A Deeper Look: The Haiku of Joanne Morcom
Joanne Morcom, an accomplished writer, is a social worker in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her numerous works including haiku, tanka, haibun, flash fiction and most recently, scifaiku have been enjoyed by many people over the years. Her training and field of work give her the ability to look deeper at things that may seem transparent to most. It is that insight into the human psyche which helps her to write such creative and imaginative pieces of work that appeal to a wide variety of readers. The main question that I wanted to explore was what influences her decision to choose certain subject matter in her work.
As a reader/writer of haiku, I enjoyed the range of Joanne’s subject matter and her ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. Her works encompass many themes including nature, the morbid, humor and humanity. Her versatility as a writer is the key to keeping her work from being monotonous and ordinary. On her website <http://www.joannemorcom.com>, she gives insight into how she believes that haiku are born. She states that, “Haiku should spring from what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch; in other words, what you actually experience rather than how you interpret or imagine the experience. Try to be aware of everything happening around you, and maintain a non-judgmental, humble and reverent attitude. Last but not least, don't forget your sense of humor!” That quote is a direct reflection of her personal attitude toward writing haiku.
After reading a collection of her works, including several different types side by side, it is evident that her works are more situational. She usually chooses to describe a snapshot of a particular moment in time. Her word choices, very casual, as well as the arrangement of those words seem, to draw the reader in.
I first became interested and was drawn to Joanne’s work after reading the haiku that was published in The Haiku Anthology. (van den Heuvel, 127)
the quiet bungalow
yellow crime scene tape
I enjoyed this haiku immediately due to its mysterious nature. I imagine a regular house with a white picket fence in a quiet neighborhood. It is a gray, overcast day and the only color seen is from the yellow crime scene tape. The silence in the neighborhood would denote the aftermath of a tragic event to the occupants of the house. I can hear the crime scene tape rustling in the wind. It leaves the reader to wonder what happened inside this house, a murder perhaps, and who it happened to. Unfortunately, this scene is one that has been played out quite a bit in recent news headlines; husbands murdering their whole family before killing themselves. This haiku leaves the reader feeling cold and empty, even though we do not know exactly what occurred. My love of crime, cops, detective and mysteries drew me to this haiku. She uses just the right words to set the scene, but lets the readers’ imagination take over and draw in the missing pieces, while still leaving an air of mystery.
It is not surprising to learn that Joanne is an avid reader of true crime and horror fiction. Due to her interest in such subject matter, some of her works tend to lean toward the morbid side. It is that aspect of her work that I find so appealing. One of my favorites by Joanne was published in her book, The Nameless Place and on the website, Tinywords, February 23, 2007.
a chalk outline
on the sidewalk
her last silueta
Reading this haiku made me want to know more. The image of a chalk outline on the sidewalk alone infers that someone is dead and a crime has just taken place. The information provided with this haiku said that the “silueta” refers to the artist, Ana Mendieta. I researched and found out that Ana was pushed 34 stories to her death by her husband in 1985. Mendieta developed a surrogate for her own presence in her works, which she called a “silueta.” That piece of information gave the haiku much more dimension and depth, more than just words on a page. She brings the crime aspect into the haiku, while at the same time, paying homage to this artist for her works and her short life. I love that Morcom captures the end of this woman’s life with such a beautiful, but yet tragic haiku.
The following tanka, published on the website Simply Haiku, Autumn 2006 issue, is another example which reflects her tendencies toward the bizarre and macabre.
church catacombs . . .
skulls arranged neatly
by the thousands
I accidently touch
a leg bone
I imagine a tourist who is intrigued by ancient buildings and bones, walking through the catacombs of a church looking at rows of skeletons, noticing how neatly they are arranged and admiring the preservation. The reader can almost smell the stale, dusty air and the bones. Thinking that these things have not been touched for years, brushing against one, they suddenly feel unclean and they are reminded that this was once a living being. It is different when one can view something as an observer only; it is another thing to make direct contact with it by brushing against it. It is as if the author knows they shouldn’t have done it. I love the subtle gruesome undertones of this tanka.
Joanne’s fascination with crime, forensics and horror seem to influence the subject matter she chooses and the style in which she writes it. She seems to enjoy the use of a sudden twist in the last line to change the meaning of and/or evoke a sense of shock in the reader, such as in the previous example of the quiet bungalow.
Humor is another of the themes in which she writes. Joanne has a wonderful way of taking an ordinary thing and injecting humor. Perhaps it is because of her comfort with people and complete honesty with herself and others that she is able to call things out for what they really are. The following example is from DailyHaiku, November 7, 2007.
wherever I am
park signs tell me
you are here
I like the simplistic and playful nature of this haiku. It is something that you really don’t think of when you are looking at a sign and see the words “you are here,” even though it is true, wherever you are, you are here. She really puts a face on the ordinary in a fun way with her word play. The reader can immediately put themselves into a scene that they have been in where they are looking at a sign that is labeled, you are here. I also like that this haiku has a sort of possessive nature in each line, using the words I, me and you. This haiku also has a timeless appeal, whereas it could occur anywhere and at anytime. I enjoy her haiku that have a touch of humor or edginess.
In quite a few of her haiku, she pokes fun at the aging process. One such example is the following. It was published in Frogpond 18:2 (summer 1995).
39th birthday . . .
eating peanut butter
from the jar
I love how she comes right out with age at first, like she is proclaiming to the world that she just turned 39. With age and another birthday comes the unwritten laws of maturity and adulthood. The haiku goes from being somewhat dignified to immature as she freely admits that she is eating from the peanut butter jar. Somewhat depressed about turning another year older and not celebrating it in any special way, she has lower herself to doing a childish thing. As a reader, you can actually picture her sitting on the kitchen counter spooning the thick substance by gobs into her mouth. I think the humor in this is ironic.
Another example of her humorous nature is inferred in the following haiku from DailyHaiku, Jan. 27, 2008.
the help wanted sign
I think that this haiku takes a general idea, a sign in a liquor store and injects an inference of some kind. It suggests that the not only is the sign tilted, but the employees are possibly drunk. It also suggests the affects that alcohol has on people that it makes them tipsy. I like that she takes an ordinary moment and turns it around with obscure meanings and instilled humor.
Joanne also stays with the traditional haiku form of writing about nature as well, incorporating it with her style of describing a moment in time. My favorite haiku that deals with nature is part of a kasen renga “after the thunder” written with Sister Mary Jane and published in Frogpond 18:1 (spring 1995), 31.
after the thunder . . .
This is a beautiful example of the simplicity of nature. I love the way that she uses the least amount of words possible to describe a moment after a storm. The ellipsis after the thunder gives the reader a moment of pause and silence before the crickets start their song. The use of then before crickets lets the reader know what they should start to hear the crickets.
Several of Joanne’s haiku could easily be compared to those of George Swede. They both use that raw human nature and their study of the human mind to their advantage in their writings. I compared the following haiku because of the direct similarity in wording and style.
cheap hotel room
the mirror’s crack gives me
Swede, Almost Unseen, 80
cheap hotel room
a single bare light bulb
is sticky with bugs
Morcom, Tidepool 8, 30
I thought this matched pair was especially interesting because they both have the same first line. Both of the haiku put the reader in a cheap hotel room. The room is probably dirty, carpet stained and the furniture old and worn. That phrase alone makes the reader think about the previous occupants of the room, as well as why the writer is in a cheap hotel room. They both use a description of a particular thing in the room that accentuates the cheapness, a cracked mirror and a single light bulb, as well as radiate loneliness. Swede chooses to place himself in the room, whereas Morcom is looking from the outside in as an observer, who may or may not have occupied the room herself. Both leave the reader wanting to know more about the room or how and why the person is there. Morcom’s haiku is much more descriptive because she doesn’t have that human aspect in it. I like Swede’s haiku in that you can picture an unhappy person looking into the cracked mirror and be involuntarily given a smile. I like Morcom’s better because she does have that exact description of the bulb and you can immediately picture that image. I loved the word choice of sticky when referring to bugs, probably to illustrate the sheer number of them on the bulb. I think Morcom’s is a little seedier, and I like that.
When comparing Morcom to various authors, I found a haiku very similar to the haiku mentioned above from her kasen renga “after the thunder,” from Frogpond 18:1, 31. This particular haiku was published in The Haiku Anthology.
Wiggin, THA, 275
after the thunder…
Morcom, Frogpond 18:1, 31
I find it interesting that the two authors use some of the same words, but in different orders. I think that the way Joanne uses the words is much more effective. Most people would associate cricket chirp after a storm and not before. In both haiku, the storm is merely a suggestion. Both authors also use the term then, one for the crickets and one for the thunder. They both are going for the same response from the reader, only Morcom’s is more effective at reaching that goal.
I couldn’t complete this essay without at least mentioning a scifaiku haibun that she has written which was published in Scifaikuest, November 2003 issue. Scifaiku is the outlet for topics that are too gruesome for haiku, but yet seem to attract many readers. Maybe this is her way of continuing to break the rules.
I don't want to be identified by my dental records. It means a bad end, maybe murder. Nothing left but bones and teeth.
only my car
in the parking lot
Do I need to say anymore? This is just an eerie and morbid piece of very interesting literature. I love the way the title flows into the paragraph, which flows into the haiku. The power of suggestion is all that is needed to lead readers to their own conclusion.
Joanne Morcom is a writer who takes it from one end of the scale to the other with everything in between. I believe she has found success because she writes for the “average Joe,” making her work easy to read, understand and enjoy. Her verses place the reader in that moment in time and take them wherever they want to go with some twists and turns along the way. Her subjects are universal and timeless making them more appealing to a wider audience. Reading her works, there were so many that I enjoyed and very few that I didn’t. Her website contains many quotes on the different pages. One in particular that I enjoyed was a quote from Basho, “Learn the rules, then break them.” I think that describes Morcom’s approach to writing as a whole, an eclectic mix of all things.
Throughout this process it became clear that a person’s essence, their emotions and interests, everything about them is what they carry with them when they chose to write. My question was already answered. For Joanne Morcom, I believe that all of her work is influenced to some degree by her subconscious knowledge of human relations and psyche, and her deep rooted interest in crime and horror. All of which manifest themselves into great pieces of work that continue to be enjoyed by many.
van den Heuvel, Cor. The Haiku Anthology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Swede, George. Almost Unseen, Decatur, IL: Brooks Books.
HYPERLINK <http://www.joannemorcom.com> Accessed periodically through the month of April 2009.
Tinywords, February 23, 2007
Simply Haiku, Autumn 2006 issue
DailyHaiku, November 7, 2007
Frogpond 18:2 (summer 1995)
Frogpond 18:1 (spring 1995), 31
DailyHaiku, Jan. 27, 2008
Scifaikuest, November 2003 issue