Playing the acoustic

This all seems very haphazard today – a blurred photograph of a page from John Barlow’s ‘Waiting for the Seventh Wave’ and the desire to say, quickly and concisely, why I’ve not been blogging so much recently. I’ll start with the haiku. ‘Midday silence’ … something I rarely get Monday to Friday working in as a TA in a busy Infants’ school. Then there’s those fingerprints – the ghost of a past player, or proof that the guitar is regularly picked up and played? I like the ambiguity. And the reason I chose a guitar poem? Because that’s what has been taking up so much of my spare time lately.

Two years ago I bought a guitar, having never played an instrument before in my life. I’d had it in my mind for some time and kept telling myself I’d do it when I retired. As I say, that was two years ago and I’m still working! I think I came to realise that there’s no point waiting for the ‘right time’ because there never is a right time. So, I bought my guitar. Five minutes a day was all I could give it in those first few weeks – any more and my fingers were sore and aching. Gradually though, I started spending longer playing it. I had some lessons. Lockdowns came and went, interrupting the lessons but giving me more time to practise (I never resorted to online lessons – I prefer it to be in person). Lessons restarted and I realised that I’d practised both good habits and bad so a lot needed ironing out. Of course, the longer I spent on the guitar the more other hobbies fell by the wayside. Not the poetry though, not until this summer that is.
School summer holidays are a dream come true. 6 weeks paid leave; the pay for a teaching assistant is miserably low, but all the same, time verses money – there’s no contest. Anyway, this summer I went back to the music shop where I bought my first instrument, booked a private appointment for an hour and ended up staying three, and came home with the most gorgeous, deep-toned instrument that should keep me going for a few years to come. I realise that I’m becoming a guitar geek but I can live with that. I’ll never be a great player but I can live with that too because like most things I get involved with, it’s the ‘doing’ that I enjoy most. And I still enjoy ‘doing’ poetry, but when you give your time to one thing, something else has to give. So recently, the new guitar has been taking up most of my time. I’ve not abandoned haiku, but having prioritised my interests, the blog has suffered a bit. So, this post is just to say that I’m still here, and I’m still writing, but I’m also enjoying the sound of my new guitar (and in case you were wondering what has happened to the old one, it’s now in a different tuning so I have some new tunes and techniques to learn).
And I’m still enjoying reading whatever Snapshot Press publishes (John Barlow is not only an accomplished haiku poet but an influential figure in UK publishing). I can highly recommend his book (below) and I’ll leave you with the title poem:

evening surf …
sandpipers waiting
for the seventh wave

Snapshot Press 2006

Blithe Spirit

I’m thrilled to have some haiku in the current edition of Blithe Spirit, the British Haiku Society’s journal, and even more thrilled to find my good friend and fellow poet, Marion New, published in the same magazine. In fact, it was Marion who put me on to this journal (somehow I felt it might not be for me – how wrong I was).
During lockdown, our local poetry group didn’t really meet up, so my contact with other poets in my area hasn’t been as frequent as it normally would have been. Plus, I’ve sort of defected to the haiku camp – I don’t write much in other forms at the moment, or read them for that matter. Having said that, I don’t feel it’s narrowed my field of vision, quite the opposite. It’s led me to discover new magazines like the one above, and my other UK favourite, Presence. And then there are all those fantastic American journals, many of which are online or publish a selection from their current issue online. I’ve been lucky enough to have two poems published in these this year. It’s not the reason I write, but acceptance does help keep the momentum.
I wanted to showcase Marion’s poem, but as the journal has only just come out, I’ll hold fire on that one. Instead, here’s another poem that she had published in Blithe Spirit earlier this year. It’s a lovely example of what can be done in a poem by ‘not seeing’. The tree is bare, no leaves or berries. The winter sun provides both warmth and colour. The reader conjures the rest. So, I’ll leave you with her poem, an image of hope in what seemed, this year, to be a very long winter.

the rowan tree glows
without leaves or berries
winter sunrise

Reader’s request

We got back from our camping trip last week and I’ve been busy every since, not in a bad way, but busy all the same. My holiday read was The Essential Haiku – versions of Basho, Buson and Issa by Robert Hass (Bloodaxe Books 2013, f. pub. 1994). It’s a very readable book and Hass offers some clear and concise versions/ translations. Here’s one by Buson, picked at random:

Calligraphy of geese
against the sky –
the moon seals it.

Of course, one poem can’t represent the whole book, but I don’t want this post to be a review, so I’ll move on to my main point, which is that it’s been wonderful to be able to borrow this from the local library. As the ticket on the front cover says, ‘Borrowing from your library is the greener alternative to buying and you’ll be amazed by the selection.’ I’ve been trying to thin out the amount of books on my shelves over the last few months and the last thing I want to do is fill them up again, so for me, borrowing is a good way of saving space. It’s also a great way of trying a book without the commitment of purchasing it. With this in mind, I’ve also borrowed Travels with a Writing Brush by Meredith McKinney (Penguin 2019).

I’ve only read part of this so far, but it shows how the writings of Basho emerged from a long tradition of writing about journeys (I hesitate to use the term ‘travel writing’ because that implies something slightly different). What I like about this book are the short introductions at the start of each section, which give an excellent context to the writings.

In terms of my own writing, I’ve found some inspiration in the Hass versions and if time allows, I’ll go back to his book and reread some of the poems. The books are on loan until the end of this week, so I’m relying on being able to renew them. I suppose this is the slight drawback to borrowing, although the plus side is that it does give you a gentle push to read them within a time frame, rather than putting them on book pile (as I’m prone to do) and then taking months to get round to them.

I’d just like to add that I was quite surprised to find these books in stock, particularly Travels with a Writing Brush. Looking at the date stamp, it’s only been taken out by one other person in the last 18 months. Obviously the pandemic might have had something to do with that, but libraries need borrowers, so please do what you can to support them.

Scattered Leaves

Well, I should be on holiday – campsite booked, tent in the boot – and then my lovely lurcher got a grass seed in his paw! So, between hot poultices and visits to the vet, I’m writing a quick post: a review of Scattered Leaves by Kanchan Chatterjee (published in Presence earlier this month). I should point out that Chatterjee centre-justifies his haiku, but WordPress has an annoying way of cancelling that out. So, apologies for the layout changes – the poems read equally well left-justified!
Hopefully, we will eventually hit the road, so here’s wishing everyone a good summer, and thanks, as always, for reading. Now, here’s the review:

Kanchan Chatterjee, Scattered Leaves

Authorspress, Q-2A Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi – 110 016, India, 2020
68pp, $15, ISBN 978-93-89615-53-1,

Scattered Leaves is full of the sights and sounds of India: tea sellers and border guards, monsoon rain and muggy nights. There is often a feeling of time passing, tinged with a sense of loss, as in the following:

long night …
the heap of incense

fresh firewood
ashes at the burning ghat …
year’s end

Themes of aging and death often centre on the poet’s father:

dad’s monitor glows
through the ICU window
a sudden cuckoo

after the chemo
a cuckoo calls in between
dad’s whispers

Sometimes Chatterjee’s use of repetition can lack impact; there are a few haiku which are almost identical. Nevertheless, this book is full of finely observed detail, depicting a country where tradition and progress exist side by side, where ‘the faded chrysanthemums/ on mom’s shawl‘ and ‘a plastic rose/ nodding on the dashboard‘ inhabit the same cultural space.

Within this space, Chatterjee appears to live a quiet, sometimes lonely, life:


single, my status
in the hotel register …
deepening autumn

hotel parking …
a Nissan comes drenched
in spring rain

Of course, depending on how we read ‘hotel parking’, perhaps the hotel is the site of a secret rendezvous.

Many of the poems reference well known Japanese haiku, with rice planting songs, settling crows etc. However, Chatterjee is at his best, and most original, when he considers his own search for identity:

winter moon
a man eating two rotis
is what I am

Two rotis might well be an indulgence, but I don’t think the poet is passing judgment; this is a poem of self-acceptance. Later, there are hints that he becomes romantically attached:


Pink Full Moon
a faint sound of bangles
from next door

well then dahlink!
let’s go out and become

The first haiku seems to offer a tantalizing and erotic glimpse of a woman, possibly his future bride. The second (and final poem in the book) is affectionate in its use of the colloquial voice, and suggests the couple’s future is as bright as the sunflowers. It’s a good poem to end on, leaving us with a sense of hope and optimism.

Julie Mellor

In Kyoto …

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

(Basho, trans. Jane Hirshfield)

Well, not Kyoto. Hebden Bridge actually. But Hebden evokes the same feelings of longing in both me and my husband as Kyoto did for Basho.
We camped there for a few days this week in the sweltering heat. We’re lucky enough that a local farmer lets us pitch on his land, with the use of the outside loo attached to the farm. Everything else is back to basics, which is part of the charm. Farm eggs for breakfast, a walk into the town to get a coffee, a walk by the river to stay cool. We often talk about moving there, but I’m quite rooted to my home town too, plus our jobs are here. And I suppose if we moved to Hebden it might not seem so special after a while. So, I’ll stick with that feeling of longing, or yearning, or nostalgia (we’ve had so many good times there). All of which brings me the haiku by Basho which I’ve been looking at as part of a task set by the Yorkshire and Lancashire Haiku group (who have kindly taken me under their wing). What follows are a few translations of Basho’s poem, plus my own version:

Kyo nite-mo Kyo natsukashi ya hototogisu (1690)

Kyo though-being-in Kyo long for : cuckoo

(Henderson’s translation)

  1. Henderson’s version of the haiku:

A Cuckoo in the Old Capital

In Kyo I am,
and still I long for Kyo –
oh, bird of time!

(‘A Cuckoo in the Old Capital’ is Henderson’s title)

in An Introduction to Haiku: an Anthology of Poems and Poets From Basho to Shiki, translations and commentary by Harold G. Henderson (Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958)

Henderson points out that by the time this poem was written, Kyoto’s heyday was long past, and its glories were overshadowed by Edo (Tokyo). He also explains that, in this poem, hototogisu is written with characters meaning ‘bird of time’.

  1. Stryk’s version:

Bird of time –
in Kyoto, pining
for Kyoto.

in Basho: On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho, translated by Lucien Stryk (Penguin 1985)

3: Kern’s version:

even in the capital
nostalgia for the capital –
woodland cuckoo

in The Penguin Book of Haiku, translated and edited by Adam L. Kern (Penguin 2018)

In Kern’s notes, he says the cuckoo is often a sign of longing for home. Although Basho is ‘home’ (physically), emotionally he yearns for the past, and a capital that no longer exists. The yearning might even be for an idealised capital, one that never really existed. Kern adds: ‘Those travelling far from home hearing the plaintive song of the hototogisu coming from deep within the forest supposedly become seized with nostalic (natsukashi) feelings …’

  1. Hirshfield’s version:

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

translated by Jane Hirshfield

I found it hard to pick a favourite, although once I’d read the translator’s notes, I felt it was important to know the phrase ‘Bird of Time’ in relation to the cuckoo. I did have a go at my own translation, but there are so many versions already, it was hard to bring anything new. In the end, the cuckoo or Time Bird is present only in its call, which becomes ‘the call of the past’.

In Kyoto
longing for old Kyoto
ah, the call of the past

The link below has a detailed discussion of Basho’s poem with a number of other translations:

Simon Armitage does haiku

Interesting to hear that Simon Armitage has been spending the last year writing haiku. This week, in The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed (Radio 4), he talked to Amanda Owen, the Yorkshire Shepherdess and wrote her a ‘sheep’ haiku. If you want to catch this episode, you can hear it on BBC iPlayer.
Sheep aside, I started to wonder what is it about lockdown that seems to have turned people on to haiku, not just the poet laureate, but lots of other people, writers and otherwise. Perhaps at first sight, haiku are small and manageable – anyone can have a go (and why shouldn’t they?). The tools are minimal – pen and paper. And of course there was more free time for a lot of us, especially during the first lockdown. There’s also that hard-to-define, spiritual element about haiku which seems to offer something life-enhancing. I’m reading a book about James Hackett at the moment. Apparently, he considered himself ‘a life worshipper, not an apostle of poetry or art’. Maybe this is what haiku demands, that we foreground living.
Back to Simon Armitage. In the episode I’ve mentioned above, he reads a fantastic poem about the wildflower yellow rattle, as well as airing his ‘sheep’ haiku, which I’ll own up to not liking quite as much. Not that I’m in a position to judge, and nor do I want to, because I’m glad Armitage has taken up the haiku baton. It might get more people interested in the form. In the meantime, I’ve transcribed his poem below so you can read it for yourself (I’m hoping I’ve got the line breaks and spacing correct).

wire wool tumbleweed
sheep drifting across high moors
clouds grazing the sky

Wire wool and tumbleweed in the same line, both describing something else in the second line – that’s a hard trick to pull off in such a small space without it looking too forced. I like the use of the verb ‘grazing’; it’s unusual, and metaphorical of course, but maybe it’s just a little too ‘literary’? Remember last week’s post, that Kerouac quote – ‘haiku should be simple as porridge’? I’ll leave you to ponder. Nevertheless, it’s great to have a big name poet in the UK working in this form and I’m keen to hear more of his haiku.

Paul Russell Miller, The Wild Beyond Echoing: James Hackett’s Haiku Way (Grandad Publishing, 2021) – £10, plus p&p, available direct from the author:

Simple as porridge

I’ve heard a few people quote Kerouac’s idea that haiku should be ‘simple as porridge’, but it wasn’t until I started reading The Dharma Bums (first published in 1958) that I realised Kerouac puts the words into the mouth of his character Japhy Ryder (based on the poet Gary Snyder). Maybe there’s a whole discussion to be had about Kerouac’s intentions here. Although the ‘simple as porridge’ mantra is quoted with much seriousness by haiku poets, in the context of the novel (well, this section at least) it could be read as comic. Either way, I love it for its directness, and as someone who eats porridge most mornings, it serves to remind me that good writing doesn’t have to be fancy or smart, just plain and truthful. Here’s the extract – see what you think:

Night Coach by Marco Fraticelli

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Marco Fraticelli’s Night Coach (Guernica Editions, 1983) this week. The book was published in 1983, so I’m playing catch up (as I am with haiku publications in general) but after reading Drifting, I wanted to get to know Fraticelli’s work a bit more. And reading Drifting beforehand really enriched my reading experience of this collection. Night Coach contains some beautiful haiku. Many are love poems, some tender, some erotic, and the illustrations by Marlene L’Abbe are spare and powerful, perfectly complementing the text. For me, one of the best pairings of haiku and image is this one below:

There’s also a sense of loss countering this passionate affair, as in:

Funeral sermon
In my wedding suit …
Falling asleep

The irony of wearing the wedding suit to a sad occasion is heightened by ‘falling asleep’, an admission of fallibility that makes the situation both poignant and humorous. In fact, rereading the poem I start to create a backstory, asking myself why is he tired? Is it the relationship/ affair that is tiring him out or is it grief? Maybe it’s just boredom, in which case what was his relationship with the deceased? I like poems that open out in my mind and this, without being in any way ambiguous.

The inspiration for the later collection, Drifting, came from Fraticelli’s discovery of some letters in an abandoned house, and there’s a sense of walking through some of those empty rooms in one or two poems in Night Coach. For example:

A religious calendar
In the dead man’s room
And maps pinned to the walls

There’s just enough here to hint at a narrative, while leaving space for the reader to construct their own. A small number of the Night Coach poems do appear in Drifting, for example:

Moonlight on ice
The farmer carries heavy rocks
In his dreams

I’m tempted to say that the word ‘heavy’ might be superfluous here, but it does add emphasis – there’s a sense of burden, of exhaustion, of getting nowhere, and that cold ‘moonlight on ice’ lights up the scene, as though we’re watching the man’s struggle. Well, that’s how I see it anyway! I m glad I’m better acquainted with Fraticelli’s work now and I hope you feel the same.

And finally – I had a few problems uploading photos to the blog today – not the first time the ’tiled gallery’ function has got stuck. I found the old version so much easier to use!


The weekend before last I attended the British Haiku Society’s Spring Gathering. Had the event been ‘live’ I might not have been able to make it, but because it was on Zoom, I was able to attend both sessions (three hours, Sat a.m. and Sun p.m.). There was an interesting range of topics and I enjoyed being introduced to new books that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
Recently, I’ve been trying to thin out my book pile, and I’ve got rid of a few poetry books that, for whatever reason, I don’t think I’ll go back to. I’ve even managed to sell three on eBay for a small profit! Of course, the chances are that whatever space I’ve created on the book shelf will soon be swallowed up. However, one thing I’ve decided to do more of is make use of libraries. I ordered Jack Kerouac’s ‘The Dharma Bums’ last week, and this week got an email saying it was ready to collect. No charge as it was in the area. I’m impressed by the speed of that. No doubt for collections of haiku I’ll have to make a request outside my local area, so the wait will be longer. After all, haiku is a niche area to say the least.
Another great resource is The Haiku Foundation’s digital library. After a presentation at the Spring Gathering, I wanted to read ‘Drifting’ by Marco Fraticelli. Luckily, there it was, in the archive. Not that I’m a big fan of reading on the screen, but the instant availability won me over. Drifting is a collection of diary extracts by a woman called Celesta Taylor (written between 1905 and 1916) compiled by, and coupled with, haiku by Marco Fraticelli. As such, the collection is a haibun narrative, a poignant examination of love and loss set against a backdrop of financial hardship, domestic drudgery and ill health. This might sound too downbeat, but the writing is beautifully pitched and there’s a sense of lightness in the haiku that functions as a counterpoint to the bleak reality of Celeste’s lot. The extract below gives a flavour of the book, and I hope it whets your appetite enough to follow the link and read it for yourselves – Drifting. And because I still like to buy a book or two, I indulged myself and managed to buy a reasonably priced copy of Fraticelli’s ‘Night Coach’ (Guernica Editions, 1983) which I’m looking forward to reading when it arrives.

by the canal

coffee by the canal
the time it takes
for goslings to swim past

Just had a lovely weekend break camping in Hebden Bridge. Beautiful sunny days – despite sun cream and hat I still managed to get sunburn! The nights were chilly of course, but we had plenty of blankets. We don’t use a campsite but pitch in a farmer’s field with use of the outside loo and tap. Very basic but all the better for it. Eggs for breakfast from the farm (laid by white star hens) then boots on and out for a walk.
We did a few good routes this time, taking in Hardcastle Crags and, across the valley, Stoodley Pike. Coffee by the canal was a great way to relax in between, and the Fox and Goose, a community owned pub just out of the centre, was as friendly and welcoming as it always is. Due to lockdown we haven’t visited Hebden as frequently as we would have liked this year, but it was good to be back and spending time in some of our favourite places. Despite many changes, it’s a town that, for us, never loses its charm.
I took the recent edition of Blithe Spirit with me and read most of that, in between walking and scribbling. The haiku (above) was actually inspired by a pair of Canada geese chaperoning 11 goslings down the canal. Of course, by the time I’d rooted about in the rucksack for the camera, the moment had passed. Capturing the ‘haiku moment’ is hard enough, but pairing the poem and the photograph is even trickier. Admitting to this to myself resulted in the haiku below, and I think the poem is stronger for it.

photographing the well
failing to capture
the sound of water

Clearly, one way of being more spontaneous would be to use a mobile phone, but I don’t – I realise this is increasingly unusual. I don’t know many people who don’t use a mobile and when I say that I don’t, people are surprised. There’s no doubt that as an artistic tool they can yield some fantastic results (I’m thinking of Dave Bonta’s Woodrat blog where there’s a real sense of depth and thoughtfulness and the words often take you outside the photograph). What I notice and admire about Dave’s work is that strong sense of connectedness with his subject matter. The photographs are always unusual, and then there’s that extra surprise that he manages to get in the haiku, which moves the whole thing up another level. I’d also add that Dave’s level of productivity is enviable – daily posts of such high quality. Inspirational!