2014 TLP Haiku Chapbook Winner


Judging this contest for Turtle Light Press was both a challenge and a pleasure. Thirty-one manuscripts were submitted, and I read and reread each one a number of times. There were so many good contenders that I had difficulty narrowing it down to the first, second and third place winners and four honorable mentions that I ultimately selected. I enjoyed seeing the variety of haiku—especially the locality reflected in the flow of the collections and the different angles of vision of the human connection to the natural world.

As I read through these collections, besides hoping for excellent individual haiku, I was looking for an overall theme or arc through the manuscript, a connected flow from poem to poem. I also hoped to find meaningful connections in the pairing of poems on the page. The same kind of thought needs to go into organizing a collection of haiku as when preparing a collection of free verse or any other type of poetry—one should not just collect between the covers one’s best haiku in random order.

I selected the manuscripts that contained the most haiku that spoke to me emotionally, haiku whose images were clear, strong, and at times both startling and haunting. I particularly enjoyed the journey of those haiku collections that took me completely into the circumstances and landscapes they inhabited.

–Penny Harter–

First Place Winner

The Deep End of the Sky
By Chad Lee Robinson

Chad Lee Robinson’s The Deep End of the Sky takes us deep into the heartland of the country and of ourselves. We immediately enter that “deep end of the sky” on the prairie in the stunning first two poems:


all you’ll ever need to know
about sunrise

How wonderful that we fuse the image of the deep end of the sky (we think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of the plains in eastern New Mexico) with the singular and pulsing song of the meadowlark which is, “all we ever need to know about sunrise” as the bird sings us awake.

This chapbook collection has a wonderful continuity throughout, moving through sections and seasons in a seamless flow. The haiku themselves link, almost renga-like, and contain clear-water images, merging human activities and nature. We see, hear, and feel the farm landscape and its connection to the larger community of Earth and the cosmos. Every haiku contributes to the whole, yet is not a soloist. The entire orchestra resonates, one poem with the other, like strings of a harp.

In Part 1, “The Tractor’s Radio”, we see connection between the title poem and the one that follows it:

stars at dusk
the tractor’s radio

spring rain—
speaking of the dead
in a softer voice

We hear the radio crackling, but also the distant crackling of the stars, and in the spring rain, the voices of the dead echo softly.

In Part 2, “Rows of Corn” the haiku continue connecting Earth to both the cosmos and the personal:

the Big Dipper—
rows of corn connect
farm to farm

We can see this spread out like a patchwork quilt of summer, clear across the continent. And like the stars in the constellation, the rows of corn create a human constellation, leading the eye on and on.

Part 3, “Farm Lights” takes us into Autumn with poems that appeal to all our senses. As there is in the land, we feel a quieting, a darkening—time for a respite after harvest.

apple scent . . .
flecks of harvest dust
float in the wine

farm lights
halo the horizon
autumn dusk

And then this linking:

pink sky
a pheasant falls through
the gunshot’s echo

sunset clouds
the decoy’s touch-up
in a different hue

We are in the autumn field or by the pond’s edge. The pheasant falls through “the gunshot’s echo”, and its life is but an echo now, too. And the colors of “the decoy’s touch-up” echo “the sunset clouds.”

This section closes with a poem that brings the autumn sky into the heart of our lives:

migrating geese—
the things we thought we needed
darken the garage

How true! We collect so much stuff, and yet  . . . the geese. Their haunting honking as they migrate has often made me want to rise up and join them, leaving all my stuff behind. And I suspect that in the autumn of our lives, we have collected lots of stuff. I know I have.

Finally, Part 4, “Shiver” takes us into winter, both of the planet and our lives:

my body thinner these days I hear more of the wind

hunter’s retreat
the Christmas tree made from
racks of antlers

These haiku are uniquely American in their embrace of the vast landscape they inhabit. I would like to quote even more of these deeply moving poems, but restrain myself. You must get the book to have the whole of this fine haiku chapbook winner.

Second Place Winner

This Side of the Pane
By Julie Warther

The haiku in this moving collection take us into grief and loss, and out again. I think of Emily Dickinson’s poem with the lines,

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth—

and then the poems take us into the spring of healing.

These haiku, with images that couple human seasons and those of the natural world, often link renga-like, as seen in the following two pairs:

fall diagnosis
the dahlia bulbs remain
in the ground

endless sky
the hawk’s gaze
on its tether

Both the bulbs and the hawk are trapped. When we get a diagnosis, have to deal with fear and sorrow, we want to escape the news. Like the bulb moving from the dark into sunlight, or the hawk aching for that endless sky, we want a way out. But as my mother often told me, “The only way out is through.” And at the start, we feel tethered like that hawk.

And as for the “morning after death”:

family dinner
siblings feed the elephant
in the room

holiday blues
turning the bare spot
to the wall

It can be hard for those left behind to talk about the person who has passed. It’s a kind of denial and escape to talk of other things, of anything else. If we don’t talk about our loss, maybe it isn’t real. But talk we must to get through our grief. And as I know, both from my own losses and from leading a grief support group, the holidays are very hard, especially when our loss is new. “turning the bare spot / to the wall” is a startling shift from exposing the “bare spot” when we take down a photograph or painting. How we wish we could fill that “bare spot” again!

Another surprising image surfaces in this poem:

she dies peacefully
in their sleep

She dies in “their sleep” not her own—a unique play on the more common phrase.

Finally, in these two haiku that appear toward the collection’s end, we move from numbness and grief into healing:

this side of the pane
the wind nothing
but swaying treetops

We are numbed, cocooned by the shelter of our house . . . and the storm is not blowing through us as fiercely as it once did. I also hear an echo of “the other side”, meaning the afterlife, but we are still here.

sun soaked chrysalis
the effort
no one sees

Yes, it is hard, but the butterfly will eventually emerge, after the hard work of breaking the chrysalis. And we will emerge from raw sorrow after the hard work of grief. And as I know from my own grief journeys, writing is often a way through the dark into the light.

Third Place Winner

Out of Translation
By Aubrie Cox

In this collection we feel time passing, visit childhood nostalgia—times lost, opportunities gone, and tender memories. The images sometimes startle, sometimes gentle us, and all couple nature with human activities.

Here are some examples:

black water bayou
whispering names
of old gods

summer rain
the hum of an
old singing bowl

I’ve been in the swamps of South Carolina, and among those trees and hanging mosses, one can almost feel the old gods . . . but of course one whispers in that silent, cathedral-like space. Also, I have a singing bowl, and its gentle humming as the sound fades is reminiscent of spring rain.

loose-leaf Bible
bound by twine—
my father’s prayer

country church
between the floorboards

In these, the spiritual is coupled with the passing of time. Twine, a very strong cord, binds both the Bible and the father and his prayer to his child. And in the country church as those forget-me-nots blossom, we are reminded of all who have sat there before us.

Again, in the following poem, the past echoes in the present:

library dust
spirits rise
out of translation

How often have we stood among endless shelves in a large library and wondered who is captured in those volumes, waiting for us to meet them, to translate them into the present time . . . or across time and space. As a writer, I have more than once been humbled by that feeling, as well as understanding that my work is a grain of dust among the rest.

And finally, these wry observations linked to everyday human activities resonate, I think, for many of us:

cat’s cradle
the conversations
we never have

changing the clocks
I fall back
into old habits

Cat’s cradle, that tangle of string that requires two hands, a conversation of hands, almost, but no words. No words that, perhaps, need to be said to untangle some strings in our mutual lives. And old habits are hard to shake.

First Honorable Mention

a tiny hell
By S.M. Abeles

In this collection, we see the theme of aging in many moving haiku. Some of the poems show awareness of the changes age brings, and yet there is no regret . . . just acceptance, perhaps even celebration, of what is:

deeper cuts
in the cutting board
the ways I’ve changed

The cutting board carries the history of its cuts, and we carry the history of our hurts . . . which inevitably change us. Hopefully, we grow from the pain and losses we experience along the way.

the first bite
is all I want
wild pear

As we age, we realize we don’t have to have it all! One bite of the wild pear suffices…and the taste lingers.

old neighborhood
I inhale
my ghost

Who among us has not visited the old neighborhood? And that unique image of “inhaling my ghost” makes me think of the many lives we’ve left behind, even in this life. It’s as if we keep reincarnating year by year, decade by decade.

And the following delightful haiku reminds us that we are all children at heart. When I asked my mother how it felt to be 88, she replied, “You’re still you inside, only you look in the mirror and wonder who that is.”

a grown man
on a swing . . .

May we all not forget how to play!

Second Honorable Mention

A Life in Transition and Translation
By Chen-ou Liu

In this collection we enter the life of being an immigrant, feel the loneliness of being between worlds, and the questions and challenges that arise from that experience. One must learn a new language, a new landscape, and a new culture. The immigrant is at first cast adrift, never really at home, but never really in exile, either.

winter rain
I fall asleep
holding myself

We don’t have to be a stranger in a strange land to feel this degree of loneliness, but being one makes it all the more poignant.

budding lotus
when did I become
who I am

When any of us have experienced a shift from one land to another, whether chosen or forced upon us, this is a question we find ourselves asking more than once. I know I have been asking it often since my husband died and I only moved from north to south Jersey.

first homecoming . . .
the silence lengthened
tree by tree

And when we try to go home, we are changed, so home is changed. The silence, the trees . . . how do we bridge the gap? And what self are we bringing home again?

last cherry petals
drift to the ground
I miss myself

As we are becoming, day by day, our “new” selves, we miss the old, but can’t go back. And that’s the way it is. But we go on! This is a collection that makes us recognize the changes we must make—and, if we are immigrants, the changes are even more profound.

Third Honorable Mention

By Allan Burns

The haiku in this collection return again and again to the roles of animals, both companion and wild, in our lives, and our connection with them and the natural world.

coyote gulch—
the raven’s bill probes
for marrow

In this poem, in a gulch known for coyotes—and if you’ve ever heard them howling, you won’t forget it . . . the raven is probing for the marrow—of a dead coyote or of the kill it left behind? We are reminded that in haiku there is no unfit subject, even the bloody or scary, as long as the image enters us, feels real. In a sense, we probe for the marrow in every haiku we read . . . or write.

what’s to come of us . . .
long into the night
a fox screams

Night terrors . . . how they can wake us in the wee hours. That first line, “what’s to become of us” is similar to one I overheard my father utter when he was well into his eighties and suffering from Alzheimer’s. I was visiting my parents, and in the middle of the night I heard him, from their adjacent bedroom, ask my mother, “What’s going to happen to us?” The screaming fox . . . yes!

the caged chimpanzee
injected with hepatitis
signs hello

Lab animals embody the dilemma of our measuring their suffering against the medical progress that sometimes benefits us as a result. And how do we answer this chimp? Coincidentally, today on Facebook I saw a brief video of lab chimps being released after thirty years into a sunlit sanctuary. First they hesitated at the door, then they embraced each other and loped around, clearly joyful and astonished.

This collection makes us see such things with clearer eyes.

Fourth Honorable Mention

Rip in the Screen
By Joan Prefontaine

This collection brings us haiku that deliver moments of irony and humor seen in our everyday activities, and moments of surprising synchronicity. The theme of loss moves in and out of the poems, along with philosophical observations about human foibles and aging.

bark beetles
in the Ponderosa pine
these gnawing doubts

We try not to doubt as we wonder what choices we should make, or replay “what if” in our minds, and that doubting gnaws at us.

rip in the screen . . .
the mosquito more aware
of my life than I

The truth of this . . . those darn female mosquitoes know just how to find us, home in our our scent, our sweat, our very skin. This one made me laugh out loud as I remembered a long ago jumping up and down on a bed trying to swat a myriad of mosquitoes with a rolled up newspaper, occasionally leaving a bloodstain (most likely my own blood) against the white ceiling of a hostel room! And yes, there was a rip in the screen.

And in the following poem, dementia has torn apart the residents’ memories:

dementia unit
the old therapy dog
remembers everyone

The irony in this poem is moving. Toward the end, my father was in an Alzheimer’s residence, and it was so hard to visit him . . . and to see the other residents. But the therapy dog remembers . . . and has probably even helped the inhabitants remember things now and then.

Quite a few poems in this collection help us see ourselves from unique angles of vision.

About the Judge

Penny Harter is co-author with William J. Higginson of the classic, The Haiku Handbook, and a past-president of the Haiku Society of America. Her free verse poems, haiku, tanka, and haibun appear in numerous journals and anthologies, and among her 21 books and chapbooks of poems, six feature haiku and related genres.  Her latest collections, The Great Blue (haibun) and The Resonance Around Us (free verse) were issued by Mountains and Rivers Press.

She was a featured reader at the 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, and she has won three poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts; the Mary Carolyn Davies Award from the Poetry Society of America; the first William O. Douglas Nature Writing Award for her work in the anthology American Nature Writing 2002; and a fellowship from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for a residency during January 2011.


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