BOOK REVIEW – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: A YEAR IN HAIKU

Review by Ruth Mittelholtz published in Haiku Canada Review October 2016 Volume 10 Number 2.

Note: The haiku quoted are copyright the individual poets.

Off the Beaten Track: A Year in Haiku. Boatwhistle Books, 10 Princes Road, Teddington, TWII ORW United Kingdom, www.boatwhistle.com. 2016. ISBN 978-1-911052-01-2. Perfect bound. 224 pages. ₤12.00.

Off the Beaten Track: A Year in Haiku presents new work by a different poet each month for twelve months, each poet contributing a haiku a day. Twelve artists each provided an illustration.

Half the writers are experienced haiku poets, half new to haiku. The intention, according to the flyer inserted into the book, was to “situate the book within the tradition of English-language haiku, while also seeking to extend its boundaries through the inclusion of ‘outsiders’ with respect to that tradition.” Five of the poets currently reside in the UK, two in the USA, and one each in Canada, Belgium, Ethiopia, Japan, and Italy.

Boatwhistle Books was established in 2015, a project of Hamish Ironside and Mike Fell. Ironside is one of the experienced haiku poets in the book, Fell an energy researcher and former publisher. Off the Beaten Track is the second of two books offered so far. According to their website, Boatwhistle was established “with the aim of publishing singular books for singular readers. We uphold impeccable production and editorial standards in making our books available to customers worldwide at affordable prices. We are not exactly non-profit, but we are so unlikely to ever make a profit that we might as well be. In other words, we are in it for the sheer love of it.”

The subtitle, A Year in Haiku, invited a reading of the poems in order from beginning to end. To give a small taste of the experience, here is one haiku from each month starting with the first poem of the book and the year, and ending with the last.

What we have here                                            lost in the rain
is a gate in a wall                                                I smell the sheep reviving
With its timetable of opening hours                 in my jumper
Hugo Williams, January                                     Hamish Ironside, February

snow-cum-hail                                                    a hearse
two colleagues flirt                                             up from the valley
in the open plan                                                 wet with blossoms
Matthew Paul, March                                         Michael Dylan Welch, April

cloudy morning                                                 public restroom
coffee                                                               asparagus overwhelms
refrigerator hum                                               the urinal cake
Michael Welton, May                                       Christopher Herold, June

A silent black sea                                            meadow flowers    definitely cremation
The ship’s a blazing city!
Blunt as Mary’s angel. 
Sally Read, July                                               George Swede August

autumn equinox                                                I thought they’d switched
her side of the bed                                           To the Euro here
and mine                                                          But it seems they still use Zlotys.
Bob Lucky, September                                     Momus, October

 

Selling books, Strand.                                      Old year, dying:
Worst dread realized:                                       we, here, with fowl
‘Fred will be your buyer today.                         & beast, dark & light
Fabian Ironside, November                              Éireann Lorsung,  December

We haiku readers are abruptly dropped into unfamiliar territory with Williams’ striking first poem and his sometimes wildly idiosyncratic contributions which follow. Come February, we are transported without warning (unless one has read Hamish Ironside’s work before) into the familiar territory of haiku solidly grounded in current practice. The journey continues along that path, except for small detours through the lonely, minimalist world of Michael Welton, and the deeply spiritual, complex poems of Sally Read. The last three poets, Momus, Fabian Ironside and Lorsung, toss us back out to the edge of the haiku world and beyond.

It’s a wonderful trip through diverse voices, themes, moods, and states of reality. It is also a thought-provoking and sometimes startling excursion through various degrees of haiku-ness.

 

Scraps of dandruff crowd the parting of my student antagonist
Worker ants carrying breadcrumbs to their pregnant queen
Or poems lost in the forest of the imagination?
Hugh Williams

 

There was rain in the first hours.                   ripening field tomatoes . . .                        
The garden arched its back.                          the baby bumps of  two                              Refreshed, she slept on.                               migrant workers                                  
Sally Read                                                     George Swede

 

George Swede has published nineteen books of haiku; Williams and Read are new to the form, although they are well-published in other genres. The editors say in the Afterword “the hope was that [the non-haiku writers] would bring to the project the ‘beginners mind'” and “The point of the project, then, was to both juxtapose and integrate the two camps [. . .]. They go on to say “So while this is a book of English-language haiku, it is indeed off the beaten track.” The other poets new to haiku (besides Williams and Read) are Michael Welton, Momus, Fabian Ironside, and Éireann Lorsung.

The book offers the opportunity to read a substantial number of poems by twelve distinctly different writers. In fact, it could be considered a set of twelve books. And there’s also the pleasure of browsing the individual poems. Whether located within today’s definition of the haiku form, or somewhere on the blurry border, or far off the beaten track, they reward with fresh subject material and vivid imagery. A few more examples:

no one waves back                                             At her table:
to the people on the boat                                    red candles, thin china,
heading out to sea                                              us in one room again
Hamish Ironside                                                 Éireann Lorsung

Her small hand in mine,                                     rural tavern
the old road from church to sea.                        a row of suspenders
Christ lodged in my teeth.                                  at the bar
Sally Read                                                         Christopher Herold

The illustrators, based in the UK or USA, are “twelve of the most distinctive artists [the editors] could find.”  Their black-and-white artworks in diverse styles are responses to the mood and subject material of one of the poems in their assigned month. The production standards in general are high, as promised by the publishers. The haiku are arranged one to three per page, allowing each its own space. The attractive cover design complements the content of the book, depicting twelve leaves of different kinds and colours floating on a deep blue background.

Off the Beaten Track: A Year in Haiku is an unusual, provocative and highly enjoyable book.

Review by Ruth Mittelholtz

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