As we move cautiously through this new year and the change it promises, the CU Poetry Group wants to make sure we hold onto the spirit of hope. Dedicating the 2021 CU Haiku Project, which is open to all, is just another example of the power of community poetry.  I reached out to CU Poetry Group members Will Reger (former City of Urbana Poet Laureate), Jim O'Brien and Ann Hart to learn more about this ambitious initiative and to see how CUPG has been faring amid COVID. I hope their responses will deepen your understanding of the haiku form and inspire you to craft one of your own. Let's make this sharing hope thing happen. 


Smile Politely: How long has the CU Poetry Group been involved in the CU Haiku Project?

CU Poetry Group: Since April, 2016.

SP: How did it start?

CUPG: It had been a Sunday feature in the News-Gazette under the stewardship of Lee Gurga for a long time. Jim noticed it missing in March 2016 and inquired about it. The editors told him Mr. Gurga didn't want to do it anymore so [we] took it over.

SP: So this year the project has taken on a special theme. What can you tell us about that?

CUPG: A few weeks ago we started talking about how moving into the new year we all felt hopeful about the future for the first time in a while. We wanted to share the feeling and see if we could keep it going, so we came up with the CU Haiku Hope Project. The three of us each wrote a Hope haiku to bridge us from 2020 to 2021 and get the project rolling. Urbana Poet Laureate Ashanti Files is helping us out and her Hope Haiku was published in the News-Gazette on January 17th.

SP: What's the recipe for a successful haiku?

CUPG: We always hope the ones we publish resonate with our readers, but anytime someone feels good about a haiku they wrote, it is successful. That may sound trite and all poet-y, but think of a poem like bread. During COVID many people have been baking bread and it's not just about how much salt, or flour, or yeast you use. It about feeling your muscles work when you knead the dough. It is about the growing anticipation as bready smells fill the room. It's about taking that first warm bite and feeling comforted, feeling satisfaction in the amazing thing you created with your own two hands. Even if you are the only one that gets to taste it, it can still be great. But metaphor’s aside, for us to publish a haiku, being in a traditional three-line, 5-7-5 syllable format helps because we have to fit it into a specific amount of space.     

SP: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the form?

CUPG: The biggest misconception is that it is hard. Also, the biggest misconception is that it's easy! 5-7-5 seems easy, you can count the syllables on your fingers and you only need a few words. It is hard because getting those few syllables to tell the story, show the image, pack the punch, can be a challenge. It's also easy and hard because the 5-7-5 thing is only one of many possible rules that govern the making of haiku. Writing a haiku can be governed by many other conditions that 5-7-5 syllables. Write a haiku that can be said with only one breath. Write a haiku of 17 syllables without a line break. Write a haiku with short long short lines (don't count syllables), or write a haiku with seasonal words. Or animal words. Or sky words. We recommend you throw off the old chains of 5-7-5. Do a bit of research and learn new rules. Write something daring.

SP: What do you think makes it so popular?

CUPG: A haiku, at least in the English language tradition, is a snapshot of an event or experience that can be expressed in the length of one breath, hence the 17ish syllable guideline. Ideally, it resonates with a reader and gives them space to expand or relate their own experiences.  

SP: How can people participate in the project? Where can they go to get more information?

CUPG: Go to: http://www.cupoetry.com/cu-haiku

SP: What will happen with the entries once they are submitted? 

CUPG: We keep a file of the submissions, so we can look them over each week. People often send us haiku that reflect what is going on in our world, like renewal in the spring or leaves reflecting change in the fall. The readers are seeing and feeling these things too, so they feel strong connections with the poems. We also get haiku that fit whenever and so we use them, well, whenever. We hold onto everything we have not published, so sometimes one gets published long after it was submitted. When a haiku is being sent to the NG, we send the writer an email, so they know to watch for it. Also, people let us know if a poem has been published somewhere else, so we can take it off our list. We only get 52 publication slots a year, so we want to give every poem a chance to be shared.

SP:  What else is the CU Poetry Group up to this year?

CUPG: Waiting for the air to clear, so to speak, so we can resume weekly in person workshops and occasional readings.

SP:  How have you all been managing to maintain the group and its goals in the pandemic? What has been helpful?

CUPG: One of the great things about CU Poetry is that everyone involved is invested in everyone else, so no one person is responsible for keeping things going. The group has been great about keeping in touch and sharing poetry and information about online poetry events. Some people meet in Zoom rooms, while others share via email or on social media.

SP: For you, what is poetry's role in the community, especially these days? Or put differently, what is the power of community poetry?

CUPG: Poetry is a vehicle for communication and communication is key to understanding one another. We are fortunate to have such a vibrant and thriving arts community. Urbana Public Arts and 40 North are very active in providing spaces for community voices. 

SP: What advice do you have for young or new poets?

CUPG: Read twice as much as you write. Read widely and deeply. Read across time and space. Read across life experience: from Kaveh Akbar to Natalie Diaz, to WS Merwin, to Sappho. Read sonnets by Shakespeare, sure, but also read sonnets by Diane Seuss and Terrance Hayes. Find online poetry journals and watch Spoken Word YouTube videos. The Champaign and Urbana Free libraries have great poetry collections, so take advantage of them as well. 

SP: Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

CUPG: Check out Soul on Sunday and seek out other virtual open mics. Being on line gives us all the chance to be a part of readings, workshops, and poetry events from around CU and all over the country. There is no one way to find out about them, but if you type Online Poetry 2021 into Google, you’ll be amazed at what you can find.

Top image from the CU Poetry Group's website