On the Edge: Writing Haiku (5-7-5) to Save My Soul

Like most American school kids, I learned to write haiku (i.e., 5 syllables–7 syllables–5 syllables) in third or fourth grade. It is a Japanese poetic form that, other than World War II and the Cherry Blossom Festival, represented all that I knew of Japanese culture or literature until I reached college. Compared to English formal verse, such as sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas, haiku seem like child’s play.

To counter that, here are a few examples by Japanese masters of the form.

My life,
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
—–Masaoka Shiki

 

Don’t weep, insects–
Lovers, stars themselves,
Must part.
—–Kobayashi Issa

 

Scent of chrysanthemums…
And in Naru
All the ancient Buddhas.

—–Matsuo Basho

Basho, widely seen as the greatest among Japanese haiku masters.>

By the age of 9, I had quit haiku. By 12, I only wrote free verse. After attending one of Maryland’s earliest STEM high schools, I decided to escape what struck me then (and still does) as the drudgery of college English classes. I earned a mathematics degree: writing verse was not my problem. Calculus was. I still wrote poetry late at night, after crying rivers over algebraic forms, topology, and boys.

But about five years ago, a series of disastrous life events, including the onset of a chronic pain condition, led me back to haiku.

Living with chronic pain has meant struggling to control it before it controls me. For the first few years, I could no longer write for the love of language or story.  After spending long days writing for a consulting firm, by night, I was spent. Stress often meant that my pain was totally out of control. Since I’d failed to find relief in online yoga classes and guided meditation, haiku filled a space.

At first, I simply wrote notes on my iPhone. In fact, I still do, having composed one today during an acupuncture session:

Black lab yellow stars

my son watches from heaven

someone send him home

Eventually, I began writing haiku as affirmations of my own life: my strength, my power, my body, my beauty. And I liked the visual created when I superimposed my haiku on photographs that I took.  I had found an app called BeFunky that was easy to understand.

At first, I used handsome or striking or beautiful photographs of my own–because who sets out to shoot ugly?  When I ran out of images (never syllables, it seemed) I’d ask friends–and, in fact, some began sending me “haikuable” photos. Thus began my life as a haiku artist, creating wordworks that I call haikugram. Low risk, high gain. Here’s one of my first.

My mother, who sculpts in canvas, has a studio at The Torpedo Factory. She and several of her artist friends, who have spent years collaborating, brainstorming, and inspiring one another, have begun to face the central issues of aging: loss, grief, dying. Every so often, she’d send a friend one of my haikugram.

This is one breath, written for my son, Chad Jameson Schuster, who was 24 when he died on October 1, 2017. His life was a burst of energy and light.

In fact, the best haiku rely on close observations of nature, woven into the most elemental truths of human experience. They are a very short form of verse and are quite challenging to write. Haiku must cut, from the first line or image to the central line, which links two opposing thoughts or images, ideas and moments.

Today, however, the 5-7-5 rule is not so much in force unless one prefers it. As it happens, the Japanese count a phonetic sound called on  that approximates English syllabic counts, but not quite. Some English-speaking writers now define haiku as, “A short poem to be recited in one breath.”

(What does one do with a person like Michael Phelps, an Olympic swimmer whose one-breath could outlast the rest of us mere mortals by minutes, not seconds?)

Since writing my haikugram, I’ve found lots to celebrate, mostly an unusual chance to inspire others, and encourage them to write. A long-ago college friend who, like me, has a chronic pain condition, saw my haiku on a creativity website we both follow. He decided to try writing them, and asked me to coach him. Eventually, he added his to photos. Today, his haiku are far better than mine, and often brilliant in their marriage of human and natural experience.

Another friend, a fabulous fiction writer and editor of a large feature magazine, surprised me with news that he, too, is writing haiku. For years, he has been unable to write fiction, overtaken by his work as an editor and teacher. But haiku, which can be written in an hour, or nuzzled around all day in one’s brain, seem manageable. A challenge worth completing.

My most haiku-able moment came when I set out to teach haiku writing during a special event at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The program, Evenings at the Edge was a chance to celebrate the newly reopened gallery, one that had been my favorite since high school. The night I attended was to volunteer for a group called Split this Rock, a group that aims to get poets more involved in public life and policy, especially by working with the next generation of poets.

Chalkboard haiku, spur of the moment haiku in my kitchen

In addition to areas designated for spoken word poetry, music, and gallery gazing, a room was set aside for people to write haiku. Haiku were to be written on special cards and then posted on a wall. The rules were that haiku were to be anonymous and could not feature any political commentary. Tough to do in Washington, DC.

I had volunteered to coach others. Many visitors sat down with a sigh, perplexed at what they were to do. When I said, “Haiku, you know, 5-7-5,” their eyes would spark, and they’d say, “Oh, I did that in elementary school!”

Heads would bow and pens, crayons or color pencils would fly across the notecards.

At one point, a handsome young man sat down at the table across from me and, although he remembered the form, could not think of a thing to write. He attributed this to his being “tech minded” and “a computer guy.”

Lenten roses in my yard, 2-27-18, photo by Pat Sislen

“No excuse,” I teased. “I’ve got a math degree.”

He looked at my graying hair, I know, and smiled.

“Okay, then what I can write about?”

I asked him what he’d seen on his way to the event from his office.

“Snow, icy parking lots, icy roads, lots of traffic,” he said. “It was dark outside, and it was cold, cold, cold. I am ready for spring.”

“Spring,” he said, and looked at his haiku notecard, bowed his head, and began to write. A few moments later, he looked at me and said, “I’ve got something.”

My son, 16, joined me at On the Edge with Split this Rock

He read, “The brevity of life/A flower blossoms.”

It was a one-breath haiku and it was, I knew immediately, a marvel. And yet I knew if he flipped the two lines, it would be an even greater marvel of a haiku. I asked if he’d try flipping the lines and see how it sounded. So he did, reading it aloud once more.

We were silent.

My other lefty, 23, Split this Rock

He looked at me again and said, “I see what you did there. I see what you just did. You and me, we just wrote a haiku.”

“I didn’t write that, you did, I just suggested you reverse the order. That is an amazing haiku. You have to hang it on the wall,” I said. Perhaps I commanded.

“I can’t believe it, I wrote a poem. I did it. You got me to write a poem. I just wrote a haiku. Thank you! Thank you!” He jumped from his seat, joy emanating from him.

Image by Bo Mackison

I saw what I did there. Did you? I became more than myself by helping someone else become more. That sensation was astonishing, and it carried my spirit for a few weeks. After a long break in which I’ve felt incapable of writing anything at all, I am writing.

Here I am. Do you see what I just did? I am writing.

Please comment. Let me know that you are here, write a haiku. I’ll answer.

 

 

 

 

KEY WORDS: HAIKU, JAPANESE FORM, ON THE EDGE, SPLIT THIS ROCK, HAIKUGRAM, LIFELONG LEARNER, LIFELONG LEARNING, NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, EAST WING, WASHINGTON, DC

What Does The Giraffe Say?

Since Ian turned 16 on 11/27/17, thought I’d brighten things up my drawing my favorite creature (a giraffe), and that little bird (aka, dodomommy).

Enjoy. As e.e. cummings wrote: it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

Forsythia in flower, November 27, 2017

Or as Mother Nature has long told us, expect the unexpected. It may be a tiny beauty, or something terrible. Be glad that you are above ground.¥

 

 

Tags: birthday, giraffe, dodomommy, forsythia, November, quotatons, e.e. cummings, poetry, artwork

Wild-Eyed Poets and Basketball Stars

My father is a lifelong “wild-eyed sports fan.” A native Washingtonian, his childhood revolved around the Senators. One year, he bolted across home plate to shake Roy Sievers’ hand as Sievers crossed home plate after scoring a walk-off home run for the Washington Senators.

I’ve written a few short articles in The Washington Post about Dad’s near-legendary sports-triumphs: the time he sneaked into the White House, along with the Championship Washington Bullets, and had hot dogs with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. His longing to see his beloved Nationals take a pennant, or the World Series continues to keep him moving.

And there is the love he and my sister and I have for going to  Bruce Springsteen shows. Even Dad stands for the legendary encores, and the lights-up tent-revival sing-along of Born to Run and Thunder Road.

A bookworm, too, in his retirement, Dad has developed a callous on his elbow where it rests on his favorite reading perch, the porch swing of his house. Because I am a writer, he has always passed along must-read books and suggested writers.

For years, he has plied me with dog-eared copies of Sports Illustrated as proof that the greatest writers in any medium are sportswriters (my favorites include George Plimpton and his Miami Notebooks and just about anything by  Frank Deford).   Like Dad, I’m sure that at the top of their game, sportswriters are our true poets and storytellers–not, by the way, content creators.

The most recent addition to that list may be new-to-me novelist and sportswriter, Jack McCallum. His Summer 2017 profile of Tom Meschery, poet, teacher, and former NBA star. Check out Meschery’s blog on sports, literature, and news. But first, grab SI, find a porch or imagine one, and swing for a moment as you read.

Dreaming of Margaret

There are no ghosts for me to fear.
When you arrive here, mid-dream, post-
midnight, you appear whole and rested,
your mind ready and quick as ever.
We get on with things.

You are dressed in our favorite shade
of purple–you were the only grown-up
who dared love such color in my Seventies
childhood of mustard and green. I wanted
to be just like you: confident enough
of what I could do to do it.

Tonight, you must be near, reminding
me of things I have forgotten.
Just one more time, we stand side
by side and cheer our candidates
and make poor jokes. We walk
arm in arm, to New York City

and a theatre. Your diamond smile,
your perfect hair. The best day
I’ve had all year. Then the dog

barks and the sun snaps
through the blinds. To find
you, I see, I need only
close my eyes.

 

on a wing and a prayer, 1

JUST BEYOND THE GARDEN GATE

I ate that apple, whole. I spit
its tiny black seeds into my hands.
Later, I’ll plant them to see
what clay makes, other than that
creature who found me here, blaming
me for that ache in his side, and a chunk
missing from the apple in his hand.

FullSizeRender (1)

No one said Paradise would be easy,
or that a bed of roses—I’m talking thorns, hon—
is a place I’d ever lay my head.

Adam is off, shaking his fist at me
and pleading with the clouds. I will not
let him drag me down,, all that anger
and finger-pointing. Who has time?

O! This sweet apple is so filling,
its skin so red and unblemished.
O! That satisfying crunch every bite
I take! That hard white center
is irresistible. For all the trouble
it has caused, I am savoring
every morsel. It is so ripe,
my lips run with juice.

key words: poetry, Janice Lynch Schuster, Eve, Garden of Eden, apples

ANGELS PASSING TIME

for Meme, 1920-2015

Birds flew, like checkmarks in the sky
marking off the clouds. Where I stand,
I can close one eye and squint.
I find your face, drifting
in the light. Birds travel
so quickly and far, to a place
I can only imagine, not know.

how her garden grew

Where I stand in the snow
it is cold. We once stood here,
together, eyes lifted to the sky
as it darkened for a storm.
You told me I had nothing to fear,
you were near and would not leave me.

Anyway, you added, thunder is only angels
bowling, and lightning, the devil’s anger.
He is a poor sport, you said.
And what about the rain, I demanded.
“Just rain,” you said,
so much magic could only go so far.

Have faith, you told me,
though you cannot see.
We were on a balcony
full of last summer’s flowers,
their dried heads nodding
in the wind.

 

KEY WORDS:  grandmother, heaven, faith, angels, poetry

Orders

what did I mean to save
that day I stood pounding
your chest, fired by urgency
that was not love
but habit
a current that ran once?
I felt it for years
even after it had stopped
and you could not deliver

what did I hope would return
to life that night
with my desperate pleas
my counted breaths
my lips pressed hard
to yours, together

what was left
in the cold spaces
between us, the disruption
like Arctic air pushed south
to Tampa. We were tangled
up in wires

if only I had shut off
that device, the one that jolts
me awake lonely nights
when I reach across a smooth sheet
for your rough hand
closed into a fist
you will never open

key words: DNR, love, grief, poetry, Janice Lynch Schusterleaves on fire

Steel

dancing buddha

I was forged by desire,
hot, molten, flaming
that lovers stoked
at their own risk.

They melted into me.
I was hammered
by love, reduced
by its aftermath.

My leaden feet lifted
by force of will,
I learned to dance
with monkeys
and their crosses
and that weight
on my back.

What else could we do?

When nothing ever happened
on time, when doors slammed
with us behind them,
when we witnessed
everything
but saw nothing,
when we prayed for help,
and were left to ourselves?

Weren’t we all steeled
by love, etched on singular
faces, long after the bodies
have gone to dust?

What wouldn’t we try
to be so warm
again, to strike
over and over,
casting our mistakes
without regret?

key words: Janice Lynch Schuster, poetry

What Fire Was Like

 

 

leaves on fire

What we needed, we did not want.
What we wanted, we did not need.
Whatever safety I sought in you
Did not exist there.

We were in a cold room, two sticks
for hearts. When they rubbed
together, some kind of furious dance,
a spark, ignited the bed,
set the house on fire.

There is no joy in melting
into the other. No self in the end,
no sense of what made
us whole—or what we made.

The skeleton frame of the house
stood still, smoldering and terrible,
while we watched, our hands seared
by nothing we could touch.

key words: Janice Lynch Schuster, poetry, divorce