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Lake Onawa Retreats (1999–2017)

Lake Onawa, Maine, is the location of a cabin owned by haiku poet Paul MacNeil, where for almost 20 years poets gathered each summer, retreat-style, to discuss and write poetry. Specifically, from 1999 through 2017 members of the Route 9 / Upstate Dim Sum haiku group from Upstate New York gathered at the lakeside cabin to compose renku (collaborative linked poems). These Lake Onawa compositions were published in major journals, won prizes in renku contests, and generally contributed significantly to the development of renku in English.

Onawa is the name of a lake and surrounding community in Piscataquis County, Maine, about 60 miles northwest of Bangor. There is a small building on the lakeshore there that might be mistaken for a boathouse if it were not perched high up on the bank—this was the “camp” (as Maine residents call such a cabin by a “pond” in the woods) that had been purchased by the parents of Paul MacNeil many years ago. From childhood MacNeil loved the Maine Northwoods and spent as much time as he could in the woods and on the lake.

In 1999 MacNeil began inviting friends, especially fellow poets interested in haiku and renku, to join him for summer visits to the Lake Onawa cabin. Within a few years the regulars at Lake Onawa were Yu Chang (from 1999), John Stevenson (from 2000) and Hilary Tann (from 2002), all three members of the Route 9 Haiku Group (and its journal/anthology Upstate Dim Sum) in Upstate New York. Tom Clausen, who joined the Route 9 group in 2002, began attending the Lake Onawa retreats in 2013. These five poets then met for a long weekend every year at Onawa until MacNeil’s death in October 2019. ”José Ortega y Gassett once wrote, ‘Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.’ He could easily have said this about a group of haikai poets who gather year after year in a particular place to share common bonds—an abiding love of natural beauty and a craft that so compellingly conveys that beauty to others.”1

Apart from enjoying the glories of the natural landscape, the main occupation of the Onawa poets was writing renku. MacNeil, who had already earned a reputation as a sabaki (renku host and coordinator), prepared the scheme for the rotation of links in the renku. William Higginson’s Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac and Shinku Fukuda’s Introduction to World-linking Renku were always to hand as were recent publications from the wider haiku/renku communities. Paul MacNeil’s characteristically tongue-in-cheek title for the long weekend was “The Onawa Haiku and Renku Invitational and Moosebreath Ale Festival.”

Onawa renku won prizes in the Haiku Society of America’s Bernard Lionel Einbond Renku Competition for eight years, from 2000 to 2017, and others were published in top haiku and renku journals.

Partial list of renku composed at Lake Onawa, 1999–20172

RenkuAuthorsPrizes and publication data
“Names of Mountains,” nijūin (20-verse renku)John Stevenson, Paul MacNeil, and Yu Chang Bernard Lionel Einbond Renku Competition 2000, 2nd Prize (tie); Frogpond 24:2 (2001)
“New Coolness,” nijūinYu Chang, Paul MacNeil (sabaki), John Stevenson, Hilary TannBernard Lionel Einbond Renku Competition 2003, Grand Prize; Frogpond 27:2 (2004)
”Picking Our Way,” kasen (36-verse renku)John Stevenson, Yu Chang, Hilary Tann, and Paul MacNeilBernard Lionel Einbond Renku Competition 2004, 1st Honorable Mention
“Red Again”Yu Chang, Paul MacNeil, John Stevenson, Hilary TannMoonset 1:2 (2007)
“a glass of red,”
summer nijūin
John Stevenson, Yu Chang, Paul MacNeil, Hilary TannBernard Lionel Einbond Renku Competition 2008, 1st Honorable Mention; Frogpond 32:2 (2009)
summer nijūin
John Stevenson, Hilary Tann, Paul MacNeil, Yu ChangBernard Lionel Einbond Renku Competition 2009, Honorable Mention; Frogpond 33:2 (2010)
“Here’s Gratitude”
triparshva (22-verse renku)
John Stevenson (sabaki), Hilary Tann, Paul MacNeil, and Yu ChangJournal of Renga and Renku 1 (2011)
“Man Overboard: An Exquisite Corpse Renku,” jūnicho (12-verse renku)Yu Chang and John StevensonComposed on the return trip from Onawa in 2011; Frogpond 35:1 (2012)
”Down the Line,”
Tom Clausen, Yu Chang, John Stevenson, Hilary TannComposed at ”Onawa West” (aka the historic Marshall House in Schuylerville, N.Y.); Bernard Lionel Einbond Renku Competition 2013, Honorable Mention; contest results not published in Frogpond
”Warmth of the Rail,” summer kasenTom Clausen, Hilary Tann, John Stevenson, Paul MacNeil, Yu ChangBernard Lionel Einbond Renku Competition 2014, Grand Prize; Frogpond 37:3 (Autumn 2014)
“A Little Too Green,” summer nijūinJohn Stevenson, Tom Clausen, Hilary Tann, Yu ChangComposed at the Marshall House, August 10–15, 2015; Upstate Dim Sum 2015/II
”Glacial Boulder,” summer kasenPaul MacNeil, John Stevenson, Hilary Tann, Yu Chang, Tom ClausenBernard Lionel Einbond Renku Competition 2017, Grand Prize; Frogpond 40:2 (Spring/Summer 2017)

Guest poets at Onawa were invited to add comments and poems to the camp logbook. In 2009 Paul MacNeil assembled some of these writings inspired by Onawa and published them in a book, The Onawa Poems 1999–2008. A sampling of the haiku from that book:

back at camp
the mountain peak
still in my legs
Yu Chang, The Heron’s Nest 3:2 (February 2001), Editors’ Choice
mountain ginko
all the haiku
a little breathless
John Stevenson, The Heron’s Nest 3:10 (December 2001)
nearly home
the birches surround me
with early dusk
Ferris Gilli, Shaped by the Wind (2006)
split white birch
a beaver’s wake
reaches shore
paul m. (Paul Miller), The Heron’s Nest 10:4 (December 2008)
first cicada
one loon follows another
into a dive
Paul MacNeil, Wisteria 6 (July 2007)
last day of camp —
returning my wrist watch
to my wrist
Hilary Tann, Upstate Dim Sum 2003/I

The supplement to the text included an observation by Peggy Willis Lyles (May 2009) that summed up the Onawa experience: “Readers become guests as they encounter Onawa’s mountains, waters, birches, pines, moose, loons, beavers, chipmunks, black flies, and starry sky in appreciative and articulate company.”

The Onawa Poets, top: Yu Chang, Hilary Tann;
bottom: Paul MacNeil and John Stevenson, Tom Clausen
Photos courtesy of Tom Clausen

Sources / Further Reading

  • Fukuda, Masahisa (Shinku). Introduction to World-linking Renku: A Study of Expression in Renku Using Examples of International Renku from 1998. Translated by Fusako Matano. Kawasaki-shi, Kanagawa, Japan: March 2000.
  • HSA Bernard Lionel Einbond Renku Collection Awards, Haiku Society of America website: http://www.hsa-haiku.org/einbondawards/einbond.htm.
  • Higginson, William J. Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac. Tokyo, New York, and London: Kodansha International, 1996. Anthology of 1,000 poems from 50 countries, with commentary.
  • MacNeil, Paul W., ed. The Onawa Poems, 1999–2008. Monson, Maine: Ship Pond Press, 2009. Haiku by Yu Chang, Ferris Gilli, Gary Hotham, Kirsty Karkow, Paul MacNeil, Paul David Mena, paul m., John Stevenson, Hilary Tann, and Paul Watsky.

Route 9 Haiku Group

Paul MacNeil

Author: Hilary Tann


  1. Christopher Herold, Supplement to The Onawa Poems 1999–2008. []
  2. Authors’ names appear in the order as listed in the published version. []
Updated on December 26, 2023