Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Response to Matthew Paul's Review of Contemporary Haibun 9

by Jim Kacian

I cannot thank Matthew Paul enough for his serious intent and thorough reading of contemporary haibun 9. I wish all our readers were as assiduous and critical. If so, the art of haibun would progress much more rapidly and such effort would no longer be necessary for review but could be mustered instead for the creation of new work. This is the ideal, and we are all—writer, editor, publisher, reviewer and reader—in favor of it.

There are certain matters taken up in Matthew's review that might benefit from further information not available to him, and worth mentioning. To begin, he asks the question of scale: how many practitioners of haibun are there worldwide? Of course contemporary haibun (ch), and its internet arm contemporary haibun online (cho), are not the only places where haibun may be found, but it is probably fair to say that over the course of our 10 years nearly everyone who writes haibun has made themselves known to us. We don't have complete records of that first volume of ch, but we do remember clearly its circumstances: of the 44 haibun published, 4 were included for historical purposes. The remaining 40 pieces were selected out of perhaps three times that many. Three of the pieces (including one of the historical inclusions) were from outside the United States. This actually represented a greater percentage of inclusions from non-US writers than the submissions would warrant. The 44 poets included represented easily half the number of total submitters—in other words, there were certainly fewer than a hundred haibun writers in English (atleast that we were aware of) a decade ago.

Contrast that with the volume under review: ch 9 received nearly 500 submissions from more than 150 different poets from 20 countries. Of these, 71% originated in the United States, and another 12% from the United Kingdom or its reluctant constituents (Wales, Scotland). The preponderance of the rest are from Australia and New Zealand, with a smattering from eastern and western europe and the far east. Add to this that each week I discover another poet's work published somewhere such as Haibun Today and we would be wise to conclude that the outreach of ch and cho is likely only half of the actual number of poets writing haibun today.

Three hundred poets is not a great number by any global measurement, but it does represent a 300% increase in a decade. That may not be critical mass, but it's on the way there.

Matthew takes us to task for suggesting ch is a "multi-voiced colloquy." Well, given a roster projecting the existence of 300 poets in the genre, the inclusion of 54 of them, or more than 17%, certainly seems like a colloquy to me (certainly greater than the percentage of attendance of haiku poets to any conference, say), and as he suggests in his mini-reviews of each piece, the voices are various. I'm not certain what else a multi-voiced colloquy might be. And if he recognizes most of the names, why would that be surprising? Everybody in the world may have heard of haiku, and lots of people try it each year, some of whom get published and so known to us. But nobody knows haibun until they've already gotten involved in haiku--so it's probable we've already encountered them somewhere in the haiku community. Further, haibun takes practice to do well, as we all know, and isn't it likely that those who have had the most practice might have written some if not all the best work any particular year? And isn't it further likely that if we've been at it a while as well, those others who have also would be known to us?

Matthew also wonders about the fact that some of these familiar names have two or three pieces included, and whether it might be better to limit each poet to a single piece. This is an issue every editor faces at some point. And his suggestion is one that most editors would happily endorse—if there were a guaranteed source of equally high quality work to replace it. If we had adopted this policy, we would not have had a similar book featuring work by an additional 20 poets. We simply would have had a shorter book.

Matthew's next question concerned the overlap, or actually the lack of overlap, of haibun appearing in ch 9 and dust of summers: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 2007 (rma). He argues that surely if each claims to be publishing the best haibun each year, there should be a much closer correspondence between the selections in each volume. Of course this would be true--if the editors of both volumes were the same people. In actuality, the evaluation processes for the two volumes is quite different. For inclusion in ch, a piece must receive the vote of two out of three editors whose work resides solely in considering the merits of haibun. For inclusion in rma, a piece must receive 5 out of 10 votes of editors who consider haibun, but also haiku, senryu, linked forms, critical and theoretical essays, and so on. It is no surprise to me that the selections for the two volumes vary widely. Overlap to any considerable degree would seem to me to be anomalous.

Next, Matthew would like the book to appeal to a wider audience than the haibun community. So would we. He argues that ch makes no concession to readers unfamiliar with the genre. We would agree. But this is an argument in a void: who is this audience? Where might we find it? We've been looking for it for a decade and still have an audience so small that the volume loses money each year. So the appeal to an audience that we currently serve has not been made idly. Those 300 haibun writers are a couple hundred more than we had ten years ago and we're grateful for them. We certainly wouldn't wish to offer "concessions" at the cost of alienating this base. In any case, what would such concessions be?

In the meantime, ch recognizes its mission to be to provide a space where current haibun writers can be published and so exchange their efforts; to keep the genre of haibun viable in a concrete (that is, paper) medium; and to stimulate growth in the genre via its online presence. This is precisely what's happening: cho is where many, if not most, haibun newbies come to try their hands. And some, if they work at it, get the opportunity to appear in a print volume.

Matthew also takes issue with the look and presentation of the book. Fair enough. We all have our preferences and not everyone will be pleased with every choice. We, too, regret that we can't afford to reproduce the haiga in color. Perhaps when that larger audience is located and the book breaks even we'll opt for that. But it certainly must be seen as subjective to suggest that the Rothko painting which is featured on the cover automatically disfavors the volume. He states that Rothko was "famed . . . for his angst and suicide, which are at odds with the largely life-affirming qualities of the haibun form." To me, Rothko was famed for his painting. My "reading" of the painting, no less subjective, to be sure, is not one of angst and suicide, but rather energy, emotion, spirituality. But at least it's open to interpretation, not simply negative as he seems to suggest.

Most importantly, Matthew goes on to honor each of the pieces included with a short review. The haibun, after all, is why the book exists. And as might be expected, not all of these meet his standard. Happily, many do, and he says so in precise and useful language. One small note to another of his queries: Ed Baker's piece is indeed based on an actual Basho incident, cited by Cleary, and the poem is his own, not a translation.

Finally, I agree with his conclusion, that "some writers have elevated haibun so that it bears a healthy comparison with other [literary] forms," and also that these writers are in the minority. As is the case in all literature, in all times. We hope ch remains a showcase for exactly this work.

Jim Kacian
Red Moon Press

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