Seventeen syllables. Seventeen syllables to say whatever you want, to say as much, or as little, as you’d like.
Hell, you don’t even have to use all 17 syllables if you don’t need or want to, says poet and artist Raven Mack. That’s just the typical form of a Japanese haiku in the Western world: 17 syllables, divided 5-7-5, among three lines, no need to rhyme. And those who show up to participate in the Sovthern Gothic Fvtvrist Haikv Slam, which Mack hosts every other month at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, can approach the poetic form as they choose.
It’s not the kind of poetry reading where a poet stands behind a podium and reads a few selections to an audience of furrowed brows and nodding heads before taking a half-bashful bow to hushed applause. Sovthern Gothic Fvtvrist Haikv Slams can—and do—get raucous.
Mack asks participants to come prepared for friendly competition with 15-20 haiku. They sign up, then take the stage two at a time. A panel of three judges decides the winner, who advances. Sometimes, comedy wins. Other times, deep, reflective thought prevails.
And usually somewhere in the middle of the whole thing, someone delivers a haiku that rocks the entire room. A few lines that pull heavy sighs or roars of laughter, or that elicit table pounding or foot stomping or deep breathing. Mack encourages these audible reactions—he brings vuvuzelas.
After the slam round, there’s a life match (back in April, poet Veronica Haunani Fitzhugh requested it be changed from “death match”) between Mack and a pre-selected opponent. They go head-to-head in 19 judged rounds, sometimes built around a theme. On June 12, Mack takes on Louis “Waterloo” Hampton, an MC and one-half of legendary Charlottesville rap duo The Beetnix.
And finally, there’s a battle royale, in which anyone in the room can step to the stage to show their stuff in this single-elimination round. “Once you unlock the haiku flow, it just comes to you,” says Mack.
The Sovthern Gothic Fvtvrist Haikv Slams borrow from and build upon a form nurtured in the slam poetry scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s by poet Tazuo Yamaguchi, who hosted haiku slams at the annual National Poetry Slam. Mack’s reason for hosting his own series is simple: “It was something I wished existed, that didn’t exist” here, he says.
They’re also based around Mack’s personal philosophy of “Southern gothic futurism,” which comes in part from Rammellzee, the late New York City graffiti writer, hip-hop artist, sculptor, and thinker. According to an Arthur magazine story published after his death in 2010, Rammellzee was interested in the “symbolic value of letters,” and he often wrote in medieval manuscript-esque gothic script.
Mack adds the “Southern” part. “One thing I’ve loved about living in the South is the multicultural aspect that often gets overlooked,” he says. “The whole spirit of Southern Gothic Futurism is that the South is uniquely equipped, in terms of the people who are already here and together, to build whatever is next. A lot of times, people get hung up on, How do we rehab what we already have? I am more interested in building what’s next.”
Mack hopes that his slam stage can function as a microcosm of this richly multicultural place, a space where people from many backgrounds can come together, share their creative work, and have it appreciated, both by the audience and financially. (In order to start convincing people to reward what he calls “the weird little arts” with actual money and not promises of bullshit non-currency such as “exposure,” Mack has secured $100 sponsorships for each slam and pays the various winners for their efforts.)
“Our haiku slams,” says Mack, are about “everybody’s perspectives coming together.” He’s constantly posting event fliers around town and sending personal invites to the slams with the hope of getting new people in the room every time.
“Art has helped me overcome a lot of self-loathing and lack of self-confidence,” he says. “It’s fun when new people come in and all of a sudden, they love it and find this voice that maybe they didn’t express” before.
The April slam had about a dozen competitors, plus an audience, and Mack hopes to see a similar—or even better—turnout Wednesday night at the Tea Bazaar. It’s grown into a bit of a scene, he says, with people driving all the way from southwest Virginia to compete. He’s never sure who will show up, or if silly will top serious. But he’s sure of one thing: “Every time we do this,” he says, “somebody blows me away.”
Curious about haiku? Here are a few, all from Sovthern Gothic Fvtvrist Haikv Slam champs.
creep from their main street slabs
into our worn bones
—Veronica Haunani Fitzhugh
waiting for cow tongue
tacos, speaking wrong language –
gringo on Pantops
sniffing my armpits
I imagine a field of
bargain bin flowers