Haiku Down Under, an Historic Event

‘Historic.’ It was American poet and editor Michael Dylan Welch who put things in perspective for those of us at last weekend’s online Haiku Down Under. The four organisers – Leanne Mumford and Carole Harrison (Australia), and Sue Courtney and Sherry Grant (New Zealand) – had, in 51 weeks after attending last year’s online Haiku North America, created the first trans-Tasman haiku event that, thanks to Zoom, was actually held in neither country.

But that wasn’t the only historic moment. Sue Courtney, inspired by the 2019 hit album Waiata/Anthems that featured well-known New Zealand songs rerecorded in te reo Māori, selected haiku, some of them previously unpublished, for a project that saw poet Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Ātiawa) translate the haiku into te reo. In the presentation for Haiku Down Under, a slide containing both versions was shown with the poet or Sue reading the haiku in English and Vaughan in te reo. 

The background image was taken at sunset by Sue Courtney on Tiritiri Matangi, a bird sanctuary island off the coast of Auckland.

Each haiku slide was introduced by a map of Aotearoa New Zealand showing where the poet lives and, if the place has an English name, also giving its Māori name. Vaughan noted some of the issues he faced with the translations, including that te reo has fewer consonants than English and doesn’t use the same constructions.

The weekend featured presenters from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and England, with David McMurray joining us from Kagoshima, Japan for the final panel discussion. Over the course of the event, there were also viewers from India, Sri Lanka and Germany, and possibly Greenland, although I wasn’t clear if she was on that island or in Australia at the time. The highest number of log-ins I saw was just on 90.

Presentations were almost all live, the only exceptions being videos from Jim Kacian and Owen Bullock, and the technology worked pretty seamlessly. There’s always someone in the audience who forgets to mute and has muffled conversations about groceries or the dog or somesuch, but that was only once or twice and people were pretty good at remembering to re-mute after saying something. One presenter couldn’t make it at short notice, but the organisers kept calm and carried on and we hardly noticed. One panel speaker didn’t show up until after the talk had finished, but he had a horrible time difference to contend with and there were already four people on the panel so, again, it hardly mattered, and we did hear a brief talk from him when he logged in.

I was a member of the final panel discussing ‘Opportunities for Regional Haiku Voices’, along with David McMurray, curator for the Asahi Haikuist Network column and professor at the International University of Kagoshima, teaching haiku courses and supervising graduate seminars; Lyn Reeves, vice-president of the Australian Haiku Society, co-curator of Echidna Tracks collection of Australian haiku; and Rose van Son, co-selector of haiku for Creatrix Haiku, a journal of WA Poets Inc.

I’m not sure that we progressed the topic much further, except to agree that we need to keep pushing at the door in the northern hemisphere in terms of having our vernacular and keywords accepted by editors. With search engines at our fingertips, investigating unfamiliar words or names is the work of less than a moment. Heck, I do it for American flora, fauna and place names. It’s no bother, I learn something and it enriches my understanding of a poem.

There were old hands in the audience and complete beginners, and everyone seemed to go away inspired and happy. Can’t say better than that. Kia ora, happy haiku trails and well done to the HDU team.


A Regional Voice

With the free online Haiku Down Under on the near horizon, I’ve been thinking about regional voices in haiku. A presentation I’m looking forward to is ‘A Showcase of Haiku from Aotearoa New Zealand presented in English and Te Reo Māori’ with Sue Courtney and Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Ātiawa) on October 8 at 1pm (NZT).

Te wero is the challenge made to the visitors by the hosts during a powhiri.

I don’t know whether this senryu is included among the translations done by Vaughan, but my ponderings on a regional voice led me straight to it.

powhiri –
women sit behind the men
guessing who farted

Karen Peterson Butterworth
Third place, NZPS Haiku Contest 2004

If we take it line by line, I hope non-New Zealand readers will begin to get the vertical axis as described by Haruo Shirane in his essay Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson & Modern Haiku Myths. “In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems … If Basho and Buson were to look at English-language haiku today, they would see the horizontal axis, the focus on the present, on the contemporary world, but they would probably feel that the vertical axis, the movement across time, was largely missing.” I believe the vertical axis also includes traditional cultural elements, as these carry us back into the past and across time.

(Next day update, pronunciation guide: poh-fi-ree.)

In Karen’s haiku L1 sets the scene by using a single, yet rich word full of cultural significance. A powhiri is a formal welcome of visitors/strangers on to a marae or meeting place. There are protocols to be followed by hosts and guests, including a kaikaranga (woman caller) who begins the karanga (call or summons), to which the manuhiri kaikaranga (visitors’ woman caller) responds. The intent is to remove the tapu (taboo) from the visitors to keep the marae safe (this is a simplistic explanation of the purposes of tapu and tapu-lifting). A powhiri also includes speeches, songs and food so that one word carries a lot of freight.

After the karanga and challenge, visitors are slowly led into the wharenui (meeting house), which itself is a ‘living record’ of the people it represents. Men sit at the front and women at the back. I have been told that this is the modern take on the old custom of male warriors protecting women by having them at their backs. So there’s some clarity around L2. The fact the women are sitting behind the men is not accidental. (Please note that this seating custom may vary by iwi, but is what I have experienced in Tauranga Moana.)

Non-Maori women can find this ‘relegation’ hard to take – along with the fact that on almost all marae women do not have the right to participate in the formal speeches. Instead, so I’ve been told, while the women are in the kitchen making food for a crowd that day and the day before, they discuss things, network, make decisions, and “tell the men what to say”. How true this is, I don’t know but I like the subversion of it.

Which brings me to the big smile of L3. Yes, the men may have the privilege of having their voice heard on the marae, but the women aren’t impressed by that one bit. Someone farts, they’ll say.

… Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work in the present only would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti-traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness – Haruo Shirane

Karen’s poem, for me at least, has pleasant echoes of a much earlier one which as Haruo Shirane says, gives it a richness.

letting rip a fart –
it doesn’t make you laugh
when you live alone

Karai Senryu (1718-90)

And, yes, Karai Senryu (river willow), real name Karai Haciemon, was the originator of the senryu poem.