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Anna Broadway

Writing Haiku at the Office


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.

My greatest coup was writing three haikus in answer to one of the questions on my annual performance review last year. (Since I had to comment on well how I'd showed communication competency, it seemed like an apt place to switch from prose to poetry.)

Apparently I'm not alone in this. Almost every time I check the #workhaiku hashtag on Twitter, I find more than just my own submissions. For instance:

It's the non-writer haiku (that first appears to be from a fellow author) which gives me the most hope for this odd idea that so regularly strikes some of us. For, while I want more really good poems to be written, I can't shake the notion that any art form—in order to thrive—must exist at all levels of society, even if quality of execution ranges widely.

Events like Poetry at Work Day (today, January 15) are part of that, but so, too, is the latest edition of Street Sheet, a local publication produced and sold by people who are or have been homeless, which devoted its January issue to poetry.

At first I didn't notice, to be honest, but filed it away in my bag in case I was desperate for reading later. Then the following night, I passed another seller who managed to hold his paper up so the headline caught my eye: 2013 Poetry Edition. That was what I'd bought?

As soon as I boarded my BART train home, I dug it out and flipped slowly through. I knew what I was likely to find, but I secretly hoped for some short work or phrase worthy to compete for poetry readers' esteem—not just as Street Sheet art, but art.

And then, at last, I found this, amid a sprawling, multi-stanza poem called "Good News" whose small print filled most of a page.

I want to hear day after day of good news
So that by the time the fourth day dawns
I'll have some idea of what life is like in a world that makes sense
So that I'll be looking forward to the next damned day
So that I'll be glad to wake up
Donate to good causes, of which there'll be thousands
And every one of them will be doing very well thank you very much
I want all the guns in the world to be turned in
Broken up and melted down to make … anything else!
I want to hear that every soldier, intel wonk, officer
Commando or insurgent
Has renounced violence and are getting busy …
Building shelters, planting trees, cleaning beaches
Counseling hopeless, caring for the needy
Handing out bread, bringing in water
Giving emergency care to the destitute
Rescuing cats from trees and kissing babies
I wanna see them all get busy
Fixing every leaky toilet, broken window, noisy refrigerator
And every god blessed pothole in the known universe
That they are working with farmers to grow more food
Unlocking potential, opening floodgates
Applying bandages, splints and helping, helping, helping

Though the poet, Dan Brady, starts the poem by rejecting "Bible humping bullpucky" as a source of good news, I'd say he resonates more with the poet/prophet Isaiah than he knows.

And as far as I'm concerned, the world they both allude to, though Brady might deny it, is one in which we will still work unto the Lord, but in which even work emails will be poetry. Though they be crude, I figure my haikus are one small way to point to that hope. May Poetry at Work Day—of which today is the first observance—increase and flourish.

Anna Broadway is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity (WaterBrook) and a contributor to the anthology Faith at the Edge (Ave Maria). She also writes for the Her.meneutics blog. She lives near San Francisco.

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