Logo, MacQueen's Quinterly
Listed at Duotrope
MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 16: 1 Jan. 2023
Critical Essay: 3,689 words [R]
+ Acknowledgments: 281 words
By Rich Youmans

Plaiting Poem & Prose:
The Art of Braided Haibun


While haibun writers have always had multiple options for connecting prose and haiku, typically the haiku have been presented as ... well, haiku. Whether capping or prefacing the haibun, punctuating blocks of text like the buttons of a coat, or trailing from the narrative like a kite’s tail, the haiku have appeared intact. And the success of the haibun lay in how well those haiku resonated with the prose.

Over the past few years, a new option has been appearing with increasing frequency, one in which the lines of a haiku are broken apart and interspersed between prose. What it’s called depends on whom you ask. One poet, Peter Newton, has described it as an “interrupted” technique or a “shuffle style.” Another, Kat Lehmann, has called such creations “woven haibun.” And in September 2021, Clare MacQueen, editor-in-chief of MacQueen’s Quinterly, began using the term “braided haibun”—a variation on “woven” that makes it even more specific, since the most common braid comprises three strands, nicely paralleling the lines of the split haiku.

Beyond figuring out what to call it (and for this essay I’m going with “braided haibun”), the practice also raises another question: Why do it? Can a haiku that’s been split apart resonate as well? Is this just an example of haibun writers experimenting with the form, or can it actually lend itself to certain types of topics and enhance the reader’s experience?

The answer to all of the above, as I’ve found, is yes.

Following the Strands

Sometimes, the origin of a form is very clear. In the world of haiku, think of Garry Gay’s rengay or, more recently, Peter Jastermsky’s split sequence. Poets that take up these forms recognize that they’re following in the footsteps of Gay and Jastermsky.

Other times, it’s not so definite. Scientists refer to this as the “multiple independent discoveries” concept, where scientific discoveries and inventions are made not by a heroic lone explorer, but by many scientists and inventors working independently. (Think of how many Nobel Prizes have been awarded to multiple recipients who found their own way to a breakthrough.) Sometimes it just seems as if there’s a radio signal transmitting in the ether, and several people tune in to it at the same time.

Such is the case, it seems, with the braided haibun. Speaking to some of the earliest practitioners, I found that several discovered the form on their own. Take the case of Peter Newton. His first braided haibun, “The Ascension”, appeared in the October 2016 contemporary haibun online {cho}, and he says he came to the technique “by accident and out of boredom”:

Having written quite a few haibun that are traditional in their structure, with a single haiku at the end of the prose poem, I wanted to mix things up a bit. The idea of shuffling cards came to mind. The speed and beauty of the riffle shuffle followed by the arcing cascade of cards. A skilled card shuffler is mesmerizing.

Intrigued, Peter later did a bit of research to see if there were any previous instances of this technique. He soon found what seems to be the first published piece to feature a split haiku: Fay Aoyagi’s “Confession” in the winter-spring 2015 edition of Modern Haiku. He contacted Fay about her inspiration, and it turns out she came to it pretty much the same way Peter did: “I ... just wanted to try something new,” she said. Fay wrote it after a haibun workshop presented by the Haiku Poets of Northern California, and she says her intent was simply to surprise the reader, “to break a pattern people have used ... I just wanted to say something strange.”


	Rorschach test

His favorite flower is a white chrysanthemum. 

	I cut the night 

He is the only child, but says he has many ghost cousins. 

	with my knife 

He confesses that he’s never been comfortable with his thorns.

Fay also noted that “Confession” was her first published haibun and one of only a few she’s written. It went on to win Modern Haiku’s Favorite Haibun award for the winter-spring issue and be named a finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2016 anthology.

Braided haibun continued to pop up periodically over the next several years—very periodically. In a search through the cho archives, for example, I found only eight instances of the braided form among the several hundred haibun published in the journal between 2016 and 2020 (and half of those braided pieces were by Peter Newton). It appeared infrequently enough that, by 2021, writers still weren’t sure what to call it, as shown when Kat Lehmann posted on Twitter her first foray into the form (“The Indescribable Nothingness of Childhood,” published in the April 2021 Sonic Boom). “Is there another name for this?” she asked. Like Fay and Peter, Kat had come to braiding on her own. As she recounts:

I wasn’t aware of braided haibun before I wrote mine. At the time I was developing a woven multi-haiku form called sudo-ku [which arranges the words of the haiku into a grid so they can be read both horizontally and vertically]. I wondered whether something similar was possible with haibun. I took a troublesome haibun and played with the form to try to let the poem tell me what it wants to be.

When I shared my first published piece, I asked the community if this style of haibun had a name. I learned that Johannes [S.H. Bjerg, editor of the other bunny] had written some of these years ago, and Lew [Watts, haibun co-editor of Frogpond] commented that he had some too. It’s a good idea that feels like a natural extension of the form, so I would not be surprised if there was an element of parallel evolution!

Beyond Experimentation: The Benefits of Braiding

The braided form may have evolved to the point of having a name, but the question is still out there: Why do it? Can splitting the haiku help a writer achieve an effect that enhances the haibun? After reading a number of them, I’ve found a few uses that take braiding beyond novelty.

1. The technique can emphasize a disrupted state of mind or situation.

An example of this is Fay Aoyagi’s “Confession” (see above). The haibun reminds me of a “three clues” game in which the player uses the clues to discover a secret word—or perhaps, in this case, a secret identity. While the three sentences become increasingly abstract, the haiku hints at someone who is trying to gain a better understanding of his life and his place in the world (assuming “I” in the haiku is the “he” in the prose). Fay’s splitting of the haiku, far from being simply something “strange,” adds to the overall effect. Just as the night is being carved (perhaps into imitations of the inkblots in Hermann Rorschach’s famous psychological test), so too are the haiku and prose, each cutting into the other. By having them intersect, the disassociated lines become something of a Rorschach test themselves, with the reader left to interpret the overall intent.

Harriot West also uses the technique effectively to enhance her haibun “Ill-fated,” published in cho in 2017 and later reprinted in her award-winning book Shades of Absence.


There’s always a crisis in produce—honeydews waiting to be shipped back molder outside the cooler—someone forgets to put red stickers on the organic garlic—overhead sprayers clog and butter lettuce wilts—so I pity the manager. 

	I know he knows 

Mark has a hacking cough (which makes me leery of buying any of the apples he is staging into pyramids)—Dean is devastated the Ducks lost by one point in the Final Four—Charlie is pissed he forgot to plug the meter and got a $50 parking ticket—and then there is Michael. 

	I’ve seen him 

He’s lost a lot of weight and almost all his hair so somehow hi how are you feels like prying and besides here I am rushing to buy groceries for supper and I don’t want to hear his answer because the notion of confronting mortality in front of overripe bananas is simply too awful to contemplate. 

	the hollowness of silence 

Harriot decided to try the form after reading an appreciation by former cho editor Bob Lucky of Peter Newton’s “Ascension.” In it, Bob applauded Peter’s piece and posed a challenge to all writers of haibun: “Can we spice it up without merely innovating for the sake of innovation, without losing touch with the haibun aesthetic?” {Random Praise: Bob Lucky on Peter Newton’s “The Ascension” in cho, January 2017.}

“I felt that I default too often to one paragraph capped by a haiku,” Harriot remembers, “and I wanted to create some variety in my work, as well as experiment with the form. Additionally, my goal was to see if I could write a haiku where each line bled naturally into the prose—which was something I had not seen done before.”

She achieves that goal with the first two lines of the haiku—they could easily be read as part of the narrative. But she also achieves something more. In the first two blocks of prose, Harriot uses dashes to convey the constantly shifting attention of a shopper—first in observing the produce on display, then the market’s staff. The dashes create a abruptness that is carried over into the first lines of the haiku; for me, they emphasize the way that Michael slips in and out of view as the narrator studiously focuses on other things. The final paragraph eliminates all punctuation as the words come in a nervous rush, followed by that crushing final line of the haiku. That line may not fold into the prose as the first two do, but it creates a leap that not only serves as a powerful superposition for the haiku, but also a potent closing for the prose. By being on its own, it emphasizes that moment of excruciating, hollowing silence, as well as the way in which Michael and the narrator are isolated from each other.

Which bring us to another benefit...

2. With braiding, each line of the haiku can resonate with the prose.

Another example of this is Steven Carter’s “For my brother David, stillborn in 1945,” which appeared in Frogpond 38:3 (autumn 2015), a few months after Fay’s “Confession.” Carter, a prolific writer who passed away in December 2019, wrote many types of haibun—from straightforward, autobiographical narratives to ekphrastics, epistolaries, and even a “found haibun” in which the prose was taken from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Here he applies the braided technique:

For my brother, David, stillborn in 1945

A few years ago anthropologists stumbled on a set of prehistoric footprints in a riverbed bisecting Africa’s Serengeti Plain. 

	Mom cradles the urn 

—Six in all, four are from adult hominids, and two—the footprints in the middle—are those of a child. One “outside” set is a tad smaller than the other—a female. It’s inexpressibly moving—mother, father, and the protected child probably holding its parents’ hands. 

	like a newborn— 

When I remember this recent discovery I think of you, David, and the strands of DNA we share with our ancestors, bonds of gravity and grace, death and love: the keys of the kingdom. 

—The kingdom? The darkling plain you and I, and the hominids, are heir to. 

	shadows on shadows 

Each line of the haiku calls to mind an image in the preceding paragraph—the mother cradling an urn mimics the handling of historical artifacts, “like a newborn” follows nicely from the image of the family, and “shadows on shadows” blends into the idea of ancestry and evolution (and picks up on “darkling”).

In “Three O’Clock,” which appeared in the January 2020 issue of contemporary haibun online, Dian Duchin Reed ties in the lines of the haiku even more closely to the narrative:

Three O’Clock
F-bombs explode all along the block, dropped by high-school students on their way—where?—home or to work or to hang out, all of them carrying something... 

	empty shell 

carrying their black trumpet cases, their backpacks, their cell phones, their future selves... 

	the hermit crab 

their future selves expanding daily, growing, exploding, barely contained by skin... 

	finds something bigger

“I assume I saw ... ‘braided’ haibun before I wrote [“Three O’Clock”], but I don’t remember any specific one,” Dian says today. “The technique appealed to me for this haibun because the haiku grows organically—line by line—into the prose story. The teenagers leave school, just as the hermit crab leaves its shell. The teens carry around the necessary bits of their lives, and the crab also carries what it needs for safety. They’re both expanding ... and in search of something bigger to contain who they’ve become.”

As with “For my brother David...,” Dian’s haibun would still have worked if she had used the traditional format of prose followed by the haiku in its entirety. But then you would have had the haiku simply commenting on the prose, putting the same thought in a different context. By weaving the haiku into the prose, it allowed each line of the haiku to propel the narrative toward its conclusion, where, just as in “Ill-fated,” that final “finds something bigger” line creates a satisfying closure for both the haiku and the prose.

One last example can be found in Kat Lehmann’s “Embodying the In-Between,” which appeared in MacQueen’s Quinterly (Issue 12, March 2022). This haibun, Kat says, began as a long prose journal entry written before her mother’s passing in 2018. The haiku derives from part of this entry: “As much as I try to prepare myself for future feelings, I cannot experience something until it happens. We cannot borrow tomorrow’s coat to see how it fits.”

Embodying the In-Between
Only Mother can see what she is responding to. This is not entirely new. But now she sees loved ones who have passed long ago. “Everyone’s here,” she says. Then a while later, “They’re gone now.” 

	gathering storm 

What is it like to be a part of a transition like that, being half-born into a new dimension? A hospice nurse says that my mother is slipping out of the physical realm to more fully occupy the spiritual self. 

	I try on tomorrow’s coat 

She sleeps as if she is wrapping into a chrysalis. I imagine her untangling from earth-bound tethers to stretch something like wings, to dissolve into light. Her almost-ending is increasingly ripe with almost-beginning. 

	to see if it fits 

“There were many versions of this work as I attempted to write it as a traditional haibun,” Kat says. “I had too much to say, and I didn’t want to ‘kill my darlings.’” Ultimately, she realized that each line of the haiku, when written alone, followed the general arc of the prose. “At that point,” she says, “I wove the lines into the prose and deleted what had suddenly become redundant, either with direct descriptions or within the new resonances created between the poetry and prose. Using the braided form for ‘Embodying the In-Between’ enabled me to express an emotionally complicated piece more succinctly than I otherwise would, and created more ‘spaces between the lines’ for meaning to live.”

3. Braiding can help to pace the narrative while the haiku subtly infuses it.

The first two benefits above focus on how the lines interact with the prose. There are also times when the lines can serve a more graphical function, dividing the narrative in a way that emphasizes its arc. Take Peter Newton’s “The Usher,” which appeared in the September 2018 issue of Haibun Today.

The Usher
“Good Morning,” he bellows once the elevator doors slide closed and we ascend. Despite a jacket two sizes too big, there is a fullness about him. His tone is exuberant. 

	summer’s end 

Heads bowed, I and a few other passengers rouse from our assumed positions of indifference. Most of us are visitors preoccupied with our own reasons for being in a hospital. We stammer out our delayed greetings: “Morning.” “Hello.” “How’s it goin’.” He shakes his bald head, tries again. “Thought I’d break the silence ... I mean, here we are, right?” 

	the tallest one in line 

He has a force behind his drawn cheek. Something intact. It’s as if he were rallying a team of strangers to give it all they’ve got: C’mon people. I gotta fight this cancer and carry the conversation? Couldn’t we just extend a little courtesy? I take his meaning: You have to fill the space you’re given. 

	at the ice cream truck 

The doors slide apart like curtains. The man extends his arm as if introducing me to the world. 

The first three paragraphs contribute individual scenes to the narrative, like the parts of a three-act play: setup (the introduction of the bellowing man), confrontation (the reaction of his fellow elevator passengers, as told through the narrator’s eyes), and resolution (the epiphany of the narrator). The final two sentences are like a coda, giving the title its meaning and opening up all the possibilities that the epiphany produced. As a reader, I want to end there, with the whole world in front of me—and by breaking up the haiku as he did, Peter achieved this open ending. Or at least it’s open for a moment: as a reader, I’m going to pause and let that ending stir my imagination—and then I’m going to read all of the lines of the haiku together, at which point I’m now out of the hospital and into “the world,” in a nicely resonating moment that captures the usher’s spirit.

4. Braiding can control the pace of the haiku for greater effect.

Similarly, the braided technique can also work to make the haiku itself gain additional impact. Lorraine Padden’s “Vanishing Point,” from the autumn 2021 issue of Frogpond, offers a good example of this.

Vanishing Point
My husband asks if I happen to know why the distance between the World Trade Center Twin Towers was slightly greater at the top than at the bottom of the two buildings. 

	from the couch to the floor 

He says, “You can’t see it, but the two towers were actually designed that way.” 

	they close their eyes 

I flash back to a memory of standing in Tobin Plaza, craning my neck to follow the lines of the tower as far as I could. Then it hits me. “The curvature of the earth.” 

	and jump 

By doling out the haiku line by line, Lorraine creates a tension that slows down the reader. By the time the last line appears, the actual subject of the haiku—kids playing on a sofa—has shifted to the background, just as the childhoods of those in the Twin Towers were in the past. That final line, “and jump,” now carries not only the innocence of a child’s game, but also the horror of 9/11.

“I’m a big fan of ‘ma’ or white space between the lines,” says Lorraine, who wrote “Vanishing Point” in 2021 after being introduced to the braiding technique through a haibun workshop led by British poet Alan Summers. “I think the format can offer a bit more room for each line of the haiku to breathe and be taken in over time. In the case of ‘Vanishing Point’ ... I did hope to give the reader places to pause as they made their way through the piece. Splitting up the three lines of the haiku helped facilitate this.”

“Feeding the haiku to the reader one line at a time allows the haiku to unfold slowly and creates suspense,” Kat Lehmann says. In “Crossing,” which appeared in the January 2022 issue of MacQueen’s Quinterly, she allows the haiku to drift through the haibun like a faint scent (or maybe, to better tie in with the topic, a bird’s flight), its resonance building and infusing the prose.

At the house closing, we read the document that says the river might not always exist. 

	blackbird wind 

We laugh and sign. Why would the river stop on our watch? 

	the hazy migration 

Be it now or in fifty years, we are the ones who will leave. 

	toward death 

As Kat writes, “The reader is prompted to return to the beginning to read the haibun a second time. Weaving the last line of prose ‘we are the ones who will leave’ with the last line of haiku ‘toward death’ creates a bigger impact than would have occurred if the haiku had been provided to the reader all at once.”

That last point leads back to the idea noted earlier, that braiding allows each line of the haiku to resonate with the prose. As is no doubt evident by now, my four “benefits” are not mutually exclusive—braided haibun can (and often do) feature two or more of these traits. My attempt to tease out the benefits is only to show what a haibun writer might consider when debating the structure of a piece. Braiding is just one more arrow in the haibun writer’s quiver—good for certain instances, not for all—and hopefully writers will continue to experiment with the form to see how much further it can go. (Lew Watts has already done that with “Cruising Downtown Santa Fe,” in which he interweaves the lines of a haiku among quatrains and three-line haiku.)

However it evolves, braiding does require a bit more of the writer as well as the reader. “The braided form of haibun asks writers to be more aware of what they’re doing,” Peter Newton says. “The writer has to be mindful of the order in which he chooses to release information to the reader. And it asks the reader to be more engaged, to ask, ‘Why is this line broken here?’” Like a good plait, braiding can bring together author, reader, and story to create a bond that resonates.


My thanks to Fay Aoyagi, Roberta Beary, Kat Lehmann, Clare MacQueen, Lorraine Padden, Dian Duchin Reed, and Harriot West for responding to queries about braided haibun and offering their thoughtful comments.

The quoted material in the article comes from personal e-mail exchanges with the various poets.

My special thanks to Peter Newton, who not only provided his own insights into the braided form and contributed valuable research, but also spurred the development of this article.

“Confession” by Fay Aoyagi first appeared in Modern Haiku 46:1 (winter-spring 2015). Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Ill-fated” by Harriot West first appeared in the July 2017 issue of contemporary haibun online. It was later reprinted in Shades of Absence (Red Moon Press, 2018), which won both a Touchstone Award from The Haiku Foundation and a Merit Book Award (Best Haibun Book) from the Haiku Society of America. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“For my brother David, stillborn in 1945” by Steven Carter first appeared in Frogpond 38:3 (fall 2015). Reprinted by permission of Janice Carter.

“Three O’Clock” by Dian Duchin Reed first appeared in the January 2020 issue of contemporary haibun online. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Embodying the In-Between” by Kat Lehmann first appeared in MacQueen’s Quinterly (Issue 12, March 2022). Reprinted by permission of the author.

“The Usher” by Peter Newton first appeared in Haibun Today 12:3 (September 2018). Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Vanishing Point” by Lorraine Padden first appeared in Frogpond 44:3 (autumn 2021). Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Crossing” by Kat Lehmann first appeared in MacQueen’s Quinterly (Issue 11, January 2022). Reprinted by permission of the author.

Publisher’s Notes:

1. This essay was first published in contemporary haibun online (18.2, 1 August 2022), and appears here with author’s permission.

2. Details within square brackets, [], were added by the author to quotations during his writing of the essay; and the two details within curly brackets, {}, were added by Clare MacQueen while formatting the text for the web.

Rich Youmans
Issue 16 (1 January 2023)

is the editor-in-chief of contemporary haibun online, and lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Alice. He has been writing haiku, haibun, and related essays for 35 years. His books include Shadow Lines (Katsura Press, 2000), a collection of linked haibun with Margaret Chula; and Head-On: Haibun Stories (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018), which received an honorable mention in the Haibun category of the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Three haibun stories by Rich Youmans in MacQ: Living Color and Redline (Issue 6, January 2021); and Through the Looking Glass (Issue 9, August 2021), the latter of which was nominated by MacQ for the Red Moon anthologies and selected for publication in Contemporary Haibun 17 (Red Moon Press, 2022)

After the Dream, the Dream Remains, haibun story in KYSO Flash (Issue 11, Spring 2019) which was nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2020; piece was among 128 winners selected for publication in the anthology

What’s Left Unsaid: Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory & Harriot West’s “Empty Spaces” in contemporary haibun online (16:3, December 2020)

Copyright © 2019-2024 by MacQueen’s Quinterly and by those whose works appear here.
Logo and website designed and built by Clare MacQueen; copyrighted © 2019-2024.
⚡   Please report broken links to: MacQuinterly [at] gmail [dot] com   ⚡

At MacQ, we take your privacy seriously. We do not collect, sell, rent, or exchange your name and email address, or any other information about you, to third parties for marketing purposes. When you contact us, we will use your name and email address only in order to respond to your questions, comments, etc.