~ haiku ~

HNA Haibun Festival 2023: a brief report

I was delighted to be able to present nine unique poetry films in Cincinnati last Thursday for Haiku North America 2023. HNA had sponsored a haibun contest last fall to pick model texts for filmmakers to work with, as they note:

All submissions were evaluated anonymously by our haibun judges, Jim Kacian and Jannifer Hambrick, then sent to Moving Poems. Not all haibun selected by the haibun judges were made into films.

Close to 100 people attended a panel on new directions in haibun, moderated by Jim Kacian, with my talk on haibun and videopoetry bringing up the rear, which allowed me to prepare the audience for what they were about to see. The other panelists were Lew Watts, Rich Youmans, and Jennifer Hambrick. The new book Haibun: A Writer’s Guide, by Watts, Youmans, and Roberta Beary, was hot off the presses, so there was considerable interest in the overall topic. Jim had convinced us to each close our talk with a haiku, as if it had been a haibun, because why not? So as abstruse as we got, we still had to bring things back to earth at the end, which felt right. This was not a typical academic conference!

I’ll paste in the text of my talk below, though as I said on Thursday, I am not a brilliant scholar, and in fact often find it painful to get out of “poetry brain” long enough think in a straight line. Anyway, I was grateful that most of the audience stuck around for the festival, oo‘d and ah‘d at all the right places, and seemed genuinely inspired and/or energized by the screening, judging by the many kind comments I got afterwards. I showed the five adaptations of Joseph Aversano’s haibun “The Gone Missing” first, then the other four. Audience discussion afterwards focused on a couple of questions: Why did that one haibun appeal to so many filmmakers? (Watch them for yourself and decide.) And: How can we encourage more of this? Which for many poets, of course, means: How do I find a filmmaker to work with? I suggested that haiku people might want to set up something similar to the sadly defunct Poetry Storehouse, aggregating texts whose authors have licensed them for remix under the Creative Commons at a site that can then be shared with filmmakers. If anyone does anything like this, or has other ideas, be sure to let us know.

I’ve now posted all nine films to Moving Poems: watch them here. I don’t know whether we’ll do this again, but we’re certainly hoping it prompts more filmmakers to consider working with haibun—and maybe spawns a few new videopoets, too. Here’s my argument for why that might make sense:

Haibun and Videopoetry: some considerations

presentation for the Haibun Innovations panel at HNA 2023

Videopoetry (AKA cinepoetry or filmpoetry) is a hybrid of film and poetry that can work especially well with haibun. Like haibun, it hijacks a narrative medium for lyrical ends in a creative subversion of a typical audience’s expectations.

To understand how videopoetry works, a haiku poet need look no further than haiga, because in both cases, the relationship between text and imagery is tricky to get right, and the best videopoems, like the best haiga, avoid mere illustration in favor of more subtle and suggestive interplay. The hope is that the right juxtaposition of images and ideas will produce a kind of gestalt.

Videopoetry pioneer Tom Konyves has stated that the best texts to use in a videopoem should have a quality of incompleteness—something also associated with Japanese-derived poetry forms, where indirection and ambiguity are often prized. Otherwise, a film adaptation can feel superfluous and unnecessary: the poem was already complete without it. You need a text that doesn’t spell everything out.

This happy coincidence between traditional Japanese and avant-garde aesthetics makes haibun videopoetry a fruitful area for poet-filmmakers to explore, especially given the democratizing of access to video-making tools in the digital era. Learning to make videopoems can be very challenging, but no more so than learning how to make an effective haiku. As shareable online content, haibun videos have the potential to enlarge the audience for modern haiku.

Whether or not that actually happens, learning how to shoot and edit videopoems, or collaborating closely with a filmmaker, does offer the possibility of a change in how we compose and think about haibun.

Film is so closely identified with storytelling in most viewers’ minds, that it becomes a challenge to prepare audiences for more avant-garde uses of the genre. I used the term “hijack” above, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Pushing people out of their comfort zones, especially by removing that anticipation of what might be coming next in a narrative, can be a real challenge for directors of poetry films. But since many haibun begin with narrative prose, film adaptation can follow a pattern intimately familiar to most older audiences from watching commercial television, whether they’re conscious of it or not: a narrative segment followed by a lyrical non sequitur. (And in fact, many directors of poetry films these days are moonlighting from their real gigs with the advertising industry.)

Film, like music, like the spoken word, is a temporal art: it unfolds over time rather than in three-dimensional space. But making a film is like making virtually anything, in that hours of effort are required to make something that goes past really very quickly by comparison. Haiku poets must be acutely conscious of this disparity. Make a haiku into a film and you can suggest something of the mental process or circumstances that led up to a given ah-ha moment, while also showcasing the asymmetry so central to Japanese aesthetics. Make a haibun into a film, and the bun portions serve something of the same function. A haibun film, then, might glibly be described as art imitating life imitating art. Less glibly, it offers a way to represent fleeting moments of insight within a temporal flow, with the tantalizing possibility of communicating something of the flow state itself.

lakeshine on my shirt
i gain an audience
of mallards

Write Out: A Scribe’s Haiku #3 by Kathryn Darnell

In my first post as a contributor to Moving Poems, I am delighted to introduce to the site the work of Kathryn Darnell. Her Write Out: A Scribe’s Haiku #3 is part of a series of animations of original haiku about her work as a calligrapher. Music is by Elden Kelly.

Kathryn has been a professional illustrator and calligrapher for over 30 years, dividing her time between commercial art and fine art practice. Her “animated calligraphics” are an extension of her passion for letters. Her personal artwork is regularly exhibited in galleries, and she is an adjunct professor of art at Lansing Community College.

In 2018, her video, Things I Found in the Hedge, in collaboration with UK poet Lucy English, was the winner of the inaugural edition of the Atticus Review Videopoem Contest, which I judged and discussed in Moving Poems Magazine.

Further experiments with videohaiku

The footage I linked to for a videohaiku challenge last week elicited very few responses, though each of them was very interesting. Perhaps composing a credible haiku is challenging enough without the additional burden of such WTF imagery to work with. However, in a classic example of beginner’s mind out-pacing the professionals, my friend Rachel Rawlins, who doesn’t consider herself a poet at all, suggested some lines which I thought worked very well. After some rather intense back-and-forth via email and Skype, here’s what we came up with:

To recap, the challenge was to treat the footage as if it were one part of a typically two-part haiku, either preceding or following the cut-point (usually represented in English by an em dash or colon). I find that composing this kind of videohaiku is much easier if you mentally substitute words for footage. So for this one, one could start with something like “[nudist handball—]”, e.g.

[nudist handball—]
not even netting
comes between us

which was an earlier joint effort of mine and Rachel’s.

Haiku are untitled, but Tom Konyves argued in an email that a videohaiku should have a title nonetheless. This was in the context of a critique of my first effort in this vein. I talked about it with James Brush, the author of the text, and he agreed. So we decided to call that piece flower (videohaiku) — though we didn’t remake the video itself, just changed the title on Vimeo, which was perhaps a bit of a cop-out. But for the second one with Rachel, you’ll notice we did put the title right on the video, using a freeze-frame as background.

There’s a long tradition of occasionally using bizarre imagery in written haiku and senryu. I found some truly WTF footage in the IICADOM collection (the Belgian equivalent of the Prelinger Archives), in an undated home movie identified simply as “Rural Life.” My mental substitution for the footage was “Hitler in the garden.” (This was in part a response to Othniel Smith’s video in this week’s Cheryl Gross column.) Anyway, here’s what I came up with:

I decided both videos worked fine as silent films, but I don’t think that’s necessarily part of the videohaiku prescription. I thought the ambient insect noise in flower was a good addition, and could work just as well with visitor here.

I’m now beginning to consider the best way to string videohaiku into videorenga. In classic Japanese linked verse (renga or renku), each stanza apart from the opening and closing verses is part of two different two-stanza poems in succession, which creates a dilemma for filmmakers: repeat each verse or not? And how to represent the shorter stanzas (two lines in English-language renga; 14 “syllables” in Japanese)?

I’m not going to issue another formal videopoetry challenge for now, but I am interested in continuing to work with other writers, and possibly other video remixers as well, so if you’d like to be part of that, let me know (bontasaurus@yahoo.com). Renga is a quintessentially collaborative approach to composition, and it seems to me it might be a natural fit for the remix/mashup culture of the web. But first we need to generate a prototype, I think.

Videopoetry challenge: help me shape a new(ish) style of videohaiku

This collaboratively produced videopoem with text by James Brush represents a new approach to videohaiku for me: one in which the first part of the haiku is represented by film footage, which freezes and transitions to text roughly where a mid-poem kireji or cutting word would occur in a Japanese haiku.

[A mid-verse] kireji performs the paradoxical function of both cutting and joining; it not only cuts the ku into two parts, but also establishes a correspondence between the two images it separates, implying that the latter represents the poetic essence (本意 hon’i) of the former, creating two centres and often generating an implicit comparison, equation, or contrast between the two separate elements.

It’s an approach for which I am partly indebted to Tom Konyves, who in his Videopoetry: A Manifesto cites Eric Cassar’s minimalist videohaiku as normative for the genre—”The videohaiku (approx. 30 seconds) uses a few words of text attached to the shortest duration of images”—and who responded to some recent thoughts of mine about different approaches to videohaiku (and there are many!) with a comment that took me a little while to digest. I had mentioned one approach in which a long shot (or series of related shots) is followed by the haiku as text-on-screen, so that the shot(s) function more or less like the painting in a traditional haiga as well as suggesting something about the poet’s observational process leading up to the composition of the haiku. This is a method both James and I have experimented with in the past. Quoting a description of the two-part structure of a typical haiku, Tom wrote:

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this “method” addresses a question about videopoetry’s strategies re: word-image relationships in the fact that the observation of the first segment – the division into two semantic elements of unequal length, usually corresponding to two different images or ideas, which for maximum effect should have some relationship but not too immediately obvious a one – is best achieved by the image, while the non-sequitur of the second segment is best expressed in words (the text in a videopoem).

It was with this on my mind last Monday that, rather on the spur of the moment, I challenged Facebook friends and members of the POOL group there to write something to go with a section of a randomly chosen old home movie from the Prelinger Archives. I gave them six hours, later extended to eight, and linked to my post from the Moving Poems Twitter account as well:

Ekphrastic haiku challenge: I need a haiku to feature in a haiga-style short film using footage from this old home movie—the section from 3:50 to 4:50 where the baby is brandishing a flower. Haiku should contain no more than 17 syllables but may contain fewer; kigo unnecessary; number of lines unimportant. It should work as a poem and should probably refer obliquely to the film imagery at best. You’ll be fully credited as author, and the resulting video may appear on Moving Poems if I’m satisfied with it. Email haiku (as many attempts as you like) to me: bontasaurus@yahoo.com by 10:00 PM tonight (Monday), New York time (3:00 AM GMT).

In short order I received 27 submissions from 13 people, most of them published poets along with a couple of inspired amateurs. I soon realized that my instructions had been inadequate if not down-right misleading. I shouldn’t have specified that a submission should work as a poem, because the lines that seemed to work best with the footage felt incomplete until I imagined them following the footage. James had started with a rather high-concept idea and pared it down in the course of three drafts. I suggested two further edits. What finally emerged was this:

how your hands burn
for the sun

with the ellipsis standing in for the footage of the baby in a meadow waving a daisy around. (One could even make it fit into a line: babe with a flower, say, or toddler in the yard.)

I’m excited by the result, and I’d like to propose a new challenge to help us further explore the possibilities of videohaiku. This time I’ll make the deadline midnight on Monday, New York time — i.e., 5:00 AM January 13 GMT. (That’s for people who get the weekly email digest and read it at work on Monday.) I tend to resist the idea that haiku need to be about nature all the time, so found a home movie, evidently from the 1930s, that features two men, naked but for jock straps, playing American handball in an indoor court. There are many minutes of that footage both at the beginning and end of the movie, but as before, I’ll select less than a minute of it, so feel free to suggest specific sections to use with your submission of haiku — or should I say, half-haiku. Because the idea this time is not to submit something that would necessarily stand on its own as a printed poem, but something that can be wedded with the footage as its other half, “generating an implicit comparison, equation, or contrast between the two separate elements” as the Wikipedia entry on kireji puts it.

Again, please use email (bontasaurus @yahoo.com) to submit, and send along as many suggestions as you like. Also, feel free to consider the possibility that the footage might fall in the second part of the verse, with one or two lines of text at the beginning. Would that even work as a poetry film? Could the flinging of a handball operate even as an end-of-verse kireji?

If you’re unfamiliar with haiku, or wonder why a lot of us who write it in English no longer believe in “5-7-5,” I recommend the Wikipedia entry on haiku, Imaoka Keiko’s essay “Forms in English Haiku,” and an excellent brief for writing haiku based on art or literature, rather than exclusively on direct experience: “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths” by Haruo Shirane. And for a good overview of 20th-century and contemporary haiku, I strongly recommend the Spring 2009 issue of Cordite, “Haikunaut.” The issue index at that link isn’t actually complete, because the essays are as illuminating as the poetry, so start with David Lanoue’s introduction and use the “next post” links to page through. By the end of it, you should have a pretty comprehensive picture of the variety of modern traditional and experimental haiku… except for videohaiku, which they don’t mention. I guess it’s up to us to write that chapter.