by Colin Stewart Jones
First published in Notes from the Gean 3:3, December 2011, pages 57 to 71 in a slightly shorter version. Written from October to December 2011.
Colin: Hi Michael, and welcome to the pages of Notes from the Gean. You have been interviewed quite a few times so I will endeavour not to go over previously covered ground. But I did notice from a previous interview that you quoted William Blake. I was recently reading Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience again and noticed these three lines from Blake’s poem “The Blossom”:
. . . Pretty Robin!
Under leaves so green,
A happy blossom
Would you regard this as a haiku, and if so, could you tell us why? And if not, could you tell us why not?
Michael: These lines appreciate nature and colour, which are clear haiku sensitivities, but no, I wouldn’t consider this a haiku. Aside from whether haiku was intended, I would say that “pretty” and “happy” demonstrate too much authorial intrusion. These words are a little too sappy for haiku, too, to my tastes. Even the word “so” speaks too much of the author. The right touch of subjectivity in contemporary English-language haiku can work well (one needs to control it, not avoid it entirely), but for the most part I think the author should get out of the way. Let the poem imply its meaning, not hit you over the noggin with it. Furthermore, the last line here may not be describing a blossom but interpreting the robin as if it were a blossom. The metaphor points at the author (“this is what I think of the image”) rather than letting a carefully chosen image or experience do its own talking. It’s the difference between the first and second parts of Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow” poem (even though it’s a poem I like very much). Explicit metaphors and similes succeed only rarely in haiku because they are detours to the image, or substitutes for it, and not the image itself. In attempting to be postmodern or post-whatever, some poets treat haiku as if it celebrates the poet. They’re welcome to do so. But for my money it seems vital for haiku to celebrate the experience, not the experiencer. Of course, such an assertion begs for its opposite—for some haiku poet out there to turn all Whitmanesque in celebrating himself, which I think we already see with some gendai haiku. However, haiku poems succeed best, I think, if they trust the image (read Robert Hass’s “Images” essay), and juxtapose images carefully to create implied emotion by what is left out. I like to refer to this space as the “vacuum” in haiku. In The Book of Tea, though not speaking of haiku, Kakuzo Okakura said “In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up to the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.” If a haiku does not create some sort of vacuum by what is left out, what is there to draw the reader in?
Kerouac, as you know, said haiku should be as simple as porridge. Blake was inclined to dish out a more elaborate banquet, but you can’t dine on filet mignon at every meal. One wonders, though, if Blake would have been attracted to haiku if he had known about it. It can be inspiring to find haiku-like nuggets in the full range of Western writing. I think of Ian Marshall’s retelling of Walden by extracting “haiku” from its richly descriptive nature passages, and the many examples of Western haiku sensitivities that R. H. Blyth cites in his books on haiku. Blake’s transcendental abstractions and extended metaphors may well have prevented him from writing haiku with any kind of consistency, though, despite how effective those techniques proved to be for his own stripe of poetry. But perhaps Blake would have surprised us, the way Richard Wright did with his haiku. If only more mainstream poets would surprise us!
Colin: I am Scottish, Michael, so I’d have to disagree that porridge is a simple dish (you’d be surprised what we can do with oatmeal), but your reply raises many interesting points which I hope to return to later. I have noticed that there is an increased incidence of English-language haiku being published that combine a natural image with a “thought” of the author, so I wonder, what is the right amount of subjectivity and how can a writer remain truly objective in any piece of writing if they make conscious decisions as to what remains unsaid, to provide the vacuum?
Michael: Kerouac didn’t say porridge is simple; rather, he said that haiku should be as simple as porridge, which is quite different. Feel free to take up the distinction with him! Actually, I take his point to be that haiku should be ordinary, commonplace, direct, unencumbered, daily, and immediate—as ordinary a staple as porridge is at breakfast, irrespective of how simple porridge might or might not be. If haiku makes the ordinary extraordinary, it presumably starts with the ordinary.
Yes, I too have smelled that recent uptick of haiku that combine an image with a “thought” of the author. In fact, it’s already become a bit of haiku cliché. Pick your image and then add “so much / still to say” or “all the words / we never said” or a hundred variations. At the recent Seabeck Haiku Getaway, where John Stevenson was our featured guest, he and I had a conversation about this very topic. When I mentioned to John how I was a bit weary of this sort of formula in haiku, he immediately concurred and said he was glad it wasn’t just him who felt that way. Still, the right touch of subjectivity can be wonderful in haiku, provided that at least some part of the poem offers a clear and objective sensory image. John himself is masterful at doing this, although I’d be hard-pressed to describe why his approach succeeds where other attempts don’t. Somehow he adds just the right subjective seasoning. Take a look at the following pair of poems by John, both from his most recent book, Live Again:
takes off his glasses . . .
cold for May
someone must be first
to turn away—
The first poem is all image, all objective description. But what implications! We can imagine all sorts of sobering diagnoses that would cause John’s doctor to remove his glasses. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the doctor is about to say something serious, but it does take a sensitive poet to stop there, to dwell in that weighty moment. But what really makes the poem fly is the unexpected shift in the third line. The unusual coldness for May tells us all we need to know about the seriousness of the diagnosis. Perhaps this third line is slightly subjective, requiring comparative knowledge on the poet’s part to know that this May is colder than usual, but it works perfectly well given the intensity of the image that precedes it.
In contrast, the second poem adds a deliberately stronger touch of subjectivity. The poet is thinking about an idea while viewing the moon. The poem is overtly self-conscious, even if only slightly. Yet still something is implied—the moon’s extreme beauty that makes it hard for anyone to turn away. That’s the trick, I think. Even when the poet uses subjectivity, the poem must still leave something unsaid, something that creates that vacuum in the poem to draw the reader in.
I already mentioned Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow” poem, but I might as well quote it so we can look more closely at its objective/subjective split. I recall Virginia Brady Young pointing out this aspect of the poem about twenty years ago.
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
The first half is essentially objective (except perhaps for “The way”), and the second half is subjective and intellectualized, offering explanation, rumination, conclusion. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but it does show the difference between the objective description that is highly prized in haiku and the subjective interpretation that is so common in mainstream Western poetry. But the subjective is very difficult to handle well in haiku. In my haiku workshops, I used to preach the gospel that haiku had to be objective. These days, though, I’ve been saying that objectivity and subjectivity are aspects to control in one’s haiku, not that one should eliminate subjectivity. Nevertheless, haiku beginners often have a hard time understanding the difference between objectivity and subjectivity in writing, not just in haiku. It clearly takes practice to understand, and experience to control.
In the context of Robert Frost’s poem, I can’t help but think of a Shiki poem, here in a translation by Stephen Addiss, from Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems (Shambhala, 2009):
On the mandarin duck’s wings
a dust of snow—
The word “such” is a touch of subjectivity, but just right, at least in this translation. But what makes that subjectivity succeed is the strength of the objective description that fills the bulk of the poem. That’s a priority worth remembering for all haiku, especially amid the growing influence of the gendai tradition—that we should balance any subjectivity with a preponderance of objective imagery, and avoid formula.
One additional thought is regarding this question of whether a writer can remain truly objective in any piece of writing. Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the choice of words used can be objective if the poet wishes, and has the experience to control his or her words as desired. But on the metalevel, perhaps all haiku are subjective, in that the poet chose to write about this rather than that. This subjectivity shouldn’t be confused with the reader’s subjective interpretation, where the reader brings his or her emotional context into play in the act of completing each poem. As Charles Olson famously said, “the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy discharge.” That energy, for haiku, centers on implied emotion, and it begins with the image. As I say in my workshops, don’t write about your feelings in haiku. Instead, write about what caused your feelings. That makes all the difference.
It has often been said that photographs are “objective,” but there again, which way is the camera pointing, and why? In haiku, choosing what to write about is where the voice of the poet, and what he or she thinks is worth writing about, begins to shine through. But in the poem itself, it’s still useful to learn to control the subjective and objective.
Colin: Going back to Frost’s “Dust of Snow” and the inferences we may take from it, may I ask, in what way has poetry changed the way you view the world; and do you think haiku, in particular, is capable of changing the heart of even the most cynical critic by elevating ordinary moments from day-to-day life into something special?
Michael: I definitely feel more in touch with nature and the seasons—noticing more seasonal phenomena now than I used to before I wrote haiku. I can celebrate them more now, whether in haiku or just in personal awareness. So I’m grateful to haiku for this improved discernment and mindfulness. Beyond that, sometimes I fear that the transcendent effect I get from reading some haiku has left me, or doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but I still value—and seek—that feeling of having the top of your head blow off, or feeling cracked open. Haiku can do that. It has also helped me learn the difference between observation and inference, as well as the value of objectivity and subjectivity in poetry, and how to tell the difference—and to know when to use and appreciate touches of subjectivity in haiku.
Haiku has also changed the way I view the world by helping me notice not only its many details more closely, seasonal and otherwise, like when the first plum blossoms appear, but to notice myself more closely—to notice how I feel in reaction to something. In other words, haiku has helped me be not only more aware but more self-aware. I hope this is true for others, too. Often the juxtaposition in haiku can arise by paying close attention to one’s feelings—not to report those feelings in haiku, but to celebrate or honour what caused those feelings. We already know how haiku helps people notice the world more closely, but the next step is also to notice yourself more closely. And to notice more closely how you and the world interact. I suppose for some people haiku makes them more environmental, and that’s a noble cause, but this poetry hasn’t turned me into a tree-hugger (I wish ski areas could expand and open more terrain for skiers and snowboarders to enjoy, for example, if done responsibly), but this poetry has turned me into more of a tree-lover. Not just trees, of course, but all of nature, and the human place as part of it.
Some while ago I wrote an essay titled “The Seed of Wonder: An Antidote to Haiku Inflation,” and I have to remind myself from time to time what it says, which is to cultivate a sense of wonder so that we can always see the world freshly, with a child’s eyes, as if to ask ourselves, what if the experience I’m having right now was not going to happen again for another hundred years? This seems to be a valuable life lesson, and it extends to relationships with friends and loved ones, not just to nature and possessions and experiences. If that’s a lesson learned, then I have haiku to thank for it.
But still, not everyone is wired for haiku, whether to read or write it, and it simply won’t change everyone’s world. I wish haiku weren’t as marginalized as it often is, but I think those of us who write haiku have two responsibilities in response to marginalization. First, to the extent that haiku poets themselves have put haiku into a ghetto (rather than believing that others, such as teachers or scholars or other poets have put us there), then it’s up to us to get ourselves out. We need to be more a part of the larger poetry scene, even if it’s a struggle. If what we’re offering isn’t of interest, we have to listen to that and know when to cut our losses, but I do think we can make haiku more attractive to a broader poetry audience, without compromise, whether by educating readers more deeply on what to expect or by showcasing higher-quality poems. Innovation for its own sake isn’t necessarily the answer (after all, as creative as experiments are, they often fail, or have limited value—or, as Jane Hirshfield has said, don’t just make it new, make it yours). But if we can reach for higher standards in our poetry—and our criticism of this poetry—haiku will be better off. When poet Dana Gioia (who later became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States, appointed by President Bush) was a guest speaker the 30th anniversary retreat that I organized for the Haiku Society of America, he said that haiku badly needed higher levels of criticism—not to be critical or dismissive, but to more deeply understand and analyze this art, and to share that deep understanding more broadly, more proudly, and more assertively. He made these remarks in 1998, and I still think it’s true. We need to get ourselves out of the haiku ghetto, and showcase our best haiku writers and their best poetry in non-haiku settings.
Second, even while seeking to improve the public’s understanding of haiku, I think we as a community also need to accept a certain degree of marginalization, and thus be content to till our field as best we can. I’m a nondrinker, so I have no personal experience with Alcoholics Anonymous, but when I was writing my “Haikuholics Anonymous” paper, I learned something that has always stuck with me. My understanding is that AA has a policy of avoiding proselytization, seeking instead to promote itself by attraction. The net benefit is that those who express their attraction by attending their meetings tend to be more deeply motivated to address their needs. Imagine if haiku societies had ten million dollars to blow on publicizing haiku. That would seem grand, but we’d probably end up selling our sizzle mostly to fly-by-nighters, people with a passing interest who respond to an advertising campaign rather than having a deeper, self-motivated interest in haiku poetry. Haiku Society of America or British Haiku Society membership numbers could increase ten-fold, but then those numbers would die back just as quickly. So there’s value in attraction rather than mindless promotion.
On the other hand, haiku suffers from deep public misunderstandings. The idea of calling anything in 5-7-5 syllables a haiku is rightly referred to as an urban myth, in English and many other languages. I think it would be worthwhile to correct those misunderstandings in a much more public way, but at some point we need to stop beating a drum and remember when to rely on the AA publicity model of attraction rather than proselytization. Fortunately, the current information on the Wikipedia article on haiku, among other changes, is actually having a positive and slowly transformative effect on the public understanding of haiku, but it still has a long way to go.
On the WomPo (women’s poetry) online discussion forum, I recall well-known formalist poet Annie Finch once saying that “Haiku poets are touchy.” I’ve referred to this before, and I think it’s something we need to know better about ourselves. We’re often insular and defensive about our art, and snippy about this definition or that, splitting hairs over details without realizing who they might matter to. To outside viewers, this behaviour is not exactly a display of maturity, let alone a come-hither overture. As Emerson said, “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” There’s infighting in all sorts of poetry, but I think haiku poets exude a particular brand of it that helps to keep haiku in a ghetto. Like I said, it’s haiku poets, not others, who have primarily put themselves—and this poetry—in a ghetto. The common misunderstandings of haiku are only part of the story.
I mention all of this because haiku images have a great power to them, and we should not underestimate them. The wider poetic audience is already attracted to haiku—both Japanese translations and English originals (as Bill Higginson has written, “haiku is mainstream”). In 2008, the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia, erected a haiku stone with all of the winners of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 Haiku Invitational awards that I cojudged. It’s wonderful to visit the stone in VanDusen Gardens in Vancouver and just eavesdrop on people commenting on the poems. Sure, you’ll hear the occasional question about 5-7-5, but most of the time that’s not an issue. People laugh or smile or nod their heads. They photograph poems they like the most. They say “I’ve seen that” or “That’s happened to me too.” They are clearly and immediately touched by the poems, even if (surely) many of them have never written a haiku in their lives. This is gratifying to see.
Indeed, the public and larger poetry community already likes haiku (however they perceive it), but it is often, I believe, less attracted by some aspects of the haiku community. Your question was whether haiku can change the heart of even the most cynical critic. Well, yes and no. The poetry can, no doubt about it. But there’s more to the equation. We need to do a better job of making ourselves as poets change the hearts of critics. As you say, by elevating ordinary moments from day-to-day life into something extraordinary, haiku does have that power. But sometimes the poets themselves—we as the haiku community—get in the way.
Colin: So taking what you have just said as a given, do you think the online haiku community, and I use the term community in the loosest possible sense, has helped or hindered the development of haiku?
Michael: I suspect that the only way to answer this question is to say both. The haiku community, in its broadest sense, would be anyone who writes haiku, or anyone who thinks they do, whether online or off. So some folks definitely have helped, as demonstrated by the informative definition of haiku on Wikipedia, and the increasing number of worthwhile haiku-related blogs and websites (I’ve recently tried to contribute my own, at www.graceguts.com). But of course others have hindered haiku’s development, as shown by the steady continuance of pseudo-haiku books from major publishers (and their editors who see them as money-makers, or what the public expects, regardless of literary value or correctness). Another significant change in recent years has been the growth of print-on-demand outfits like iUniverse, CreateSpace, and Lulu—and there are many more. These services have been used by excellent haiku poets to produce wonderful books, but they have also been used by an alarming number of people who are clueless about haiku with any kind of literary intention—even while they think they’re writing haiku. This is an elitist comment, obviously, but there’s every good reason to call a spade a spade. I do believe anyone interested in literary haiku isn’t going to be confused and think this pseudo-drivel is literary, but it’s the general public that will still get harmed, because a new influx of haiku-related books on eReaders such as Kindle and Nook, plus print-on-demand books, simply perpetuates the myths of haiku in English.
The good news, if haiku poets will get more thoroughly on board, is that they can use the same tools to send a different message. Recently Jane Hirshfield told me that her Kindle eBook, titled The Heart of Haiku, was the number-one bestselling “Kindle Single” in Amazon’s history (a Kindle Single is a less expensive and shorter sort of eBook, in this case an extended essay, in electronic form). There are even good haiku-related apps for the iPhone and iPad (I have a tanka-related app based on the translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu that Emiko Miyashita and I did for PIE Books in Tokyo in 2008, complete with photos, music, a game, and male and female voices reading each of the book’s one hundred poems). The Haiku Foundation has released a haiku app, too, although I haven’t seen it yet. The computer game, “Haiku Journey,” that I edited in 2006 for NStorm/Hot Lava Games (now MumboJumbo) also hopefully combats misunderstandings of haiku, with its database of 540 haiku by 45 poets used in gameplay, together with nearly a dozen screens of information about haiku and its history and aesthetics that gameplayers can read as they advance to different levels. Yet the pseudo-haiku apps and perhaps computer games are already out there too. People will do what they do, of course, so I’m sure we’ll continue to have a mix of literary and pseudo-haiku wherever we turn.
The phrase “the development of haiku” also begs the question—does it need developing? Well, yes and no. I’m sure a lot of folks who go a long way down a misguided path would love to know a better route. The rest won’t care, but perhaps we do have some responsibility to help those who do care. And there’s no use, if we can help it, in letting teachers and curriculum guides continue to misinform children and older students. For established poets, though, haiku doesn’t need developing. It speaks to them already, they know the books and journals and the haiku canon. They write to please themselves and fellow haiku writers, if not others. So for them, the question may be irrelevant. But for the general public, including English teachers and even most poetry teachers (sad to say), haiku information still needs improvement—vastly so. For haiku educators, this means publishing articles about haiku in mainstream teaching and poetry journals, and not confining themselves to the haiku ghetto. This means sharing haiku in other fresh ways or in new journals rather than just publishing them for ourselves.
Some people won’t listen, though. A couple of years ago I gave a haiku workshop where this became abundantly clear—even with someone who had paid well to attend my workshop and supposedly was interested in learning. When the subject of form came up, as it always does, I referred to 5-7-5 as an urban myth for haiku in English. One woman objected by saying that 5-7-5 was the most important part, the very thing that defines haiku, and here I was destroying it, so she thought. Not only that, she said she had been writing haiku, perfectly 5-7-5, nearly every day, for thirty-five years straight. She had gone so far down that path that the merest suggestion of another approach to consider was too much of an upheaval. Of course, 5-7-5 isn’t really the problem. The problem is that a 5-7-5 structure is typically all that many people know of haiku, as was the case here. What I was teaching about primarily objective sensory imagery, season words, and a two-part juxtapositional structure that implied feeling, well, all of that was too much of an upheaval. I don’t think I changed her mind, alas, but it’s for folks like her that we need to broadcast a more informed notion of haiku farther and wider than we have before. The earlier we can reach people in their lives, if they take any haiku path at all, the less likely that they’ll go down such a path. We shouldn’t keep the better path just to ourselves. The majority of people still won’t care (“the poor will always be with us,” as they say), but improved haiku education will be worthwhile for that minority that does care but simply hadn’t heard any better.
A key aspect of your question is whether the online haiku community has helped or hindered haiku. The democracy of the Internet has allowed haiku fiefdoms to arise online, and there are certain publications, blogs, or websites where the editors or writers confuse their own noise with whether anyone is really listening. Oh sure, they may get thousands of hits, but that isn’t the point. It’s too easy on the Internet for the blind to lead the blind. For the most part, the online haiku community is making good impacts. However, because so much of the Internet is unedited, or self-edited, and too often irresponsible or half-baked, the burden of filtering has shifted strongly from publishers onto readers, and those who read and research haiku online need to be extra vigilant in their assessment of what they read. The Internet has brought about a wonderful increase in interconnection among informed and enthusiastic poets, bringing many fine writers out of the woodwork. But it has also given a louder voice to misinformation as well, and seemingly more of it than ever before. We know that misinformation always existed, but now the Internet makes it so much easier for every Tom, Dick, and Harriet to parade his or her haiku and haiku theories much more publicly all over the world, no matter how misguided. Caveat emptor!
Lest we get too far away from the aesthetics and beauty of haiku, I’d like to quote the poem “Mindful” by Mary Oliver, from her book Why I Wake Early (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004). This, to me, is the mind—and mindfulness—of the haiku poet.
I see or I hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It is what I was born for—
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant—
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
Colin: May I ask, Michael, how you maintain your motivation and could you allow us a glimpse into your current projects and anything that you may have planned for the future?
Michael: I suppose motivation comes from ideas, at least for me. I’ve written about 2,000 neon buddha poems and selections of them deserve to be a book, I think, or maybe two or three. So that’s a project I’m thinking about. Some of the poems play with idioms or puns, and those could work well together. Others are more surreal or serious. Does it work better to separate or integrate such variety? I wrestle with that and other questions. I’m way overdue for a book of my haiku, too (I don’t consider most of my neon buddha poems to be haiku). I would really like to return to submitting my haiku and longer poems more regularly for publication (I’ve been on an extended lull for more than a year, mostly on account of directing the Haiku North America conference and more recently the annual Seabeck Haiku Getaway for the Haiku Northwest group). At least I’m managing to write a lot of poetry, perhaps more prolifically than ever, but I also need to spend time catching up with my notebooks.
Perhaps an explanation of my writing and publishing process is of interest. I carry a notebook with me most of the time, and jot a majority of my haiku into it (although my neon buddha poems have often been typed directly into the computer). I’ll dip into my current haiku notebook for special purposes before the notebook is finished, or to pick poems to share at the monthly Haiku Northwest meetings we have in the Seattle area, but usually I don’t try to publish anything from each notebook until the entire notebook is finished. At present, though, I’m several notebooks behind. Each notebook has between 400 and 500 haiku in it, and I’m at least seven notebooks behind. The largest one has at least 1,000 haiku in it, another 800, each poem unique, since I work out each haiku in my head extensively before I write it down. If the average is 500 poems per notebook, that’s at least 3,500 haiku, senryu, and tanka I need to sort through, not even counting my half-full current notebook. Sorting through them means to reread each poem, perhaps revising it, and deciding if I might want to publish it. Then it means writing it out on an index card, together with the date and location of composition (and any revisions). I like the index cards because they are easy to sort when sequencing them, or for the purposes of deciding which journals or contests I might submit them to. I’ve been using this index-card process since 1989, before I had a computer, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to put my finger on certain poems, despite having everything alphabetized in various index-card boxes. How much easier it would be to search a database electronically to find, for example, a poem on a particular theme or season. So that’s another project—to put all my thousands of published haiku and senryu and tanka into a database, not to mention other haiku that happen not to have been published yet. I might not bother including additional poems that I’ve tried to get published, without success, never mind many more that never made it out of my notebooks onto index cards.
I suppose it’s not only ideas that serve as motivation, but also opportunities. In addition to a few exciting projects that I won’t mention yet, I continue to give attention to the following poetry and writing activities, in no particular order:
1. National Haiku Writing Month, or NaHaiWriMo. I started this in October of 2010, and created a Facebook page and a website for it, derived from National Novel Writing Month (I finished my first novel for NaNoWriMo in November of 2010). I chose February as the month for NaHaiWriMo because I liked the idea of associating the shortest month with the world’s shortest genre of poetry. The Facebook page typically has more than 6,000 views, postings, and comments each week, which continues to amaze me (there are more than 650 active monthly users now). I provided daily writing prompts that first month, which helped to galvanize and focus the group, I think. Thanks to the writing prompts, a thriving community has emerged. When February ended, everyone liked the prompts so much that I’ve continued with the prompts ever since—so every month has turned out to be National Haiku Writing Month! And participants have come from every corner of the world, so it’s really International Haiku Writing Year. But InHaiWriYe is even more difficult to say, so I’ll continue to make each February the main focus. Until then, I’ve been arranging for a guest prompter each month, and the group has been fortunate to have the following people help out for the first year: Alan Summers, Melissa Allen, Cara Holman, Paul David Mena, Susan Delphine Delaney, Terri Hale French, Johnny Baranski, Pris Campbell, Carlos Colón, Stella Pierides, and Annie Juhl. You can visit the NaHaiWriMo website.
2. Facebook. I really think Facebook can revolutionize haiku, if it isn’t already doing so, certainly in the connections between haiku poets. The NaHaiWriMo page on Facebook has taught me that. People are also sharing their haiku on their own Facebook pages, and perhaps reaching more readers than they would with a small haiku journal, even though the poems quickly disappear from view. Same with Twitter, which has invited many millions of people into the compressed brevity of haiku. On my own Facebook page, I’ve also enjoyed posting hopefully witty haiku cartoons, called “The Simpsons Do Haiku,” with jokes or comments that I’ve written to go with cartoon images from the Simpsons TV show (considered fair use because it’s a parody). I’ve posted maybe eighty such cartoons, and have at least a hundred more to go, some of which focus on NaHaiWriMo, some on the neon buddha, but mostly just poke fun at haiku, the haiku community, and the haiku life—or me. This sort of sharing is bringing haiku poets together from around the world, which is remarkable. All the poems people shared on NaHaiWriMo, by the way, prompted a useful discussion on whether such poems would be considered published. Frogpond reconsidered its policy and no longer considers such postings to be published, even when posted to public Facebook forums with hundreds of members. This policy matches what Haijinx does, although certain other journals don’t agree. The fact is that the poems cycle out of view quickly enough each day that you can easily miss poems, and they’re not (yet?) searchable the way websites and blogs are, so they’re much more ephemeral than blog and website postings. Considering these poems as unpublished is a good change, I think. It’s equivalent to sharing one’s haiku in a haiku workshop at a library or a friend’s living room, so why not consider such work unpublished?
3. Graceguts. Speaking of cyberspace (does anyone use that term anymore?), I’ve really enjoyed working on my www.graceguts.com website, which is now just over two years old. The name is derived from an E. E. Cummings poem (for years I’ve been a contributing editor to Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society), and features selections of my published haiku, senryu, tanka, essays, reviews, reports, photographs, collaborations, sequences, haibun, haiga, interviews, and more. The Essays page, for example, currently has more than 100 essays, divided into such categories as “Learning Haiku” and “Studying Haiku” as well sections focusing on tanka, rengay, and book prefaces and introductions. I have many more essays and especially book reviews to add, some of which I will have to type up because I no longer have them in electronic form, or never did. The Rengay section of the site is, I believe, the largest single online repository of information about rengay (essays and worksheets) and sample rengay (for one, two, three, and six writers). My website also has some fun things like Digressions and Lagniappes, plus other content such as Poems by Others, Quotations (relating to haiku and longer poetry), and information about Press Here, my small press that has published at least one or two haiku books every year or two since 1989, including all of the Haiku North America conference anthologies. The entire site is an ongoing labour of love. I’ve been getting great feedback on it, and site visitors have steadily increased each year, which is gratifying.
4. Essays. My Graceguts website features many published essays, but I have at least as many more that remain unpublished, covering such topics as the relationship between humour and haiku, tensaku (haiku revision), favourite haiku commentaries, the common aesthetics of haiku and tea ceremony, E. E. Cummings, the varieties and lengths of haiku moments, punctuation in haiku, differences between Japanese and Western haiku culture and communities, teaching haiku, and déjà-ku (my term for haiku that bring to mind other haiku, ranging from parody and allusion to cryptomnesia and plagiarism). The longest of these various projects (mostly finished) is a memoir I’ve written about Jerry Kilbride, complete with numerous poems and reminiscences from many people who knew him. He was not only a wonderful poet and dear friend, but also amazingly skilled at connecting and inspiring people. In the year ahead, I deeply hope to push some of these projects out the door!
5. Haiku Northwest. I continue to be active with the Seattle-area haiku group. I manage the Haiku Northwest website, attend the monthly meetings, and direct the group’s annual Seabeck Haiku Getaway, which I started in 2008. The Seabeck retreat is a long weekend of haiku sharing, writing, and camaraderie, all very participatory, with a featured guest (before John Stevenson in 2011, we had Charles Trumbull, Penny Harter, and Emiko Miyashita). It takes a lot of work, and I’m very grateful that Tanya McDonald helps so much with it—it wouldn’t be possible without her (and she’s a wonderful haiku poet, too). Washington State has the highest per capita number of members in the Haiku Society of America of all of the society’s regions, so we’re fortunate to have so much haiku activity in this area, with six active groups in and around Seattle, plus a Japanese-language haiku group. The area is very haiku friendly, too (among mainstream poets and beyond). Must be something about our close proximity to mountains, forests, the ocean, and Native American influences—or maybe it’s the rain!
6. American Sentences. In addition to my neon buddha poems, which have given me a real burst of creativity, in recent years I’ve also found a new outlet in writing “American Sentences.” This is Allen Ginsberg’s name for a seventeen-syllable “sentence” as an Americanized variation of haiku. He wished to distinguish it from haiku, and ignored the haiku traditions of season word, cutting word, and sensory imagery, but did retain the here-and-now self-revelation that’s common to the genre—to the point of brutal honesty (some of Ginsberg’s American Sentences are surprisingly raw). My own use of the form has been more for humour than self-revelation, though. I usually record daft things my wife and kids have said over the last few years (my wife’s native language is Japanese, so that helps, and kids, of course, always say the darnedest things). They’re not all direct quotes (although some are), but slightly massaged to fit the form. Here are three examples, from my wife, my son, and my daughter, respectively:
7. American Haiku Archives. I continue to be involved with the American Haiku Archives advisory board, and am webmaster for the AHA website, working with Randy Brooks and Garry Gay. We appoint a new honourary curator each year, as we have done each year since the archive was founded in 1996 (Jerry Ball is the current curator, and Gary Snyder preceded him). We’ve had recent challenges dealing with duplicate books, funding, staffing, and cataloguing, but we are making headway.
8. Haiku Society of America. Duties as first vice president of the Haiku Society of America keep me busy too, at least in fits and starts. I believe the HSA, at least in North America, is the best thing going for anyone interested in haiku, especially for its journal and newsletter, and new initiatives such as its email Bulletin, Facebook page, website, and contests. I highly recommend that anyone who enjoys English-language haiku should join.
9. Haiku North America. Now that the 2011 Seattle HNA conference is in the history books, I can rest a little easier. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to direct these events, and it couldn’t have happened without the great team of volunteers we had in the Seattle area. As a director of the parent nonprofit organization that sponsors these conferences, I continue to be involved in the long-range planning of future conferences, and also have a task on my plate to finish writing a detailed guidebook on how to run these conferences, and to expand and maintain the HNA website. I’m really looking forward to the next HNA conference, which will be held in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 2013, directed by Deborah P Kolodji and Naia. They’ve got some great things up their sleeves—everyone should come!
10. Haiku Event Photos. Speaking of haiku events, something that I’ve really enjoyed in recent years is documenting haiku activities with lots of photos. Wish I’d started this habit sooner, but it’s much easier now with digital cameras than it used to be, especially sharing such pictures. I’ve assembled an extensive collection of haiku event photographs on Picasa, including Haiku North America events. Take a look at my Picasa gallery (I have about fifty different albums on the site). Events I’ve documented include special Haiku Northwest meetings, Gabriola haiku weekends in British Columbia, Haiku Society of America meetings, and more. People have repeatedly told me how much they enjoy these pictures, giving them a means to attend from afar, so I hope to keep doing this as much as I can, although it takes a lot of work to select and upload the photos and to write all the captions.
11. Photo-Haiga. Another photography-related distraction is that I’ve recently created a few hundred photo-haiga (known as shahai in Japanese), although I’ve hardly shared or published any of them so far. I’d like to do a lot more. I’m in great awe of folks like Ron Moss and Jim Swift and others who have created such wonderful photo-haiga. It’s one thing for haiku writers to use whatever amateur photos they take, but Ron and Jim begin with exemplary photographs, as does Ray Rasmussen. I’m not a painter or visual artist, so I don’t do traditional haiga, with proper calligraphy, but I’m drawn to the possibilities of photo-haiga. Most of mine have focused on blurred lights and neon buddha poems, most often with the photo coming first, but I’d like to explore less abstract photos and regular haiku in addition to my neon buddhas. I really need to clone myself.
12. Haiku Handouts. Once or twice a year I create a new trifold flyer as a handout to give out at haiku events. I’ve collected many of them on the Trifolds section of my website, where anyone can view or download them. They’re mostly haiku, but I’ve done a few on tanka, and one neon buddha collection. These are always a pleasure to give out at various poetry events. At my encouragement at early Haiku North America conferences, it has now become a tradition for more and more people to make these or similar handouts at prominent haiku events. It’s a great way to share your work without the commitment of putting together a book, and it’s nice to give them as gifts rather than charging anyone for copies.
13. Rengay. Anyone who knows me knows that I’ll write a rengay at the drop of a hat. They’re a great way to commemorate get-togethers with haiku friends, encapsulating the time and location of creation, and also a good way to get to know the writing process or aesthetics of another writer. I have many dozens of unpublished rengay that I’d like to get out into the world. The year 2012 is also the twentieth anniversary of the rengay form that Garry Gay started in 1992 (he and I wrote the very first one together), and I’m thinking that it would be wonderful to publish a rengay anthology to commemorate this milestone.
14. Local Poetry Readings. As if I weren’t busy enough, I’m also the curator for two monthly poetry reading series near where I live (in addition to my being a board member of the Washington Poets Association and editing its journal Cascade). One reading series is SoulFood Poetry Night, which features two prominent Seattle-area or visiting poets, plus an open-mic reading. The second is the Redmond Association of Spokenword (RASP), of which I’m a board member. There we feature a single poet or fiction writer, occasionally a nonfiction writer, plus an open mic. These readings routinely attract from 25 to 55 people each month, and since I don’t have time to go to enough poetry readings elsewhere (Seattle is particularly blessed with a hyperactive poetry scene), it’s nice to have great poets come closer to me. I’ve written an essay about the local poetry scene. These two reading series focus on longer poetry, but I do have an occasional haiku poet as well. It’s also a good place for me to read my longer poetry, which I write a lot of as well.
15. Translations. In the last few years, it’s been my pleasure to work with Emiko Miyashita on a number of different translation projects, including translating the Japanese winners into English from several recent Haiku International Association haiku contests. More substantial projects have included translations for four artbooks published by PIE Books in Tokyo, available on Amazon. Two of these books came out in 2011, the most recent being Furoshiki, presenting photographs, descriptions, and relevant poetry about ornate Japanese gift-wrapping cloths. Before that was a book titled Bonsai. For this artbook, our contribution was to provide translations of a dozen Bashō haiku, one for each month of the year, to introduce the twelve months used to arrange the bonsai photographs. Before that, we worked on translations of Noh drama summaries and associated poems for a book titled Noh, which came out in 2010—complete with wonderful photographs of Noh masks and costumes. The book I feel most attached to, though, is our translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, one of Japan’s most revered books, up there with The Tale of Genji and Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi. This book, which we titled 100 Poets: Passions of the Imperial Court in English (partly to differentiate it from numerous other translations), was published in 2008. It pairs stunning art photos with each of the one hundred waka we translated from the thirteenth-century anthology. As mentioned earlier, the entire book is also available as an iPhone app, with male and female voices reading each of the poems in Japanese, plus a game based on the poems. One wonderful surprise resulting from this book was that early in 2011 I received an email message from the United States Postal Service, asking to use one of the book’s translations on a U.S. postage stamp! The poem will appear on the back of the stamp, so I’m told, but it’s still a thrill. They’re printing 100,000,000 copies! I’m looking forward to seeing first-day covers, posters featuring the stamp, and other collateral materials—plus numerous copies of the stamps themselves. The poem they contracted with me and Emiko to use is about cherry blossoms, and it will appear on a lovely pair of first-class “forever” stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of the cherry trees in Washington, D.C. Here’s the poem and the stamp:
As you can see, lots of opportunities and motivations! The other day my son came home from his second-grade class with a little paper project where you flip three portions of a page to mix and match different parts of faces he had drawn. I immediately thought you could do the same with the three lines of a haiku, so I amused myself for an hour not only in figuring out the layout for such a creation, but the lines of several poems that would be suitable. After a bit of trial and error on the layout, and a few scissor-snips of the printed paper, I had my little creation. It has nine haiku, and you can flip parts of pages so each poem can have various combinations of first, second or third lines. The effect is interesting, and perhaps just a novelty (and not new, except perhaps in this short format), but it’s always interesting to try things out to see what works. Motivation for poetry activities comes from ideas like this, and I never know when an idea will seize me and I’ll stay up too late writing or tinkering (I think I’m constantly short on sleep!). I wish I were better at finishing projects than starting them. My day job keeps getting in the way! But activities like this, including mentoring numerous poets by email and in a private Facebook group, helps to sustain and inspire me. That’s motivation!
Colin: Thanks for allowing us a glimpse into what makes you tick, Michael. Just to let you know, Notes from the Gean also considers poems that have been uploaded to sharing networks and blogs as unpublished. I for one would dearly love to see more of your essays published—particularly your extensive work on déjà-ku. But in the interim, could you finish with the answer to a question you wished I had asked?
Michael: For some reason I can’t help but think of a poem from Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions. The last two lines are among my very favourite of Neruda’s poetry, here in William O’Daly’s translation (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2001):
Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?
Why do trees conceal
the splendor of their roots?
Who hears the regrets
of the thieving automobile?
Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?
Those last two lines seem very akin to the Japanese notion of sabi, a sort of sadness that is melancholy but accepting and even celebratory. Neruda’s words remind me of a favourite poem written by British Columbia poet Naomi Beth Wakan, which also speaks to that joyful sadness of writing haiku (from Segues, Toronto: Wolsak and Wynn, 2005):
How to Write a Haiku
Details confuse me,
so when I see a rose,
although I do not know
its pedigree, I write down “rose.”
And when I cut it,
I do not know whether
I should cut it on a slant
or straight, or under water twice,
so I write down “cut.”
And when I put it in a vase,
I do not know whether it is raku
or glaze, or, perhaps good plastic,
so I write down “vase.”
and when I see two red leaves
on the earth beside the rose bush,
I do not know from which tree
they have fallen
so I write down “red leaves.”
And as I set the vase
and the leaves on the table,
I write down
rose just cut
beside the vase
two red leaves
And although I do not know
the details of what I have just done,
the sadness of it all
cracks my heart open.
To return to Neruda’s poem, maybe I’ll try to answer those questions, the ones Neruda poses. It takes the heart of a poet to see the rose as both naked and fully dressed, to feel passionate about its beauty, and its thorns. It takes the muscles of a poet to know when to conceal one’s roots, or the strength behind one’s poetry, to know when to whisper rather than shout. And it takes the mind of the poet to think imaginatively of things as abstract as a thieving automobile, or what regrets an automobile might have. All of these belong in haiku, at the right times.
And is there anything in the world sadder than a train standing in the rain? Perhaps so. Perhaps what is sadder is when a person is able to write and share haiku but is unable to do so—or worse yet, chooses not to. We are better off when we share our haiku with one another. If any other haiku poets are like me, they ache every day, with every haiku they read, to have their hearts cracked open.