Fightin’ Words 

Who will topple Raven Mack, champion and founder of Hand-to-Hand Haiku?

click to enlarge art22_words_hand_to_hand_haiku.jpg

Scott Elmquist

Seventeen little syllables, that's all a haiku is — an economy of words suggesting a thought or feeling, without divulging all. In many cases, a haiku can be expressed in one breath. It's the kind of thing anyone can write — but not necessarily well.

For big, burly country boy Raven Mack, a prodigious self-published writer and creator of the Hand-to-Hand Haiku competition, writing haikus began seven years ago as a way to keep his writing muscles toned while doing "shitty jobs like house painting."

"I could pull a pen and paper out of my pocket, write it down and stuff it back," he says. "Haikus help unwind the tangle of your brain."

Caucasus mountain
goat sufi mystic mongrel
mangling man's language

The birth of Mack's public haiku events can be traced to his 40th birthday party, when he instructed each guest to write and bring a haiku. The evening went so well that he started doing haiku competitions at Bon, a coffee shop in Charlottesville, where they're still held the second Thursday of the month and attract crowds so large that people sit on the floor.

Then it was on to Richmond. After a brief stint at Studio 23, Hand-to-Hand Haiku has landed at Balliceaux on the fourth Wednesday of each month. The evening begins with Mack sharing a story of some sort to get everyone comfortable and to demonstrate that no topic is too trivial, too risqué, too personal.

"My goal is to make up a story to tell and I don't repeat my stories," he says of his role. "It can be an easy meditation on things or an active meditation. I'm rechanneling energy in more creative ways."

One month, his monologue is about having been to several funerals at junkyards, where, he says, the classic rock anthem "Free Bird" was played with no irony.

From there, Mack becomes "holder of the space," a role he takes seriously, standing between the haiku contestants to keep score while they face off. All it takes to participate is bringing enough haikus to stay viable. He recommends having at least 20 so contestants can ebb and flow with their competitors. It isn't uncommon to see contestants scanning index cards or notebooks trying to select just the right haiku to top the last one read.

After each person reads one haiku, a three judges vote on the winner, and the round continues until someone's accumulated the predetermined number to win. After multiple rounds, a final winner is determined, claiming haiku high honors.

Then it's on to the death match where one brave haiku writer takes on Mack himself, who leaves the topic to his challenger. One month it's Lamb of God bassist John Campbell, and the two ebb and flow with haikus about manliness and beards.

I got my eyes trained
on the color of your beard.
You see no fear here.

Fear or not, Campbell loses to the master, but only after a devastatingly funny poetic exchange between the two. "I like the battle aspect of it," Mack says. "People play off each other."

He refers to the evening as a potluck supper that's made all the better for the more people who attend. Anyone can sign up the night of the event, a plus for commitment-wary. The evenings go as long as people are willing to stand up and share what they've written.

"I hope for different voices to come share their haikus," Mack says. "I don't want a bunch of college-age white kids doing this. I want a variety of experiences and voices. I want people to get pissed off and share."

That's an apt description of a haiku written by one of his recent death-match competitors, community activist Mo Karnage.

I don't want to fuck
a redneck boy. I want to
be a redneck boy.

"I dream of different kinds of writers and poets — street, academic, slam — coming together," Mack says. "It's kind of like a way for people to share."

He's insistent that no one must be a writer or poet to participate, and stands firm in his belief that everyone is a writer. "It's just that no one tells us we are," he says. S

Hand-to-Hand Haiku will be held at 8 p.m., May 28, and the fourth Wednesday of each month at Balliceaux, 203 N. Lombardy St. Information at


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