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Golden Triangle’s Haiku Contest Is Open. Here’s How to Submit a Good One.

You have until February 4 at 11:59 PM to submit two of your own haiku.

Photograph by Elvert Barnes/Flickr.

If it feels like winter is dragging its feet, here’s a harbinger of spring: Golden Triangle’s annual haiku competition—the one that plants blossom-pink yard signs with haiku in tree boxes throughout downtown—is accepting submissions.

Now in its eleventh year, the homegrown competition collected more than a thousand entries last year, and not just from hopeful poets in the DC area but from all 50 states and around the globe. “When we first did it, I think we initially thought it was just going to be a local thing,” says Abigail Friedman, one of the contest’s judges and author of The Haiku Apprentice. “But we wanted it to be large, so we opened it up to anyone, and it’s been really nice to get haiku from all over the world.”

Of all those submitted haiku, not a single one is left unread either, says Friedman, who has even begun hosting a “Golden Haiku Workshop” which sold out this year. The contest’s judges—of which there are four—read every single haiku. So, should you be interested in throwing your own poetic cap into the ring, here are some of Friedman’s best tips for submitting haiku that sing:

You don’t have to follow the 5-7-5 syllable structure.

Take what you learned in grade school—that all haiku feature five syllables in the first line, followed by seven in the second, and five in the third—with a grain of salt, says Friedman. (In fact, as it turns out, the English language’s syllables aren’t quite the same as the metric unit counted in traditional Japanese haiku, but that’s another story.) For the purpose of this contest, what you need to know is that Golden Triangle uses the Haiku Society of America’s definition for modern haiku, which means the 5-7-5 structure is not required. And that’s good news, because, as Golden Triangle put it, “removing the strict structural requirements for syllables frees the author to use evocative language to capture a moment or expression of beauty in a short, descriptive verse.”

That said, if you find that the structure enhances your poem, you’re still free to use it. “It certainly doesn’t disqualify you by any means,” says Friedman. “Just don’t throw in unnecessary words for the sake of adding it up to five or seven syllables.”

Read a lot of haiku.

Especially if you’re new to the form, read and savor many haiku to get a feel for what makes a haiku sparkle and for how its structure can vary (you’ll even find one-lined haiku!). Try The Haiku Foundation or the Haiku Society of America when seeking out admired haiku, says Friedman. Otherwise, you might check out those crafted by last year’s winners.

Consider where your haiku will be read.

As you write, remember that this competition’s haiku are destined for tree boxes downtown, surrounded by flowers and read by passing office workers, tourists, and other pedestrians. Ask yourself: Does your haiku fit this context? To be clear, that doesn’t mean your poem must be about flowers or the city, says Friedman, but that it should be appropriate for a public space.

Use all five of your senses.

When striving to capture a striking moment, it’s easy for beginner haiku writers to focus only on what they’re seeing. But, cautions Friedman, “it’s not just you see. Allow yourself to expand beyond the visual.” In other words, think about sound, smell, touch, and taste—and how those sensations might bring your reader into the moment too.

Don’t waste words.

Haiku is often called “one-breath poetry,” in that many poets believe a haiku should be readable in a single breath. Given such brevity, choose your words wisely, says Friedman. Pay attention to each word in your haiku and ask whether it’s necessary. For example, “if you have the word ‘snow’ in your haiku, do you really need to have the word ‘winter’ in there too?” says Friedman. “We already know that if there’s snow, it’s probably winter time.”

Respect your reader.

This is one of the trickiest rules to follow, says Friedman, because it involves finding a sweet spot. “By respecting your reader, I mean don’t over explain things in your haiku because you think the reader is going to be too dense to understand it. And, at the other extreme, don’t make your haiku so cryptic that a reader is not going to be able to get it.”

Try out kigo, or “season words.”

As you enter the world of haiku, you may come across the term “kigo,” which roughly translates to “season word.” In traditional Japanese poetry, a season word is often incorporated into the poem as a way to succinctly describe the time of year. “There’s a lot to be said for connecting your haiku to seasons, especially in this day and age where we can forget nature,” Friedman says. However, she adds that it’s not necessity. Rather, consider a season word as just one of many tools at your disposal when writing haiku. You can even explore full lists of “official” season words online.

Consider the contest’s theme as a prompt—not a mandate.

When writing your haiku, consider this year’s theme, which is “transforming paths.” But, at the same time, don’t get hung up on it. Rather, think of it simply as a prompt instead of a topic that dictates what your haiku is about, says Friedman. “Your haiku doesn’t have to align directly with the theme,” says Friedman. “But, considering how many haiku we will be receiving, we are going to look for haiku that are inspired by the prompt.”

Share your haiku with others.

Here’s an easy way to test the previous rule: Share your haiku with others and see how they respond. “Some people say that a haiku is born when it is read,” says Friedman. “And there’s a lot to be said for that, because that reminds us is that a haiku is both something written down but it’s also what the reader brings to it, sees in it, and how the reader embraces it.”

Let your haiku age.

Setting your haiku aside for a few days can often reward you with clarity on whether it’s as effective as you previously thought. “I will spend a lot of time sometimes just letting the haiku sit for a while,” says Friedman. “Then I’ll come back to it, look at it, and think, ‘Is this really the best way to capture what I wanted to convey?’ ”

Tinker with your haiku.

“There’s this misunderstanding, often in newer haiku writers, that a haiku just sort of pops into your head, perfect as is, and to touch it or edit it would be wrong,” says Friedman. “That’s not at all the case.” Rather, have fun  trying out different language, punctuation, or structure, until you get closer to what you want to achieve.

Win or lose, keep writing.

“Your haiku might win; it might not,” says Friedman. “Don’t worry if it doesn’t. There are so many good haiku and we can only pick a few. The whole point of the contest is to encourage people to discover the joy and the satisfaction in writing haiku. So, it’s not just about this contest, but what you do from here on out.”

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor