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Haiku Maven: MFA in Haiku?

hm_logo Dear Haiku Maven, Are there any MFA writing programs in the US where haiku is taught respectfully within the broad range of poetics? I would imagine it is offered as part of the curriculum at Naropa Institute where this is also a Buddhist spiritual focus. There seems to be a gap between the extensive community writing group approach offered online in forums and workshops, and the way MFA-trained poets view haiku somewhat disparagingly. Is it that it’s considered a genre? That senryu are too sentimental? That it’s not post-modern? Journals such as RoadRunner come to mind, where what is written comes clearly from writers trained in different background and aesthetics from writers published in traditional journals such as Modern Haiku. There is so little literature, biography or discussions of aesthetics from poets coming to haiku from another direction, it’s hard to know how to study writing in another way, and to develop a critical sense for reading it. Anonymous

Dear Anonymous, Haiku Maven looked everywhere but could not find an awkward situation involving a haiku poet anywhere in your question. Haiku Maven opens up this question to its readers. Please leave a response in the comments section.

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This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. I’ve recently been involved with some long poetry at an academic level … and it became pretty clear to me that one of the difficulties is, that poets schooled in Western poetics often have a hard time understanding how to read or interpret the poetics of a haiku. There are significant differences and each (Western and Haiku) require considerable understanding of those differences for this type of presentation.

  2. As someone with both an MA and MFA in Creative Writing, as well as someone who writes haiku, I can argue that even at the most experimental and radical of colleges–Naropa, for example–there is a tendency to minimize haiku and other Japanese forms in English, to dismiss scholarly efforts to write them and about them, or to compartmentalize them as merely another form in poetry. Aubrie Cox nails it on the head in her comments above, though. If you WANT to do it, you CAN do it, but you have to put your own energy and time into the scholarship and the study, and not expect others to help you along the way, or perhaps not expect them to help you in the same way as if you were writing sonnet sequences or something more traditional. That being said, my first full-length book was the bulk of my MFA thesis from Naropa, and it’s all haiku, so these things are possible, just a bit lonely at times.

    As far as scholarship goes, many of the magazines that publish haiku also publish scholarship on haiku. Furthermore, there are conferences (ALA, HNA, etc.) that feature presentations and papers on haiku, and many of these papers and presentations go on to be published. On top of that, part of being in an MA or MFA in Creative Writing is to produce new knowledge about craft and writing, so you can use the time and resources there to add to the limited sources.

    Alternately, consider MFA programs which have a tract in translation, and focus on Japanese haiku, perhaps. Many of the great Japanese haiku and hokku poets have yet to be fully translated, and many of those that are translated are only in a few sources, so there’s plenty to add to that area of knowledge as well.

  3. Another good university site for reading haiku is Mann Library’s Daily Haiku, edited by Tom Clausen. One guest author per month is featured.

    I had the privilege of being in the academic world in education, for several years. Haiku though took root in my life later on, through health needs and caregiving years. So many ways – and worlds, it seems – to be a writer.

    When I advised graduate students in special education, I helped them gather information and ask questions. I sat and listened. But the decisions were theirs.

    Haiku poets reflect so many ways of life, which makes the reading (and rereading over time) of poems in various places so rich.

  4. MFA in haiku would be great, but the sensei would have to be a 3-foot child.


  5. I wonder how many poets who are serious about writing haiku (or short poems sparked by their contact with it) would characterize their education as having come through an “extensive community writing group approach?” While Anonymous does not seem to present this in an ironic light, it might be worth noting that similar language has been used by non-haiku poets to describe the MFA programs, that they are factories producing a kind of homogenized “McPoem”.

  6. As Carmen pointed out, Randy Brooks does teach haiku on the undergraduate level at Millikin University. The student work can be found here: I took multiple courses in haiku and related forms. By the time I graduated, the number of credits I had invested in haikai poetry was one credit short of my philosophy minor. But that’s undergrad.

    More relevant to the conversation: I completed my M.A. in Creative Writing at Ball State University; I wrote haiku and such all the way through. My thesis was a tanka collection. I turned in tanka sequences, haibun, renku, even haiga for homework assignments in several workshops. I wrote a research paper on Japanese-American internment camp haiku. I read haiku at readings on campus.

    I had been advised going into my first semester by several people to be a closet haiku poet; to keep my trap shut and focus on other things in the classroom because they were concerned for my success or people’s reception of the forms. There was also some concern about the validity of the forms in the graduate setting. If it’s not obvious by the previous paragraph, I ignored these warnings (I’ve been known to this on more than one occasion). While initially I confused some of my classmates, I never received any pushback from my peers or professors saying that I couldn’t do this or that I wasn’t writing real poetry (okay, there was one time, but no one liked her very much). There’s several reasons for this.

    One, I was at a university that encouraged experimentation, trying new things, breaking away from the norm, and finding unique voices. We were not there to be clones of our instructors, or join any “mainstream” (whatever that means anyway). We were there to hone our craft, whatever that may be. The professors, while none of them taught haiku, had an idea as to what it was, had read it/studied it in conjunction with the Beats, Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, etc. Basically, they were aware it existed (even though they weren’t aware there was a very active and very real English-language community).

    Two—and I think this is the most important for the conversations that are being had in how to get haiku into universities, high schools, etc—I was informed. I didn’t just write haiku, but I knew how to talk about haiku as craft. I was able to talk about history, explain the concepts and aesthetics. By showing I was serious and studious about haiku just as anyone would be about sonnets, free verse, flash fiction, etc, people who may have been skeptic began to see validity to the form, that it wasn’t as simple as they may have previously thought. It became just another form of poetry (as Peter noted earlier), but in a positive way. We were able to talk about how these forms were functioning in terms of language and structure/form, just like we would any other poem. I shared with my classmates outside of the classroom and they found things within haiku and other forms they really loved, even if they weren’t reading it themselves. They appreciated it as an art because I appreciated it as an art (as well as respected their arts and could provide them with feedback appropriate for what they were doing). In short: knowledge really is power.

    Three, I was open to other things and tried other things. I certainly didn’t write just haiku and related forms (though a lot of my work was inspired by it). I played with other forms, explored other avenues. And frankly, it improved my writing overall. As I was working on my thesis, my thesis directed worked with me on the tanka, thinking about how to adhere to tradition, but how to also break away from it—how to see how far I could push the boundaries and tinker. It made me examine a lot about myself as a writer, both in general and writing in Japanese forms.

    Ideally, I’d love to see some workshops on the graduate level that focus on the writing of haiku and related forms. That may be a ways off, but it’s not impossible. In the meantime, is it possible to enter into an MFA/MA program concentrating on Japanese forms? Absolutely. Find a school that is open-minded, know your shit, and be willing to try new things. Create independent studies for yourself and take charge of your education—there’ll at least be one person in the department that’s willing to take the journey with you. And if you do it well, people will start positively paying attention. Which could also lead to change.

    Also, as an end note, I believe 110% that there needs to be more writing in regard to haiku on an academic literary level, from a craft perspective beyond how to write, and from a pedagogical standpoint.

  7. Anonymous is definitely feeling awkward before she/he can find the kind of mentors who will nurture the direction she wants to go in haiku. I would ask haiku poet and instructor, Aubrie Cox about her experience studying haiku at Millikin College with Dr. Randy Brooks, the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences:

    Yes, there are many variations of focus among English-language poets, and even more in Japan. One of the greatest haiku poets of the modern era, Shiki reformed haiku for a new era, and he was more interested in realism in haiku, rather than the spiritual side of haiku. By the late 1800s, when Shiki wrote and in present days, the influence of Buddhism became a cultural influence more than a spiritual devotion for most Japanese.
    Yet, Western haiku poets often come to haiku through an interest or affinity with Buddhism and especially Japanese aesthetics. In Japan and every other continent, haiku is a complex combination of traditional, realistic, surrealistic, post-modern and so on.

  8. I like what Peter has to say in the sense that it speaks for many. haiku is different from poetry. I’m interested in the hypothesis that haiku is not poetry. One way to test this is,if you know poetry and don’t think of any poems when you read,say, Haiku in English. When you read a book of poems, there is a lot of intertextual resonance. For the most art, haiku don’t resonate with poetry. Exceptions prove the rule. There’s the start of an interesting debate.

  9. I think many MFA-trained poets as your letter-writer calls them see haiku to be just another form of poem. Sonnet, villanelle, haiku. The misperception they have I believe is in the complexity of the haiku form. They think it is simple. And it is. So is the guitar. Whoever said anyone can strum the guitar and make it sound okay, even beautiful. But there’s a long way to travel from the strum to the stellar level of the poem one remembers all one’s life. A poem worthy of carrying around in your head.

    There are plenty of MFA degrees available in the broad genre of Poetry. Probably not many haiku writers on the faculty in those departments to help instruct the would-be haiku poet. Instead, the grad student in Poetry must learn all about language which isn’t a bad way to spend time at all. Reading and then teaching the cadences and rhythms of the masters who have come before. But with all that non-haiku poetry comes a certain emphasis on the cerebellum. Or, what I call, the scaffolding of a poem. The structure, form, tone, etc. Haiku can have all of these things as well. I would argue that a well-trained poet of any form is familiar with a variety of techniques. Only thing is, the writer of the haiku has to rely on another sense than the non-haiku poet. And here I must admit I am stepping into new territory of discussion. Exactly the realm of mystery that is required of the haiku. A little bit unexplainable, even to oneself.

    I very nearly got my MFA in Poetry. I may even have it by now in practice if not on paper. But, haiku stopped me from going that route. For me, haiku is a different kind of poetry. Not just a sub-category but in a different tree altogether, bearing an altogether different fruit, especially successfully written haiku. You see, there’s something to be said and written more and more, I suspect about the way in which a reader approaches a traditional free-verse poem, versus one’s approach to a haiku, as a written poem on the page. The reader who has never read a haiku before comes to the leading edge of this short word string and asks—where’s the rest of it? Or, what’s wrong? Why’d you leave so much out?

    There is a collective task at hand among serious haiku poets. And that is to help readers of their haiku poems understand the basic approach to reading haiku. One must release their traditional notions of what a poem is—that inscrutable riddle-like thing that clever people think up. Take that top-down approach and flip it on its head. Now, we’re getting closer to what real poetry is. All poetry, I mean, including haiku. The tough thing about haiku is that it’s very difficult to fake. The form doesn’t allow any room for error. Sure, there may be differences in taste and subject matter. But the essence of a haiku is that it has to matter. For the poet, there’s very little to hide behind in a badly written haiku.

    Haiku is more grounded than the other types of poems like the ones that require a lot of outside reading. It arrives like a plant. From the ground up, growing often over days, weeks, years, a lifetime. It comes from within. Of course, all poetry arrives in just the same way. Unfortunately, the way we have been exposed to Poetry as the encrypted language of the few instead of the song to be sung by all kind of puts a damper on the desire for people to read more poetry, much less write it.

    An MFA in Poetry with a concentration in Japanese Short Forms seems like an excellent degree to earn. I think it may be a correspondence course however. One to be undertaken with a myriad of unknown teachers and yet-to-be-had experiences. You begin here. The first word. Call it: autumn

    a million colorful leaves
    nothing I say

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