Crowd at the Japanese Street Festival

Crowd of 100,000 people at the Japanese Street Festival in Washington D.C.

At 8 a.m. on Saturday, April 14th, I met Lee Giesecke of the Towpath haiku group – the local D.C. chapter of the Haiku Society of America – at a metro stop with my car packed full of tables, extra chairs, tablecloths, straw baskets, easels, sumi-e paintings, some regal sunflowers, magenta tulips, a large variety of haiku books to browse through and others to give away, haiku pamphlets, brochures and flyers, and a very large, welcoming balloon.

The plan was to meet Lee and drive together to the Fifty-Second Annual Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival in order to set up a booth for the Haiku Society of America. It was perfect weather for a street festival – low 70s, sunny, light breeze.

Luckily, the traffic was light. The sun illuminated the bridges and their arched shadows on the Potomac. We exited the highway onto Constitution Avenue which runs parallel and adjacent to the Mall. At about Sixteenth Street, the street was blocked off for the parade, which was to include large floats, marching bands, singers and performers, but I was able to flash my festival access pass and the police allowed us to whisk through the deserted street.

At 9th Street, we turned up towards Pennsylvania Avenue – the street that links the capitol and the White House – and then were allowed into the blocked off area for the festival. I weaved in and out of vendors setting up their booths and a few isolated pedestrians until we came to our location on 13th and E Streets. We were right across the street from Freedom Plaza, where the “Occupy D.C.” protests had taken place and demonstrators had camped out for months.

The best thing about our booth location, though, was that we were the first booth as people entered the fair and adjacent to us was a large, empty macadam surface that immediately got me thinking, “Hmmn. That could be a very interesting space!” The first challenge was to figure out how to set up the tables. We had a canopy and two 10 foot tables. After talking it over, we decided to place the tables in a “V” so that the open end was at the front of the booth, thus making it an inviting space for people to come inside.

HSA Booth at Japanese Street Festival in D.C.We unloaded everything from the car and, while I went to park, Lee put up the big,  blue “Haiku Society of America” banner. It took about an hour to arrange everything. I had made a few haiga for the event, blending photos of D.C. that I had taken with cherry blossom haiku poems by Basho, Kikaku, Nick Virgilio and Susan Antolin.

Haiku with Washington Monument in distanceWe strung up the haiga at the entrance to the booth and I positioned a large, framed sumi-e painting there to attract attention, too. Lastly, we put a small table at the front stocked with free books, all of the wonderful haiku brochures from Towpath and the Haiku Poets of Central Maryland, the Haiku Foundation and others.

Here, I have to mention a remarkable Japanese poet – Murasaki Sagano who lost her mother in the tsunami. She had found out about the festival and donated a dozen or so of her own books, “Mother’s Voice” and “Haiku Flowers and Trees,” saying that she hoped they would provide comfort to others.

Mother's Voice - a haiku collection by Murasaki SaganoSo, I put out her books and others on the front table. And then I added a sheet with a half-humorous “Haiku I.Q. Quiz” that I had made up for people to take:

  1. A haiku is a car, a poem or a Japanese vegetable?
  2. Who wrote a famous haiku poem about a frog…?
  3. Haiku must have 17 syllables in three lines of 5-7-5 – true or false?
  4. Issa was a great Japanese baseball player – true or false?

And then the flow of visitors began. It started as a trickle, then increased in intensity as the day went on. People would just look at the booth, astonished, and say, “I didn’t know there was a Haiku Society of America.” That was the most oft-repeated phrase that I heard throughout the day!

People starting to come over to the HSA booth

As Lee greeted visitors, I turned the open macadam space into an area where people could write haiku with chalk and/or markers. I set up a couple of large cardboard poster boards and tied them to the fence, then put out a bunch of chalk and markers. It was easy to engage people with the haiku quiz, give them a free pencil and ask if they’d like to write a haiku or not. Before it got too crowded, I helped a number of people, both adults and children, write their first poem. Most would begin by trying to count syllables – and that was the first thing I would tell them.

“Just throw the syllable thing out the window – don’t worry about it,” I would say. “Brief, nature, now – that’s all you need right now. What’s the first thing that comes into your mind about the day?”

Kids writing haiku next to our boothOr, some variation thereof. And then they would be off and running. Some people got it, others needed a little more help but everyone had fun. Most also drew a picture to go along with their haiku. Or they would write their poems in funky ways, not simply three straight lines. Here are some of the poems that people wrote:

perfect day
scent of a chicken
on a stick!

nice day

a warm breeze
spring has arrived
but not for me

And a drawing of a cat with this haiku framing it: mice are delicious…the bones are much too crunchy

Cat and mice haikuThe main challenge of the day was disillusioning people about the 5-7-5 syllable count. Everyone, absolutely everyone, if they knew or thought they knew anything about haiku, would tell us that a haiku had to have a 5-7-5 syllable count. Even when we told them that it wasn’t so, a few people simply refused to believe it. The idea has been so strongly inculcated in people’s minds from grade school that it’s hard for them to give it up. Many people, though, were surprised and grateful to learn that a haiku does not have to follow a 5-7-5 syllable count. It was liberating for them – as though someone had just given them permission to play, to write without the constraints of having to count syllables on their fingers.

By about noon, Lee headed home and haiku poet Gary Hotham and his wife, Karen, showed up to lend a hand. The crowd was increasing, I had less time to write haiku with folks but it didn’t matter. The area was taking on a life of its own as people began to notice the haiku scrawled on the street. Around 1:30 p.m. Gary and Karen left and I was on my own. With the end of the parade, people started flocking to the festival; our booth must have been ten deep with people browsing, asking questions about haiku, are there local chapters, etc. when a 10-year-old Japanese girl said to me, “I can’t find my parents. I don’t know where they are!”

“Okay, “ I thought. “I have a booth full of people and I have a lost little girl.”

So, I took her over to the nearby entrance to the festival and spoke with one of the attendants while the little girl vainly scanned the thousands of people in the street. The attendant took out her cell phone and asked for a phone number. Luckily, the little girl knew her parents’ phone number and, even before they answered their phone, she spotted them on the other side of the street and dashed into her mother’s arms.

Back to the booth…around 2 p.m., Mary Wuest of the Towpath group showed up. The two of us fielded questions from folks as the flyers, brochures and pencils disappeared. By about 3 p.m., we were out of flyers so I brought a sign-up guest book to the front table — but, of course,  people often didn’t sign in any legible way. We continued to talk with folks about haiku, give them the quiz, offer information about HSA – and, of course, invited them to write a haiku in chalk or the guest book.

Getting the thumbs up!By now, the haiku chalk area had spread over a 50 x 50 foot space – all different colors, types of poems, drawings. It was perfect for kids and adults who wanted to pen a poem. I got a little bit more of a break when my wife, Laura, arrived around 3 p.m. to help out. After a quick snack, I took off with a camera to take some pictures of the booth and the rest of the festival.

The streets were completely packed with people from one side to the other, watching Japanese drummers or performers faking a sword fight, drinking Japanese beer or buying souvenirs. Overall, we must have had at least 1,000 people or more at our booth. Many people went away with a book, a brochure, a flyer, a bookmark, or a pencil – and the happy memory of writing haiku.

For more photos, see Rick’s personal Facebook page.