RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK. We are back to talk summer poetry with our regular contributor Kwame Alexander. And specifically, we're talking about the haiku, which is a snapshot in time - familiar, yet mysterious. Novelist Philip Pullman says if you want to write something perfect, write a haiku.
KWAME ALEXANDER: I couldn't agree more, Rachel. A haiku is simple. It's about being in that moment and observing it solely and wholly.
MARTIN: Is this something you have done before? I mean, do you write haiku?
ALEXANDER: Occasionally. I just wrote one for my daughter, who informed us that she wanted to go to sleep-away camp...
ALEXANDER: ...For two weeks by herself. So we dropped her off at camp last week. And they give you about 10 minutes to unpack, get the kids organized in their cabin, meet their mates.
ALEXANDER: And then they kick us out.
ALEXANDER: So we're on the verge of crying a river, and my kid is like, see you. And she's gone.
ALEXANDER: So I wrote this - she is the sun bringing delight to each day. Please, rain, don't come today.
MARTIN: That's lovely.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. It's simple.
MARTIN: Right. And it's about just this ephemeral thing...
ALEXANDER: That's it.
MARTIN: ...Right? - this moment. So this was our challenge to you guys. We asked you to write your own haiku connected to some kind of summertime memory. And Kwame, we got more than 4,000 entries.
ALEXANDER: That's a lot.
MARTIN: That's a lot. That is a lot. People were really into this. One listener even reminded us that a haiku can deviate from the 5-7-5 syllable count.
ALEXANDER: That's right. I spoke to my friend Leslea Newman. She's the author of a book called "Heather Has Two Mommies." She's a longtime student of haiku and East Asian poetry. And she says that many haiku translated from the Japanese do not have to adhere strictly to the syllable count in English. For example, a very well-known Japanese haiku, written by Basho, the most famous haiku master of all time, goes like this - old pond, frog jumps in, sound of the water.
MARTIN: And there are no rules about what a haiku can be about, are there?
ALEXANDER: Well, the one thing a haiku should have is some kind of concrete image in it. I mean, a haiku more than often refers to nature or the season or the weather. It should capture a present moment. It should express a feeling. And at the very end - that last line, Rachel - it should have an aha moment that surprises the reader.
MARTIN: OK. Let's bring the aha. You have read and listened to our listeners' haiku. By the way, I should just point out - I learned through this - haiku is singular and plural.
ALEXANDER: That's right.
MARTIN: You do not say haikus.
ALEXANDER: No, you don't.
MARTIN: They are haiku.
MARTIN: OK. The haiku - all right. So you did all this work for us.
ALEXANDER: I did. And I thought we'd listen to a few first, and then I'd share the MORNING EDITION summer haiku poetpourri (ph) - see what I did there...
MARTIN: I did. I did.
ALEXANDER: ...That I've compiled from all the submissions.
MARTIN: OK. Let's do it. Let's start off with one from South Carolina.
MICHAEL BURGESS: My name is Michael Burgess (ph). This is called "Bug Thumping." Smoky Mountains night, synchronous fireflies bling-bling to a silent beat.
MARTIN: I love that.
ALEXANDER: I especially love the bling-bling (laughter) - really contemporary.
MARTIN: Right, right. OK. You've got another one.
ALEXANDER: Now, this one really resonates with me 'cause I'm going to the beach this week. Yay for me.
MARTIN: Good for you.
ALEXANDER: It's from Jean Barker, who's in Chicago.
JEAN BARKER: Hot, sandy beaches - tender toes skip across the sands. Lapping waves await.
MARTIN: These people know how to write haiku.
ALEXANDER: We are good teachers - or coaches.
MARTIN: Oh, is that what we are?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, we're coaches.
MARTIN: Yeah, let's take credit. All right. We've got some more that we're going to read. You start.
ALEXANDER: And what I've done is I tried to combine them, compile them, mesh them, create this one long poem with a lot of different haiku.
MARTIN: All right. Let's do it.
ALEXANDER: Up early to walk along the murmuring brook where green leaves whisper. (Speaking Spanish). Bronzed moms lounge poolside. Children laugh, splash, jump, dive, shout, eat plastic-wrapped treats. Neighborhood hydrant sprinkling water in the air cools my child's warm skin. Finally - green grass for acrobats and laughter, somersaulting glee.
MARTIN: Fireflies dancing - newborn smiles of heart's delight. Oh, look. It's pure joy. Cotton candy smiles and merry-go-round horses in soft, sudden rain. The smell of hot earth permeates the wooded shores as mosquitoes binge. Never have I felt closer to insanity than covered in bugs.
ALEXANDER: Set a reading goal - library trips twice a week. How much can I read? Bare feet to the beach. We race, chasing wild roses to the cheering seas. Child of immigrants - ripe tomato, fresh basil, old flavors, new world.
MARTIN: Captain calls, fish on. Wrestle the rod, grab the neck - fresh salmon tonight. Anticipation - first dive into chilly sea - invigorating. I love the ocean. I like making sandcastles. I like jumping waves. Independence Day - I struggle to free myself from a wet swimsuit.
ALEXANDER: Cooked by leather seats, thick air like a wool sweater - night brings no relief. Iced tea on the porch - cicadas sing a sweet song, welcoming sunset. But, Mom, it's light out. Honey, it's time to sleep now. Daylight Savings sucks.
MARTIN: Late night adventures in the ocean, looking up, constantly dreaming. The sweetness of dates, Allah at your fingertips - Ramadan Kareem.
ALEXANDER: Too hot to cuddle, fan on high near my pillow, only touching toes. Embers are our light, lost in smoke dancing close. Warmth surrounds our heart.
MARTIN: Oh, I'm always amazed at what our listeners can produce and the creativity and the writing and the soul they put into these things.
ALEXANDER: I think those are all the things that we need right now in our lives that we always need. They help us to become more human.
MARTIN: Yeah, totally. So to find out who wrote these beautiful poems that we just read, you can go to npr.org. We've got all the authors there. This was a lovely way to kick off summer. Thank you so much for doing it with us.
ALEXANDER: I don't know about you, Rachel, but I'm really missing my childhood now...
ALEXANDER: ...And my kid a lot more.
MARTIN: Well, enjoy the beach.
MARTIN: Don't forget your mosquito spray. Can you write a haiku about mosquito spray next time?
ALEXANDER: (Laughter) Here's to all the custard and sweet tea that we can handle. Good times, Rachel.
MARTIN: Indeed. Kwame Alexander, the author of the new children's book "How To Read A Book," which is just in time for your summer reading.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIMES")
CHIC: (Singing) Good times, these are the good times. Leave your cares behind...