In the final round of last year's Haiku Death Match, champion (and Lakewood poet laureate) Jack McGuane delivered the final blow to second-place finisher Ray McNiece by asking, "Ray, what have you done today to earn the warmth of the sun and the smell of lilacs?"
Later, in an interview with poet George Bilgere, who covered the event for WKSU, McNiece would jokingly accuse McGuane of "cheating."
That moment in literary history speaks to the soul of an event whose purpose is to mock all that is too serious about poetry. Because besides cracking a joke, McNiece was right. Even if you're not counting syllables, the challenging and direct question - even the idea of earning the warmth of the sun or the smell of lilacs - is decidedly not in the observant, imagistic spirit of haiku.
"There's this huge hairball in the American literary community, at least among those who write haiku, as to what it is," says Marcus Bales, who is coordinating this year's Haiku Death Match as part of the Joy of Text Festival at Heights Arts Studio in Cleveland Heights. Besides the haiku competition, the event features an exhibit of abecedarios (ABC books), a reading, and presentations about text and bookbinding.
Kids are taught in school that the haiku form is defined by three lines, with a pattern of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third. But the idea is much more profound than mere syllables and lines. Bales says that, traditionally, haiku has a "cutting word," a reference to the season and can't be a metaphor or simile in a direct way. Even the idea of 17 syllables is not quite right, says Bales. In the Japanese language, rather than count syllables, the poets count "mora," which is a blend of sounds Bales compares to a dipthong, which helps to determine how long it takes to say a word. To get an idea of the difference that makes, he points to the word "can" and the word "strength" - the latter of which takes much longer to say, even if both have just one syllable. This makes typical haiku in English much longer than those in Japanese.
But none of that merits debate in an event that uses the word "haiku" in company with "death match."
"Most of what Haiku Death Match is about is the hyperbole," says Bales. "We're mocking the hairball. The idea is to have a good time, and to mock the conventions of all kinds of poetry."
He's been advising potential competitors to bring 100 haiku with them, organized by subject or key word or both, "so you can find them easily and quickly in the context of having to respond to someone else's haiku onstage."
Bales says neither McNiece nor McGuane plan to compete this year, which means it's anybody's game.
"There's no prize, there's no honor," says Bales. "We encourage the audience to heckle and hoot."
JOY OF TEXT FESTIVAL October 24-25 Haiku Death Match 3 p.m. Saturday, October 25 Heights Arts Studio 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts. 216.371.3457 heightsarts.org
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