Kalamu ya Salaam: Precise Tenderness: 100 Haiku (Third World Press, 2023)

The first of Kalamu ya Salaam’s 100 haiku: “touch with a precise/ tenderness & know all we/ are is each other,” giving his new book of poems its title, is part of a Dedication that reads in part:

Precise Tenderness is dedicated to all (each & every) folk who choose hard life in the hills over the comfort corruption of the big house / creative chaos & raw improvisation over superficial order and refined technical perfection / the inexactness & unpredictability of merger, amalgamation & self-transformation over the dogma of purity & canonization / …,”  telling you a great deal about this veteran African American New Orleans poet and where he is coming from.

Language “compacted and expanded.” Precise Tenderness includes a short introduction of the same name, an extended essay, On Writing Haiku, and an Afterword by critic Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

“Poetry,” Kalamu ya Salaam writes in the introduction, “is symbolic essentialism. Language compacted and expanded. Compacted in being reduced only to what is absolutely necessary to convey an emotion, a mood, an idea, a situation, encounter w/life or imagination. Expanded in that the poem, when it works, is so much more than the mere words of which it is composed.”

This would seem to be especially true of haiku, a traditional Japanese poetry form usually  consisting of 17 syllables distributed with 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, and 5 in the third line, often using images of nature. A form said to have been perfected and popularized by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), generally considered to be the greatest of the old Japanese masters.

(In Beneath the Spanish, his 2017 collection of poetry and prose that I am reading as I am writing this article, in Reading Japanese in Morocco Puerto Rican Victor Hernandez Cruz gives us the following example: “No oil to read by/ I am off to bed/ But ah …/ My moonlit pillow”).

Salaam mentions two writers who directly influenced him to write haiku: Richard Wright and Sonia Sanchez. The Wright haiku that he refers to, printed in Haiku: This Other World (Anchor Books, 1998), reads: “In the falling snow/ A laughing boy holds out his hands/ Until they are white.

And since the mid-80s Kalamu ya Salaam has written numerous haiku, but like other African Americans and other poets writing in English taking liberties with the Japanese form, both by choice and necessity, since certain verbal properties in Japanese cannot be duplicated in English.

Writing & reading haiku. In the essay On Writing Haiku Kalamu ya Salaam takes up his long standing quest to develop a theory and practice of a Black Aesthetic, ending his essay with this haiku (irony clearly one element): “So how do I write/ haiku? As Blackly as I/ possibly can. Yeah!

Sonia Sanchez (Morning Haiku, Beacon Press, 2010) in conversations impressed upon him the need to hone your poetic skills, choosing your words carefully to say what you want to say in just seventeen syllables. What are we to make, for example, of the words ‘snow’ and ‘white’ (white as snow?) in the Richard Wright haiku mentioned above? And why is the boy laughing?  

In his essay on the writing (and reading) of haiku Kalamu ya Salaam ‘unpacks’ twelve of his haiku, variously explaining the origin of some, “expanding” upon the possible meaning(s) of others, and describing elements of his technique, his use of rhythm, rhyme/head rhyme & “raw sound.”

He calls haiku # 48: “night moans grip my waist/ the arms of hurt snake round me/ i feel like a frog” a “perfect” haiku, in that it has exactly seventeen one-syllable words. It uses the classic a/a´/b structure of the blues, a first line (“night moans grip my waist”) repeated with a variation in the second line (“the arms of hurt snake round me”), and a third line responding to or commenting on the first line (“i feel like a frog”), and blues imagery. (Fattening frogs for snakes is a well-known blues line by harmonica player, singer and songwriter “Sonny Boy” Williamson (1912?-1964).

On haiku # 58: “black people believe/ in god, & i believe in/ black people, amen” – one of my own favorites – Salaam writes that it is an example of his non-Christian approach to spirituality.

Haiku # 79: “I enter your church/ you receive my offerings/ screaming choirs merge” is one of his erotic haiku dealing with overt sexuality. Paying close attention to rhythm, it can also be seen as an instance of Kalamu ya Salaam’s focus on making his poems – jazz, blues, haiku, or other – work on the page, standing on their own, and at the same time serve as a lyric for the oral performance of the poem before an audience – an important part of his Black Aesthetic.

Haiku # 88: “the pheasant flies but/ beauty’s feathered sheen still shines/ bright in the seer’s eye,” a beautiful haiku, uses head rhyme (alliteration) and ‘sounding’, to go beyond what a poem ‘means’.

I also want to mention You Can’t Survive on Salt Water (2006) – seven haiku for old orleans – on the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, a sequence of haiku not “expanded” upon in his essay – perhaps there was no need to. The second haiku reads: “dumb pigeons have flown/ now it’s people’s turn to perch/ roasting atop roofs.” An image that will remind you of other images we have seen of natural disasters that seem to haunt our present time of climate change – another concern of Salaam’s.

African American haiku. In his Afterword poet and critic Jerry W. Ward, Jr. calls our attention to the “insightful essays” collected in African American Haiku: Cultural Visions (University Press of Mississippi, 2016), edited and introduced by John Zheng, who mentions a “star cluster” of black poets who have experimented with African American forms of the traditional Japanese haiku.

The essays focus on five major writers of African American haiku: Richard Wright, James A. Emanuel (see the Reading Black article on James A. Emanuel’s Whole Grain: Collected Poems that briefly discusses the haiku of both Emanuel and Wright), Etheridge Knight (“Making jazz swing in/ Seventeen syllables AIN’T/ No square poet’s job”), Sonia Sanchez, and Lenard D. Moore.   

And now we can add the name of Kalamu ya Salaam to the roll call.     

UFI // 18 May 2023

Note: Precise Tenderness – unlike (most of) Kalamu ya Salaam’s other books – is not available on Amazon as of this writing. You may have to order directly from the publisher, Third World Press.