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“Haiku You” Inspired by Japanese Exhibits at Museum of Art

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The far wall in the Museum of Art is dotted with pairs of sticky notes: yellow, green, orange, blue. All except for the blue are handwritten. The blue have been typed in response to the others, an exchange of haiku poems between museum visitors—students, faculty, staff--and John-Michael Albert, UNH music librarian and the 8th Portsmouth poet laureate.

Haiku are cadence poems that consist of 17 on (similar to syllables but not exactly the same) written in a three line pattern of five-seven-five. The responsive spontaneous exhibit “Haiku You” was inspired by John Wissemann’s Japanese-style colored pencil drawings and photographs of Japan by Felice Beato, two exhibits on display at the museum through Dec. 12.

"Posting the Haiku poemsallows visitors to share their interpretations and reactions with others,” says Kristina Durocher, museum director. “The writing activity gets people looking, thinking, and using language to express their ideas about works of art.”

Durocher came up with the idea to make museum visits more engaging and meaningful. Having Albert reply to the original haiku makes it more so.

“In Japan, it is considered appropriate to respond to a haiku with a haiku. In fact, in the 17th century, they used to have haiku parties in the Imperial court where writing and responding to haiku was treated as a very sophisticated party game,” Albert says.

He describes the Japanese poems as an attempt to capture a fleeting moment in words. The response is required to be as spontaneous. There is no allowance for editing or revision.

“The success of the work is in its uncensored spontaneity,” Albert says. “In Zen and classical Japanese poetry, self-censorship is considered inherently false. The Zen definition of ‘correct thought’ depends on uncensored spontaneity: first thought, best thought.”

One of the haiku left on the wall reads:

Shades flung open,
dawn offers up
the promise of purpose.

And Albert’s response:

Each experience
opens me to another:
matrioshka dolls.

Here’s another:

Clear basin of ice
with blood spilt over it
--had hoped it was wine.

To which Albert penned back:

Life’s disappointments
sour grapes and green apples
something new to learn?

The Museum of Art is open September to May, Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. During the academic year, the museum is closed Fridays, university holidays, and during exhibition changes.