Tracks in the Sand: Sand Fleas (or Sand Crabs)

by George Swede

During the course of a day, we all find certain things annoying – rude drivers, self-serving co-workers, a partner’s messy bathroom habits, noisy children, etc. As a punster once said, life is a beach. In keeping with this metaphor/pun, I like to describe these daily minor irritations as sand fleas (really tiny, claw-less crabs, not fleas). Why? Because life’s routine vexations are really as small as these crustaceans most of us have encountered in the evening at the beach.

Sand fleas tend to emerge from the sand to feed on decaying plant material, such as seaweed, especially after it washes to shore during high tide. As they search for food, sand fleas jump around and land on anything that happens to be near. They are irritating enough to have inspired a variety of names – sand crab, mole crab, hop-a-long, beach hopper and lookie cookies. If these tiny creatures happen to pounce on your ankles or legs, sunset-gazing can become less than a Zen-like experience. While sand fleas do not bite, they can be irksome, especially if they are out in large numbers.

Sand fleas are also an apt metaphor for ongoing situations I find irritating in our haiku/tanka/renga niche of the poetry world. From discussions with fellow poets, I know that many share my reactions and, if they read this column, perhaps they will experience the emotional release I had during the writing of it. While my expectations for success are low, I also suggest ways to cope with these capricious Lilliputian crustaceans.

Sand Fleas or a list of things in our haiku/tanka/renga niche that make me crabby (pardon another pun) and in no particular order …

A new contest

An announcement in all the latest journals and newsletters promotes another new haiku or tanka contest with prize money based on entry fees. Do we really need another new contest, especially one for which we have to pay per poem submitted? In my opinion, too many already exist (with or without entry fees) to the extent that a spreadsheet has become necessary to keep track. Besides, do we not all engage in a contest each time we submit our work to a periodical or book publisher?

A bio with an arcane contest citation

A poet’s bio describes winning (or placing in) a contest of which no one has heard or can remember the significance thereof. I too have been guilty of providing such cryptic information.

A lengthy article on Japanese masters

A Western haiku or tanka periodical contains a lengthy article on Japanese masters from long ago. Do we actually require such historical/critical detail in a journal ostensibly devoted to contemporary Western works? Anyone interested in the Japanese icons, such as Bashô, Issa, Buson, Komachi, Shikibu, Yakamochi, and a host of others, can consult periodicals and books specialising in literary criticism which can easily be found in the libraries of universities with an Asian Studies programme. The space any Western haiku or tanka publication gives to such historical figures would be better served by critical/historical discussions of Western haiku or tanka poets who have well-established track records. Currently, a paucity of such work exists. One outstanding exception is Thomas Lynch’s PhD thesis on the historical strands that connect the first American transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman) to the best American haiku poets (Lynch, 1989).

A long laudatory review that includes not even minor quibbles

A haiku or tanka periodical has a glowing two-or three-page review of a poet’s new collection. The reviewer, however, happens to be a fellow-poet, perhaps even a friend or acquaintance. A careful reading of the critique reveals not one slightly negative comment, a sure sign of bias since every collection contains some poems that don’t quite measure up to the rest. To foster more balanced, objective appraisals, we need critics who are devoted first to high standards of criticism and scholarship and only second, if at all, to careers as poets.

Haibun that are really short stories

An issue of a journal includes a haibun consisting of two pages of prose and only one haiku. This sort of work should be considered a short story since its focus is the prose, not the haiku. The best haibun place the emphasis on the haiku, the way Bashô did with his travel sketches in which nary a page goes by without a poem or two (Yuasa, 1974). Although the contemporary book-length haibun by Rod Willmot has consecutive pages of prose, they are always followed by a number of haiku, often more than a dozen, that amplify what came before (Willmot, 1984).

Haiku disguised as tanka

A tanka periodical includes a couple of poems that are actually haiku, but written in five lines. Here I must make a second confession — I too intentionally published a five-line haiku as a tanka. While composing the poem as a haiku, I figured that five lines suited the rhythm of the events described better than three, but before long I started thinking of it as a tanka because it had five lines. Looking at the poem today, however, I definitely see it as the haiku it was originally meant to be. It does not contain enough elaboration to be a tanka and this is likely due to the fact that it has only fifteen syllables. The lesson is quite clear — five lines do not by themselves make a tanka.

Enigmatic distinctions between haiku and senryu

An organisation announces a contest for unpublished haiku and senryu and provides definitions of each that do more to confuse than to clarify. This sand flea carries a bit of personal bias, but I’ll let it “hop” anyway. Contest organisers could eliminate their reliance on obscure criteria if they used the concrete and logical differences that I published over a decade ago: a haiku always has some nature content and a senryu never has any nature content. A haiku can exist in two forms: nature-only content or nature plus human content (which includes expressions and actions as well as all the things we create for our use). A senryu only involves human content – expressions, actions or artifacts. (Swede, 1992).

Historical amnesia

The author of an article or a manual on haiku defines the form and discusses other issues (such as season words and the use of poetic devices) with little or no recognition of prior writing on such matters. This kind of scholarship is akin to making a light bulb without first looking at and acknowledging existing models. In an earlier column I dealt in more detail with this irksome predilection (Swede, 2006).

Self-published books pretending to be otherwise

A new collection by an unknown press shows up for sale on a book table at a conference. It has all the trimmings of a title published by an independent press. Later, a brief inquiry makes clear that the book is really self-published. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a route to publication. What is wrong is that the author has tried to hide the fact. An unsuspecting buyer could falsely assume that someone in addition to the author (an editor or other objective person) was involved in the selection and fine-tuning of the poems — something not always the case with self-published work.

Overly strict renga masters

My final sand flea involves the renga master who is too strict in his/her interpretation of renga rules. The result, which I have experienced first-hand several times, is a curbing of enthusiasm for the renga and an increase of interest in drinking and dancing. On one occasion, the reaction was even more extreme. The majority of participants ignored the master and composed their own “counter-renga” (Krumins, 1991).

Other sand fleas are springing to mind, but I think ten are enough to get readers thinking about similar experiences and perhaps how to effectively deal with them. Right now, I want to enjoy the sunset in spite of the tiny beach hoppers searching for things to eat around my feet.


Krumins, A. (1991). Battle of the renga: A tale from the dork (sic) side. Haiku Canada Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 4, 18-22 (Reprinted in Lynx: A Quarterly Journal of Renga, Autumn, 1991, 4-5).

Lynch, T.P. (1989). An original relation to the universe: Emersonian poetics of immanence and contemporary American haiku. PhD Dissertation, University of Oregon (unpublished).

Swede, G. (1992). Elite haiku: Hybrids of human and nature content. Modern Haiku, Vol. 23, No. 1, 65-72.

Swede, G. (2006). Haiku definition: Bottom-up vs. top-down. Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short-form Poetry, Vol. 4, No. 3.

Willmot, R. (1984). The ribs of dragonfly. Windsor, ON: Black Moss Press.

Yuasa, N. (1966). Bashô: The narrow road to the deep north and other travel sketches. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

Editor’s footnote: This article originally appeared in Simply Haiku, vol 5 no 1 in 2007 and appears here with the permission of the author.

George Swede began writing poetry in 1968 and published his first poem in 1969. A serious involvement with haiku began in l976 when the editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual asked him to comment on Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Haiku (University of Toronto Press, 1976). He has published 54 books and chapbooks with various publishers in Canada, France, Poland, the United States and the United Kingdom, with 40 being collections of his poetry, including haiku and tanka. His latest is Helices (Red Moon Press, 2016) which won the Mildred Kanterman Memorial Award, Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards, 2017. Retired from the Department of Psychology at Ryerson University, George lives with his wife, Anita Krumins, in Toronto, Canada.