hosts: Shalini Pattabiraman & Vidya Shankar
A Thursday Feature.
poet of the month: Richard Grahn
26th October 2023
This month we are extremely excited to present the work of Richard Grahn, founding editor of Drifting Sands. We hope that you enjoy reading his work and are stimulated by the use of language, pace, mood and energy within the themes Richard explores in his writing.
Richard Grahn Richard grew up in the bucolic atmospheres of Wisconsin, Maine, and Indiana. His travels and many adventures provide much grist for the mill in his mind. His work derives primarily from life experiences or is loosely based on real people or events. He has been writing haibun since 2018, embracing the form and writing in general as a means of coping with illness. He is the author of several poetry books, the most recent of which is, Longevity: Poems in the Key of Helen, a collection of haibun and tanka prose. His other artistic passions include sculpture, painting, photography, and making music.
Darkness. The brush of rough canvas against my cheeks. Hemp tightening around my neck. Do I have any last words?
Ladies and Gentlemen, leering close. Thank you for your attendance on this auspicious occasion. So many friends could not be here today. I am the only one left; you see. Lend your ear; let your minds absorb this song of the dying.
The scaffolding creaks as the hangman’s weight shifts from foot to foot.
I have lied to myself, cheated myself, stolen time from myself. As I came to believe the lies, I spread the word to others. When it came time to give, I was a well-practiced hoarder. With no time for myself, there was nothing left for you—until now.
Today, we have this moment. Here in the warm afternoon sun, you have all the honesty I never had to give, the generosity I kept to myself, these precious breaths I choose to breathe with you now.
Gentle folks, the sun will surely set on my dreams today, so let me share a recent one with you now.
In this dream, I am lying on a bed of fresh moss—the canopy above rustling and chirping as a doe and fawn approach. The doe stands above me, her eyes soft as mother’s hands tucking me in at night. She begins to hum a lullaby. They kneel beside me and say a prayer; she tells me that one day I will remember her, and when that day comes, I will forgive myself and say a prayer for the one standing beside me—
tonight the town lit with pale moonlight
contemporary haibun online 19:2, August 2023
Source: contemporary haibun online, 19.2
Observation: An incredibly moving haibun. Out of darkness, this haibun takes the shape of prayer, faith and belief. It finds its way into hope. That shift is powerful and incredible, given the intensely dark start. The setting is dramatic and conflicting in a disturbing way as the haibun opens up.
But I am quickly puzzled by the changes in tone that shift the narrative voice from an introspective or melancholic tone in, 'Do I have any last words?' to a performative voice in 'leering close' and 'auspicious occasion', (which I found jarring and strange). Then it moves back into melancholy/introspection and we get this shift in voice to reach a more 'honest' core (as the narrative voice claims) and it kind of does. It changes pace and eases into 'gentle folks' and ends with this almost incredible and hopeful feeling in the haiku. So I move from feeling one thing into feeling multiple things at the same time.
I have gone back and read it quite a few times coming back to mull over the title and how it plays with link and shift. The title 'Pulpit' brings to mind many connotations, some historically significant, others perhaps—assumptions built over time, influenced by media and literature: hypocrisy, sincerity, power of faith, betrayal and so on (when I think of the pulpit used by a faith leader). There's within these mixed associations a part where the pulpit is a performative platform and acts as such in many texts where it is also the platform for capital punishment which was made into a form of entertainment historically. I'm thinking parts from works like 'A Handmaid's Tale' or I was even thinking of 'The Hanging' by George Orwell. Yet coming back to the setting— it is not capital punishment, instead it reads like self harm, like someone attempting the unimaginable. In many ways I found this haibun heartbreaking too.
SP: I cannot imagine what inspired this haibun, but it left me thinking a lot about voice. As writers we often choose what voice we will engage in and most writers tend to use one, not changing it so very often. Could you share some of your thoughts as you crafted this haibun.
RG: This is a prime example of putting oneself into the narrator’s shoes (or noose, if you will). That is where I think the vividness comes from. If there’s a picture in my head, I can step into it and let it tell the story. It knows all the emotions, smells, sounds, and other sensory details. All I have to do is write them. It’s also an example of art influencing art. The idea came from Ren Gill’s line in his song ‘Hi Ren,’ “I’m the voice that you hear when you loosen the noose on the rope.” It’s an incredibly inspirational piece of performance art/music, and that line just kept bopping around in my head. I couldn’t sleep until I wrote something to get it out. I started with the idea of the narrator uttering such compelling last words that the crowd convinced the hangman to spare him. But the story had a mind of its own and the muse led me down a completely different path. I’ve long since learned not to question her. We do play word games though. There are a couple of what I like to call “loops” in this haibun. One being the narrator saying a prayer, as predicted by the doe in vague terms, for the hangman, the man who is about to take his life. It took well into the writing before the subject of forgiveness got flipped on its head—from the crowd/hangman forgiving the narrator to the narrator forgiving the hangman. There is a spiritual component in many of my poems, though it is more subtle in most (using the awe of nature, for example, to demonstrate the spiritual side of life). This poem obviously calls on the religious practice of prayer coupled with faith and the lifting of burdens through forgiveness. Last, I love writing dream sequences because you can take them almost anywhere. That part seemed to write itself once the idea took root.
Prompt for members: Create a haibun that tells an interesting story in a distinctive setting, preferably something outside of your normal experience. Employ storytelling elements to develop the events in such a setting while experimenting with voice and tone. It is important that writers choose a setting that is to a large extent an unknown territory. See where it takes you. Have fun experimenting. And, of course, haibun outside this prompt can also be posted!
For those who wish do explore a bit more of Grahn's work, here's a bonus haibun.
no moon . . . I take a breath of silence I’m in the mountains of West Virginia, dead-set to cross them before daybreak. Problem is, I need a ride and they appear to be in short supply. Finally, a pair of headlights navigating slowly through the falling snow. I stick out my freezing thumb but to no avail. The car eases by.
30 minutes later . . . my ride arrives, two men in a beat up station wagon. I climb into the backseat without hesitation. We make the usual hitchhiking small talk. I tell them I’m headed to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, returning from Christmas leave. They seem to like my military status.
“You’re lucky we came along,” the driver quips. “We help the police patrol these roads for hitchhikers. It’s dangerous out here.”
chilly wind . . . that knowing grin in the rearview mirror
I study the rough face of the burly driver for a moment as I envision my body being dumped alongside the road. The skinny fellow in the passenger’s seat, chuckles. He passes something to the driver then turns around to look at me.
“You want some moonshine?” he asks. “It’ll warm you up. There’s a jar under the seat.”
Oh boy, I’m in a car with a couple of drunks who think they work for the police. I fumble under the seat and pull out the jar. The first sip burns my throat. The car continues on into the coal black night.
“Our turn-off's just ahead,” one says. “but we’ll take you to the next town where it’ll be easier to get a ride.” I thank them, welcoming the thought of civilization. Our conversation ambles as the liquor begins to warm my body. We talk about the military, patriotism and our love of freedom. We have a lot in common it seems.
Arriving in town, it appears deserted. The two men talk between themselves. Finally, the driver declares that they will take me a little further, to a better spot. Not wanting to step back out into the cold just now, I agree.
Each stop breeds a similar conversation and result, just a little bit further. All through the night, we travel. Three-quarters of the way through the jar, I finally spot the welcoming glow of Charleston in the twilight.
going home . . . only my shadow knows where I’ve been
Source: The Haiku Foundation Digital Library
Observation: I really wondered until the very end if the tale would turn into something horrible. You kept me looking for the ending and it was both surprising and powerful at the same time. That ending haiku is poignant. Just that haiku by itself tells such a strong story.
SP: What role does haiku play in your haibun? How do you write them? Share something of your process as a writer.
RG: Haiku are the cornerstones of haibun (IMO). I can write the most elegant prose, but if the haiku doesn’t add something to that, then I’ve failed to capitalise on the defining feature of a haibun. I am a novice when it comes to writing haiku or haibun for that matter (only five years so far) so I still have a lot to learn. It’s sort of funny because I think one of the best haiku I’ve ever written was the one in my first-ever haibun (which was accepted and is above titled, “South of Tomorrow”). I chalk it up to a total stroke of luck at that stage of the game, but I keep coming back to it for its juxtaposition and imagery. It also stands alone perfectly well. To put things into perspective, that haibun had a second haiku at the end. It was a miserable knock-off of Basho’s famous frog haiku and I’m so glad the editor (Bob Lucky) gently suggested I drop it. Something I’ve been guilty of is using haiku as simply a continuation of the prose, meaning it might as well have just been written into the prose. Take that and flip it on its ear and you have a tip I received not long ago, which is to extract details from the prose (which might otherwise make the prose cumbersome) and formulate those into haiku. In that way, you’ve found a piece of the story the haiku can tell without being redundant to the story.
Something I’ve noticed when writing haiku recently is that I tend to write the middle line first (I write almost exclusively in the traditional 3-line format). Then I can pair it with either the upper line or the lower line to construct the phrase. Juxtaposing is a huge challenge. It’s such a subtle and powerful technique. When you can 1. Bind the fragment and phrase with dissimilar images, and 2. Bind the haiku and prose without simply restating the prose or summarising it, and 3. Bind it all together with a title that adds even another dimension to the whole, you have a whale of a haibun on your hands. I see the title, prose, and haiku as dimensions. Each is a unique element in the poem. One may be a hammer, one a screwdriver, and one a wrench, but they’re all tools.
SP: Can you share any editing advice for writers? Many writers find it challenging to make edits. If you can share some of your experiences it might benefit them.
RG: Read your work out loud. If you can, read it to someone else, but definitely read it out loud. It will help you find the stumbling blocks in the flow.
Editing depends somewhat on your writing style. The most recommended approach out there is to get your thoughts on paper first, then edit. And that makes a lot of sense; editing slows you down and can interrupt your train of thought, hence the flow of your writing. That said, I edit as I go most of the time, constantly backtracking and rereading sections as they grow. Regardless of how much editing happens during the writing process, I always have to go back and edit the entire piece as a whole. This is when I start moving things around and “cutting my babies.” Every element has to be analyzed to determine whether it contributes to, or distracts from, the story. Sentences that slow the reader’s pace need to be reworked so that they don’t interrupt the flow (again, reading out loud is the key). Look for rhythms. Where do the beats (emphasis) lie in the wording. Being a musician, I strive for a modicum of musicality in my writing and that is an underlying element of poetry, so I’m really trying to write poetry, not just prose. Whatever the desired form, you want your work to read smoothly. There is no better tool than your ear for ferreting out the stumbling blocks and finding the natural rhythms in your work.
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.