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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Bona M. Santos

This week, New to Haiku is pleased to interview Bona M. Santos. Bona began writing and publishing haiku in 2017. She is a member of the Haiku Society of America (HSA), the Southern California Haiku Study Group (SCHSG), and the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society (YTHS). Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Bona.

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, Bona! How did you come to learn about haiku?

My haiku journey started on a metro bus ride on the streets of Los Angeles decades ago! At that time, I did not know what type of poetry I was reading, but I did know I was very intrigued with the 3-line poems appearing on placards inside the bus.  Some were fun to read, profound or perplexing.  Fast forward years later while I was at a yearly celebration of the Nisei Festival in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo, I noticed a wall called Haiku Corner where attendees were invited to write poetry. Curious about it, I started reading what was being written and realized they were 3-line poems. I found haiku or so I thought! I started searching how-to-haiku on Google and encountered Basho’s old pond haiku with more than a hundred translations (!) and read articles about the 5-7-5 style.  So, I wrote poems counting my syllables and was pretty happy with myself.

I tried looking for a haiku group in Los Angeles but was not able to find one at that time. More years passed and in 2017, the annual Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books included a Haiku Booth on its list of exhibitors! It was the one compelling reason why I attended the event in the middle of a hot afternoon in April.

Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?

I met Deborah P Kolodji at the Festival of Books Haiku Booth. I was so impressed when she gave me a 15-minute talk about haiku. I found the concept challenging but exciting to me, and I was hooked from that time on! It was not all about 5-7-5 syllables, after all! It also helped that I found her book, Highway of Sleeping Towns, so interesting since it appealed to my background in the sciences.  I had never encountered poems that were science-centric before! She invited me to join the monthly meetings of the Southern California Haiku Study Group workshop in Pasadena, CA and also informed me about the 2017 Haiku North America (HNA) conference in Santa Fe, NM.

With Debbie’s haiku talk fresh in mind, I wrote 12 haiku that night and emailed them to her for comments. Amazingly to me at that time, she responded with her comments and got me all the more encouraged to pursue haiku. Four of my 12 attempts made it to the SCHSG Anthology that year! I found my niche.

2017 was my haiku watershed. I attended the HNA in Santa Fe and joined the HSA. I fearlessly introduced myself as a beginner to the poets I met and I found them very supportive. I was also invited to join the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society when I went to their Asilomar Retreat that year.

Having gotten me to embrace haiku, I consider Deborah P Kolodji my mentor. She has been very generous of her time to read my poems. I’ve learned so much from her feedback and from attending her workshops. She instilled in me the importance of juxtaposition and in-the-moment observations in writing haiku.  I always start with those in mind when I write.

At the YTHS, Patricia J. Machmiller has also shared a gem of advice that I adhere to. If you are having to deal with writing bad haiku, she advised to never stop writing, regardless.  Leave your inner critic in the other room and give it a name.  Do not let the critic in your head. Continue writing poems until you are ready to deal with them and only then, can you invite your inner critic back. I have found this advice so useful with my re-writes. There is nothing more satisfying than polishing a bad haiku until it shines. Well, in my mind, anyway… until it gets published and you get that validation of the process.

I get inspired by reading the work of other haiku writers but my style is evolving. I am open to ideas and I have been specially drawn to those out-of-the-box or cutting-edge senryu that I have been reading. I’d like to think that I have gotten out of my comfort zone by trying out other forms and formats like monoku, tanka, haibun and haiga.

Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?

I do not keep an appointment with my writing. I write anytime and anywhere.  I find the inspiration to compose poetry when I wake up in the early morning and see Venus in the sky or the full moon streaking in my kitchen, during my walks – I try to stop while crossing the street, though! – or while having a conversation with someone, after attending an event or just being in a quiet place anywhere.  I will have all these poems in my head and either type them on my phone or grab a pen and start scribbling in a small notepad. I also find attending conferences and workshops very helpful.  I always learn something new and find myself writing more haiku after these events.

At work, writing haiku calms me in the middle of a stressful day. I call them my “mad haiku.” Not necessarily angry ones since some are funny, they are a means to release the stress or rant at an annoying situation. I could write a whole chapter or a chapbook based on the times I have written “mad haiku” to relieve stress!

I do set a time to sit down and have all my scribbles and notes transferred to my notebook and then I number them accordingly. At that point, the poems may have undergone a number of re-writes. I have them catalogued electronically, too. But for me, the poems in ink and paper are the ultimate back-up when all else starts breaking down.

As a former working marine biologist, science is part of your daily life. How does your scientific training and background influence you as a poet? Does it impact how you approach writing haiku?

My work in marine biological research and conservation trained me to have a methodical mind-set which helps in getting me back on track at times when I get lazy with my writing. Since haiku for me is an exercise in observation, I did a lot of that in research and it is one of the tools I have used to develop my passion in haiku. My experience in that field and my keen interest in the sciences, in general, inspire me but I do have to write more haiku using my science background as a springboard.

How do you approach reading haiku? 

I read haiku journals I subscribe to cover to cover. I initially speed read through the poems and stop at those that catch my attention either because I instantly like them or they are intriguing enough to read and re-read until I get it. Sometimes, I do go back to page one and read through again more slowly. It is like travelling through different landscapes of the mind!

For those just starting out with haiku, what advice would you give?

It is important to find a haiku group you will be comfortable with. I wouldn’t be where I am in my writing had I not joined my writing groups. During these pandemic times, Zoom meetings/conferences provide even more opportunities to be involved. There are some very informative and educational events in the study of writing haiku that are open to the public. Seize those when you find them and get in there. Some are free and others have minimal fees. Most haiku groups may be transitioning to live events soon but there are good venues like your local haiku group workshops, community poetry events that may include haiku, conferences like the biennial Haiku North America, the annual Asilomar Retreat of the YTHS or Seabeck Haiku Getaway of Haiku Northwest, and other regional conferences in your area to meet seasoned writers to learn from and find a haiku poet that may become a mentor to you. It is also good to find a fellow poet to bounce ideas with on a regular basis. These exchanges can be very productive in either helping you with a poem you are having a problem with or inspiring you to write new poetry.

Above all, do not stop writing even when you are not happy with your output. Do as many re-writes as you need to until you find the right form to your haiku.

At the SCHSG, we have suggested forming what we call a “haiku pod” where a group of 4 poets (or whatever is your level of comfort as to the number of participants) can meet face-to-face in an outdoor setting following all local Covid protocols in lieu of our usual group meeting at a library since we are still meeting on Zoom. In the few times I have done this with my haiku pod, it inspired a lot of poetry writing and it was fun!

What are some of the fun ways that you have used or experienced haiku?

I have been sharing a lot of my work with family and friends via video calls!  I had fun introducing them to haiku since most of them are clueless at first! I would write something from stories or pictures they were sharing to make the poem more accessible. I get some hilarious interpretations or the unexpected take to my haiku, such that I am actually learning from them, too. It is very rewarding to have them slowly get into haiku — they now ask me to read them my latest! Besides, they are my rah-rah cheering squad that gets me more inspired to write.

What are your favorite haiku that you have written? Can you share a story behind one of them?

home for Thanksgiving
breathe in…
breathe out…

This is one of the first batch of haiku that I wrote early on. I submitted it to my first YTHS Asilomar Retreat in 2017. I’ve always found Thanksgiving reunions to be full of drama, but during the retreat, I was literally a bunch of nerves and trying some deep breathing to calm myself!  Amazingly, it placed second in the kukai of that year! I have been enjoying kukai exercises since.

floating kelp forest
bobbing with the waves –
morning chill

white rose
the silence that comes
after the last whisper

a hillside shifts shape spring rain

And here’s one of my “mad haiku”:

walking encyclopedia
all I want
is a simple yes or no

What haiku-related project are you currently working on that brings you joy? What do you like about it?

I have been bouncing ideas with a fellow poet and a project is percolating out of that! It is a lot of fun being challenged to get bolder with my writing, but it also helps to have someone who inspires me. I cannot give out more details but watch out for it!


Bona M. Santos

Having developed a passion in haiku, she continues to challenge herself to be bolder and innovative in her writing.

She is a member of the Haiku Society of America, Southern California Haiku Study Group and the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society.

Her haiku has seen print or been online in Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Akitsu Quarterly, Autumn Moon Haiku Journal, Poetry Pea Journal, Frameless Sky, The Asahi Haikuist, seashores, hedgerow: a journal of small poems, Kingfisher, THF Haiku Dialogues & various anthologies.

In haiku, she finds her zen zone.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments. The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy for more information.

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 15 Comments

  1. Bona —
    Wonderful details about your journey to and with haiku! Inspirational! I remember rooming with you and Debbie Kolodji at your first YTHS retreat at Asilomar. Plus, your insightful “Thanksgiving” haiku that you shared at that YTHS retreat kukai. Looking forward to learning more about your “project” and to hearing/reading more of your haiku.

    1. It was great meeting and sharing time with you, Johnnie! Thank you for your kind words and encouraging support!

  2. Hello Bona, thank you so much for sharing your haiku journey. I have a small, but dedicated poetry and prose writing group that meets on Zoom once a month. We just celebrated our 1-year anniversary, and I would love to speak to you about possibly facilitating one of our sessions. All of us are interested in learning more about haiku.

    1. Hi Sharon,
      I am glad I was given the chance to share my story and to give back. It is good to hear about your group and your interest in learning haiku. I will be communicating with you shortly!

  3. Ah, Bona, I just loved reading this “New to Haiku” about your haiku journey. Having first met you at the YTHS Asilomar retreat, your line “rah-rah cheering squad” brought back fond memories. Yes! We all need a rah-rah cheerleader(s)! And your “mad” haiku is a favorite of mine; it is so nice to hear the history of it.

    walking encyclopedia
    all I want
    is a simple yes or no

    Write on!

    1. Fond memories, indeed Mimi! Thanks for being so supportive of my journey. It is meeting poets like you that encouraged me along the way.

  4. Thank you Susan Burch for your kind comments! It’s been great, and still is, exchanging ideas with you, too!

  5. Hi Bona,

    I finally confirmed that you are my college dorm mate whose name I see on the Frogpond and THF Haiku Dialogue! What a small world! I follow in your footsteps! . I am just getting used to Haiku and have been loving it since I joined the Haiku Society of America. Thank you for sharing your experience and looking forward to your exciting project. See you soon in person, in our common groups or through our Haikus! Stay safe and well💖


    1. Yes, that’s me, Didimay! Glad to see you on board!
      Send me a text sometime so we can touch base again.

  6. Dear Bona,

    It was wonderful to meet you on a couple of zooms. Wonderful to meet you again through this piece! I will keep an eye out for your exciting project!

    warmest regards ,

    1. It was nice meeting you too on Zoom, Allan! Your inspiring and very informative monoku presentation at the SCHSG gave me the push to write them. Thank you for that!

      1. Bona I love your mad haiku & what a great haiku story of coming to haiku through a placard! I know you’re going to do great things!

  7. Wow, Bona, what a great how-i-came-to-haiku story. Your willingness to learn and share and try new approaches has clearly helped you grow as a poet. Not to mention that you have talent!

    1. Thank you very much, Patricia! It helps a lot to have a dojin like you who has been very supportive of my growth as a poet.

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