Minimalist Haibun by Harriot West

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Writing is not an exercise in excision,
it’s a journey into sound.
                       ~ E.B. White

If they wish to have their work published, most successful haibun poets understand that it’s important to revise that first inspirational, splash of words onto paper (or computer screen). White, one of the great storytellers of the 20th century and co-author of the famous “The Elements of Style,” notes that revising is not just excising, but instead wordsmithing until the piece resonates.

Many of the pronouncements found on the haiku/haibun Internet about haibun prose focuses on succinctness, suggesting that the prose should be haiku-like, a bit clipped, lacking connecting words like “and” and “or” and “but” and using strings of phrases rather than full sentences.

And most haibun contain far fewer words than almost all other closely related literary genres, memoirs, personal essays, travel accounts, short stories. Even most published flash fiction that I’ve read is longer than the average puiblished haibun.

Given this, it’s odd that the term “minimalist haibun” appears from time to time in the haibun literature, as if most published haibun aren’t minimalist – a paragraph or two of prose coupled with one haiku. Yet Harriot West’s published haibun are among the shortest and yet most resonant I’ve encountered in the haiku-genre journals. They’ve just enough prose to present a storyline married with a haiku that steps out in an important way.

And so I thought it worthwhile to explore several of West’s haibun to consider what she’s done with very few words to create the zest. The three I’ve selected have different storylines, which permits the conclusion that it’s not just the theme or story that counts.

Here’s an example:

Harriot West


he’s looking at me but I can’t be sure. I feign interest in the drummer’s solo, slide my index finger down the inside of my lover’s arm.

the horn player’s
swollen lips

The Way Things Were

There she is on eBay—the doll mother never let me have—poor Barbie, dismissed in the house where I grew up as cheap, not for the plastic she was made of but for her perky in-your-face breasts.

sepia shadows
a young girl tugs
at her tee shirt

What Matters

You call to say your husband is dying. “He has lost the will to live.” After a pause, you apologize for the cliché. I’m unsure what to say. People die every day—it’s hardly worth the effort to put his struggle into fresh language. Rather save your strength for the constant changing of sheets, the preparation of small meals left uneaten, endless phone calls from well-meaning friends, and the gentle swabbing of his parched lips.

after the funeral
slowly rolling socks
into pairs

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