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Haiku Slam (Ham?) - Stoke Feast

A few weeks ago I heard a call out for slammers in Stoke's first ever Haiku Slam, taking place as part of The Big Feast festival of arts and culture. A 'poetry slam' is a spoken-word competition where competitors battle it out with only their poems, while judges or the crowd choose who goes through each round, until one is eventually crowned the winner.

I had never taken part in a slam before - much less a haiku slam! How would it work? Haiku are short poems of Japanese origin - 3 lines (generally) - much shorter than the usual poems competitors would read at a slam. But I signed up to the list, and then got picked as one of the slammers...eek!

fallen petals / a million words / unsaid
Haiku from spring 2019

I've taken an interest in haiku and their 'relations' in the past couple of years. They're a real challenge to write. Most people know haiku as poems of 3 lines, with 5 syllables in the first, 7 syllables in the next, then 5 in the last. However, this is generally believed to be a misinterpretation of the Japanese form - as syllables work in a slightly different way in Japanese. There are a few things haiku usually do:

- Use as few syllables as possible

- Have a break - either punctuated or inferred, after either the first or second lines ('keregee')

- Capture one moment

- Use two contrasting or complementary images

- Include a 'key word' to indicate which season it is ('kigo')

- End with an 'a-ha!' moment - where everything comes together

And some things they don't generally do:

- Use overt metaphor or simile

- Talk about the 'big subjects' (philosophising)

- Stick rigorously to the 5/7/5 form, at the expense of the 'haiku spirit'

- Cram too much detail in

- Use abstract imagery

I say 'generally' and 'usually', because there's not really any agreement 100% about what constitutes a haiku, even in Japan! Here's a handy article from the British Haiku Society.

I first got into haiku by being part of an online poetry community (one of those sites where you post your poems and receive feedback from other users). I followed some users who specialised in Japanese forms. The site also offered free 'courses', so I took one a beginner's haiku course, where I learned that all I'd previously 'known' was completely false! However, despite how challenging I found them at first, they grew on me, as I enjoyed forcing myself to think in a very 'pared back' way!

My interest was furthered when I met David Bingham, another Offa's Press poet (and generally lovely chap), whose workshops I've been fortunate to attend. David is one of the UK's authorities on Japanese forms - former editor of Blithe Spirit, committee member of the BHS, prize-winner - and his enthusiasm for the forms coupled with his enthusiasm for bringing others on board can't fail to get you hooked on these short but beautiful poems.

pros and cons  / raindrops in the folds / of larch cones
One of many haiku inspired by Cannock Chase

So, back to the slam! I had readied about 10 haiku, because each poet would read 3 haiku in each round they participated in. At the Mitchell Arts Centre in Hanley, a panel of judges - Bert Flitcroft, Joyce Iwaszko, and new young poet laureate of Staffordshire, Lily Massey - readied their 'voting flowers' which were co-ordinated to coloured flowers worn by each participant.

I started to get nervous as Gabriella Gay, the organiser and host, announced the start of the event. Her fun emcee style really put us at ease and got the audience hyped for some (I say) HAI (you say) KU! Audience members picked out two slammer names from an envelope for each of the 4 'head to heads' of the first round. Each reader read a longer poem of their own first, to 'introduce' their usual style to the audience.

I was up in the third couple - against multi-slam winner, Jason N Smith. Suffice to say, I didn't fancy my chances, but I tried my best (trying to read dramatically but not too dramatically!), but in the end, the judges voted for Jason 2-1 of the 3 haiku we did each. He did go on to win, which softens the blow a little! Congratulations to Jason, and to all of the participants, which included some lovely people I've met before (and not seen for some time), and some new faces too.

There was also a people's choice poetry competition, which was won by Dawn Jutton - who I first met in July when we were on the same team at the Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists' 'Home and Away' event in Wolverhampton.

the bruises split / and start to fade / hydrangeas
Haiku from summer 2019

All in all, the night was great fun. There was a really upbeat atmosphere in the Arts Centre, and Gabriella really got everyone in the mood for some competitive Japanese poetry! Thanks to each slam participant reading a longer piece of their own, and then 3 haiku per round, AND the people's choice poems, the event went on for a nice hour or so with an interval ideal for chatting and catching up. I was so pleased to be part of it, and to meet some new people from Stoke - a part of Staffordshire I don't usually get to!

Stay tuned for details of an anthology of Japanese forms, forthcoming from Offa's Press - which might just have some of my pieces in it!

You can see more of my haiga (haiku with pictures) over on my Instagram page.

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