Haiku Hike: 20 'serenity' poems now displayed in Downtown Tucson

From more than 2,000 submissions, 20 haiku exploring the theme of “serenity” were chosen to be planted around Downtown Tucson this spring.

As part of the Haiku Hike literary competition, the poems have been printed on acrylic signs and placed in flower pots in the city center.

The haiku share the writers’ thoughts on elements ranging from nature to spirituality and everything in between.

“I think it was double the amount of last year,” said TC Tolbert, Tucson’s poet laureate, who helped oversee the competition. “But how could you even complain about reading wonderful three-line poems? It’s a wonderful job. I essentially had about a week to judge them.”

The urban hike is a collaboration between the Downtown Tucson Partnership and the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center. There were 2,069 haiku submitted this year. 

From that total, 1,385 poems were from Tucson residents. There were submissions from 29 states and 27 countries. The entries were judged by Tolbert and 20 haiku “rose to the top.”

“It’s so exciting that we received so many entries. It was a record number this year,” said DTP president and CEO Kathleen Eriksen. “It’s a testament to Tucson really becoming a world-class city.”

Eriksen said it is intentional that they’re printed on to acrylic signs. She said they make people stop and take a closer look to be able to read them while they’re walking along the hike.

“I hope people take in the beautiful flowers, the Downtown environment,” Eriksen said. “It’s a nice opportunity for people to take a break of their day, take a little walk, read them, find them — it almost resets you, like a meditation.”

Tolbert said the poems span the range of “human experience” as they explore grief and ease and other emotions within the context of serenity. During the time of judging the haiku, Tolbert was going through the experience of watching loved ones enter hospice care.

“Having these poems while going through this was kind of like having a buoy while I was in this ocean of feeling and grief,” Tolbert said.

Tolbert said serenity is “more complex” than the word suggests and he wanted to make sure he chose writings that represented many perspectives within the prompt.

“When I’m reading them, I want to see how the poems drove language into exciting forms of syntax and image. That’s how a poem would rise to the top,” Tolbert said. “I might be drawn to other parts of the haiku like the shift of perspective or the quickness. And we have the constraint of the 5-7-5 syllable count, which is good because it helps me keep on track.”

Tolbert said he shortened the stack of over 2,000 haiku into a stack of 100 before he began grouping them by theme, for example, death, cacti or hummingbirds. From there, Tolbert would continue reading and re-reading until the top 20 were left.

“It’s a really, really hard thing as a poet and a creative person because the top 20 I chose will not be the same top 20 to you or even the same top 20 I’d pick next week,” Tolbert said. “I’ve been writing and publishing for 20 years and I’ve experienced it from both sides. I’ve had judges write to me and say my manuscript was fantastic but won’t publish it so I have a complicated relationship with judging anything.”

The winning poems can be seen along Congress Street and Stone Avenue and can be read online as well. They will be displayed in planters for the whole spring.