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Which Genre? Using Haiku instead of Prose and Discovering the Form a Subject Demands

It must have been in one of Peter Meinke’s books that I read that the author does not always determine the genre (or form) a subject needs. Often it is the subject that determines the form.

As explained in a prior post, I experienced a series of events I felt compelled to write about, but my genre (prose) didn’t work because the writing felt forced. The potential problem may have been that the events (change, loss, aging) were too emotional for me to write honestly and effectively about in prose.

Here is the prose version of the events.


There was a painting I didn’t know existed until I received a text message from someone vaguely familiar. I almost deleted the message immediately; I don’t text complete strangers, but I suddenly remembered the name. My childhood best friend’s younger brother, probably close to 7 feet tall when I last saw him twenty years ago, typed, “It’s Ogre.”

Only one person I new had ever joyfully taken such a negative epithet.

The church has been sold, he texted, and we have a painting your grandmother did. A painting? From the church? I knew Lakeside had been sold to a private school, but I didn’t know former members went to the church to clean it out. A colleague at group exercise at work on Monday confirmed that the school realized many people might want items from the church. He had snagged a 10 foot pew to put in his exercise room at home.

Twenty years. It really had been that long. I hadn’t seen my childhood best friend, whom I met in first grade and then discovered would also be in my Sunday school class, for almost twenty years, not since she visited my new husband and me in our townhouse. In Southern Baptist churches, school children are promoted in October, but because my family began attending several weeks before then I was placed in the first grade Sunday school class instead of the kindergarten one so that I would not have to deal with a sudden change in teachers.

The relationship had


And that is when I realized that what I was writing was crap. It didn’t matter that I was at the public library tutoring a student and writing as she adjusted her paper for a humanities class (I teach college composition). I would have written the same drivel if I’d been at home in my office.

Now I was left with a need to write about my grandmother’s painting effectively and had no idea where to go next, so I left the ugly text in my notebook to rest. From the middle of April until the beginning of May it rested while I thought of what to do.

And this is why writing at writers conferences or with a writing group is so important. If I had not gone to this writing conference and had not attended the workshop on haiku, it never would have occurred to me to use haiku.

Susan Lilley led a workshop on finding the volta, or turning point in a poem, specifically haiku The volta is that shift that takes the writing deeper. One explanation of the volta is that it is a falling, swirling, death-like wording in the Western Christian tradition.

As usual, I read the handouts before the workshop even began and had practically written a haiku series in my head before we began writing for the workshop

Here is the next attempt at capturing my experience with my grandmother’s found painting.


I didn’t know there

was a painting, leftover,

from sale of the church

A painting of Christ

arms open, walking forward

Gran’s grief made visual

Messaged by parents

of lost friendship wending way

back to connection

In their living room

a chance to rejoin old friends

polite conversation, but

I lied. I won’t call again


The voltas occur in the third, sixth, and last lines of the haiku series. In terms of facts, those had to be revised a bit. Grandma was NEVER called Gran. My paternal grandmother had a wicked and erudite sense of humor, had taught high school English and art (and then finished Coe College the year my dad graduated high school: Way back then, one could teach without a college degree, and Grandma obtained hers when it became a requirement for teaching (as far as I can tell)), and had traveled the world. She was an intelligent investor and a savvy dresser. I, luckily, inherited much of her costume jewelry, good costume jewelry from before the 1960s. My maternal grandmother was Granny, and one car drive home from church, my father tried to refer to his mother as Granny, and my brother and I refused to acknowledge that term for her. Granny was a bit crazy, a laugh over spilt milk woman because it was better than crying. Grandma, to our young and experienced selves, was prim and proper.

In addition, I changed who contacted me. Instead of D, in the poem it is his parents who contact me. Haiku require that every word have meaning; sometimes altering the facts is necessary for, ironically, an emotionally honest poem.

Finally, the last line of the last haiku in the series is only six syllables. There was nothing I could do about that except put a note that I need +1 syllable.

So, voltas in three of the four haiku in the series, a change in the name I used for my grandmother, a change in who actually contacted me, and a haiku whose last line is only six (instead of seven) syllables.

Compared to the prose attempt, the haiku is honest and captures the events as accurately as can be done in the confines of haiku. However, those restrictions that haiku enforced upon required that I deal with the events directly, that I did not shirk my true feelings.

That’s honest writing.


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