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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Ellen Compton

This week, New to Haiku is pleased to interview Ellen Compton, co-editor of Wishbone Moon and author of Gathering Dusk. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Ellen.

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

I would have to say, in stages. Reading Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji—an 11th century novel written by a lady of the Japanese court—opened the door to classical Japanese poetry. The work is threaded with poems in the court style: Often a short and graceful verse would be sent to someone, perhaps a lover, who returned it with a capping verse. I didn’t know it then, but this was my first taste of linked verse, the parent of haiku.

From a yard sale I scrounged a battered copy of Mirror for the Moon, an English translation of work by 12th century Japanese poet Saigyō. Written in traditional waka form of 31 syllables, which we now think of as tanka, the poems were charged with the poet’s deep love of the natural world.

The beat poets introduced me to haiku of the Japanese masters as well as those of Kerouac. I fell in love with wordlessness—with the spaces around the words—and I soon made my first halting attempts at writing my own. I was working blind, of course. I had yet to learn of the vast and growing community of English-language haiku poets writing in the West. Then, on a “Librarian’s Choice” table, I found Cor van den Heuvel’s second edition of The Haiku Anthology, and the doors flew open. Here were writers who would, all unknowing, become my teachers—Anita Virgil, Nicholas Virgilio, Elizabeth Searle Lamb, John Wills, Raymond Roseliep, marlene mountain, and so many, many others.

Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you?

I would not say that I have a mentor, but events and writers—both within and outside the haiku community—have played a strong role in my formation. One such event  followed the 1997 Japan-USA haiku conference in Tokyo. As visiting poets we were given a tour of haiku-related sites. The leader was haiku master Yatsuka Ishihara, who one evening treated us to a Japanese-style dinner. With the help of Tadashi Kondo as interpreter, Ishihara spoke about his approach to haiku. We had questions, of course, especially concerning his theories of “introspective shaping” and “telling the truth as if it were a lie.”

From a typed transcript of Yatsuka Ishihara’s talk:

“I believe that it is crucial for haiku to tell about truth as if it were false.  This false nature of haiku expression is the essence of haiku. . . . The first line of a poem comes from heaven.  Coming from heaven means inspiration or fiction.  Haiku itself is the first line of a poem.  This proposition applies to my theory [of] ‘introspective shaping.’. . . Our reality is in our chest (mune). So, instead of looking out at the world, we look with a pair of ‘haiku glasses’ into our chest, where the landscape of truth exists.” [Interpreter Kondo’s note: Mr. Ishihara feels things especially in the chest because of his experience with TB.]

The memory stays with me. Ishihara tells us, “the landscape of truth” lies within us. I would expect that what “comes from heaven” is what we experience through our senses, memory, and imagination (that is to say, the haiku moment). The “haiku glasses,” then, would be the intuition that is so essential in writing the haiku. Telling the truth as if it were false? Do I hear something of Emily Dickinson’s “tell the truth but tell it slant”?

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

I see haiku as a social genre and I am drawn to community creativity. We like to share our work, not only in journals, but formally and informally with friends—especially others in the haiku community—and we collaborate to create linked verse. I have participated in renku parties and have enjoyed working with other poets to write and submit verses to the sabaki leading a renku. Occasionally I have played the sabaki role.

The linked poem that follows is a tan renga, which has only two verses:

   through light and shadow
   wind chime song

   of sudden rain

   (Lynx, 16:1, February 2001)

The 3-line verse is mine; the capping verse is by poet Carol Purington.

I have also enjoyed taking part in a nengayju, a Japanese traditional group in which poets design and make New Year cards and send them to others in the group. A few rules govern the design: The card must include the words akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, which is Japanese for Happy New Year, and must have a haiku by the sender. There must be a reference to or image of the zodiac animal for the year. Also the cards must be sent by snail mail! The fun continues as the sender expects and receives the cards sent by everyone else.

This is my card for the year of the rabbit:

A Happy New Year haiku card from Ellen Compton

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

Basho advised, do not seek to follow the masters, seek what they sought. That would mean, read the work of the masters—western as well as Japanese. Read their poems often, and read them deep. Read to learn what they were reaching for.

I would add, take the time to read aloud. Haiku is poetry and poetry is meant to be heard. From the earliest time poems were written for the singer, perhaps accompanied on a lyre or harp. Read aloud to hear the music within the haiku. Do this also with your own haiku as you craft them. Listen for the rhythms and gifts of sound. And perhaps you may even notice something you would want to change or eliminate.

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

These are some that, to my mind, have stood the test of time.

          funeral roses—
          for half a lifetime
          the weight of their scent

shooting stars—
the wine we cooled
among the river stones

                      starry night—
                      a ewe lamb slips
                      into morning

Here is a one inspired by a glorious afternoon on the open road:

      missing the turn sign
missing the turn
                     wild lilies

In the rain forest of Guatemala, a little after dawn, I spotted a howler monkey high in the trees. I wanted to catch him with a movie camera.

                  a monkey’s leap
                  the forest canopy
                  shakes down its rain

A craft-fair junkie, I was exploring the beautiful stained-glass kaleidoscopes in their creator’s booth. At a slight gesture one design was lost forever, but replaced with another also unique.

   the little sound of a star


Ellen Compton


Ellen Compton is a freelance writer and award-winning haiku poet, with a background in visual and theatre arts. She is author of Gathering Dusk, a haiku collection that received a Snapshot Press Book Award. With Roberta Beary and Kala Ramesh, Ellen is co-editor of Wishbone Moon, an international anthology of haiku by women. She is an editor emerita of The Red Moon Anthology series and a founding member of Towpath (haiku poets of the Chesapeake watershed). Ellen credits her childhood in the beautiful Ohio River Valley for her deep love of the natural world and for her awareness of its fragility. She now lives in Washington, DC.

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 4 Comments

  1. I am so sorry to hear that Ellen Compton passed away last weekend.

    Deepest condolences to her family and friends and everyone who loved her poetry.

    gathering dusk . . .
    a ripple in the meadow
    where the fox goes

    whispers of a fragrance
    my sister loved—
    evening in spring

    first light
    dark limbs of the walnut
    holding their snow

    ‘Ellen Compton’s haiku are the little stars in a kaleidoscope, shattering and shining, creating thousands of images. Wherever one lives her poems allow us to enter her world and bring her close with warmth.’
    —Emiko Miyashita

    Gathering Dusk

    1. TY ? Alan.

      What a lovely ? tribute to Ellen and to Gathering Dusk, her Snapshot Press book award winning collection.

  2. Beginner’s would benefit by keeping a journal of image making from walks, visits in nature. Haiku is more than descriptive writing as we see from the associations of phenomena in the strong haiku examples of comparisons and contrasts. Live by all of your senses! More than five senses; add temperature, pressure on your body like balance, than have it work together with emotional wabi/sabi elements!

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