Anyone who inches down the last 100 feet of Vashon Highway toward the north-end ferry is bound to notice four little Burma Shave-style signs just before reaching the dock. Many islanders who commute regularly look to those signs as an inspiring last whisper from the island before sailing off to less poetic destinations.
It turns out the signs and their ever-changing contents began as a form of citizen-sponsored traffic control. Hita von Mende, who lives at the bottom of the hill, and her friend and fellow artist, Kajira Wyn Berry, surmised a decade ago that people needed an inducement to slow down as they approached the ferry dock. Von Mende owned the land, and Berry was a longtime haiku aficionado and a world-class calligrapher. Thus, Hiway Haiku was hatched.
Have the signs slowed the cars down? Not so much, Berry said recently.
“It didn’t work. Cars and bikes still hurtle down the hill,” she said.
They may have spawned a population of speed-readers. More than anything, they’ve helped cultivate a community of haiku lovers.
Haiku is the purest form of nonfiction, a deceptively simple yet highly disciplined mode of poetic reportage that originated in Japan. It challenges the raconteur to reduce a tale, typically something personally experienced, to its distilled essence. It’s been said that haiku is the bicycle of poetry, which in the case of Hiway Haiku would make it a conveyance that delivers thousands of islanders to the ferry every month and one that delivered me one late summer day to the mother lode of island haiku poets. I share that experience with you here, though in considerably more than 17 syllables.
On the first Monday of each month, a company of haiku purists, known to one another simply as “Mondays at Three,” meets at one of the members’ homes. In attendance on this particular afternoon were six of the group of about a dozen: Berry, Jean Ameluxen, Shirley Ferris, Ron Simons, Ann Spiers and Michael Feinstein.
Each member comes bearing two original poems. These are not professional poets,
though a few have had their haikus published. They hail from almost every profession but letters: psychiatrist, lobbyist, educator, photographer, artist, publisher, among others. Most are retired. Most are intensely active in some island organization. Every one of them is gathered here for one reason: They adore haiku.
The tableau this beautiful day reflects the subject matter in soft, colorful dimension: a warm evening, one of those bonus days that brings people outside wearing helpless smiles.
A languorous pair of hours is spent seated around Berry’s back deck table, modest slips of paper changing hands, each bearing intimate stories in miniature stanzas. Tea. Courtesy. Palpable respect among peers. Sheer delight in words. The conversation mimics a familiar dance in nature, that of butterflies flitting through the air, darting and dipping from one person to the next. Graceful, congenial exchanges about carefully chosen words, punctuation here or there, discrete meanings within one word, personal stories writ small, some of which may one day be transcribed onto highway placards in Berry’s elegant calligraphic hand.
The ensuing discussion has a magic to it that you could only really experience in the moment. And so I soaked that magic in as the group commenced with its first poem, by local writer and editor Michael Feinstein.
Autumn dusk, nettles
bowed over, woodsmoke
drifts toward the moon.
The discussion centers around what kind of moon — waxing or waning? Full moon or half moon? The nature of the moon harkens one listener to a fond, distant memory. The parry and thrust brings nothing defensive from the author, only willing consideration of the myriad possibilities within his poem.
Ron Simons, a passionate birder, presents a story of a pair of “mourning” mourning doves:
Here the widowed dove
(So much grain, almost always)
Brings her new-found mate
Berry explains to the outsider, “We have several birders, so sometimes two-thirds of the haikus will be about birds.”
Others chime in, “This is a nice story, happy ending.”
“It’s not schlocky because you’ve told us a true story,” Shirley Ferris cheers, “It’s a feminist story.”
Ferris, a retired Vashon High School counselor, distributes a thin slip of paper adorned by a small, amorphous woodcut, bearing this haiku in bold print:
On Bank Road
sudden foot to brake:
passing the buck
This triggers a burst of discussion of deer on the island, of near misses and rueful hits.
“Very timely!” Ferris adds, as the discussion turns to the upcoming hunting season. Then, the exchange returns to poetry.
Feinstein: “I would take away ‘sudden.’” And Ferris, welcoming the note, “You’re right! Let’s just trim this baby down.”
Berry’s first piece, printed in Harry Potter font, comes with a long, grammar-challenged title:
Names for things we cannot remember the names of:
The author announces with pride, “Seventeen syllables,” to which Simons exults, “Perfect!” This is when the group explains that it’s possible to vary the 5-7-5 form.
“Ron tries to keep us honest. But it rarely works,” chuckles Berry. When asked whether they endeavor to keep to 17 syllables, a resounding no is followed by the clarification that it’s the crystallizing of an experience that’s meaningful, more than the number of syllables.
Simons, however, is a holdout for 5-7-5.
“I like the idea of trying to say something in that form without the obvious padding or any extraneous words,” he says.
Jean Ameluxen announces to the group: “I’m scornful of clever haiku; so trite,” as she distributes this one:
Behind a curtain
summer slips into fall
She half apologize for its cleverness.
“But it’s real,” Spiers encourages, deeming it a legit bit of cleverness. “It’s coming from the southwest, as it should.” The group entertains thoughts of how it would look on the highway signs. “It would catch the eye,” one person says.
Then it comes around to Spiers, Vashon’s first poet laureate, with a haiku that honors three old trees she had to cut down:
wheel barrowing chips
our fir now splinters dressing
the lesser flora
Simons salutes the subject: “The mighty has fallen.”
But Feinstein, Berry and Spiers all slip into workshop mode: “Would you consider putting a comma after splinters? Or move dressing to the third line? … It’s a fortuitous change from hard to soft sound, complementing the content. … Wheelbarrowing needs to be one word.”
Who says art was never crafted by committee?
The little boat in the yard is now the star of Berry’s second poem:
Two, still-spotted fawns
Stand in the boat
Under the apple tree
Berry explains that she had observed the fawns feasting on the apples that had fallen inside the boat, as the mother stood nonchalantly by. The haiku is greeted with “visual” and “unexpected.” Someone likes the choice of “still-spotted” to denote the young age of the fawns. Spiers states what must be an unspoken rule of poetry: “Anytime there’s an apple tree, you have to go there.”
At one point in the discussion, Helen Russell becomes the topic of conversation. At age 87, she started this group with Chris Bollweg.
Spiers writes, in an online tribute to Russell, “From her beach cabin on Vashon Island’s Paradise Cove, Russell phoned a few islanders to insist that they write two haiku to share at her house each month, first Mondays at three o’clock.” Russell wrote her last haiku from a hospital bed the night before she passed away, at age 101.
Ron Simons recalls with a wistful smile his favorite Helen Russell haiku:
new phone book
As the meeting winds down, the group reminisces about its history together, which Spiers sums up: “Half the reason we love being together is all the comments. … You learn something, you never thought of that before, you never heard that before.” And finally, the obvious: “We have a lot of respect not only for the form, but for each other.”
As I get up to leave, Ferris slips me one last little folded paper. The epilogue to my visit, I realize; a reminder of the delicate beauty of words so thoughtfully written and considered.
Open a letter
slowly… stamp, seal, word… Not
like touching a mouse
For days afterwards, I see haiku in everything I do. This “Mondays at Three” visitor will never again look at the Hiway Haiku signs without seeing a great deal more.
— Rebecca Wittman is a freelance writer and the owner of The President of Me, a local clothing line and shop.