Sexy and Seventeen

Cleveland Public Library's haiku contest takes the art form to uncharted lands.

The form of Japanese haiku is simple and immutable: three lines and 17 syllables, written along a nature theme. But when the poet happens to be an adolescent attending an all-boys Catholic high school in Cleveland, lured into a region-wide haiku contest with the promise of extra credit, restrictive form is one thing; subject matter is something else entirely.

"The themes are God, girls, with a little violence thrown in," says Ike Pulver, head of the foreign literature department at the Cleveland Public Library and the mind behind the library's recent haiku contest. This Sunday at A Haiku Do!, the winners will be announced, and everyone attending will get a chance to read aloud their favorite haikus.

Pulver says that, out of three age divisions in the contest -- under 12, 12 to 18, and adult -- the area's high school students produced some of the contest's most interesting poems. "It is environmental and autobiographical at the same time," he says of the student verse. "Teenagers managing to, somehow, in 17 syllables, sum up something about their lives."

Students from the inner city took haiku to distinctly nontraditional areas, like deteriorating school buildings and streets ringing with the sound of gunshots. But other teen-angst themes were more universal, Pulver says. "From John Hay school, which is on the East Side, to [St. Edward High School] in Lakewood, you see some similarities you might not expect [by] just looking at the demographics of the students."

The contest and reading were devised by Pulver as ways to get people interested in different cultures and to celebrate National Poetry Month. Haiku, with its "simple format," seemed the best form of poetry to use. But it still doesn't guarantee a good poem.

"Sometimes it's excruciating," he admits with a laugh, having read each of the more than 200 entries. "One of the mercies of haiku is it's only 17 syllables."