hosts: Vidya Shankar & Shalini Pattabiraman
A Thursday Feature.
poet of the month: Andrew Riutta
07 December 2023
The Featured Poet for this month is Andrew Riutta. When Terri L. French was featured in this blog in December last year, she said of Andrew, “I love the honesty and humility of Andrew Riutta.” Through this month, as you get to read samples of Andrew Riutta’s work, you will be able to identify, beyond language structures and themes, a certain “honesty and humility” as their underlying quality which gives his poems that raw, inimitable flavour.
Andrew Riutta was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He is a grateful father and son; brother, uncle, and nephew. His essay, "The Myths of Manhood," from the collection, This I Believe: On Fatherhood (Jossey-Bass) was featured on Public Radio International's Bob Edwards Show in 2012. His latest book, blessed: Modern Haibun on Almost Every Despair (Red Moon Press – 2022) was shortlisted for the Touchstone Distinguished Book Awards and won a H.S.A. Merit Book Award for best haibun collection.
Like always, the janitor sits for his break with a cup of coffee, and I sit across from him. I light a cigarette. It’s Sunday morning, and the two street sweepers outside might as well be racing each other. They can’t keep up. The janitor pours half and half into his cup but doesn’t stir it. It floats on top, spiraling like a galaxy. I drink mine black. He takes a sip and stretches. He hasn’t shaved in days. Neither have I. He reaches into the pocket of his faded blue t-shirt. Out of habit, I slide my Bic across the table. He picks it up and spins the wheel, making a few
sparks, but no flame. He slides it back and then pulls out an inhaler. I want to apologize, but don’t because I know he understands. We stare out the window for a minute in silence, and then he tells me the fox got his chickens again.
choke cherry blossoms —
of blood sausage
Dunes Review - Winner of the William J. Shaw Memorial Prize for Poetry (2008)
Observations on the haibun:
At the outset, the title hits you but you compose yourself and move to the prose. The theme is dark but the writer has chosen a very matter-of-fact tone for his narration. He begins by saying, “Like always…” and you go through a few “like always” moments until you come to the part where the janitor reaches into his pocket. You expect him to pull out a cigarette (like always). He doesn’t. The title flashes in your mind. It does to the writer too because he says, “I want to apologize, but don’t because I know he understands.” Very matter-of-factly. Then you read the sentence that follows and you realise why this tone.
The haiku, however, is distressing. You can actually sense fear. Steeped in olfactory imagination, the sweet smell of the flowers is in contrast with the “scent of blood sausage”. Yet you see the connect between “choke” and “blood” and “lung cancer”. You also wonder if it was the choke cherry blossoms that the two men were staring at and begin to speculate on what thoughts could be going on in their heads. Suddenly, the matter-of-fact tone seems to be a disguise.
Here's a bonus haibun. Notice the treatment of descriptions in this one.
Big Strong Men
Big Strong Men
For Alan J. Knight
Spent tissues piled on the camper floor look like a gang of ghosts playing king of the mountain. I keep missing the trash and not caring about it. I keep not caring about a lot of things. My flabby gut pushes through the day in front of me, and I only chuckle. When I was nineteen, I was a vascular god preening himself in a golden light that was so vibrant, it could be inhaled. And then spit out. The guy I worked with was pretty burly, too, and so together we'd sometimes go ahead and hoist the entire earth right above our heads. Try to make some sense out of its moving parts. To little satisfaction. But other moments, we'd simply prop the world up against the full day moon and relax in the shade of it all for a while, frightened by how eerily quiet the furnaces of Hell burned beneath everyone's feet.
I crack my tooth
on a brown bottle
Drifting Sands – 2023
VS: Why haibun? How did you know about this form? Could you please share with us some interesting elements of your early attempts at writing this poetry form?
AR: My introduction to the short Asian forms came out of my deep interest in the American poet and author, Jim Harrison, who, in the mid-90s, released a free verse poetry book titled, After Ikkyu. My search into the life and significance of Ikkyu, in brief summary, eventually led me to the "haiku masters." Basho and his successors. Also, Santoka. And then to the modern English practitioners. Within that surge of learning and exploration came a short career as a tanka poet, and two tanka collections. At the time, I was well aware of haibun, but felt somewhat intimidated by it even though, ultimately, it was more of what I desired from myself within my writing aspirations. Then, in 2019, after reading some of the modern haibun of Ed Markowski, which were like none I'd ever before encountered, I felt the doors and windows of all my literary cravings blast open. And—I don't think it could be denied—having even a tiny amount of success with both haiku and tanka gave me sounder tools with which to pursue longer forms in general, especially the "show don't tell" principle. So, at some point, haibun seemed the perfect, natural avenue for all of my literary (emotional and spiritual) expressions. Sheer human. Having said this, I am surely guilty of not rooting my haibun in the knowledge of its traditions and foundations, as many others have. Much to their credit.
VS: Going by what I have read of your writing, your poems are translations of very deep personal experiences. Some writers feel that lived experiences make good poems while some others believe that putting out our personal experiences for the world to read makes us vulnerable. What would you have to say about that?
AR: Vulnerability can certainly be a poetic asset. Human impotencies. But really, it's up to the author. Some folks are happiest when their homes are tidy, decorated in only the purest artful elegance, while others are fine with the clutter of one that feels profoundly lived in day by day. Personally, I've always done better in my writing when expressing my own raw, human circumstances. Tribulations. Including my battle with alcoholism and my eventual recovery. In the end, the way I see it—when I'm laid bare—there will be little hid about me anyway. Don't get me wrong: I also long to write pieces that are polished and of a relatively high quality and style. But only after I've crawled on my belly across my own bedroom floor—and picked up in the course—at least some of the grime of who I truly am.
Prompt for members:
Silence can have different connotations depending on the situation. It can be powerful. It can be a sign of weakness. It can create a shift; it can create a rift. There are times when silence brings in space for healing. And there are times when in the unsaid, a lot more is communicated in a way that words sometimes cannot.
This week, let us write about silence.
Haibun outside this prompt can also be posted!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Important: Since we're swamped with submissions, and our editors are only human, mistakes can happen. Please, please, remember to put your name, followed by your country, below each poem, even after revisions. It helps our editors; they won't have to type it in, saving them from potential typos. Thanks a ton!
1. Only two haibun per poet per prompt. Please put your name and country of residence under your poem, it makes the editors' work easier. Thanks.
2. Share your best-polished pieces.
3. Please do not post something in a hurry or something you have just written.
Let it simmer for a while.
4. When poets give suggestions and if you agree to them - post your final edited version on top of your original version.
5. Don't forget to give feedback on others' poems.
We are delighted to open the comment thread for you to share your unpublished haibun (within 300 words) to be considered for inclusion in the haikuKATHA monthly journal.