Kathryn Mockler's "Haiku Sucks" | Issue 25
The Great Canadian Haiku Controversy: In 1997, I won a poetry contest and the magazine's readership was not happy. I felt I was undeserving of the honour, and, as it turned out, so did everyone else!
In 1997, early in my writing life, when I had a couple of small literary publications under my belt and was an MFA student at UBC, I won Geist Magazine’s Great Canadian Haiku Contest, which was judged by poet David McFadden.
Much to my surprise, I won.
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The prize consisted of a “specially engraved Great Canadian Haiku Trophy” and a cash award of $5 per syllable. In the issue my award was announced (No. 25), my haiku appeared alongside several honourable mentions.
I felt I was undeserving of the honour, and, as it turned out, so did everyone else!
In his judge’s note, David McFadden explains that adjudicating this contest was “no piece of cake” and that “there wasn’t one truly bad-bad haiku in the bunch” (No. 25) except one poem which was disqualified for picturing [a well-known Canadian personality] as a pedophile."
McFadden then explained why my poem was chosen:
As for the winner, it was was chosen because of the electrical effect created by the friction between the dramatic power of the event and the hilariously understated expression of it—and all the invisible ripples of guilt, snickering, open laughter, disbelief, wondering how much the repair bill will be, will the insurance cover it, etc. Truly a powerful moment suspended in time—we don’t even know if the event is occurring before going to the lake or on the way back.
Wow! No one had ever written anything so profound about my writing before. I felt I was undeserving of the honour, and, as it turned out, so did everyone else! The Geist readers hated my poem and were not shy about expressing it.
Readers felt that Gary Barwin, a writer who would later become my friend and collaborator, had been robbed of the award. Barwin coined the contest’s title in his entry “Haiku Night in Canada,” but unfortunately his poem was disqualified because of an extra syllable. Without that syllable, the award likely would have been his.
old pond hipchecked by frog haiku night in Canada the shriek of frond blades
And Gary should not have been disqualified because the 5-7-5 rule in English is arbitrary.
In Issue 28, Naomi Wakan, pointed this out as well in a somewhat neutral yet informative letter. She describes the essence of the haiku not in terms of the five, seven, five framework, or nature as a subject.
The essence is rather a recording of what the senses register in one moment. That moment is the present, so haiku is written in the present tense and consists mostly of nouns. The poet is arrested by sensations and images to the point of gasping in amazement. Not the ‘wow’ kind of amazement, but the amazement resulting when the inner and outer, the micro and the macro, the higher and the lower, or other dichotomies converge into the ‘whole world’ in a ‘grain of sand’ moment.” —Naomi Wakan
It was amusing to me that I had won — especially since I had whipped off the haiku without much thought. I had zero interest in the nationalism or the Canadiana bent of the contest, but entered as a lark and because I enjoyed haiku as a form.
My poem was based on a story my father had told me about a time his canoe fell off the roof of his car when he was driving along a bumpy dirt road. I wasn’t even with him but thought it was a funny anecdote that I could clearly picture in my mind, so I wrote about it in haiku form!
However, I soon became aware that a controversy was brewing about my win. Having my poem published alongside the runners up, gave readers an opportunity to be their own judge. Numerous Geist readers felt I should not have won the Great Canadian Haiku Contest at all, and for the next three or four issues, wrote in angry letters to the editor about me and my poem and sometimes even penning their own.
In Issue No 27, Rick Patrick wrote of my haiku: “Are you [expletive deleted] kidding? I’d rather read about [insert well-known Canadian personality] as a pedophile,” and after mocking the judge’s take on the haiku, Patrick threatens that if my poem is “the stuff CanLit” then he’s moving to “the States. (Check that: maybe England or France. Somewhere far away.)”.
Some readers felt I should be disqualified because I didn’t put winter in the poem. Others thought that my poem wasn’t “Canadian” enough. One reader wrote:
Cut the crap … the winning haiku sucks. It’s Gary Barwin who gave you the 'wonderful tribute to Basho’s memory,' as well as your title, and he ought to have won the prize … Hell, if I’d known season didn’t count I could have come up with a 'sudden illumination' more exciting than the contest winner. How about this:yellow fountain sprays on his back, having a fit my old cat pisses —Anne Miles
In another letter, reader Judy Jenkins speculated that I purposely wrote the image of the car and canoe in order to win David McFadden’s favour because the first edition of McFadden’s 1978 book On the Road Again (McClelland & Stewart) has an image of a vehicle driving down a country road with a canoe attached to its roof. “Is this coincidence, propinquity, synchronicity, harmonic convergence, or you name it?” Jenkins asks.
While the cover image does look incriminating, I had never seen this book until Geist published a photo of it the Letters section.
The negative responses caused McFadden to fire back a satirical response making up his own salacious gossip about the readers, their speculations, and their relationships to him and each other, which, in turn, caused more controversy, and Geist had to issue a retraction and apology in Issue No. 27.
The only reader with something positive to say (bless his heart!) was Brad Devlin (No. 26) who wrote, “The winning haiku brought back the memory of a canoe incident from my childhood.” He then shared his own story of a canoe falling from his family’s car and ends his letter with “Great haiku.”
That I could inspire so much hate and conspiracies about a poem I wrote confused me. I remember opening each new issue of the magazine to see if there was yet another hate letter and the Letters section did not disappoint.
I failed to realize at the time that I hadn’t just entered a haiku contest (as I saw it) but rather I had dared to submit to a national identity contest. Not only had I butchered the haiku form, of which Geist readers had considered themselves experts, but also I had failed to provide an acceptable representation of Canada. So the only reasonable conclusion for my win was that I cheated or in some way compromised myself with the judge.
CBC Radio contacted me by phone for a comment about the controversy and I remember feeling like the interview was condescending with questions like, “Will you ever write another poem again?” I think my answers were pretty boring because I didn’t care that everyone hated the haiku, so I’m not even sure the interview ever aired.
Somehow the Utne Reader caught wind of it too and published my and Gary’s poems side by side. Perhaps they thought the controversy was quaint or hoped to capitalize on the Canadian poetry rage, but alas, American readers were not too interested in this drama, and the controversy was finally laid to rest.
I asked Gary if he remembers the Great Canadian Haiku contest that he almost won, and he doesn’t remember more about this “haikulabaloo” except an unrelated anecdote:
After this, unrelatedly, CBC’s Here and Now drive-home show in Toronto used “Haiku Night in Canada,” as a title for a contest that they hosted and I contacted them to tell them it was my title. They still used it but had me on to read my poems (I have a suite of poems in my Outside the Hat book called that) and to talk about haiku.
I love stories of interactions before writers knew each other — we both were in our early careers — I had no idea that this was you — we didn’t know each other then. I do wish I had had the presence of mind to write to you and Geist about this — it seems ridiculous but also hurtful and unfair.
‘Haiku Matata, everyone. No worries, chill out. Kathryn's poem abides by the rules and is lovely. No reason to be nasty or outraged. There are actual people behind these poems. And one should always be nice to people, especially Kathryn who’ll become a dear friend of mine later on.’
Geist offered both David McFadden and I a chance to respond in the Letters section. I declined, a little weary of my 15-minutes of fame, but McFadden used the opportunity to refute the rumours that we knew each other.
He wrote, “If you are suggesting that the poem might have been chosen because I’m acquainted with the author you’ve got the wrong guy.” And in saying a little more than he “originally wished to about the prize-winning entry,” McFadden once again defended his support of the poem claiming it was “a brilliant update of Basho’s famous frog poem … the road = the pond, the car = the lily pad, the canoe = the frog. Plop!” (No. 26).
After the contest, I acquainted myself with David McFadden’s work, and I cherished his poetry for its combination of humour, bleakness, and heart. I wish I had gotten the chance to meet him in person, but I never did. Sadly David McFadden passed away in 2018.
If you’re looking for a place to start with his work, I recommend Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems, Selected and Edited by Stuart Ross in 2007.
Thanks to Geist Magazine for sending me all the back issues so I could write this piece!
Kathryn Mockler’s debut story collections Anecdotes is forthcoming from Book*hug. Pre-order Anecdotes at your local bookstore.
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Note: [insert name of Canadian personality] is my addition. In Issue 27, Geist editors published the name of the personality, but I have chosen to not include it in this essay.
“No 5-7-5” by Michael Dylan Welch National Haiku Writing Month https://www.nahaiwrimo.com/why-no-5-7-5