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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Ben Gaa, Part 1

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.

This week, we begin our interview with Ben Gaa. Ben recently held a haiku workshop with Patricia McGuire of called Taking the Me Out of Haiku. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Ben.

How did you come to learn about haiku?
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.
Poet Ben Gaa with his cat.
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 print poetry collection, Grasping the Fading Light: A Journey Through PTSD, won the 2021 Women’s International Haiku Contest from Sable Books. Her ebook of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Moth Orchid Press (formerly Title IX Press). Her most recent collection, After Curfew, is available from Cuttlefish Books. Connect with her on Instagram @julieblosskelsey.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. These glimpses into the writing lives of the haiku poets are great–and all the more essential in this time of covid separations. Thanks so much for this feature. Someday, it may figure in my own retrospective. Meanwhile, it serves to show that there is no one way, other than reading, writing, perseverance, and staying open to the moment.

    1. Hi Laurie – I’ve really enjoyed reading these too. Every poet answers these questions so differently – walking their own haiku path – but there are commonalities. I’m putting together a list of books I need to read!

  2. Dear Ben, thank you for sharing your origin story. I too received a rejection letter from the Heron’s Nest early on in my haiku writing life (very recently, in fact). The letter from Jeff Hoagland was remarkable in its sensitivity and encouragement. Of the poems I sent, he liked one that he said would surely find a home, just not at the Heron’s Nest. I am holding on to that one as I search for the right home. The right rejection is a valuable learning experience. I am sure to receive many more and consider them to be as valuable, if not more so, than an acceptance. It is important to remember that the value of haiku writing comes in the writing, not the publishing.

    1. What a wonderful comment!

      All of your commentary is wonderful, and wonderfully accurate. I loved the last statement:

      ” It is important to remember that the value of haiku writing comes in the writing, not the publishing.”

      That is so true!

      Although this says it’s a ‘contest’ it’s not in the ordinary sense:

      Whether your one particular haiku that was mentioned, or another, I wonder if this might pique your interest?

      warmest regards,
      Alan Summers
      co-founder, Call of the Page

  3. Dear Ben, Thank you. After reading your post, I remembered a paper I wrote with a professor and fellow doctoral students at Northern Illinois University. Those were the early years for Special Education, and we were all from different backgrounds: education, physical therapy, clinical psychology, experimental psychology etc. This paper was about direct observation research skills. The paper was rejected at first. We were asked to make the paper several pages shorter and also add more content. I asked the first author, our professor, if I could try to rewrite the paper. I spent a summer learning to write shorter paragraphs with more information. The paper was then accepted by the journal. In the 1990s, when I began with haiku, the work in direct observation and this paper were part of my foundation.

    Another professor said to think of publication as finding the right home for a paper, and to use the conclusion of a paper to suggest how the work can be improved – the growth of a field. I publish first on my blogs as a general rule. Now so many young people read and I hope they see a simple poem and think, “I can write too.”

    And we thought a lot about feedback in Special Education. If a child is always failing a spelling test with 10 words, but can learn fewer a week – why not begin with a smaller list and build success. Use a bar graph to show progress – good you learned one more this week. Not another failure. The glass is more than half full. I listened to your interview and liked how you presented information – I can remember today. I will read and learn more. Thanks again.


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