The Refinery: yousei hime

Another day, another Refinery. The last couple of days were chaotic first with… well, chaos, but then with joy. I was supposed to head home for an Important Family Event, which was rescheduled due to this blizzard we had. (Note: “blizzard” conditions require a certain amount of snow, a certain amount of windspeed, and a consequent certain reduction of visibility. By the view from my office window, I can attest that it certainly met the criteria.) I own almost no weather-appropriate clothing, but I still traipsed out Friday night with sneakers and umbrella to explore the city. It was too beautiful for words, but dammit if I’m not going to try. And then we’ve had the New Year and everything this weekend, and all is well.

Once again, please send poems for the Refinery! The email to send them to is eduerfsknil at liamg dot moc. (You’ll want to reverse those words, and change the at to @, dot to . and what not.) Today we have…

More Charming Jewelry” by Yousei Hime

(Cripes, a case of where I don’t know whether to use real name or pen name. I’ll stick with Yousei for now.)

Yousei is a prolific writer of haiku, tanka, and free verse inspired by Japanese/Zen sensibilities and nature. I give her mad props for being one of the few poets to take the time and truly learn about the culture, religion, legends, and history that intimately informs those kinds of poem. (Besides that, she writes love poetry that both floats and pumps blood at the same time.) This set of short pieces was written for a Reverie last year, combining specific images with specific form tricks and combining them into a necklace of poems. I won’t get into whether it fulfilled the conditions of the Reverie, since that’s not the important thing here; let’s read the poem series as its own entity.

Rampal trills moonlit
cherry petal notes
into exile drifting
I wonder
will you send my flute
over a ruined castle wall

past the cracked rock,
new fern coiled path,
each step . . . pure . . . heart . . . trust
small stones I cede
up to the dusk vined gate

where Taiheiyou bent low, waters
were spilled . . . suffering across hand, impermanence from mouth
you emptiness – trickle over stones to earth, rise to air
when at least, beside Tsushima Basin,
I am content with what I am

gray hair remembers
its maple leaf red
finger twined tilted
to how your breath tastes
but cannot recall you now

morning fire, this cotton gown caught,
a coy pool between my breasts
mid-day earthen words shore
cascades against silk waistband
until night winds ripple that deepest pond

what an odd structure, that half-moon bridge,
a path echoed in a passing river,
crimson by day, starless at night
I saw my fate
and never took either

simple cup of tea
heat the water — no dawn without her
scoop the matcha — her resolve pierces stone
pour the water — she is water
stir to foam — she is content with what she is

Let’s get into it:
– I think there could be more connective tissue in this piece, thematically. I know that it was written as seven separate pieces to seven different mini-prompts, but if we’re going to treat it as one longer piece, that would be the first thing I’d like to see developed. Each of the poems is pretty self-contained, and carries hints of a Japanese aesthetic by not saying too much; the challenge is to get them to work together. Probably the best way to handle this kind of situation is to see which ones stand out the best: in my opinion, the fourth and seventh are the winners. Then, look at these two and ask, what do they have in common, and what are their individual themes? Both seem to have a love element to them, but it’s understated and wistful. They are both very physical, with the hair, the colors, the tea, the water; but one is trapping memory in objects, while one is extending the woman to an almost divine aspect. There are echoes of this (the third poemlet’s ending) elsewhere, but where could these themes be better-developed?
– The syntax jars me a little bit. One of the things about Japanese forms and the grammar structure they use is that (to me, at least) it falls a little bit flat in English. Lines like “into exile drifting”, I want to change to become: “drifting into exile”. And “you emptiness” could use a comma, if I’m reading it correctly: “you, emptiness”. Ordinarily, I would defer to the poet’s prerogative, but because this piece has so many instances that are popping out at me, it’s distracting from digging out the theme and the images. The aesthetic is very “less is more”, but while you may be keenly aware of little “a”s and “the”s and punctuation while typing them/reading the poem aloud, the reader will gloss over them quickly. This is a better effect than trying to cut everything which can conceivably be cut, unless you’re trying to do some really concrete avant-garde stuff (which I don’t think Yousei is attempting here).
– Be careful of losing your audience with your symbolism, as well as references and allusions. I knew Taiheiyou and Tsushima (assuming they are the places in Japan I’m thinking of), but I had no idea who Rampal was, and had to look him up (which a lot of people wouldn’t have to). I’m sure the reverse is true for others. When the references are carefully placed — especially when they are the subjects/objects of descriptive verbs — we can generally get by. (Rampal, whoever/whatever that is to the ignorant reader, produces beautiful flute-like music, we can see.) Symbols can be harder, though: with the castle, and the half-moon bridge, I’m not sure if I should be reading them literally, allusively (is there some legend about throwing a flute over the wall I don’t know?), or figuratively (the bridge = fate?). My knowledge of haiku as whole images* suggests that they should be read literally, but I suspect there’s more going on here, which might need a bit of elucidation.

* I mean this in the sense of un-processed, like whole foods. If there was a market called Whole Images, I would be blowing my take-home pay there every month.

And now for the rest of the stuff!:
– That last stanza is fantastic. The fourth was good too, but that seventh one: damn. It could stand alone by itself easily (called “Simple Cup of Tea”, maybe?), but works as a good capstone to the entire piece. Sometimes I uncertain of the paths of the threads that lead to the end, but I have a certainty that this final stanza sums them all up, echoing almost all the other parts of the poem. Moreover, it has a peaceful, meditative, self-accepting quality, that I enjoy. I will go so far as to say this part should remain completely unchanged; the fourth stanza, meanwhile, could use a comma between “twisting” and “tilted”, and otherwise can probably stay as is. Anything else that changes in the poem should follow from those two.
– This is a surprisingly dense poem, which I mean in a good way. The “less is more” aesthetic helps because it gives you more room to include more elements that serve your theme, rather than having to do exposition for only a few images. When I see “cherry petals”, I have instant associations: I don’t need a line telling me about how quickly they vanish, and a third line about how they look and move. That would certainly be a beautiful poem too, but economy gives this piece a lot of its feel, and I think it’s done well here. As I mentioned, there could be some expansion with the skeleton filling in the gaps between images and thoughts, but there is no need to contract anything in the poem, I feel. The only thing that stands out is the second poemlet, which could just benefit from an extra line break to shorten that outstretched line. (I know the original prompt put limits on the lengths of the poemlets; but cast the prompt aside!)
– I’m a sucker for animism, which I can see poking through at a few points here. Japanese poems resist outright personification totally: a pheasant never cries plaintively, the cherry never dies wistfully, and all of the mourning comes from the observer. A haiku says “(natural thing) does X; poet shows his presence with Y,” very little more, and very little less. So this departs from that concept with the remembering hair and the Taiheiyou bending (or perhaps bowing?) into that bay, plus metaphors like that deepest pond and the cherry petal notes; but it’s applied very gently, and gives a nice feel to the poem.

Those are my takes on various aspects of the poem overall. A few smaller points to consider:
– My gripe with ellipses in poems is well known at this point. :P
– There are some great word choices like “dusk vined gate” and “coy pool”, which I suspect as a pun…
– …but there are also some that I’m not so keen on, like “cede up to” and “impermanence”. They sound too cerebral for the very calm, easy tone of the rest of the poem.
– The poem is mimetic at times, echoing itself, as sound does across water, with lines like “pour the water – she is water“, which is a great effect.
– Why not include some imagery of sound across water to drive the point home?
– Again, I know these are seven stand-alone poemlets, but I still want to see some smoother transition between stanzas. The abruptness separating periods of extremely nice flow is either an effect you want, or one you don’t.

Yousei: thank you for sharing this poem with us! Hopefully there are some ideas in here that you can use for revising. And for everyone else, we’re going to try another complicated-ish prompt inspired by the piece so you can jump in:

Write a poem of seven stanzas where each stanza could stand alone as its own short poem. Focus on three connected themes that braid together well, and keep bringing them back with refrains and repeated images or sounds until the last stanza, where they all come together. Include at least three nature images, at least three domestic images, and a balance of images with deeper meaning against ones that are exactly as deep as they seem.

To the poems!

Reverie Thirty-Four: a sensation of space

Tomorrow is a little bit incongruous: a memorial for Nicholas is in the early afternoon in Philadelphia, so I’ll be going there. And then, in the evening, is a concert by Dead Can Dance (the irony* of the name is not lost on me), who I’ve waited to see for 16 years. Some of you may know one-half of the band as Lisa Gerrard, whose voice has graced many a movie soundtrack; if not, please go YouTube them now! I grew up listening to their brand of meditative world fusion, and they remain one of my favorite bands… they toured in 1996, briefly for a reunion in 2005 ( which I missed out on! argh), and now have finally reunited with a new album and world tour. With every blessing comes a little rain, and vice versa, I suppose.

* I know this isn’t actually irony, but I’m not sure which term is appropriate here.

This week: “a sensation of space”

I have said repeatedly before that if I ever talk about haiku, it’s going to be a one-time, comprehensive monograph, and then I will never touch the topic again. That remains to be seen, but it’s the white elephant on the blog for these world poetry prompts, so I supposed, since we’re due for one, that I will toss in my two (or three, or ten) cents on the topic. Please take this all with the following caveats: I am not by any means a prolific haijin (haiku writer), though I minored in Japanese and studied Japanese poetry forms; this is all mostly my own opinion, which I consider reasonably well-informed; and Natalie Goldberg (whose title I’ve borrowed here) had more to do with my concept of haiku than any one person probably should.

Everyone “knows” the rules of haiku: three lines, syllables in the pattern 5-7-5, preferably with some kind of nature image and Deep Thought. Let me say right off the bat: I get annoyed when people talk about “modern haiku” as though it’s not still a living, breathing form in Japan, as though it’s something archaic that needs updating. (Really, it’s code for not wanting to follow all the parameters.) You can play around with the form, but have the grace to call it something else, or at least to acknowledge that it’s your take on the form; you are not fixing it.

But I will start with the Important Translation Note that is everyone’s excuse. Haiku are not counted in Japanese with syllables as we understand them, but rather in morae. This is a rather nebulous linguistic term. Essentially, a syllable has a mora for its vowel (two if it’s a long vowel/diphthong) and one for its final consonant or consonants, for a total of one to three. Some debate exists about whether unstressed syllables should count the final consonant, so that the second syllable in a word like pieces would only have one. Here are some examples:

say: one mora
wow or get or any: two morae
browsed or coiled or pieces:  three morae

It’s kind of a counter-intuitive way to parse words, so I’m willing to accept syllables instead for English. But try to keep the 5-7-5, at least for this exercise; you can do it in syllables or morae as you see fit. It helps preserve the feel of the piece, while what I’m about to discuss helps preserve the “point” of the form.

Now for the nature part. The term is kigo for the signifying word that represents a season in a haiku. Including it helps place the haiku in time (and the planet), and clues the reader in to the direction of the poem. I could use robinAries, or buds, and it’s clear I’m talking about spring, but the choice will suggest particular associations (maybe freedom for the bird, pensive thoughts for the zodiac, and new life for the buds). There are whole books called saijiki which outline kigo for all the seasons in seven categories: seasons, heavens, earth, animals, plants, humanity, and holidays/observances. You do not particularly need a kigo that is polysemous and deep with significance, but the reader should be able to intuit the seasonal placement from it. (A cool fact from Wikipedia: the moon seems like it should be beyond seasons, but in haiku, it is treated as an autumn word. Why? In autumn, it gets dark earlier, but it’s still nice enough to stay outside and see the moon; also, the harvest moon, perhaps the most important, occurs in autumn. Cool!)

And then there’s the cutting word, or kireji. This is what you usually see represented as a dash in translations, like this one by Basho:

The voice of the pheasant —
how I longed
for my dead parents!

(Note: which season do you think “pheasant” might represent? Hmmm…!)

Japanese has it easy: there are dozens of final sentence particles (like ne, to mark a tag question, “…isn’t it?”; zo, to show insistent declaration in a brutish, threatening, masculine way; and kara, to indicate responsibility, “because of…”) that can break the haiku in half. This is harder to do in English, but punctuation (especially the question mark and semicolon) can perform the task. I think the best way to use it in the poem is to place an image on either side of the break. It is similar to the caesura in other forms, a division of the themes rather than the lines or feet, though it can be both. In a sense, you are creating two poems, which are nothing more than images. The beauty of the haiku comes from their juxtaposition, and the various ways the reader can fall in between them.

This is where Goldberg’s conception of the sensation of space appeals the most to me. I think of it also like two magnets, held so they oppose. You have these two objects that you can describe and outline, but when you try to press them together, they defy you: they demand a field of energy. It’s the same with a haiku, in that you can’t just have two images, one after the other. You don’t outline the connection between them or lead the reader by the hand to some kind of meaning, but it’s still visible. Consider the difference between something like this:

Peonies blooming
from a bleached skull in the yard
turn its eyes purple

…and this:

In the yard, a skull
sits sun-bleached with purpled eyes:
scent of peonies.

Very little difference, but the second one has more mystery and power, since the entire scene is not spelled out for the reader. Rather than just become a little macabre nugget, it summons up dichotomies (since we’re orbiting two images around each other), notions of death/life, rebirth, etc. I should add another important note, while on the topic of avoiding the poetic garden path: try not to use similes, metaphors, alliteration, rhyme, personification, or any of the other poetic tricks you’re used to. Keep any personal judgments out of it, though you don’t have to erase your voice completely. Let the images be reduced to their absolute basics, to descriptive monomials of x and y, without any kind of operation between them; let the positioning itself do the talking. That is the challenge of writing a haiku, NOT “to cram a Deep Thought into seventeen syllables”. There should be enough room between your two images to build a house; and whether it’s a cabin, a mansion, or a grave is for your reader to decide.

A quote from Goldberg to drive the point home: “…what makes it haiku and not just a short poem? If you read a lot of haiku, you see there is a leap that happens, a moment where the poet makes a large jump and the reader’s mind must catch up. This creates a little sensation of space in the reader’s mind, which is nothing less than a moment’s experience of God.” And remember that Basho himself said that he might have written a dozen haiku in his life that were truly haiku, out of the hundreds (thousands?) he had penned. So don’t worry if it feels like you’re not completely capturing what you want to; in a sense, it will be impossible. But it’s the practice, and approaching that point, that counts.

If you need some extra guidance, try this: pick a kigo that you’re fond of first. (In Japanese conceptions, we’re moving into autumn right now.) Then, pick a mundane object in your nearby vicinity, and use those two things as your images. You might do blackberries (if you’re tenaciously clinging to the finest produce summer has to offer like I am) and shoes. Then think about ways to play with those two things, and what kind of relationship (or lack) they have; balance them on either side of a kireji and then worry about the syllables.

I’ve stained my fingers
with blackberries; and my shoes
were lost in a stream.

I don’t think this one turned out particularly well, though I suppose it says something about the carefree headiness, coupled with minor disasters, of summer. But with this guideline, you can crank out several haiku and see what sticks, like throwing poetic spaghetti on a resonant wall. Try to come up with at least five with whatever season is ringing in your head right now, the current one or otherwise. And then share them, because if nothing else, poets love a good poemshare, yeah? Happy writings!

Three Tanka for July

Been a little while since I’ve tackled some tanka, so thanks to Hannah Gosselin for this prompt through We Write Poems. This one took a little bit longer than I intended because, having more time on my hands today than I knew what to do with, I ended up translating the first one into some mangled kind of Japanese. As always, if you are a Japanese speaker/professional waka-writer, please forgive my ineptitude.

Here’s the English:

The first blackberries
collected in a jade bowl
have a beetle sheen:
who would’ve known this darkness
hid emeralds underneath?

And then I did the kanji version, with the English transliteration, with a more-literal gloss:


hatsu tencha
gyokuhai-ni haku
kurasa no shita-ni
moke-na rokugyoku

the first blackberries
gather in a cup of jade
like scarab beetles
underneath its darkness are
unexpected emeralds

And then there’s two more, just in English, because there’s only so much linguistic masochism I’m up for in one day:

A squall in the west
builds its low grey parapets
on the Palisades.
The dimming light reminds us
no city is grander than rain.

One thin firecracker
snaps its own grey body back
into a star-necklace
chained with a thundered moment
and thrilling the night-baked heart.

All right, enough of that. Now I’m off to enjoy the rest of this beautiful day!

The Peacock Room

About to head out of work for a weekend in DC (the Fellow’s birthday celebration)… a long bus ride ahead, but I received mysterious packages in the mail from Jessie Carty and Margo Roby lately, so I think I’ll be able to occupy myself. This is also the Bus-with-Internet, so maybe I’ll be on here a bit too! But in the meantime, I cranked out this little ditty for the dVerse prompt, inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins (whom my mother adores, but I feel so-so about), onsprung rhythm. I mirrored his “Pied Beauty” pretty closely in terms of rhyme and line numbers, drawing from Whistler (whom I adore, but my mother feels… actually, I think she likes his art too) and the Peacock Room in DC. Check it out sometime! But until then, enjoy this little dream-experiment about it.

The Peacock Room

Porcelain pieces line the shadowboxed walls,
deep-sea-garlanded with some dream of Japan.
And fan-tailed walkingbirds, born from foam off gold lakes,
shy from the gaze, muddle detail with their calls.
One unhandled cup in a reverent hand:
what is the color the wisest grifter takes?

Easy as scraping all dimension from the sky,
it peels from ancient leather in palatable bands.
Thief of that spectral bridge where green-blue breaks,
catch it easy as a grape with beak or with eye:
birds wake.

Reverie Twelve: ephemeral

The last twenty-four hours have been pretty awesome, poetically. Last night was the first ever Assaracus reading, for which I read a poem (“Bismillah”, which was in Assaracus 4); it was my fourth reading ever, in front of more people than the first three combined. But I got through it, and people liked it, including Ian Young, who’s sort of a gay poetry legend. After that, a bunch of us hung out at a Chelsea diner in true NYC gay poet style, followed by this morning’s Rainbow Book Fair. I now have a stack of six more collections to read, because that’s what happens at these things. Many millions of thanks to Bryan Borland, without whom none of this would have been possible! It was a pleasure to meet and hang out with so many wonderful poets, especially because I think I’m one of three people that didn’t go to AWP…

Two thoughts about NaPoWriMo coming up: I’m going to try to submit to a journal each day in April (to catch up on my rising to meet Donna‘s 100-submissions-this-year challenge), and to read a collection each week. And I’m sitting in my cafe, putting together this Reverie (but also dishing about my life!) and hopefully finish the acceptance letters for Curio 5 (since we’ve made our final cut at this point). But I’m distracted by the hot Spanish guys talking at the table on my left, and the hot Israeli guy reading his novel in Hebrew to my right. The cafe-poet life is good.

This week: “ephemeral

This second in the series of time-related prompts is a three-fer. I love the idea of ephemera, ephemerals, ephemerality, etc. First of all, it’s a very pretty word. But secondly, it’s a very conflicted kind of beauty. I think of the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware and the concept of mujōan idea of finding the impermanence of things beautiful, which is very rare to find elsewhere. Western aesthetics is about preserving as long as possible, but sometimes you need to know to let the beauty go. Think of a sunset and how valuable it is, or the flowering of a tree, or a meteor shower. We try so hard to hang on to the things that won’t be sticking around, but that nullifies some of what makes them special. There’s something macabre about butterflies pinned to boards, no matter how lovely they are.

Your writing could (maybe not should; let’s be realistic) be the same way. We’re going to approach this idea from a thematic angle, a stylistic angle, and a practical angle. The first part of the prompt is very straightforward: you’re going to write about something disappearing. But don’t make it something that you expect to disappear, like steam or a deer or fireworks. Make it something concrete and physical: the hundred-year oak that has been there your whole life, a city corner, the Mona Lisa. You can talk about how it disappeared, what the effects would/might be, and how people would cope without it. The overall point that should come across is that you can’t count on anything to be there forever, and rather than be terrified by that, we should explore the possibilities of it. (For as impermanent as things can be, nature abhors a vacuum: something will always come to take its place.)

You could stop there and share that poem with us. But for added Fun Fun Fun, the stylistic part: write your poem in the style of written ephemera, that is, a written item that is not expected to be preserved. Postcards, memos, shopping lists, business cards, marginalia, diary entries, old receipts, instructional manuals, tabloids, pharmaceutical ads, flyers, political cartoons, crossword puzzles, graffiti… these things sometimes become literature and end up in collections, even museums, but I would say 99% of the time, people don’t start writing them thinking that they will be. Take that as your cue, and let it inform your voice for this poem. Think about how much you can reasonably fit on a bookmark-sized slip of paper.

Another stylistic option is to use form and imagery to suggest the idea of ephemera. You could do a melting snowball kind of poem, where the lines shorten and shorten until they vanish (the modified fib is another possible form, building in the same way and then vanishing again). I’m a fan of mimetic writing, where the actual grammar, vocabulary, and structure employed reflects the theme and tone of the poem; use that! Use metaphors and similes of disappearance and vanishing; personify Time and your fizzling objects; use temporal units of measurement and verbs of completion rather than adjectives of permanent qualities and verbs of being.

Lastly is the fun part. Find a small piece of paper or other material, and write/scrawl/scratch/somehow get your poem onto it. (I recommend something like a playing card or postcard, an item that is interesting, visually, but also has white space.) Then, you’re going to find somewhere public and post it; take a picture so that we know you did this part. If you have the opportunity to go back to the place, maybe check it out later on to see if anyone responded; it’s always a wonderful feeling when someone follows your lead, and you start a kind of anonymous correspondence. You can always affect people with your words through the media of blogs and readings and chapbooks, but your reader is seeking this out; this is a way to impress your poem on the world. But not too deeply: for sooner or later, it will be torn down or washed away.

As you may have noticed, I’m not going to share an example in the prompt itself, since that would sort of defeat the purpose. (Taking a photo or writing a blog post also kind of defeats the purpose, but we can’t all go see each other’s work in person, and if you want an “A” on this assignment…) But I’m going to come up with something myself and share it. Bonus points if your work turns up later (and you’re welcome to leave an attribution on that playing card so no one claims it as their own) as part of someone’s found poetry, which indicates that it’s come full circle in a way.

Have fun with it, and share what you come up with…


I was having a hell of a time with this one. After so much hubbub over the weekend and today at work, I really just wanted to sleep for ten hours straight, but I felt awful that I hadn’t really written anything in days. So this is for the We Write Poems prompt… I went to the cafe to try and write it, but nothing was flowing. (Probably partially because it just seemed to be one of those nights when the terminally obnoxious were out in force, occupying what is normally a relaxed space.) But I kept turning the theme over and over in my head on the walk home, then finally got here and blitzed it out. The prompt is to write about signs and signifiers and the signified, but I think I’ll let you (as is my way) figure out as much of this on your own as you can. All I will say is that metaphor and meaningful action are two of my favorite things. (And that chakai is the informal, mini-version of the Japanese tea ceremony.)


Tie a red string round the knob
if I am meant to enter tonight. And I’ll
push my way through the drawn curtain.

We have as long as it takes
one joss stick to burn down, one long
dark jewel of fig-scented smoke.

Show me a finial of jade
and I will grind it into soft powder.

Twin rings brush against each other
when we grip cruets of smooth clay,
pouring from one to the other.
Wine, tea, milk, oil.
Whose vessel is whose? I can’t tell
once the day has grown so late.

Our eyes, the marbles
colliding around the schoolyard circle.
Our nails, the cat’s claws
making short work of thin fabric
and drawing a bead or two of blood.

The sun gone down, flattened
into a pale gold gong.

Wheels of Fortune, redux

Hey Yousei! For shiggles, I decided to try doing a Japanese version of the haiku I wrote for the haibun prompt recently. My Japanese could best be described as “rusty” and “rudimentary”, but, well, here goes nothing:


(hiragana version:)

yozora mau
e furishiki-seta

(a liberal sort-of-translation:)
The night sky circles–
fortunes all scattered below.
But still there are stars.

Not quite the same wording as what I did before, but I hope it captures the theme in the same way as the English original. A sidenote about mechanics: I know the night sky and stars aren’t very good as kigo, but the one I wanted to pick, tsuzumi-boshi (Orion, a winter constellation) just couldn’t get into the poem like I wanted. And for a kireji, I found (with some cursory research) that -seru, the causative form of the verb, can also intensify it. Not just scattered, but all scattered. Not sure if that’s true. An alternative would be the “however” of the –daga at the end of the third line. I did the usual haiku things of leaving out case particles, conjugated verbs, etc. but I think there’s maybe a bit too much meta-observation in this one. Meh? Any Japanese speakers are welcome to suggest things…

And if you’re not, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did trying it as an exercise. I’ll get to the real WWP prompt for this week later.