Ukiah backward for 1 day of poetry: Haiku festival

This April 15, 2009 photo shows Susan Sparrow, who founded the Ukiah Haiku Festival, posing for a portrait outside the civic center in Ukiah, Calif. Rugged Ukiah. spelled backward, it reads haiku. Things are taking a turn for the verse in this Northern California city as the local literati throw their annual bash celebrating all things haiku. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

UKIAH, Calif. -- Rugged Ukiah.

Spelled backward, it reads haiku.

Poets congregate.

Things are taking a turn for the verse in this Northern California city as the local literati throw their annual bash celebrating all things haiku.

The one-day ukiaHaiku Festival, taking place Sunday at the Ukiah City Conference Center, drew more than 1,500 entries from 10 countries this year, a big jump from the 300 it started out with seven years ago.

Haiku fan Susan Sparrow isn't surprised by the big interest in the little poem.

"It's so succinct. It's just that perfect," said Sparrow, a teacher who helped found the festival. "It just captures a big concept in a few words."

Ukiah, an old logging town, gets its name from an Indian word meaning "deep valley," according to the city's Web site. Sparrow and others credit local librarian Dori Anderson, who has since died, with coming up with the idea of capitalizing on the fact that the name in reverse alludes to verse.

Sparrow remembers being in the library one day, listening to Anderson, and "I just decided on the spur of the moment to say, 'We're going to do a haiku festival.' It really just happened like that."

The event started small, primarily involving area schoolchildren. The children are still a big part of the festival -- the best part of the afternoon for Sparrow is listening to them read their efforts -- but it turns out adults like haiku a lot, too, competing in categories including traditional and contemporary.

Like the art form, prizes are small, running mostly to book certificates with the big champion getting $100.

Haiku, a traditional Japanese art form, became popular in the United States in the '70s, an appeal that has intensified with the advent of Internet communications and the rise of the Twitter generation, said Randy Brooks, electronic media officer for the Haiku Society of America.

Today there are haiku festivals around the country, haiku magazines and, of course, haiku posted on Twitter, the social communication site famous for its bursts of brevity.

Haiku "really has gained momentum," said Brooks, editor and publisher of Mayfly, a twice-a-year haiku magazine. "Frankly, I think it's contagious. It somehow fits in our contemporary age."

One thing he'd like to get straight: No matter what you were taught in 11th-grade English, the poems do not have to be three lines of five-syllable, seven-syllable, five-syllable form.

"There's a huge misconception about haiku -- that it is in anyway remotely related to 5-7-5," Brooks said. "The most characteristic thing about haiku is there's a silent pause in the middle. You get one image and then there's this pause, this silence, and then you get a second image." Readers "fill out the rest of the story. They fill the silence with their imagination."

Done right, the result is "utter simplicity," says Theresa Whitehill, Ukiah's reigning poet laureate and Sunday's keynote speaker. "The less you can bear to say the more effective it is."


On the Net: http://www.ukiahaiku.org

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