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Thanks to C.J. Prince and John Green of Haiku Koma Kulshan, I was invited to give a talk about American Sentences on Saturday, October 9, 2021 via Zoom to their Haiku group. I was given some topics to cover and I wrote up a presentation which I will paste in below and link via pdf here.

History of AS

I first came upon the form in Allen Ginsberg’s book Cosmopolitan Greetings in which there are 18 examples at the end of the book. I interviewed him when he toured with this book, got a wonderful inscription and did not ask him on that occasion about this form. (One of my great interviewing regrets!)

I DID get a chance to rectify that somewhat by asking his Naropa Institute comrades Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling about it in an interview four years later and they said:

I started writing one a day in 2001 in preparation for that workshop, but I had to do the fund drive at KPLU and did not attend! I did start a practice which has not stopped and it allowed for some nice moments to be capture those first few weeks:

1.02.01 – Alternating oil massage, we decide against greasing up the cat.

2.03.01 – 12 vehicle crash northbound I-5 caused by slick roads & a rainbow.

2.06.01 – In right-wing Senator’s office, framed picture of the Enola Gay.

2.09.01 – One small spat & you reconstruct front room into bedroom-in-exile.

That last one was rather prophetic, as that relationship ended later that year and several sentences were dedicated to chronicling its decay. Also in those first couple of months the notion of Found Sentences made its appearance in my practice:

4.18.01 – Best bumper sticker this month, seen on Volvo: Midwives Help People Out.

Also chronicling life events as in:

6.01.01 – My last view of John Napier, steam rising from the cremation vault.

And more relationship decay:

7.18.01 – “No time for THAT” she says releasing semi-erect morning penis.

Editing Process

While the notions about the magical nature of 17 syllables was prime in my mind the first few years of my practice, as evidenced by those Sentences mentioned, at a certain point the rhythm gets stuck in your head and you don’t worry if something is a solid poem and is 16 or 18 syllables. You never use conjunctions or other filler words simply to fill up the syllable count. That said, you can often strengthen the poem by being more specific in your description of the moment. Use of adjectives, like in other forms of poetry, should be applied with care because if the adjective does not give life, it kills. There is no in between. Adverbs should be avoided in American Sentences, but I believe that’s the case in all poetry.

The poems are usually edited in the moment, but also when being harvested, often at the end of the year or when a new publication looms. As always we try to avoid rhetoric, earn abstractions, present something original and ideally reflect, disclose or unearth something of one’s own personal mythology.

Differences between Haiku and AS

As you are aware, among the traditions in haiku are the Kireji and the Kigo, the cutting word and the seasonal reference. Ginsberg was not interested in perpetuating these traditions, or he would have somply written haiku like Kerouac and McClure, though their haiku are more like senryu. I started my practice by using dates which often provide a seasonal context, such as:

1.05.09 – Would her Thanksgiving stuffing been this hard to flush had we eaten it?

6.20.10 – Seattle solstice: Chihuahua shivers in cold rain outside starbucks.

12.24.10 – She makes an ornament, he asks if she’s taken her thorazine.

10.20.11 – Seattle day: wondering if the solar-powered prayer wheel will turn.
I think the cutting word in American Sentences, if there is one, could be the last as above in starbucks, or Thorazine. It’s the last word that provides the context, or that reveals it. But all the above examples clearly engage the sensorium and the date on the Christmas Eve 2010 poem clearly marks the ornament as one that goes on the Christmas tree and that would not be clear without the date. Even the Thanksgiving stuffing is not flushed until being in the fridge, potential leftovers, for at least five weeks which is a comment on refrigerator hygiene.

Criteria for a strong AS

Like in other forms of poetry, you can apply Ezra Pound’s melopoeia, phanopoeia and logopoeia to determine a poem’s qualities. In the January 5, 2009 poem:

1.05.09 – Would her Thanksgiving stuffing been this hard to flush had we eaten it?

There is the assonance of “stuffing” and “flush” which helps give the last word of the poem a double kick. There is the melopoeia of assonance and the logopoeia of the final act of this ritual ingredient gone wrong with the added comment about a partner’s (& now ex-wife’s) food storage and fridge hygiene practices. I won’t go into the imagery, but liking something she cooked to feces I think says a lot. In his essay “Creativity and the Fully Developed Bard” Ed Sanders goes over those qualities of poetry and adds a few:

One could study the metrics of the poem, but I do not have formal training in metrics and tend to use those rhythms which are part of my own genetics (Afro-Cuban) and my environment which includes many years as a Jazz radio DJ and many more years as a builder of Spotify playlists which are also an artform.

Works Cited:

Nelson, Paul E. American Sentences. Baltimore, Apprentice House, 2021

Sanders, Ed. “Creativity and the Fully Developed Bard.” Disembodied Poetics. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1994.