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THE HAIBUN GALLERY: 29th June 2023 Ray Rasmussen: Featured Haibuneer

hosts: Shalini Pattabiraman & Reid Hepworth


poet of the month: Ray Rasmussen


29th June 2023

A Thursday Feature 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:


As we come to the end of this beautiful journey exploring Ray’s haibun, I would like to thank Ray for the generosity with which he has shared his work, his vast knowledge and craft. Through his response to our questions, links to essays, articles and advice, Ray has over these past weeks given us a masterclass on writing the haibun.


Most of all I have enjoyed reading Landmarks and for this week, I want to feature two haibun out of the many that I have loved in Ray’s book. I highly recommend this book as it captures life with such intimacy that for days after the reading of the haibun, you will keep going back to some of them again and again. For me more than craft itself, this book was full of emotion and a celebration of life and its journey through time. Although the haibun don’t appear in the book in this order, for this curation I want you all to read the haibun in the order in which they have been presented below.


Family Tree

Ray Rasmussen


My chainsaw has reduced the once graceful birch to a scatter of rounds. I gather barrow after barrow, set them on the chopping block and ply my axe.


On the largest round, I trace the rings back to the year we moved in, the year each daughter was born and left, and the year of the divorce. Ten rings from the edge marks my father’s death – the outer ring, my mother’s.


This winter friends will join me for wine and poetry by a warming fire. I'll feed the white-bark wood, piece-by-piece, into the fire.


But tonight, it’s just me.


embers and ash – the warming burn of aged whiskey


Winter Retreat

Ray Rasmussen


The cabin rental is a gift from a friend, a place to mull over retirement. Tucked away in a spruce forest, I reach it after traveling hours on a dirt and gravel road.

As I put groceries in the fridge, I spot a note posted near the coffee maker: “Join the family. Add your mug.”


The mugs are ceramic and glass, patterned and plain, large and small. I'm tempted to borrow one showing a clock with no hands and "Who cares, I'm retired" printed on it. But instead I use the paper cup I got at a coffee stop.


On my afternoon walk along an ice-crusted creek, I happen on another mug collection hanging like ornaments in the branches of a birch tree. A cracked teapot rests nearby on a stone.


Warming myself later by the stone fireplace, a guestbook informs me that the mugs in the tree are retired, belonging to guests who have not returned.

I drift off thinking of the teapot, sitting alone, as if waiting to be used.


new year’s eve – candlelight flickers on knotty pine


Observation: Time’s passing is a theme that draws my attention a lot in this book; each haibun is a remarkable documentation of time, yet not one haibun reads like any other. The diversity of voice and experience is worth noting. We have asked Ray many questions on his approach to writing, but for this week, we would like to seek his insight as an editor.


Q: In your role as editor, what do you look for in a haibun?


Ray: Let’s start by keeping in mind that those of us who volunteer to serve as editors are biased, that is, we all have our own tastes and ideas about content and composition when reacting to a haibun. Our first task is to recognize our biases. For example, having written an article on titles in haibun, I have a positive bias toward connotative titles and against titles that seem to be simply slapped on because a title must be at the top. Having said this, I’d like to retitle a lot of my 20 years of published work, much of which has denotative titles. And in my time serving as an editor, I often suggested a search for a connotative title, but I didn’t insist upon it. As an editor (I’m not now a submissions editor), I felt an extra responsibility a) to respect the writer who has sent in a piece of his/her life; b) to select pieces that felt pretty well finished and would be worthwhile presenting to our readership; c) to ensure that the submission conforms to the what I sense is the current best definition of haibun, as opposed to, flash fiction, short stories, and purely polemic or didactic pieces, recognizing that at the present time this is no widely agreed consensus about haibun style and content. In general, the definition suggested by the Haiku Society of America is the one I launch from.


HAIBUN - a haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai style, usually

including both slightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a

haiku.

~HSA taken June 17, 2023, from: https://www.hsa-haiku.org/education.htm


For an elaboration of this definition, go here:


The Prose:

The first thing I’d read deeply is the prose. I’d skip lightly over the title and poem.

First in my mind was whether the piece had a coherent, understandable storyline. If I

couldn’t understand something, I would mention the problem I had to the writer. At times I’d

invite a back-and-forth exchange.


If the storyline was clear enough, I also wanted it to have some sizzle … a few good

phrases, a beginning, middle and ending, and of course correct grammar. A problem we

have in writing haibun with its focus on real experiences is that we’re all writing about

common human situations and, so I looked for unusual ways of writing about the usual life

experiences of the human family.


For example, in “Family Tree” I’m writing about things quite usual: a marriage, buying a

home, children’s births, divorce (greater than 50% in the US and Canada), and parents’ deaths.


The unusual vehicle I choose for “Family Tree” was inspired by a long passage in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand Country Almanac. Leopold told the story of several sawyers (loggers) cutting a large, fallen tree up for firewood. At each set of 10 or so rings, Leopold presents events that took place in the year the ring was made by the tree. Many were about environmental events, e.g., the killing of the last carrier pigeon in the United States. You can read it here:


I’ll leave it to you to decide whether my writing was both unusual and well written. At the

time of writing, I was cutting up a fallen tree which I’d be using over the next winter to

warm my home.


I also prefer prose that is balanced more on the imagistic (showing) side and lighter on

didactic or polemic (telling) side. And I tend to prefer haiku-like writing – short, clipped

phrases, not too many connecting words like “and” or “but”, as few as possible personal

pronouns (“I’s” “Me’s” “My’s” etc.) and few repeated words or phrases. [Did you know that

you can examine a piece written with MS Word for repeated words like “I”? Try it out.]


Here’s a passage from Leopold’s almanac that I find satisfying although it’s not labelled as

haibun prose. Most of it is imagistic (show). The last sentence falls into the didactic (tell)

category.


“My dog does not care where heat comes from, but he cared ardently that it come and soon. Indeed he considers my ability to make it come as something magical, for when I rise in the cold black pre-dawn and kneel shivering by the hearth making a fire, he pushes himself blandly between me and the kindling splits I have laid on the ashes, and I must touch a

match to them by poking it between his legs. Such faith, I suppose, is the kind that moves mountains.” (A. Leopold)


The Poem:

The next issue I look at closely is the haiku (from here on I’ll call it the “poem” – a 2-phrase piece presented in 3 lines and with 17 or fewer syllables (most, but not all published haiku follow this pattern). I want to be able to see both the poem’s distance from and yet its relevance to the prose storyline. I personally think of the poem as a metaphor or a short wrap-up for the storyline – a snippet that adds a bit more context and yet signals an ending, one that adds a bit of spark at the end. I usually like a poem that comes from the same setting as the story.


As for whether the poem can “stand alone” (a common pronouncement), I don’t care

whether it does. As my friend and founder/editor of Haibun Today, Jeffrey Woodward said,

“If the haiku can stand alone, why does it need the prose?” In my view any two imagistic

phrases can stand alone. The key is whether they have some spark and whether they work for the reader. I think the poem must work effectively with the prose, each enhancing the other. Whether a poem can stand alone is an issue that I find challenging to determine. I’m more into the evocativeness of the two phrases that make up most, but not all, published poems.


Ken Jones, one of our greatest writers of haibun in English, cautioned that if the haiku

phrases can be comfortably folded into the prose, or simply seem lifted out of it, then that’s

where they belong. I’m of the view that almost any two-phrase poem could be folded into

the prose.


For example, instead of:


But tonight, it’s just me.


embers and ash –

the warming burn

of aged whiskey


I might have written (folding the poem into the prose):


But tonight, it’s just me, sipping aged whiskey, feeling its burn, watching embers turn to ash.


Not bad, eh? Alas! If I use it as a sentence, I’d have to go in search for an ending poem.


A bit more about the poem. There’s the common pronouncement that the poem must not

repeat anything in the prose or title. Why? I wonder. Repetition is a common technique in

poetry, for example Macbeth’s Tomorrow speech:


Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.


So why the admonition against repetition in haibun? Wherever do these pronouncements?

come from?


The Title:


I always look at the title and often wonder whether the writer just slapped something in (as

I often did in my first 10 years of published pieces). Having written an article on the

importance of titles, I now tend to favour titles that add something important to the piece

and that evokes interest. But a denotative title can be effective in quickly setting the stage

and then getting out of the way of the prose and poem.


As I look over the titles of my two pieces selected by Shalini, I think “Family Tree” is okay,

but maybe it could be a bit more enticing. I think “Winter Retreat” could be much better.

After all, it’s not just about a winter retreat. Why not reach for something like: “The Winter

of My Discontent?” Nothing wrong with using Shakespeare’s play Richard III, right, so long as I acknowledge it. Of course, that title would carry many allusions … it references the play’s themes. Perhaps they aren’t the same or near to my theme. Or each word in a title may carry a connotation. “Winter” for example, may reference a person’s last quarter of life, or a season of darkness and cold that carrys many people into depression.


Now when I write a piece, after doing several drafts of the prose and finding a satisfactory

poem, I ask myself what are the themes and key images of this piece? Having done that, I

reach for a connotative title. Any suggestions for “Family Tree” or “Winter Retreat”?


Summary:

Being an editor means paying deep attention to title, prose and poem, and how they work together, what particular words and phrases mean. While one can read these elements at a surface level and find some satisfaction, the haiku in particular often requires deeper reading. I’ve expanded on this idea in “How to Read Haiku”

https://rays-blog.ca/read-and-write-haiku-part-1/


My thanks to Triveni Haikai India and the editors of the Haibun Gallery for spotlighting my work and that of other writers. I’m reading through the presentations by the other writers and enjoying them and noting that we don’t agree on everything haibun. And that’s as it should be with a relatively new genre in English. It will evolve to something different than the Japanese Masters who initiated the form. It will even evolve in different cultures and languages. It’s an exciting time to have seen the number of writers and publication places grow dramatically over the last 25 years. May it continue to do so.


~ Ray Rasmussen


Prompt for the week: When you read the two haibun posted above, you might notice the way time shifts in these two narratives. In ‘Family Tree’ it moves linearly while in ‘Winter Retreat’ it moves backwards.


This week, document how you have journeyed through time and life; experiment with the many ways you can navigate the documentation of time.


***

PLEASE NOTE:

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.

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