2019 TLP Haiku Chapbook Winner

OVERALL COMMENTS

As I read through each submission to this year’s Turtle Light Press haiku chapbook contest, I delighted in finding haiku that were simply stunning. If my task had been to select individual haiku from among the 41 manuscripts submitted, my job would have been easy.

Truth be told, I encountered quite a number of poems that I had, in fact, selected and published already in my role as editor of Acorn. Those and many more would have made for a first-class collection of work. But my mission here was different.

In selecting an entire manuscript rather than individual poems, I considered how the collection cohered as a whole, the order in which the haiku were presented, how the poems colored other poems in close proximity, whether particular words or patterns of writing were repeated too often, and whether the book captured the poet’s unique voice in an authentic and compelling way.

While I did ultimately select a winner, there were several other manuscripts that were incredibly high quality and worthy of publication as well. I hope to see them in book form at some point soon, too.

–Susan Antolin–

First Place Winner

Furrows of Snow
By Glenn Coats

The unhurried pace and meditative quality of life spent in proximity to a river is alluring. In Furrows of Snow we are brought into a world where light and sound and even the passing of time are experienced in relation to the river. It is a world I have enjoyed lingering in as I read and reread the collection. From the opening poem we feel the power of the river and our own small size in comparison.

Sunday sermons
rivers that bend
my knees

While the river is steady and ever present in this collection, there is also a magical quality to it as the time of day or seasons change.

night sky
I release the minnows
all at once

melting snow
songs that are gone
by morning

A sub-theme that runs through the collection is the declining health of the poet’s mother, a thread that gains resonance as it intertwines with the theme of the river.

summer river
I speak more slowly
to my mother

wind bent pines
mother stands straight
as she can

My own mother comes to my mind as I contemplate the interplay between the themes of mother and river, and I realize the richness of the comparison. I think of my mother as life giving, ever present, and reliable, even as she enters the later stage of life. That she will one day no longer be here feels as unthinkable as a river ceasing to flow.   

rippled water
I see mother’s cursive
in mine

winter hawks
mother’s silence
follows me home

Among the most satisfying of the haiku in this collection are the ones that leave their precise meaning ambiguous. The following haiku defies easy explanation as to the relationship between the first line and the image that follows, and yet it feels exactly right.

quiet prayers
fish gather at the mouths
of creeks

While I have never lived near a river, I spent weeks at a time throughout my childhood at my grandparent’s home along the Hudson River in New York. Regardless of whatever else we were doing, we felt the river’s constant presence as it moved such an enormity of water steadily along at all hours and in every season. When I visited the house for the last time after my grandmother’s death, I looked out at the river and felt the brevity of a human lifespan in comparison. 

seventy springs
the time it takes
to know the river

What is perhaps most compelling about this collection is the genuine feeling that comes through with each haiku. The poet’s observations are precise and evocative and undoubtedly based on years spent on and around a river.

furrows of snow
the river threads a way
to the sea

Especially in these times when life seems so harried, the unhurried, contemplative atmosphere of this book makes it worth returning to—and savoring slowly.

Second Place Winner

Forsythia
By Robin Anna Smith

Perhaps not since Roberta Beary’s The Unworn Necklace have I felt quite so drawn into the narrative arc of a haiku collection. In Forsythia, as the poet’s journey through illness unfolds, I found myself not only bearing witness to her struggles but also cheering her on along the way. Smith’s gentle handling of an otherwise heavy topic is appealing throughout the collection. There is no wallowing in grief. Rather, she almost seems to look at each step along her journey with a quiet sense of wonder. Then there is the occasional poem that takes your breath away, like this one:

spring rain
the ache of bones
in full bloom

In springtime we expect things to bloom, but something here is blooming that should not be. In a satisfyingly understated way, the author has captured a moment when things in the body are going wrong.

One of the challenges all haiku poets face is to find images that convey an emotional truth in a way that feels authentic. There is an abundance in contemporary haiku of images that feel as though they were randomly tacked onto a haiku, as if the writer is simply pulling seasonal or botanical references from a field guide and tossing them together with whatever two-line fragment they have in need of a third line. That is not the case here. Instead this poet includes the precise image that allows us not just to know but to truly feel the intended emotion.

relearning to walk . . .
the ivy fills in slower
this year

the misshapen wing
of a stick insect
new crutches

The poet’s sense of humor softens the subject matter and secures us as her allies in the process. I found the following both startling and darkly funny:

pre-op prep—
my surgeon asks
to pray with me

The following two poems from different parts of the collection reveal the poet’s frame of mind in relation to her illness.  A reference to the Japanese practice of mending broken or cracked pottery with gold, a way of emphasizing rather than hiding the seams, implies that the poet views her own broken places with a similar attitude of acceptance.

first tulips opening myself up to change

golden joinery
the bowl and I
on the floor

By midway through the collection, I am emotionally invested in the poet’s struggle through illness. The following haiku falls harder in light of its context within the narrative.

enduring ailment . . .
my husband loosens
his wedding vows

One expects the phrase “my husband loosens” to be followed by something innocuous like “his necktie” – so when the third line drops, we feel it in our gut. The brevity of this collection and the brevity of each individual haiku in it remind us that life itself can feel far too fleeting. The reader is left wanting more.

Third Place Winner

Stirring Ashes
By Alan S. Bridges

Set in a quintessentially American landscape, Stirring Ashes weaves between the natural world and our place in it with great sensitivity and an eye for just the right detail to create consistently poignant haiku.

as if this sky
weren’t sky enough
indigo bunting

vernal equinox
the bend of an elbow
out a car window

An appealing mix of one-line haiku appear at intervals, ranging from the straightforward to the abstract.

a life spent creating loose ends

drumstick then flute then bone stirring ashes

One of the challenges in writing haiku is often to simply get out of the way and present the moment just as it is. While this might require careful revision and multiple drafts, the desired result feels natural and uncontrived. Many of the haiku in this collection feel that way to me.

morning sun
the flick of tails
around a hay feeder

childhood home
the darkness of the floor
where the bed was

With a wide range of images and subject matter, including bison, wheat, scotch, a Navajo toehold, and the inside of a hospital, this memorable collection provides a nuanced look at American life today.

First Honorable Mention

The Turbulent Mountains
By Mohammad Azim Khan

Haiku on the topic of war date back to the time of Basho with his famous haiku written in 1689:

summer grasses
where stalwart soldiers
once dreamed a dream
                            Basho (translated by Paul Miller, Frogpond, 37:1)

In this collection of wartime haiku, the setting is Afghanistan and the specific images are both unique to this war and universal in their depiction of the horror that encompasses all wars.

soaked in blood
a turban stretcher
moves downhill

war zone—
amongst the rubble
an empty birdcage

These poems have an immediacy that brings the reader into the moment in a way that is startling and authentic. The smaller details seem in a way to land with a greater heaviness than any that make reference to larger ideas or events.

besieged village
crushed wildflowers
stuck in chain tracks

For those of us in the U.S., to whom the war in Afghanistan can feel distant and surreal, this collection provides a valuable look at the real day-to-day consequences to life in the region.  Perhaps haiku can show us what news reporting cannot.

a child
holding mother’s burqa
crosses the border

Second Honorable Mention

Ebbing Shore
By Crystal Simone Smith

This collection serves as a reminder that one of the valuable roles poets play in society is that of observing and bearing witness. Opening with a haiku set in a slave museum, the poems that follow take on a more heightened resonance in light of that context.

slave museum—
the entrance fountain
an ebbing shore

We then move through various parts of the speaker’s everyday life with an appealing mix of nature haiku and humorous senryu. With the context of the opening poems, one wonders whether the entire collection might be read through the lens of race, in which case the whole takes on an added depth. For example, what does it feel like to see the extraordinary prices of organic, hippie food items when one isn’t a wealthy white person?

organic shop—
too broke to be
a hippie

When we return to the topic of slavery, it feels honest and authentic. Understatement is used to great effect and feels like a particularly potent tool in addressing the enormity of this topic.

slave museum tour—
unable to discipline
my children

slave quarters
in one brick
a thumbprint

This collection leaves the reader eager to read more from this author.

Third Honorable Mention

Songs Where We Least Expect Them
By Debbie Strange

Rich with specific and evocative nature images, this collection showcases the varied landscape and wildlife of a northern region in a vibrant and engaging series of haiku.

mallard flock the iridescent sound of morning

These haiku engage all of the senses and incorporate a wide range of seasonal references. The individual haiku are well crafted and often suggestive of a greater emotional back story. 

weathered oars
we fold our worries
into the river

Occasionally, the haiku in this collection also cause us to contemplate our place in the cosmos.

solar flares
a spill of buttercups
in the meadow

In all of these haiku humans are, if not actually present, never far away.

in cupped hands
the harvest moon rests
for a moment

On the whole, an appealing and beautifully crafted collection.

Fourth Honorable Mention

This Dark Thirst
By Beverly Acuff Momoi

In This Dark Thirst, the poet leads us on a journey through the seasons of one year with haiku that are subtle, suggestive, and beautifully crafted. Actual events in the speaker’s life remain mostly elusive, but the range of emotions evoked is wide and engaging.

         alone
along the shore

      the willet
   in winter gray

Intertwining nature images with abstract thoughts about everyday life, the collection leads us on a kaleidoscopic journey through the poet’s perceptions and emotions.

an inkling
of her backstory
rough-winged swallow

While much of the collection is lighthearted, there are moments that feel heavy and tinged with sadness.

freefall between dreams lost sister

The title poem also captures the heavier emotional tone that feels more prevalent towards the end of the manuscript.

my father left me
  this dark thirst
wishbone moon

Delicate and compelling, this collection will likely yield new discoveries each time it is read.

About the Judge

Susan Antolin fell in love with modern Japanese poetry while living in Japan in the late 1980s. She is currently editor of Acorn: a Journal of Contemporary Haiku, a print journal published semi-annually. Her own collection of haiku and tanka, Artichoke Season, was published in 2009. She has served as past president of the Haiku Poets of Northern California as well as editor of their journal, Mariposa. She also was the editor of Ripples, the newsletter of the Haiku Society of America. Her haiku, senryu and tanka have appeared in journals and anthologies in the U.S. and abroad.


To see the comments of our judges on prior winners, please click here. You can purchase the 2014 and 2012 winners in our store from the links below.

2014 Winner – The Deep End of the Sky

2012 Winner – The Window That Closes

Our favorite poems from many of our entries over the years can  be seen at the below links

2019 and 2014 selections coming this summer . . .

Favorite Poems from the 2012 TLP Competition

Favorite Poems from the 2010 TLP Competition

Favorite Poems from the 2008 TLP Competition

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