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Rethinking the Scifaiku Manifesto

In 1995, The Scifaiku Manifesto was written, exploring the potentials of combining the Japanese haiku with science fiction imagery. Fourteen years later, it may be time to dust off the manifesto, and ask if the language is as strong as it can be, or if it might need to be reworked. I came to this thought after reading the Jan/Feb 2009 Star*Line as well as the Feb 2009 Scifaikuest, both of which have excellent examples of scifaiku, but also some that are not so successful.

First off, what do I feel scifaiku should be. Assuming that 5-7-5 doesn't work in English, and really isn't accepted by the Haiku Society of America as a haiku, I certainly am all for abandoning that "form" for something better. From the HSA's definitions:

"Definition:  A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.

Notes:  Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today's poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements. In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen "sounds" (on) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximates the duration of seventeen Japanese on.) Traditional Japanese haiku include a "season word" (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a "cutting word" (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem. In English, season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues. The most common technique is juxtaposing two images or ideas (Japanese rensô). Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word. Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are commonly avoided."  (Italicized sections mine)

So, what then, based on this definition could a scifaiku be:

  • short poem
  • imagisitic language
  • the essence of an experience
  • clear, juxtaposed images
In addition, one might insist on a three line structure, as well as a "science word" replacing the nature word or kigo of haiku. The focus on 17 syllables that many readers of the Scifaiku Manifesto has never been a requirement for either haiku or scifaiku. The Scifaiku Manifesto reads:

"SciFaiku takes its form from contemporary international haiku. A usual poem is 3 lines and contains about 17 syllables. The topic is science fiction. It strives for a directness of expression and beauty in its simplicity."

Directness. Simplicity. Other issues discussed in the Scifaiku Manifesto are Immediacy, Minimalism, and Human Insight. So there certainly is a parallel to the HSA definition. However, the fact that seventeen syllables is mentioned tends to be the snag that many poets catch on, and this is the Procrustean Bed under which many scifaiku suffer.

For example, from Star*Line 32.1:

In the orange grove
Blossoms cool hives abandoned
Pollen gilds mech-bees
       -Lawrence P. McGuire

Direct? Simple? Not really... For me, this piece is burdened by too many images. It certainly isn't "Minimal," either. But it does count to 17 syllables. So does the syllable count help the poem? No.

Another example, this time focusing on horror imagery as the speculative kigo:


quickened by death, lurch
from amniotic twilight,
eager to suckle
       -Robert Borski

Removing the title, would you be able to tell that this was a zombie themed piece? Maybe. But what if the 5-7-5 was abandoned, and the author had removed the title (which is almost a fourth line here) and wrote:

zombies lurch
from amniotic twilight
eager to suckle

Returning to the HSA definition, what if the author had separated the images even more, using a juxtaposition technique:

amniotic twilight--
eager to suckle,
zombies lurch

Abandoning the 5-7-5, and focusing instead on the clear imagisitic language and the immediate experience, a weak 5-7-5 piece quickly becomes a strong horrorku.

This is what Karen L. Newman does in her piece:

scalpel incisions
bloated body
popped art

Now, the last line is a bit too silly or cute and affects the tone for me, but the piece certainly works. It has immediate images, a strong juxtaposition, and an effective minmalism.

C. William Hinderliter also provides a solid example in the Feb 2009 Scifaikuest:

alien atmosphere
we swear our love
beneath two moons

The first line further shows why 5-7-5 simply isn't a useful tool in scifaiku--scientific words are fairly syllable heavy. "alien" would be over half the opening line of a 5-7-5, as would "atmosphere." Together, they make a very immediate image or setting for Hinderliter's piece, but one or the other would have had to be cut if Hinderliter had chosen to be a slave to 5-7-5. Fortunately, he was not. What I also enjoy about this piece is that there's the strong human emotion or human connection to the science fiction. Much in the same way that traditional Japanese haiku sought to connect the natural world with the human world and human emotions, so to does Hinderliter connect the speculative world with human emotions.

However, this is not to say that 5-7-5 can't work or isn't occasionally appropriate. However, it shouldn't be the focus of the piece. For example, Belly Peterson offers:

toenails painted white
starship uniform unzipped
down to her navel

This is a very erotic  piece, but it also works with the ideals of haiku--two juxtaposed images (painted toenails & the unzipped uniform) to create an emotion, as well as a strong speculative element. Arguably, you could remove "starship," but then it could be any uniform--military, work, sports--and it wouldn't be speculative. So that word is important. One might suggest removing "down," but for me, that word actually draws my gaze down the subject's bod; for me, down isn't a preposition here, but almost a verb. In addition, I think "white" works because, for me, I immediately think of traditional space uniforms, which are a bright white. The toenails then juxtapose with uniform, adding another layer to the piece.

For me, there just seems to be a lack of focus or craft in many of the scifaiku that I read. There's too much cramming of a narrative or images into a specific syllable count, which serves neither the poem nor the reader. It is as though the 17 syllable count catches the poet in the opening lines of the Scifaiku Manifesto, and they don't read further. Alternately, there are many authors out there who approach scifaiku from the other side, focusing not on syllable count, but on the immediate moment and the images connected to that moment. This is a much stronger approach to scifaiku, and one that needs to be emphasized in the manifesto itself.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 3rd, 2009 02:24 am (UTC)
Comment from SciFaiku-Ten-Forward
From http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SciFaiku-Ten-Forward/

As the " Scifaiku Manifesto " goes on to state, the 5-7-5 form is just a "useful guideline". I began writing Scifaiku in 1997 and never used the 5-7-5 form in any way other than a useful guideline. In the thousands of poems I have written, many are terrible, most are just so-so, and a few, and mind you now, just a very few are quite good. In the decade of reading Scifaiku, the same applies. Only a few turn out to be gems
which inspire and were able to create in the reader a true " aha ha " moment.

Because the internet is a free for all of anything goes, I have seen my share of writers who should never peck at the keyboard. People who get greatly upset if you try to mentor them in any way. Others who really try hard at the craft but are lacking in skill for what ever reason.

Scifaiku will never go mainstream, so the checks and balances which hold sway over other types of poetry won't apply to Scifaiku. The true Scifaiku poets who practice their craft and are also good at it are few and far between. So when one comes across a really good Scifaiku poem, there is no mistaking it for anything other than a wonderful creation which blends emotion and science together for that breath taking feeling of insight.

(Deleted comment)
Apr. 4th, 2009 02:15 am (UTC)
For me, this captures a moment, so it certainly works as scifaiku. Again, the Belly Peterson piece is 5-7-5, and really works well, so it's not that you can't do it, but being a slave to 5-7-5 without understanding the potential of scifaiku or everything else that goes into a scifaiku, 5-7-5 becomes cluttered.
(Deleted comment)
Tom Brinck
Mar. 24th, 2011 04:06 am (UTC)
I couldn't agree more
I agree, 17 syllables and 5-7-5 have always been a snag. And overall craft is key. I've never been a fan of poems that just said something silly about sci-fi and seemed to just throw in words to make it all fit. To me, a large fraction of the best scifaiku has thoroughly followed the rules of craft for haiku, with natural elements, some sense of a season word, a cutting point, and a juxtaposition of 2 images with un unexpected connection. There are good reasons these traditional principles worked for haiku. For example, the season word is largely about establishing a setting, a time and place. In one word, you're able to ground the whole poem. I think people continue to innovate and break these rules successfully, but it's worth knowing the elements of craft.

Thanks for your great analysis.

-- Tom
(original Scifaiku Manifesto author)
Dec. 3rd, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
The void yawns.
Somewhere inside it,
Something stirs.
Dec. 3rd, 2011 06:27 pm (UTC)
Re: What?
While I like the idea of your posted piece, I think it might benefit from tightening of the language. I get that you're dealing with the unknown, but if one is observing the void yawning, how could they also observe the something stirring? There seems to be a shift in POV here, which leads to narrative, which leads to an elimination of a moment.

Perhaps make L1 a past tense somehow, with a stronger and less cliche verb as a participle, and then show the reader exactly how we know something is stirring--what exactly do they see that lets them know that something has stirred?
Dec. 3rd, 2011 09:01 pm (UTC)
Re: What?
No comprendo. Who is this "they"? If one can see the void, surely one can also see something stirring within it? That is to say - I don't see any POV changing. Or am I being obtuse?
Dec. 4th, 2011 02:56 am (UTC)
Re: What?
"They" is the observer in this piece, the person or people watching this void.

Now, with that in mind, what you've got presented is fairly large--spacial rift, tears in the very fabric of the universe, etc. Something that huge would require a great distance to be observed, and would take a great time to open. Therefore, until this void is actually fully open, there's little that one can see inside of it that would be vague. Either they're seeing something specific stirring (tentacles, eye stalks, scales, giant maggots, what have you) almost instantly OR they'd need to wait to see this thing. Either way, this needs to be more specific and detailed. As it is presented, there's a shift in either time or POV implied that eliminates the moment.
Dec. 4th, 2011 01:21 pm (UTC)
Re: What?
I see what you are getting at - however, the void I had in mind was more of a Neitzschean, psychological one, which can be comprehended only individually - more New Wave than Space Opera. It all depends on the direction you are coming from.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


thoughtful, creative, contemplative

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