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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, September 19, 2003

Haiku profile Haiku profile (September 19, 2003)

From this dark, clay soil, from seeds not even watered, Sunrise of poppies...
Joy L. Shieman, Los Altos Hills

Haikus are half a poem, according to Joy Shieman.

"That's what makes it intriguing. If you have seven listeners and one haiku, there should be seven different endings."

The longtime Los Altos Hills resident pioneered the West Coast poetry therapy movement and has been writing poems since her schoolgirl days in Canada.

Known locally as the "Haiku Lady," Shieman has worked with psychiatric patients, Peninsula students, at-risk kids and San Quentin inmates throughout her poetry career.

She first honed her haiku skills in the '60s as an active member of the "Los Altos Round Table Writers." Under the guidance of writing teacher Helen Syles Chenoweth, the group flourished for 20 years and produced the first haiku anthology outside Japan, entitled "Borrowed Water."

"Unbeknownst to us she (Chenoweth) bundled our work off to Tokyo and we got this thrilling answer," Shieman said.

The anthology sold more than 1.5 million copies and was distributed in five countries.

Shieman, always a believer in the power of poetry, started reading to mental-health and psychiatric patients at El Camino Hospital in the late '60s.

"I began to ask myself what did I read and what is their problem and I began matching them. Pretty soon I had a collection. It's 'thera-poetic,'" Shieman said.

Today, there are 2,000 to 3,000 poetry therapists on the West Coast, according to Shieman.

She has also spread her love for haiku through local classrooms and to adults.

"But still the children -- the third graders -- are much quicker at grasping the idea because they are really part of nature themselves," she said.

Shieman, who continues her work today, wouldn't divulge her age except to say, "I certainly have snow on the roof. (But) you don't have to feel old if you keep working with poetry and young people."

-Grace Rauh

My prince of picnics, your afternoon feasts and trysts ravish me with love.
Valerie Ross, Palo Alto

Valerie Ross is attracted to the mystery of haikus.

"Much of the meaning is elusive. We are meant to think as much what isn't said, as what is," she said.

Ross may be a newcomer to sharing her poetry with the public, but the 38-year-old regularly writes haikus, sonnets, limericks and songs for the "prince of picnics" -- her boyfriend.

Ross teaches in Stanford University's Introduction to Humanities program, and is the associate director of humanities at Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and her essays and reviews have been published in alternative weeklies and online.

"I think there should be poetry on every public structure in the world," Ross said. "I think that would infinitely humanize society. Poetry that celebrates life, nature and love -- we need as much of that as possible in the world."

-Grace Rauh

In my next number I show life's turns and levels- Behold my stair walk!
Palmer Pinney, Palo Alto

On the first Friday of every month, Palmer Pinney can be found at the Waverly Writers poetry gathering, which takes place at the Friends Meeting House in Palo Alto.

"It's poetry and it's not criticism," 68-year-old Pinney said of the meeting's focus.

Writers share poetry at the open meetings, and the group does not adhere to one type of poetry or another, he said.

Pinney may be passionate about poetry, but doesn't write poems regularly. He has studied haiku poetry and read several books on the craft.

"I was thinking of somebody in the parking garage getting in their car and going out," he said of his haiku. "It was meant to work in that particular space."

Pinney has lived in Palo Alto since the 1970s and recently retired from a career in high-tech marketing. His poetry has been published in "Fresh Hot Bread," a compilation of poetry by the Waverly Writers group.

-Grace Rauh

I have parked the car And am walking to meet you. A smile moves my lips.
Verna Spinrad, Palo Alto

Verna Spinrad's motivation for entering the haiku competition: "It seemed like an opportunity to be published in cement," she said.

The 70-year-old is an avid writer who has been published on paper, but never on the side of a parking structure.

"This is just another indication that Palo Alto has soul," Spinrad said of the poetry project.

A New York City native, Spinrad has a master's degree in American history from Columbia University and taught junior high school before moving to Palo Alto 25 years ago. She has taken memoir-writing classes at Foothill College and meets twice a month with her women's memoir-writing group.

Spinrad is also an Emily Dickenson fan.

"She is marvelous with her simplicity and sparseness of language and to me that sounds like haiku."

Spinrad finds poetic inspiration from her 7-year-old granddaughter and writing group. Her haiku sought to capture the delight at meeting a friend for their regular coffee date.

"It just popped into my head," Spinrad said.

"I think in writing you have to take what's given. I don't know how the giving occurs, but it just does. And you have to take what comes to you."

-Grace Rauh


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