Poets Throw Down in Haiku Duel

(Last Updated On: August 21, 2007)

by Amy Kingsley

It’s a Thursday night and eight competitors fueled by free wine and bottled water, thrilled by the previous hour’s Sonia Sanchez lecture, and caught up in the maelstrom of the nation’s largest haiku convention queue up for the first ever Haiku North America Slam.

Tazuo Yamaguchi, the competition host, wraps himself in a kimono and drapes around his neck something resembling a mock-up radio with rabbit ears. The competitors, a grayer group than the usual slam poetry crowd, balance sheets of poetry in their laps and chat.

Haiku, for those who’ve forgotten their secondary school lit lessons, is a short Japanese poem consisting of three lines of five, seven and five syllables. In fact, a haiku can be more – or less – than the standard 17 syllables.

These poets are exemplars of haiku as a flexible form. Not just five-seven-five, but sometimes three-four-five, or seven-three-four. The haiku, she said, is like the butterfly – a piercing image.

“You know you have the right length of a haiku when you can say it in one breath,” Sanchez said. “That breath keeps us alive.”

And if slam poetry is the verbal equivalent of barroom brawling, a subcultural contest peopled by hip-hop literati, then slam haiku is something else entirely, a literary competition with all the elegance and finality of a pistol duel.

“We are making world history,” Yamaguchi says. “This is the first head-to-head haiku match ever at a haiku conference.”

He’s having to sell this thing. Haiku is a fragile form, a short poem that often celebrates the natural world.

“I started hosting haiku slams about three years ago,” Yamaguchi says. “And I realized, there is nothing new about this. It’s ancient, and it’s a ritual more than a competition.”

The competitors draw to see who wears the red and not-red (white) headbands. Three judges vote a winner, and the poet with the best three out of five moves on.

Beaten to death

for candy

pi-ata, reads Johnette Downing, a poet from New Orleans.

She moves on to the next round. The next competitor, David Lanoue, knocks out his competitor with just three short poems. A sample:

Dirt road moon

frogs we gigged

heavy in the bag.

Carlos Col-n, also from Louisiana, takes the next round:

Zen concert

an air guitar

slightly out of tune

David Russo, a local boy from Cary, rounds out the semifinal lineup.

A snowflake

falling into the darkness

of a tuba, he reads.

The competitors catch their breath before the second round. The rules are the same, and Downing and Lanoue are the first to square off. Lanoue wins the round.

Roasting a rattlesnake

we talk about girls, he reads. Eleven syllables, he moves on.

Then Col-n and Russo joust. The poems drop.

Train with no caboose

like an unfinished…

It will be David from New Orleans versus David from Cary in the final round. This round will go to nine points out of 17, and Yamaguchi readies the beads he will use to tally.

The last round is close enough to lose count, but the white gradually accumulate on Russo’s side of the counter.

Clawhammer banjo

the veteran plants his cane

to dance, Russo says.

After the competition, Russo reflects.

“It was a good way to get into the spirit of things,” he said. “That’s kind of what you hope for at something like this.”

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