2007 Porad Award Winners
William J. Higginson, Judge
Second, it seems to me that those who are judged in such a contest, whether winners or not, have a right to know at least something about the judging process. Since this may vary considerably from judge to judge, and even from one contest to another with the same judge or judges, let me try to say what I did, briefly, before I talk about the results specifically.
Judging a contest in the arts should be a humbling experience; for me it always is. A number of people—in this case, the authors of some 300 entries—have said they will accept the judgement of one person or a small group as to the relative merits of their work. Here I am, your one judge, determining the fates of your poems. As usually happens in such cases, there are many entries that one passes over on a single reading. But this is not entirely the fault of the contestants who apparently did not know how to craft a successful haiku. Perhaps we must bear some of the blame as well, for from whom should they learn, but from us? Unfortunately, the contest format does not usually allow feedback to those quite unsuccessful candidates.
Once my initial read-through seemed done, and I had sorted out the 40 or so poems that would hold my attention off and on for the next few weeks, I went back through the pile of rejects, a couple of days later and at a different time of day, just to make sure that I’d not missed anything that really did deserve more than a first glance. (How often has a poem been rejected by several editors, only to be hailed as a masterpiece once one brave soul finally placed it before the world?) I seem to recall that one or two pieces got a temporary promotion at this stage. Those that failed now were probably written by well intentioned folks who simply hadn’t absorbed enough information about what drives a haiku, what makes it actually a poem, a vehicle for emotions calmly offered through well-chosen words carefully presenting a situation that may mean something to others.
With this group of 40 or so now carefully installed in my small case, I went about my life, taking it with me when I knew I’d have a chance to look them over again. Gradually, over a period of days, I weeded out those haiku that indeed are passable haiku, but which failed to have any larger meaning for me beyond my initial impression. For me, a top quality haiku has a growth quality, some bit of meaning that comes to me only gradually, often not seen consciously on a first or second reading, at first only intuited, felt at a nonverbal level. At this stage, I moved ten or twelve into the “good enough to publish, but not top contestants” category.
Left with 28 contenders, I decided to capitalize on a feature I had begun to notice during my previous round of readings: It seemed as though many of the haiku fell into pairs by theme or image or structure in relation to the materials. In a few minutes, I had them neatly paired. Then, I examined each pair, trying to determine which I thought the better poem. (This has been a method of judging poetry contests in Japan since long before haiku began.) I put the seemingly lesser poems aside, for the moment, and also had a few pairings where it seemed a toss-up. Letting go of the notion of pairs, the next day I went through the poems I’d put aside, to see if any of those really belonged in the final group. One or two did. Then, I mixed all the remaining poems in a new, random order, and the hard work began. I went through them again, and knocked out a few that had survived the pair contests, but didn’t really seem to belong in contention.
I was down to 15 or 16 top contestants. I liked them all. How could I sort out three for top prizes? Or determine which would qualify for honorable mention?
Well, I guess this is the point where my editorial experience came into play. Not merely selecting poems to go in or out of a magazine issue or a collection, but selecting the poems that I would feature. For example, were I doing an anthology, would this poem go on a page by itself, or on a page with two or three others—in the remarkably open and readable style pioneered for us by Eric Amann in his haiku magazines from Toronto, and Cor van den Heuvel in his anthologies?
Here, then, are three Honorable Mentions, in no particular order, which I would be honored to give a full page to in a magazine or anthology:
Watch out, if it hasn’t happened already, some movie or television writer will put this one into a script. Do you feel as I do, that a sculpture garden seems a lot like a cemetery? Well, this one does. In case someone doesn’t know, spiders and their webs are a summer seasonal topic in haiku. For me, this poem presents an image at once chilling and spooky, and truly, deeply comic. The kicker that only comes after that initial response is, how true, how when it’s a statue instead of a person, we can allow ourselves a more than furtive look into the cleavage, and the spider is our just reward.
Some would find this a “desk haiku”, and get upset at the notion. But wait a minute—in fact, sea turtles navigate mainly by a magnetic sense, much as many migratory birds do. (I recommend the University of North Carolina’s excellent website on this topic.) For me, whether the sense involved is visual or magnetic is not the point. The sea turtle knows what to do, where to go, in a way that we, a nonmigratory species, cannot. His whole being is a figurative “eye on a star” from birth. Would that we could hold the goal of maintaining our species so steadfastly. Perhaps the sea turtles would be safer if we did.
There were several poems in this contest that presented carefully wrought language about pure sense images. This one rose toward the top of the stack because of that striking light—“that certain slant” that Emily Dickinson speaks of, only here it takes place outdoors, in the barnyard, or so we suppose. To me, “pale shadows” suggests the later portion of the time between daybreak and sunup. So the poem becomes more than a detached observation, but the observation of someone up early and about the chores, like those chickens. A harmony here reaches beyond the frame of the painting.
Each of these honorable mention haiku certainly could be selected for top honors by another judge. A process like this always comes down to personal taste, when the best entries are so good. So, with that word of caution, I offer my selections for the best haiku in this year’s Francine Porad Haiku Contest. For me, then, each of these three poems does something I’ve never seen done with a haiku before, at least not this way.
Third Prize ($50)
Bob Spiess, one of our great haiku editors, once wrote that a multisensory haiku is likely a better haiku than others, and I have to agree. Here, the one word “hurricane” sets the stage for a whole range of emotions, including dread at the thought of possibly being destroyed, as well as having one’s loved ones, or belongings and possibly livelihood, destroyed. Then, just as these facts take over the periphery of our thoughts, as readers we find ourselves tasting something, something that we—or at least the poet—may taste every day, but which today has a different flavor, a bit of a metallic edge to it, that we had not sensed before. At first, it almost seems pleasant. And then we realize, perhaps as we had not ever realized before, how close the blade of fate came, and how lucky we are, for yet a little while.
Second Prize ($75)
I suppose that if you’ve never endured the drone of a sermon on a winter morning, you might miss this poem. But for me, with many years of such sermons behind me, even the ever recurring midwinter sermon on Christ’s nativity pales at times. Attention wanders, at first, then fixes on something utterly banal, without merit, and with no hope of leading me to salvation. Words evaporate, and “the thing”, whatever it is, penetrates my heart, and a stillness hardly known or recognized by today’s sermonizing breed fills me, toe to head. I may have begun this observation simply noticing that whoever varnished the pews failed to feather in some drops here and there. But, by the end of the sermon, I am in a deeper meditation than church allows, to be jerked out of it by an “amen” or the shuffle as the choir prepares for the next stage of the service. The content of the sermon? I could not tell you. But I am washed clean.
First Prize ($100)
Before living for a decade in Santa Fe, I’d not really noticed sun dogs. I suppose I had seen some in the East, or when I lived for a year in West Texas, as a young serviceman. But in Santa Fe, I came to look for them, particularly during certain weather conditions, as I travelled down a particular hill in the late afternoon. Once sensitized, I think anyone will notice them, and remark on them, if another’s there to share the experience. I thought a long time before giving the first prize to a poem that speaks of war. Only three poems in the contest did that, two of them making it through my first and second readings. This one not only won its pair, but kept rising to the top of the pile. For me, the one thing that cannot be done in a war haiku—though it may work in other kinds of poetry—is taking sides in that war. I think of Ty Hadman’s unforgettable haiku from his experience in Vietnam, “Tet: / both armies / wet”. Here, I see the iridescent clouds, the small scraps of rainbow on either side of the sun in that cold winter sky before the light begins to fade, a phenomenon no doubt older than humankind, though not seen every day. And I see the iridescent sheen of body bags, as they are loaded into or out of a truck, a plane, some conveyance between battlefield and a final resting place. I do not know how the poet feels about this war or any war, if the poet agrees with me or not. But I know that this poem is no casual observation. And the deep sadness it brings is for more than the lives lost.
Well, it can be tough to end on such a somber note. But we are not just playing with words, here. Haiku can and do smile, quite often, and in many ways. But they also can pierce the heart in ways that bring us up against the great questions of the day, and of all human existence. It has been an honor to read these poems, and I thank the poets for that honor, as well as those who have organized this contest.
William J. Higginson