Dec 01

Painting Chinese by Herbert Kohl

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , , , December 1st, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

Bargain bins in book stores always catch my eye. Many months ago I came across a book in one such bin called Painting Chinese. The author was Herbert Kohl.

The book jacket description intrigued me. The book, it said, had been written by a retired teacher and was the story of how he learned to stop being a teacher and be a student instead.

One day, while wandering about San Francisco, Kohl came across a school of Chinese art. He registered for a painting class and assumed he would be placed in a class of adult learners. But when he showed up on the first day, he was the only adult in a room full of children.

In his professional life, Kohl had been highly respected as a teacher of kids and as a teacher of new teachers. Yet when he signed up for Chinese painting classes, his reputation did not proceed him. He knew little of painting, brush strokes or Chinese landscapes.

Kohl was used to thinking of himself as an accomplished and educated individual, but when it came to Chinese art, he was an utter beginner. Even the kids, his fellow students in his class, knew more than he did.

The book, Paining Chinese, is about Kohl’s attempt to accept this new circumstance in his life. It is also about his struggle to grow old with grace and dignity.

I enjoyed the book immensely, but I found I couldn’t read it for long stretches of time. Brief snatches of time seemed to help it sink into my mind better. Even after I had set the book down and moved on to other things in my day, I found myself thinking about it, for Kohl’s attempts to learn how to paint Chinese landscapes reminded me of my own attempts to learn how to write Japanese haiku.

Towards the end of the book, after three years of learning, Kohl wrote about the daily walks he had gotten into the habit of taking and how the process of painting Chinese landscapes had altered the way he looked at nature. He wrote:

“On the walks, I discovered how much my perception of nature had been transformed by painting Chinese. I looked at the ocean as a force, alive and active. Trees had become individual beings, establishing their place in a crowded natural environment … All of this had been around me for over twenty years, but I hadn’t seen it with such detail and specificity. I was fully there, living that moment and not distracted. I let the environment take hold of me rather than just walk through it … the world suddenly became light, beautiful, and most of all more visible.”

Haiku, in many ways, has done the exact same thing for me. Now that I am ending my third year of posting on Haiku By Two, I am finding that I see my own natural environment differently.

Because traditional haiku requires a kigo, or a nature reference, I have been been paying attention to natural cycles in ways that I wasn’t before I started writing haiku.  For example, I have been watching the big cottonwoods by my driveway for three years now. I know that, come fall, they are not the first trees in my yard to loose their leaves. I also know that a family of squirrels has built a new nest among their branches. In the spring, I know how to look up into their canopy and judge whether or not their cotton-ball seeds are going to start dropping tomorrow or next week. These trees have become individuals to me. And, for me, there is value in that.

I don’t know how long Alison and I will keep Haiku By Two going. But I do know that learning how to haiku has changed how I view the natural environment around me. And that’s I lesson I intend to hold on to.

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Oct 11

Buckles Comic Strip and Haiku

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , , , , October 11th, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

I’ve written in this space before about my mom’s habit of “clipping.” When she comes across an article she thinks I will find interesting, she “clips” it out of the newspaper or magazine and sends it to me.

Many months ago, she gave me a clipping from an article in the Wall Street Journal about President George W. Bush that said he liked haiku.

More recently, she gave me a haiku-related comic strip that she clipped from the paper:

Oh, how sad and true this haiku feels to me. But it’s only sad and true if this is, in fact, what my dogs do when I’m away. Maybe they don’t pine for me during my absence. Yet their exuberant greetings lead me to believe they do…

This isn’t the first time my mom has clipped a Buckles comic strip for me. After all, in my family, we’re devoted dog lovers and Buckles is all about the life of a spoiled dog.

And actually, my mom has clipped Buckles haiku for me before. It seems David Gilbert, the comic strip’s creator, has a hidden love of haiku.

I’ve tried to contact Mr. Gilbert in the past to find out if he has a collection of Buckles haiku, or if he would be up for telling me more about his haiku streak. Maybe with this blog posting, I’ll finally get a response!

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Aug 29

Review: Haiku U by David M. Bader

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , , August 29th, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

It’s that time of year again — back to school.

For all those prospective English majors out there, here’s fun little book that could help rekindle the spirit of literature for the semesters yet to come.

Haiku U, by David M. Bader, is a pint-sized book with a 5-7-5 haiku on each page.

Each haiku is a 17-syllable synopsis of a title from the world’s literary cannon.

There is a haiku that recaps Jane Eyre, another that recaps The Iliad, and still another that recaps Robinson Crusoe.

I liked this one, which retells the story of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:

Lecherous linguist —

he lays low and is laid low

after laying Lo.

This one recounts F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

Beauty to weep for —

coral, azure, apple green.

His custom-made shirts.

As I flipped through the pages of Haiku U, I quickly realized that I only liked a haiku if I had the appropriate background knowledge. In other words, if I hadn’t read the book in question (or had never heard of it), its haiku synopsis meant absolutely nothing to me.  In fact, I even started skipping haiku that belonged to book titles I didn’t know because I had already figured out that they would be lost on me.

So while many of Haiku U‘s poems were out of my reach, the idea of recapping an entire book in 17 syllables got me thinking. Could I sum up an entire novel in three short lines?

I could and I did. And because I was summarizing a novel in haiku, I thought it only appropriate that the novel I summarized have something to do with haiku. So here in my haiku summarizing Beside a Burning Sea by John Shors (follow the link for a review of the book detailing its haiku connection):

American nurse

wounded Japanese captive

cross cultural love

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Aug 18

Review: Poetry, the Movie

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , August 18th, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

I watched an amazing movie over the weekend. It was a South-Korean film called Poetry.

The movie jacket boasts a host of awards from recognized film festivals like Cannes, Toronto, Telluride and New York. After seeing the film, I understand why. It has a very quiet nature, and yet it builds to a fascinating climax.

The movie doesn’t have anything to do with haiku, per se, but it does question the origin of poetic inspiration, a topic that — of course — interests me as Alison and I are now deep into year three of Haiku By Two.

The main character of the film, a 60-ish woman named Mija, has recently been told by her doctors that she has Alzheimer’s Disease.

She doesn’t know what to do with this information. After all, her high-school aged grandson (whom she is raising) seems downright incapable of behaving in any sort of civilized manner, and her daughter (the grandson’s mother) lives in another city. Mija is, it seems, on her own when it comes to addressing the needs of her disease.

On a whim, she registers for a poetry class at her local community center. There, she hopes to discover an artistic muse. She desperately wants to write one good poem before she loses her grasp on language, but doesn’t know where to look for inspiration.

At a time when Mija should be focusing her energy and money on herself, however, she learns that her grandson has been involved in an awful crime. A local young woman has killed herself and Mija’s grandson, along with a handful of his friends, are accused of causing the situation that led to the suicide.

Given her Alzheimer’s, will Mija be able to fully grasp the seriousness of her grandson’s crime? Will she be able to help him escape arrest? And will she ever find her muse and write the perfect poem?

Poetry is not the kind of movie that features eye-popping special effects, and it is not the kind of movie that will have you griping your armrest in suspense. But it is the kind of movie that gets under your skin. Poetry is the kind of movie you need to watch with someone else so that you have a discussion partner at the end.

I, unfortunately, watched it by myself, and thus have been dying to talk about it with someone (anyone!) who has experienced it and can help me digest the story.

If you’ve seen it, drop me a comment and let me know what you thought about it, especially the end!

Or, if this post so moves you, rent it and watch it, then come back here and tell me what you think!

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Jun 27

Review: Pirate Haiku by Michael P. Spradlin

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , June 27th, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

A long, long time ago, back when pirates ruled the seven seas, a scallywag named One-Leg Sterling washed up on the beach of a tiny island south of Japan.

He was the lone survivor of a brutal battle at sea. A band of ninjas jumped aboard a pirate ship and slew everyone on board except for One-Leg Sterling, who they captured and forced to steer the boat. But a fearsome storm blew up and the ship went down. Everyone on board perished, except for One-Leg Sterling.

Luckily, he washed up on an island of friendly people. They took him under their wing and taught him haiku.

And thus begins Pirate Haiku by Michael P. Spradlin.

What follows is One-Leg Sterling’s life story, written entirely in his newly discovered medium, haiku.

Each haiku follows the 5-7-5 syllable count. There aren’t a whole lot of nature references going on. Instead, the poems in Pirate Haiku are more about telling a story than charting a course by star gazing.

In that respect, the book isn’t for a haiku purist. But as a kitchy, entertaining read over an afternoon cookie and a cup of coffee, Pirate Haiku hits the mark.

I appreciated the beginning overview that set up a story to follow. That framework helped the haiku that followed hold together. Without that framework, Pirate Haiku would have been a too long list of three-line poems about drinking, thieving and philandering.

This haiku is a pretty good example of what readers can expect from the book:


Be one thing that can explain

Pirate surliness

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Jun 21

Review: Haikubes

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , June 21st, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

I was very excited when I unwrapped my box of Haikubes!

What a perfect tool for undoing writer’s bloc, I thought. Or, I thought, what a fun conversation starter to haul out when friends come over.

The box is full of dice-like cubes. Most of the cubes are filled with words you can use to compose haiku. There are, though, two cubes that offer direction.

For example, to get the game going, you roll the “direction” cubes. You might end up with directions to write a haiku about “a vision for” “my romantic life.” Or maybe the directions will tell you to write a haiku about “a desire for” “my work life.”

However, shortly after opening my Haikubes and dumping them out all over the floor, I started to wonder what was going on with the word choices I was finding.

I kept picking up cubes, searching for words that would help me compose a haiku about “a reflection on” “my childhood”, but instead of finding anything that would help me craft a poem about my growing up years, I kept finding words like “anal” and “oozing” and “lurid.” Exactly what kind of childhood did the makers of Haikubes think I’d had???

Okay, okay. There were indeed plenty of words I could have used to write a haiku about my girlhood, like “brother” and “gleeful,” but after zeroing in on all the words I’ll call “suggestive,” I just couldn’t get my head out of the gutter!

And I get it. As a conversation starter, Haikubes is guaranteed to get a bunch of friends laughing. All it takes is a glass of wine to make the combination of the words “finger”, “ass,” and “ouch” seem outrageously funny.

But sitting at home, by myself, in my office, looking for a way out of my writer’s bloc, Haikubes just didn’t feel very accessible.

Or maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Maybe Haikubes did indeed get me out of my writer’s bloc funk. After all, here I am typing up words about it.

For me, the verdict is still out on Haikubes. I never was able to compose a haiku I liked with its cubes. So instead of sharing a haiku I wrote out of Haikubes, I’ll leave you with a picture of a bunch of the cubes and let you see if you can craft one you like.

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Jun 13

Haiku Review: Sweet Misfortune by Kevin Alan Milne

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , , , June 13th, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

This haiku review is a bit of a stretch, but if you stick it out, you’ll discover why it’s here.

The book, Sweet Misfortune by Kevin Alan Milne, isn’t about haiku. It’s a about a woman named Sophie who owns a chocolate shop.

Sophie is rather unlucky in love. After her most recent break up she decides to transform her bitterness into cookies. She makes a batch of fortune cookies but instead of penning reassuring good wishes for the future, she writes pessimistic notes like, “Yesterday was the high point in your life. Sorry.”

Sophie’s “misfortune cookies” turn out to be quite popular with her customers, but there is one man who doesn’t like them. He is the man who wants to win Sophie’s heart. Can he convince her that all her misfortune in love is behind her?

Sounds like a bona fide chic flick, doesn’t it? That’s probably why I fell so easily into the story, and why I just kept right on reading late into the night. This would have been a perfect beach/airplane read. Unfortunately in my case, it was the perfect I’m-sick-in-bed book. But being sick in bed wasn’t all bad. I did, after all, get to read a fun book.

And now here’s where I get to the haiku part. All the way at the end of Sweet Misfortune is the author’s acknowledgments page, which is written in haiku.

“I’m certainly no poet (as you’ll soon see), but putting my thoughts and feeling into this format was way more fun, and considerably less stressful, than crafting boring old sentences,” Mr. Milne wrote before going on to list several haiku about those who helped deliver this book from brainstorm to market. For example:

Sharp eyes reading quick:

Gram, Mom, Kacie, Becca, Jen —

Family with red pens.

And so, yet again, haiku makes a surprise appearance in my life. See, haiku is everywhere…

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May 11

Haikupons by Target

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , May 11th, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

Haiku shows up in the strangest places. Most recently, it showed up in my mother’s mail box.

My mom got a Target coupon booklet in the mail that was all done up in haiku style.

“Stock up with poetic savings,” encouraged the little coupon book. “Poetry and savings in one!” it boasted.

Every other page of the booklet featured a 5-7-5 haiku. On the back of every haiku line was a coupon for deodorant, paper towels, mouthwash or the like.

None of the haiku had anything to do with nature. There wasn’t a kigo in sight. Instead, all the haiku had something to do with a standard Target staple, like dog treats or laundry detergent, for example…

The best thing about the Target Haikupons (as far as I’m concerned) is that you can pull them all apart and mix and match the lines to create new haiku. That’s exactly what I did here:

I rather like my slightly suggestive Target Haikupon. I think it nicely compliments one of the accompanying coupons for a bottle of Britney Spears fragrance, of which she has two brands: Radiance or Fantasy.

Another fun aspect of the Target Haikupons is that Target is based in Minneapolis–and so am I.

In fact, I happen to have a number of friends who work for Target on the corporate side of things. One even works in the marketing department. Hey, wait a minute…

This friend of mine, she knows about Haiku By Two. What are the odds that she mentioned the idea of haiku in a marketing brainstorming meeting?

Hmmmm. You know what I think? I think Haiku By Two just gave Target (indirectly of course) its newest marketing scheme.

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Mar 07

Review: The Four Seasons

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , , , March 7th, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

Now that I am well into my third straight year of haiku, my friends and family have solidly decided that “haiku” related goodies are a safe bet when it comes to giving me gifts. And they aren’t wrong. I’m always thrilled to discover a new “haiku” thing.

Recently, one of my friends gave me a haiku book that she found in a sale bin at her local library. The book, called The Four Seasons, has a copyright date of 1958. The cost listed on the inside flap is $1.00. It was published by Peter Pauper Press, which–by the way–still exists.

Other than a few small snags to the book jacket, this slim volume of poetry is in good shape. Granted, it smells like my grandma’s upstairs closet, but that’s part of its charm.

All of the haiku in the book are translations from the Japanese masters. There are poems from Basho, Buson, Issa and more. One thing I found interesting about the book is that there is no credit given to a translator. The introduction mentions, of course, that the haiku have been translated from their original Japanese, throwing off the 5-7-5 syllable count, but that’s as far as it goes in crediting a translator. Despite that, I flagged several haiku in the book as “favorites.”

Here’s one that was written by Rikei:

sad twilight cricket…

yes, I have wasted once again

those daylight hours

Something that struck me while reading this collection of haiku was to large number to which I could relate. I don’t know why this surprised me. I’ve read haiku from the masters before and have encountered many poems I liked. I wonder this time if it was the packaging. This particular book of haiku looks, feels and smells old. Perhaps the combination of these sensory experiences predisposed me to thinking the haiku within would also look, feel and smell old, and thus not be of my world.

How wrong I was. So many of them jumped from the page into my world. It was as if I could have penned them myself. Consider this haiku by Issa:


Issa! … You have survived to feed

this year’s mosquitoes

When I read it, I immediately thought of this haiku, which I posted last May:

year’s first mosquito

familiar prick on my arm

i live and let live

I was also drawn to this haiku by Ransetsu:

a childless housewife …

how tenderly she touches

little dolls for sale

Regular readers of Haiku By Two, perhaps, will pick up on this poem’s “infertility” theme and recognize it as a topic I’ve been posting haiku about for quite some time.

I guess what I’m trying to say about this “old” collection of haiku, is that while reading it I felt connected to the human experience.

Issa lived between the years of 1763 and 1827. Even way back then, people experienced mosquitoes in the same way that I experience them today.

The small volume of haiku that my friend gave me was printed in 1958, but before it could ever make it to press, someone, some editor somewhere, had to sift through countless translations of countless haiku and select the few ones he or she thought would most appeal to an American audience who knew nothing (or very little) about either haiku or Japan.

This editor who lived six decades ago, had also experienced mosquitoes in the same way that Issa had, and in the same way that I experienced them in the year 2010. This blows me away.

And that is my point, which I don’t want to overdraw at the risk of making it banal, but perhaps the feelings I felt while reading this old book full of even older poems can go a long way toward explaining the ongoing appeal of haiku.

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Feb 22

Review: 108 Mala Beads by Bradly Jay Keller

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , , , , February 22nd, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

Every once in awhile, I go to Amazon and type in the word “haiku.”  I’m always on the look out for a new “haiku” title. Some of them I order; many more I don’t.

Yet when I spotted a book by Bradly Jay Keller named 108 Mala Beads: A Year of Haiku, I immediately dropped the title into my virtual shopping cart. After all, Alison and I started Haiku By Two with the thought that it would be “a year of haiku.” I was curious to see what “a year of haiku” meant to somebody else.

Keller’s take on the idea was different than our own. For starters, he did not begin his year of haiku in January, but in May. The haiku in the book, then, span from May of one year to May of the next.

While the haiku in Keller’s book are organized chronologically, the order is not what one might expect.

Rather, his haiku are divided into several distinct categories and then presented chronologically in each section. A section about cows concentrates on haiku about cows and arranges those haiku from May to May. The next section, all about birds, starts the reader back at the beginning of Keller’s year and works forward again.

This organizational pattern seemed weird to me at first. But as I worked through the poems, it made sense as I got to concentrate on a single image (cows, birds) and see how that one element changed as the seasons progressed.

Here is a haiku that I particularly liked from the section titled “Cow Songs.”

May 28th

In their great absence,

The field in silence waits,

For heavy bovine hoofs.

This haiku, from a section titled “Nature,” also struck me.

February 2nd

Beautiful flowers,

Do not resist the sunlight,

They just surrender.

Beyond Keller’s haiku, though, I was curious about the author’s intent in taking on “a year of haiku.” I knew why Alison and I started: to reconnect and to rekindle our individual artistic flairs. Keller started his year of haiku as a way to put the brakes on technological multitasking. “Yet, what is the price of giving one’s life to automobiles, cell phones, television, computers, email and the internet?” he asks in his introduction.

Because haiku asks the writer to pay attention to nature, the act of writing haiku, Keller goes on to say, can help a writer find grace, which he defines as “the effortless experience of spiritual awakening.”

An “encounter with poetry,” Keller writes, “can serve as a direct portal to the experience of grace.”

I can’t speak for Alison, but I know that Keller’s haiku-grace connection holds true for me. Haiku helps me live mindfully. Granted, I’m not mindful all the time, but my haiku habit has gotten me in the habit of paying attention to my surroundings. And for me that awareness has proven addictive. And that is partly why Haiku By Two is now in it’s third year.

And I’m guessing that Bradly Jay Keller, even though he stopped his book at the one-year mark, didn’t stop penning haiku once that year was done.

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