In the Doggerel House: Tonette Hartman turns poesy into profit. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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English performance poet John Cooper Clarke once said of the haiku, “To express oneself/in seventeen syllables/is very diffic.” Not just 17 random syllables, either: Under haiku law, two lines of five syllables must bookend a single line of seven syllables. With great respect for the difficty of the endeavor, the Washington City Paper is pleased to announce its First Annual Haiku Contest. Local haikuists Tonette Hartman, Jonny Goldstein, and Roosh Valizadeh were tasked with writing 5-7-5’s in five categories: Springtime, Meat, Cherry Blossoms, Franklin Roosevelt, and Haiku. For these three, the competition was its own reward ( City Paper didn’t shell out anything).

Contestant No. 1: Hartman, a 55-year-old Mount Pleasant resident, is a semiprofessional. Under the name “Haiku4You,” she charges $40 to $60 for a custom-made haiku; that’s $2.35 to $3.50 a syllable. So far, she’s sold around 30 of them. Like this one, commemorating a graduation: “Standing on a cliff,/Ponder the moment of choice:/Seize the wind and fly.” Why would someone call in an expert to scribble a few words? “The best way I can answer that question is to share with you a multisyllabic haiku I wrote in 2000,” says Hartman. The poem, detailing her journey of haiku self-education, ends: “I no longer sing./Instead, my voice resonates/When I write Haikus.” Hartman’s publishing credits include a Washington Post “Autobiography as Haiku” nonhaiku.

Contestant No. 2: Goldstein, age 40, describes himself in haiku form thusly: “mussed hair untucked/plays blues harp eyes squinched tight tight/wailing pain joy life.” With the first line weighing in at a thin four syllables, the poem isn’t a technical haiku; as you will see, the syllable count is not Goldstein’s strong suit. When he’s not balancing phonetic units, Goldstein works as producer of new media for the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and hosts an Internet talk show called “Jonny’s Par-tay.” Earlier this year, he launched “The Haiku Project,” an initiative for locals to write and record their own haiku via sound-blog platform Utterz. Over the course of February, he received 23 spoken haiku uploaded from mobile phones, adding a modern twist to the form’s emphasis on nature.

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Contestant No. 3: Silver Spring sex and dating blogger Valizadeh, 28, writes haiku bar reviews under the name “Haiku review guy” on Yelp.com. Valizadeh has composed 23 haiku since he began posting on the user-generated site in 2006. His Tabard Inn haiku presents a paranoid vision of olde-tyme Washington—“Time warp into past/Presidents hanging on wall/checking out my date”—while his Local 16 review accesses the primitive jockeying of a modern U Street—“I am white person/Do you like my popped collar?/Damn, he has one, too.” “I’ve been to lots of bars and clubs, but the bars that I’m going to now aren’t striking me,” says Valizadeh. “I have to be inspired to write a haiku. A place has to be really good or really bad.” For now, he’s found the bad: “I’ve popped into the Black Cat a couple times, and there are a lot of hipsters there, so I’m thinking about writing about that next.”

Our judge: David McAleavey, director of Creative Writing at the George Washington University and author of Huge Haiku, a book containing, as he explains, “17 sets of 17 poems, each with 17 lines, each with 17 syllables.” The tome contains 4,913 haiku for a total of 83,521 syllables. If McAleavey were charging at Hartman’s lowest rates, the book would be valued at $196,520. It lists at $20 on Amazon.com.

Springtime

Hartman: Beneath barren fields/Spring flowers await the sun,/and hope blooms within.

Goldstein: springtime birds twitter/flowers expose selves brazen/jackhammers puncture street.

Valizadeh: Tap your hemisphere/In april or october/The sun wants to play.

Verdict: Hartman’s poem satisfies the basic criteria, says McAleavey: “It is a poem about springtime. It is a haiku.” With six syllables in his final line, Goldstein’s doesn’t: “It is imperfect in terms of the syllable count,” notes McAleavey. Valizadeh wins this one for his “cosmic view”: “Who is this you?” asks McAleavey. “Where is it that it’s tapping a hemisphere?”

score: Valizadeh 1

Meat

Hartman: Carnivore lurking,/Ready to pounce on its prey/Double cheeseburger!

Goldstein: meat red on plastic/blood spatters pollock-moist/sticky cut-ting board.

Valizadeh: Tender juicy flesh/The hunger will not relent/I bite into her.

Verdict: Hartman’s haiku is “again, not an outrageously unusual insight,” says McAleavey. “But it’s sort of OK,” he tempers. This time, Goldstein is a syllable short. “He’s not as precise as the others,” McAleavey says, “but I’ll give him kudos for word choice.” Ultimately, “the differences aren’t huge for this one. I think maybe it was a difficult topic for these writers.”

score: Goldstein 1

Cherry Blossoms

Hartman: arching branches meet/delicate pink canopy/wistful memories…

Goldstein: cherry bloom pollen/gametes lewd spewn DNA/coats, clogs, your nostrils.

Valizadeh: The imported bloom/Adored by the local news/Flower in your hair.

Verdict: “Dot, dot, dot. It shouldn’t be there, should it?” says McAleavey of Hartman’s stray ellipsis—an interesting choice for a form celebrating brevity. He adds, “The difference between what’s ordinary and what’s in the poem isn’t very great, which may be a complicated way of saying something that’s not very nice.” Valizadeh, despite sucking up to the local media, “doesn’t seem very enthusiastic,” says McAleavey. Goldstein takes this one (and even gets the syllable count right!): “He’s got ‘gametes,’ for God’s sake.”

score: Goldstein 2

Franklin Roosevelt

Hartman: Intrepid leader,/Reassuring the nation—/New Deal restores faith.

Goldstein: Franklin Roosevelt/Cheated on Eleanor plenty/Do we care? Did she?

Valizadeh: A leader who cared/Rolling over in his grave/The symbol remains.

Verdict: Hartman’s haiku left McAleavey drowsy—“I almost went to sleep saying that, sorry”—while Valizadeh’s was a bit too ambitious for 17 sounds. “There’s not a lot of room for political treatment here,” admits McAleavey. Goldstein’s 18-syllable concoction takes it. “Nice use of the five-syllable name: Franklin Roosevelt,” says McAleavey.

score: Goldstein 3

Haiku

Hartman: An admonition:/Those who live in haiku huts/shouldn’t throw poems.

Goldstein: syllable bullets/three bursts: five, seven, five/aaiiiiiiii! duck! haiku.

Valizadeh: Less words, deeper thought/The dying art of impact/Five, seven, five, pure.

Verdict: This time, Hartman hits the Haiku haiku on the head: “That’s pretty funny. That’s kind of cute,” says McAleavey, before adding, “It’s OK.” Goldstein’s—which references the traditional syllable count while still not adhering to it—is a “bit obvious,” says McAleavey, while Valizadeh’s is a touch childish. “I always corrected my children when they said ‘less’ this way, when it ought to be ‘fewer,’” says McAleavey.

score: Hartman 1

Goldstein’s gametes win/Ovum, sperm

a haiku make/Dude still can’t count, though.

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