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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Chuck Brickley

This week, New to Haiku is pleased to interview Chuck Brickley, author of earthshine, and a panelist for The Haiku Foundation Touchstone Awards. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Chuck.

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

A high school English teacher suggested my poetry was similar to haiku. A little research inspired me to write a flurry of 17 syllable “haiku” before I lost interest. Several years later, my studies in comparative religion and philosophy led me back to haiku. I discovered many of the aesthetics underlying the Japanese poetic form aligned with my evolving world view. I began to read every book of haiku that I could get my hands on.

Do you have haiku mentors? What advice did they give you?

Robert Spiess, longtime editor of Modern Haiku, rejected my first submissions, but not without guidance on how to improve them. Most of his suggestions revolved around the age-old writing advice, “show don’t tell.”  Be in the moment, let the experience speak for itself. Ideas, emotions and all connotative matter are best impliedevokedrather than stated outright. A year after my first acceptance at Modern Haiku, Bob invited me to be his associate editor, a post I held for six years. Since then, Christopher Herold has become a great friend and mentor, for which I am deeply grateful.

Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?

Early haiku influences include Basho, John Wills, Robert Spiess; non-haiku influences: Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder, Cid Corman (who also wrote haiku).

Where do you compose your haiku? Do you have a writing process?

Several years ago my iPhone replaced my notebook. I jot down ideas as they happen, on hikes, in my backyard, down a grocery aisle. Sometimes a poem comes all apiece; other times, it waits until I “free fall” on my word processor, seeing where the original experience will take me.

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

Be still, be patient, observe. All manner of natural phenomena from your everyday world will become apparent, each detail yielding its unique luster, its own significance in that particular shared moment. Make this, and the craft of expressing it, your focus, rather than the process of appearing in journals, being awarded, and seeing your first book published. Allow your practice to proceed naturally, horse before cart. I would also advise studying the Japanese masters, and the aesthetics of Japanese poetry (sabi, yugen, ma, mu, etc.). That said, remember Basho’s directive: “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the Masters; seek what they sought.”

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

A haiku of mine (see photo) was awarded a Touchstone Award for Individual Poems (2014). The award is an actual stone engraved with my haiku, which I immediately put outside in our garden. Recently I caught a skunk digging under it. A critic, looking for something deeper!

Chuck Brickley’s Touchstone Award

Can you share some favorite haiku that you have written? Are there any stories behind them?

Rather than my favourites, I’d like to share several that illustrate ideas which may prove interesting to those new to haiku.

alley frost
except
where he slept

Homelessness is a heart-breaking reality in my two home cities, San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. Difficult to write about without being sentimental. Note the rhyme. Haiku is literature, and all the techniques of English language poetry are available in haiku, if used judiciously, and for a reason. I view this haiku as being akin to Hemingway’s six-word story.

the firemen too
stand back in the night
and watch

How do you express the inexpressible? You don’t. Like most haiku, this has two parts; the secondthe most significantis tacit.

lovers down the beach
turn out to be
driftwood

I included this in an email to a friend, who wrote back:

driftwood down the beach
turns out to be
lovers

I answered, “Well, yes, this is San Francisco (lol). But the original has more existential resonance.”

black
berry a
tiny bug
explores
sun by
sun

To form a poem in the shape of its subject merely because it’s about that subject is a novelty that often wears thin. My idea here is to invite the reader to maneuver its syntax, in the same way the bug is traversing the blackberry’s globes, each with its reflection of the sun; in the same way a poet explores our globe day by day, year after year. Yes, that’s a metaphor, a figure of speech often maligned by haiku purists. Metaphor is in the mind of the beholder!

deserted schoolyard
the fence he climbed over
to Iraq

“The moment” stands supreme in haiku lore. But how long is a moment? When does it begin? End? Telescoping and expanding time are among many effective techniques employed in haiku composition.

last lilac
the bee’s shadow slips
to a lower leaf

Like I say, “be still, patient, observe.” And be willing to write, rewrite, and re-rewrite (this is the fourth version of “last lilac”). Note how the rolling consonants contribute to the sensuality of the experience. As well, how the first line layers in a sense of time passing, even in spring.

a cane
left on the bridge
evening haze

Jisei is the Japanese death poem. While some poets wait to compose them on their deathbed, others work on them throughout their lives. Basho famously suggested all his haiku were jisei. I can relate. To fully appreciate a haiku, mine or anyone’s, I try to view it as being framed by the void. For this one moment, the focal point of existence. The first, and last, poem.

Chuck Brickley

Chuck Brickley is currently on the panel for the THF Touchstone Award for Individual Poems, a judge for the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Invitational, the 2nd Vice President (contest coordinator) of the Haiku Society of America, and a mentor in the HSA Mentorship program. Visit him online at http://www.chuckbrickley.com.

Julie Bloss Kelsey

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.

This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. Chuck I attended the SCHSG meeting yesterday and found
    your talk illuminating, both in terms of process and inspiration.
    Your toolbox provided insight and I enjoyed your “go deeper”
    and “free fall” elements added creativity to the discussion
    while enhancing the “practical” aspects of writing haiku,
    many thanks.

    scott

    1. Very cool, Scott. Thank you for the poz feed re workshop. Coming from you, means a lot. Which reminds me, I tried once reaching you via messenger. I’ll try again!

  2. Dear Chuck, Thank you so much for your reply. It really resonated with me and to be honest describes my practice but may be not the long hours, more late hours! Very encouraging and something to truly reflect on, I can’t thank you enough. What you say about being hit by a wave of inspiration is so true, it literally feels like that, and then an all too calm sea, a becalmed ship. I will keep patient and observe. Much appreciated, David

  3. Thank you for taking the time to write this guidance for newbies. I found the link to Jane. R’s techniques informative; hard to keep them all in mind — there were so many.

    I’ve been writing what I thought was haiku for a handful of years (only knew 5-7-5 until recently); I was drawn to the brevity and structure — a stark contrast to other ways I like to write. Yet, I was only writing; not reading haiku by others (never occurred to me…). I only wanted to express what I saw, thought or noticed.

    In recent times I’ve come across, and there appears to be, a whole universe out there of people — others — writing/having written haiku. [Perhaps begs the question: do I live under a rock?] The haiku world (along with a multitude of forms; tanga, haibun, haiga, etc.) was and is a little intimidating (thinking I’ve been doing it wrong all along; and what do I “know”; what’s right/wrong; maybe I aught find another rock), combined with curiosity and desire to learn. So, I was guided here and there to here and a few other theres. I’ve now ordered some books. Writing anyways despite all that I don’t know/know.

    Marvelous how willing and generous you and others are in giving direction and encouragement. I am grateful. Thank you for the guidance and examples.

    Sincerely,
    Annie

    1. Annie, I thought I hated haiku for years! I think there is still a blog post of mine out there somewhere where I describe just how much I despised this form. It’s funny how things can change. I found my way to haiku through science fiction haiku, and once I made my way here, I was hooked. I have read – wish I remember where – that reading haiku is like picking through a box of chocolates. Haiku are short and sweet — the worst you will soon forget and the best will remain with you for a lifetime. I also found the links that Chuck suggested to be very helpful. Thanks for writing!

    2. Hi Annie,
      I had a similar experience as you. I started writing 17 syllable haiku when I was 15, and continued doing so (off and on) for ten years–the whole time utterly unaware of anyone else doing so. Surreal haiku, syllables splattered all over the page, but count ’em, 17! Glad to hear that you ordered some books, and are checking out our little community online. I realize that it can seem overwhelming at first, but take your time, and enjoy the discoveries along the way. Cheers!

      Chuck

  4. I really enjoy these New to haiku interviews, Julie! They are very helpful to this forever-newbie haiku seeker. Chuck, I especially appreciated your explanations and analysis of the poems you shared. Thanks for giving me some insight into your writing.

    1. Thanks, Peggy. They are all so different, aren’t they? I have so much to learn…

      1. Hello Chuck,
        I enjoyed this interview very much and found the haiku worthy of many, many reads. Thank you.

        1. Hi Chuck, I have your book which is a constant reference point for my attempted writing. I wondered about your advice when it comes to practice. When it comes to music, writing novels, painting, drawing, practice seems to be very clear – you can sit down with the instruments of your art and practice and practice. But how can one build up enough practice to be a master in the craft of haiku when the ‘proceeding naturally’ can seem painfully slow progress for some of us, if progress at all? Any advice? Many thanks

          1. Hi David, Thank you for the kind words re EARTHSHINE. Does an old heart glad! Truth told, your concern applies to me as much as anyone. Although it comes easily sometimes, often I have to work at it, with mixed results. I would add that I don’t see a fundamental difference between practicing our art form and those you mention. While each poet develops their own “scales,” “backstories” and “sketches,” we share much in common. We take notes. We keep in touch with what we’re thinking and feeling on a daily basis. We observe our environment to the last detail, in a seasonal context. We study the work of contemporary haiku poets (horizontal axis) and those throughout history (vertical axis). We study the nuts & bolts of poetry in general. We sit at a desk (wherever) writing, going through our notes on all the above, writing, thumbing a thesaurus, writing, googling the difference between cirrus and altocirrus, writing, running a recent poem by a trusted colleague for feedback, writing. If done mindfully, these long hours–even if they seem unproductive–are not wasted, but spent sharpening tools so that, each time we are hit by a wave of inspiration, we can ride that wave longer, without having to stop and think about what we’re doing. That’s when the good stuff happens.

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