Billy Collins and the Pandemic Haiku

By: B.A. France

I was talking with a friend recently, when she told me that she couldn’t. Couldn’t what, I asked? I rolled into searching for the problem and looking for solutions, living my own cliché, when she stopped me. Anything. I can’t do anything right now, she said. The stay-at-home orders, the constant crawl of news and binging notifications on our smartphones, the steady specter of death, the protests, the fires, the storms, all adds up. I just feel like I can’t do anything creative, she said. I think for many of us, more often than not, she’s right. We can’t. Whatever it is. Not right now.

There was something about the way she phrased it that made me think of Billy Collins. I know, that’s quite a leap from pandemic to poet laureate without even a Kevin Bacon in between. But, there’s a discussion with Marie Howe toward the end of his recent MasterClass on reading and writing poetry when he mentions writing haiku. Collins writes the deceptively simple, but mysteriously complex poems most of us learned about in our early school years. He even published a book of them with Modern Haiku Press a few years ago. He tells Marie and his students that he often treats haiku like a musician playing scales. For him there’s something about the simplicity combined with the strictness of form that is appealing. He tells his viewers that “the haiku doesn’t care about your feelings.”  It’s just a moment.

In this time when many of us feel like nothing creative can happen, the simplicity of the haiku and its grounding in the moment might liberate us from the real oppression of COVID19. I’m not talking about political oppression or cultural, but instead the unrelenting and quiet pressure on our souls. Maybe the haiku is exactly the poetry we need right now. Not just some of the poetry we need to be reading, which surely it is, but also the poetry we should be writing.

In addition to Japanese masters like Basho and Issa, Collins is only one of many western poets who have adopted the haiku or its cousin the senryu. Jack Kerouac and the Beats (rather famously, and where Collins first picked up the form), ee cummings, Seamus Heaney, and many others have mixed writing haiku with other forms of poetic expression. You don’t have to consider yourself a haikuist (Or is it haijin? That’s a whole other discussion.) to write haiku.

Collins mentions in his Paris Review interview Art of Poetry No. 83 that one of the key elements of poetry is gratitude.  He singles out haiku in particular, saying: “Almost every haiku says the same thing: it’s amazing to be alive here.” And while in our present, pandemic times we may not quite feel that way, as the blue light of our phones and laptops saps our attention away, gratitude is something we still need. Haiku’s focus on the world around us gives us a chance for that gratitude to return, for us to ignore our feelings about the pandemic and our dread or worry. Because, as Billy said, the haiku doesn’t care how you feel. Focused on a moment, finding a juxtaposition right in front of you, the time composing a haiku brings observation, art, and gratitude all together. Collins reminds us that poetry and poets are supposed to make us better attuned to “feel grateful just for being alive.”

It is this idea of “the moment” that draws me deeper into haiku during this, our shared moment. In his introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, Collins describes finding a “haiku moment” nearly anywhere or at any time. For him, it was during walks with his dog along the shore of a nearby lake. But what he describes as the “world of sense impressions that envelops our every waking hour” is the kernel of grit that can result in a haiku pearl, if we are able to inhabit that moment. I know that sounds like the “mindfulness” stuff that today’s meditation gurus seem to be hocking endlessly, but I promise I’m not selling anything.  It shouldn’t surprise us, since Basho studied Zen deeply and the haiku springs from the same historical and spiritual roots as “mindfulness.” Collins admits that there are “many people who don’t get haiku,” and that’s ok. There is a lot of poetry that “many people” don’t get, and that doesn’t tend to stop us from writing. He reminds readers that the little poems are “powerful little assertions of the poet’s very existence.” And that sounds like an assertion we should all be making right now.

We all learned the haiku as children and the 5-7-5 structure has undoubtedly stuck with most of us.  And yes, there is plenty of discussion about form among practitioners. Most modern English-language haikuists don’t ascribe to strict syllable count. Some would insist that I point out the differences between haiku (focused on nature) and senryu (focused on human behavior, often sarcastic). Some would want me to discuss the unique poetic turn of juxtaposition, the kireji or “cutting word” and use of punctuation, or the need for a “season word.” All of these are elements that well versed haiku readers appreciate.

In my way of thinking, for the “pandemic haiku” none of this really matters. As often as we find those details of good form in a haiku, we are just as often struck by verses that do not follow the traditions or which play with them a bit. What matters is being in the moment. What matters is stretching our observational muscles. What matters is finding a moment, just a single moment, to be grateful for. What matters is finding our creativity again.  And during this time, working simply with seventeen syllables or less, maybe we will find that we can.

social distancing

     waking quietly alone

wind in treetops

B.A. France is a poet and writer living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed whose poetry has appeared in Akitsu Quarterly and cattails.

Julia Peterkin Summer Literary Contest Opens June 1


Two $500 Awards

South 85 Journal, Converse College MFA program’s online literary journal, is adding poetry to it’s annual Julia Peterkin summer literary contest.

As in past years, the contest honors South Carolinian author Julia Peterkin, an1896 graduate of Converse College whose novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, received the Pulitzer in 1929.

The journal will accept submissions for the Julia Peterkin Literary Award for both Flash Fiction and Poetry from June 1 through August 1. Winners will be announced during the month of October. One winner in each genre will receive a cash prize of $500 and four runners-up in each genre will also be named and published alongside the winning selection in the Fall / Winter issue of South 85 Journal. Only the winners will receive a cash award.

South 85 Journal editors will review submissions and forward them to the presiding judges. Converse College MFA faculty member Marlin Barton will make the final selections for the Flash Fiction award and Converse College MFA faculty member Denise Duhamel will make the final selection for the Poetry award. All submissions will be read blind.

For the flash fiction award, submit your previously unpublished fiction of 850 words or less.

For the poetry award, submit up to three previously unpublished poems of 50 lines or fewer.

South 85 Journal is especially interested in work that demonstrates a strong voice and/or a sense of place, but the editors consider all quality writing.

For more information or to submit, visit the contest page on Submittable at

South 85 Journal is a semi-annual online literary journal run by the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program.  We publish fiction, non-fiction, poetry, reviews, and art by new, emerging, and well-established writers and artists. Visit our website at

South 85 Journal General Submission Period Open

South 85 Journal is currently accepting submissions of Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Poetry until April 15, 2020 and would love to see your work. Take a look at our past issues for a sense of what we like. Guidelines are as follows:

• Manuscripts should be sent as an attachment through our Submittable page.
Fiction submissions should be between 2000 and 5000 words. Please include the word count in an upper corner of the first page. For fiction that is under 850, please consider submitting during our yearly Julia Peterkin flash fiction contest.
Non-fiction submissions should be no longer than 6000 words. Please include the word count in your email.
Poetry submissions should contain no more than 4 poems up to 8 total pages, one poem per page.
• Please send only one submission per category (Poetry, Fiction, and Non-Fiction) during each reading period.  You are welcome to submit to multiple categories.
• We will publish flash fiction, short stories, and novel excerpts, provided they can stand on their own. We do not publish genre fiction or children’s stories.We encourage you to read archives of South 85 Journal and acquaint yourself with the material we publish before submitting your work.
• Type should be no smaller than 12-pt. font. Please use standard fonts such as Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica or Goudy, and refrain from script or “flowery” lettering.
• Submissions should be saved in Word or Rich Text format.
• Number pages consecutively, double space, and use margins of at least one inch.
• Place your name, email address, and word count in an upper corner of the first page.
• We accept simultaneous submissions. If it is accepted elsewhere, please withdraw your work via Submittable.
Please include a professional bio of 50 words or fewer written in the third person with your cover letter. 

South 85 Journal does not publish work which has been previously published either in print or online. Our reply time is typically six to eight weeks.

We acquire exclusive first-time Internet rights only. All other rights revert to the author at publication, but we offer formal, written reassignments upon request. Works are also archived online. We are unable to pay for submissions. We ask that whenever an author reprints the work that first appeared in our pages, South 85 Journal be given acknowledgment for the specific work(s) involved.

South 85 Journal at AWP

After much discussion and hand wringing, we have decided to cancel our reading at AWP.
Several contributors have written to say they will not be attending AWP amid concerns related to the coronavirus and while the health risk is difficult to truly gauge, we would really hate to be the cause for quarantine or illness. We plan to organize a reading in Kansas City next year and invite you all to join us then.
If you still plan to attend AWP, stop by the Converse College table (T1932) for some great swag (cell phone pockets) and see our list of scheduled book-signings.
Thank you for your patience and understanding. Hope to see you in 2021.

Welcome to the Fall / Winter 2019 Issue

I am pleased to announce that, as of December 15th, the Fall / Winter Issue of South 85 Journal has been live. Here’s what you’ll find in this issue:

Julia Peterkin Flash Fiction Contest Results

Regular Features

We are pleased to present work by the following writers:

December Book Reviews

Our book reviewers take a look a recently published books in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry:

Upcoming Submission Opportunities

Our next general submission period is from February 1 to April 15, 2020 for the fall / winter 2020 issue. We charge a $3.00 fee to help defray the cost of operating a literary journal, though all submissions are FREE for the first week of the submission period. For more information, check out our full submission guidelines.

The Julia Peterkin Flash Fiction Contest for 2020 will be open June 1 to August 1, 2020.

About Us

South 85 Journal is published by the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary! Thank you to our staff of volunteers who put countless hours into making this issue happen.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together!