Today at New to Haiku, let’s welcome Dan Schwerin. His collection ⊕RS (2015) won first place in The Haiku Foundation’s Touchstone Distinguished Book Awards for 2015 and an Honorable Mention in the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards in 2016. He founded the Haiku Waukesha study group, which ran from 2015 to 2021, and helped his wife, Julie Schwerin, establish the Words in Bloom: A Year of Haiku program at the Chicago Botanic Garden (2020–2021). Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Dan!
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, Dan! How did you come to learn about haiku?
A Lutheran pastor in our ecumenical clergy breakfast group looked at some of my verbose, confessional, blah blah blah poems and suggested haiku. I went to a northern Wisconsin library to find a few old copies of American Haiku. The flash of insight, the peacefulness, and the naturalness hooked me.
Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you?
I have been blessed with strong mentors in the Midwest. I studied Raymond Roseliep, Bill Pauly, Lee Gurga, Francine Banwarth, Randy Brooks, Gary Hotham, and then was in a group with Melissa Allen, David McKee, Gayle Bull, and Charlie Baker. I drove down to Charlie Trumbull’s and Charlotte Digregorio’s group, and met excellent poets there. These people taught me so much. I used to facilitate a group during Covid and those poets and their writing affected me deeply. Now every once in a blue moon we gather at Melissa Allen’s place in Madison and read poems and improve them.
My yes, find a group. Groups turbo charge your work. Look at the HSA newsletter or ask an editor for something that may be going near you.
Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
There are too many to name, but I love being able to say to my wife Julie, “Which is the better poem, this version, or that version?” Bill Pauly impressed me with the need to keep editing. Lee Gurga’s book, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, unlocked juxtaposition for me. His poems remind me I am constitutionally lazy, and I need to keep innovating. The Tohta omnibus and Richard Gilbert’s books unlocked gendai poems. Now when I get lost, I read John Martone or the anthologies of Gurga and Metz or Red Moon Press until another poet brings me home.
Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?
Every morning I do Lectio Divina in the Psalms and post the word that spoke to me on X (Twitter). Then I read a little theology or poetry until an image comes knocking on a what-if. Then I wrestle with what comes until there is a draft and whittle on it. I just get the poem down, whether it is garbage or not. I write two or three awful haiku every morning. Number one pencils. Sometimes I take an image I like and write a sijo or short free verse poem. The poem tells me what it wants to be. Then I put those poems in my pocket and edit them on the bus in Chicago, and when I first get to the office. I take them out over lunch, and then back home on the twenty bus. Then I leave them for two weeks until I can see how awful they are, and I edit them again.
How do you approach reading haiku?
I read everything. I read regular poets. Haiku poets. Chinese masters. I read about aesthetics. I read voraciously.
What are some of the fun ways that you have used or experienced haiku?
I write many poems from my practice as a United Methodist clergy person. I have used haiku to urge groups to reflect on Ash Wednesday (there are so many great Ash Wednesday poems), or Lent or Sabbath. I know you used the word fun, and generally my job is to take the fun out of things so I may not be a good judge of what is fun!
How does your vocation as a Methodist minister inform your haiku?
I write from my life. We all do. It was Fr. Roseliep’s work that suggested maybe I should write about the snow goose I am praying with on her way home, or the good wine we have in such little cups. Sometimes someone’s story or an ironic moment just compels me to write. I think Billy Collins said that haiku proclaim, “Isn’t it wonderful to be here?” It is hard to write a poem like that, but deeply rewarding.
I will say that reading Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems and my own practice of taking a day for renewal means I sometimes write a “Sabbath haiku” on my day of rest. I have worn out my poor editors with them but writing them and considering them helps me rest when a thousand tasks call my name.
You are married to fellow haiku poet Julie Schwerin. What’s it like having two haiku poets in the same household?
Heavenly. It is so meaningful to share life with a haiku poet. Sometimes she will be reading a journal, and she will turn to me and say, “Listen to this…” And 45 minutes later we will have finished a conversation on haiku. I will sometimes ask her to tell me which of two versions of a poem is better. Reading her work challenges me to write poems that are lighter or deeper or that are more purely juxtaposed.
For those just starting out with haiku, what advice would you give?
Read as many haiku as you can. Then read more. Note what others have done and try to do something beyond the time-worn—which is very difficult. Give yourself permission to write loads of poems and know only a few may sparkle. Edit through the day. Put them away for two weeks and go back to edit them again and you will see them more clearly. Allow yourself to be embarrassed by seeing your poem in print and thinking, “I should have edited that more thoroughly.” I think you will get more from haiku if you read many haiku and develop a practice. Soon seeing and writing poetry becomes a way of life. When I die, they will find two or three poems in my pockets also on their way to glory.
Dan and Julie Schwerin love evening walks and labyrinths. His poetry comes from life on a farm or making his rounds across thirty plus years as a pastor in Wisconsin, and now as the bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church. His debut haiku collection, ⊕RS, from Red Moon Press, won the Haiku Foundation’s Touchstone Award in 2015. Dan was the founder of the Haiku Waukesha study group (2015–2021); the group’s work was featured in Blossom Moon (edited by Lee Gurga and Kelly Sauvage Angel, 2020). He helped his wife Julie Schwerin establish the Words in Bloom: A Year of Haiku program at the Chicago Botanic Garden (2020–2021). You can find him on Twitter @SchwerinDan. He began writing haiku after finding an old copy of American Haiku in a northern Wisconsin library.
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