This Wednesday, I was lucky to attend Rebecca Brown’s haibun class at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood Haibun is an ancient Japanese poetic form that juxtaposes prose narrative and short haiku. Brown’s interest in the form stems from what she calls “the wonderfully uncategorizeable texts” of contemporary American poets who have taken this ancient form and adapted it to their own literary moment.
The event was packed, and I shared a tiny table in the corner with three other women, one of whom is an alumni of the University of Washington’s M.F.A. program. Years ago, she helped found the program’s literary journal, The Seattle Review, and studied with the faculty member who initiated The Castalia Reading Series, which is also hosted at Hugo House. Also in attendance was the editor of a local haiku journal, and one of Seattle’s resident specialists in Beat literature, who volunteered himself to read an example of a haibun from Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, a novel written in 1956 while Kerouac was living in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Brown’s samples of haibun ranged from pieces like Desoluation Angels to works by John Ashbery and Basho himself, the poet credited as the originator of the haibun form.
Rebecca gave us three different writing prompts, each of which was modeled after a different example of Japanese or American haibun, then asked us to read our pieces out loud. I enjoyed the generosity of the class’s response to each new piece, and was struck by the beauty of the form’s sudden turns from one literary mode to the next. “Mmm, mmm, now that’s good,” Rebecca often remarked after an individual had shared, amidst a warm flood of sympathetic “mmm”s and “wow”s. Below is an excerpt of one of my in-class pieces:
HOW I GOT HERE | Three haibūn
In the fall we moved to Seattle, so into our boxes went the table salt, the winter coats, the towels, and the wedding dishes. Packing was painful, as packing always is, and the last glimpse of the apartment, newly emptied, wiped down, swept, was cut short by the neighbor’s niece: “You keeping that bath mat?”
Boxes piled in the bed of a red pickup
Miles of freeway winding through the hills
This city too will forget the nights
We spent wandering on University Avenue
The idea of haibun is that it combines prose and poetry to tell the tale of a personal journey, one that is both physical and interior, and marked with moments of insight (haiku) or po
etic interlude. The haiku interspersed throughout the narrative do not necessarily further the journey, but act as imagistic (re)conceptions of moments that have occurred or are occurring in the narrative. In the exercise above, we were instructed to craft a four-line haiku modeled after the one that first appears in Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Penguin Classics, 2005), in which Basho describes a personal object, captures an image from nature, alludes to a force much larger than himself, and finally, ends with a specific reference to a proper noun. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the form, and appreciated learning about a tradition that has its roots in ancient Japanese literature, as well as a rich legacy in Western literature.
Later this week I will be attending Larissa Min’s spoken word event, Breaking English. On the event website, Min says, “Breaking English is a creative nonfictional account of my family’s migration from Korea to Brazil and then the US, as a lens through which to examine the experiences of immigration, displacement and remembering.”
More on that later, but for now, enjoy your weekend, and stay tuned for more Editors’ Picks next week!