The Robert Spiess Memorial
2016 Haiku Awards
As a memorial to Editor Bob Spiess, who died on March 13, 2002, Modern Haiku sponsors the Robert Spiess Memorial Haiku Award Competition.
I am grateful to have been invited to judge this year’s Robert Spiess Memorial Haiku Award Competition. I began to study Robert’s "Speculations" at some point in the 1980’s, and was particularly delighted with his A Year’s Speculations on Haiku when it was published by Modern Haiku Press in 1995. Before getting down to work on this year’s submissions, I printed out the single "Speculation" for contestants to consider and kept it beside me while assessing the submitted poems. Bob wrote:
As haiku poets we can learn much from such sources as the traditional mas- ters' haiku and from contemporary haiku publications; but our best teachers are wind and rain, oaks and anemones, rivers and mountains, minnows and giraffes, eagles and earthworms, children and God's fools.
For me this "Speculation" echoes Basho’s advice to go to the pine if we wish to truly know the pine. While studying the proffered haiku, I sought those that best expressed the essence of what the poet perceived. At the same time I hoped to discern an implication: the poet recognizing the source of inspiration to represent his or her state of being at that moment. Even better if, at the moment of recognition, there was no separation between the observer and the observed.
My thanks to all of the poets who sent their heartfelt moments of in- spiration. A first pass at the 500+ poems left about half in the running. After that things became increasingly difficult. In all, I made six cuts. By the fourth, I was down to fifty-one poems. Some of those that remained were entertainingly clever, but the overt presence of the poet persisted, distracting me from the crux of the experience. Others presented keen observations or breathtaking imagery but evoked little resonance. There were poems with just the right amount of rhythm and lilt but not much depth. A few were profound, but ungainly in construction. Several of those fifty-one poems haunted me. I was drawn to them for reasons my mind simply could not fathom. I wanted very much to consider them but, towards the end, they fell away. Simply too many foreheads would furrow as mine did.
Eight poems survived all six cuts. Picking the three I felt were best, and ranking them? That wasn’t easy, but I am happy with my choices. The five runners-up are also excellent poems that continue to resonate.
Before sending my decisions to Modern Haiku, I went back over the entire package of poems one more time to see if I might have missed a gem. I don’t think I did, though there were other fine haiku, poems worthy of publication. There are a great many facets of haiku-craft. Some are controversial. For me, when it comes right down to it, no poem satisfies more than a majority of the most commonly acknowledged criteria. As I considered and reconsidered the submitted haiku that I felt have the most to offer, I kept Robert Spiess's "Speculation" foremost in my mind. Yes, there is much we can learn from the traditional masters and from modern-day innovators. And yes, we must not hold on to our preferences too tightly if we wish to see with clarity what a thing has to teach. Without walls of the mind, things will write themselves.
Christopher Herold, Judge
Billie Wilson, contest coordinator
First Prize: Ann Magyar
somehow the children
Robert Spiess reminds us that “[among] our best teachers are . . . children and God's fools.” That tent city, how depressing it is. And how uplifting, those kites. Even in the most dire circumstances, kids will be kids. With just seven words the poet exposes one of the more distressing conditions that we fools have created and, with the same seven words, offers the gifts of hope and of the joy that our children bring us.
Second Prize: Joe MdKeon
in a sand castle moat
Here again, I find what Robert Spiess tells us can be learned from “... children and God’s fools.” I am impressed by the exceptional clarity of the images presented. Readers everywhere should have no difficulty accessing the initial connection: the plight we have created for ourselves. The sand castle represents fantasies and dreams, especially if we imagine that a child has built it. The oil-filled moat points to something ominous: the potential loss of that future altogether. The screeching gulls intensify the sadness and pessimism brought forth by what we are shown. This haiku is also well-crafted both visually and in its musicality. The short-long-short presentation leads the eye naturally through the observation to the cut, and then back—to the scolding. The 2-3-cut-2 rhythm of accented syl- lables serves to lubricate the reading. If you read the poem as a rhythm of 2-2-cut-2, that works just as well. The harsh sound of the verb “screeching” ideally describes the noise gulls make and, in this case, the unpleasant notion of why they are upset.
Third Prize: Michele L. Harvey
so little left
of the no trespassing sign . . .
The emergence of spring brings an irrepressible desire to go out into the warming world. Blossoms may already be appearing here and there. Grasses are beginning to poke through the melting snow. Perhaps the snow had something to do with the deterioration of the sign, perhaps not. It may have taken many years for the letters to fade, the sign itself to rust, or, if made of wood, to rot away. Whatever the case, the forbidding words now appear diminished. If the owners of the property were really concerned with trespassers, wouldn’t they see to it that the sign was maintained, or replaced? I can imagine the poet pondering this while debating whether or not to take a risk. After all, just look what’s beyond the gate. Yes, use your imagination.
Honorable Mentions (unranked)
news of refugees
the pieces of sea glass
I decide to keep
While searching a beach for pieces of sea glass, recent news of the plight of refugees niggles at the back of the poet’s mind. He or she focuses on finding glass. There are choices to be made: preferences of color, shape, size, texture ... The decision to select or bypass this or that piece of glass continues until, all at once, the connection is made. Deciding what to keep and what to leave becomes inconsequential in light of the choices being made by so many governments—dire choices. How many refugees will be offered asylum? Which refugees? So many of the frightened peo- ple who managed to survive their journeys have crossed vast bodies of water. They’ve landed on beaches, the poet realizes, just like this one. Which of them will be turned away? A handful of sea glass from a more extensive pollution—bits and pieces of discarded bottles, gloss worn away by the chaffing sand.
each branch with
Here is another excellent example of effective implication, a hallmark of the best haiku. Show, don’t tell! How broad or slender a branch are you? What length? Human or non-human, flora or fauna, no matter what stage of life, every sentient being must either directly or indirectly bear the weight of the elements. And not just the various meteorological phenomena. To some degree or other, every decision made, no matter how slight, affects everything else. This haiku presents significant snowfall. The weight can be borne with equanimity ... or not. How heavy does it feel to you? Every branch has a breaking point. Can you say ... Can you tell me there is a point at which the burden is no longer a burden? The em-dash accentuates the weight of the snow and, for me, the dangling preposition is best left where it is. As a result, the final line has greater strength, even more so as it reflects the first line.
a cricket leaps
out of its shadow
Imagine yourself in place of the poet. Could be any number of locations. I choose a sunny bench in a garden. I sit down and relax, notebook and pen by my side, eyes coming to rest at the verge of the hard packed path that led me to the bench. In that spot, at that very moment, the cricket (I didn’t see it) takes to the air, the flurry of wings startling me. As I follow the insect’s trajectory, it occurs to me that its shadow, for the briefest of moments, must have been visible. The whir of wings lasts a couple of sec- onds, just long enough to emphasize the stillness from which the cricket burst and into which it landed. I reach for my pad and pen. Are we no more than shadows until inspiration insists we take action? The stillness came to life, leapt out of oblivion, became a cricket, became a poet, the readers of a poem.
the cat grooming
Lesley Anne Swanson
Catness (no, not as in Hunger Games—Katniss). Cats groom. It’s their thing, ordinary as the day this poem was written. Even the single-word- no-image final line doesn’t detract. Rather it serves to evoke feline nature. What I like about this haiku is that the inspiration does not sprout from a breathtaking event, or unusual scene. The poet is not jolted into action by some sudden stimuli. We are invited to enjoy a subtler, more refined level of haiku-craft: the profound appreciation of what is ordinary.
neither of us mentions
Have you been to the Grand Canyon? Looking down from the edge (or between your feet if standing on the amazing glass Skywalk), you will see layers of rock dating back millions of years. The sheer enormity of the view is enough to leave you speechless. It is a place where the word “awesome” can actually be used with newfound appreciation. Probably birds are singing and, depending where you are, there may be cars or a bus driving past, a helicopter or small plane cruising overhead. There may be people nearby who are talking. You and your friend maybe talking, too. When there is sufficient awe, whatever sounds there may be are drowned out by the all-embracing silence. A silence so powerful it seems to demand not to be mentioned. In such a place, our very existence gains perspective, gains humility.
Christopher Herold, judge
Billie Wilson, contest coordinator