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Anna Broadway

Writing Haiku at the Office


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Poetry was one of the first art forms I encountered in life, thanks to the birthday poems my grandfather used to write for each of his 17 living grandchildren. One of the many small losses of adulthood has been the diminution of his body of work, which began with poems for my grandmother written during World War II naval cruises and later extended, in peacetime, to dentistry, garage sales, his faith and various other topics. The larger my known world of poetry grows, the more I fear to share his work with others, lest my delight prove based on poor judgment.

For years, Grandpa's short forays into verse—characterized by brief lines, straightforward rhymes, and humor—were one of the pleasures of increasing age or whatever other occasion prompted him to sit down at the desk in their wood-paneled study-cum-sewing room, look away from the lake outside, and write.

Yet for all the vitality surging through the lines Grandpa used to refine in his slanting, angular hand before submitting them to his typist (Grandma), poetry has been the hardest art for me to grasp. Its reason for being has proved more elusive than music, dance, painting, theater, or even sculpture. All the rest I "get," in some sense, but poetry remains a riddle whose mysteries not even my tongue can reliably probe, though the muse has struck me repeatedly, if sporadically, since junior high. (A Christmas-themed doggerel on health care reform once earned praise on a New York Times blog.)

And yet, when I started temping for my current employer six years ago, I began seeing occasional limericks and other short poems in all-staff emails from one of the company's most beloved executives. Thus, when I discovered Dana Gioia's poetry a few years ago, that executive was one of the people I loaned my copy of Interrogations at Noon to. Such collegiality typifies many of my relationships here, one reason I've stayed at the same employer so long.

I've also stayed in the same cube, though, which means that much in my job as Web editor hasn't changed, even as the company evolves. Every year brings the same type of email blasts to review, some of which I even see almost monthly. My emails to authors, too, took on a pragmatic rhythm. I've typed "here you go" so many times I ought to make a keyboard shortcut for it.

But then one day, an epiphany: I could write haikus! The idea came on a Monday and, for a few hours, I practically hovered above my standard-issue ergo chair with joy. My first step was crafting one line to add at the end of my email signature:

This is a haiku / Because everything we do / Should have room for art

Before long, my "here you go" emails became things like:

Just a few changes
To tighten things up. Makes this
An easier read.
Editing's sort of
Like pumpkin carving, except
You can't roast the seeds.
Use of triple-X
Seems to me slightly unwise,
If we can avoid.
Imagine if we
Could send edits back and forth
By robin or wren.
"COB" should stand
For something like cucumber-
Or brie-based snacks.
My name's not Ripley,
But believe it or not, I
Do not have changes.
Doh! Seven minutes
Late, and all that delayed me
Was thinking of this.
If weary flowers
Don't dim their fragrance, nor should
I skip the haiku.

And sometimes even a haiku sequence:

At my back, a lake
shimmers in the sun, scenic
backdrop for edits.
The wind whips willows,
whose limbs tap on the sun roof
like a dog at play.
(Today I work east
of the office, due to a
Delta flight snafu.)

Some of my favorites were jotted during meetings, though I type and share these less frequently:

What does the hand of
a stakeholder feel like—damp,
calloused or pudgy?
So many kickoff
meetings where feet sit idly
under the table.
"Why is [Thing A] in
this spot?" "Where would you put it?"
"I don't know." "That's why."
The navigation
does suck extra effort from
your fingers. Vampire.
John's impromptu sketch
Of website traffic recalls
A game of hangman.
Most folks will head south
Afterward: Miami, they say.
"On my way": New York.
A sartorial
mystery and an unknown
nickname await us.
Someone's misfortune
can help us achieve our goals—
a strange connection.
Technology is
a bedevilment and help
today, as always.

Now, admittedly, these "haiku" would probably make an actual poetry teacher flush with horror. (I learned partway through my workhaiku campaign that a "real" haiku ought to include both a color and a season somehow.) But however badly I botch it, the form provides a balance between taking care to form even mundane emails with care and not adding much time to how long I'd need for composition anyway.

In the 15 months since I began this, I've slowly collected haikus in response from a growing number of colleagues, including my boss and even, recently, the president of our board. I save them all in an Outlook folder reserved for such verbal trophies.

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