Review of World Haiku 2005

First published in Modern Haiku 36:3, Autumn 2005.

 

Ban’ya Natsuishi, ed. World Haiku 2005. Tokyo: Nishida-shoten, 2004. Japan. ISBN 4-88866-392-0. Perfectbound, 6 by 8.25 inches, 272 pages. $16.00 postpaid from Ban’ya Natsuishi, 3-16-11 Tsuruse-nishi, Fujimi, Saitama 354-0026, Japan. See the World Haiku Association site for more information.

 

The World Haiku Association, now in its fifth year, has published World Haiku 2005, the first volume of what promises to be an annual anthology of worldwide haiku poetry and criticism. Chiefly edited by cofounder and president Ban’ya Natsuishi, with a six-person editorial staff, a twelve-person translation staff, and a designer, the book provides a substantial taste of work by a variety of haiku poets, presumably all WHA members. The book is worthwhile, whether readers devour the entire collection or dip into it to read work by familiar names or deliberately those whose names may be unfamiliar. Be prepared, though, to spend some time at it, not only because of the volume and variety of material, but because of the challenging diversity of writing styles that are called upon to represent the length and breadth of world haiku today.

        More ambitious than many haiku anthologies, this book contains 456 haiku by 152 poets (three poems each), 45 pages of essays by five writers, and an eight-page haiga gallery presenting 33 haiga (though not in color, and most too small to see well). What’s more, the entire text is offered in both English and Japanese, spread over 272 pages. By virtue of how English reads from left to right, and Japanese typically from right to left, the book has two front covers, on either end, and the page numbers increase towards the middle, where the haiga gallery offers a visual and bilingual melding. Even if you confine yourself to one of the book’s two main languages, reading the entire collection requires an ambitious reader.

        In this book’s poetry section, North American readers will find several familiar names, such as an’ya, Randy Brooks, Jim Kacian, David G. Lanoue, Allen McGill, Carmen Sterba, Zinovy Vayman, and Billie Wilson. Still, many dozens of prominent North American writers are absent, presumably because they are not WHA members, revealing a limitation in the book, or perhaps a disinterest in the World Haiku Association or “world” haiku on the part of American writers. On the other hand, a healthy selection of poets from elsewhere makes up for it, and several of their names will also be familiar, such as Dimitar Anakiev, Martin Berner, Angelee Deodhar, Vladimir Devidé, Kai Falkman, Alain Kervern, Philip Rowland, Kuniharu Shimizu, and Geert Verbeke. The majority of poets represented are Japanese, however, and many of their names may be unfamiliar to most readers, but perhaps that situation will begin to change as books such as this broaden our knowledge while bringing haiku poets closer together.

        For 21 of the poets in this collection, their poems appear not only in Japanese and English, but also in their native language. Two poets’ poems appear in French and German, respectively, plus Japanese, but not in English. Though no biographical information is provided, we are told the year each poet was born, along with his or her nationality. Birth years range from 1920 (Yoneko Arimitsu) to 1974 (Izumi Kaneko) and the average birth year is exactly 1942. Unsurprisingly, the average birth year for the Japanese participants is 1939.5, compared to 1946.6 for non-Japanese. Poets are represented from 20 countries, with 97 poets resident in Japan, a surprising 15 in Bulgaria, 14 in the United States, three in France, two each in Germany, India, Croatia, Macedonia, Russia, Australia, and Slovenia, and one each in Portugal, Estonia, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Mexico, Romania, Serbia & Montenegro, and Belgium. One may conclude from the fact that the book includes more Bulgarians than Americans that American haiku poets may be more myopic about “world” haiku than those in other countries, for surely there could be more American members of WHA than there seem to be. By virtue of geography, if not other factors, Americans have limited daily interaction with most other cultures or languages (in contrast to most people in, say, European countries), which might help explain—though not justify—this myopia. On the other hand, even the Japanese participation is relatively small when weighed as a percentage of the entire community of haiku writers in Japan (numbering millions). It may be unfair or of limited value to draw any conclusions from the number or nationalities of participants, though, except to watch how these factors might evolve over time.

        This litany of facts about World Haiku 2005 may make the book seem daunting. However, it is well organized, cleanly designed, and easy to enter. Rather, the facts gleaned about the book should underscore how difficult it is to bring poems and commentary together from around the world in a representative volume—and for that task alone, the book succeeds admirably. Where it is perhaps less successful is as an arbiter of quality, leaning, as it does, towards a seemingly democratic inclusiveness. As a result, the poems themselves are variable in quality, or reflect such a wide range of styles or tastes that surely every reader will find some poems not suitable to his or her taste, regardless of their quality within their own aesthetic stance. Here is one random selection, by Bulgarian poet Stefan Petkov, which you can judge for yourself: “Over the shadow / of my years— / north radiance.” The book’s variety is both laudatory, a testament to the challenges of supporting and developing world haiku, yet also problematic, in that it’s easy to think of some poems as failures when they seem at times radically different from what one might expect of haiku. This is not so much a problem for the poems written by experienced poets, but it is a problem for a few poems that seem more naïve or accidental than, say, sure-footedly surreal. Sometimes poems or prose may stumble because of the translations, and sometimes only a simplified message or effect survives the translation, unfairly lessening the perceived value or quality of the original text. Still, for those reading English only, we have nothing else to assess. As a result, the poetry and prose may come across as uneven partly for necessities of translation. The unevenness of a book such as this may well be attributed to the limitation of its contents being just by members, but it makes for an interesting snapshot of the World Haiku Association and its members who elected or were selected to participate. Though the book is full, a brief introduction on the nature of the selection process might have clarified reader expectations on quality and inclusiveness.

        For those more attracted by the prose than the poems, the five essays are by U.S./Russian writer Zinovy Vayman (“Haiku in Russia”), Portuguese writer Casimiro de Brito (“The Way of Haiku”), Bulgarian writer Ludmila Balabanova (“Between the West and the East”), British writer (resident in Japan) Philip Rowland (“Surrealism and Contemporary Haiku—or, Surreal Haiku?”), and Japanese writer Ban’ya Natsuishi (“For World Haiku”). The essays by Balabanova and Rowland are the most substantial, but regardless of length or quality, the selection gives an engaging sample of haiku criticism from various voices and places.

        Rowland’s essay comes to the defense of surrealist haiku, and ultimately of Ban’ya Natsuishi, whereas Balabanova’s essay presents a fresh overview of the development of Bulgarian haiku, noting that “the form [of haiku] will develop in every language according to [the language’s] characteristics,” and that “Haiku is not a perception shared by the author, but an invitation to the reader to achieve his own enlightenment.” If anything may be observed as a slim commonality to these essays, and perhaps this book as a whole, it may be a sort of self-assertion, as if the notion of “world haiku” still needs to be justified or explained, or that the particular styles of some of its key writers perhaps need defending from criticism. However, too often the entire haiku movement, at least outside Japan, suffers from a sort of inferiority complex relative to mainstream poetry, or a perceived lack of respect, prompting haiku proselytization. However, perhaps this inferiority exists only to the extent that the haiku community persists in wanting more respect. Indeed, perhaps haiku will gain more respect at precisely the point when it stops insisting on it, and stops evangelizing to turn more resolutely to the task of earning that respect—or realizing where it has already been doing so. Likewise, “world haiku” seems to be in a similar situation within the realm of haiku in general, and may not need to try so hard to assert itself. In any event, some of this book’s poetry may be included by virtue of the poets being members of the association, and is thus potentially uneven for that reason alone. However, a significant number of the poems reflect a deliberate sort of rebelliousness—poems that try to be different, surreal, unusual, or are accepted as being regionally representative, even though a few of them may have been written out of inexperience or naïveté rather than truly conscious competence. Beyond this, though, it is the essays that seem to give the slightly defensive or overcompensating assertive tone that perhaps won’t be needed in future anthologies.

        As this series of anthologies appears annually over many years, perhaps a refinement will take place, with more poets being involved, greater selectivity being applied, and a graduation towards greater confidence rather than hinting of rebellion or defensiveness. To be able to compare this first volume with projected later volumes, and to enjoy this volume for its present compendium of poems and essays, you are urged to read World Haiku 2005 for yourself.