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Field Notes: Where do your haiku begin?

Started by Peter Yovu, June 19, 2013, 01:09:53 AM

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Peter Yovu

In this, the first installment of Field Notes, a panel of writers has been asked to explore the question: Where do your haiku begin? As you will see in the symposium to follow, responses ranged from fairly short to quite long, from philosophical to practical to imaginative to personal, coming always from the hearts and minds of poets for whom haiku matters.

We would like to encourage you to add your voice to the mix.

Where do your haiku begin?

(Please note: to navigate between pages, please use the pages function at the top or bottom left of each page, rather than the previous/next function at right).

Peter Yovu

John Stevenson:

I believe that the origin of my haiku, and all of my poems, is a waking equivalent to the origin of my dreams. While everyone dreams, many people will say they don't do so simply because they have not trained themselves to be aware of it. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those of us who have taught ourselves to be lucid dreamers; not only remembering dreams but actually being conscious that we are dreaming while it is happening. My feeling is that all of us have the material of poetry flowing around and through us but most are no more aware of it than they are of their dreams. The people I have known who were most effective in the arts have been people that I would describe as "practical dreamers."

Peter Yovu

Martin Lucas:

I'm not certain I know what the question means, but it seems to me to be asking about creative process.

The humdrum answers to this question, in my own case, are (1) that it's difficult to generalize, as different haiku begin in different ways, in different places, and (2) insofar as there is any common tendency, I often simply latch on to some observed phenomenon that strikes me as having haiku potential, then look around for other images to support it, and having formed a kind of rough sketch, I work it over in my "mind's ear" until I settle on a precise form of words that appears to have some creative kick (and often that result is never achieved and the kernel of the idea is simply discarded).  One section of one of my chapbooks, Earthjazz, was entitled "mist and dusk and light" because I realized these three themes recurred with great regularity in my haiku – mist and dusk and light put me into a haiku mood and I find myself writing about them – at least until I reflect that I've maybe written about them often enough by now ...

But while I'm happy enough to discuss my own process, I think it's more interesting to reflect that everyone's process is different.  Some are prolific, turning out draft after draft; others write no more than one or two haiku every year.  Some people revise and revise; others never revise (I sometimes do, but rarely).  Some even revise after publication, which upsets me somewhat, as I sometimes appear to cherish the original version of their haiku more than the author does!  Some people work their ideas out on paper; others (I'm one) turn over the poem in the mind, and don't commit it to paper until it is fully-formed.  Some people advise homing in as closely as possible on the original experience and the feelings it evoked; others (I'm one) prefer to work with the words and allow the words to evoke their own feelings, even if this takes them some distance from the original inspiration.  Yet, paradoxically perhaps, I also find myself in the school that prefers haiku to relate (however tangentially) to actual lived experience; whereas others are happy to write at secondhand about the experience of others (as seen on TV?!) or conjure imaginary scenarios that lack any direct experiential basis.

Wearing my editor's rather than my writer's hat, I regard all these approaches as valid.  A haiku journal that reflects a variety of different approaches is (I believe) more interesting to the reader than one that steers down a narrow channel.  We judge a haiku according to its final form, not according to some impossible-to-know measure of the authenticity of its inspiration.  Even the writer might not know the beginnings of a haiku; so how can the reader?  And although we're all very fond of considering haiku in a competitive light – competing for an editor's approval, competing for space in journals and anthologies, competing in best-of-issue awards or for cash prizes in contests – fundamentally all this competitive stuff is a sideshow, and there's no need to judge a haiku at all.  Creativity is effulgent and limitless and free.  In a sense, it is a process that happens to us, it is not something we own.  So who knows where it comes from, or how it all began?

Peter Yovu

Billie Wilson:

From my earliest attempts at haiku in the 1960s, there was an almost mystical rearrangement of my DNA into a chronic haiku rhythm.  My relationship with the natural world became more focused—a laser-like awareness that was more addictive than any drug.  With that heightened awareness came the insatiable desire to learn more from other haiku poets.  I began to grasp the surprising knowledge that crafting an excellent, memorable haiku might be as challenging as learning calculus.  In the beginning, haiku were everywhere and they poured from my pen by the dozens daily.  I was totally in love with my world and it rewarded my passion with page after page of (pretty much unpublishable) little poems. Decades later, my haiku still begin there: in that young love affair that has begun to mature over the years of study and experience. The obsession has been tempered a tiny bit with discernment, so some haiku ideas never get noted; they are released back into nature like dandelion fluff. And those ideas that do make it onto paper often require much thought and tinkering before they feel whole.  Certainly I miss those first-love days when it was easy to think everything I wrote was wonderful.  But the new discipline has its own depth of quiet passion; sort of like the way one still smiles every time their now-aging lover enters the room.

Peter Yovu

Mark Harris:

We are asked where, not how, our haiku begin.

"The point at which the poem should really begin is often where, in some other intellection, it might have ended." –Paul Muldoon, interview in The Paris Review No. 169, Spring 2004

My haiku begin, I want to say, at the end of many other poems. They have a tail that stretches back a long way.

note to self: read outside your field of knowledge.

Places come to mind:  a parkland of grasses, silver maple and old irrigation ditches; an open book with a torn jacket and musty smell; the museum flanked by gardens where a teacher proposed we compose a poem; a living room with a shag carpet, mom reading aloud to my sister and me; my own body and mouth . . .

Can I place an instant of becoming? I'm reminded of the placeless places in the lexicon of Emily Dickinson, who begins a poem (Franklin #958) with these two lines:
Absent Place - an April Day -
Daffodils a'blow

Her poem emerges . . . where? Rooted and yet not fixed, whatever else that space encompasses—Eden, agony, love—creation resides therein. I want to say my haiku begin in love.

note to self: resist the view that haiku conveys mysteries other genres do not. How does it convey, how does it suit my voice?

[we head out into the field with our notebooks; upon returning, we share our findings; they are all different; i want to say my haiku grow from a tree that has many roots and branches.]

"To be modern is to be contemporary, of our own time; inevitably we must be so." –Jorge Luis Borges, from his 1969 prologue to Moon Across the Way.

[one of us claims she heard an ivory-billed woodpecker, and imitates its call; someone else believes he may have seen one; a third person suggests it was a related species and also beautiful.]

note to self: question anyone who tries to impose a singular vision on our cultural and poetic space.

I want to say my haiku begin with us. Our haiku emerge from us and everything we know.

Peter Yovu

Max Verhart:

Where do my haiku begin? That's the question – a question I can answer for at last thirty six of them: they began in the solitude (not loneliness) on a small boat in the old city of Ghent, Belgium, in late October 2012.
I spent 72 hours on that boat, with its eight square meters cabin, moored in the center of town. It was late autumn and cold and the circumstances on board were primitive. I had to live there without heating, without a phone, without radio or TV, without books, without internet, without electricity or running water, without anything to read – unless I wrote it myself first.
That was part of the idea: to write my own stuff. The bigger idea was to get rid of all kinds of obligations and daily routines, to be alone with yourself, to find out what new perspectives would open up that way – if any...
I did write my own stuff.
I sat or stood outdoors, on the tiny deck, if the weather allowed, notebook and pen in hand, looking around, jotting down observations and thoughts just as they came. Some notes took the shape of a haiku. Ands as time moved on – unmeasured, since I had decided not to wind the clock that was part of the meager outfit on board – I started to consider my notes as a haibun. Then it was given a title: To Be Where You Are. The title was taken from a small, loose paragraph. That paragraph reads thus (in translation, since the original is Dutch):

"What is very good possible under these circumstances is to be where you are.
But aren't you always where you are?
No, often you are not in the least where you are.
And once in a while I think that some people never are where they happen to be.
Right or wrong, that's what I sometimes think."

And here's another paragraph:

"One's attentiveness increases. You see details that do exist and may be noticed just as much as the impressive ancient meat hall, the historic house fronts and other sights to see. And look: since coming on board until this moment (...) I have written more haiku than in all of the preceding year.
That of course is a conclusion with regard to quantity. It does not say a damn thing about quality. But it certainly does say something."

What it says, of course, is where my haiku begin. At least where the thirty six came from that are an integral part of that five thousand word amalgam of rather loose bits that came to me on that boat.

gusts of wind
azalea petals
in the piss-pot

tolling bells
on a girl's back
a cello passes

my shadow and I
we are inseparable
as long as the sun shines

'everybody famous'
it said on streetcar
- and it was gone

stagnant clock
as far as time does exist
it doesn't

Peter Yovu

David G. Lanoue
They always begin with some sort of stimulus—a glimpse, a scent, a memory—about which I suddenly have a strong feeling that "There's a haiku in this." I'm curious to find out what I will say about this "this." When I take out pen and paper, or more recently, the iPhone, I'm trying to catch the momentum of an impulse to discover. The first image is always easy; it's the spark that ignited the curiosity. The second image or, perhaps, thought, will be the discovery which, if I'm lucky, will make the quick journey from part A to part B a haiku. For this step I rely on everything I know and have felt, my deep intuitions, my lifelong love affair with the English language, and, trusting in all this, nine out of ten times the second part comes even as I am writing it down—and I have a haiku. Whether or not it's a good haiku is a matter to be decided later, but for the time being I'm content to add it to the computer file titled "MyKu" that contains over 3,000 similar bursts of discovery, from 1983 to yesterday.
Here's an illustration of how it works. On August 31, 1998 I was having lunch at a little restaurant in New Orleans: Venezia on Carrollton Avenue. I noticed, across the room, an elderly Catholic priest who, like me, also sat alone. He was waiting for his lunch to come, sipping a glass of dark red wine. This off-duty priest drinking wine was the stimulus. I was curious to find out what the haiku (or senryu?) about him might end up saying. I quickly took out my hip-pocket pad and scribbled the words, "the old priest." I should mention here that I was an altar boy; my memory is filled with up-close images of priests drinking the transfigured blood of Jesus from sparkling chalices. I imagined that perhaps even this morning this priest across the room might have done the same, and so the pen kept moving, and I discovered . . .
     the old priest dines
     his wine
     just wine
(Modern Haiku 30.1 Winter-Spring 1999; The Thin Curve: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 1999.)

Peter Yovu

Michael Dylan Welch

Basho has said that haiku is what is happening at this place at this moment. I've always felt this was a misleading statement, because of course there's a lot more to it than that. It takes effort to craft the moment into a poem. So not everything happening here and now is really haiku. The process requires sensitivity and selection. For me, haiku most often begin with experience. By being sensitive to what I experience with my five senses, I try to transform selected experience into words. But they also require, I think, a sensitivity to my emotions. My reactions to images and experiences can give the building blocks of sensory experience a context. Sometimes I'll get a great two lines, and struggle to find a juxtaposition. But with patience I'll see what I need out the corner or my eye (visually or intellectually), and the poem will snap into place. From experience to words. For me, that's where haiku begin.

I've written at greater length on this topic in an essay titled "How Do You Write Haiku?" My emphasis is not on the world "how" but on "you." How do YOU write haiku? You can read the essay at We each have different ways of writing, and they're surely all valid paths. The most common ways I write haiku include direct experience, memory, imagination, pastiches, from reading, and by other processes, which my essay explores. A postscript adds that it can be effective to think of an idea and then generate poems to fit that idea, or to solve a puzzle or challenge.

A note on memory. While some writers enjoy writing from direct personal experience, they may forget that memory is part of that experience. It's not the recency of experience that matters, but the vibrancy. So a haiku of mine might be triggered by hearing a phrase, even at random, and letting myself recall something from memory to write a poem about that. On the National Haiku Writing Month page on Facebook (NaHaiWriMo), a daily writing prompt serves to provoke haiku in exactly this manner. Searching one's memories is no more manufactured than writing from immediate experience. And we can never write IN the moment, anyway. At best, we can write only FROM the moment. I believe, in this sense, that all haiku are moments of history (see "Haiku as History: The Ultimate Short Story" at I also appreciate the notion that haiku need not be limited to the so-called "haiku moment."

A note, too, on authenticity. Whether something "really" happened is not all that important to me, in both what I write and in what I read. It's inherently unprovable anyway. Instead, what matters to me is whether the poem feels authentic. The truth can feel false. And the false can feel true. I want the true to feel true, first of all, but I also welcome the false if it too can be made to feel true. Yet I also welcome the truth if it can be presented in a way that is clearly false (this is not just the realm of science-fiction haiku). These are all effective ways to write haiku. Yatsuka Ishihara is famous in haiku circles for saying to "tell the truth as if it were false." This is not just a license for hyperbole, but a reminder to present poetic truth. Ultimately, if the poem makes me care about the subject, then I know that I have read a good haiku. Whether it really happened is essentially beside the point. All I need to do is to believe it is true.

I've ended up talking about where haiku end up, haven't I? That's not irrelevant, though, because one's goal can inform one's process. Many people talk about the value of process in poetry, to the point of rejecting product, or claiming not to care about product. But I think one needs to strike a balance between both process and product, and to think of one's audience at an appropriate point, if one wishes to share or publish one's haiku. But where do haiku begin? Well, truth be told, they can begin anywhere. So maybe Basho was right after all.

Peter Yovu

Tom D'Evelyn:

I begin in/with the Fertile Void

The concept of "beginning" in the question, "Where do my haiku begin?" is a problematic one. (Which is no doubt why it was chosen to open the gates in this particular forum!). Even if you ask, "Where does this sentence begin?" you must follow the trail "back" and then "up" into the mind's capacity to question its own expressions. A question worthy of St Augustine.
My haiku begin with an increasing awareness of how everything I think is a reflection of change, of passing; but not simply as temporality. Every thing I "notice" is in passage, going somewhere. Where? From whence? Who knows?

This "double" aspect of thoughts — what now, and where to — is happily structured into the form of haiku, as I understand it. That is why my haiku in particular "return" to this origin as they take shape. The origin is the transcendent Other to this doubleness. As in Chinese classical poetry, the appearance of something as it passes on its way is "tzu-jan" or an "outbreak" from the fertile void. As a student of Chinese poetry, Basho configured his invention of haiku (I'm aware this may be a scholarly can of worms) in terms of tzu-jan, or original appearing and passing away.

So, now I can say, my haiku begin in this fertile void. How so? Of what state of mind does this "fertile void" partake? If we accept, for the moment, its reality, how do we participate in it?
This is the great cultural problem for haiku in our time. The ethos of modernity — the basic "metaphysical background" which governs our thinking about ourselves and everything else — is not hospitable to such a notion as "the fertile void." If anything, our modern fix is on the negative version: the nihilistic void. This has some convenience: it is easy to attach our American individualism to that nihilism. I am I. My work is I. My world is I. There is no radical Other to this I. There may be a Thou, but he/she/it is a projection of my faith, a fiction of my belief. This is comforting, in light of the nothingness.
But there is nothing and there is nothing. I believe this modern ethos cripples haiku because it blocks the fertile void — the no-thingness of the Nothing, but not literally nothing. Rather the nothing of ex nihilo: the creative nothing.

The nihilist nothing is deeply foundational to our sense of reality and of self. (There is a vast literature on "self" and it is worth mastering, at least some part of it!) I see lots of haiku that simply point to something: look there! We are glad to have that pointed out; we credit the poet for seeing something and pointing it out without a lot of fuss, without a lot of dialectical worrying, just a friendly gesture.
To me, this flatness of this model reduces the poetry and traduces the promise of the haiku form, which is to locate something AS a movement of things and consciousness out of, through, and away from my capacity to notice it. Tzu-jan! Appearance appearing of itself! (I believe that's how David Hinton translates it.) The wonder that there is any thing at all! Haiku "aha!" is deeply structural in the ethos of the fertile void.

When I wrote haiku regularly and published them in a weekly space, I would always "tune" my mind by reading classic haiku. I needed to clear it of the modern ethos to let it recognize the fertile void. The images I hoped to encounter would be double — both "of" things and "of" finitude, change, passing, and passage. I am concentrating now on "long form" lyrics (my series of Pond Songs modeled on Chinese classical poems) and only occasionally write haiku. I do teach haiku and my students study the Chinese masters along with Basho and the great Japanese and the occasional contemporary haiku poet who has broken through to the fertile void. Returning to the Beginning is always a great joy.

Peter Yovu

Cherie Hunter Day:

This question isn't easy to answer. It stumps the intellect much like the Zen koan:  what was your face before your grandparents met? As soon as I formulate a response, the answer seems trivial and hopelessly inaccurate. Haiku begin in experience but the senses are like looking through cracks in a wall. I see/hear/smell/taste/touch only a small fragment of the entire view. It's this tease of the infinite that holds my brief attention.

I didn't find haiku; haiku found me in grammar school. It was like a lightning bolt. The clarity of those few, well-chosen words resting in a sea of white on the page was so powerful. I was instantly attracted to the form. That encounter set me on the path, but it took several more literary inoculations for the full effect. I moved from reading haiku and mimicking translations to studying and writing haiku my senior year in high school. No other form so defies easy definition or a quick encounter. Decades later I can't say where haiku begin or where they end.  I agree with Bob Boldman's assessment that haiku uses words to express wordlessness; discrete moments in time to reveal timelessness. Haiku are little celebrations and I'm grateful for each and every one.

Gravedigger, when you dig my grave, could you make it shallow so that I can feel the rain?
—Dave Mathews "Gravedigger" from the album Some Devil (2003)

Peter Yovu

Paul Miller:

As someone who believes that haiku is poetry, the question then is: where do my poems come from? And then perhaps: why haiku? When I first started writing poetry years ago, I wrote longer forms—free verse, twenty or thirty lines or so, and bad—and I found a few years after the fact that each poem could really be cut down to some essential juxtaposition, turn, collision, transformation, etc.. What I had been doing was taking a simple core moment and trying to expand it to make some kind of point, or to find some larger meaning. Those core moments were proto-haiku. As I whittled the poems down to what was absolutely necessary often those proto-haiku were the only things that were left. For the most part those core moments were my interactions with the world. They were discoveries or bits of wonder. They were life, breath. But also imaginings—which is also an interaction with the world. I've confessed elsewhere that as an accountant I am always looking at how the pieces of the world fit, myself included. I try to stay open to everything, whether it conforms to my current world belief or not. For myself, 99% of the time haiku seems the perfect form for such explorations. But ultimately, I don't look too deeply into the origins of those discoveries or bits of wonder. When you're in a forest and there is a spark, it's less important what caused it than what you're going to do about it.

Peter Yovu

Lee Gurga:

Snatches of conversation; commentary on King Lear; a yoga stretch; sitting in bed with a cup of coffee; gazing at the moon; standing a a bus stop; traffic noise; a poem by Rilke; a wood carving from Indonesia; an old emery board; a dry eraser; a battered suitcase; my wife flossing; the word "zamboni" or "(fill in the blank)"; a comfortable chair; the 60-cycle hum; a doorbell that sticks; a chart of Lake Michigan; a green backpack; a walk-in closet; clean underwear on the bed; a world series ticket; hockey skates; the smell of my grandfather's cigar; love scent; dog saliva; a remembered smile; an empty beach; smokestacks on the horizon; matching dressers; a rubber band; a child's laughter; an old man's sense of wonder at being alive; a game of chess; death of a loved one; a visit to the north room; an orange fire hydrant; a new telephone pole; a chain saw in the woods; the corner of Lincolnshire and Lynwood; yard waste bags stacked at the curb; your last email; flowers budding or past bloom; an empty bracket nailed to a tree; a pitcher set before the pitch; soft pitch in the sun; the son I'm estranged from; a strange feeling in the air; air escaping from my left front tire; tire tracks on my neck; the neck of the bottle glistening with blood; blood on the tracks; tracks his ancestry with a swab of saliva; saliva to drive a screw into wood; would that I knew where haiku came from.

Peter Yovu

Gary Hotham:

They begin around me and then within me.

T. S. Eliot writes about the poet's mind which I think captures well this process for me:

"When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly  amalgamating  disparate experience;  the ordinary  man's  experience  is  chaotic,  irregular,  fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming  new wholes." (1)

I think haiku like other good poems or any work of art are examples of new wholes.

And for me the haiku themselves are formed into words, when to use a phase from William Wordsworth, they are "recollected in tranquility." Maybe not exactly with the same intensity as Wordsworth described it in the Preface to his book, Lyrical Ballads back in 1800. (2)   But there are times and places when I fit the words together for a haiku and the process demands some tranquility. By the way isn't it comforting to think that even back in the 18th century poets needed tranquility.

(1)  From Eliot's essay: "The Metaphysical Poets" first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 October 1921 and collected in his SELECTED ESSAYS 1917-1932 (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932) p. 247.

(2)  The full context for the phrase:
" I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind."

Peter Yovu

Bruce Ross:

My haiku begin with my life from birth to a given present moment and my relation to the universe and its visible and nonvisible nature. My individual haiku arrive as a rhythm of energy and feeling that formulates into the haiku form and words. Such a haiku is both a record of a moment and a realization coming forth in that moment.

Peter Yovu

Allan Burns:

As I know them, haiku begin with a motivating experience, a notable occurrence that stands out somehow from the ordinary stream of existence and around which fragments of language begin to coalesce. Since by temperament and choice, I'm an outdoors poet who is lucky enough to live in the Rocky Mountains region, usually for me a motivating experience will occur in a natural setting. But in some cases it may involve something else--a vivid memory, say, a striking phrase in a conversation, or an image in a film.

The two-part juxtapositional structure of haiku invites us to combine experiences into greater wholes. So a haiku needn't necessarily be a more-or-less faithful transcription of a single moment's "essence," even if many good ones are. It may represent a synthesis of two experiences--even, say, two visits to a single place.

As Shiki, in Harold Henderson's translation, said, "Use both imaginary pictures and real ones, but prefer the real ones. ... If you use real pictures, it is still difficult to get very good haiku."

In speaking of the origins of haiku, I believe it's worth stressing that haiku composition can and perhaps should be, as Shiki says, difficult, even if some of the finest things appear in an unlooked-for flash of inspiration--a flash, it's worth noting, that took only a universe and a life to prepare.

As one case study in beginnings and difficulties, I'll offer the backstory of a haiku of mine that has been reprinted a few times and that itself concerns the theme of origins.

A number of years ago, I passed a day by climbing up to the source of Bear Creek, a vital watershed in the Pikes Peak region that holds the area's only remaining population of  greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado's state fish. If you walk the short way from my house to Monument Creek, stroll past where it becomes Fountain Creek, head on to the confluence with Bear Creek, and begin following this tributary west through Bear Creek Regional Park and as it then ascends 4,000 feet of the Pikes Peak massif, you'll arrive at the creek's spring, where it seeps from a hillside between Tuckaway and Almagre Mountains.

At some point, the motivating experience of visiting the spring led me to write a line in my haiku/birding notebook. I knew it was the first line of what wanted to become a haiku. But I didn't know how it ended, and nothing in my notes or in the memory of my first visit seemed to work. I could have made something or other up, but I decided to follow Shiki's advice and prefer the actual. So I knew that to find out, I'd have to climb up to that spring again. I found a free day and did. From high in a conifer, the loud, distinctive song of a ruby-crowned kinglet on its breeding ground, just as I approached the spring again, allowed me to complete the haiku in terms of both meaning and sound--but with a certain flinty jaggedness in the lineation, too, that perhaps hints how beginnings aren't always merely neat and easy.

source of the creek
a kinglet's
breeding song

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