Monday, October 26, 2009

Trick or Treat: Haiku and Its Place in Dark Poetry

Marge Simon, who edits and writes the "Blood & Spades" column for the HWA newsletter, was kind enough to ask me to write a guest column a while back. The column appeared in the October issue of the newsletter, and thanks to a suggestion by Josh Gage, here it is. Any comments (agreeing or disagreeing) are always welcome.

Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side

Marge Simon

My guest for this month, Greg Schwartz, is a copier technician and bartender. Of course, that's not all he does! His clever poems are popping up everywhere I look. Some of his poems have been published in Anomalous Appetites, Talebones, Horror Carousel, Modern Haiku, Scifaikuest, and Aberrant Dreams. Two poems have been nominated for Rhysling Awards, and one was nominated for a Dwarf Star Award. His chapbook of horror poems, Bits & Pieces, was published by Spec House of Poetry in 2007. I asked him for a column about haiku, and he has delivered it in fine style. Read on!

Trick or Treat: Haiku and Its Place in Dark Poetry

Greg Schwartz

When people think of haiku, they tend to think of ancient Japanese poets, cherry blossoms, and old ponds. When people think about dark poetry, they tend to think about zombies, werewolves, and killer dolls. Yet the two concepts fit together snugly, and haiku has managed to carve out a small corner of dark poetry and claim it for its own.

Dark haiku (which can be science fiction, horror, or fantasy) has been around for years, and it doesn't appear to be leaving any time soon. There is a popular magazine (Scifaikuest) devoted solely to speculative haiku and its related forms (with a section for just horrorku), and Sam's Dot Publishing and Spec House of Poetry both continue to support the publication of books of dark haiku. Magazines like Star*Line and The Shantytown Anomaly consistently publish both dark and speculative haiku.

morning shave--
trapped eyes watch with envy
from the mirror

There are many fine horror poets writing haiku--Josh Gage, Aurelio Rico Lopez III, Deborah Kolodji, and R.H. Fay, to name just a few. These names are probably familiar to most fans of speculative poetry.

It's interesting to contrast this level of popularity with the mainstream poetry community. Most poetry readers (and probably many editors) wouldn't recognize the names of some of haiku's elite: John Stevenson, Jim Kacian, Cor van den Heuvel, or Lee Gurga.

toys put away
she goes to bed
toybox lid creaks

Mainstream poetry journals are also a lot less receptive to haiku than speculative journals are. Very few speculative poetry magazines won't accept haiku, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find a mainstream poetry journal with even one haiku between its covers. I've submitted a lot of haiku to poetry journals over the years, and almost all have been rejected. (This might say something about my writing ability, but we'll pretend to ignore that possibility.) Only a few magazines that I've seen have gone against the grain (notably, Cold Mountain Review and New York Quarterly) and published haiku. One prominent poetry magazine's editor told me she won't even consider haiku, and the editor of another journal said I should check my syllable count because it wasn't 5-7-5.

The 5-7-5 syllable count is no longer followed by the majority of haiku poets. Some (such as R.H. Fay) can mold their poems into it and make the syllable count work for them, but most have shed it like an old skin. Haiku today generally fall into the 10-14 syllable range, but even this is not a rule. It was depressing to learn that the editor of a popular poetry journal is so far behind the times, and thus missing out on a lot of good poetry.

In contrast to these biases held by mainstream poetry editors, I've seen scifaiku or horrorku published in almost every speculative magazine I've read. It makes me wonder why haiku is so much more accepted by the speculative community.

midnight tea party
saucers clinking--
haunted dollhouse

One answer is that as speculative poets (and editors), we're more open to new ideas and new forms of poetry, and less constrained by tradition. We are more at ease using our imaginations and creating not only poems or stories, but whole new worlds. When we're used to thinking up fantastic new monsters or imagining the thought processes of a killer, a new poetry form or an experimental style is no big deal.
Another explanation is that mainstream editors receive a lot more drivel, and they're simply tired of wading through it. Or, maybe speculative poets are simply better at haiku.

Whatever the reason, the speculative community has been very accepting of haiku. Haiku poets are submitting high-quality work, and editors are accepting and publishing it. And that's good, because haiku is a form that works very well for dark poetry.

Christmas Eve--
the toy soldiers
check their weapons

Haiku and dark poetry have similar goals. Both strive to capture in words a moment that the reader will never forget. Of course, instead of birds or flowers, dark poetry tends to focus on dreadful or frightening moments, like the moment when you wake up in the middle of the night and swear you heard a noise coming from the closet.

Writing a horror poem can be hard--using just the right words to elicit fear or shock or wonder from the reader--but it gets even harder when you whittle that poem down to a mere three lines. With less room for error, you (the poet) have to be sure to pick exactly the right word, every time.

But when you do pick the right words, you've created something magical--a fierce little demon with sharp claws, ready to pounce on anyone who gets too close. Haiku is an apt form for horror poetry because you have enough room to create a sense of dread in the reader without having to stick around too long and watch it be dispelled.

Some longer poems read like roller coasters, with ups and downs and breathless moments followed by a flat straightaway, a chance to catch your breath. But a haiku is too short for all that. There is just enough time to lead the reader up that first hill, pause at the top, show them the hellishly steep drop that awaits them, and watch their eyes go wide.

the farmer feeds his nephew
to the pigs

Then it's over. That's all the time you have with the reader, so you have to make it count. You have to make their eyes go wide and their hearts rise in their throats with just a handful of words.

That's the challenge of dark haiku, and when it's done right, it can be powerful. Because of its brevity and its focus on one particular moment in time, haiku is suited to the horror genre like no other form of poetry. The good poets not only recognize that fact but take full advantage of it. (See some of Joshua Gage's horrorku in various online magazines or Charles Gramlich's chapbook, Wanting the Mouth of a Lover, for good examples.)

For those of you writing dark haiku, keep writing. For those horror poets who haven't tried their hand at it, give it a shot. It can be challenging, but it can also be very rewarding.

And you just might scare someone.

("morning shave" was first published in Anomalous Appetites, March 2009. "toys put away" first appeared in Dreams & Nightmares, July 2008. "midnight tea party" is from Twisted Tongue, June 2008. "Christmas Eve" is from Twisted Tongue, January 2009. "bankrupt" is unpublished.)


Wizened little face
perched atop his tiny
doll-sized body
in his garish yellow shirt
and threadbare bright red trousers
peering 'round the bedroom door
down the hallway
alert for any signs of life.

His stomach rumbles
and his back is to the action
the giant creaking bed
where the other gnomes are busy
feasting on the human boy.

("Sentry," by Greg Schwartz, originally published in Niteblade, 2008. Artwork by Marge Simon.)


RHFay said...

Nice article, and not just because I'm mentioned in there (although that certainly doesn't hurt). I definitely agree that haiku and horror can be a match made in heaven (or is it Hell?). I never really thought about it before, but your point about the sense of dread not having a chance to be dispelled is a good one. And horrorku certainly are powerfully thrilling when done right.

As for the 5-7-5 format...I'm actually moving away from that. I'm slowly starting to follow current trends and trim down my total syllable count. Although, I did encounter one editor/publisher that felt haiku (speculative or otherwise) should really be in 5-7-5 format. This individual may have changed her mind since our original discussion about the subject, but it just goes to show that the idea of 5-7-5 as a required format for haiku (and its speculative derivatives) can be a persistent notion.

Then again, if it works for you...

I didn't know that haiku was so poorly received by mainstream poetry journals. It sounds like a sad case of bias against a form that can be just as beautiful and powerful as longer forms of verse. Good thing the editors of zines publishing speculative poetry are more open to various forms.

Deborah P Kolodji said...

Thanks for posting the article & thanks for the mention.


Deborah P Kolodji said...

Did you read this?

Greg Schwartz said...

RH - Thanks for stopping by. I hope using a shorter syllable count works out well for you. Some of your poems that I've read were so descriptive, it would be hard to trim them down.

Debbie - I'd never seen that montage before... pretty neat! Thanks for the link. Ann's raven haiku are reminiscent of J. Bruce Fuller's "28 Blackbirds" series in Scifaikuest last year.

Charles Gramlich said...

Because horror is so emotionally intense, I think the brevity factor is important. I've generally thought that horror fiction works best at shorter lengths, and the same thing is true, to me, of the poetry. Horror Ku is the distilled essence of that brevity. Some really good stuff being produced. I think it's time for a "mammoth" collection of horror ku.

Greg Schwartz said...

Hey Charles - I agree! A big book of horrorku would be awesome. I'd definitely buy a copy. Now we just need a publisher and an editor.

Rhonda said...

A horrorku collection would be fantastic, as was this article. Great writing Greg, showing that you can do non-fiction as well as poetry ;)

Greg Schwartz said...

Thanks Rhonda! Glad you liked the article. Good luck with NaNoWriMo.

MkCrittenden said...

Greg, That was a very interesting article. The art of brevity is not easy to accomplish, and I agree that it takes a skilled mind to execute this kind of poetry. I enjoyed seeing your mind at work. I'm going to watch this format more closely.

Greg Schwartz said...

Thanks Mark. Haiku is a great form, and it molds itself well to horror and dark fantasy.

MkCrittenden said...

Greg, I just couldn't resist. I have to leave this here...please take it seriously.
Greg Schwartz writes himself
into the story and thinks
How will I escape?


Greg Schwartz said...

hey Mark - nice one! That would be pretty scary.

J.E. Stanley said...

Excellent column. The examples were great, too! "bankrupt" is especially chilling.

Greg Schwartz said...

Thanks, Jim! Horrorku are fun to write.

Dwarf Stars Award 2015

Dwarf Stars Award 2015