Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Haiku Death Match just poetic justice

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I think I will have to stop reading my email, because it always ends in tears.

For instance, in the first email I opened Tuesday, my buddy Dan Lett, our big-shot political columnist, informed me the Thin Air Winnipeg International Writers Festival is hosting an evening of spoken-word and slam poetry at the Free Press News Caf© Saturday night.

If that wasn't exciting enough, the evening -- it runs from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and tickets are $5 at the door -- culminates with a, quote, "Haiku Death Match," and Dan felt strongly he should volunteer me to be one of the poetic combatants.

Naturally, it seemed wise to call my buddy, who is responsible for organizing content at the caf©, to find out exactly what it was I was allowing him to volunteer me for.

"It's hilarious," Dan roared. "It's extremely entertaining. You're going to love it." I became mildly alarmed. "OK," I grunted, drawing on my vast vocabulary.

"You've got nothing to worry about," said Dan, who could not see me sweating. "I'll be there to hold your hand."

"You're a true friend," I sniffed, trying to sound sincere.

"It's the least I can do," Dan noted. "You saved me at that chamber of commerce luncheon when you were the only one who laughed at my jokes."

As it turns out, I will be one of six combatants who will go head-to-head in a mini-tournament Saturday night, spewing out poignant haiku, with the ultimate winner -- the "Death Master" -- determined by audience applause.

I don't wish to brag, but I am not a rookie in the poetic arena. In high school, we were assigned to write poems, so I bashed them out for all 40 guys in my English class, each of whom got a higher mark than me.

Still, I had questions. "Remind me: What exactly is a haiku?" I asked Dan.

"The English version is basically a 17-syllable poem, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five more in the third," he explained." I pondered this. "Great," I finally chirped. "What's a syllable?"

"Ha ha ha!" Dan said. "I'm not kidding," I said.

I also informed him that, in a syllable-wielding poetry brawl, I would essentially be an unarmed man.

"Calm down," he said. "You'll be fine. You can write haiku about your dogs, or about bacon, or about writing columns in your underpants. It's dealer's choice."

With that, I wandered away from my office cubicle and informed one of our senior editors, the eternally calm Scott Gibbons, about the lethal haiku grudge match.

"That sounds cool," Scott declared, then, seizing a pen, before my eyes he scratched out the following heart-felt haiku on a scrap of newspaper: "Happy guy that Doug/He forces me to smile/But it pains me so."

Sensing my unease, Scott assured me real men do haiku. For instance, he noted, one of the world's great football writers, Sports Illustrated's Peter King, closes his Monday columns for with classy gridiron haiku like this gem: "Manziel strafes Saban/Again. I see in Cleveland/Furrowed brows by Browns."

Gripped by a rising panic, I next called Bruce Symaka, publicist for the Thin Air festival and MC for the Haiku Death Match.

"You are going to have so much fun," Bruce, who writes "at least one poem per year," promised. "If not, I'll buy you a beer."

The prospect of free beer had a soothing effect. "How many haiku will I need to write for the death match?" I demanded.

Bruce did the math. "About 10," he estimated.

"Yikes!" is what I croaked.

"Don't panic," Bruce laughed. "They're only 17 syllables long so you only have to write 170 syllables. They're fast to write, so you can do them on the spur of the moment if you want."

So that's what I did, scribbling three lines in my notepad, then reading them into the phone: "Pity the Bombers/Not a quarterback in sight/Better luck next year!"

This was greeted with stony silence, which stings the poetic soul. Finally, Bruce offered this polite insight: "The Bombers need more help than a haiku." When I asked for a tip, the ringleader of the death match had only one: "When it comes to syllables, just count them on your fingers."

This made no sense to me, a budding Haiku Master, as I explained to Bruce in my last anxiety-ridden attempt at this impossibly hard art form:

"Count on my fingers?/Are you frigging kidding, Bruce!/Must keep them crossed."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2013 A2

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