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A Hundred Gourds 1:4 September 2012
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Nick Virgilio (1928-1989): An American Haiku Master Revisited

Kathleen O’Toole

|Introduction |page 2 |page 3 | page 4 |page 5 |

Nick Virgilio: Lessons and Legacy

Nick’s enthusiasm for haiku was almost evangelistic. After the publication of his first book Selected Haiku (Burnt Lake Press, 2005), he began a series of appearances on National Public Radio in which he campaigned enthusiastically to spread the word about the joys and rewards of haiku. Nick’s surviving brother Tony asserts that Nick was a teacher at heart. It’s true that from his earliest days of writing it, he loved to take haiku into classrooms, do readings for various audiences, encourage young people to notice and appreciate the beauty of their surroundings, and teach the rudiments of haiku practice to aspiring poets of all ages.

On the radio and in front of audiences, he often tried out his latest experiments telescoping words and other types of compressed haiku:

blossomnipresence


spentagon
pentagon
repentagon

By the time of the publication of his critically acclaimed second Selected Haiku (Black Moss Press, 1988), he may have already been known as the foremost "promoter" of the haiku form. In the last year of his life especially, aware of his worsening coronary disease, his readings and interviews nearly always included urgent bits of wisdom about the meaning of life and impassioned advice not to miss an opportunity to write and share haiku. For example, at his last reading in December 1988, he urged his audience: "….grab those pre-puberty experiences because they're immediate, they're intense, they're real, when your senses were really sharp. And you have them in the psyche. So dig 'em out and present 'em."

It is fitting but tragic that Nick died on January 3, 1989 while taping a segment for Nightwatch with Charlie Rose, guest hosted that week by NPR's Scott Simon. He was buried at a gravesite not far from the tomb of another Camden poet, Walt Whitman, who also had to promote himself in order to create an audience for himself and his poetry.

Today, Nick's legacy is being perpetuated in many ways. The Nick Virgilio Haiku Association, which was formed in 1990, has worked tirelessly to preserve his artistic legacy and introduce young people to haiku. It administers the Haiku Society of America's annual "Nick Virgilio Memorial Haiku Contest" for middle and high school students, and offers workshops for children and adults in Camden. In addition, Nick's papers and manuscripts are being archived at Rutgers University in Camden, where a recent exhibition, "American Haiku Masters," featured many of his original typewritten manuscripts and other memorabilia. Plans to make his work available on-line for scholarship and critical evaluation are underway, too.

Twenty-three years after Nick's death, the release of the new Turtle Light Press volume is an invaluable contribution to the haiku literature. It will enable new and accomplished haiku poets to encounter Nick's classic and unpublished work, grapple with their own philosophy of haiku and encourage them to follow new paths in the creation of English language haiku.

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Photo courtesy of Monsignor Michael Doyle

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imageKathleen O’Toole is a poet and community organizer. Her creativity was nurtured in a family of actors in Wilmington Delaware, where her parents founded and ran a dinner-theatre, and her mother introduced her to poetry. Kathleen began to write seriously while living in Philadelphia in the 1980’s where her friendship with Nick Virgilio led to her first published poems, and her first attempts at writing haiku. In 1991 she received an MA from Johns Hopkins University, and has taught writing at Hopkins and at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her poems have appeared widely in magazines and journals.  A chapbook Practice was published in 2005, and her first full-length collection Meanwhile in 2011 from David Robert Books. Her haiku have appeared in Frogpond, Brussels Sprout, Modern Haiku and in several HSA members’ anthologies. She is a member of Towpath Haiku Poets, and co-edited the 2012 Towpath Anthology a few stars away. Her haiku chapbook Wing on Wing won honorable mention in the Turtle Light Press haiku chapbook contest in 2009.