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Poetry and postcards instilled patience

By Elizabeth Armstrong / November 20, 2002



The invitation presented a challenge that I wasn't sure I was ready, or able, to take up. I was a senior at Northwestern University, juggling a heavy class load with job searches and graduation anxiety, when a friend asked me to join a Haiku Challenge. It's easy, Kate said, and it will be fun and rewarding.

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The object: Write one haiku a day, five days a week. Put it on a postcard and mail it to one of the other five girls. Five haikus, five stamps, five postcards. In return, you would receive five haikus a week.

The idea was inspired by "The Haiku Year" (Soft Skull Press, 1998), a book about a group of friends - including Michael Stipe, the famed lead singer of REM - who challenged each other in 1996 to write one haiku a day and mail them to one another as a way to share insights and observations.

"They were a shorthand way to stay in touch with where each other's heads were at," writes the book's editor, Tom Gilroy, in the foreword, "far more poetically and accurately than a four page letter could." It is a fascinating book, not just because of the poetry, but because it offers snippets of detail into the lives of ordinary, but creative, people.

The challenge seemed simple enough, except for an obvious disadvantage: I had never written a haiku, nor did I know very much about them.

On the other hand, I've always loved mail, everything from surprising a distant friend with a card down to stationery and stamps. Kate was well aware of my devotion to letters, having been the recipient of several of mine. We had first met in a poetry class, and later discovered we were both journalism majors. I decided to accept.

I was excited about the prospect of getting to know four strangers, two of whom were studying abroad in Italy and Mexico. It would be an international network of pen pals, I thought, and in the end I would fill a journal with poetry.

I marched over to a stationery store in Chicago and spent two hours picking out a handful of postcards. For a poor college student, splurging on tiny reproductions of art is a big deal. I took plenty of time selecting my favorites.

When the challenge began, I found myself sitting in Café Mozart on Chicago Avenue, with a stack of stamps and postcards to my right and a steaming au lait to my left. That's when it hit me: I had nothing to say.

We had agreed as a group to allow ourselves to break, from time to time, the syllable rule of a traditional haiku - first line 5 syllables, second line 7, third line 5 - but we had established three basic guidelines.

First, we would use seasonal references (kigo) to establish time and place. Second, we would write about one moment, pure and uncontrived. Third, we would reflect on our own point of view, whether it was loneliness, humor, frustration, joy, etc.

I looked around and saw a woman reading a newspaper, the pages rustling when a gust of wind pushed through the open door. I watched the wheels of cars slice through the muddy slush of yesterday's snowfall, and a dog pull on its leash to get a better sniff at the base of a street lamp.

I was surrounded by ordinariness, with a stack of blank paper and nothing to add to the pile of monotony.

Now, looking back, I could write a dozen haikus about that moment. I have learned to see, as well as appreciate, the way people hold their hands when typing at their computer, the curling of steam from a hot drink, the smell of autumn in early-morning dew and falling leaves. It has been almost two years since I wrote my first haiku, and I am in my second challenge with Kate and four new participants.

Of the 200-plus journal pages I have filled, I may have only written a dozen truly good haikus.

But a dozen isn't bad, and "good" isn't the point. I have learned to be more patient and observant, and I have gotten a glimpse into the lives of people in other parts of the world whom I might otherwise have never known.

When I graduated from college, I put together about 30 of my favorite haikus and made a small booklet. I called it "Kaleidoscope," and opened by way of introduction with one of my favorite poems by Canadian singer Buffy Saint-Marie:

You say I have visions

because I am an Indian;

I have visions because

there are visions to be seen.

I mailed one booklet to every friend and relative who had made the trip to my graduation. And although, more than a year later, I have yet to hear back from every recipient, I know I gave one of the most precious gifts of all: A peek into my life and the way I absorb the ordinary occurrences around me.

Though my own experience with the Haiku Challenge has been mainly one of personal growth, I cannot help finding Mr. Gilroy's closing thoughts, if perhaps overly optimistic, enticing to say the least:

"This book surely will have succeeded if mail carriers begin to notice an increase in postcards with three lines scribbled on them. Then, slowly but surely the amount of poetry in the mail would increase, and cut in on the amount of junk mail we get. The evening news would have to start delivering a Poem of the Day instead of one more celebrity profile. People would have such a stockpile of precious moments they would no longer allow bombs to be made, wars to be declared, or people to walk around homeless or hungry. The person who tells you this is impossible is the person you should start a haiku challenge with."

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