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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

Tracks in the Sand: Experiskinno Japanese Short Form Poetry
A column by George Swede

In March of this year, RAW NerVZ (10:4 2006) arrived late and thus, in a strange way, more appreciated. On the cover were these arresting lines:

final issue
final issu
final iss
final is
final i

Dorothy Howard, its intrepid Canadian editor, was telling us, in her own bilingual way, that RN twelve years of existence (1984-2006) had come to the end. In each issue, she published innovative haiku, haiku sequences, haibun, haiga, senryu, tanka, renku, as well as other more difficult-to-label work. RN will be missed, especially by those of us who were grateful to have a place to send our wild 3:00 a.m. imaginings. By coincidence, RN also means Registered Nurse, which just happens to be an apt description for Dorothy--she registered a need and nursed it for ten years.

Experimenting, taking risks, being innovative—such behaviors generate the vitality and growth of any art form. Twenty years ago, when I edited an experimental poetry issue for Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly, I coined the term "experiskinno" to encapsulate these terms (Swede, 1987). While the experiskinno poems RN published were often only partially successful, they were always interesting in their adventurous explorations of what can be done with the written word. Dorothy Howard's RN followed the tradition established by the earlier Canadian periodicals: Eric Amann's Cicada (1977 to 1982); Keith Southward and Marshall Hryciuk's Inkstone (1982 to 1993) and, to a lesser extent (only because its main function was to report news), LeRoy Gorman's Haiku Canada Newsletter (1985 to 2006).

Interest in experiskinno writing appears to be a Canadian penchant. Occasionally, American periodicals, such as Acorn, Bottle Rockets, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Roadrunner and Simply Haiku will publish experiskinno poems, but ninety-nine percent of their content does not involve such risk-taking. Journals in other English-speaking nations, such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand tend to be just as, if not more, conservative. This is puzzling because many poets from these countries have been contributors to RN, Cicada, Inkstone and HCN.

Why have Canadians been at the forefront of experiskinno publishing?—because of publisher and poet Eric Amann. To fully understand his influence, we must look at three different phases he went through in relation to Japanese short form poetry. Amann Number One was the publisher of Haiku (1967-70); Number Two dropped out from the haiku world for seven years (1970-77); Number Three was the publisher of Cicada (1977-82).

The first Amann believed that the haiku should be considered "as an expression of Zen in poetry (Swede, 1983, p. 1) and he printed in Haiku only work that fit the Zen outlook. During this period, he also brought out his best-known work, The Wordless Poem (1969), which elaborated his views. This is the Amann the majority know of and appreciate. I still get occasional e-mail from strangers, who know of my connection to Eric (he and I, along with Betty Drevniok, were co-founders of Haiku Canada), asking where they can find a copy of The Wordless Poem.

The second Amann ceased editing Haiku and publishing his own work for seven years because of pressures in his personal life and medical practice (Swede, 1983). During this hiatus, however, he did find the time to learn about visual, concrete and language-centered poetry. Such experiskinno work was hard to ignore in Toronto in the dozen years between the late 1960s and early 1980s. Not only were there readings and performances of such poetry, but all the media became interested as well, to the extent that experiskinno poets such as b.p. nichol and The Four Horsemen became famous (bpNichol, 2007). I too was influenced by this environment and my very first attempt at experiskinno poetry managed to get a lot of attention (Swede, 2007a&b).

Amann Number Three held very different attitudes compared to Number One. The man who launched Cicada in 1977, considered the haiku to be less a Zen moment and more an "ah-experience" or "a mood of serene calm and beauty" (Swede, 1983, p. 2). He believed, as expressed in many conversations with me and others, that haiku could be visual, concrete, or language-centered, as long as they produced the "ah-experience." For factual evidence of the attitude change in Amann Number Three, one only has to look at the first two issues of Cicada. Each has several concrete poems by Nicholas Jorvic, a pseudonym for Amann (who also published poems, articles and reviews in Cicada under other pseudonyms). More proof of this new outlook were two concrete haiku by Amann in the Canadian Haiku Anthology (Swede, 1979), as well as his founding in 1979 of Konkret, a periodical devoted to visual and concrete poetry, but which lasted only one issue. Over the years, I've run into readers who only know of Eric Amann's first persona and are surprised, sometimes even shocked, when informed of the change.

Amann's experiskinno views influenced many Canadian haiku poets, a number of whom are still active today: Nick Avis, Michael Dudley, André Duhaime, Marco Fraticelli, Dorothy Howard, LeRoy Gorman, Marshall Hryciuk and me. Of course, Amann's outlook was not contained within national borders. During his five years as editor of Cicada, he published experiskinno work by a large number of writers from outside Canada, particularly the U.S. Many of the latter are still publishing today, poets such as L.A. Davidson, Sanford Goldstein, Gary Hotham, William J. Higginson, Bill Pauly, Alan Pizzarelli, Tom Tico, Cor van den Heuvel, Anita Virgil, Marlene Wills, Jeffrey Winke and Zolo.

Obviously, an adventurous spirit in poets who compose Japanese short form poetry is not due to nationality, but created by environmental circumstances and chance occurrences. As mentioned earlier, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Toronto was full of experiskinno undertakings which were widely promoted and discussed. Similar developments, however, were occurring in various cities in the United States during the same period, such as Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City. If Amann had lived in one of these places, then one of them might have been where experiskinno haiku, tanka or renga took hold first.

Despite the demise of RN, experiskinno writing will continue to have an outlet in Canada. The first issue of Haiku Canada Review came out this spring. As with HCN, its editor is LeRoy Gorman, but with a different mandate--HCR will emphasize the publication of poetry, not news. If the first issue is any indication, writers will still have a place to send their wild 3:00 a.m. imaginings


Amann, E. ([1968] 1979). The Wordless Poem. Haiku Society of Canada.

Nichol, bp (2007). BpNichol [Web site] Accessed 3Apr07.

Swede, G. (ed.). (1979). Canadian Haiku Anthology. Toronto: Three Trees Press.

Swede, G. (ed.). (1983). Cicada Voices: Selected Haiku of Eric Amann. Battle Ground, IN: High /Coo Press.

Swede, G. (1987). Experimental poetry in Canada. Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly, 9:3&4.

Swede, G. (2007a). George Swede [Web site] Accessed 29 Mar 07.

Swede, G. (2007b). George Swede [Web site] Accessed 29 Mar 07.