ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Although feeling and intuition are a major part of our aesthetic, these elements

don't exclude the development of cogent aesthetic theory



Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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On Writing Haiku

By Kalamu ya Salaam


Haiku is a Japanese poetry form which structurally consists of three lines and a total of 17 syllables (five on the first and third lines, and seven on the second line). There are other variations of form and other structural aspects to haiku writing, but those are the elements I choose to use.

Two writers directly influenced me to write haiku: Richard Wright and Sonia Sanchez. While still in junior high school in the late fifties I read Wright's wonderful haiku about the little boy standing in the snow holding out his hand until it turned white. At that time I was totally under the influence of Langston Hughes, so while I admired the Wright haiku, I felt no impulse to emulate the form or the tone of what Wright wrote. Many years later in preparation for a major article of literary criticism, I had in-depth conversations with Sonia Sanchez about writing. She told me about writing haiku when she couldn't write anything else because of time or other constraints. Sanchez pointed out that writing haiku helped hone her poetic skills, especially in choosing words and streamlining her writing, moreover, haiku were short, pithy, very specific, and once you finished one, you had a feeling of accomplishment. But haiku was not yet in my blood even though I thought I understood what Sanchez was saying.

Then I went through a divorce. In retrospect, I realize now that I stayed as busy as I could as a defense mechanism to deal with the pain I was feeling. That's when I really began to understand what Sanchez told me; that was also when I seriously started writing haiku. In that context, it is easy to appreciate this early haiku:

haiku #18

anesthetized by

exhaustive activity

my hurt hurts me less

Since the mid-80s I have written over 150 haiku and have had dozens of them published, most notably the erotic haiku in Erotique Noire/Black Erotica and in the follow up anthology Dark Eros. The April 1995 issue of Essence magazine also published six haiku in a feature on New Orleans. People who know of my proclivity to use blues and jazz forms and influences in my writing sometimes express surprise that I use the haiku form. I laugh. Why not? I'm African American; we'll use any and everything in our own way and make art out of it.

Since joining the Free Southern Theatre in 1968, I have been an active proponent of the Black Arts and have constantly attempted to develop a theory and practice of a Black aesthetic in my writing.

In haiku, I knew I wanted to deal with at least three different elements: rhythm, rhyme and raw sound -- plus, the haiku needed to carry the weight of irony. Of course, I did not expect each poem to contain every element but I was striving to have each poem manifest at least one of those properties. I did not study any traditional haiku nor read any books on writing haiku. I was not interested in learning the Japanese tradition. I wanted to write haiku that not only thematically addressed the Black experience, but, also and more importantly, structurally exemplified a Black aesthetic.

For me this was more than simply a technical question of how to write haiku on paper, it was also a question of how to perform haiku. I would not consider myself successful until I had figured out how to recite haiku with the same force and intensity as I did my blues and jazz based poetry.

This was a left brain/right brain problem. I needed a creative approach for the performance and a technical approach for the writing. I stored it away and let my subconscious work on the performance part. 

The writing part was easy once I specifically identified the literary theoretical precepts I wanted to use. In less than five years I wrote over a hundred haiku--I have since slowed down the production of haiku because I am consciously concentrating on other poetic forms and other genres of writing. As I perfected my techniques, I would go back and rewrite earlier haiku. I moved away from similes and went straight into metaphors and personifications. I also began incorporating some of traditional haiku techniques such as using images of the natural world as an extension of the human self.

One haiku in particular illustrates the deepening development of my technique. This is a poem which started out as a simple expression of longing and the loneliness of separation. The poetic motif was the use of the rain/earth image except that I switched the normal associations and made the rain the female element and the earth the male element. This switch is not apparent unless the reader knows I am a male or unless myself or another male orates the haiku. The first published version of the poem is:


haiku #107

I think of you as

rain and I as dry earth cracked

beneath cloudless sky

When I rewrote the haiku, the first thing I did was remove the similies ("as") and dropped the cognitive reflective ("I think of"). The poem is thereby made more direct. I also decided to introduce another concept: one suffers a lonely existence while the other party engages in a productive relationship. Finally, I wanted to emphasize the dry/sky rhyme. Thus, I wrote:

haiku #107b

your rain wets other

fields, my parched earth cracks, breaks, dry

beneath cloudless sky

Haiku #107 is an example of using nature and seasonal imagery (which is another aspect of traditional Japanese haiku). However, I also deal with the Afro-centric tradition of proverbs, mother wit and "mama say." Such poems may or may not employ the use of nature imagery such as illustrated by these two haiku. The first employs a blues based imagery and the second is just straight up african proverb in structure.

haiku #1

there's no night so long

that we can not ride through / to

taste tomorrow's dawn

Haiku #1 is built on a repetitive opening rhythm ("no night so long") and closing rhythm ("tomorrow's dawn") which is emphasized by the half-rhyme of long/dawn. The bridge employs the "t" sound ("through to taste to..."). Additionally the sounding of the bridge section overlaps the closing rhythm and helps to stress the final word of the haiku, so that the closure sounds natural as though this is where the poem is supposed to end. Thus I attempted to achieve a musical flow.

haiku #100

what we know limits

us, wisdom loves everything

not yet understood

The proverb-based haiku #100 builds itself on the use of irony and makes no use of imagery and no specific use of sound devices. However, the majority of my haiku consciously employ sounding. In addition to the aforementioned use of rhyme and rhythm, I used alliteration as a main device for achieving a Black sound in my written haiku. I wanted to reach for the syncretic creolization of an afrocentric oral/aural ethos mated to eurocentric literary emphasis on text. Such a synthesis is a hallmark of African disaporan art. This meant bringing together concepts that were not usually thought of as part of a whole. Beneath all of that I also wanted to maintain a complementary feminine/masculine referencing in contradistinction to the eurocentric privileging of patriarchy.

Here is an example which incorporates many elements of a Black aesthetic.

haiku #79

i enter your church,

you receive my offerings,

our screaming choirs merge

First, from the standpoint of rhythm--which incidentally is not usually a component of haiku--this poem is written in threes, my variation on the three/four musical rhythm common in gospel music. Thus the emphasis is ONE-TWO-three. The "three" is an open beat, meaning I could recite it ONE-TWO-three or ONE-TWO-three/three/three/three-ONE-TWO-three. Usually, I recite it rubato, without any particular rhythmic emphasis, but I keep the three feel in mind so that the words are emphasized like this:

I EN-TER your church

YOU RE-CEIVE my offering

OUR SCREAM-MING choirs mergeeeeee.

Unfortunately, there is nothing on the page that can tell you how I am using rhythm except that I have set the poem up with the emphatic words at the beginning of each line. Additionally, each line opens with two words, the first word is one syllable and the second word is two syllables, which is also a reinforcement of the three feel, but it's a three within the first two counts of the larger three.

The complementary expression is: the male enters, the female receives and thereby the two merge into one. Also, the dialectic of body and soul, flesh and spirit are indicated by using the church image, hence the body, which is flesh, is presented as sacred, and so forth.

The next example is a haiku which leans heavily on the use of the long "ssss" sound and on its complement, the long "ffff" sound, both of which contrast with the short and abrupt "but" and "eye." Notice, even though "but" and "eye" fall at end points, the rhyme is set up with the half rhyme of "flies" and "eye." If you recite it alould you will immediately hear the connections. My experimentation has been to go beyond what the poem means and also dig deeply into how the poem sounds. Most haiku do not focus on the sounding element precisely because most haiku don't use a Black aesthetic.

haiku #88

the pheasant flies but

beauty's feathered sheen still shines

in the seer's eye

Here is a more ambitious piece. I wanted to write about sadness, the breaking up of one into two separate pieces. I wanted to capture the feel of separation. I use rhyme ("gone/flown/song/sung" are all half rhymes), and rhythm (the middle line sets up an interesting swing with the use of the "s" sound repeated five times within seven syllables), as well as image. The image alone would have been sufficient, but the rhyme and rhythm emphasis add the afrocentric. In this selection the last word, "harmony" which is three syllables long contrasts quite unharmoniously with all the preceding words which are either one or two syllables long; in other words, it breaks the unity that had been set up. The irony was that it is the word harmony which breaks the rhythmic unity of the poem.

haiku #123

love gone is bird flown

sad sunset song tartly sung

without harmony

Haiku #48 is what I call a "perfect" haiku, meaning it has exactly seventeen one-syllable words. Here is an example of using blues imagery. This haiku is a direct variation on the blues line "fattening frogs for snakes." I personify the night, the quality of hurt, and then use a simile to make complete the reference to the blues line. It is also a blues in the classic a/a'/b structure, which is say a line, repeat the line with a variation, and then respond to or comment on the line with a third line. Here I completely rephrase the second (or a') line but I keep the same basic image ("night moans" = "arms of hurt" and "grip my waist" = "snake round me").

haiku #48

night moans grip my waist

the arms of hurt snake round me,

i feel like a frog

This next piece has a rather involved origin. The basic line is taken from Ho Chi Minh who wrote "when the prison doors fly open / the dragons fly out" referring to political prisoners. I had learned that Ho Chi Minh lived for a brief time in Harlem and had been influenced by Marcus Garvey. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison I wanted to capture the feel of that. Upon seeing Mr. Mandela step into the sunlight what immediately struck me was the beauty of his smile. Also, Malcolm X and George Jackson approached prison as a school. I had read about imprisoned ANC militants also approaching captivity as a school. Thus prison is alluded to as a cocoon. Finally, it occurred to me that the whole process was one of transformation. So, I wrote this haiku.

haiku #112 (for Mandela)

emerging from jail

their dragon/our butterfly

his smile is so huge

Some of the haiku are written in the african proverb/"mama say" aphoristic form and have nothing to do with the traditional haiku use of nature images. Here is an example which I use to explain my non-Christian approach to spirituality:

haiku #58

black people believe

in god, & I believe in

black people. amen. 

Many people believe that poetry is based on inspiration, but for poets who work in the griot tradition, poetry--particularly praise poetry --is often commissioned by a patron, community group, or other agency. This was the case with sixteen haiku I wrote for Essence magazine which choose to print six of the group of wide ranging haiku. Because I was writing without knowing specifically what was to be in the section, I decided to write widely varying styles and on a diversity of New Orleans related subject matter. Here are two from that group. The first is strictly a romantic, nature piece that suggests partying in the French Quarter and the second also uses a nature image to capture the spirit of people in New Orleans.

Quarter Moon Rise

soft moon shimmers out

of cloudy dress, stirred by night's

suggestive caress


The Spice Of Life

cayenne in our blood

we dance, eat, laugh, cry & love

with peppered passion

The final example is a recent erotic haiku. When people hear my haiku they sometimes think that I have cheated, that I have used more than seventeen syllables. This is because of the use of rhythm, rhyme and alliteration which makes the poem seem longer than it actually is.

haiku #136

she soft tongue kissed my

thirsty skin quiet as a

breastfed baby's breath

After a few years of developing my writing technique I felt I was well on the road to using haiku as text, but I still had to figure out how to make haiku work as speech. I don't remember when the answer came to me. It was probably when I heard a musical selection that reminded me of an Art Ensemble of Chicago concert which I experienced in Atlanta. The AEC performed one number entirely on large bamboo flutes with shimmering gongs in the background. There was an incredible quality of peace and tranquility achieved by using long, low extended notes. I had already mastered the ability to mimic musical instruments and the key was to figure out how to achieve that feeling/sound. I tried and tried and eventually was able to achieve a sound similar to a bass flute but not quite as mellow as the big bamboo flute.

Once I had the sound, I figured then I could improvise the words in the sense of repeat them, extend them, repeat phrases, in-between blowing the flute notes. The key was to get inside the sound completely. There is no set melody. No set rhythms. I use however I am feeling at the moment, close my eyes and listen to my breathing. As I begin reciting sometimes it takes a minute to begin, sometimes longer. Generally I can not do more than two or three haiku at a time because it takes so much energy. But I had figured it out. The test, of course, was to perform it. It works!

There is another component. I use microphone techniques which I have learned not only from performing but also from radio work. I know how to blow across, next to, and into a microphone so that the noise of the air mixes with the sounds/words emanating from my larynx to form the total sound of the haiku presentation. At one point, I wondered could I do it without a microphone. The answer was yes, as long as I was in a small room and was very close to the audience.

What I had previously done in the long form, in the blues and jazz forms, I could now achieve in the haiku form -- I was close to figuring out a theory of Black poetics.

I knew that I had to have an audience and that it had to be orated. Working with the haiku gave me a missing part: how to put the aesthetics into the text so that the piece could stand on its own as text and, at the same time, serve as lyric for the ultimate oration of the selection. I have been working on this for a number of years. Experimenting. Studying. Talking with other poets. Actually, I have been working on this for many, many years; it's just that over the last five years I have been focused. Why?

On the one hand, reciting poetry was easy. But explaining what I was doing and how I did it, was another story. I knew there was a need to articulate the theory as well as articulate the poem. Although feeling and intuition are a major part of our aesthetic, these elements don't exclude the development of cogent aesthetic theory. If we are to compete in the arena of text we need both theory and practice.

On a personal level, I was also clear that if my poetry was going to be published it had to achieve viability on the page and be able to stand up as text in comparison to the best of English-language poetry. I wanted to create a body of poetry that would make a substantive contribution to the African American literary tradition which is both competitive and innovative. I was not in search of popularity -- what I wanted, and have always wanted, was relevance.

As odd as it may sound, haiku helped me to theoretically formalize my conception of a Black aesthetic for literature. So how do I write haiku? As Blackly as I possibly can. Yeah! 

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Haiku by Kalamu ya Salaam


haiku #112


emerging from jail

their dragon, our butterfly

his smile is so huge


Source: WordUp

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haiku  #58


black people believe

in god, & i believe in

black people, amen

Source: WordUp

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Guarding the Flame of Life

Men We Love, Men We Hate  / Ways of Laughing

New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin James / They danced atop his casket Jaran 'Julio' Green

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Track List
1.  Congo Square (9:01)
2.  My Story, My Song (20:50)
3.  Danny Banjo (4:32)
4.  Miles Davis (10:26)
5.  Hard News For Hip Harry (5:03)
6.  Unfinished Blues (4:13)
7.  Rainbows Come After The Rain (2:21)/Negroidal Noise (15:53)
8.  Intro (3:59)
9.  The Whole History (3:14)
10.  Negroidal Noise (5:39)
11.  Waving At Ra (1:40)
12.  Landing (1:21)
13.  Good Luck (:04)

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in U.S. history. But few Americans know the true story of the men and women who launched a desperate strike at the slaveholding South. Now, Midnight Rising portrays Brown's uprising in vivid color, revealing a country on the brink of explosive conflict. Brown, the descendant of New England Puritans, saw slavery as a sin against America's founding principles. Unlike most abolitionists, he was willing to take up arms, and in 1859 he prepared for battle at a hideout in Maryland, joined by his teenage daughter, three of his sons, and a guerrilla band that included former slaves and a dashing spy. On October 17, the raiders seized Harpers Ferry, stunning the nation and prompting a counterattack led by Robert E. Lee. After Brown's capture, his defiant eloquence galvanized the North and appalled the South, which considered Brown a terrorist. The raid also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfill Brown's dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure he called "a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale." Tony Horwitz's riveting book travels antebellum America to deliver both a taut historical drama and a telling portrait of a nation divided—a time that still resonates in ours.

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update  1 April 2012




 Home  Kalamu Table

Related files:  Is A Sonnet More Than Fourteen Lines    On Writing Haiku     WORDS: A Neo-Griot Manifesto    That Old Black Magic    The Myth of Solitude     What Is Black Poetry

in the hot house of black poetry another furious flowering --  Part I / Part II  /  Part III  /  Part IV