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October 2016, vol 12 no 3

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Featured Writer: Matthew Caretti

The Teacher & The Monk – Alchemy in Haibun

Influenced in equal parts by his study of German language and literature, by the approach of the Beat writers, and by his Zen monastic training, Matthew’s work has appeared in numerous print and online journals, as well as Contemporary Haibun, something out of nothing: 75 haiga, The Sacred in Contemporary Haiku and other anthologies. His award-winning writing includes “That Which Binds Us,” selected for Broadsided’s Haiyan Response special feature in 2014; “Renunciation,” named Honorable Mention in the 2014 Genjuan International Haibun Contest; Special Recognition in the 2014 Fujisan Haiku Contest; and The Heron’s Nest Award in September 2015. Matthew currently resides at Seo-un Hermitage near Yangsan in the Republic of Korea.

Matthew's Thoughts on the haibun form:

The classroom rubric is uncomplicated: Ideas & Organization, Syntax & Diction, Voice & Conventions. Yet this simplicity belies the nuance of “good” writing. The what and how of any given piece must offer up an inherent why to the reader, while also allowing room for the reader’s experience. Beyond any structural issues or those of language and content flow the more clouded waters of voice and convention. How to be at once familiar and unique? How to summon emotional resonance via the intellect? And how to play with convention, bending its rules to the distinctive needs of the piece?

Of course, haibun is not essay. Or poem. Nor is it simply a combination of prose and poetry. It is its own genre, abiding in a broad and ephemeral set of critical landmarks. So the rubric applies and doesn’t apply. “Good” haibun surpass any academic sense of achievement. Yet the old standards cannot be fully ignored. And are, perhaps, a good place to start.


We’ve been up all night chanting The Diamond Sutra. Again and again, the assertion and its negation. Illusion is revealed. All speech figurative. Pure concept. Conventionally useful, of course, but ultimately misleading, as each word—each concept—is dependently originated. This and that. Self and other. Now and then. A word defined ultimately by what it is not. Then a return to my writing desk becomes an exercise in doubt. How to conjure images on the far side of words? How to move the reader to see through the text to the Truth in and of the haibun moment? Into the eternal now. To achieve such a level of inspiration, the haijin steps naturally into in a mystical space. Whether part of some practice of the spirit or not, she moves in the province of True seeing. Beyond clever word play and ego-on-the-page to a realm where the text is nothing more than filter. Transparent. Leaving us only with the here and now of the haibun. Deeply felt, but fleeting. When we look again, all has changed. Indeed, there never was anything to grasp. And so we begin again.


The kettle whistles and I move to prepare evening tea. Wrapping the blanket closer around me, I drink deep of the Oolong, feel its warmth move from the brim into me. I turn back to the book. It’s the last from my shelf, so many already part of me. But a trip down mountain soon to collect more.

Wordsworth warned to “quit your books.” And an old proverb says there’s more to be gotten in an hour across the table from a wise man than a month of reading. I’ve had more than my fair share of conversations with others, some of them sage. Always preferred the quiet hours thereafter, though.

So I adjust the lamp, turn to the next of Dickinson’s poems. Her presence felt more than any flesh and blood. We converse. My notes in the margin beside her polar privacy. Then a shared and lengthy pause at finite infinity.

moonbeams reflecting on my past lives

Note: Italicized text from untitled poem “1695” in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.