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July 2017, vol 13 no 2

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Sonam Chhoki

Featured Writer

Advice for New Writers

The CHO Editors asked me to include some advice to new writers. Here are a few points I keep in mind when I write.

1. Title.

Ray Rasmussen (2010), Roberta Beary (2011) and Jean Zimmerman (2013) have written quite comprehensively about the role of the title in haibun. In Japan it is “not a traditional requisite” for haibun to have a title. (Stephen Gill quoted by Zimmerman 2013) There are English language haibun with “untitled”. However, if we are to use a title, it shouldn’t be an afterthought, just something stuck on for the sake of it. The title is an opportunity for a writer to be inventive, to lead, misdirect, hint or tease and make a haibun distinctive.

2. Language

Here we tread a precarious path. Although brevity is the quintessential feature of haibun, we must avoid the use of language so truncated that it has no coherence whatsoever. On the other hand, we should heed Ezra Pound’s caution about how affectations of word and metre make language a “barbed wire”, impenetrable and off-putting.

3. Criticism

Don’t be precious about your writing. TS Eliot, the poet and literary critic, argued it is a fallacy that in subjecting our work to criticism, we lose our individual voice. He advised, ‘practise and practise the art . . .”

Why I Write Haibun and Examples:

Of all the Japanese short forms, I seem to gravitate towards the haibun. The combination of sparse prose and accents of thought or emotion in the accompanying poem reminds me of the Bhutanese oral Lö-zey tradition. In the Lö-zey narrative the evocation of a landscape, the court of the local potentate, a monastery or a battle are intertwined with lines of heightened emotional reckoning by the protagonists. Another example is the invocations of the local oracles, which again have physical descriptions of the guardian deities and the valleys interlaced with avowal of propitiation and renewal of bond.

The cut-to-the-bone style of the haibun seems ideal in writing about experiences that are raw and intimate. I discovered its potential for exploring grief in its myriad phases.

Obituary for Vanished Hope

Like the Snow Lotus in the mountain wind you’ve gone.

That dawn, unable to sleep, I tiptoed to the veranda stippled by gossamer rifts of the moon. I felt you for the first time. Your nascent warmth seeped to my cold fingers. No scan could have picked you then. My heart beat to a new rhythm.

Did the gods envy our un-shareable love? They sought their malicious revenge. You bled from my womb.

December rain—
a single acer leaf floats
to the heap below

A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

Another aspect of haibun that I find appealing is how the condensed form offers the possibility to elide multiple realities and interpretations of seemingly familiar situations.

How to Retrieve Meaning

Drifting in and out of anesthetics I return to the mountains of my valley hovering like the last traces of cloud the fierce winter sun burns away. The oracle, whose songs healed me in childhood, stands on a snowy crest gathering the seeds of stars in her lacquer bowl. She casts her ivory dice into the sky in a swirl of indecipherable patterns. I wake up pleading.

sirens through the night moth in a jar

Otata13-January 2017

Biography and Acknowledgments:

Born and raised in the eastern Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Sonam Chhoki finds that the Japanese short form poetry resonates with her Tibetan Buddhist upbringing. She is inspired by her father, Sonam Gyamtsho, the architect of Bhutan's non-monastic modern education. Her works have been published in poetry journals and anthologies in Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Japan, UK and US and also in the 2012 Olympics Poetry Parnassus and The Written Word Program BBC Radio Scotland. She is the principal editor and co-editor of haibun for the United Haiku and Tanka Society journal, cattails.

I’m grateful to the editors who have published my haibun over the years, particularly Mike Montreuil (haibun editor, A Hundred Gourds) and John Martone (Otata) for their support, which has helped me to be more assured about writing from within a little known cultural context. Grateful thanks also to Stephen H Gill (Kikakuza and Genjuan International Haibun Contests), whose perceptive and thoughtful critique has inspired and encouraged me.