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Joshua Eric Williams — Touchstone Award for Individual Poems Winner 2022

Joshua Eric Williams is the recipient of a Touchstone Award for Individual Poems for 2022 for the poem:

silent after
the shooting

Rattle, Poets Respond, July 2022

Commentary from the Panel:

Every time I read this poem, I feel as if I’ve been punched in the gut. It is unsettling, as it should be. When I try to analyze how the poet achieved this effect, I am left with how the poem reveals itself. It tumbles out. The rhythm, and the placement of the line breaks, sets the reader off balance. Imagine if the poet had chosen to put the first line break after the word “silent”, with the word “after” dropped to the beginning of the second line. That’s how our brains would probably organize the lines, and we’d lose out on the toppling effect which is part of the brilliance of this poem. The middle line, “the shooting” serves as a hinge, fitting with either the first line or the last line, inviting us (or perhaps forcing us) to read the poem in different and uncomfortable ways.

In the immediate aftermath of a tragic event, there is often an eerie silence. We could interpret the silence here as a non-response to shootings — the lack of gun control, mental health strategies, and ways to prevent domestic violence. And then, the shooting stars themselves: they streak bright for a moment, and burn out, a sad metaphor for lives lost senselessly.

This haiku lends itself to several interpretations. It’s both a comment on the issue of rampant crime and mass murders that have become far too commonplace in our society today and on the cosmos after shooting stars have lit up the sky. Whether you are hearing the gunshots or watching the sky, that silence after is profound.

This simple, powerful, timely poem offers in five words so many different ways of reading, depending on where one pauses on re-reading. On the surface level, we are silent after witnessing shooting stars. We are also silent after a shooting, and all we have are stars to contemplate. In the silence, the shooting stars continue to light up the sky. We could read all of this were this a one-liner, however the line cuts give us time to really contemplate all the different meanings and the weight and metaphorical meanings of silence, of shooting, and of stars.

The disjunctive appearance of this haiku hints at its different meanings. A first reading, for me, seemed to show a quiet time after watching the shooting stars and that it could be written as a monostich:

silent after the shooting stars.

However, the poem is written in three parts:

silent after / the shooting / stars.

This phrasing suggests a shooting has occurred and it might or might not be the stars. The word silent, however, bothered me, wouldn’t silence be better? Silence, a noun, fits perfectly, while silent, an adjective does not. The only noun for silent to describe or modify is stars. Or does it describe shooting stars? It can be read as either, but if the poet’s phrasing is followed, it isn’t that shooting stars are silent, but that stars are silent.

Read in this possible way, the haiku suggests that after a shooting, the stars are silent. As if the stars have witnessed a crime and are quiet about it, won’t comment on it. The stars are a kind of stand-in for those of us who don’t talk up about a wrongdoing. Adding to the overall drama is the almost staccato sound of stressed and unstressed vowels of i, a, o, and a in lines 1, 2, and 3. An excellent haiku that opens out to multiple meanings.

Touchstone winners receive a crystal award to commemorate their selection.  See the complete list of winners of both Individual Poem Awards and Distinguished Books Awards in the Touchstone Archives.

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Why?
    (whether the haiku is considered to be “great” or not and putting aside for the moment who considers
    it to be great/ wonderful & etc. )
    —Lorin Ford

    Why not? You don’t reread haiku? I find rereading poems fruitful, and often I experience new things in the haiku because we all miss things that one reading will not render apparent. Every great haiku I’ve read, including one-word haiku offer multiple interpretations that come with more readings.

    Note: I’m not saying that my haiku is “great.”

    1. Josh,
      I, for one, do like to read people’s haiku more than once. We can glean from studies on memorising poetry, when it was taught in some schools, and resurrected in modern times, that it has added benefits.

      This is said to be tongue in cheek 🙂

      Start young and end ‘young’ maybe 🙂,remembering%20other%20information%20as%20well!

      There are many poetry memory contests, at least in UK and USA.

      Setting aside reading poems more than once, did anyone really say that?!

      Every encouragement should be available for people to enjoy poems, and be allowed to read them, and more than once.

      Whether a poem has just one meaning and one meaning only for the author, and maybe for some readers, whether they are readers only or poets as well, it’s less a passive role than other ‘screen-time’ activities.

      I still remember being thrilled to overhear a family at a Christmas market, discussing my haiku. They would have though I was ‘just’ a stall-holder and they weren’t my poems on display on greetings cards and fridge magnets. They were a regular family group from what I could tell, and possibly didn’t read poetry that often, perhaps at Christmas when these things called ‘poems’ often crawl and get noticed more. Yet they dissected one or two of my poems (haiku) expertly, and I found myself leaning more and more forward, at least internally. Would I try to control them if I didn’t like what I was hearing, or if they gleaned meanings I didn’t envision?

      Personally I prefer if the poem takes control, and sometimes like those characters in a novel-in-progress who go beyond what the author had them down for doing.

      I’ve read the haiku time after time after time, and find it re-readable. Now with haiku, and even hokku (Bashō, Issa, Chiyo-ni etc…) perhaps they didn’t expect anything more than a single reading, two readings at a push, and then set aside. Although Matsuo Bashō does appear as if he wanted his work well-known both when he was alive, and possibly postmortem.

      We know from reading about Bashō, and Tohta Kaneko that they knew how to bend both the sound-unit [on] counts or step outside of them, and use wordplay so that there was more than one meaning. The fish that cry could be interpreted by the people then, outside of the Renku group, as literal perhaps, just wet droplets of water or ice, and others in the group that it was a homage hokku including the patron’s nickname. Just like HC Andersen’s work in the original Danish had many layers, and Shakespeare, for the live audiences back then. Andersen is more difficult as it’s old Danish and many of the names (streets etc…) are long gone.

      Only today there is a report of a dozen or so people murdered in Ukraine, more and more in Sudan (Africa), and I am sure there are killings by shooting (handguns, rifles, missiles etc…) in almost every ‘corner’ of the planet.

      silent after
      the shooting

      Joshua Eric Williams
      — Rattle, Poets Respond, July 2022

      I didn’t expect this but internet checked for any shootings today, and top of the list:

      Shootings | Latest News & Updates
      “Get the latest news about local shootings and mass shootings within the U.S. and around the world. Here is everything you need to know today.”

      Apparently nothing today, most recent:

      Colorado road rage shooter convicted of 1st-degree murder
      April 27, 2023
      BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — A Colorado man who shot and killed a 13-year-old boy after a road rage confrontation and wounded the boy’s mother, brother and a witness was found guilty of first-degree murder Wednesday and sentenced to life in prison.


      Alabama police: 89 shots fired into crowded Sweet 16 party
      April 25, 2023
      DADEVILLE, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama investigator on Tuesday described a bloody, chaotic crime scene littered with 89 bullet casings and other evidence after a shooting killed four young people and wounded dozens at a Sweet Sixteen birthday party.


      9 teenagers injured in shooting at prom after-party in Texas
      April 25, 2023
      AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Gunfire at a huge prom after-party at a home in Texas injured nine teenagers, and a second shooting in a nearby city is being investigated for a possible connection, officials said.


      Oh, more recent on another site, from to GVA (Gun Violence Archive)

      4-27-2023 TEXAS HOUSTON 4-0

      APRIL 27, 2023
      3200 block of Brewster St
      Houston, Texas
      Geolocation: 29.7911, -95.337

      Type: Victim
      Age Group: Adult 18+
      Gender: Male
      Status: Killed
      Type: Victim
      Age Group: Adult 18+
      Gender: Male
      Status: Injured
      Type: Victim
      Age Group: Adult 18+
      Gender: Female
      Status: Injured
      Type: Victim
      Gender: Male
      Status: Injured
      Incident Characteristics

      Shot – Wounded/Injured
      Shot – Dead (murder, accidental, suicide)
      Mass Shooting (4+ victims injured or killed excluding the subject/suspect/perpetrator, one location)

      poss shootout; time based on embedded tweet
      Guns Involved

      2 guns involved.

      Type: Rifle
      Type: Rifle

      A British (London) newspaper reports on latest shootings, and I assumed it meant London or S.E. England, but no, reporting on the Alabama (USA) shootings etc…


      silent after
      the shooting

      Joshua Eric Williams
      — Rattle, Poets Respond, July 2022


      I’ve been trained in guns, school, and when I was in security training. The British Army shooting range was fixated on gun security more than accuracy, that came later.

      I’m ashamed to say I’ve only been shot at once, and wondered if it was a Section One Firearm or not. It was loud, the projectile whizzed so close to my ear I got a headache. I was aware of silences in between other shootings but was on the cellphone trying to get police to react, and even though one loud bang was heard by the operator, no response unit called. A long story, when it was repeated in another city, the other police units reacted almost instantly, and this was copied in my then hometown by the same lot who didn’t turn out.

      It’s a cliché, but silence is palpable, not necessarily quiet with no noise, it just has its own dynamics.


      silent after
      the shooting

      Joshua Eric Williams
      — Rattle, Poets Respond, July 2022


      Too many haiku contain silence or silent as a quick short cut for atmosphere and ambience, so it’s refreshing to see it better used.

      How would I read this haiku, or perform it? I’ve done multiple readings and performances in the past. It’s to be attuned to the poem, the venue, the audience. Karen Hoy only read out one senryu at a Poetry Society venue, which lasted 5-10 minutes, not planned but intuitively carried out, being attuned, as were the audience. It was a combination of senryu meets John Cage’s 4′ 33″ I guess. Needless to say, I was the only other haiku poet in there, and read 2-3 haiku, but couldn’t compete. 🙂

      If we want to bother with a good reading or better still a performance, a more proactive reading, there are many ways to bring out the poem, these are but two:

      silent after //
      the shooting //

      silent //
      after the shooting //

      Still not bored with reading this haiku over and over again, and gleaning more. I guess it’s the other things that make a poem both on page and live.

      best wishes,
      Alan Summers
      Call of the Page

  2. I had noticed a similarity to a haiku posted in March of 2022.

    after the missiles
    a shooting

    This happens a lot in haiku and is not the point. Afterall, as humans we share the same planet and are impacted by the same events. Whereas my haiku fails to keep the reader in suspense—and without a dash the events follow to closely on one another’s heels—Josh has crafted a masterful presentation by invoking the silence that often follows such an event and in his skillful line break has left so much more to interpretation, enabling the reader to participate in the uncertainty of the moment. In terms of craft, they are worlds apart. His is truly the work of a master. Congratulations!

  3. Are haiku created so as to generate multiple meanings? It is bound to happen, of course, but the question is: do they cohere or simply provide a kind of puzzle that can be pieced together in numerous ways, as from a kit? For me, sometimes, the possibilities make me dizzy and I wonder how the author would read his or her poem out loud, which might be an indication of intent. If it needs to be read several times as if it were a compaction of several poems needing to be unpacked, well, maybe that’s how it works now. But one then wonders about the notion of a “one breath” poem.

    Another question that comes up for me: many times one has heard it said of poetic “devices” that they are to be avoided in haiku.
    Use of simile or metaphor, for example, is generally frowned upon. But as one sees here and elsewhere, the obvious use of a hinge phrase, a device as much as any, is praised.

    If one indication of the value of a haiku is that it gets you thinking, this is a very good one.

    1. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the haiku. The answer to your question depends on your ideas of what a haiku should do. I’m of the opinion that a haiku/senryu can and should do whatever the poet wants. This might lead some to label my poems as short lyrics; however, from my point of view, they’d be wrong. ELH operate with every poetic tool we have available. This includes everything you’ve mentioned and more. By the way, if you look up Rattle Magazine and my name you can hear me read the poem, but I’ll tell you now that I intended the poem to have several interpretations.

    2. Japanese haiku poets often break Western (and other non-Japanese) rules of haiku.

      How long is a breath by the way? What is a normal breath’s length? I used to time Japanese women and men reading haiku. The Japanese women took six seconds, similar to non-Japanese poets, and the Japanese men took 3 seconds to read each haiku.

      のぞまれて橋となる木々春のくれ  生駒大祐

      nozomarete hashi to naru kigi haru no kure

      trees answering a demand
      to become a bridge
      spring dusk

      Daisuke Ikoma

      Collection: Suikai Entei (Gardener In The Water World) by Daisuke Ikoma, Minato no Hito, Kanagawa, 2019

      or ‘trees wishing to be bridges’ which outside of Japan, would get this poet in hot water!

      But here he seems relaxed:

      I feel haiku got its spurs when poets risked death, especially when reported by Kyoshi to the Secret Police, for decrying Japan’s interest in entering WWII. The New Rising Haiku movement got haiku to be more socially relevant.

      1. Oh, I just mean that if a haiku has to be read three or four times to get at the different possible meanings, that’s three of four breaths.

        1. I’m not sure I understand. Every great haiku can be and should be read multiple times to get at the different possible meanings.

          1. Sorry, I wasn’t clear. As I read it, your poem can be *interpreted* in the following ways, and maybe more:

            1. (I am/it is) silent after (witnessing) the shooting stars

            2. (I am/it is ) silent after the shooting stars (where “stars” indicates: is prominently featured on the news)

            3. after the shooting stars are/remain silent

            If you were reading the poem out loud, you could of course choose to go with no particular emphasis and let the
            different meanings be heard (or not) as they will. If you go with the poem the way it is written, pausing after line breaks, it would be like this approximately: silent after (brief pause) the shooting (brief pause) stars

            But the hinge phrase means it could be, or should be, read out loud in two different ways to bring out each sense:

            a. silent after the shooting stars
            (Straightforward, but still ambiguous if you accept the idea of starring on TV).
            This would get at meanings 1 and 2 above, probably just 1 for many people.

            b. silent after the shooting (longish pause) stars
            This would get at meaning 3.

            There are other ways of reading it, of course, but these seem most prominent, most likely.

          2. ” Every great haiku can be and should be read multiple times to get at the different possible meanings.” -Josh

            (whether the haiku is considered to be “great” or not and putting aside for the moment who considers it to be great/ wonderful & etc. )

        2. You can think of the different approaches to reading the poem as different haiku. As Robert Spiess said, “A true haiku is an experience experiencing itself.” There are multiple ways to experience a haiku. Sometimes, reading a poem is only one aspect of it. The breath rule doesn’t matter.

          1. I have just come here. Please tell if this comment space is for critique or applause. Or both?


          2. Hi Harpeet,

            It seems to be for both, but at this point, I will bow out of commenting and just say thank you to everyone.

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