Today at New to Haiku, let’s meet Charles Trumbull. Charles is Editor-in-Chief of Haikupedia, the online encyclopedia of haiku. He has served as president of the Haiku Society of America, honorary curator of the American Haiku Archives, editor of Modern Haiku and co-organizer of two Haiku North America conferences. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Charlie!
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. You can read posts from previous Advice for Beginners interviewees here.
Welcome to New to Haiku, Charlie! How did you come to learn about haiku?
In 1958 or so I was a junior in high school. I grew up in Las Vegas, New Mexico, a town so small that it lacked even a decent bookstore. There was, however, a back room in an art gallery that sold books on artsy topics. I loved to browse there, and two of the books that captured my fancy were Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku and a collection of Jack Kerouac’s haiku. I was attracted mostly by the exoticism of these tiny poems, but I remember puzzling over Bashō: What’s the big deal about a frog jumping into the water?
As for actually learning about haiku and trying to write my own, that came much later, in the early 1990s. I was working at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany. A group of my workmates and our spouses gathered at a dinner party, and afterward we played “Dictionary,” in which one person is “it” and selects a word from the dictionary that others would probably not know. Each other person then makes up a possible definition, “it” writes the true definition, and everyone votes on the results, to great hilarity. When the word “triolet” was offered, my proffered definition (“a marsh marigold”) was shot down ruthlessly, and the true definition was read (“a poem or stanza of eight lines in which the first line is repeated as the fourth and seventh and the second line as the eighth with a rhyme scheme of ABaAabAB”). I, slightly tipsy, blustered, “I could write a triolet with one hand tied behind my back.” Four of my coworkers took up the challenge, and we agreed to meet for lunch once a month and read poems we had written. Participants rotated selecting the theme for the next meeting, and when it came my turn, I remembered my high-school flirtation with haiku. It was then that I began reading about haiku, got serious about composing them and, in a word, got hooked.
Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
Lee Gurga is my sensei. I met him during preparations for the 1995 Haiku Chicago meeting of the Haiku Society of America and the Japanese Haiku International Association and worked closely with him on a variety of projects: haiku groups and meetings, publications, and especially the journal Modern Haiku and its auxiliary, Modern Haiku Press. It would be hard to point to any specific advice that Lee gave me; rather he gave me a perspective on haiku and tools for writing and critiquing my own work. Besides Lee’s haiku, I especially admired many of the pioneers of English-language haiku, especially Elizabeth Searle Lamb, John Wills, and Raymond Roseliep.
Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?
I don’t write much these days, and, since I spend so much time at the computer, most of my inspirations take place here. (Also, all my files are on my Mighty Mac, so I can immediately check my work for originality!) Whenever I am traveling, however, I take along a haiku notebook. I wish I had a more systematic approach to writing—setting out an hour or two every morning just to write, or keeping a journal — but I have never had the patience for that. Most of my haiku are spur-of-the-moment, inspired by a verse by someone else or a reaction to some remarkable thing or event around me.
How do you approach reading haiku?
In connection with my projects I typically read hundreds if not thousands of haiku a week, so my usual approach to new collection tends to the quantitative rather than qualitative. I’m fascinated, though, by what we might call the evolution or trajectory of English-language haiku. So much is different now than it was a hundred, fifty, or even twenty years ago. I confess that I am a traditionalist when it comes to haiku: not necessarily three lines of 5-7-5 [syllables] plus kigo, but more the subject matter, tenor, and haimi (understated, refined taste) of the work.
For those just starting out with haiku, what advice would you give?
Read, read, read. Study the work of the Japanese- and English-language masters, and learn the “rules” of haiku and understand why they have defined the dimensions of haiku for centuries. Only then can you hope to create original work. I believe there is great merit to the Japanese master-disciple system, and an object lesson in the stories of the student who brings a haiku every day, year after year, until the master finally approves one.
What are some of the fun ways that you have used or experienced haiku?
I enjoy participating in collaborative linked-verse sessions — renku and especially rengay — though I’m not sure that the haikai are true haiku since they often rely more on wit than depth of spirit and meaning.
What are your favorite haiku that you have written? Can you share a story behind one of them?
That’s tough! How does a person choose between his/her children? I scanned my haiku records and came up with ten haiku that caught my fancy this time around, then painfully winnowed them down to these three:
for Double-Word score
I add an “s” to “haiku” …
- Frogpond 34:2 (Spring/Summer 2011)
I give the persimmon
- Kingfisher 7 (April 2023)
nearly dusk …
the shadow of her tombstone
1st International Kusamakura Haiku Competition, 1996, Special Selection
My other hobby is genealogy and family history, and the last haiku above was written while I was walking a 19th century graveyard in Indiana looking for an early relative. I found Moses Trumbull’s stone right away, but his wife Amelia, who predeceased him, was not buried next to her husband. I finally located her grave too—clear across the cemetery from Moses. I was puzzled by this, and tried to capture my bemusement in this haiku.
You maintain an archive of haiku in English, The Haiku Database. I’ve heard that it contains roughly half of all published English-language haiku. Wow! I’m impressed. How long have you been working on this? How large is your collection now? What inspired you to begin your archive?
Here is a description of the project that I wrote:
“Some years ago I was in the library looking for the text of a certain poem and was grateful for those anthologies that featured a first-line index of the contents. I had the thought that it would be wonderful to have a first-line or subject index of the best English-language haiku. But then, I continued, since haiku are so short, why not a full-text index? And while we’re at it, since we’re effectively talking only about 40 years of English haiku activity, why not a comprehensive, inclusive database? The Haiku Database is an attempt to do just that: to put into a searchable, sortable, electronic database all important haiku that have appeared in English. I began working on the project in September 1998 and as of this morning I have captured more than 544,608 haiku. An unscientific guess is that the total number of haiku and haiku translations published in English in the journals, anthologies, individual collections, in print and online, is about twice that number.”
“The purpose of the Haiku Database is to make it easier for serious students to locate and study haiku—i.e., it is a finding tool. So far the database has proved useful to poets wishing to verify the originality of their own work and has helped identify cases of plagiarism in haiku contests. It has been useful for authors writing about haiku, preparing newspaper columns or journal articles, and compiling anthologies to have at hand large selection of examples, together with original publication information. Clearly, any sort of commercial use or even making the Haiku Database publicly available—e.g., on the Web—is out of the question, and I will not publish any raw search data. I do, however, make the existence of this resource known and offer to search it and provide search results for anyone in the haiku community. If you are looking for a specific haiku or want to know what use has been made of, for example, “pampas grass” or “Christmas” in haiku, I’ll be happy to run a search for you—within reason.” You can reach me at cptrumbull\at\comcast.net.
You are Editor-in-Chief of Haikupedia. What would you like newcomers to know about this haiku resource?
Haikupedia is an independent project launched on the Web on June 21, 2020 and operating under the aegis of The Haiku Foundation. It endeavors to be a comprehensive online encyclopedia about all aspects of haiku everywhere in the world, past and present.
We began by posting key essays, mainly country articles (e.g., “Haiku in Spain,” “Haiku in West Africa”) and biographies of haiku poets (full-length biographies of past poets, short sketches of living poets). We now publish new material — including articles on contests, organizations, events, etc. —online once a month. During the period of our toddlerhood, Haikupedia will primarily contain materials in English with a focus on North American and European haiku activities and personalities. As we gain momentum, however, we hope to add original and parallel articles in other languages and expand our field of vision until it is uniformly international.
Progress is slow, and we editors number only three: Theresa A. Cancro in Delaware (replacing founding Managing Editor Stella Pierides), Iliyana Stoyanova in England as Photo Editor and Special Editor for the UK and Bulgaria, and me, as Editor in Chief, in New Mexico. Still, we have already posted well over 300 articles, and Haikupedia has now reached a stage that it is fun to browse. Please check us out at www.haikupedia.org — and let us know what you think!
What haiku-related project are you currently working on that brings you joy? What do you like about it?
Well, both of my big projects are true labors of love, and I get great pleasure working on them (most of the time) and interacting with other haiku people. I thoroughly enjoy compiling the “Field Guide to North American Haiku,” the topical mini-anthologies of haiku that have been appearing in Frogpond for the past several years. I am also collaborating with others on several anthologies and biographies of prominent haikuists of the past.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Whew, no! I have already been way too wordy!
Charles Trumbull (born Charles Perry Trumbull III, May 17, 1943, Flint, Michigan, U.S.A.). American editor, publisher, and haiku historian and poet. Author of two award-winning books of and about haiku, he served as president of the Haiku Society of America, honorary curator of the American Haiku Archives, editor of Modern Haiku and co-organizer of two Haiku North America conferences. Trumbull is the founding editor of Haikupedia. He has resided in Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 2009.