KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 6: Fall 2016
Nonfiction: 1690 words

Adjudication Report and Commentaries
for KYSO Flash HTP Contest 2016

by Matthew Paul, co-editor of Presence

As with many writing competitions, a good number of entries struggled to find the right balance between saying enough and giving the reader too much information. The three winners and three honourable mentions, though, all achieved that balance.

Tellingly, all six pieces are written in the first person. That’s not to say that outstanding haibun can’t be written any other way because of course they can; yet the format certainly lends itself to the immediacy of the first-person experience however that’s expressed, even perhaps through the “unreliable narrator” lens.

I had no pre-conceptions as to what I was looking for other than a general wish to be stimulated somehow by writing which, even if fictional, contains an element of truth; conveyed in coherent, flowing prose which has clearly been honed—though not edited to its bare bones or as clipped as the diction of an upper-class British film actor of the 1930s—in partnership with haiku or tanka which aren’t merely statements that would have been placed within the prose, but are, instead, poems which are at least good, if not of the highest quality, and which are at a slight or greater tangent, but not excessively so, to the prose. To summarise: the excellence of a haibun invariably lies in the sum of its parts.

I wasn’t necessarily looking for either safe, “traditional” works or experimental ones. My main tests for each haibun and tanka prose were these: would it attract my interest at a first or second reading; would my interest in it deepen on subsequent re-readings; and, simply, would I like it? All six winners passed those tests in spades.

First Place: Approximations

This piece is one which, due to its sheen of self-deprecating humour, discloses its exceptionally fine nuances slowly but memorably. From the outset, in its title, it deals with the theme of uncertainty; that however much we may try to impose order, the unexpected inevitably comes along to disrupt those plans, yet that we should accept that and affirmatively go with the flow. Skilfully, the writer manages to be counter-intuitively exact about imprecision, by moving from (mostly) generality in the first paragraph to the recounting of a funny and endearing anecdote in the second and third paragraphs. In so doing, s/he paints a picture of a likeable couple whose apparently longstanding and solid relationship is, like their quasi-scientific tendencies, “fixed on precision when it comes to certain things”—or, as we discern, in theory at least.
However, that precision is cleverly undercut by the repeated use of “may” in the third and fourth sentences of the first paragraph, by the slash-marks in their job labels and, of course, by the frog foiling, temporarily, the couple’s attempts at serious-ish science. The humorous surprise of the frog’s appearance is beautifully wrought and enhanced by the inclusion of that laconic “Ah, okay” and by the picture the reader gains that it’s not just the frog which “should have learned its lesson the first time” and the second time too, but the couple also. The high jinks of the third paragraph—especially that lovely “‘Yes,’ I sighed, vaguely recalling middle-school science class”—provides a healthy dollop of self-deprecation which is mirrored by the tanka. The accuracy of the eventual, triumphant measurement is patently absurd, given the frog’s unwitting sabotage, and provides a delightful contrast to the happy approximation of “smidgens” as the opening line of the tanka. The last two lines of the tanka could have been embedded within the prose, since they share its central concern, though because the context—of the persona’s ability, or otherwise, to judge quantities of cooking ingredients—is different in both subject and object, it actually works well as a refraction of the themes explored in the prose.
In all, “Approximations” has, in three acts, a unity of form, theme, and purpose which is elegant, highly readable, and multi-layered.

Second Place: Fledged

In the end, it was a close-run thing between first and second, and this, too, would have been a worthy winner. It tells a story that engrosses the reader from its opening, when the authorial voice takes delight in the freedom to be had once children have grown up, as hinted at in the title. Some of the lines are instantly memorable, “Pockets come into their own now” for instance, and that marvellous “like a toddler in her first year of shoes.” That sense of leaving the nest is developed by the first haiku, in which the unspecified bird seems proudly on the edge of flight into spring.
Most impressive, though, is the exceedingly well managed pace of the prose—the tension is ratcheted up, in the third paragraph, by reducing the length of the sentences to almost bite-size pieces of thought, which portray well the increasing nervousness of the adult in that situation, and by the repetition of “(me being a stranger and all).” When it comes, the description of the mother’s relief is realised through a superb simile: “She flings her arms around him, lifting him clean off the ground so that he hangs like a teddy who’s been loved so much and so long his stuffing is all but wrung out.”
For me, though, the final haiku seems unnecessary, primarily because most readers have already intuited that “the ‘L’ word” is “lost.” Nevertheless, that shouldn’t—and doesn’t—detract from the conclusion that this is a fine, emotionally affecting, and well-turned haibun.

Third Place: Shallow

Although this is a much shorter piece than the other five, sometimes less, as we all know, is more—and inasmuch as what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. The title is clearly intended to have a double meaning: the water referred to in the haiku is shallow due to the low tide, and shallow is what the narrative voice is trying very hard not to be by remaining “on friendly terms” with the sister’s ex-husband and calling him by a more sympathetic term. For me, what makes the haibun work so well, though, is the intriguing, possibly double-edged second and third lines of the haiku and how they reflect back into the haibun. The “man” in the haiku might not be the same one as the man in the haibun; either way, the words hint beyond the actual skipping of stones to become a metaphor of sorts for the difficulties which beset relationships, both within a marriage and the immediate familial circle, and in its aftermath. Whether or not there is also a suggestion that the narrator has a special fondness for the ex-brother-in-law is open to speculation. Despite its brevity, I heartily admire this haibun’s open-endedness, and how it is simultaneously rooted in the past and the present and looks towards the future.

Honourable Mention 1: In the Beginning

This is perhaps the most straightforward of the six winning works, but it’s no less compelling for that. The reader is immediately drawn into the sights and sounds of the scene, “in the delivery room, moments after [the granddaughter had] given her requisite lusty cry and been placed on her mother’s belly” and the economy of words is just right from then on. Such a piece could easily be syrupy, but here the writer uses rich humour—of the baby’s cooing; the midwife’s intervention; the reactions of the persona’s friend and husband; and in the haiku—to balance out the high emotion of the events. Despite being a continuation of sorts of the narrative in the prose, the haiku, or rather the sonic comparison within it, is entirely in keeping with the joyous mixture of delight and wonder in the story that precedes it. In the end, the title adds little to the overall success of the haibun, which more than capably speaks for itself.

Honourable Mention 2: Ecotones of the Spirit

I particularly like this haibun because of the unexpected, existential direction in which it heads, and how it does so in an entirely natural and impressively candid manner. The often, if not permanently, precarious balance between humankind and “nature” is reflected by the narrator’s fluctuating “psychological ecotone” and self-esteem. The physical condition of the buck, with “scars on his hide,” seems to mirror the less visible but no less damaging scars on the narrator’s “spirit.” The change in perspective from the second to the third paragraph is expertly managed, and the verbalisation of the narrator’s psychological state—in “that feathery place between hope and resignation” is wonderful.
It’s worth noting that, of all six winning pieces, this one contains far and away the best poem, in terms of excellence per se and in how it relates to, and achieves a unity with, the prose: the bird, with its melodious song ringing out in spite of the coldness, which, like the buck, can be seen as a metaphor for the persona’s mental existence, as it varies between desperate fragility and chemically-induced euphoria. The reference to “feathers puffed” in the haiku adroitly leads the reader back to the “feathery place” within the prose.
If “confessional haibun” becomes a sub-genre, in the same vein as the poetry pioneered by, inter alios, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and, more recently, Sharon Olds, then I’m all for it if the writing is as generous and rewarding as this.

Honourable Mention 3: Dear Nancy Drew

Being a Brit, my awareness of the Nancy Drew books is more than a little limited. Nonetheless I was hooked by this mightily impressive haibun from the start; by the title being an integral part of the haibun; and then by the creative and highly original combination of: the epistolary poem form; and how the humorous and sassy tone contains a layer of contempt for how the heteronormative surface of the books has hidden an alternative orientation. Even the way in which the haiku is worked into the haibun is different and ingenious, as is the content of the haiku, with its intimation—less directly expressed, as befits a haiku, than in the letter—of appearances not being quite what they seem.

—Matthew Paul
Surbiton, Surrey, England
Matthew Paul
Issue 6, Fall 2016

has served on the editorial team at Presence haiku journal for ten years, as reviews editor and, since 2014, as co-editor. He lives and works in the outskirts of London and has been writing haiku since 1990. Snapshot Press published his first collection, The Regulars, in 2006 and his second, The Lammas Lands, in December 2015. With John Barlow, he co-wrote and co-edited Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2007), an anthology which reflects his love of the natural world and avian life in particular.

Matthew’s haiku have been anthologized in, among others, Haiku in English: the First Hundred Years (W.W. Norton, 2013), The Iron Book of British Haiku and The Humours of Haiku (both from Iron Press), The New Haiku and Where the River Goes (both from Snapshot Press), and Off the Beaten Track (Boatwhistle).

With John Barlow, he has run haiku workshops for the Essex Poetry Festival and Poetry South, presented at Haiku North America, and read at New Networks for Nature symposia. He has also contributed to the Guardian’s “Country Diary” column.

Matthew’s haibun appear in publications such as Contemporary Haibun Online, and his poems have appeared in a variety of venues, including The Rialto, Poetry Ireland Review, magma poetry, nthposition, ink sweat and tears webzine, The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 (Eyewear Publishing), and Poetry from Art: Shaping Poems (Tate Modern).

Matthew Paul / Poems

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Swallowtails, haibun in Contemporary Haibun Online (October 2013)

Matthew Paul Reads from High Wire, his collection which was shortlisted in the 2012 Poetry School/Pighog Poetry Pamphlet Competition (30 May 2013)


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