With our 2012 TLP Haiku Chapbook Contest deadline fast approaching (Dec. 1, 2011), many poets ask us about the selection process. So, we are posting here a talk given at the Haiku North America conference in Ottawa in 2009 about how we went about picking our first winner and the ensuing editing and design process.

You can take a peek at or purchase the first winner, Sketches From the San Joaquin, by Michael McClintock by going to this link: http://www.turtlelightpress.com/products/sketches-from-the-san-joaquin/ Hope this is helpful — we look forward to getting your entries!


By Rick Black

I’d like to talk today about the Turtle Light Press haiku chapbook competition that I first announced right here in Ottawa at a Haiku Canada gathering, then Guy Simser and I will read the winner, Sketches from the San Joaquin by Michael McClintock, and take questions from you. Originally, Michael was going to come to the HNA conference but the cost turned out to be prohibitive. He sends his deep regrets but perhaps through a reading of his book we’ll be able to have a sense of him here in the room with us.

We got 21 submissions from around the world – Canada, U.S., England, Germany, Romania, even Nepal, from both experienced and neophyte haiku poets. It was a pleasure to read the entries, all of which contained some stellar haiku poems that we’re going to publish this fall/winter as an e-anthology, so please do check our website in a couple of months. We’ll have links and a little biographical info about each of the writers.

I judged the contest with Kwame Dawes, a poet who I met and became close to when I lived in South Carolina. Originally from Jamaica, Kwame is a prolific poet and critic, a professor of English at the Univ. of Nebraska who has studied haiku deeply even though he doesn’t often write in the form. What were we looking for? Overall, we were looking for a collection that held together, that made us want to turn the page from one haiku to the next. I won’t use the word narrative because there doesn’t need to be a progression per se from A to B, but there does have to be a unity, a focal point, an idea, a subject, a motif – call it what you will. It wasn’t enough just to put together a collection of beautiful yet unconnected poems. As for individual poems, we were partial to those that had a kind of ripple, an emotional ripple to them as opposed to a closed sensibility.

Haiku are like snapshots, or flashes of a firefly at night, and we wanted the poems to resonate, to illuminate different aspects of the night. Each of us read the anonymous manuscripts – my wife kept a record of them – made notes on the strengths and weaknesses of each ms., and then we talked to each other on the phone. While our top ten lists were different, we both had selected the same one, Sketches from the San Joaquin as the winner. What drew us to it? The ms. had a flow to it, from one season to the next, from present to past to present again, from one crop to another. It was about growing up in the San Joaquin Valley and helping out in the family’s orchards and fields, and how the author’s relationship to the valley changed over the years. For those unfamiliar with it – and I was clueless, too – the San Joaquin valley is one of the most fertile places on earth. That’s where most of North America’s fruits and vegetables come from. It’s the breadbasket of the world. Fresno, Bakersfield – these are some of the towns that dot the valley which is framed by mountains in the east. Besides a deep sense of place, of rootedness, the individual haiku were exquisite.

As we  wrote in the contest winner’s announcement, “We have a sense that McClintock has found in the sparseness and precision of the meditative manner of haiku an opportunity to reflect on space and time – granting even the most intimate detail a simplicity that allows it to resonate with mood and meaning. To be able to achieve this quality while offering us insight into the details of his own life amounts to quite an accomplishment. With each successive poem, McClintock leads the reader more deeply into the valley and his remembrances of life there.”

The collection wasn’t perfect – there were some poems that didn’t work for us or needed to be edited, others that we wanted rearranged, the last poem of the original ms. in particular. But it was close enough. There were a number of strong contenders but this was the one that stood out the most to us.

The next part of the process was to edit the poems with  Michael. Haiku are so tight – it’s very hard to suggest one change because it often affects the whole poem. But Michael and I were agreed on the need to evoke “the original scent,” the emotional nugget that prompted the writing of the poem – and if it added to this, we made the change; if not, we left it as it. I gave Michael the final say in this regard for these were, in the end, his poems.  When I was done with the ms., Kwame went through it, too and gave us his feedback.

Overall, two questions arose in this process: how much can you change a ms, replace poems that might not work? The author had won a competition, that’s what was judged, but we also wanted to make it the best book possible. I had to figure out what I felt comfortable with. Ultimately, it came down to replacing 5 or 6 poems out of 41, 15 percent of the original ms. The second question was how much can you reorder the ms? Essentially, I didn’t want to. I liked the feel of the book as Michael had submitted it, but there were a few poems, including the last one, that didn’t work in the original order. Michael was great to work with, open to change but with definite, strong views about his work.

Once we had a final ms., it was time to get to work on the design and layout. This is always a challenge and fun. Being a small press, where I make all of the books by hand, I like to give authors as much say as possible in these matters so will be a book they’ll treasure, too. Michael and I worked well together; he wanted to keep it simple and so did I. The first decision was: should the book be done profile or landscape? I always thought of it as a landscape book – literally, a landscape – as mirroring the fields of the valley and its colors. Ultimately, I chose this mustard color with a bit of texture, of bite, for the cover. Inside, wanted a kind of paper that had an earthy sense to it, too. I found the cover photo by chance after some web research and bought the rights from the photographer. I particularly liked the crimson of the vineyard and the road leading into it, into the valley, into the poems. I gave the photo some rough edges to evoke the sense of a sketch, too.

Sketches from the San Joaquin – it was a great title to work with visually. I had unexpected help from Michael’s wife, Karen, who is an artist. I used one of her images on the title page and another on the back. After Michael approved the dummy I started making the books. I did a first run of 100 copies and have brought some with me – please feel free to come by the Turtle Light Press table.

I work alone in my basement studio, making one book at a time. After laying out the book in a graphics program, I printed the signatures in batches of 8-10 copies at a time. Then, I cut all the pages on a large guillotine paper cutter, four pages to a sheet of 8.5 by 11 for this book; then, cut all the covers from big sheets – chose the Thai mango paper as a contrast in color and texture to the cover. It’s kind of a meditative process: Fold the signature with a bone folder, punch holes with a bodkin – like an awl – sew the book, glue on the covers, press the books for 24 hours. Takes 20-25 minutes per book. It’s very slow, but I enjoy the tactile process of working with my hands.

I hope you’ll all consider entering our upcoming chapbook competition – it should be a lot of fun, a good way for me to give back to the haiku community and for poets to put together a collection and get a book out of it. You can go to http://www.turtlelightpress.com and click on “Haiku Contest” to see the guidelines.

We would like to read Michael’s book now, then take any questions that you might have. I am posting ten of the haiku in no particular order here.

Sketches from the San Joaquin

By Michael McClintock

not green itself

but a hint of it—

the slanting spring light

above the trees

a mountain has melted

into haze

having no thought

we’ve come to see them—

dogwoods in bloom

all day in spring,

the deer cross the high meadow

into the clouds . . .

done for the day

my dad brings to supper

the smell of turned earth

with no kites in the sky

the wind

moves on

April funeral—

the weeping mother neatens

her son’s perfect hair

all there is

between heaven and earth—

towering clouds

first light . . .

the wide-awake hats

in the lettuce field

muggy night . . .

the child’s moon drawing

taped to the fridge