Storyteller Dorotea Mendoza explores the intersection between two very short story forms

What do flash fiction and haiku poetry have in common? And how do each of these forms approach story in their own unique ways? Recently, I attended a workshop on Haiku hosted by Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one of the faculty members, storyteller Dorotea Mendoza, leaped into these questions.

The two-day workshop, billed as a “big tent” approach to haiku, cast the net wide to include traditional haiku, structured 5-7-5 poems, as well as free form verse and even visual haiku. Into this mix, Mendoza brought her refreshing look at haiku poetry through the lens of flash fiction.

A gifted writing teacher, as well as a playwright and fiction writer herself, Mendoza’s favorite story form is flash fiction.  “My hope is for us to deepen our relationship with haiku, to feel an intimacy with the form, by looking at another form, like a mirror.”

I had not realized that flash fiction doesn’t have an agreed upon definition in the writing community. Mendoza explained: “Some people define it as less than a thousand words. Others say it is less than five hundred words. Still others define it as less than a hundred words.”

The intersection between the two forms is distinct. “Haiku is direct and so is flash,” Mendoza said. “You start right in the middle of what’s happening. No explanation. And the end is really not an ending.” Both are pointed at the specific and the universal at same time. And both, if done well, have “the leap”—a moment of insight or recognition for the reader that takes a beat to realize. “A spirit of surprise,” Mendoza called it.

Reading a haiku poem by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, Mendoza followed with a reading of her own flash fiction, a pairing that drew beautiful lines of connection and distinction at the same time.

The Issa poem she shared was this:

surrendering it

to the nesting birds

my hut

You can listen to Mendoza read her flash fiction piece, Caregiver, here:

If you’d like to learn more about Mendoza’s work, there are two great ways to do so: her own website and the website of a women’s writing group that she has been part of for eighteen years Sari-Sari Women of Color Arts Coup.

Noting that “writing is a communal practice,” Mendoza also demonstrates that writing can be an act of service. Sari-Sari is not just a writing circle, it is a grassroots non-profit organization with a mission: 

“The organization is run by a small group of us who are unpaid (by choice) volunteers. Donations go to fund honorariums to guest teachers and public offerings. Currently those offerings include: a monthly writing groups for BIPOC; events around Export Quality; a play about sex trafficking based on stories of mail-order brides from the Philippines; and work with women organizers and activists in the Philippines to document their experiences.”

Mendoza noted that Sari-Sari does not have big corporate donors or governmental funders to support the organization. Remaining true to the spirit of their work, the group relies on support from grassroots contributors. If you’d like to donate, you can do so HERE.

Also, if you’d like to watch the recordings of the entire Haiku workshop, you can register HERE. Other faculty included Roshi Joan Halifax, Kazuaki Tanahashi, Natalie Goldberg, Lorraine Padden, and Billy Collins. Upaya graciously offers almost all of its programs for free and depends on donations keep them that way.

Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.

Lucille Clifton