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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Alan Summers

This week, New to Haiku is pleased to interview Alan Summers, president of the United Haiku and Tanka Society, author of Does Fish-God Know, and founder of Call of the Page, where he teaches online classes on haiku and other literary forms. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Alan.
 
In Advice for Beginners posts, we ask established haiku poets to share a bit about themselves so that you can meet them and learn more about their writing journeys. We, too, wanted to learn what advice they would give to beginning haiku poets.
 
Welcome to New to Haiku, Alan! How did you come to learn about haiku?
 
Sheer luck, and serendipity. I was based in Queensland, Australia, and wanted to study formal poetry. I visited the Queensland State Library, and got a huge bunch of poetry books and started to knuckle down for the day. One of those books contained only haiku poems and I loved the simplicity and the audacity of their shortness! A few days later, at an art centre, a well respected poet was launching his first ever haiku collection, ran a workshop, and a performance of his haiku with music. Another few days later I wandered into a tiny branch library and there were two copies of The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter clearly visible. It was becoming obvious that haiku had collared me!
 
Do you have haiku mentors? What advice did they give you?
 
l had to mostly fend for myself! That’s why I want to support others. You will also see me around on a couple of social media platforms helping others who struggle just as I did.
 
Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
 
No single person influenced my haiku, I just stumbled along through trial and error. I also read a helluva lot of haiku for years, which helps. That’s not the entire solution, to simply read, read, read, and write, write, write, but it’s a start. What you want is to get inside of your own style, start looking for that, not something by someone else.
 
Where do you compose your haiku? Do you have a writing process?
 
I have a large box of haiku journal notebooks which I designed with Karen Hoy to be used outdoors. They are really rugged, and the pages are off-white, so no sun glare coming off the page blinding me as I try to write. Walking is useful, whether town or city streets, or in a park, or if you live somewhere rural. I split my time between walking and making rough notes, and sitting in front of my laptop, at home, and before the pandemic in various cafés for the noise and bustle.
 
Can you share some favorite haiku that you have written? Are there any stories behind them?
 
I’d like to share the process of one haiku instead if I may? This haiku started really simply and was about a bird, and a small stream.
 
The stream was actually a rill, and the bird was a Greenfinch: Two concrete images (real life things)
 
So far so good, though it’s only what can be seen so far. What about sound so the poem isn’t ‘static’? Well I first thought of murmur as it was such a small stream, but that’s just a pretty picture. 
 
Another useful thing to consider is about articles (a, an, the):
 
murmur of a rill as murmur of the rill didn’t feel right to me.
 
I chose the indefinite article as it seemed right as the rill wasn’t visible, only its sound. Okay, so far I have something for the stream image, but what about the bird? Now I could have gone for the verb choice of “flies” but that’s what birds mostly do anyway!
 
I settled on a simple verb choice of ‘moves’.
 
It’s called a ‘greenfinch’ because it is green, and it was amongst green vegetation as well. Here’s a rough couple of drafts. I also wanted to think about those articles (a, an, the) again!
murmur of a rill
the greenfinch moves
its green around
or
murmur of a rill
a greenfinch moves
its green around
It’s an okay haiku though we don’t really want to push out haiku that are just ‘all right’ do we?
 
Rills (small temporary streams) have sharp sounds along with soft background sounds. I began to think of ‘trickle’. I have the hard sound of ‘trick’ and the softer sound of ‘ill’:
the trickle of a rill
a greenfinch moves
its green around
Again, it’s okay, but it’s simply a flat statement really, isn’t it?
 
Then left-field it came to me! Why not simply just shorten trickle to trick?
 
Obviously writing ‘the trick of the rill’ or ‘a trick of the rill’ or ‘the trick of a rill’ didn’t cut it for me. It still felt a little one-dimensional, and wordy so I pared it back to a shorter opening line, and sent it off to a contest run by the Haiku Society of America.
the rill’s trick
a greenfinch moves
its green around
 
–     Alan Summers
      Third Place, 2018 Harold G. Henderson Memorial Haiku Award
      (Haiku Society of America)
What are some fun ways that you have used or experienced haiku?
 
As part of an art trail around town, I cut up thin strips of copier typing paper with a haiku on each strip, and strung several hundred up in trees, and bushes. It was a way to create signage so you knew or could guess you were standing outside a house that had artwork on display inside, and probably a free hot drink and snacks too! I was amazed to witness people spending up to twenty minutes reading my haiku in the freezing cold and falling snow, when they could actually see and smell free hot drinks and snacks in sight.
 
For those just starting out, what advice would you give?
 
Don’t try to create ‘fully realised haiku’. Start with a word, or a short phrase, and work yourself around that. I struggled for years writing a good two line phrase, so I focused on a useful couple or three words to start a haiku. I kept trying to create phrases and eventually won through. Having a phrase is great. You can have fun finding a short two or three word line to come first or follow the phrase. You decide. It’s you and the deep blue sea at the end of the day, or night, and that’s okay. Though obviously with Zoom becoming ever more familiar to us, you can connect with other poets almost instantly all around the world, and it’s good to have helpful experienced poets, but also others who are just starting out as they are equally important, at least I think so!
 
You have been teaching haiku for 20 plus years now. What do you like best about teaching haiku? What have you learned from your students?
 
I came to haiku in 1993 and disciplined myself not to teach haiku until I studied its history for a solid five years! I love teaching haiku but you learn as you teach, otherwise what is the point. You learn from students who bring freshness and energy, and I’ve had students from one year old right up to ninety-nine years old and there is no difference in their amazing excitement! I feel I learn to continue to be a student from incredible people who come to the workshops and Skype or Zoom sessions. It’s all about connection, and someone in their teens or twenties will teach me as much as I can teach them, it’s all about partnerships and sharing life experiences. 
 
Alan Summers
Alan Summers is founder of Call of the Page:
 
The founding editor of two journals:
 
Blo͞o Outlier Journal:
 
MahMight haiku journal
 
A Japan Times award-winning writer, filmed by NHK Television (Japan) for “Europe meets Japan – Alan’s Haiku Journey”:

Julie Bloss Kelsey

Julie Bloss Kelsey is the current Secretary of The Haiku Foundation. She started writing haiku in 2009, after discovering science fiction haiku (scifaiku). She lives in Maryland with her husband and kids. Julie's first book of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Title IX Press. Connect with her on Twitter @MamaJoules.

This Post Has 29 Comments

  1. Dear esteemed poet
    Greetings. Always my well-wisher, how can i forget senryu workshop,
    conducted, me the previleged to be your gifted student, lessons chosen for
    workshop are still ringing and you have grounded for our input of senryu. Amazing.
    Now coming to your “haiku for beginners, ” a re-reading, multiple times, to have firm grasp of your content, a salient must to register in mind.Your advice to beginners, to have a style, reworking on our own, is essential need of the hour. For a beginner like me in the learning process, your vital tips, your initial journey, your experiences – all take a long way, leaving a lasting imprint ; you know writing from India, demanding in many ways, in current scenario. But your advice keeps me going ahead. Bloo outlier journal , another gift to readers and writers.
    Again grateful for senryu workshop
    with regards
    S.Radhamani

    1. Dear S.Radhamani,

      It was a joy that you were in that senryu class! I have followed your journey ever since, and even in these incredibly difficult times of the pandemic, you have continued to write and send out your poems.

      We need voices from around the world that will continue to connect us all.

      warmest regards,
      Alan

  2. Hello Julie and Alan,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful interview and lesson.
    I m not English mother tongue, but I love reading and writing in English. I joined a LinkedIn Haiku Group about two years ago and posted there some terrible haiku. I was utterly new to that and didn’t even know the essential rules. Alan was so kind to explain them to me. I have been reading a lot of haiku books since then. I started writing haiku “seriously” about one year ago. It was a challenge at first, it is now a deep pleasure. I had a few haiku published however, I am and, always be, a student. Still have a lot to learn!

    I am very grateful to Alan for all his suggestions and feedback. His lessons are very precious ton me.
    Very grateful to Alan for all his suggestions and feedback.
    Warmest regards,

    Mariangela

    1. Hi Mariangela,

      You said:
      [Haiku}…”was a challenge at first, it is now a deep pleasure. I had a few haiku published however, I am and, always be, a student. Still have a lot to learn!”

      Exactly! I love how it’s a challenge, and that I cannot “conquer” or “defeat” this wonderfully intriguing genre. 🙂

      Mariangela said:
      “I am very grateful to Alan for all his suggestions and feedback. His lessons are very precious to me.”

      That is very kind of you to say so! It’s a great journey, and we are in this together, whether it’s a day old journey for one person or a much longer journey in time.

      Alan

  3. Hi Julie and Alan

    Thanks for this, its always a pleasure to read other peoples thoughts and experiences.

    Your words are an inspiration, Alan, your workshops and courses have always been about supporting the student. One thing I’ve always liked about you, you never alter a students work, just make suggestions of a rearrangement while still capturing the essence of the students intention.

    I agree, its not about being published, its finding the words to express the world around us, and enjoying the process of ‘tinkering’ around the edges of them, letting them linger. . .
    Reading other peoples work I find is an immense help, and even more so how the reader feels and what they think after a reading, comments can be very diverse on the same poem.

    Which reminds me, I have a bit of ‘tinkering’ to do.

    1. Hi Carol,

      Thank you for those kind words. And yes, we can let our haiku linger and certainly a while longer, because in the end we want the final haiku to linger in the reader’s mind beyond a single quick reading. We want readers to remember and also remember to want to come back to that haiku and any others we might have taken great time and care.

      Each reader is an island from a different land, and if our haiku touch them, even if they see it in a different light to the one that first set it shining for us, then we might have succeeded.

      Enjoy your tinkering and the journey through your haiku!

      Alan

  4. Hi Alan, thanks for sharing. I’ve been following you (well not literally!) a long time. Love your work and enjoyed reading about your process. Cheers!

    1. Hi Terri,

      So that was you! 🙂

      Kidding aside, thank you for following my work, I often wonder if my work is marmite, hence the name of my journal “MahMight”: https://mahmighthaikujournal.blogspot.com

      But after watching a video by two Americans trying out original Marmite, they will add it to their breakfast routine! 🙂

      I do hope my process is helpful, even if I can be a bit Virgo (my birthday is mid-September, every year), go figure! 🙂

      Thanks for the comment though, as I don’t get many people brave enough to admit they like my work, in public! 😉

      warm regards,
      Alan

  5. I get so much out of reading these columns aimed at beginners, but really useful for anyone who is writing haiku! Thanks Alan for going through your creative process on your award winning final haiku! It is a reminder that I need to do the same thing for every single one I write. Alas! Too often I just get lazy!

    1. Dear Peggy,

      We can all get lazy and just trigger-happy send something off that is just not quite got that final tang of editing it deserved. But we all must resist! 🙂

      Alan

    2. Peggy, I have learned so much too! I ask very similar questions to various haiku poets and look how they answer! Every one meets haiku so differently. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  6. Enjoyed so much—thanks Julie for the interview. One for keeps!
    Alan Summers is a master haijin and on the THF blog I learnt so much from him. Ever grateful.

    The way the rill haiku has been edited and re-edited by him to reach a prize winning wow haiku is a wonderful lesson. 🙏🤗

  7. I loved watching you work through the haiku, turning it from ‘just fine’ to something exceptional. It’s always a thrill to read haiku that do that. Sometimes I can do it. Other times I can’t. I tend to be impatient and set loose a haiku before it’s at its best. Good modeling.

    1. Hi Pris,

      Thanks! I had hoped that my process of fine-tuning a haiku, and not being satisfied just because I “might” think it’s okay, that it might be “good” shows that it is only the start to hopefully creating a fully-realised haiku.

      When you say “I tend to be impatient and set loose a haiku before it’s at its best” that’s a great way of saying it! We sometimes, and sometimes too often, just want to let the haiku go, and that’s so easy to do as we now email rather than go the old way of typing onto a sheet of paper and posting by hand.

      We fall into the trap of just wanting to be released from the piece, and yet just waiting an entire extra 24 hours can really help. I make my haiku submission wait in a file, even if it’s “ready to go” for another day, see something I missed, give it another 24 hours, double-check, keep the new revision, and give it another day.

      The further I can get away from my first thought that “it’s good to go” the better. After a few nerve-jangling days, I can see I’ve got as far through the “final” revision process, and one last patient check, and then calmly put it in an email and click it away! 🙂

      Alan

      Sometimes I can do it. Other times I can’t. I tend to be impatient and set loose a haiku before it’s at its best. Good modeling.

  8. Thank you Alan and Julie for this fascinating article on Alan’s haiku journey, I have read and re-read it several times.

    1. Dear Dan,

      Thank you! I am delighted that it’s not just readable but re-readable, that’s wonderful!

      Yes, I had a wonderful working relationship with Julie to create the final overall piece. As I know as a beginner I struggled so much. All our mistakes are but another ‘truth’ and create another ‘route’ for us.

      warmest regards,
      Alan

      1. Thanks Alan and Julie,
        I enjoyed reading about your process, Alan, and how giving words enough time they become vehicles for so much else. Your example above was invaluable.
        I, too, find that putting work aside, not even looking at it, and then taking it out again with fresh eyes is very helpful.

        Warm regards,
        Jo

        1. Thanks Jo, and yes, coming back to our haiku with fresh eyes is very important. We need to give each haiku time, and try to come back as a reader who comes across the haiku for the first time. That’s really difficult, to be that objective about our work, but creating distance, by placing the haiku in a “drawer” for a while can help gather some distance before that no-turning-back click sending our work to a journal.

          Alan

  9. After my third failed attempt at suicide, I was admitted to hospital. I was given privileges to leave the ward. One day, I meandered into a book store. Alas, haiku found me.

    “Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart” was the first of a plethora of haiku and tanka books I purchased.

    I joined a poetry group via Facebook. My first haiku I shared in the group grabbed the attention of Don Baird. He explained that I had written a hokku and took me under his wing.

    ice storm . . .
    crescent moons strewn
    across the floor

    I am forever a student learning and honing my skills at writing haiku. My advice is to read as much haiku as possible.

    Cheers!

    1. Dear Veronika,

      That is a powerful story!

      I worked out that in my first five years, where I studied haiku, and its earlier “genre parents”, and would not allow myself to run a single haiku workshop, for that time, that I probably read at least a quarter of a million hokku and haiku.

      I loved reading haikai verses and found a home in them as a reader. It was a struggle to become a writer of haiku, and another struggle to become a consistent writer of this genre. I’m glad now that I didn’t find writing haiku an easy journey.

      I think it’s important to both stay a “learner” and a student, and struggle and strive to write haiku.

      You are of course a poet I have much admired for a very long time, and one who has caught the magic of this most elusive of writing genres.

      warmest regards,
      Alan

      1. Dear Alan,

        I read more than I write and am cautious about using social media as an outlet to create haiku and workshop due to unfortunate privacy issues. Despite being my own worst critic (lol), my haiku continues to be published in select journals. Forever a student.

        Warmly,

        Veronika Zora

        1. Dear Veronika,

          I do read a lot but I also investigate what I want to be able to write too. I don’t submit hundreds of poems out there, but quietly corral what I want to do.

          Being your toughest critic is good, keep doing that, and being a student. 🙂

          Alan

          1. Hey Alan,

            It’s never been about being published. I write haiku from moments I experience with one or more of my six senses. I contemplate the moment. Then I write and edit until I am comfortable with the outcome. I don’t bang out 30 haiku a day. I am content to create one solid haiku taking my time. I’m not competitive. And I support fellow haijin. I am humble. I choose very specific journals with hopes of being published. It’s about quality, not quantity.

        2. Dear Veronika,

          You said:
          “It’s never been about being published.”

          That’s a really important point! It might seem counter-intuitive, but it really isn’t. If we put publishing credits before everything else we risk diluting our work, not putting our best version of our poetry and ourselves first. So I wholeheartedly agree with that statement.

          You said:
          “Then I write and edit until I am comfortable with the outcome.”

          Yes, and patient, and not ready to email a submission, but eager to have the best possible version, with a mind to not even worrying if we submit that day.

          You said:
          “I am content to create one solid haiku taking my time. I’m not competitive.”

          Yes! One exceptional haiku can make a whole year better than a hundred or more okay to good haiku. We can be competitive with ourselves, but even that isn’t important. It’s letting the haiku find its level, and not getting in its way, by patiently nudging the poem and letting the poem nudge us along at the same time! 🙂

          You said:
          “And I support fellow haijin. I am humble.”

          That’s why I created an unusual set of submission guidelines with my new MahMight haiku journal:
          https://mahmighthaikujournal.blogspot.com/2021/05/a-mahmight-introduction-to-new-haiku.html

          You seem to be a wonderful person to submit to the journal at some time. No deadline, any time during 2021. 🙂

          You said:
          “It’s about quality, not quantity.”

          Yes! If we can look back after even a year or two and see a handful of exceptional haiku that just seemed to blink into existence because we waited, that is reward enough, rather than a hundred or more haiku we are just ‘okay’ about.

          warmest regards,
          Alan

  10. Journey of the master haiku poet Alan Summers is phenomenal .
    Extensive reading of haiku master’s wórk and being we’ll versed of the technique of haiku writing are the basics to be a haiku poet .
    Keep burning the haiku sprit and devlop your own style of writing and speculation is the punchline of this conversation .
    It guides in proper direction in a jinko walk you need to carry your haiku sprit along with your notebook .

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