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July 2017, vol 13 no 2

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Review of Journeys 2017: An Anthology of International Haibun, Dr. Angelee Deodhar (ed.)

Journeys 2017: An Anthology of International Haibun, Dr. Angelee Deodhar (Editor), Paperback: 390 pages, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 1st edition (February 24, 2017), ISBN-10: 1541387031, ISBN-13: 978-1541387034.

This latest incarnation of Journeys is ambitious, massive, endlessly fascinating, and informative. And at times, it may be too much. For me, reading haibun demands a certain kind of attention, much like reading prose poetry or a collection of short stories. It's something best done slowly, allowing plenty of time for reflection and processing. This is not an anthology, a tome (literally, even if you have a digital version) that you begin at the beginning and proceed with the end in sight. It's too rich. You have to pace yourself as if at an elegant buffet or else you run the risk of getting unpleasantly full before you've had a chance to sample everything. Maybe a bit of dessert to start your meal?

Which leads me to this observation. As an editor, I understand why the three main sections of the anthology – Early Adapters, Contemporary Writers of Haibun, and Excerpts from Japanese Books (a slightly misleading heading) – are in the order they are in, but as a book reviewer, my advice to the reader is to start with Section III, the Japanese background. Rich Youmans, who also wrote the introduction to Journeys 2017, kicks off Section III with an excellent essay on diaries, especially travel diaries, kikobun, and their relationship to the development of haibun. The final section of the essay, while noting that many English-language haibun are travel episodes or vignettes, does acknowledge that a few writers have attempted to write a kikobun in the fashion of Basho, "narratives that weave individual episodes into a rich tapestry, often in varying styles of prose." The works Youmans discusses are Tom Lynch's Rain Drips from the Trees: Haibun Along the Trans-Canadian Highway, William J. Higginson and Penny Harter's Met on the Road: A Transcontinental Haiku Journal, David Cobb's The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, Ken Jones' Stallion's Crag: Haiku and Haibun, John Brandi's Water Shining Beyond the Fields: Haibun Travels Southeast Asia, and Jim Kacian's Border Lands: Travels in the Old Country.

The entries that follow Youmans' essay trace a genealogy of the modern haibun that hinges on Basho. We read about and work from his predecessors Saigyo and Socho, as well as those who in turn were influenced by him, Kobayashi Issa, Kurita Chodo, Masaoka Shiki. The last two pieces focus on Japanese women diarists and on Japanese-Canadian Kaoru Ikeda's Slocan Diary, an account of her time in a "relocation camp" during World War II.

While Section III is a good place to start because of the historical and culture background it provides, especially Youmans' essay, it feels oddly disconnected from the general purpose of the anthology. Partly this is because every piece is excerpted from a book and a direct tie to the development of haibun is assumed. Readers new to haibun and those unfamiliar with Japanese culture and literary history may have difficulty seeing how, except in a vague way, what this has to do with English-language haibun. Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record (and I think most readers of haibun will understand that simile, and mercifully forgive the cliché), Youmans' "Travel Diaries and the Development of Modern Haibun" is the place to start.

From there you go to Jeffrey Woodward's reprinted essay "Form in Haibun: An Outline" in the introductory section. With the history of Japanese diaries and kikobun fresh in your mind, Woodward's essay will give you a good idea of what to expect, regarding format, in the next two sections. Woodward has contributed significantly to the promotion and dissemination of English-language haibun. In this essay he explores the forms modern haibun often take, most of which are found in this anthology. If there is a modern definition of haibun it would describe a combination of prose and haiku, one or more. It's more complicated than that, or can be. The term haibun can loosely include tanka prose and various other prosimetra. It can even be haiku-less, verseless (though I can't help but think we already have designations for that kind of 'haibun': prose poetry and short short fiction).

The Early Adapters Section starts with John Ashberry's haibun, which I've always admired as prose poems while wondering how they might have become haibun or at least better haibun if he had only known how to write a haiku. However, his pieces remain fresh and poetic (and his haiku a kind of model for many writers new to haiku and haibun). In contrast, the works of Paul F. Schmidt and Edith Shiffert seem self-consciously "Japanese" in theme and tone and their predilection for 5-7-5 haiku, self-consciously Zen-like (which seems un-Zen-like to me). Granted, that is perhaps due to the time in which they were written and to the fact Shiffert lived most of her life in Japan. The haibun of Jerry Kilbride and Rod Wilmot, on the other hand, feel/sound/read as contemporary haibun, at least to my ears. They both write in the vein of the traveler, but Kilbride is the wanderer out to collect experiences while Wilmot is the participant-observer in his own domain. It was inspiring to read their work.

One thing that struck me about the haibun in this section compared to most of the haibun I read today is their length, pages and pages. Ashberry kept his to one page, which is almost the norm now, but I think he was aware of the tension a prose poem can bear, how much poetic language a reader can handle in one sitting. The other writers in this section were writing mostly narrative haibun or highly lyrical variations of that. The haiku (or other poetic form) within the prose narrative has a tendency to slow the reader down, which is why it's there, isn't it, moments of reflection on the relationship between the haiku and the prose, the link and shift? Longer haibun, unless well written, can sometimes fail to hold the reader's attention. We could blame it on our shrinking attention spans, but I think it may also have something to do with the attention poetic language demands of the reader. Longer haibun, kikobun-length haibun, have the space in which to develop a narrative, explore a conflict or theme, create characters. In Jim Kacian's Border Lands, the reader wants to know if the narrator is going to make it, literally and figuratively; whereas in Paul F. Schmidt's nine-page "Kyoto Temples", despite some beautiful writing and insightful observations, nothing much happens from a narrative point of view. There's no classic narrative arc (not even the abbreviated arc of a flash piece). One might argue, well, it's like a journal or a diary, but generally who wants to read a diary by someone they don't really know or whose character does not somehow come to life in the diary. I mean, why would someone read Kafka's diaries? Isn't it because they're interested in Kafka or at least know something about him? I'm over-simplifying, but I do think it's one of the weaknesses of non-narrative haibun.

Section II, a selection of haibun from twenty-two contemporary writers (five haibun from each writer except one), is a veritable who's who. The one writer I was unfamiliar with was Chris Faiers. The English-language haibun world is small, so I feel guilty and a little surprised I didn't know of him or his work. (As an exercise, compare his "The Buddhist Monastery" with Schmidt's "Kyoto Temples" to see the importance of a little narrative tension.) This is a varied collection of haibun, most of them wonderful. And I'm going to leave it there. Anyone interested in the history of haibun and wanting to read some of the finest work of contemporary practitioners of the form would be remiss to skip getting hold of Journeys 2017. As the series continues, and one hopes it does, it may settle into a best of series. That is fine. What won't change is both the historical and literary value Journeys 2017 will have as a document exploring the development of English-language haibun.


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