When I began writing haibun more than 15 years ago, I wanted to experiment with a form that would combine my love of short prose and haiku. I wasn’t interested in writing travel haibun, which was much of what I was reading in haiku journals back then. It was more about what my writing could do for me and to evoke a response in my readers. Or change the way the reader looked at the world. In other words, my goals for an effective haibun were a lot like my goals for an effective haiku. Tell all the truth but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson wrote.
To write haibun I had to know what makes a good haibun. But my definition of a good haibun evolved over the years. It has three requirements: a title that grabs the reader but doesn’t reveal too much of the action ahead; prose that is short and engaging; haiku that reflects or expands the prose but does not repeat it. And all three parts must be linked in some way. The Holy Trinity of Haibun.
In the past few years my haibun repertoire has expanded from childhood reminiscences, both good and ill, to encounters with chemo patients, bullies, spouses, lecherous teachers, ex-husbands, and election results. For me, no subject is off limits for haibun: a conversation overheard in a hospital or on a bus, a news story, a tale told by a friend. An authentic haibun includes no artifice or device. The emotion must be real. Which is why as a haibun writer I am not concerned about revealing family secrets. Not because I don’t have any. But because I don’t believe in them. There is nothing more fatal to writing haibun or any artistic form than the fear of offending.
I try to make sure that something happens in my haibun. An experience that will engage the reader so that she will join me on my haibun journey. Once that is accomplished in the prose, there is still the haiku. I write my haiku after completing the prose because the prose generates the haiku. I set a high bar: the haiku must be able to stand on its own. To be strong enough to appear in any haiku anthology or collection without any reference to the haibun. This isn’t easy.
A haibun can take weeks to write before I am satisfied with it. Or days. I think in 15 years I have written three haibun that took one day. Once the haiku are written, I decide where to place them. Should a haiku begin the haibun? Should it break up the prose? Or should I follow the standard haibun dictum of title, prose, haiku? Should several haiku be interspersed throughout the prose? The answer depends on the individual haibun. Many practitioners’ haiku repeat the haibun’s theme, or even its words. To me this means the writer is not working as hard as he could.
The last leg of my journey is the title. The title should grab the reader’s attention. A signal that a worthwhile experience lies ahead. A promise of authenticity that will make the reader sit up and take notice. Sometimes the title is the hardest part of the haibun puzzle for me to solve. But when I do, the time I spent figuring out how the pieces fit together makes all the challenges worthwhile. So I go on, telling haibun stories and shaping myself in the process.
all day they drink and argue. argue and drink. then come looking for me. find me hiding under the bed. break me into pieces. some say they bury me in the woods. but those are only my bones. look for me in the night sky. cradle of stars. softly he rocks me. man in the moon.
baby teeth rattle
a pink jar
—Essay was published previously in Blithe Spirit (Vol. 29, No. 3,
August 2019), and “Verisimilitude,” the haibun story, was first published
in KYSO Flash (Issue 9, Spring 2018); both works appear here with
is the haibun editor of Modern Haiku, the co-editor of Wishbone Moon:
An Anthology of Haiku by Women (Jacar Press, 2018), and the author of three
award-winning poetry collections, including The Unworn Necklace, which
received a finalist book award from the Poetry Society of America. Her collection
of prose poetry, Deflection (Accents Publishing, 2015), was named a National
Poetry Month Best Pick by Washington Independent Review of Books.
Her writing has appeared in Rattle, KYSO Flash, 100 Word Story, Cultural
Weekly, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and is also featured in
A Companion to Poetic Genre (John Wiley & Sons, 2011) and Haiku In
English: The First Hundred Years (W. W. Norton, 2013).
Roberta Beary identifies as gender-expansive and writes to connect with the
disenfranchised. She lives in the west of Ireland with her husband, Frank Stella,
and tweets her photoku and micro-poetry on Twitter [at] shortpoemz.
You can also find her on Facebook:
art of brevity, an interview by Ciara Moynihan in Mayo News
(22 January 2019)
Lunch Break, a haibun by Beary in Rattle (#56,
Summer 2017), Tribute to Poets with Mental Illness; includes audio (17 July 2017)
one of more than a dozen of Beary’s works which appear in KYSO Flash;
for a list of others, see the KF Index of Contributors.