On 3/16/13 Joan Stern participated in a Senryu Workshop at Bank of Books, in Malibu. Joan was kind enough to share this exciting moment with us.
What follows are her notes from that day:
Thank you for spending part of your Saturday indoors to explore a short poetry form. Senryu are often quite amusing and I hope we will have some fun together this afternoon. I am wearing a tee shirt given to me by my sister-in-law to celebrate the publishing of the book I co-authored, entitled “Pieces of Her Mind.” The senryu on the shirt reads:
haiku are easy
but sometimes don’t make much sense
Why I classify this bit of sarcasm as senryu should become clear as we continue our discussion.
I write on an international website called FanStory, and in September 2011, I was invited by Sue Campion to join 17 other women members of the site from across the globe, to create a learning community to study the form. We achieved our goal of creating the first anthology of its kind, from a woman’s perspective, by publishing in November, “Pieces of Her Mind: Women Find Their Voice in Centuries-Old-Forms.” We used the Internet and conference calls throughout our adventure and continue to consider ourselves “learners,”as we share our wit and wisdom, while playing with words.
One of the shortest poems in the book, which I think captures the authors’ collective spirit is my senryu in the chapter on “Laughter”:
Is too short
Senryu became an acknowledged short, Japanese form back in 1746, when men commented on various aspects of the human condition, using satire and irony. The word itself means “river willow” and refers to a “soiled dove” (slang for “prostitute”).The form’s origin is attributed to Karai Hachiemon (1718-90) whose pen name was Harai Senryu, as he held contests to complete the poems. Senryu clubs still exist in Japan, and a resurgence of interest in the form is taking place. Although it has been dominated by men for centuries, the three winners of the Gerald Brady Senryu Memorial Award, sponsored by the Haiku Society of America are all women. The form can certainly provide contemporary females with an opportunity to voice their opinions with panache about cultural beliefs and practices.
As Sue Campion says in the dedication of the book:
for all women
who love to learn
and speak their minds
for all men
who love to learn
how our minds think
What is a working definition of senryu? The form is similar to haiku in that they are short poems without rhyme, typically three-lines of seventeen syllables or less. More important than the number of syllables is that they flow and can be read in one breath, since Japanese is made up of “on”—a sound unit that is generally shorter than the English syllable. The most important distinction is that haiku focus on nature and contain a seasonal reference, and senryu are about the human condition and relations. As a result, they often employ strong satire and irony. Double entendre and word play frequently are used to reinforce the parody and sarcasm.
We divided the book into eight chapters, each enhanced by a Chinese character, starting with the one for “Beauty” and subtitled “on face value”. My offering in the first chapter may be seen as the antithesis of beauty:
twilight turns vampires
into horror-movie heartthrobs
The subsequent chapters are: “Enlightenment—aha! says she”
“Laughter—naughty but nice”
“Passion—I have a headache”
“Truth—little white lies”
“Wisdom—with thyme comes sage”
Here is one from “Truth” that I think is autobiographical:
seeing no need
to act her true age
she chases rainbows
And one from “Wisdom” that my husband thinks refers to him:
not heard of I.D.—
married men’s disease
Liam Wilkinson, former Editor of the journal “Prune Juice,”observed that “Presenting one’s self in a spontaneous, truthful, funny and/or profound way whilst also arousing a recognition of the reader’s own human nature is the not-so-simple key to being a good writer of senryu. He wrote an enthusiastic endorsement of “Pieces of Her Mind.”
The book also contains insightful biographies of the women authors and essays, such as the one called “Mad, Crazy and Wild Poems: Kyoka,” which discusses a form often described as tanka’s stepsister—a 5-line poem, rather like two haiku or senryu combined. Carol Judkins includes this example:
dances in the dark
a whiff of feminine scents
in unconventional turns
And the adventure continues: I just returned from a journey to New Zealand and Australia, where I had the chance to meet one of my co-authors and her family—it was a highlight of the trip. Of course, instead of keeping a travel journal, I wrote a series of what I call“poem-cards”—3-5-3 senryu-snapshots.
Today, I registered for a contest on FanStory sponsored by our energetic Sue Campion, the guiding force for “Pieces of Her Mind.” She asked us to justify why we considered our entry senryu, and I wrote:
senryu are dense
and sometimes enigmatic
Which brings us right back to the tee shirt! Thank you for your attention, and now it is your turn to try your hand at creating a senryu. Remember: usually three lines of 17 syllables or less with no rhymes, about the human condition and preferably satiric or ironic.
Thank you Joan! We can see why senryu workshops, like this one, can enlighten and pique one's interest in and for senryu poetry.