Monday, August 11, 2014


Microcosmos, my latest book, is finally published!  Microcosmos is subtitled, The Art of the Solo Renga.  It is, as far as I know, the first collection of solo renga in English.

Microcosmos has three sections.  The first section brings together my own solo renga written over a period of about 30 years.  My solo renga are presented first and foremost as poems; to be read as poems.  My target audience is the reader who is engaged with contemporary poetry, but does not necessarily have a specialist’s knowledge of Japanese poetry or renga procedures.  In this way my collection of renga resembles a collection of sonnets; when publishing a collection of sonnets the reader does not have to know all the rules and constraints of sonnet composition in order to enjoy the sonnet as a poem.  In a similar way I present my solo renga as poems to be enjoyed by the interested, but non-specialist, reader.

The second section is a collection of 100-verse solo renga, known as ‘hyakuin’ in Japanese.  The 100-verse form was the form that emerged in medieval Japan and it is the form that all other forms of renga are derived from.  It is the 100-verse form that Sogi used to write his solo renga.  The second section includes my own 100-verse renga, ‘100 Verses at Sebastopol’. 

The second section also includes a 100-verse renga by Edith Shiffert, ‘A Return to Kona’.  I believe that Shiffert is the first to write renga in English, the first to use the 100-verse form, and the first to compose a solo renga.  Shiffert published this renga in 1964 in her collection of poems that used that title for the renga as the title for the collection.  Shiffert, remarkably, takes a syllabic approach to her verse construction.  This solo renga deserves to be much more widely known.

Writing in another style, section 2 includes a 100-verse renga by Jane Reichhold, ‘Masks of Madness’.  Reichhold’s approach uses a short-line, free verse, approach to lineation, which is a widely used approach among practitioners of Japanese forms in English.  Reichhold’s renga also uses a lot of word-play and has a snappy, scintillating quality to it.

Finally, section 2 contains two translations of 100-verse renga by Sogi.  These translations (by Earl Miner and Steven D. Carter) are published with the permission of their respective copyright holders.  The Sogi renga give the reader an opportunity to experience how Sogi used the renga form in a solo context.  In particular, the 100-verse renga that Sogi wrote towards the end of his life, called ‘Sogi Alone’, is a work of great beauty; it is this renga which inspired me to compose solo renga.

Section 3 of Microcosmos contains essays and asides.  Some of the essays are on technical matters, such as the way season and time interact in renga.  And some are expressions of appreciation.

Microcosmos is available through Amazon and is also distributed through Ingram; so it should be available through local bookstores as well.

ISBN: 9781492933229

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lynx Magazine Has Published Its Final Issue

Lynx Magazine

I have learned that Lynx Magazine, after a run of close to 30 years, has published its last issue.  Most poetry magazines are ephemera; some last for only a few issues, others for a few years.  30 years is a good run.

The ending of publication for Lynx brings back to me many memories.  I began Lynx back in the mid-80’s.  At its inception it was called ‘APA-Renga’.  ‘APA’ stood for ‘Amateur Press Association’.  In the mid-80’s the internet was just on the verge of becoming widespread, but it hadn’t become the dominant means of communication at that time.  It was just about to, but not quite.  ‘APAs’ were a group of publications which were subscriber written.  Most of them had a topical focus, though a few were more like diaries.  Many of them started out in Sci-Fi fandom and were focused on a particular author or type of science fiction or fantasy. 

APAs worked by having a central collator.  Members of the APAs sent in their contributions, with copies.  The collator then collated the submissions, but did no editing.  Then the collator would send out the collection on whatever schedule was set for the APA.  Most of the APAs had a small membership; they rarely rose to 30. 

APA-Renga followed the procedures of a standard APA.  People would submit an opening verse (hokku) for a renga.  I would then copy this and send it out to all the participants on a regular schedule.  Participants would then respond to the verse, or not.  I would then add the responses and send them out in turn.  Then people would respond to the second verses, as they felt inspired.  If no one responded to a verse, it dropped out of the next issue.

This meant that all of the renga branched out with many alternative paths stemming from each opening verse.  This was completely non-traditional and experimental.  It was also a lot of fun.

I was only able to run APA-Renga for about two years.  Life suddenly became very complicated and I was unable to find the time to continue with the publication.  Fortunately, Terri Lee Grell stepped forward and agreed to take over the publication.  It was Grell who changed the name from APA-Renga to Lynx.  She also added reviews and, if I recall correctly, some regular renga to the mix.

Terri’s life, in turn, became complicated (life is like that!) and after about another 2 or 3 years passed along Lynx to Jane and Werner Reichhold.  Jane and Werner quickly moved Lynx to the internet and Lynx became an online publication.  Both Jane and Werner recognized quite early the potential for online poetry publication.

Over the next 20 years Jane and Werner faithfully published Lynx four times a year.  They added more reviews, more explorations of poetic form, and increased the space devoted to other forms such as ghazals and tanka.  At some point, I can’t remember exactly when, interest in this branching style of renga waned.  I believe this is because knowledge of the standard form became more widespread and people wanted to shift their attention to a more traditional approach.  Jane and Werner made the decision to drop the participation branch renga and continue with Lynx as an online publication focused on a mixture of reviews, thought pieces, and poetry. 

It is amazing to me that Jane and Werner were able to keep up the pace for so long.  It was a huge effort and contributed greatly to the online poetry world in general, and to those interested in Japanese poetic forms in particular.  To Jane and Werner – many thanks for your decades of dedicated work.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Armstrong Woods

Armstrong Woods

My fav’rite place on earth is Armstrong Woods.
Old growth groves of redwoods are very rare,
A slower flow of time is present there,
The constant cool and stillness of the air
Resembles a cathedral of quiet
With filtered sunlight scattered on the paths.

Walking on a winding woodland path
Under the giant trees of Armstrong Woods
I experience palpable quiet,
Something that in our noise-filled world is rare
(Ordinarily, noise fills the air)
But human noise is an intrusion there.

Once I found countless orchids scattered there
At the base of redwoods beside a path;
I heard a high bell-like sound in the air,
A soft rustling whisper at Armstrong Woods,
Like a song heard just once, a song that’s rare,
A sound, a song, that merged with the quiet.

There exists an interior quiet,
A grove that’s found within the heart and there
One enters into a stillness that’s rare.
It’s discovered by following a path
That resembles the paths of Armstrong Woods.
It’s our inheritance; we are all heirs.

It’s a grace, freely given, like the air,
A place where all human thought is quiet,
It is the mind and heart of Armstrong Woods
And if I could I would always stay there,
This grove of peace at the end of the path;
But in truth my spare moments there are rare.

But it’s enough to have this glimpse that’s rare,
To rest in the peacefulness of the air
After walking the meandering paths
That emerge in solitude, in quiet,
In luminosity found only there,
The grove of the heart, the grove of Armstrong Woods.

Scatter my ashes at Armstrong Woods,
Scatter my ashes on the quiet path that’s there,
In the cool air, in the quiet that’s rare.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Alaska

My Alaska

I have never really left Alaska.
Its geography is fixed in my heart;
How the aurora on a winter night
Will take flight, stretching across the whole sky,
Or how the sly midnight sun casts shadows
Across a free-flowing wilderness stream.

All I have to do is sit by a stream
And like a remembered dream, Alaska,
Appearing out of memories’ shadows,
Memories that lie deep within my heart,
Take shape like the moon in the autumn sky
When thin clouds depart on a windy night.

In winter the day hours are mostly night,
It’s easy to walk on a frozen stream.
An owl will take flight in the silent sky
Above the taigascape of Alaska
The Brooks Range, like a slowly beating heart,
Casts deep, dark, and slowly moving shadows.

When snow begins to melt in the shadows
And the flood of sunlight reduces night,
The sight of flowing water cheers the heart
And people launch canoes upon the streams,
Both great and small, that criss-cross Alaska.
Heading north, a flock of swans in the sky.

Days arrive, long and warm with sun-filled sky,
When it seems as if there are no shadows
To be found anywhere in Alaska,
And people sleep less during the brief night,
Listening to the sound of nearby streams
That seems to soothe a busy mind and heart.

Cold comes quickly and falls upon the heart.
Winds start to pull the leaves into the sky.
All those years have slipped by me like a stream
Increasingly covered by long shadows.
I’m swiftly approaching that endless night,
The sight of the tundra of Alaska.

An Alaska lives deep within my heart.
During the night while standing on the sky
Shadows from the past like a stream flow by.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Request for Assistance

Dear Friends:

At the Aha Poetry Forum, Alan Summers (who sometimes comments here) asked that any readers spread the following missing person request regarding Martin Lucas, former British Haiku Society President, via online social media.  I know from stats that I have British readers so you, in particular, are asked to do what you can.  But even if you are not British, please spread the word via your own social media and online contacts:

The British Haiku Society has been asked to help. Can you do your bit? Use social media, emails, there may be a British friend or colleague who knows someone in or close to Preston. It may make all the difference if a friend knows a friend to put this closer to their heart, rather than yet another newspaper article about a missing person.

Even American and other non-British members can help via Facebook and Twitter, or email British friends, family, penpals, someone might know someone who lives near Preston. Put a human face on this tragedy.

Martin has been missing since 10 pm Friday night. He is alone and highly vulnerable. He is not tough like some of us.

From the British Haiku Society:

Martin Lucas, former BHS president and current editor of Presence haiku magazine, has been reported missing. His family have asked us to help in appealing for information. If you have any information, please ring the police on 101. We can also pass information on to Martin's family if you have anything you think might be useful to them in their search. Please share this post to help. Visit the link below for further information:

Thank you, every little bit of help may help.

This is Martin:

More pictures, including images at British haiku events I was involved in or ran:

thank you,

Alan Summers

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Guide for English Language Tanka Poets

I have a great fondness for the Kokin Wakashu, particularly the translation by Helen McCullough.  My feeling is that it has not received the attention it deserves from those interested in composing Tanka in English.  The skill with which McCullough translates the Japanese tanka into English is amazing.  And the fact that she maps the Japanese syllabics of 5-7-5-7-7 onto English is impressive.

More importantly, the translation is itself a demonstration of the efficacy of adopting the syllabic shape of the Japanese onto English.  I feel the work can serve as a kind of textbook for those wishing to follow the traditional syllabic shape of the Japanese.

Hoping, in a minor way, to encourage more interest in this translation, I wrote the following review for Amazon and posted it today:

The Kokin Wakashu, compiled about 905, was the first Imperial Anthology of Tanka poetry.  It has had a huge influence on Japanese poetry in general, and particularly on the Japanese form of Tanka.  What we now call ‘Tanka’ today was, at the time of this anthology, known as ‘Waka’.  Tanka is the most important poetic form in Japanese culture.  It has had a continuous history of about 1400 years, and is still practiced by numerous Japanese poets at this time.

Japanese poetry is syllabic and the contours of Tanka have remained the same for its entire history: a five phrase (ku), or line, poem with the syllables distributed as follows: 5-7-5-7-7.  This gives the Tanka a total of 31 syllables.

One of the remarkable things about this translation by Helen McCullough is that she chose to map the syllabic count of the Japanese onto the English language in her translations.  What this does for the reader is to replicate the formal relationships that the poems have in the anthology.  I mean that in the original anthology all the poems have the same formal characteristics, the same syllabic count.  As you move from one poem to another a rhythm, or pulse, is felt.  This pulse is shared by all the poems no matter how different they may be in topic, image, and style.  McCullough’s translation replicates this relationship among the poems which is a great achievement.  And her translations are themselves superb; they are poems themselves.  I am in awe of how she was able to transform a Japanese poetic masterpiece into an English poetic masterpiece and retain the structural elements as she moved from one language to another.

The Waka Kokinshi consists of 1111 poems, grouped into topical chapters that include the four seasons, felicitations, parting, travel, wordplay, love, grief, and miscellaneous.  Because some topics have more than one chapter, the total number of chapters is twenty.  There are about 130 named poets, as well as numerous anonymous tanka.  The editors skillfully arranged the tanka so that they link to each other and there is a natural flow as one reads the tanka in sequence.  The skill with which the tanka are linked is amazing, considering the large number of poets.  The result is that each chapter is more than the sum of its parts.  In a way, each chapter resembles a beautifully crafted collage where all the parts contribute to an overall effect. 

If you are interested in Japanese poetry, this is an essential read.  The Waka Kokinshu became a textbook for how to craft Tanka.  Its poems are referenced allusively in countless poets down through the centuries.  The careful linking of the poems led to the emergence of renga, and out of renga emerged haiku.  So this collection of Tanka is in many ways the wellspring of Japanese poetry.

If you are an English language poet who has taken an interest in the tanka form, this work serves as an elegant teacher of how to craft a 31-syllable poem into a 5-7-5-7-7 structure in the English language.  Because McCullough’s translations are so elegant and so natively English, this translation serves as a guide for all those interested in English language tanka.

The book also contains two short, additional, works by the primary editor, Ki no Tsurayuki: the Tosa Nikki and the Shinsen Waka.  These two works give us a broader view of the main editor.  There are also excellent appendices that help in locating a specific poem you may be searching for.

This book was published in 1985.  Unfortunately, it has not received, in my opinion, the attention it deserves from English language poets writing in Japanese forms.  Part of the reason, I think, is the price.  My hope is that Stanford will issue this translation in paperback at some point in the near future so that the treasures found in this work can be accessible to a wider audience.

This is a grand work of poetry and one of the finest translations I have ever come across.  Lyrical, poignant, striking in its imagery, and universal in its humanity, it is a work that can nourish a lifetime.

Kokin Wakashu
The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry
Translated and Annotated by Helen Craig McCullough
Stanford University Press
ISBN: 9780804712583

Friday, February 28, 2014

Same or Different?

Same or Different?

I think a lot about how haiku in the English speaking world has blossomed into a number of forms.  Regular readers of the blog know that my view is that the word ‘haiku’, in English, now refers to at least three, possibly as many as five, different poetic forms.  I have been wondering if there is some kind of analogy, or some precedent, that would illustrate how this process has unfolded.  And a precedent that I think is helpful in this context is the guitar.

Compare the classical guitar to the electric guitar used in popular music today.  Are they the same instrument, or are they different instruments?  Similarities between the two are fairly easy to observe.  For the most part, they share the same number of strings.  Both the electric and the classical guitar are held in the same way, with the left hand on the neck, and the right hand plucking the strings. 

But the dissimilarities are striking as well.  For one thing, the sound of the two instruments is different in a way that is easily recognizable by the ordinary listener.  The classical guitar string, when plucked, has a short duration that rapidly fades.  For the classical guitar there is no way to sustain the note for very long.  This leads to a style of performance that relies on frequent plucking of the strings.  It is true that the sound box of the classical guitar provides some resonance; but compared to an instrument like the violin or organ, the duration of the pitch, once plucked, for the classical guitar is brief.

In contrast the electric guitar, relying on technological transformations, can sustain a pitch for a very long time; especially when compared to the classical guitar.  Thus it is not unusual for a performance of the electric guitar to have relatively sustained notes.

The tone color of the instruments is also different.  And the volume differs as well; the classical guitar is fairly soft; when recorded the classical guitar is often miced very close for this reason.  In contrast, the electric guitar can be literally deafening.

My tendency is to think of the electric guitar and the classical guitar as two different instruments.  They are historically related and they show a common origin in their shape and playing technique.  But the effect upon the listener is so different that I think it is useful to consider them as now simply different musical instruments.

The guitar family of instruments covers a number of variants beyond the two I just discussed.  The steel acoustic steel string guitar differs from the classical in that the strings of the steel string guitar are closer together, making it a better suited instrument for using a pick and for strumming chords.  The bass guitar often has only four, instead of six, strings and its range differs from the classical, acoustic steel string, and the electric guitar.  And there are other types which are even further removed from the classical ancestor.

When looking at these different instruments you can see, and hear, the connection.  You can understand why they are all called ‘guitar’.  But they are different instruments and they lend themselves to different types of music.

In a similar way, I think that the different approaches to haiku found today among English language haiku poets lend themselves to different types of expression.  Like the different types of guitar, you can see in the different types of haiku that they share certain features.  But they differ in their modes of expression, in the way they communicate, in their esthetic ideals, and effects they aim to impart.

This is not a judgment about one type being superior to another.  Just as excellent music is to found in the acoustic and electric guitars, so also excellent poetry is to be found in the variety of haiku approaches.  But over time they have drifted farther and farther apart, just as the music played on the classical and electric guitars has become more and more distinct.  This is not a bad thing.  It is just a process of unfolding and differentiation that happens in many areas of human life.  And I think it is helpful to simply acknowledge that ‘haiku’, in English, has blossomed into a number of distinct forms.