Self isolation

Once again, I’ve been self isolating, after some cases of Covid in the class I support at the local primary. And once again I’ve found it really hard! Luckily I’m well, and my lateral flow tests are negative, so I should be happy enough, although working online all week and not not being able to go out, really doesn’t sit well with me. Acceptance, I keep saying to myself!

One good thing, however, is that it’s given me time to appreciate the garden, and the number of birds that are flitting about at the moment. There are lots of sparrows, like the one pictured above, busy nesting in the conifer hedge (and the roof space of the house). Their chitter has replaced the sound of children for a while and I’ve found myself listening to them more closely. There are visiting goldfinch too, and a blackbird’s nest in the hedge, quite a robust nest I have to say, pushed up between one of our conifers and the neighbour’s fruit cage. All of this has given me some diversion from the monotony of online marking, although it hasn’t inspired me to write many poems. I’ve scribbled odd things in my notebook though, and maybe this is a haibun, although I don’t think the haiku is strong enough:

… looking out of the patio windows, the grass pale because it hasn’t rained, and earlier, a goldfinch picking away at the curly branches of the twisted hazel. A cool breeze lulls the pine in the neighbour’s garden, cone-tipped branches, the place where the magpie likes to hop about, serious and concentrating on his next big find – a blackbird’s or a sparrow’s egg – and there’s a house sparrow, dipping and sipping the water from the birdbath, freckling the patio with droplets…

self isolation
picking up a dead fly
by its wings

Originally, I had a haiku about sparrows in the birdbath but that didn’t really convey the mood I was in (I’ve done a lot of housework this week, just to try and keep moving about, and the dead fly relates to that)!

To end on a lighter note, here’s the blackbird and its chicks. It’s a shame my finger somehow got in the way, parting the hedge, plus there’s the mesh of the neighbour’s fruit cage in the background, but it was fantastic to get so close. I didn’t want to go back and disturb the nest again, or alert the magpie to the fact that there are some young chicks nearby, so I’ll stick with these photos for now.

Counting down the days until I can go out for a walk again!
Stay safe everyone.

following the river

Not sure if this haiku needed an ellipsis at the end of line 2, but in the end I decided to go with it. Partly it’s informed by reading and reviewing Kanchan Chatterjee’s Scattered Leaves for Presence magazine. The review will appear in the next issue, so I won’t say anything about the book on the blog until it’s been out a couple of months. However, I can say that Chatterjee is liberal in his use of the ellipsis, which prompted me to use them in some of my haiku.

Another influence is John Wills’ wonderful haiku:

where the river goes
first day of spring

(taken from Allan Burns’ Where the River Goes, Snapshot Press 2013).

I love the spare use of language in this poem, the plain-spoken and utterly clear image of following the river’s path, the sense of freedom it suggests, but also the possibility that we’re not free, that the river must take the course dictated by the lie of the land, and therefore we can only take certain paths as circumstances allow. There’s a sense of adventure too – rivers are beautiful to follow, and yet they can be difficult as well. Sometimes the river bank has eroded and the path falls away. We turn back, or we scramble on. Either way, it’s spring and there’s that feeling of optimism that comes with longer daylight, birdsong, milder weather. Wills’ haiku opens with a single verb; it’s hard to pare writing back further than this. By leaving out the subject, we can place ourselves in the poem (I am going) although it’s equally possible to read the haiku as ‘the river is going’. Either way, the journey this poem evokes is at once truthful and metaphorical, as much about stillness and contemplation as it is about movement. For me, this is one of those poems that stays with you. I often hear it in my head when I’m out walking. I don’t walk by the river much, but when I do, it’s the River Don, which starts its course just a few miles up the valley from where I live. The photographs, above and below, were taken further downriver near Deepcar, where the river widens and the remains of old iron works can be seen along the way.

A haiku milestone

It’s great to have a couple of poems in issue 69 of Presence. This pretty much marks a haiku milestone for me because it was about a year ago when I started to write haiku. And Presence was the first magazine to publish one of those poems, which was enormously encouraging. It’s always a boost to have a poem accepted by a magazine, although haiku have become more than just writing and sending out poems to me; they’re a way of seeing things, of noticing, of finding connections, particularly between the small and the vast, how a rain drop on a leaf can somehow hold the whole sky.

For me, writing haiku coincided with the first lockdown. I had more time than I was used to, and I was determined to redraft the novel I’d been working on. Well, I did the rewrite, 80,000 words or thereabouts, but rather than feeling like I’d achieved something, I simply felt relieved that it was out of the way. I’d been keeping my poetry ticking over alongside the novel, but that wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as it had been either. In short, my writing was feeling more and more like work.

I thought haiku, as a shorter form, would be worth a try. Maybe the novel had caused me to burn out. Of course, what I thought I knew about haiku boiled down to a syllable count, a seasonal reference, a nature reference … you get the picture. Not that any of this is wrong. But it’s not right either, because it misses so much. What I’ve realised is that, for me, haiku is very much about the doing, the making, the process. I’ve always been interested in the writing process, but with haiku the process somehow involves being: being me, alive, here and now, in the moment. I think it’s Alan Watts who says, ‘There is no future, only now’ or something along those lines. Haiku really teaches you that. My truest haiku moments are when I’m outside. I do a lot of walking, often very early in the morning when no one’s about. Walking, I mean walking alone, is good for listening, for noticing, good for being present.

Often my observations seem mundane, but they’re real, and they’re true, and that feels important, I’ve no doubt that writing haiku has been a coping strategy during the pandemic. Going for that morning walk, writing those few lines, has felt stable and constant, and importantly, it totally lacks ambition. That might seem like an odd claim for a writer, but haiku are about taking things one moment at a time, not writing a poem, but capturing an experience, an observation. It may shape up into something later. I might like it enough to send it out. But at the heart of this is the moment of experience that comes before the words, or at least before the written word. This is how if feels to me. I don’t pretend to be an expert. In fact, I feel like a complete novice, but that’s good because it removes any expectations I might have for the work (expectations belong to that slippery construct, the future – and remember, there is no future).

I’ll end with these two beautifully concise haiku from Presence:

a comma

by Jeff Hoagland

in its own time
a folded
cyclamen bud

by Marshall Hryciuk

I admire the deceptive simplicity of both poems. Hoagland’s haiku takes me back to the text, a reference text where the names of flowers are listed, separated by commas. If a description is being checked, there must be an unknown flower to identify, so the poem allows me to participate in the act of discovery and naming.

Hryciuk allows us to see/ experience the slow motion of a cyclamen bud opening, and yet at the same time reminds us that we’re necessarily excluded from it, unless we have some sophisticated filming equipment. It’s a slow imperceptible unfurling; the cyclamen has its own time. I’m not quite sure how Hrycuik does this, but when I read this poem I feel small, insignificant, and the cyclamen seems elevated, a thing of great importance. By the way, lines 2 and 3 are indented, but WordPress keeps insisting on left justifying them!

There are other possible readings, of course, but these two poems, with the depth of thought and feeling they achieve, stand out for me as great models for what a successful haiku can do. I hope you get as much enjoyment out of them as I do.

twisted branches

twisted branches
the blackbird retreats
into his song

Having faffed around for the best part of an hour, trying fonts of various colours (including a stunning marigold to match the blackbird’s beak) I finally decided that the photo was good enough and should stand alone. After all, I’d already stalked this blackbird around the garden for quite a while in order to get as close as I could, and time never seems to be on my side!
The final version of the haiku came a few days after the photograph, and after an email conversation with poet Sue Riley, whose advice and support I value greatly. If there’s one thing I’ve missed during lockdown it’s those face-to-face conversations we have about poems that occur outside workshop situations, conversations that might not even be about poetry but that feed into it all the same.
So, thanks Sue, for helping me come to some sort of conclusion on the poem (Sue’s Ginko prize-winning poem is to be featured in an anthology about climate change published by Valley Press in May).

edge of day

Hard to believe that this photo was only taken last Friday- this afternoon it’s been about 15 degrees warmer. Interestingly, the word ‘edge’ seems to have been cropping up quite a bit in my haiku recently. On the surface, I think it’s to do with the walks I take, which often follow field boundaries marked by dry stone walls. Millstone grit is a feature of the landscape here, and the walls are a couple of hundred years old at least. The stone is mapped with lichen of various colours: yellow, green, white, and after hard weather the iron deposits oxidise and the stone becomes rust-coloured.
But, back to the word ‘edge’. Perhaps it’s signalling where my work is right now, sort of on the fringes, between making and doing. Somehow haiku demand more ‘doing’, more living. Nothing seems to surface unless I’ve been out walking, crossing the fields while it’s still quiet, listening, thinking. I walk everyday. The end of last week was hard because there was a bitter East wind. The start of that week was even harder because I was still self-isolating. But my period of self-confinement was short. Some people have been isolating for the best part of a year. I can’t imagine how that must feel, what it must do to a person. I found myself constantly going to the spare room window to look out over the fields, almost as if I needed to check they were still there. I didn’t write much either. Okay, I was working online, so I didn’t have a huge amount of spare time, but I usually manage to write and work, so I can only put it down to the restrictions of being locked in. I’m very grateful I wasn’t ill (despite the much-publicised inaccuracies of lateral flow tests, the two I did that week were negative). Still, self-isolation has made me more aware of the freedoms I have, and how lucky I am to live in a place where it’s easy to wander, and lose yourself in the landscape.
Now the days are lengthening and the birds are singing. The forecast is for mild weather all week. If it rains, I’ve promised myself I won’t complain. I’ll take it in my stride and be thankful just for the simple fact that I’m able to go out.


Taken from The Haiku Calendar 2021, available from Snapshot Press.

For the last six years I’ve worked as a teaching assistant in a primary school. Last week, one of the children in our class tested positive. So, suddenly we’re all at home, working online. It’s been a strange week, one where time has slowed right down, where I’ve felt a deep longing to be outside, cold as it is, with the wind scouring my cheeks and the dog at my side, uncertain about whether he really wants to be out in the harsh weather or inside, curled up in his bed by the radiator.
Today it’s my birthday and I still can’t go out. I’m watching the wind blow tiny flakes of snow across the garden, watching how it whips round on itself, changing direction. Earlier, I put extra food out for the garden birds and then watched as the jackdaws sailed in from nowhere, borne on this bitter East wind, hardly flapping their wings at all, just cruising in to take what they wanted. Not that I begrudge them. In fact, I quite like to see them: stooping, ponderous, unhurried.
My mother likes to remind me that when I was born the snowfall was heavy and treacherous. I was a home birth (who wasn’t in those days?) and the midwife was young, on one of her first jobs. Afterwards, my mother haemorrhaged. There was no phone. The doctor had to be called on in person. Dad set off through the snow to fetch him, while, as the story goes, I was wrapped in newspaper and placed at the bottom of the bed (all the towels had been used up trying to soak up blood). It was touch and go for my mother, although the bleeding did eventually stop. It’s hard to imagine how the poor midwife must have felt at the start of her career.
Later, when I was thirteen, I remember going to Barnsley with my Mum, and a woman came up to us in the street and introduced herself. It was the midwife. All those years had passed and yet she recognised my mother straight away, no doubt because of the trauma both women had endured.
The story of my birth has been told so many times in our family that it has gathered a lot of detail, such as the snow had drifted against the door so Dad has to dig his way out, that the doctor was in bed, that the doctor was drunk, that the doctor told Dad to get Mum in the car and take her to hospital (the car of course, was snowed in) that the towels were a wedding present, that the newspaper I was wrapped in was the Daily Express, or maybe the Barnsley Chronicle, that Dad was in his overalls because he’d just got in from his late shift drawing furnaces at the wire mill. I could go on.
It turned out my mother was anaemic. And there’s no doubt that it was a life and death situation. That’s why the midwife never forgot it (I can clearly recall the expression on her face when she spoke to my mother in the street thirteen years later). As for the details?
Well, it’s like making a snowman, you start with a small mound of snow and roll it over so it gathers more snow, and you keep rolling it until it’s so big you can’t push it any further. With a bit of luck, someone comes along to give it an extra roll and it gets even bigger. So it is with stories. Truth gathers fiction. That’s why I chose John Stevenson’s haiku for this post. It lends itself to many readings. I’ve told my own story here, because that’s how this haiku resonated with me, though it will be different for every reader. Some people will read it as a comment on the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time of year. Others will see it as an admission of the difficulty of pinning down the seasons, in this case spring, to a calendar date (when does a season really start or finish?). Others still will see it as a comment on writing itself, more specifically the writing of haiku and the need (perhaps) to be authentic to experience. And there’s that line break, ending on ‘not’, suggesting that the season’s story, or perhaps our own, does not exist, though we nevertheless try to construct a narrative that describes it. I keep returning to this poem and finding new ways to look at it, but I won’t say anymore – I’ll leave it for you to ponder. It’s only the start of February, not too late to treat yourself to The Haiku Calendar from the wonderful Snapshot Press.

holding my breath

holding my breath
the dragonfly’s
stilled wings

I’ve not been particularly poetic, or productive, this week. Tired from work, tired from the cold weather, maybe tired of the gloom that surrounds us mid-pandemic. But January’s like that sometimes. I keep telling myself spring is just around the corner. The days are lengthening a little, and I hear the birds singing when I go out with the dog. I’ve done the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend – 2 male blackbirds, a pair of collared doves and a scattering of house sparrows. I was hoping for more variety as we often have goldfinches and blue tits, and now and again the trauma of a sparrow hawk. Anyway, I had to be content with what I saw.
The colouring/ collage above is from a mindfulness colouring book someone bought me for Christmas. I had more time over the Christmas holiday, and rather than just colour, I also used collage techniques to fill some of the pages (see below). Anyway, the dragonfly page lent itself to a haiku. I’m going to qualify this by saying it’s not the way I think haiku should be written. They need to come from experience, rather from a given image, but as I said, I’ve not written much this week, so I’m going to allow myself this one!
By the way, the book is Animal Kingdom by Millie Marotta (Batsford 2014) if you fancy giving it a go.

night frost

Thanks to Dave Bonta for sharing his brilliant photo haiku on his Woodrat photoblog, I was inspired to play around with this image. There was a real nip in the air on Wednesday afternoon which created frost ferns on the Velux windows in our kitchen. I stood underneath and took some photos, and although it wasn’t dark outside and there was plenty of light, the flash kept going off, so I assumed all I’d get was a blur. In fact, I got these finely beaded images, frost ferns pearled with light from the flash, almost like underwater photos of coral. It was the sub-aqua atmosphere that gave me the word ‘surfacing’, and originally I had ‘frost ferns’ in the poem, but that seemed too obvious, so I was left with what appears above. Looking at Dave’s work, maybe I could have been a bit more adventurous with the font, but it was a fine line between foregrounding the font/ text or the image. Either way, I enjoyed the process. Thanks Woodrat!

Reflections …

Published by Snapshot Press 2014

In Matthew Paul’s post on the haiku of Thomas Powell last week, he made the point that ‘Haiku concerning reflections in water (especially ponds and puddles) were done to death in classical Japanese haiku let alone English-language haiku of the last half-century’. With this in mind, he says that’s it’s difficult to write a poem about reflections that is in any way original. As I’m very much feeling my way in this discipline, I appreciate Paul’s comments (click on the link above to read them in full). The poem he chose to illustrate the point that ‘reflection’ poems do sometimes still hit the mark, is the following:

peat-tinted river
the squirrel’s reflection
eating a mushroom

(taken from Clay Moon by Thomas Powel, Snapshot press). I think this is a beautiful example – that ‘peat-tinted river’ is such a strong opening, conjuring the setting and mirroring the rufous fur of the squirrel (yes, they’re rare, but in my mind’s eye I’m picturing a red squirrel).

To this, I’d like to add a haiku by another Snapshot Press author, Ron C. Moss. A poet friend of mine, Sue Riley (winner of the 2019 Ginko Prize) leant me The Bone Carver by Moss and I’ve loved it from start to finish. The ‘reflections’ poem I’m going to quote is this one:

highland lake
burnt button grass
on both sides of the moon

Firstly, I’m impressed that this ‘reflections’ poem doesn’t actually mention the word ‘reflection’. We see the image of the ‘highland lake’ as a mirror in which the moon appears without the writer having to hammer it home. The idea that we can see ‘both sides of the moon’ somehow suggests, to me at least, that not only can we imagine the reverse, the dark side if you like, but we also see a half moon rising above the water, with the other half reflected below. If so, this might also indicate the time of day – twilight.
The very specific type of grass, ‘button grass’ locates the poem in the southern hemisphere (Moss is a Tasmanian writer and artist, plus Wikipedia will tell you that button grass forms part of a unique habitat in Tasmania). The alliterative use of ‘burnt’ is precise in its evocation of place too (Wikipedia says ‘buttongrass is relatively flammable and the ecological community is adapted to regular burning’). So, within three lines the poet has managed to convey both the visual image of the moon on/ or reflected in, the lake, draw a comparison with the button grass’s spherical flowerer heads and the rising moon, and also imply a contrast between the heat of the bushfire with the quenching waters of the lake. In the author information, it says that Moss serves as a volunteer firefighter, but it’s not necessary to know this – the poem subtly conveys his knowledge and experience without needing to state it.
So, I want to say thank you to all those mentioned in this post. You created a web of connections that led to me focus on this poem and write down my thoughts on this chilly Sunday afternoon. Outside, the paths are slippery with wet ice and the dog is content to lie on his back near the radiator rather than go trekking across the fields. Nevertheless, I shall be going out shortly, well wrapped up, to experience the thaw, such as it is, and hopefully to take inspiration from it for a ‘reflections’ poem of my own.