From Haiku to B’haiku
By Damon Chua
Ever since I started writing poetry, I have experimented with form – from sonnets to villanelles, even Fibonacci-sequenced lines. But one form above all attracted my attention – the haiku. I love writing haiku – there is such a purity and brevity in its essence. As an admirer of Zen Buddhism, I find the haiku structure as close to being perfect as possible to convey many of my feelings and ideas.
However, as I experimented with the haiku form, I came to the conclusion that it could be limiting in allowing what I wanted to do. The in-built terseness, once a regimen to keep my writing sharp and on-point, was also a recipe for insubstantiality. Striving for purity, once an axiom to help distill my thoughts, began to feel like a compositional straitjacket. I was ready to break out.
But how? The first thing that came to mind was to try to get away from the idea of purity. I told people around me that I was writing “ugly” haiku. Instead of creating graceful, delicate pieces, I was going to write vulgar, brutish ones. One resulting haiku was this:
from world trade center
forming pinkish pulp
Another was this:
caught by bayonets
These were hard to write, and even harder to read. But what I discovered was that “ugly” haiku were even more constricting – they really only worked if I wrote about the horrors of war or other equally terrible human actions. I think they have a place in the canon, but this route led me to a dead end.
It took a while, but several months later, I had an epiphany. I had assumed that I couldn’t play with the form, simply because the haiku has such a specific architecture. But what if I created a pair of haiku that spoke to each other in some fashion? The two parts would still be recognizably haiku on their own, but together they would form something different, something new.
And I decided that each part would essentially mirror the other, except for two words. Why two words? Well, after experimenting at length with the new form, which I now call the “b’haiku,” short for “binary haiku,” I felt that changing two words struck the best balance between forming a simulacrum and creating something completely different; I felt that it allowed the greatest scope and tension for comparing and contrasting. The b’haiku looks like a pair of fraternal twins. And of course, there is a duality in the form that can be reinforced through this double-word change.
This was the first b’haiku I wrote:
before my bed, the moon
casting a deep shadow over me
i wake and think of home
before my bed, the moon
casting a deep spell over me
i wake and think of words
I’m certainly no drunken poet trying to embrace the moon’s reflection on a lake, but by composing this b’haiku, I realized that my habit of writing deep into the night, and sometimes falling asleep in front of the computer, was really just another expression of the poetic spirit that has sustained itself through the ages. The b’haiku encouraged me to go beyond brevity to invoke the spirit in a more substantial, though still defined, form.
Here is another example:
my heart is again alive
with old flames
my room is again alive
with old shadows
The act of staying in a prescribed and recognizable form, coupled with the license to change the formula and deepen the meaning, is what I hoped for when I started this journey.
Additionally, I believe that the b’haiku allows the purity of the form to be better contextualized and expressed, leading to a fuller, richer outcome. For by juxtaposing contrasting binaries, I can highlight the intimate and the sensual, against the natural and immutable; and I can put a lens on the distinctly personal, by pitting it against the universal, as in the following example:
lofted above the smooth surf
lofted above the smooth skin
The descriptive has turned personal and subjective, and purity is transmuted into something both pure and layered. As I write b’haiku, I realize that I can convey many concepts, including variation, opposition, irony, and even paradox – things that are unlikely to be achieved within a solitary haiku. It is a rich seam.
Damon Chua writes plays, poetry and short stories. As a playwright, Damon is published by Samuel French, Smith & Kraus and Independent Playwrights. He received an Ovation Award (Best World Premiere Play) for “Film Chinois,” a full-length play set in 1940s China, and has had his works staged in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and at least 5 other states. Damon is a proud member of The Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group and Ma-Yi Theater’s Writers Lab in New York. As a poet, Damon’s first and only anthology Traveler’s Tale and Other Poems was published in 2011 by Ethos Books. His poems have also been seen in the following collections: Journeys: Words, Home and Nation – Anthology of Singapore Poetry, Memories & Desires: A Poetic History of Singapore, and & Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond. 2014 will see the publication of Singapore Noir, a collection of noir-inspired short stories on Singapore, featuring Damon’s contribution “Saiful and the Pink Edward VII.” Damon is working on his first collection of short stories.