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Haiku in the Workplace: The Broken Air Conditioner

One of the ways we determine that a writer is masterful is in the way he or she controls the possible interpretations of his or her assemblage of words. Over the course of long works — novels, say, or epic poems — a certain amount of license is permitted, to help the author carry the momentum forward (though in the very best of these works, we might feel that there is not even a single unwarranted word). In the reduced compass of haiku, however, there can be no looseness. Every word will be scrutinized, every combination of words tested, every possible nuance or accident duly noted. If a poet cannot assemble half-a-dozen or so words without misstepping, we might feel, then he or she is not worthy of our attention.

But of course it is not so simple as that. Language is slippery, and it is exactly this slipperiness that makes poetry possible. In a world of exact one-to-one correspondence, we would indeed have command of the facts, but we would surrender the stuff that makes the facts matter. The good news is that we don’t seem to be in any danger of this happening any time soon.

In light of these comments, then, I offer the following:

My unwelcome lover
Get off
	[Patti VanderKooy]

These six words open themselves to several immediate interpretations without our even really trying. Is this a good thing or a bad? If we note that the poem is lively, is it not our own imaginations that is the source of that liveliness? Does the poet intend all these interpretations? We have no way of knowing, but since the various readings that come to mind do not necessarily reinforce each other, I would be inclined to think not. So what has been accomplished here?

Further, the poet has an advantage not generally available to haiku poets: the poem was written within the context of a themed challenge, so a reader would know that at least one of the intended readings must have to do with a broken air conditioner, or the consequences of one. Certainly knowing this poem exists in such a context alters at least one of my possible readings. In a way this is a violation of the spirit of haiku — sort of like adding a fourth line. This is one of the reasons why haiku very rarely include titles.

This is not intended to disparage the poem, which entertained me for some time. It is simply to suggest the ways in which your words will be considered when you offer them publicly. It is one thing to divert one’s self — in such instances, anything goes, and the only criterion is that one is pleased with it. But as soon as we endeavor to make communications of these poems, additional elements come into play, and managing those elements is a challenge we all shall face.

Several poets used this opportunity to address larger issues, in particular global warming. Making a haiku topical and still having it work poetically can be tricky, as doing so asks the poem to serve two masters, which usually elevates one at the expense of the other. Two in this vein slightly more successful than most:

global warming turns
us from office denizens —
to world citizens 
	[David Dayson]
a heat wave sows
the seeds of doubt about —
global warming 
	[David Dayson]

In both instances there is no doubt about the political content being master, and the poetry suffers (indeed, they are merely statements) but the enlargement of mind in the one instance, and the humor and ambiguity in the other, make them worth noting. One other worth mentioning falls into the ekphrastic tradition:

my brain warps 
like a painting 
	[Ernesto Santiago]

The poet conjures an image that relies upon the cultural knowledge of the reader, and so might easily be missed. But if I’m correct that he intends Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” then this is a fun, and telling, offering.

My three winners this week, as usual, offer something more. My third choice may surprise:

air con gone
our temperaments become —
	[David Dayson]

Is this a disparagement of certain cultures? Undoubtedly it may be taken so, and perhaps will be in some quarters. However, it is also certainly a kind of insight for the poet, in the terms the poet can process and communicate. Taken in that light, one might find here a solidarity of spirit rather than a parody or criticism, and it is in this light I offer it for your consideration.

My second prize uses the event as a trigger for memory:

turn on the fans —
daydreams of childhood
ice cream vans
	[David Dayson]

This is handled with much dexterity and charm. With the air conditioner working we are insulated from our environment. When it breaks, however, we are reduced to moving the air about with fans, and that warmer, moister sensation calls up recollections for the poet of the days when cooling refreshment came not in an electric box but in the form of a frozen treat from a traveling vendor. The movement from the more abstract image of the daydreams (“childhood”) to the specific (“ice cream vans”) is deft, and the simple rhyme, unusual in haiku, is suggestive of a child’s perspective and phrasing, suitable to the content of this poem. This might easily have been the top winner.

However, this week my first prize goes to a homelier reality:

on the broken air condition(er)
dead fly 
	[Ernesto Santiago]

The poem I received offered “broken air condition” so I have taken the liberty of presuming the poet (or subsequent typist) intended “broken air conditioner,” and it was on the basis of this adjustment that I evaluated the poem. It is difficult to state exactly the relationship between the fly and the state of the machine, but its effect strikes me as forceful and inevitable. The poet does not say the broken air conditioner (or rather the resulting atmosphere in the conference room) has killed the fly, he merely records the two circumstances and allows them to speak to one another. This is the best practice of haiku, where the reader bridges the gap for himself. There is a dark humor to be found in this comparison, too, between the (presumably live) attendees of the briefing and the dead fly. Is it a suggestion of what is to come if the situation prevails? This is kept in play in a neat technical way, as well, by making the middle phrase a hinge line, which may relate to either the first or the third line. A very strong effort in several ways, and a worthy top winner.

Here’s hoping you are all staying cool.

New Poems

blistering heat . . .
how much he misses 
his old ACU
     — Willie Bongcaron
heated seminar
dripping on the participants 
the CEO’s words
     — Celestine Nudanu
a broken promise —
on an upper lip
     — Mark Gilbert
broken air con
endless moaning
from the battery fan
     — Rachel Sutcliffe
clouds lobotomy 
cut with pure incisions  
play misty for me
     — Katherine Stella
broken; the air . . .
also on the fritz 
this tape deck
     — Ernesto P. Santiago
no air conditioning —
I dot the i 
with a drop of make-up
     — Maria Laura Valente
starlight room —
a multitude of stars
on the ceiling
     — Doris Pascolo
broken air
the sweat shop
closes early
     — Michael Henry Lee
heat in the office!
in the air conditioning
the lizard’s brood
     — Marta Chocilowska
AC failure
our reserved boss
warming up
     — Angelo Ancheta
blown fuse — neither the boss nor the AC working
     — Angelee Deodhar
on the ceiling
a gray caterpillar . . .
ducting needs repair
     — Enrique Garrovillo
heatstroke at work
the college nurse plies 
tiny ice bags
     — Carmen Sterba
air conditioner problem
trying hard
to keep my cool
      — Olivier Schopfer
July heat wave
the office AC starts
an early retirement
     — Tiffany Shaw-Diaz
air conditioner out
they shed their
     — Pat Davis
to run all errands
no A/C
     — Debbie Feller
not a breath 
sails droop on
the Sargasso sea
     — Paul Geiger
Broken air conditioner 
The summer enters slowly
from the window
     — Stefano Riondato
broken air con
her short skirt 
raises the temperature
     — Andy McLellan
still no A/C
a sheet of paper shivers 
under an oscillating fan
     — Gail Oare
without air conditioning . . .
wishing for the cold
of the North Pole
     — Eufemia Griffo
the broken AC —
sound of a fly buzzing
along  the hallway
     — Tomislav Maretic
busted ac —
the deadbeat file spawns 
10 paper fans
     — Roberta Beary
broken air conditioner —
everything slow-motion 
. . . except the flies
condizionatore rotto —
ogni cosa rallenta
. . . tranne le mosche
     — Lucia Cardillo
we call it a day . . .
home early 
before the kids
     — Madhuri Pillai
hot blows
mocking at this
junk now
     — S. Radhamani
coffee popsicle: 
even thoughts melt 
on the keyboard
     — Elisa Allo
broken a/c —
what the math
boils down to
     — Chad Lee Robinson
AC broken
the class writes snow poems
in tree shade
     — Marilyn Walker
office airconditioner
management’s other
broken promise
     — Marietta McGregor
commuting —
defective air-conditioner
on a new bus
     — Valentina Ranaldi-Adams
Air conditioner off —
From my grandmother’s fan
fresh memories
     — Nazarena Rampini
office room —
not even a thread of air
that moves my hair
stanza d’ufficio —
nemmeno un filo d'aria
che muove i miei capelli
     — Angela Giordano
the muggy atmosphere . . .
she blames it on her
     — Adrian Bouter
freon stains
down the tenement walls . . .
a night of long sirens
     — Mark E. Brager
air conditioner
not tonight
     — Lee Nash
broken AC
I steal the neighbor’s fan
while they’re out
     — Susan Burch
just a fan
a drop tumbles
along my back . . .
solo un ventaglio
una goccia mi rotola
lungo la schiena . . .
     — Lucia Fontana
so much depends upon
a working air conditioner
three-toed sloth
     — Jennifer Hambrick
the Board chooses
to ignore climate change
limit switches tripping
     — Devin Harrison
summer air
an iced coffee from
a secret admirer
     — Anthony Rabang
heated discussion
with the maintenance man
broken air con
     — Karen Harvey
broken office air conditioner
the comfort of dressing
casual to work
     — Adjei Agyei-Baah
searing heat
folding a fan from
the test paper
     — Cezar Ciobika

Next Week’s Theme: Getting Fired

Send your poem using “workplace haiku” as the subject by Sunday midnight to our Contact Form. Good luck!

kacian_jimFrom October 2014 through April 2016 Haiku Foundation president Jim Kacian offered a column on haiku for the London Financial Times centered on the theme of work. Each week we share these columns with the haiku community at large, along with an invitation to join in the fun. Submit a poem by Sunday midnight on the theme of the week, from the classical Japanese tradition, or contemporary practice, or perhaps one of your own, which you might even write for the occasion. The best of these will be appended to the column. First published 23 June 2015.

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