons, in bare feet, focusing through our stream-side window. There is one!—he’s by the pool, facing us—now there are two! She is on this side, back to us. He jumps into the pool, grabs a fish in his talons, flips it out in the snow. She doesn’t move. He hops to her side, picks up the fish and passes it to her in his beak. She slurps it down and flies up canyon. He fishes for another and scarfs it down. And then, he too is gone.
Venus slips low
seeps through our floor boards
This piece was a ‘hit’ with both judges after the first reading for it is vivid, authentic, lightly humorous, and direct. Very conversational in style, it’s also a story of value as something not commonly experienced - a skillful portrait of a fortunate sighting of a pair of rare owls that catch fish. I often find myself disliking haibun that use only short sentences, but here Clements has mixed into them a few longer ones: just enough to save the piece from stylistic mediocrity. While the terminal haiku consists of two short sentences juxtaposed, it does work, I think, as it takes us a distance away from the magic of the experience just told, rather like a party that is now well-and-truly over. It is very haiku-style to allow the reader to savour the pathos of the return to normality after a wonderful experience. (SHG)
by Dru Philippou
When my baby sister comes home from the hospital, my handmade mobile of the solar system already hangs above her slatted crib. Planets, moons, and stars of felted wool and a large pompom sun all dangle in bright colours from an embroidery hoop. To capture her attention, I blow on the sun’s silk strands and the orbs begin to spin.
I lean into the crib and feel the warmth of her breath against my cheek. She grabs my hair and watches it gather and fall from her pudgy fist. Kicking off the blanket, she reveals her pink onesie. I lift this playmate in my arms and carefully clip a red rosette in the spiral whorls of her downy crown.
a bit of heaven
in my dreams
A moving haibun, “The Gift” caught my attention for its simplicity. Shared from the perspective of an elder sibling, it is an exchange of love offered in the childlike construction of a handmade solar system mobile hanging over the crib, whose ‘...large pompom sun all dangle in bright colours from an embroidery hoop.’ It immediately reminded me of holding my baby sister for the very first time; how as an elder sibling the fragility of this tiny bundle in my arms filled me with immense wonder. The haiku equates this with the experience of being in heaven, bringing the cosmic and real together. “The Gift” as title becomes an apt gift for all of us—a gift of love shared joyfully. (SP)
by Kristen Lindquist
A sound repeats outside like the squeaking of a single swing, a child alone on a playground. And the train whistle in the distance, a daily reminder that this town is connected to others, that people arrive and depart. Movie marquee, empty storefronts, long shadows over flat roofs. Cars below pulse with bass at the red light. Each window offers something new: sun’s slant through arched windows framed with granite; constant swirl of pigeons; a cafe right across the street that everyone tells me has great coffee.
starlings build a nest
in an old brick facade
This is a low-key piece with an unassuming title, and it only gets us so far into the subtle psychology of moving into a new town or neighbourhood, but I give it full marks for restraint and ‘slenderness’ (hosomi in Japanese), both qualities characteristic of good haibun. “New Apartment” does require a certain sort of reader, though—one who is ready to read situational emotion into all the hints Lindquist gives us as she paints her portrait of coming to terms with an uprooting, and the delicate transition period full of fears and hopes. Wolf whistles are most probably directed at her, so the initial alienation is strongly felt. The prose is somewhat flat, especially perhaps the final clause (‘a cafe…’), but the contrast with the stark feeling latent in the haiku works well. (SHG)
by Billie Dee
—somewhere near Weatherford, Texas–1951
my arm hairs
stand on end
Rows of folding chairs are lined up in the sawdust as we enter the dimly lit tent. Someone has parked a battered pump organ to the right of the microphone stand.
I notice all the lean men in western boots, clutching Stetsons in one hand, tattered hymnals in the other. Their women wear flour-sack ginghams with a crescent of damp under each arm.
Now, the leather-faced preacher strides in and loosens his bolo tie. He raises his arms with a shrill HOWehLOOya—then, with a flourish, opens his Bible and gets right down to business.
A frizz-headed woman moans amen. My father slowly shakes his head, clasps my shoulder with his soft Lutheran hand and gives me a little squeeze. The organ kicks in.
Local folks sway with the music. An older guy waves his blue bandana and babbles some kind of gibberish. The wife beside him passes out. Tears of fear roll down my cheeks.
Quietly, Daddy picks me up and walks us out into the steamy twilight. The air behind us throbs with hymn as we make a beeline for our car parked in a pasture thick with cow pies.
I recall how tenderly he spreads his handkerchief over the hot passenger seat; how he cranks the ignition, slams the Studebaker into reverse, raising a dusty rooster tail as we light out for the horizon.
and downpour—roof gutters
speaking in tongues
Reading something good is like taking your mind to the gym; it forces you to work, take notice, solve puzzles, shift between moods, resolve problems. “Ozone” achieves that effectively from the very beginning with a title that is intriguing while the opening haiku immediately establishes an urgency and tension that the prose then builds to a climax. The tone and mood largely describe a religious ritual of some kind, where a child, seeking refuge with her father during a storm, is filled with fear at the strangeness of this experience. The mood then effectively shifts into tenderness of emotion when 'he spreads his handkerchief over the hot passenger seat' as the duo then escape into a 'cricket-thick horizon'. I loved the intricate worldbuilding. Dee puts the reader into the tent, where alongside the child we too take notice of 'women' who 'wear flour-sack ginghams with a crescent of damp under each arm'. Imagery in the haibun is stunning. The prose continues the religious intensity and strangeness of the experience into the haiku, creating something cinematic. (SP)
by Billie Dee
the clicking knees of sheep
punctuate an afternoon
In the drizzly back-country of County Cork, I follow a tattered map drawn by my great-great grandfather. From the parked rental car I take my bearings.
As a lad of twelve, he sails from the port of Waterford in 1849. His sister and mother die in the cargo hold, are buried at sea. Eager and thin, he arrives in New York and serves two years of his indentured contract, then runs away to the gold mines of Montana.
a pair of ravens peck
I drive past lines of drying peat, stacked like tilted dominoes. Filling my lungs with the heady scent of petrichor, I check his map again.
at a dead end
headstones too mossy to read
“Coffin Ship” is very filmic: the present-moment haiku pictures are dovetailed into the past-tense narrative video, which even holds within it a flash-black montage of the great-great grandfather’s early life. We don’t get very far with the family story, but far enough to feel the pathos deeply— pathos derived from the tragedy of the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-Nineteenth Century and concomitant exodus, as well as from the telling images from the author’s own pilgrimage to try to find the family roots. It is an unremitting, dark world. Sheep knees click; ravens eat part of some dead creature; gravestones cannot be read for the moss that now grows on them. The haibun finishes with a dead end on Dee’s mission and with the emphatic but possibly too shut-ended and conclusive ‘famine road’. There was some talk of having met an earlier form of this work on an internet writers’ forum, but, after due research, we concluded that we would be able to honour this masterly piece with an award. (SHG)