Seven Ways of Looking at Haibun
by Melissa Allen
I started writing haibun partly because it seemed impossible, or at least inadvisable. Combine poetry and prose? Why, for God’s sake? I mean, if you open a novel do you expect or want sonnets to appear at the end of every chapter? I’m pretty sure my college creative writing teacher would disapprove.
Fortunately, I have a lifelong tendency, the minute anyone tells me I shouldn’t do something, to decide immediately that I must do it. And even though I didn’t understand yet how to write these things, well, I don’t really understand how I ride a bicycle either, so that didn’t seem like an excuse.
I wasn’t a poet for most of my life. I was all about stories. Then I started writing haiku, which is the literary genre that is possibly most distant from story.
It seemed to be going well, but frankly, how long can any human being go without stories? And I had a lot of things I felt I would only get clear in my mind if I told a story about them.
I was fascinated by the way good haibun felt like transparencies layered on top of each other — each picture fine in its own way but not really coming into its own until you saw them together.
It took a while, but I figured out a technique for looking at a patch of prose just out of the corner of my eye, sizing it up from that screwball perspective. I don’t know about you but I need to turn my brain sideways in order to come up with a haiku that settles on top of the prose and makes a third thing that’s like both of them and yet utterly itself.
Don’t ask me exactly how I do it because just like riding a bicycle, I don’t know. I’m always nervous that I’ll forget.
If you haven’t had enough metaphors yet: You can judge how successful haibun are by sensing how alive they are. Usually this has nothing to do with how complete or accurate they are.
I frequently read over drafts of my haibun and feel that I have accurately rendered my experience but wonder despairingly why anyone should care. The thing to do then, I’ve discovered, is to read it over again and pick out the one sentence (almost always it’s one sentence, though sometimes it’s two, and sometimes it’s just a phrase) that is actually alive. I keep that one and get rid of the rest.
You can try this yourself. You’ll likely need to add some more stuff, but let that one sentence be the beating heart of the thing, let it keep the rest of the piece in rhythm. If the reader can’t hear and feel that heart beating the whole time they’re reading, they’ll drift away and make a sandwich or turn on the TV. What you want is for them to be physically unable to escape from your language.
I’ve worked through every major trauma and heartbreak of my life by writing haibun. Having to condense heartbreak into something dense and juicy made it seem less like a disaster and more like part of a whole life, which it is. Having to look at it out of the corner of my eye, as if it had happened to someone else, made me realise that in fact, it had happened to someone else. To everybody else. I’m a human being, experiencing a story. That’s what human beings do.
When I temporarily ran out of traumas, or got bored with them, I started thinking of haibun as a writing laboratory. I abandoned any pretence that my haibun had to do with my own experience or even with reality. I wrote myth and science fiction and fantasy and mystery and bits of surrealism that I still don’t know where they came from. The brevity of haibun, and the way they exist outside the mainstream of both prose and poetry, made me feel brave enough to do all that.
Haibun, whether you write strict realism or the flightiest fancy, are a chance to be brave. They’re a chance to be an explorer of your own life, the way it was and the way it should have been and the way you were always afraid it would be. They’re a chance to make visible the crazy connections that were in your head all along without your knowing it. They’re a chance to do all the things with language and stories that you imagined, or were afraid to imagine, were possible.
I hardly ever want to write anything else anymore.
The Rainbow Café by Melissa Allen
We like to visit a co-op cafe in our Moscow neighbourhood, one of the new private enterprises that Gorbachev has encouraged; they have more and better food than most of the state restaurants, and are never “Closed for Repairs” when the employees feel like taking a day off, never display “No Vacancy” signs when the place is empty. The staff are solicitous and polite, and apologetic if something on the menu doesn’t happen to be available, instead of incredulous that you might ever have expected it would be.
winter flea market —
a wind-up doll
that’s already broken
It drives the staff crazy if I order for myself instead of letting my boyfriend do it for me. For this reason, I make a point of always ordering for myself, and always before he does. They stare ferociously at him while I speak, and only after he gives a slight nod do they write down my order. Even after I’ve been doing this for months, they don’t yield on their principles. No one there ever asks me what I want. I eat my chicken Kiev watching them as they bustle from table to table with worried lines in their foreheads, as if they’re calculating profit margins in their heads. Butter drips down my chin. My boyfriend reaches over and wipes it off with a napkin.
the wishes I make
in another language
Haibun Today 5.2, June 2011
Editor’s note: This article was first published in Contemporary Haibun Online, April 2018, vol 14 no 1 and appears here with permission.
Melissa Allen has been an editor of Bones: journal for contemporary haiku until 2019 and for 5 years from 2014 was an editor at Haibun Today. Her haiku and haibun have been published widely.
Melissa holds a BA in Russian language and literature and a post-graduate degree in library science. She lives in Wisconsin in the United States where she works as a technical writer at a software company.