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 conclude our interview with Ben Gaa. You can read part 1 of this interview here. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Ben.
Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?
One of the things that I love about haiku is that it pulled me away from my old “writing desk” mentality and allowed me to do my writing anywhere. I’ve got a haiku sketchbook that I use just to work on haiku with a separate journal for doing actual journaling. This sketchbook goes with me to parks, pubs, cafes, poetry readings where I’m in the audience listening, museums, concerts, you get the idea. It’s with me where I am and, if it isn’t, I use a Notes app on my phone which I then will transcribe to that book when it’s available again.
When I do write, my process is to also have things to read along with me. I never do any sort of writing session without books on hand to read from. These can be big fat anthologies like The Haiku Anthology, Haiku Moment, Naad Anunaad, or individual collections from the likes of Carolyn Hall, George Swede, Margaret Chula, or print journals like Acorn, Frogpond, and Modern Haiku, to name a few. I’ll find a comfy spot, crack open a book and will begin to read. The reading of haiku slows my mind and allows me to find my flow and before long something will strike one of my senses and I’m off and running.
I do all of my writing by hand. And I write each and every version of the poem I’m chewing on. I will not scratch out a word and write an edit above the scratch marks. I will write the entire poem again. And again. And again. And again until the pieces fall together just right and the poem is balanced, feels good to be read out loud, and seems like it’s always existed.
What are your favorite haiku that you have written? Can you tell us the stories behind them?
This is a tough one. Here are the first three that come to my head, which says something about them being deep in my psyche:
the time it takes to lose a street
the way we split
unable to let it go
the word “hope”
on a polished stone
One of the things that I like most about haiku is that they don’t really rely on background stories to make them work or be interesting. They exist all on their own. That said, the poem of mine that gets used in almost every talk I give on haiku is the following piece:
a little frog
on our sundial
I talk about this poem a lot because it easily illustrates how a haiku works, with two images and the cut in the third line. It shows how simple, succinct and suggestive language allows the reader to step inside the poem and see their own frog, see their own sundial, and place the poem in a setting that is unique to them. Every time I talk about this poem, people go into great detail as to where it takes them. They can describe exactly what their frog looks like, what their sundial looks like. All of the specificity that they give me is so far beyond what I could have provided them if I gave more detail in the poem. And I always enjoy hearing the story they tell me about this piece. I also like to add that the poem originally didn’t have “little” in the first line and was passed over by several journals. I believed in the poem, though, and finally realized that a bland opening of “a frog” was sinking the piece. I added “little” and suddenly it got picked up the very next time it was sent out.
For those just starting out, what advice would you give?
Read. Read. Read. And read some more. I would start with some books such as Haiku: A Poet’s 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 by Bruce Ross. I would also pick a few journals and just read them. It is very important to read new work by folks writing today. Then I would start writing. And write. And write. And write.
Don’t be afraid of trying things and drafting and especially don’t be afraid of writing bad poems. I write many more bad poems than good ones still. You’ve got to write a lot of bad poems to begin to really understand how things work.
And write while you read. All the poets in the books at your disposal are teaching you as much as they are delighting you with poems. I am still picking up new tricks and finding new solutions to poems from books I’ve read 15 times.
Also, and this is a key thing to remember when writing haiku, is that the haiku poem doesn’t belong to you. The moment that you create, that you setup, that you put down on paper, is there to engage the reader. A haiku isn’t complete until someone else reads it. So keep that in mind when you write. If the poem is too tied to you, it won’t engage the reader. I always say that when I’m doing my job as a haiku poet, you don’t see me at all in the poem.
The readers see themselves. They bring their own lives, their own truths to the moment that I’m sharing with them. And it takes them someplace uniquely theirs. That’s when things work. That’s when I’ve done my job. It’s a unique aspect to this little form, and it’s one of the features that makes a haiku a haiku.
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.