untitled31Haiku are deluding. There’s always this sense that anybody could write them: grab a crumpled napkin, a spare three minutes and a pen and you have something you can call a poem: the right number of syllables staring back at you in all their self-contained smugness. 
Overload’s Rooku of Haiku on Saturday evening ripped apart the image I had of these tiny poetic morsels as the buttered cinema-popcorn of the poetry pantry: crunchable quickly without a second thought, gulped down with some soft drink or other.

In the interest of honest reviewing I arrived late at Dante’s, just in time to see the tail end of Matt Hetherington’s haiku set. What did fascinated me about the tasty morsels I heard of the first set was the way the poet delivered his haiku. I’ve heard haiku read in many ways: syllables drawn out and over-annunciated, in staccato punctuations. The easy and almost conversational tone with which Hetherington delivered his work somehow released the words from their poetic form, rather than trapping them inside it, the way I felt some subsequent readers imprisoned their images.

Up next was Melbourne poet Fiona Stuart, whose desolate images of a difficult mother angering her family through the seasons and a lone owl on a telegraph pole were read in a gentle monotone voice which somehow leant a lonely pathos to her words. Stuart repeated her haiku twice, and I found myself adjusting my hearing accordingly: listening intently on the first delivery, and letting her words drift by on the second.

When Myron Lysenko took to the stage, the crowd requested he also read each haiku twice, then retracted the request when his second delivery of each poem was stiff and uncomfortable. Lysenko painted landscapes with his haiku that I felt I could walk into: a lone green tomato hung on a vine during bushfire season, a magpie stared longingly at a tap during a heatwave. The poet handled his words like shoulder-shrugs: easily and effortlessly. 

Rob Scott’s popular football haiku left me cold, but this was primarily because of the subject matter. I tried not to tune out at talk of perfect passes during warm-ups and opposition colours against the sunset, but found my mind wandering. It was when Scott’s haiku turned to domesticity and everyday life that I found it haunting: hot wind blowing a saucy skirt on a clothesline, the image of a dead father in a daughter’s face.

Lorin Ford is known as one of the best Haiku writers in Australia, but as I sat listening to her work, I wondered about the delivery. Whilst her subject matter of jacaranda buds bursting, native birds taking flight, gumtrees and cicada husks seems to somehow fit the haiku form perfectly, I was only drawn into the poet’s spell at the human prescence in her work. Ford spoke of the white space haiku leave to allow the reader to fill the void but ultimately the reader, or listener, has to want to fill that void. 

The evening brought on short, spicy haiku: from Anna Fern, who punctuated her poetry with various sounds (a slide whistle, the snapping of scissors, a gong) and Michael Reynolds, who delivered quirky haiku about pigeons nodding at poetry readings and performance poets in empty back bars. It was fantastic to hear Michelle Leber, with her steamy haiku-tease of erotic images, and Jen Jewel Brown’s footy retaliation poem gave flight to black cockatoos which screeched away noisily across the sky.
I felt that Maurice McNamara, whose most recent poetry book Half Hour Country  (Small Change Press, 2009) was launched as part of Overload, delivered the most interesting haiku of the evening. Like Hetherington he read easily, as if we were catching slices of conversation. He spoke of children leaving home in second hand cars, of failing miserably at his children’s homework, of commuters missing connections. Despite his clear command of the haiku form, McNamara’s was not a poetry of pretention. It was poetry of the every day, for everybody, and a gentle and articulate finish to the oxymoron of a haiku marathon.

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  1. Sounds like there was a great mix of work aired on the night. This is one event I am really sad to have missed! haiku is certainly more than the syllables. Matt & Maurice are two of my favourite haiku poets… The first time I saw Matt read haiku I was mesmerised.

  2. thanks graham! more sweet words! anyone woulda thunk you’d published me or something! very perceptive review. i also agree that lorin is one of the best haiku writers in oz (you hear me lorin?!), but also that her delivery still lacks something — she reads hers too fast, for me, without enough of the white space (ie. silence) around it, which she is so crucially aware of when it comes to the page. it can be hard to have the courage/indifference/ease to leave silence around performed words, tho, i know…. myron is always sorta relaxed when he reads haiku/rooku/trueku/youku, so his readings are always…relaxing. funny, soft, humble. like him, really. a really, really sweet night. go the sainters!

  3. I enjoyed reading this astute and fascinating review.

    One of the (many) highlights for me was when Gemma, a real estate agent who moved to Melbourne two weeks ago, stumbled upon the reading. Gemma used to converse with her personal trainer in 17 syllable haiku form and she noticed that the haiku which were being read did not follow the syllabic formula, so she asked Jen Jewel Brown what the rules were. Jen told her there were no rules for rooku, so Gemma wrote one on the spot about coming to a new job in Melbourne and then she read it a few minutes later in the Open Section. The audience made her feel welcome and applauded her courage.

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