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 rillthe greenfinch movesits green around
murmur of a rilla greenfinch movesits 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 rilla greenfinch movesits 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 tricka greenfinch movesits green around– Alan SummersThird 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 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”: