John Hawkhead was one of the finalists with the following tanka. Here are some questions he answered about his poem and process:
isotope de c a y
in a glass
I have been fascinated by science and, in particular, quantum physics for years. Unfortunately mathematics is not my strong suit so I have to content myself with verbal descriptions of this strange subatomic universe and our existence as part of it. Many scientists don't really like poetry as it tends to work away from concise descriptions of reality (so say the scientists) but to me poetry has a lot to say about strange quantum phenomena and how it impinges on human consciousness and existence. It can also represent the decay of a relationship or, in the wider sense, our relationship with nature.
What other forms, formats, or iterations did you consider, and why do you think the poem had to be written this way? I did move the words and letters around in the space to see how they worked in other iterations. This one seemed to keep the meaning I intended but also indicates disintegration. It was the best way, for me, to express the poem's meaning.
Physically I wanted to break the poem up so readers would think about the words differently and step through it differently to a reading of a standard word stream or format. Ultimately, it represents how we will all break down eventually but return to our essential atoms and the process that will follow, whereby we will become something else. So, hopefully, the different structure supports the meaning in a way that opens it to new readers.
'In a glass darkly' follows a long tradition of using 'through a glass darkly' in film, literature and poetry from its origin in the Bible. It's such a great open term with so many connotations and in this case I hoped to open readers' minds to someone disappearing into the darkness they have faced for many years . . . just one potential reading of a life.
We were honored to read such a widely-varied batch of high-quality submissions for our inaugural contest. With 9 voting panelists, it was a difficult task to come to agreement on many poems and it was not easy to predict which poems would eventually make their way to the end of shortlist. We created a rubric to score the poems and all poems over a decided score are included in the list of finalists.
Overall, there were 406 entries (266 haiku and 140 tanka) from 39 countries and the moon!
Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany. Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, UK, Ukraine, USA, Vietnam, and the moon!
Please enjoy the selected poems and the commentary written by some of our voting panelists (GRIX, Julie Bloss Kelsey, Kat Lehmann, m. shane pruett, Shloka Shankar, Christine L. Villa, Margaret Walker) as well as Alan Summers (who abstained from voting).
Stay tuned over the coming months as we will be featuring short interviews with our finalists in regard to their selected poems.
(Post best viewed in desktop format.)
the after ambulance
Tacoma, Washington, USA
Kat: The siren, although unstated, is audible due to the positioning of the words. As we read the first six words, the poem seems to point to the silence after someone dies and the efforts to revive them have ceased. The poem primes the reader emotionally with loss then uses this priming to express the inner silencing of transphobic deadnaming.
Julie: The visual element of Castle’s poem hooked me immediately: the wavy line of text calls to mind both an ambulance siren and an electrocardiograph. The harsh reality of death is placed on a lower line, followed by the elevation of “name,” perhaps a posthumous celebration of life. And yet, that celebration is tempered with the knowledge that the deceased person is being referred to by their “dead name,” an all-too-common occurrence for members of the trans community. This poem is both socially relevant and visually exciting.
Alan: The haiku by Aidan Castle could be about anyone, and any gender, how our names might only become important for administrative reasons. Of course, dead and name could also be the birth name of a transgender person who’s changed their name as part of their gender transition. Names hold power, for all sorts of reasons, and this haiku with its apparent non-linear appearance is all the more powerful as it includes all of us, even those who risk being labeled as ‘too’ different for some. The use of ‘silence’ has avoided that word/term becoming a regular trope that veers dangerously into cliché in haiku.
The scattered visual of words suggests our belongings (physical and invisible) when we are struck by a vehicle (metaphorical or literal). Use of the definite article feels strident, and I can read “the silence,” “silence the dead,” “the after ambulance,” as well as “after the ambulance,” and the coaxing or sympathetic sound of ‘the’ said out loud several times as if a crowd is voicing ‘there, there, never mind.’
30th of June
my unidentified flag
furls into itself
Franklin, Michigan, USA
Julie: Cherrin-Myers’ beautiful haiku is easy to overlook on first read: an unassuming day, an unidentified flag. And yet, this is precisely what makes this poem so powerful. The 30th of June marks the end of Pride Month. The subject of this poem doesn’t have a flag yet – maybe they are unsure themselves of how they identify, or perhaps their gender or sexual identity hasn’t been recognized yet. Laced with longing, frustration, pride, and exhaustion, this poem brings to light a segment of society that hasn’t yet been represented in haiku. This poem was my personal favorite from the contest – it captivated me and unfolded in my mind over time.
GRIX: Our world is governed by labels, and flags for many, can feel like giant labels. For those who don’t feel “at home” within existing labels, flags, and ceremonies around them can feel intimidating and isolating. Pride Month, a time that should allow folx to openly “wave their flags” can be traumatizing to people who have still yet to identify which flag(s) to raise up the flagpole, leading to self-gaslighting. This deeply-personal poem quietly reflects on this month of heightened self-doubt.
Alan: I’m reminded of the 1860 debate on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution held at the Oxford University Museum and dominated by arguments between Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. It seems we have not progressed as much as we might think and hope. The Pentagon, for instance, will not recognise the rainbow-colored Pride flag, which represents the LBGTQ+ community, despite many of them bravely representing their country during conflicts both at home and overseas.
At a time when trans rights and all kinds of human rights are being challenged, this feels horribly timely, and all too topical. People were beginning to unfurl their individual flags and now they might have to fold them out of sight and hide them all over again.
poppy field all I see is red
Tuckahoe, New York, USA
Shane: One observation, seven words. This poem so perfectly captures a dark history wrapped in deceptive beauty, and the emotion it inspires in the author. A poppy field is objectively beautiful, but that belies the harsh reality of the opioid crisis that is tearing apart families and even communities. The juxtaposition of the vibrant landscape and the raw emotion generated by its ultimate desolation is arresting. The author has skillfully distilled the moment into its legacy.
Chrissi: Both parts of the haiku consist of the color red. They are similar, but if you dig deeper, you will find a stark contrast. Among the many symbolisms of poppies, peace in death is one of them. How can the poet find peace in death if all he sees is red at the end of this monoku? Is it a war zone or a blazing fire?
Alan: I can’t help but think of WWI and WWII battlefields and how some countries honor the lost soldiers at war with a red poppy badge. Also, intentional or otherwise, I see an allusion to famous haikai verses by Matsuo Bashō, Michael McClintock, and John Stevenson respectively.
Identity comes across strongly, and how it needs to be defended, but I wish it wasn’t always with blood being shed.
Poppies mean two things to me: the huge death rate of WWI followed by WWII and ongoing conflicts ever since, and the poppy fields more likely to do with harvesting illegal drugs to entrap more people into a deeper downward spiral. We tend to notice red as something unusual and it pops out although it’s no brighter than green and yellow. Red is the colour of hunger, anger, bloodshed, or something striking in nature, as if unusual, or at least that it “stands out.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the colour green first, for once?
cherry please help me blossom I’m being held captive haiku
Kat: Many poems sit at the intersect between haiku and senryu such that the categorization of some poems can be somewhat subjective. This poem further tests the boundary between these forms and weaves elements of haiku and senryu in a new way. The kigo ‘cherry blossom’ does not seem to be compared to the human-centered element. Rather, the kigo acts as a distraction to “hide” the senryu message of being held captive. The poem becomes a message passed under the table and can be read humorously. In a more serious reading, the poem is a reminder that even while tragedy occurs, cherry blossoms continue to bloom.
Shloka: The telegraphic nature of this monoku is what made me chuckle upon first reading it. Deceptively simple, the poet pleads, in all earnestness, for their haiku to be finally rid of the infamous trope that is the cherry blossom. Who among us has not written a cherry blossom ku in some stage of our haiku journey? To say it is akin to a proverbial rite of passage would not be an exaggeration. This is a genuinely clever piece of writing in more ways than one. Let’s “blossom” out of it, shall we?
GRIX: I knew on first reading this would be on my longlist. It has a satirical top note that seems to poke some good-natured fun at the classic cherry blossom haiku trope while simultaneously drawing you in to seek the middle, and then the base notes. “Please help me / I’m being held captive” could be read as further cribbing about feeling pigeonholed by what are considered “acceptable” topics in haiku, to a genuine “traditional” cherry blossom haiku about their beauty (in an alternate format), to an SOS message if taken quite literally. This ku packs a lot into a single line and is a great example of what one-liners can achieve if we look beyond simply putting our tercets on one line.
Alan: Languages have plenty of words that have multiple meanings and uses even without including slang and colloquialisms to the already rich mix. Another haiku about a name perhaps, as we often take names from plants, such as Cherry, and also Bryony, Marigold, Chloe, Hazel, Holly, Iris, Jasmine, Lily, Rose, Yvette, and Yves. Another reminder that we are interconnected with the planet and its other lifeforms. Of course, haikai verses and tanka have long been code, and we all live by code, whether genetic, behavioural, or working for the CIA, or sending out a ‘second message’ if we are held in a black site.
The words in words, so we have both ‘please help me blossom’ (evolve, grow, etc . . ..) and a plea we should all heed, that of ‘please help me.’ Interesting play off with ‘help’ and ‘held’ read with and without ‘captive.’
isotope de c a y
in a glass
Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, UK
Shane: John links the often slow, mysterious process of isotopic decay to his own physical or even mental decline via aging. He acknowledges the loss of seemingly small but weighty pieces of himself, loss that inevitably changes him. Maybe he has become more stable, but laments parts of his youth no longer accessible to him. He views this personal journey only imperfectly, drawing on the rich literary history of “the glass darkly,” a biblical metaphor used by many authors to denote our imperfect ability to see; in this case to truly grasp our own change. The broken, irregular delineation of the lines slows the reader down, and adds weight and gravity to a splendid poem.
Kat: The poem combines references to science and religion to comment on the nature of human existence. The disintegration constant, or the rate of decay, of an atomic isotope is specific to that particular entity. After the isotope decays over periods of half-lives, it is transformed into another isotope. What type of isotope am I and what type of isotope are you? When will we be transformed into “other”? The third line may refer to 1 Corinthians 13:12 (“For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face”) that describes human perception as if we see the world through a mirror. None of us knows the rate of our transition to the next state. We can know only so much about our fate.
Alan: Of course, ‘glass’ and ‘darkly’ make me instantly think of Through a Glass Darkly, the 1961 Swedish film by Ingmar Bergman.
Just as isotopes can decay, although it takes an incredibly long time, so we may not see our long-term decay over our many generational stages of trying to be human.
The use of the word decay being broken up is a visual clue of something breaking up and ultimately being reduced. The use of a line’s space between the lines, well, there’s always something between the lines. The lines that hold a word between, as well as acting as sharp line breaks, all add to the horror of something or someone deteriorating with no return.
all I remember
is the smell
and __________ .
Viana do Castelo, Portugal
Kat: Using a fill-in-the-blank with a period, the tanka triggers a decades-old childhood memory. The symbol is as specific as the intoxicating scent of mimeograph paper. Not only does the fill-in-the-blank make a specific reference for those who remember these odorous paper handouts, it turns the tanka itself into a pop quiz for the reader to answer.
Margaret: The opening lines of this tanka immediately trigger the smell of the freshly mimeographed paper used in schools before the days of copy machines. The first action of almost every student was to hold the paper to their nose to sniff the purple or blue duplicator fluid used in the “ditto” (mimeograph) machine. The “blank” at the end not only illustrates the fill-in-the-blank tests but also leaves the reader with a space to “fill in” school day memories. A tanka illustrative of the power of scent!
Alan: I asked someone about this, and it was common practice amongst both teachers and children at school to smell the ink, almost as an involuntary act built over years of habit. What was your memory as the smell of ink triggered something in your life? Can you, the reader, fill in that blank?
leaky K channels –
the molecular basis
of my heebie-jeebies
Mercer Island, Washington, USA
Shane: The nerd in me revels in the use of science in haiku. Flowers and birds are easy to poeticize but molecular structures and processes usually defy such attempts. Mark has done a great and humorous job of tying his potentially irrational fears to his internal physiological processes, suggesting along the way that there is something creepy about the process itself.
Kat: The poem mixes science with humor, and also combines slang with the abbreviation for a chemical element. Although “leaky K channels” is something the poet clearly understands, readers who do not know the symbol for the element Potassium will require an internet search. In these ways, the poem broadens the subject matters addressed in the genre while pushing the reader to consider what might be required of them to read and understand a haiku.
Margaret: It was the “heebie-jeebies” that immediately caught my attention in this haiku. A term I haven’t heard since my grandmother died, she would sometimes remark that something gave her the “heebie-jeebies” — usually referring to an eerie feeling or one of anxiety. Pairing this old-fashioned slang with the relatively new scientific information that potassium membranes are linked to neuron excitability (and pain) is brilliant. (Additional note: “Heebie Jeebies” probably originated from a 1926 song of that name by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.)
Alan: I learnt that K channels are membrane proteins, reminding me that all animals are living entities, and that humans are not alone on this planet. This combination of science and colloquialism made me realize that, at some point, we all need to learn a little science, whether through chronic health or heading into a plague era.
The hidden K sounds in the first two lines play off the sound rhymes of hee and jee.
the a(n)esthetic of ableist thought
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Shloka: This monoku is so carefully crafted; each word has its own weight and adds resonance to the overall poem. As a person living with a disability, it instantly hit me hard. Ableism may not be something that most of us are even conscious of, but, unfortunately, it exists and must be addressed. Ask yourself: What would the world look like if we worked towards building more inclusive spaces and de-stigmatized disability?
Julie: Ableist thought permeates our society in ways that are hard to see if you are not disabled. Morell’s poem refers to this subtly with parentheses around the “n.” The aesthetic versus anesthetic duality of what is considered the societal norm depends strongly upon which group of people – which "n" – you identify with. An effective economy of words.
Alan: I love this quote from Daryl Chow MA, Ph.D., which states “A doctor applies an anaesthetic when she wants the patient to feel nothing. If aesthetic is numbness, an aesthetic awareness is a door to wonderment.”
This haiku reminds me that we all need to regularly dust off and readjust our judgmental filters. We are only able if we do not disable our humanity.
ALT: Words and their lightened imprint: handcrafting my introversion inside reverse folding the chiyogami
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
Chrissi: The image of folding an origami has been used countless times before in Japanese short-form poetry, but it takes a new twist in this tanka. Not only is it written in a powerful one-line tanka, but it is also formatted differently to convey how the poet creatively attempts to “handcraft” her introversion.
GRIX: Chiyogami is used in many crafts, in addition to origami. The formatting of the poem and what would be the pivot word ‘inside’ suggests handcrafted bookmaking. Perhaps the author is using this gorgeous paper to build themselves a secret fortress inside: their “introversion.” This temple is a safe space to hold their most private and sacred parts of themselves.
Alan: Chiyogami is a beautifully printed paper from Japan, originally used for paper dolls and decoration of tins and boxes, which all have their own kind of insides embellished or concealed.
I’ve seen this as a five-line and a one-line tanka. The one-line tanka has a mirror image of itself. They both work, in my opinion, although I’m leaning towards the one-line/Doppelgänger/mirror-image version. For me, that center word “inside” underpins the whole poem, whether the 5-line or 1-2 line version. Aren’t we all about what is inside of us, not just physically, but what really controls our impulses, dreams, drive, or even wanting to run and hide?
cowbells . . .
one thought bumping
Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India
Chrissi: The effective use of juxtaposition in this haiku creates a playful comparison between two images. I hear a thought bumping into another with a musical sound of a cowbell that is both optimistic and celebratory.
Margaret: Combining both the image and the sound of the clappers of cowbells, this is a wonderful analogy of thought patterns. Often seemingly random, my own thoughts jump about like the bells of cattle as they speed their pace to the barn at the end of the day. Sometimes, like this haiku, becoming a harmonious whole.
GRIX: What at first might be read as a rather “traditional” haiku, its trailblazing qualities lie in this deception. The strongest aspect of the poem is that of the senses, particularly in its employment of synesthesia. The sound of the cowbells and the physical feeling of the mind on overload get confused and we can feel the bells clang in our heads, see thoughts bump off one another like a frenzied herd of cattle. The result is a mental crescendo that is palpable.
Alan: Ah, yes, our thoughts bumping around our head, bumping into each other, and each person’s verbalised or physically enacted thoughts bumping into each other, for good or not-so-good acts. The single-word opener gives us both sound and atmosphere (whether witnessed in life or in documentary or film). The segue from bovine movement to our thoughts bumping and chiming, hopefully sympathetically or at least mutually non-destructive, resonates beyond the poem.
ALT: Suggestion of water and reflected image of the words: capsized I sink deeper into the shipwreck of my body
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Chrissi: This tanka is not only visually compelling, with the jumbled arrangement of the letters of “capsized” and the upside-down reflection of the words of the whole poem, but is also poetically poignant.
Shloka: I recently read a poem by Jim Harrison titled ‘Becoming,’ and the opening lines, for me, truly encapsulate the emotions underlying this brilliantly crafted concrete tanka:
Nowhere is it the same place as yesterday.
None of us is the same person as yesterday.
We finally die from the exhaustion of becoming.
We all have to face the inevitable uphill battle of growing old and frailer as the years pass us by. The visual potency of this poem, seen as a mirror image, is somehow magnified, staring us straight in the face. What particularly struck me was L2: the “i” in lowercase is almost a depiction of helplessness, the image of being lost at sea, without any kind of anchor.
On the other hand, there is a quiet sense of acceptance that pervades this poem, making it all the more appealing and relatable.
Julie: Strange’s visual poem about the loss of health evokes a boat, with scattered letters over the surface of the water implying deeper problems lurking just beneath the waves. The placement of the letters in “capsized” – with “i” in the center – brings to mind a spinning vortex. This is reflected in the rest of the text – “sink deeper into the shipwreck of my body.” The repetition of the vortex, both visually and conceptually, effectively implies that the subject of the poem is also falling deeper into depression over their situation. Expertly crafted.
Alan: The use of I on its own line has me thinking of times when ‘we’ as an individual capsize, and the “i” is reduced by circumstances, and social pressure. Of course, health is always an issue, and sometimes it’s not merely physical and physiological, but affected by external issues such as politics, war and famine, poverty, intimidation, and other circumstances beyond our control. The “i” needs to stand on its own line, as we must never lose sight of ourselves despite extraordinary times and peer pressure.
the hole in the thought of a snake in the wall
Exeter, New Hampshire, USA
Kat: The structure of this poem is interesting, and a quick read might see it as a nonsense poem. But “the hole in the thought” provides our gateway into the poem. The “hole” could refer to the physical means of gathering sensory information for the brain to process, or it could be abstract, such as Leonard Cohen’s crack for the light (of understanding, in this case) to enter. Taken further, the “wall” could refer to a literal housing of the mind or, again, it could be abstract, as with the selfhood that separates us into individuals.
Shloka: A stunning example of how one can use multiple cuts in a monoku. This poem reminded me of ‘Snake’ by D. H. Lawrence, where the reptile is a metaphor for several things, including sin, class/society, and the persona’s own “accursed education.” Here, the poet has chosen to leave the poem open-ended in its abstractness. As a result, it heightens the poem’s enigmatic quality and doesn’t beg for dissection or oversimplification.
Alan: This haiku got me thinking about how we are governed by all sorts of holes, from the spouts of equipment that produce drinks and other liquids, to containers that require a hole to contain things, and perhaps to the ultimate hole, the Black Hole! And don’t thoughts have holes in them, where we shouldn’t plug them up, but fill them with something useful, while it's snaking around our wall-mind attitudes?
I’ve been experimenting with the definite article more and more, and here the repeated “the” with the indefinite article [a] almost in the middle, and the internal use of “a” with snake and wall creates both the sinuousness of thoughts and Serpentes, and how we use this symbology of something slippery being sinister and portentously flawed or wrong.
GRIX: Just a visual for those not familiar with multiple breaks in one-line haiku . . .
the hole in the thought of a snake in the wall (no break)
the hole in the thought / of a snake in the wall
the hole / in the thought / of a snake in the wall
the hole / in the thought of a snake / in the wall
the hole / in the thought / of a snake / in the wall