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Haiku Maven: The Trouble with Being Honest

hm_logo Dear Haiku Maven, I have been told I am a glass-is-half-empty kind of person. I call it “being honest”. Recently a fellow-haiku poet offered a poem in a workshop setting. I did not hold back my comments. I told him that his haiku was not even ready for workshop, let alone worthy of publication. He got very upset and stormed out of the workshop. I think if he can’t stand the heat he should get out of the kitchen. But now the rest of my haiku group is shunning me. I hate to apologize, especially when I didn’t do anything wrong. What do you think?

An Honest Man

Dear Honest Man, It is no wonder no one is talking to you in your haiku group. Constructive criticism in haiku workshops should be offered with a teaspoon of kindness (or a glass of white wine) to make the medicine go down. Please try to be a more considerate member of your group. Try prefacing your comments with “I think” instead of “You”. If I had done that when speaking with my spouse, we would still be married. And remember, what sounds like a comment to you, may sound like a show of contempt to someone else. Be kind. Be respectful. And if you think you were out of line with your workshop comments, be honest enough to say so. I have a feeling your group will welcome you back, although at first perhaps with closed rather than open arms.


The Haiku Maven posts each Friday to The Haiku Foundation blog.  Haiku Maven offers advice about awkward situations involving haiku poets. Please use our Contact page to send a question.  Haiku Maven will select a pseudonym for you based on your question.  Click this link to see the Haiku Maven archive. Feel free to leave comments.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Dear Alan, Thanks for your very kind words and encouragement. I must say that I am overjoyed with the support I receive from those I’m engaged with in this group, it’s just the rules sometimes organizations impose that distort things with their necessity for “quality documentation” before anything can go forward and those judging the situation are not always aware of the creative and artistic elements involved. So often in the culture we live in, when things are simple they can be disqualified due to such documentation. While I understand the necessity, it does stand in the way of some creative projects.

    I’m sorry I had given the impression of my group.

    The good news is that haiku is being discussed in places I never ever expected it to ever come up! So whether or not this project goes forward… it’s still planting seeds.
    And the response has been warm.

  2. speaking as someone who’s been the recipient of lots of critique: it was most helpful to hear what about the piece worked (hopefully SOMETHING did). The second most helpful comment was the question “What do you as the artist think is the most important thing you’re trying to do with this poem?” And lastly: a description of what doesn’t work for you.

    Just a thought about groups: most groups storm before they norm; how we work through that process is as important as getting to the point where we can constructively work together. Most people think I’m wrong if I mention that haiku doesn’t need to be 5-7-5 which is why I find it helpful when the group studies some of the writings from the intellectuals out there (lots of publications have materials that could be useful eg modern haiku and frogpond….) And to concede: there actually is some good formal haiku.

  3. Dear Haiku Maven (KP?)

    I have no idea if this is a fictional person you’ve created as an example of a regular issue, but it does come up from time to time far too regularly for my comfort. Thank you for bringing this up this very important subject.

    This misconception that a haiku has to be perfect or near perfect before it can even come to a workshop, and thus be finally presented as publish-ready is such a shame: That anything less is looked down upon by either the workshop leader or by the workshop in general is a huge loss to the process as a whole.

    This quote you give is a useful one: “I told him that his haiku was not even ready for workshop, let alone worthy of publication.”

    I particularly find it not only constructively useful for someone to bring in completely raw work, possibly not even at a poem stage, but an absolute privilege to see a writer’s first draft before it officially enters the crafting process.

    I make this very clear to my students that I feel honored to see their early work, and that it’s incredibly useful as source material for the final work to be honed from. If we never see anything but polished drafts, we miss out, lose out, on the dynamics that are hidden within that raw initial piece of writing.

    Dear Merrill,

    We’ve worked together via renga and illustrating some of my haiku for the Azami magazine (Osaka, Japan) and I’ve known and respected (as well as admired) your work over these 20 years or so. I don’t know why your group are not making more use of your skills and expertise, but often people would rather defer to someone University trained in their approach even if they are less experienced with the subject in hand. A conundrum indeed.

    It’s not relevant if someone has a University Degree, there has to be something else beyond a paper qualification. I myself have a Masters Degree, but that was just part of my continuing study in poetry (and literature) and I think of it as a basic qualification (although I’m very proud of it, and worked incredibly hard, and suffered a health issue immediately after one of the deadlines).

    You may have to find a balance between what you see haiku as, and how they want to write haiku or haikuesque poetry. I am perplexed if they are not aware of your grasp on haiku, and though disappointing, it needn’t be a problem, but an opportunity in our ongoing process in our development as a haikai artist.

    Have you given them what I call “The Review Challenge”?


    If you have a number of haiku publications ranging from Modern Haiku (USA) and Frogpond, plus a number of collections and anthologies, give each workshopper a copy of one or the other, and ask for a critique/review. They might require two or more weeks to do so.

    Give them free rein, without any descriptions or definitions of haiku etc… Just let them critique the way they wish to do so.

    The results may not be comforting at first, but they should be surprising. It’s possible that some may not like any of the contemporary haiku at first, but they will have absorbed those works at their free will, through their own filters of comprehension, taste and biases. It will have an impact on them regardless if they are entirely closed to this kind of contemporary haiku.

    This could become a useful discussion theme for the next one, two or even three workshops, as it’ll take time for each workshopper to read the critique. Decide whether they have printouts in advance of the first selected reviewers, or just on the day. Then allow time for Q&A and discussions, heated or otherwise: It should prove a great foundation, even with resistance from some or many of the workshoppers first time, for a formal look at haiku that should also springboard a creative urge to write their own haiku.

    Do you have a wide range of collections and anthologies regarding haiku? Do you also include more contemporary styles as in Bones Journal and Roadrunner style work?

    Do you include Post-Modern, gendai approaches etc…? Mix them up so your group don’t trick themselves into only liking one approach to haiku. After all haiku is poetry, isn’t it? Do they only like form and formalist work. What is their opinion on New Formalism in poetry?

    New Formalist works:
    Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism ed. Mark Jarman and David Mason, 1996.
    The Direction of Poetry: An Anthology of Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language since 1975, edited by Robert Richman
    A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women, ed. Annie Finch, 1993

    New Formalist magazine for women has an interesting and clear guideline on essays for instance that could inform your group re reviews on haiku publications that you give them as a challenge:

    The thing is that haiku should become more intriguing and interesting as a part of literature when we find we cannot control it as something hunted down, captured and conquered. It’s why, in my opinion, it still fascinates and captivates myself, as well as many others. Hopefully it will move any of the group members away from wanting to easily think they can capture, control, conquer, and move on to the next animal to hunt down, the next poetic form or genre.

    Could you put the review project to them? If I can help somehow, let me know.

    I only wish I physically lived in the States, though a large number of my students are American, and I probably get American haiku, poetry, and viewpoints and culture more so than even my home culture in England (and rest of Britain).

    kindest regards,


  4. I don’t know why or how I’ve been too busy to notice Haiku Maven in the last 18 months that I have been trying to write haiku, but I’m so very glad to have found you at last.

  5. I have been involved with trying to find someone to stand in for me in a haiku workshop because I’m not physically able to do it. This is with a group of people who have very vague ideas of haiku and most of what they think they know is pretty destructive to writing haiku. They have suggested that I find a “language arts” person in the group…(by inference, someone with a university degree in literature and hopefully a published poet etc.) to take over this workshop I had hoped might be an introduction for people of all ages… 7 – 700… and I am searching for a way to let them know that haiku isn’t like that. Since we are all artists I’m trying to let them know it’s the instant where the image becomes the word. That haiku is a fragmentary insight of the moment… not a thesis to be constructed etc. etc….
    I suppose I should just withdraw from the whole discussion and let it die a natural death…. but now that I see your advice column… I just couldn’t resist asking!

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