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July 2017, vol 13 no 2

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Michael H. Lester

A Short Lesson

Whenever I set out to learn something new, I study it with intense focus. Along the way, I often discover ambiguities, inconsistencies, and unfathomables, which vex, infuriate, and intrigue me. Take the haiku, for example; with a long list of contradictory rules for their construction, including a strict 5-7-5 syllable count in three lines, as opposed to a more flexible short-long-short structure, or even a just-keep-it-short admonition. Rules change over time for various reasons, such as whim, exhaustion, evolution, and even for improvement upon a form.

three short lines
a phrase and a fragment
my dissertation

Early efforts reflect my confusion and superficial understanding of accepted techniques. The haiku I write display my sensibilities, but I violate rules. Editors routinely reject my poems for publication. I graduate to other Japanese short forms as I learn about them; tanka, tanka prose, and eventually a cousin of the Japanese short form, the cherita, created in 1997 by ai li.

he sweats and toils
through the barren desert
suddenly an oasis

The tanka prose form and a fearsome editor collaborate to change my poetic fortunes. I submit several tanka prose to a respected literary journal, and for the first time receive comments on my work, encouragement, and suggestions for improvement. I like to think this unselfish and compassionate, yet fearsome editor found a germ of promise in those rough-hewn efforts. With this little push, my confidence and technique grow, and I get a few poems accepted for publication here and there.

her pulse quickens
as she reads through
her first submissions . . .
she fills a trash can
with mangled words

Incidentally, if I do not submit this bastard, rule-breaking haibun-tanka prose to any journal, no editor can reject it. Finally, I learn!