Here are the panelists’ comments for recipients of The Haiku Foundation’s Touchstone Awards for 2016. Congratulations to all our award recipients, and thanks to all our panelists. For more information about the Touchstone Awards Series, please see Touchstone Awards for Individual Poems and Touchstone Distinguished Book Awards. For other archives, see Touchstone Archive.
Chair, Touchstone Awards
The Touchstone Awards for Individual Poems 2016
- Gary Hotham
- Ron C. Moss
- Renée Owen
- Michele Root-Bernstein
- Dietmar Tauchner
- Diane Wakoski
660 poems were nominated. Award recipients are listed in alphabetical order by author. Comments from the panelists give some flavor of the deliberations that have taken place.
whale vertebrae drifting from one god to another — Nicholas Klacsanzky (A Hundred Gourds 5.3)
“This haiku brings the sense of a timelessness of all things in our own great human journey between birth and death. A lot to imply in eight carefully crafted words but what an impact they have. They evoke something greater in our understanding and the search for the true self. Every time I read this haiku I find more places to travel and discover the subtleties that tantalize me as a reader. Nothing is explained, only suggested, and the reader can find what it means to them by going deeper.”
“The magnificence of the life force expressed in a whale, and the universal and critical message that from one god to another, no matter who we worship or where we’re from, there is only one Truth. And just as the dead whale has drifted across the sea, so too might we at times feel lost, drifting from one religious or spiritual path to another, hoping to find healing. With racism and refugees much on our minds today, this poem offers the hope of healing. And in the echo of the repetitive r’s and o’s, the power of this spare haiku reverberates with sound.”
November wind the hollow places that form a song — Peter Newton (The Heron’s Nest 18.1)
“This haiku starts with a sense of time and place with the November wind and we are told about the hollow places that forms a song. This is a many-layered poem like all good haiku and it shows hints of something else at play. Perhaps the hollow feeling is sadness caused by loss, or depression. But then, there is hope and light with a song to cheer and sustain us—for what song does not do that.”
“Atmospheric. Moody. Introspective. ‘November wind’ deftly combines literal or naturalistic meaning with emotional insight. Perhaps it is not until we reach the autumn of our years that we begin to realize how our imperfections, our limitations, our sorrows have shaped who we really are and have given us our unique voice. I am very much reminded of Wendell Berry’s observation that ‘the impeded stream is the one that sings.’ The poet of ‘November wind’ is in full control of the juxtaposition of images, the manipulation of expectation (hollow places followed by song is unanticipated, and yet, so right!), and the layering of meaning. This winning haiku is understated, and all the more masterful for it.”
“This haiku embodies the universal and seasonal theme of melancholy at the end of autumn, the beginning of the dark time, both within us and the earth. Our grief is indeed lightened when we can let life’s winds form a song within us, and when we slow down the hectic pace of our lives to hear that song. This haiku brings us that lightness and joy, along with a deep vertical axis, with references to classic literature and the Wind in the Willows. The consonance of the echoing ‘o’ sounds deepens the haiku’s impact.”
darkness . . . her name slips into it — Dave Read (Acorn 37)
“Many haiku conjure darkness; in a novel manner this one couples the loss of light to the loss of love. Spare and enigmatic the language may be, yet the emotional distress is palpable. In the darkness, when we are at our most vulnerable, a name slips out or breaks ‘involuntarily,’ from the lips. We are in Brontë territory here, channeling Rochester’s anguished cry ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’—though perhaps in a quieter, more reflective vein. Whether we choose to believe in the romantic ending or the heartache, this winning haiku has the same power as the novel to stir our souls. And that is saying a lot for a little poem.”
“So potently captures the universal theme of grief and the darkness we feel when we lose a loved one. And how our memories too can start to slip away into that darkness, even as we long not to forget them. Fresh & unique in its spare presentation, with the sibilant sounds of s’s in the first and last lines, this haiku leaves us with a sense of mystery, adding resonance and depth which deepens on re-readings.”
last day of summer the taste of the wooden stick inside the ice cream — Katrina Shepherd (The Heron’s Nest 18.4) “A striking image capturing and coloring a moment when a pleasure of life isn't all ice cream.” “The strength of this haiku lies in its nostalgia. Not only is it in 5-7-5, the format par excellence of English-language haiku in its youth, it evokes a primary experience of the young in mid-century America. Those were the days when the ice-cream man made his daily rounds through the neighborhoods, announcing treats with a tell-tale jingle, drawing kids from their backyard games. Those were the days when summer was forever, just like the ice-cream, until it was gone too soon. The very apt juxtaposition of vacation’s “last day” with the somewhat acrid taste of the stick calls our attention to the ephemeral nature of all things sweet.” “When reading this haiku who can not be immediately drawn back to our childhood days or an adult indulgences of eating ice cream. The taste of this haiku is in every word and we are left to ponder what the last day of summer means for us. Summer and ice cream just go together so well, and the author has set the scene to evoke for me some very fond memories and yes, I always bit down on that wooden stick.”
room by room by room
my mother disappears
— Alan Summers (Blithe Spirit 26.1)
“When I read haiku, I’m looking for an unexpected view on the well-known. I’m curious to learn about an open secret (after Robert Spiess). I’m looking for a simple (but not banal) and lucid language that expresses something extraordinary within the ordinary, something which I never read before in that way as well as something that is of beauty beyond time. ‘house clearance’ represents the pure power of haiku. Layers of meaning ascending from deeper layers of the mind (‘room by room by room’) in relation to existential truth (‘my mother disappears’). Perhaps one finds a human contradiction: memories can only get preserved vividly after “clearance.”
“An emotional and vivid image that brings sadness at first reading while effectively pointing out that taking away the physical doesn’t remove the memory.”
Touchstone 2016 Shortlist
new home we unpack our old habits — Debbi Antebi (Failed Haiku 1.6) off to on I disappear into the visible — Francine Banwarth (Frogpond 39.3) winter sun a crow gives in to the wind — Brad Bennett (Presence 55) silence where the river ran this bed of stones — Susan Constable (Acorn 36) heartland the world winnowed down to wheat — Alan S. Bridges (The Heron’s Nest 18.2) midnight call his car a pumpkin — Helen Buckingham (Mayfly 60) night sky I release the minnows all at once — Glenn Coats (Acorn 36) late winter I hit the bottom of my fantasy world — Robert Epstein (Mariposa 34) slip one knit one the pattern of winter bones — Lorin Ford (The Living Haiku Anthology Annual haiku competition 2016) the length of the night when it matters why — Samar Ghose (Sonic Boom 5) galaxy — LeRoy Gorman (is/let, October 1, 2016) drunk on snow melt from your clavicles wolf moon — Anita Guenin (The Living Haiku Anthology Annual haiku competition 2016) death what kind of plan is that — Carolyn Hall (Mariposa 34) the squeak of tulips into a vase . . . hospice reception — Michele Harvey (Frameless Sky 4) campfire light the color returns to dead leaves — Alexander B. Joy (The Heron’s Nest 18:1) whale vertebrae drifting from one god to another — Nicholas Klacsanzky (A Hundred Gourds 5.3) all day rain the weight of trees in my bones — Ben Moeller-Gaa (Modern Haiku 47.3) the groundhog’s shadow white where there shouldn’t be on her mammogram — Elliot Nicely (Modern Haiku 47.2) November wind the hollow places that form a song — Peter Newton (The Heron’s Nest 18.1) slow thunder a lizard’s ribs pressed against concrete — Polona Oblak (The Heron’s Nest 18.2) death anniversary . . . his fading odor in treasured shirt — Aparna Pathak (Wild Plum 2.2) wheeling her chair through leaf fall . . . we sure knew how to dance — Bill Pauly (The Heron’s Nest 18.4) darkness . . . her name slips into it — Dave Read (Acorn 37) restringing fence wire — meadowlark’s song one post ahead of the wind — Chad Lee Robinson (Mariposa 35) thin harvest — I salt the bitterness out of the gourd — Carl Seguiban (The Peggy Willis Lyles Haiku Awards, 2016) last day of summer the taste of the wooden stick inside the ice cream — Katrina Shepherd (The Heron’s Nest 18.4) house clearance room by room by room my mother disappears — Alan Summers (Blithe Spirit 26.1) winter night — the last tram carrying only the light — Eduard Tara (2016 Concorso Internazionale Haiku in Lingua Italiana) insomnia length of the night on her knitting needles — Maria Tomczak (The Heron’s Nest 18.3)
The Touchstone Distinguished Books Award 2016
- Randy Brooks
- Tom Clausen
- Rebecca Lilly
- Michael McClintock
- Julie Warther
More than 80 books were nominated. Award recipients are listed in alphabetical order by author. Comments from the panelists give some flavor of the deliberations that have taken place.
Brad Bennett. a drop of pond (Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2016). 86 pages, 4.25" by 6.5". Four-color card cover, perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-936848-73-7. $15.00.
“Brad Bennett in a drop of pond shares with his readers the discovery that haiku are to be found in our day to day experiences whether it be on the subway or on switchbacks on a mountain path.
on the subway
six small hands to a pole
up the mountain
we swap regrets
“His ability to take the ordinary and reveal the extraordinary is unmistakable and rewarding throughout this marvelous first collection. There is a beautiful awareness and openness throughout this collection which showcases the near endless range of subjects available to poets writing haiku.
at an intersection . . .
an island of cosmos
rusty lawn chair
the full moon reveals
“Among many brilliant qualities to be found in a drop of pond is a subtle and warming sense of humor. The intimacy of the familiar at once welcomes us to the heart of ourselves.
talking politics —
or at least
my dentist is
swapping work stories
his pint of beer
has more foam
“a drop of pond offers fresh, pure pairings of both the ‘ah’ and ‘aha’ variety. The images in this collection are seen through the eyes of one who feels a keen kinship with nature. Brad Bennett has an innovative and wonderfully personal voice that invites us to celebrate what is possible in haiku.”
a drop of pond
at the end of a beak
“Deborah Kolodji’s Highway of Sleeping Towns is an outstanding collection of haiku and senryu from over 15 years of writing. The collection is especially refreshing because of the wide range of topics written from a variety of approaches. You will not find worn out themes or the usual suspects of haiku topics in this book. Some of her haiku reflect her technology and science fiction perspective, but all strike me as a fresh voice from contemporary life. Her haiku continually surprise us with gifts of insight, humor and emotion.
a swirl of gnats
in my headlights
the flirting module
of unrepeatable excuses
the time warp
in her garden
Wally Swist. The Windbreak Pine: New and Uncollected Haiku 1985-2015 (Omskirk, UK: Snapshot Press, 2016).
“This book collects some of Swist’s best haiku written over several decades. Over the years, his work has been recognized, and deservedly so, for exhibiting a deep and abiding affinity with the natural world. His perceptive and carefully-crafted haiku remain true to the haiku tradition, so it is fitting that he cites Robert Spiess as his “spiritual haiku mentor” and dedicates the book in his memory. Swist’s haiku have the feel of objective observations which are “selfless” in the best sense: close observations of natural scenes and images and the rich evocations arising from the juxtapositions of natural elements. The impact of these haiku often originates in descriptive richness: in Swist’s best poems, the natural image he so richly depicts rises above its description into a transcendent dimension:
the dry wind simmers —
high-pitched songs of cicadas
rattle in the trees
the frosted spirals
of its sepia translucence —
wild cucumber vine
“Sometimes the transcendent effect is achieved when one natural image “mirrors” another in the same poem, as in these two pieces:
sun-dappled cliffs . . .
streaked with spindly globes
of golden alexander
bobbing in the wind —
umbels of Queen Anne’s lace
cupped with snow
“With their keenly-observed and evocative images from the natural world, Swist’s haiku frequently remind us of the beauty of processes and images in nature that we so often overlook. His haiku are testament to ways in which seemingly simple and ordinary natural scenes, when observed closely and with the right kind of “selfless” attention, offer the reader a moment of transcendent vision”:
a spider curls into a ball —
its legs sparkling
with snow crystals
Ruth Yarrow. Lit from Within: Haiku and Paintings. (Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2016). 150 pages, 6″ by 9″. Four-color card cover, perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-936848-68-3. Sold out.
“In Lit from Within, Ruth Yarrow selects 208 poems from five previous collections and places them in a simple framework of regions and localities where she has lived, spanning forty years of her life. The haiku exhibit a mastery of language that penetrates the undersea of emotions for which the English language offers few adequate names or terms, though they may dominate our interior consciousness and sense of things. Yarrow’s use of imagery and haiku aesthetics opens the portal to this realm, where the poet triangulates the origin and presence of these emotions in the human psyche.
“Her sensuous language ranges from spare and vivid to full-bodied and lyrical:
the child’s nose
melts a hole in a frost fern —
the windblown dark
picking the last pears
yellow windows hang
in the dusk
waking beside you
the room glows
“On page after page, Yarrow’s haiku achieve an introspective depth that is drawn from the careful contemplation and observation of outward things. Much of her poetry records indelible, intimate impressions tethered to memory, time and place. The human dimension is almost always present, at times even at the forefront, embedded in expressions of the natural world.
thick snow —
entrance to the vole tunnel
smell of our sweat
“Yarrow’s perceptiveness is fine, her realism authentic, her knowledge of the human response rich, deep, and convincing in nuance and delicacy —
ferry horn —
steep plunge of the island
into the sound
in the hawk’s eye
a dark knot
“In Yarrow’s poems, meaning is a product of the give and take between inward and outward realities; she is a poet of integration and affirmation, yet does not stumble into the naive or romantic.
“This collection is a broad sampler of a poet who has achieved the vision of an intimate natural philosophy and the language skills needed to convey its substance and subtleties. In its pages we find a substantial, enduring contribution to the foundations of English language haiku.”
Ludmila Balabanova. Dewdrops on the Weeds (Sofia Bulgaria: Small Stations Press, 2016). Bilingual (Bulgarian/English). 64 pages, 140cm by 210cm. Four-color card cover, perfectbound. ISBN 978-954-384-047-2. $15.00.
Ludmila Balabanova adapts haiku aesthetics to Western-flavored metaphor and broad symbolism to create poems in simple, direct language on poetry’s traditional themes: love, loss, separation, transience, loneliness, memories. A significant number of her poems clearly leave a footprint in the literature of aphorism and proverb —
the tree in the window
again in bloom
are we as different
as we think —
However much such poems may tweak the nose of the purist, they have been given a niche in haiku history — Basho, Buson and Issa wrote many that are still much loved and admired. Balabanova cheerfully adds a small crop of her own.
Other poems reel us in with guileless word choices and angles on experience. The simple is profound: a direct appeal is made to the reader’s imagination to fully comprehend what the poem is showing us and what direction it is inviting us to go:
light years away . . .
family album . . .
lights of a passing train
in the night
my grandson kills and revives
ten clay soldiers
the melody from
a black-and-white film
Simple they may be, but the results are sophisticated and seductive, and appear drawn from a worldview or mystical Weltanschauung (Ger.) that smiles on human behavior.
“Sylvia Forges-Ryan’s evocative collection, What Light There is: Haiku, Senryu and Tanka, offers the reader a series of observations and experiences in poems that sensitively draw on the juxtapositions between light and dark, both literal and figurative. Each chapter (or section) focuses on a different subject or area of life experience and has an accompanying light or dark title theme: e.g., “Natural Light” focuses on scenes from the natural world, and “While Darkness Falls” takes illness as a theme.) One of the strengths of this collection is that Forges-Ryan speaks in a very personal and quietly observant voice that makes you feel as though she’s speaking directly to you. There is a strong personal voice here:
Breaking off an icicle
the taste of metal
and my childhood
Deep into winter
writing poems I can share
with no one
“The title of the collection is apt, as Forges-Ryan makes reference to both the complementary and the opposing aspects of light and dark in many poems. Traditional images of winter (cold and snow, as well as death) all suggest the dark and interplay with “light” images in a variety of aspects. In some instances, light emerges from darkness (as in 2nd poem below), while in other cases, darkness shrouds the light. In still other cases, they seem to coexist harmoniously side-by-side, as in the lovely:
Here it holds a blossom,
there a snowflake
“In this poem, light grows out of darkness:
Softly falling rain
a vole’s body decomposes
back into life
“In addition to the strong sense of cohesion provided by the light-dark theme, and Forges-Ryan’s direct and personal voice, the way the poems are arranged adds power to the collection as a whole. Notably, particular images recur in various sections of the book (stars, dandelion puffs, icicles) and so take on different shades of meaning depending on the dark-light ratios expressed in those poems. It is clear that much thought was given not simply to the poems themselves, but to their arrangement, resulting in a collection with a strong sense of unity of voice and subject matter.
“The last and lovely ending poem is about “letting go,” the subject of the final section:
After I’m gone
where will you find me
if not in my poems
A fitting conclusion to a deft and poignant collection.”
Bill Kenney. the earth pushes back. (Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2016). 76 pages, 4.25″ by 6.5″. Four-color card cover, perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-936848-63-8. Sold out.
“the earth pushes back chronicles Bill Kenney’s journey through the seasons of his life and, essentially, the reader’s as well. Kenney’s plain language and simple diction create imagery of luminous precision with a beautifully realized sub-strata of personal thought and reflection. His use of universal images conveys the fallibility of our humanness within the context of the earth beneath our feet providing both support and resistance, reminding us we are alive and part of something bigger than ourselves.
“The evocative title and front cover image capture the attention, but the single haiku introduction draws the reader in —
where do I
“The poet seems to be gathering his thoughts to order this tale while simultaneously pondering the unsaid, “where do you end, butterfly, and I begin?” Immediately, there is tension, this back and forth tugging, of who is telling the story — the poet or Nature?
“It is a credit to the poet, who so clearly appreciates resistance in the form of gravity and friction, to see the very things we often fight against as potentially our greatest gifts. Without those forces that slow us down, our journeys would be swift, easy and generally without consciousness. With them, we can join the earth’s methodical pace, intentionally seeing and appreciating.
“This common thread of connection and interaction leads the reader gently through the earth’s seasons and the poet’s inner-life.
under a bandage
the cut begins to itch
the thought of myself
bringing the shovels
down from the attic
my winter bones
“Kenny’s poems, poignant and expertly ordered, carry a consistent theme throughout. And his pure pairings of images illustrate the ‘deceptively simple’ at its best.
“A single haiku epilogue leaves the reader on a trajectory of hope that, indeed, the earth will continue to push back”:
I want to believe