Once you begin your haiku journey, sooner or later you will experience déjà-ku. What is déjà-ku? Michael Dylan Welch, who coined the term, has this to say on his website, Graceguts, in an article entitled “An Introduction to Déjà-ku”:
“[Déjà-ku are] haiku that bear some relationship to other poems. These relationships are good in some cases, such as parody, homage, allusion, and sharing the same topic or season word, and not good in other cases, such as plagiarism, cryptomnesia (remembering someone else’s poem without realizing that one is remembering rather than creating it), and simply being too similar or insufficiently fresh or original.”
Whether you wonder if a poem that you have written is original or if you think someone may have copied your work, experiencing déjà-ku can be unsettling. I want to assure you that it is very common for haiku poets. As Michael goes on to say:
“We should all relax. Haiku is such a narrow field of poetry that we should expect to repeat each other from time to time. No one owns experience, and we are surely likely to have similar experiences and use similar words to write about them. So long as we write from genuine and heartfelt experience (though this is not the only way to write haiku—and remember that one can write from memory, or make up certain details for the sake of creating literature, as Bashō and Buson repeatedly did), our poems will at the very least be well-intended, and hopefully speak to something real and authentic in human life.”
So, what do you do when you suspect déjà-ku – of the negative variety – has happened to you?
This problem is, of course, easier to deal with if you suspect that you may be the culprit. If you realize that you might have inadvertently copied all or a portion of your poem from someone else, withdraw the work from consideration for publication until you have a chance to explore the issue. I always find it embarrassing to have to withdraw my work in this way, but I have done it. I have only had one editor balk at the withdrawal. Most editors are understanding that this can happen.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if your haiku seems overly familiar.
- Does this piece feel like a repetition because it’s a theme I’ve worked with before?
- Or does the piece simply feel like it’s always existed? (The best haiku often do!)
- Does the entire poem seem familiar or just an individual line?
- Do the words sound the way I would usually phrase them?
- Have I searched for key words or phrases online along with the search term “haiku” to see if someone else’s poem pops up?
- Does that poem read like mine?
Here’s an example of a negative déjà-ku experience where I was the culprit. It started with this haiku:
rain mixed with snow—
my son’s voice
I believed in this poem, sent it off to a contest, and then harbored deep doubts about it. The haiku was based on a genuine experience, why did it feel like I had copied it?
Finally, it hit me. I had read the first line before (in slightly different form), in this lovely and haunting poem by Paul David Mena:
snow mixes with rain—
my mother keeps calling me
by my brother’s name
I immediately wrote the contest coordinator to withdraw my poem from consideration. Was this necessary? Maybe not. But once I’d made that connection, I didn’t feel right about publishing the poem as it was. The first line, L1, wasn’t mine. I knew I had lifted it – inadvertently – from Paul David Mena. But then I was left with a poem I no longer felt was my own. Could I salvage it?
L2 and L3, I felt were mine, grounded in a real experience. So I thought about that first line. What was I trying to convey? Rain mixed with snow isn’t the way I would normally phrase things. I went back to the original experience: It was winter, around the time of the first snow, when I noticed that my son’s voice was beginning to deepen. The change in his voice was subtle, but inevitable. That snow in my poem wasn’t going to shift back to rain. I realized what I actually had was a changeover – the rain in my poem would mix with more and more sleet as time progressed.
Here is the published version of my haiku:
a touch of sleet—
my son’s voice
Rattle 49, Fall 2015
Editing the poem in this way made it stronger as well as making it “mine.” The first line is no longer heavy (so fitting for the topic of Mena’s poem) but gentle and gradual. The repetition of “ee” in deepens is now echoed in “sleet.” I am happy that I made this change.
On the flip side, it can be very unsettling when it appears that someone has plagiarized your poem. If you write haiku long enough, eventually you will see something in print or online that reminds you of your work. I offer this next story as a note of caution.
One of my poems – with what I thought of as a truly unique topic – won a contest. And, as luck would have it, a different poem with the same topic won a contest just a few months later. I was livid! I was incensed! I was certain that this other poet had stolen from me. Thankfully, I only shared these thoughts with a couple of friends in the haiku community. It is out of character for me to do more, but in this case, I was mad enough that I asked a third party to intervene.
Michael Dylan Welch facilitates a blog called Deja-ku Diary, so I wrote to him, explained my situation, and asked him to render a verdict on this other poem as compared with mine. I remember that I was mad at the time when he pointed out that two poems with the same topic don’t even necessarily qualify as déjà-ku, much less plagiarism. (This viewpoint follows US copyright law – you can’t copyright an idea.)
In retrospect, I am extremely happy that Michael didn’t think my “conflict” was even worth writing a blog post about because – as it turns out – I wound up emailing the poet that I thought stole from me. This individual was unbelievably gracious (you know who you are – thank you!) and I am grateful for their understanding even now, years later as I type this. Turns out, they had written their poem a year or more before I had written mine and they sent me screenshots of the poem in workshop to prove it. If my theory of déjà-ku had been correct, I would have been the one in the wrong. I was unbelievably embarrassed (again!) but so terribly thankful that I hadn’t gone public with my unfounded concerns.
Why do I bring this up now? Learn from my mistakes! I am very cautious these days about even suspecting that someone has plagiarized poetry of mine. Yes, I might take note if something looks really, really similar, but I start with the assumption that they haven’t copied from me.
My best advice to avoid déjà-ku of the negative variety is to be very careful not to plagiarize anyone else, and if you suspect that your fellow poets may have copied from you, give them the benefit of the doubt. Long story short, if you write haiku poetry long enough, déjà-ku will happen to you.
Have you experienced déjà-ku? Let me know in the comments!
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My thanks to Susan Burch, Robin Anna Smith, and Terri L. French for their helpful input on an earlier draft of this article. Any remaining errors are mine.