Preparing the cup of coffee that leads off my day—one of just two cups, the second only half-decaf—has become a ritual. I observe each step of making it as if someone else’s hands were spooning the honey into the bottom of the white mug with a blue crab on it, placing the paper K-cup into the Keurig machine, pressing first the green heat button, then the blue one for cup size. Thankfully, I can still hear the thin stream of water trickling into the cup, clearly see the cream swirl into the dark contents as I tilt my wrist to pour it, and savor the hearty flavor of my first sip. Sometimes this is enough. I don’t really want food most mornings. Meals have become too routine during these repetitive days—especially breakfast. Will it be eggs and gluten-free toast, or eggs on gluten-free toast? Should I butter the toast or not? Do I want to bother with oatmeal? Cold cereal gets soggy. Pancakes—well, that’s more work, although I do enjoy adding a cup of frozen blueberries and stirring the batter to indigo. remember all the hungry children, Nana said—forcing bite after bite When my late husband and I visited my mother in her mid-eighties, each morning we would join her in the kitchen and ask how she was. As she padded around in robe and slippers, squeezing fresh orange juice and making the required Wheatena for my dad, her answer was always the same: As good as can be expected. I remind myself of that as I embrace my morning. Write about what you know, they tell us. But some of these mornings I know less and less, and this is one of them. I take my coffee, move to sit by the window, and sip by sip contemplate the dawning sky, waiting . . . . stuffing my freezer—what is it I am hoarding?
What is the significance of this work to you?
Both these haibun were written as part of a series of pandemic-time poems, a practice of writing almost daily that I began last spring, hoping to offer moments of calm amidst all the chaos on social media these days. "Today's Menu" reflects my focus on being in the moment. I also capture my occasional discouraged mood early in the quarantine time, and then try to cheer myself up. At the end, I remind myself of my mother's sage observation: we are as good as can be expected, considering the circumstances.
"About Loss" reflects my fascination with time. Loss is inevitable for us all, whether loss of the past, loss of loved ones, loss of things held dear. In this piece, I try to come to terms with that fact and affirm that it's all one, everything recycles. Also, toward the end I am more surreal than usual, grabbing a few of the multiple hands of my father's pocket watch. I like when that spontaneously happens. And as I just reread the piece, I wanted to change the repetition of the word 'persistent' before bulbs in the last sentence, to "perennial." Sometimes a piece is never quite finished with us.
What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?
I love writing haibun. Haibun is a kind of journey---a journey that can be geographical, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or a combination of any of those-—and the genre combines blocs of prose or prose-poem with haiku. The integrated haiku should not directly continue the narrative but amplify the mood or meaning, much like the ripples resulting from throwing a pebble in a pebble into a pond. The challenge is to find the best haiku to do that. A haibun can be a short as a paragraph with one haiku, or a narrative with several. Where to insert the haiku is the poet's choice.
What was your process for creating these pieces?
When I start to write I'm not sure whether the piece will be a free-verse poem or a haibun. But as I get into it, it soon becomes clear to me if the texture of the piece wants to be a haibun—perhaps because it is more narrative than lyric. And although not in these pieces, I have sometimes taken a free-verse poem that just isn't making it for me and tried recasting it as haibun, often finding that it can work better for that piece.
Penny Harter’s work has appeared in Persimmon Tree, Rattle, Tiferet, and many other journals, and her poem "In the Dark" was featured on Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column. Her more recent collections include A Prayer the Body Makes (2020); The Resonance Around Us (2013); One Bowl ( 2012); and Recycling Starlight (2010). A featured reader at the 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival, she has won three fellowships from from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, as well as awards from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Mary Carolyn Davies Award from the Poetry Society of America, the first William O. Douglas Nature Writing Award for her work in American Nature Writing, 2002, and two fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). For more info, please visit: pennyharterpoet.com