When you are New to Haiku, you may not know anyone who shares your interest in this little poetry form. We asked 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.
I got my first introduction to the Good Stuff while pursuing my Creating Writing degree at Knox College in the late 1990’s. I had been writing a lot of experimental work and suddenly found myself writing shorter and shorter poems. My advisor at the time, poet Sheryl St. Germain, suggested I take a look at The Essential Haiku, which is a book of translations of Basho, Buson and Issa from Robert Haas. To say that the book changed my life would be an understatement. It was the first time I experienced haiku that wasn’t written in 5/7/5 and it blew my mind. I immediately devoured the book and started attempting my own haiku-like poems. This would be a phase that would end before the end of the century, though, and wouldn’t come back into my life until 2009 when I came across the journals Acorn and The Heron’s Nest, which showed up on a list of poetry journals that accepted email submissions. That was still a novelty of sorts back then. It was my interaction with these journals that brought me to where I am now.
Did you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you?
I did have a haiku mentor. My interactions with Acorn and The Heron’s Nest are where my real love and passion for the form took hold. It was my interaction with the late Peggy Willis Lyles, one of the editors of The Heron’s Nest, that really had a profound impact on me and set me straight.
If you’re not familiar with the journal, you should be. It’s just great. They’re structured around a collection of editors wherein you pick one and that’s who you submit to. Everyone who submits to the journal sends their work to just one of the editors. They, in turn, will take the pieces they like to the rest of the team, who does the same with those who submitted to them, and the journal is made of the best of what these editors agree on. When choosing my editor, I picked Peggy. I did so because her name sounded nice. I pulled together some of my old haiku experiments from my early college days and sent them off only to receive a rejection note back, fairly quickly, I might add.
Peggy’s rejection note was great in its directness. She basically said that the poems weren’t good and that if I ever wanted to submit to The Heron’s Nest again, I’d need to learn what a haiku was otherwise I shouldn’t bother. Normally I would have been really put off by that note. But I was ready to hear some tough love and that struck a productive nerve in me. She had recommended I read a few on-line essays, of which I no longer have, unfortunately. But she suggested I read and then submit again. So I did. I read what she asked me to read, wrote 10 more poems and submitted again, and got another rejection note with a new reading list. This went on another two rounds, making it 4 separate submissions to the journal within one submission period. That is against their guidelines, to be sure, but she must have seen something in me and in my determination as I kept reading and trying again. That fourth try produced the following poem in the submission, which was accepted for the March 2010 issue:
an old dress on the line
fills with wind
I was now hooked and the rest is history. One thing that I would say about her approach to me was that she never told me what was wrong with my work. She left me to figure that out on my own. And that was done through books: Haiku: A Poets Guide by Lee Gurga, The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, The Haiku Anthology (Third Edition) from Cor van den Heuvel and Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku by Bruce Ross. These books are amazing. The latter two I still read at least once each year.
How do you approach reading haiku?
I love it. Nothing is more exciting than reaching for a book or journal of haiku and senryu. And with printed things I always read with a pen on hand to put a tick mark next to the poems that speak to me and jot notes and underline things in the poems that I find interesting. I reread a lot. I’ve got a nice list of anthologies that I will read at least once a year. Every print journal gets three reads before I put it on the bookshelf.
Ben Gaa is your friendly neighborhood haiku poet. He’s the author of two full length collections of haiku & senryu, One Breath (Spartan Press 2020), and the Touchstone Award winning Wishbones (Folded Word 2018), as well as three chapbooks, the Pushcart nominated Wasp Shadows (Folded Word 2014), Blowing on a Hot Soup Spoon (Poor Metaphor Design 2014) and Fiddle in the Floorboards (Yavanika Press 2018). Widely published in journals and anthologies around the globe, he enjoys both giving and attending poetry readings, conducting haiku workshops, and being a part of the literary conversation. Ben is a graduate of the Knox College Creative Writing program and works as an IT Functional Analyst for MilliporeSigma (aka Merck KgAA). He currently lives in St. Louis, MO, with his rascal of a cat, Anastasia.
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.