First week back …

First week back at work, always tough. That loss of freedom! Thank goodness for The Haiku Calendar from Snapshot Press, from which the above haiku is taken. The sibilance almost makes you feel the sleet in your face and on the back of your hands. Somehow, the clatter of cans is taken up by the wind (which for me is implied by the stinging sleet). Sack of cans too, rather than bag or carrier bag. After Christmas and all those images of Santa with his sack of toys, the counterpoint offered in this poem is all the more poignant. I love it.

The Coffin Path

A massive thank you to Presence for publishing my first haibun, The Coffin Path, which I’ve posted below. I usually wait until a magazine has been out a while before I put published writing on the blog, but it’s been a long time since I posted anything. First work got in the way, then a lovely holiday in Norfolk! However, I’m aiming to get back on board with the blog now, so here goes:

The Coffin Path

Grass, waist high this morning, and wet with last night’s rain. Brushing past it, my jeans wick the droplets from seeding cock’s-foot and brome. No one else walks this way. Behind the hawthorn hedge is the cemetery. People tend to use the other path, the one that the council mows. Or else they drive – ‘to save their legs’ my mother says. Some days she says she wants to be buried. Other days, she thinks she’d prefer to be cremated and have her ashes scattered next to a memorial bench. No rush to decide, I tell her, trying to make light of things.

pressed in her prayer book
a recipe for wine


I’m currently trying to decide on 3 ‘water’ themed haiku to send in for the British Haiku Society’s members’ anthology. I admit I’m finding it hard to come up with anything original (most of my water poems are about rain – something we could badly do with at the moment)! And that leads me to my second plug for Presence: Matthew Paul’s essay on Caroline Gourlay, which is informative, incisive and highly readable. Here’s Gourlay on rain (as quoted by Paul):

the skins of wild damsons
darkening in the rain

Paul’s right to describe this haiku as extraordinary: on the sound patterns imitating rain, the power of the adjective ‘wild’ (I’m paraphrasing his comments here). For me, there’s a sense of a secret being imparted in this haiku. Despite the exclamation mark, I imagine the speaker whispering, a slight hush in the voice, a sibilance replicated in ‘skins’ and ‘damsons’ that might also imitate the sound of rain that Paul mentions. I also sense a relationship being played out (between lovers perhaps, or just friends). I go back to the words ‘wild’ and ‘skin’. To see those damsons darkening is to be out there in the rain, getting soaked to the skin. The command ‘listen!’ implies the moment is shared, that there is someone else in the scene. And the reader? Well, the the reader is being allowed to overhear, to be included in the experience. Yes, it’s an extraordinary poem, and Paul’s essay makes me want to revisit Gourlay, which hopefully I’ll have time to do over the summer.
So thank you Matthew Paul, and thank you Presence!

Hunger Hill

Lovely to have this haiku sequence in the current issue of Presence magazine. The poems (well, versions of them) were written on a walk I did in late December, but I probably wouldn’t have got them together in their current form without some helpful advice from Presence’s editor, Ian Storr. I know how busy editors are, and they often run their magazines alongside many other commitments, so I am always grateful when they offer feedback. Anyway, the best way to support their endeavours is to subscribe – so here’s a plug: Presence, £15 for three issues, great quality haiku (plus tanka, haibun and reviews). I don’t usually post recently published work here as I’d rather let people discover it in their own good time. However, I’m showcasing this sequence in the hope that it will give the magazine a bit of publicity.

And regarding Hunger Hill, here are a few photos of the walk:

shortest day
hawthorn berries darken
in the cold

late pink waxcaps
shafts of light
across Hunger Hill

gritstone outcrop
two crows circle
the storm-torn ash

cattle graze
through rusted wire
the lowing wind

old salt road
filling our pockets
with stones

cloud drift

Despite the sugar pink font, this wasn’t intended to be a romantic poem – or an apology, although it can be read that way. I was messing about with the camera, trying to see how good a shot of the sky I could get, and the way the cloud was drifting made me think about time passing, about the way life flies by while the small but important stuff gets overlooked. Then we changed the clocks yesterday. Time passing again. Anyway, this is the result.

Half term is over now and I’m back at work tomorrow. It’s been good to have more time for poetry, and I’ve been playing my guitar a lot too – the next big hurdle is to learn the notes (as the very accomplished and oh so patient guitar tutor put it yesterday ‘you’ve learnt how to ice the cake without learning how to bake it’). So, if the blog goes quiet again, you know what I’m doing (A to G on 6 strings – surely I can get my head around that)!

mushroom season

It’s half term this week – yippee! I didn’t think I’d got much to blog about, but then I read a comment on Dave Bonta’s blog, and it prompted me to get started. You see, Dave’s Woodrat photohaiku site has become an integral part of my day. No matter how busy I’ve been, I’ve always found time to look at his photo haiku. And I’ve come to realise what a big influence his work has had on the way I think about haiku, and how I produce them. Those who know me well know that I don’t use a mobile phone. Well, guess what? I do now. And I bought it mainly for the flexibility of having a camera on me more often when I’m out walking. Like Dave, I do a lot of a walking. Much of my walking feeds my writing. I feel I’ve let things slide a little over the last couple of months, writing-wise, but having time off work has reminded me that the lack of writing is only due to lack of time. So, this week is a bit of a luxury: time to practise the guitar, time to read, time to write.
The photo haiku above is the result of a walk along the old railway line that used to run through our town. The mushrooms are porcelain fungi I believe, and they were growing out of an old railway sleeper, so the ‘long sleep’ is a bit of a pun, although what I wanted it to refer to was my lack of poetic output recently, which has also felt like a bit of a long sleep. I was going to have the phrase read ‘their long sleep’ because ‘a long sleep’ seemed less strong, but that would have meant I was referring solely to the mushrooms, and I wanted the poem to have a wider resonance. So, there’s a long explanation for a short poem. Of course, if the poem were better it wouldn’t need any explanation, so I’ll keep writing, and keep alert to my surroundings, and I’ll keep reading Dave’s blog, which is so fresh and full of surprises it never fails to inspire me.

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.

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!