hosts: Shalini Pattabiraman & Reid Hepworth
poet of the month: Ray Rasmussen
1st June 2023
Ray Rasmussen presently serves as Encore editor for contemporary haibun online, and Technical Advisor for Drifting Sands Haibun. His haibun, haiga, haiku, articles and reviews have appeared in many of the major print and online haiku genre journals. Ray’s Blog is “All Things Haibun” and his haiku genres website is “Haiku, Haibun & Haiga.” His collection Landmarks is available on Amazon.
Links to his blogs:
For this week's reading, we bring to you a haibun that uses dialogue to capture the energy or spirit of the characters. Pay particular attention to how Ray uses it for characterisation.
My eight-year-old daughter tags along behind, making up stories as we follow the trail to Deer Canyon, where I plan to show her a cliff dwelling. Elldorn, who I gather is an elf, seems to be having trouble with Buckwart.
I drift in and out of her story, from time to time inserting an “uh huh” while enjoying the sandstone pinnacles, an occasional claret cup cactus in bloom, the trill of a canyon wren.
“So what do you think Elldorn should do, Dad?”
“Um . . . maybe he should fight him.”
“Dad! Elldorn is a girl.”
“Ah . . . Right . . . I meant she should fight him. Elf against goblin.”
“Dad!! Buckwart is a dwarf. He’s her best friend.”
“Er, yeah . . . perhaps they should fight the … um … other ones.”
“Dad!!! They're trying to help the feather people find a new home.”
a patch of sand –
SP: I note that your haibun is often accompanied by a detailed exposition on the experience of writing and/or the crafting the featured work. One of my first questions is related to this aspect in your work.
Q1: What motivates you to not just write a haibun, but delve deeper into the motivations behind the writing or share the ideas behind craft?
Ray: Few editors/publications publish writers’ commentaries (such as mine in “Storyteller”) along with their haibun and probably few writers are motivated to write about their own work. But at the time “Storyteller” was posted, I was the editor of Haibun Today. As editor I felt an obligation to post my own work since I was judging the work of others as ‘acceptable’ or not. So they were entitled to judge my work in return. Also, I felt that I should occasionally offer my thoughts about haibun content and style. Making a commentary about a piece I’ve written is relatively painless for a reader to absorb if they’re interested. I think of these comments as insight snippets and/or thematic prompts.
Haibun in English has only been around and boomed in the last two decades. As with any relatively new literary genre, there’s a need for literary criticism in the form of articles, reviews and commentaries, and, even for simple expositions such as the one I posted with “Storyteller.” Such criticism guides the practices of both new and experienced writers of haibun and guides haibun editors in deciding what works to accept and in making suggestions when they sense a submission is not quite “there.” For example, in my editor’s role, I have sometimes suggested that a writer might consider inserting some dialogue to liven up a piece and even to break the dialogue out of a paragraph so that it more resembles the dialogue we read in most fictional books.
With respect to “dialogue haibun,” of which “Storyteller” is an example, I’ve noted over my years of writing and serving as editor of various journals that there weren’t many pieces containing dialogue. Yet, what people say to one another and how they say it is as important a theme for a haibun as other kinds of experiences. So I wanted to encourage people to consider writing dialogue. Consider this: More than any subject matter I can think of, unless a writer is socially isolated, most writers are surrounded by conversations.
As with any experience drawn from our ordinary lives, the dialogues in which we engage if reported in detail would seem trivial and non-inspiring as stories. So some ‘fiction’ enters my work to enhance the conversations so that they will have the feel of what I remember in the lived experience that inspired me to write about it and so the story is likely to evoke interest on the part of the reader. Having said that, it’s true that my daughter would trail along behind me on walks and tell me stories. I encouraged her in this because kids generally don’t get the same pleasure as adults on long trail walks. So when I spotted something like a glen in the woods or a cave on a hillside, I might ask, “Who do you think lives there and what do you think they’re doing?” While I enjoyed the scenery, flora and fauna, she’d occupy herself by crafting stories. But it turned out that she wanted me to be engaged in her stories and occasionally would ask me something about them. And thus came a crisis, I had to pay attention to her characters and storylines instead of composing haiku phrases or daydreaming.
In terms of themes. I believe the piece is about what makes relationships work. I had obviously failed to listen carefully or at all to her and felt a need to be a better dad. Careful listening is a gift to give and one wonderful to receive in all our relationships. Pay attention you dads out there!
Q2: Additionally, as a prolific writer who engages with discussion and commentary on haibun writing, what benefits do you draw from such an exercise?
Ray: While there’s a large critical literature on haiku, thoughts about “what is” and “how to compose” haibun are sparse. Writers new to the genre are likely to search the Internet for guidance on haibun composition and receive different definitions as well as some competing ones. Thus writers are as likely to be misled or ill-informed as were the early writers of English language haiku, who bought into the assumption that haiku has a 5-7-5 syllabic structure. As most of us now likely know, this reflected a misunderstanding of the relationship between sound units in Japanese and syllables in English. In fact, few published contemporary haiku follow a 5-7-5 structure, and today’s haiku in English average about 13 syllables. Yet the definition is still a predominant outcome of Internet searches for “haiku.”.
Similarly, pronouncements about haibun structure and poetic aims are rife on the Internet, and thus a published, well-considered critical literature is important. It’s important to understand that we writers of English-language haibun are presently inventing our own sensibilities about haibun, as examples, how a haibun differs from a very short story, whether one or more haiku (or tanka) must accompany the prose, whether the haiku must be able to stand alone, whether present tense must or should primarily be used, and whether fiction is acceptable as haibun so long as a haiku is attached to the prose.
As for the benefits I derive by writing critical pieces, my answer is in writing a piece about someone else’s haibun, for example, Basho’s style in Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I learn something about what I might do to enhance my own writing and share what I think I’ve learned with other writers. For example, I wrote a critique of Basho's passage "Hiraizumi" in Narrow Road and felt I gained by doing so. I then wrote a piece “Slickhorn Canyon” modelled on the style and structure of “Hiraizumi” (of course, giving proper attributions and had it published in A Hundred Gourds.
The critique: http://ahundredgourds.com/ahg11/exp_rasmussen_basho.html
Ray's haibun modeled on “Hiraizumi”: http://haibuntoday.com/ht54/Rasmussen_Slickhorn.html
This is similar to the critiques written by the editors of The Heron’s Nest haiku journal. In each issue, the editor chooses three haiku and writes a commentary on one of them. In reading these commentaries, I gain insight to how each editor approaches reading and enjoying haiku, which has little to do with whether it has a 5-7-5, 3-line structure. If writers want to shape up their own haiku practice, I strongly suggest they regularly read those editors’ commentaries. Since we’re writing haiku in English, I view that as important as reading the haiku of the Japanese Masters.
As a final word, I think that we writers, and not just editors, should take on the task of writing critical literature to produce thoughtful thinking about the “is” of haibun and to improve our own work. While I was reluctant to dip my toes into writing literary critiques, after all who was I to say what is and isn’t a worthy haibun; it is, easiest to start with commentaries on the haibun of other writers whose work we’ve appreciated and good for us to focus on learning to explain why we like a piece.
And if you’ve not been exposed to or reading and learning from the small but growing critical literature, you can find a “resources” section in both contemporary haibun online as well as Haibun Today. And it’s very nice to see that the Haibun Gallery is encouraging well published writers and editors to share their writing and thoughts on the is and isn’t of haibun.
If this sounds like a call for you, reader, to produce a piece of critical writing, you got the message!
If you wish to read some of Ray's articles, reviews and commentaries, then these can be found on the resources pages of Haibun Today: http://haibuntoday.com/pages/resources.html
and contemporary haibun online: https://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/resources/
You can additionally read his book of haibun, Landmarks: A Haibun Collection.
Prompt for the week: We invite you to write a haibun that uses dialogue to characterise the speakers.
Here's some advice on writing dialogue extracted from https://nybookeditors.com/2017/05/your-guide-to-writing-better-dialogue/
All dialogue should pass the following criteria:
It must move the story forward. After each conversation or exchange, the reader should be one step closer to either the climax or the conclusion of your story.
It should reveal relevant information about the character. The right dialogue will give the reader insight into how the character feels, and what motivates him or her to act.
It must help the reader understand the relationship between the characters.
1. Only two haibun per poet per prompt, and only one haibun in 24 hours. 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.