Route 9 Haiku Group is a small, exclusive local haiku group based in the Capital District of Upstate New York. It was founded in 2000 by Hilary Tann, Yu Chang, and John Stevenson and later joined by Tom Clausen, Ion Codrescu, and Mary Stevens. The group meets monthly, usually in the Tai Pan restaurant in Halfmoon, N.Y., which specializes in dim sum (Chinese dumplings) and which in turn suggested the name of the group’s biannual haiku journal, Upstate Dim Sum.
Route 9 Haiku Group was founded in 2000 by Hilary Tann, Yu Chang, and John Stevenson. Tom Clausen joined in 2002 and Mary Stevens in 2021. Ion Codrescu joined in 2006 although, living in Constanța, Romania, he is unable to attend local meetings. After an initial year devoted only to workshopping members’ haiku, in 2001 the group began publication of their biannual journal, Upstate Dim Sum. The New York state members meet on an approximately monthly basis, while Codrescu provides a haiga rendering of one poem by a guest poet in each issue and one original haiga featuring a poem of his own.
The four poets who meet monthly represent a combination of widely differing and remarkably similar backgrounds. Hilary Tann was born in Wales and retains deep roots there. Yu Chang was born in China and was a young adult when he moved from Taiwan to, first, the United Kingdom then to the United States. Tom Clausen was born in Ithaca, New York, and still lives in the house in which he grew up. John Stevenson was also born in Ithaca and, while he has lived his adult life in various parts of New York state, still considers himself an Ithacan. Three of the four are retired from academic careers: Tann and Chang were both professors at Union College in Schenectady, New York, while Clausen, was a librarian at Cornell University’s Mann Library. Chang and Stevenson met in 1998 and quickly agreed to the idea of forming a local haiku study group.
Naming the group after a highway was inspired by the group members’ unanimous admiration for the Spring Street Haiku Group of New York City. It also reflects the venue of their monthly meetings, the Tai Pan Restaurant in Halfmoon, New York, which is located on U.S. Route 9. Tai Pan serves the best dim sum in the area, so “upstate” in the name Upstate Dim Sum, like ”route” in “Route 9 Haiku Group,” was a nod and a friendly challenge to the quality of both the English-language haiku and the dim sum being served up in the City.
During its first year, the group began to select the best work from their monthly meetings and set it aside in a pool from which they might select work for publication. They settled upon the idea of publishing a biannual journal / members’ anthology in the spring and autumn, featuring a selection of their workshop poems, photography, and the work of an invited guest poet. The first featured guest was Tom Clausen. He and John Stevenson had been friends for about eight years by that time and had engaged in an intense correspondence about aspects of English-language haiku. Upstate Dim Sum has continued to feature haiku by poets whom the group most admires (a complete list appears in the Upstate Dim Sum article). Most guest poets live far from Upstate New York, and it is usually not possible for them to attend a monthly meeting. The exceptions have been William J. Higginson, who attended a 2006 session, Paul Miller (paul m.) in 2009, Scott Mason in 2016, and Michael Ketchek in 2018.
In addition to providing the inspiration for the group and publication names, Tai Pan Restaurant has played a significant role by providing the group with the same large, round table for five to six hours on a Saturday, once per month over nearly 20 years. They also display and occasionally sell copies of Upstate Dim Sum to their customers. In order to participate, Tom Clausen drives approximately 180 miles each way from Ithaca to Halfmoon. The group sometimes meets in Ithaca, to share some of this burden. There, the Taste of Thai restaurant also provides a congenial venue. The Route 9 Haiku Group modified its operations during the Covid pandemic period, holding on-line meetings in lieu of gatherings at restaurants.
Over 20 years, the core group has developed specific roles for each of its members. Tann is the “production manager” who deals with the printing and a variety of technical or logistical issues, Chang is the editor who selects and sequences poems for each issue of Upstate Dim Sum. Tom Clausen does promotional work, while John Stevenson handles subscriptions, mailings, and contact with guest poets.
An elaborate ritual for the presentation of new poems has developed within the core group. Each member brings 16 new poems to the monthly meetings, each written on four index cards. They take turns around the table, and when a poet is presenting a poem, it is proffered face-down to everyone. A moment of eye contact is followed by simultaneous turning of the cards and silent reading. After this, a period of discussion takes place. In the early years, these discussions could be lengthy because the participants were learning to appreciate, in depth, each poet’s views of English-language haiku. Recently, the commentary and discussion has become more efficient, based upon understandings previously derived and agreed upon.
The Route 9 Haiku Group differs significantly from other local English-language haiku groups in that it is a closed group. This was not necessarily intended at the beginning but came about as a result of the friendships developing in the early years. The group came together over strong perceptions and mutual commitment to haiku. While this remains an energizing focus, the personal friendships of its members have deepened to the point that they customarily vacation together in Maine each summer, where they function as a renku group (see Onawa Poems).
Having a group consisting of the same poets for an extended period has resulted in some unique features. One is the development and utilization of group-specific idioms. An example would be “protoku,” a promising but as yet unrealized portion of a haiku. The group members may also critique a new poem in a kind of shorthand. One could say, for instance, “That’s very Hilary of you,” no further elaboration required.
The four New York members of the Route 9 Haiku Group served as the organizing committee for the Haiku North America 2015 conference at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Ion Codrescu attended the conference and presented an extensive exhibition of his haiga.
Author: John Stevenson