Perspectives on History - Haiku History 1980 -

Haiku in Australia was in the doldrums for quite a time after Janice M Bostok’s pioneering work. By the late 1980s only a few isolated poets were still engaged with haiku. All that began to change in 1988 – the year of World Expo 88 in Brisbane. The impetus came directly from Japan when Japan Airlines (JAL) decided to be a major sponsor of the Japan pavilion by sponsoring a haiku contest for children and other associated activities. This followed other successes in America and Canada.

The very first overseas JAL-sponsored haiku contest was in 1964 in America. James W Hackett took out first prize with his now famous:

A bitter morning:
sparrows sitting together
without any necks

A considerable time gap followed until JAL decided to sponsor another major contest in conjunction with World Expo ’86 in Canada. This time, however, the participants were primary school children – who proved to be both willing and able. So delighted was JAL with the result that it committed itself to another contest at the next World Expo – Expo 88 in Brisbane. By an odd series of coincidences the local person chosen to coordinate the contest was Jacqui Murray. Jacqui still remembers the odd brief she was given – encourage as many children as possible to enter. By further happy coincidence, however, haiku was part of the Queensland primary curriculum and, with help from the Queensland Department of Education, news of the contest spread far and wide.

To the surprise and delight of JAL, tens of thousands of children, from schools as far apart as the Gold Coast, Mount Isa in the far north-west and Thursday Island in Queensland’s far north, entered the contest. Jacqui’s next problem was finding people with knowledge of haiku who would be prepared to undertake the monumental task of judging so many entries. An obvious choice was Janice Bostok but, unfortunately, no one knew where she then living. Another was (the late) Professor Joyce Ackroyd who had headed up the Department of Japanese at the University of Queensland. Joyce was an early Australian haiku exponent who began writing haiku in beautiful Japanese calligraphy in the first half of the 20th century. She was later awarded an Emperor’s medal for her contribution to Japanese culture. But, whilst she was prepared to take part, the huge judging task was then beyond her physical capabilities.

Finally, two Brisbane poets – John Knight and Ross Clark – agreed to assist Jacqui with the task. JAL would fly haiku poets, Jack Stamm, an American who was a long term resident of Japan, and Professor Kazuo Sato, Professor of Comparative Literature at Waseda University, to Brisbane to cast their eyes over the final selections. Professor Ackroyd agreed to do likewise. In the meantime, Jack Stamm, Professor Sato and Kaneko Tohta, president of Japan’s Modern Haiku Association, would visit Brisbane to give a master class to Jacqui, John and Ross and take part in other Japanese cultural activities to help publicize the event.

The result was a sudden upsurge in interest in a form of poetry few Australians knew anything about. The huge success of the contest and associated visits by haiku masters generated much public interest and media publicity. This gave haiku a new platform from which to again move forward in Australia. JAL was so delighted with the success of the Expo 88 contest that it launched a biennial international Children’s Haiku Contest in 1990. It also continued to sponsor a haiku contest, coordinated by Jacqui Murray, for children in Queensland for the next ten years. This ensured a continued interest in haiku amongst teachers and children. The JAL Foundation also appointed Jacqui Murray as one of its international haiku judges and an English language editor for its series of Haiku by Children books published every second year from the world contests.

Another outcome for Australian haiku was the formation of the PaperWasp group by Ross, John and Jacqui. The group was opened to public membership in 1994. Amongst the first to be welcomed was Australia’s most prominent and prolific haijin, Janice M. Bostok. Janice brought with her a wealth of experience and knowledge. With fresh enthusiasm, and support from haijin in Japan, haiku again started to forge ahead in Australia.

The contact with Jack Stamm and Kazuo Sato would last until their deaths. Both were very enthusiastic about their self-imposed teaching mission and gave generously of their time and knowledge. So too was JAL’s Shunichi Shibohta who was responsible for the planning of haiku events at Brisbane’s Expo 88. His interest in haiku’s progress in Australia has endured beyond his retirement as secretary of the JAL Foundation – which took over the running of haiku contests in 1990. He remains an ardent reader of the PaperWasp journal and today believes the future of haiku may lie in the West rather than in Japan.

PaperWasp: a journal of haiku was launched in 1995. The original objective of the founding members, Jacqui, Ross and John, was to provide a public forum for Australian haiku and to further haiku ‘education’ in Australia. Despite its relative youth, it is now the oldest haiku journal in Australia. This is thanks largely to the generosity of JAL, which continued to pay PaperWasp for children’s haiku contest judging for some years after Expo 88; to Professor Sato who made a large personal donation to the journal; and, to Janice Bostok who likewise made a generous personal donation to help PaperWasp survive at a critical juncture.

PaperWasp has given a public voice to many who are now household names in the pantheon of Australian haiku luminaries. To name but a few they include Lyn Reeves, John Bird, Beverley George and Graham Nunn. Now under the able stewardship of secretary Katherine Samuelowicz, PaperWasp is finally on a relatively stable financial footing. It has members and supporters across the world but remains committed to the philosophy of encouraging all who aspire to write haiku and to the development of a truly Australian haiku ‘voice’. To this end individual members are extremely active in literary circles, publishing, and in other organizations and groups associated with haiku. PaperWasp runs the annual Jack Stamm Haiku Contest and publishes occasional collections of haiku.

It is difficult to assess PaperWasp’s contribution to haiku in Australia but there is little doubt that it did provide a focal point and an outlet for haiku, senryu, tanka and renga at a time when a dedicated journal was a novelty in Australia. The fact that it has survived, and indeed now continues to flourish, at a time when the Net has brought the world into our homes and so many other publishing opportunities to our fingertips, serves as testament to its ongoing value and the esteem in which it is still held.

Jacqui Murray