by Timothy Green
Every year, the Wrightwood offers a unique publishing opportunity for poets around the world. Whole Life Soaps hosts an annual Soap Haiku contest, pressing one winning haiku on a custom line of all-natural handmade soaps. The winning haiku also appears online in Rattle magazine.
The contest is judged by Bill McConnell, the store’s owner. McConnell is also English Department Chair at Ontario High School and author of the novel Saving Xotchil, a thriller set in the Coachella Valley.
And he knows his haiku.
There’s a common myth in the U.S. that haiku is a matter of counting syllables (lines of 5, then 7, then 5), but that isn’t the case. Counting syllables doesn’t even make sense in Japanese poetry, which is a moraic language, metered by time rather than syllabics. Real haiku revolve around the process of “cutting”—known as kiru—where two competing ideas are juxtaposed, often to startling effect. The experience of reading haiku is like stepping into two different universes simultaneously. It’s a brief poem that pushes and pulls at the same time, providing a fleeting grasp of the ungraspable.
“I look for that elusiveness,” McConnell explains, “that contrast between joy and grief. When I started this contest, I made it a point to look for those layers of meaning. I also look for haiku that aren’t simply about my soap, but use soap to express an emotional contrast.”
Past winners have been excellent examples of this contrast. The 2017 soap haiku was written by Cheryl Heineman, a graduate of the MFA program at San Diego State University:
My dad held me up.
I smell him almost in the
soap you left behind.
The syllables may add up to 5-7-5, but the haiku’s power is drawn from the subtle shift in tense and subject. The first line is a memory of the past, but the last two exist in a different time and place altogether. It isn’t the soap “he” left behind, but the soap “you” left behind—not the father, but someone else, conjuring, for me, a here-not-here emotion similar to the experience of déjà vu.
Before a break for Covid, the 2020 winner was another great haiku, this one by Christina Tang-Bernas, which reminds us of the ways that the dead support the living in a never-ending cycle:
matter is never lost
I eat the fruit of the tree
you are buried beneath
These are finely crafted haiku that fit perfectly on the back of a bar of finely crafted soap. You might even say the Soap Haiku contest itself is an elusive juxtaposition. I wanted to learn more about how it came to be, so I went straight to the source.
Whole Life Soaps started out as a cottage industry in the McConnell kitchen in 2013. Bill and his wife, Laurie, started selling soaps at the local farmer’s market, and the business grew from there. Two years later, they moved into their current location at 6013 Park Drive in Wrightwood. As the business expanded, they worked to add a variety of products beyond soap, including lotions, lip balms, bath bombs, and products for men.
When I asked Bill how he got into soap-making, he gave the credit to his wife. “When we were first married and living in Ontario, she was always looking for ways to be more natural at home,” he told me. “At the same time, she wanted a hobby that we could do together, so she started making soap. She watched all these tutorials online and read a bunch of books and articles on the process. One day, a shipment of lye and coconut oil arrived on our doorstep. I was leery about working with it, but she just dived in. It was over a year before I started making soap, but I immediately fell in love with the process.”
“There’s an art to coloring and scenting,” he explained. “Really, I think anyone can make soap, but I think few people can make a soap that lasts a long time, smells good, feels good on the skin, and looks aesthetically pleasing.”
When the Wrightwood Literary Festival began in 2015, Bill wanted to participate and had the idea of stamping haiku into his soap. He figured it was the perfect poetic form for the task: “small, concise, and emotional.”
For the first two years, Whole Life Soaps published the winning poem on every bar that they made. As sales grew to around 700 pounds a month, it became difficult to keep hand-stamping poetry on that many bars of soap. So, more recently, the store is making a special line of soap for the winner that they’ll carry for six months. The winning poet will also receive a prize of $100 and a few complimentary samples.
Submissions to the Soap Haiku contest are free, but limited to one haiku per poet. They’re accepted online through a Google form or in-person at Bill’s shop during the 2022 Wrightwood Arts & Wine Festival on May 21st. This year’s theme is “Intolerance.”
More information, including full contest guidelines and the submission link, can be found on the Whole Life Soaps website—and while you’re there, you can also buy some soap to help support the project!