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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – GRIX

This week, New to Haiku is pleased to interview Robin Anna Smith (aka GRIX), a 2019 Touchstone Award recipient and co-editor at Sonic Boom and Yavanika Press. You can watch their recent stand-out presentation at the 2021 Haiku Society of America conference here: Signature Style: How Identity Informs Voice in Haiku. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, GRIX.
 
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, GRIX! How did you come to learn about haiku?
 
I learned about haiku, like many people, in school. Back then, I abhorred writing of any kind, so I never practiced it outside of assignments. However, after having a stroke and losing the use of my hands and legs, I lost my ability to create art as I was accustomed to; I also lost much of my vocabulary. I decided to try writing haiku as a creative outlet as well as to exercise my mind. I quickly learned that the old “rules” I learned in school were far from “goals.” I read every “how-to” haiku book I could get my hands on but the only one I remotely cared for was Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide by Jane Reichhold. It was the only one that I felt was open-minded, practical, and non-dogmatic. From there, when I would encounter haiku I found deep resonance in, I’d study the bodies of work of those poets and analyze their poems, studying which tools they used to make their haiku outstanding.
 
Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
 
I’ve had the benefit of having Alan Summers as my mentor throughout much of my haiku journey. I sought him out after reading Does Fish-God Know; I felt I had finally found someone who might be able to help direct me as I felt lured away from all the “supposed to’s.”  His two biggest pieces of advice have been to always trust my voice and to never be in a hurry. These are things I try to pass along when I see newer poets being discouraged from expressing themselves or trying to keep up with submitting to absolutely everything, only to be putting out work that is below their personal standard. Newsflash: Editors regularly publish good work that might have been great had it been given some simmer time. Rushing runs the risk of publishing work before its time. As far as influence, I’m not sure exactly how their work has influenced my own, but they have definitely influenced how I think about and approach haiku: Alan Summers, Fay Aoyagi, Cherie Hunter Day, Shloka Shankar, the late Stuart Quine, and the late Jan Benson.
 

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

I write in the bath, in bed, in the passenger seat while on the way to doctor appointments, in the recliner while getting my ketamine infusions, in my back yard . . . My only process is to try to quiet my mind and let my focus gently fall where it may. Sometimes I employ a level of altered consciousness to get what I feel are my best poems. I rarely record a full haiku or experience, but I bank words, phrases, feelings, and images that reveal themselves to me. Later, I will go through my bank and imagine the juxtaposition (if there is one) or make connections with other images/ideas from my word bank. Then I let them sit, sometimes for months, then edit, steep, edit, steep . . . It’s not unusual for it to take me 6 months to finalize a 5-word haiku, so I don’t get a ton published, but that’s just fine with me.

How do you approach reading haiku? 

First, I always read them aloud. This is incredibly important to me. Haiku should sound good – that is just personal preference, of course – and I want to hear it, see it, and feel it coming from my mouth to really engage. I read the same haiku numerous times with breaks to let the poems soak in. I might type the ku into a Google sheet and perform vivisection, breaking down the rhythm/meter, bolding/italicizing the assonance/alliteration/dissonance, and color coding other poetic devices (I regularly do this with my own haiku when composing as well). Yes, it is a slow process! But I like to get into the guts of poems and not just skim the surface. Obviously, I can’t go this far with every poem, but after reading a few times, some that “stick” ask to be further examined.

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

Write what you want! Don’t listen to people who have nothing nice to say – they may not know what they are talking about or are hell-bent on preaching dogma (Been there!). Just because someone is published a lot doesn’t mean you should be trying to emulate them. No one else can be you or encounters the world in the same way, so write the best YOU brand of haiku that you can. Compete only against yourself. Don’t buy into the “winner” narrative – it only feeds negativity. And, it’s never too early to be thinking about your signature style.

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

I don’t like the idea of favoriting my work because it’s like saying I have favorite parts of myself, and I am not fragmented. I try to love all of my poems and if I don’t, I dismantle them and send them back to the chop shop (my word bank).

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

Oh gosh . . . I have a lot going on that I’m excited about. The First Annual Trailblazer Contest, which I co-founded with Shloka Shankar, is starting up this year in August and I’m excited to get that off the ground. It will be a contest like no other . . . more of an online anthology which will feature discussions with the authors about process, analysis, etc.

I just started helping Bruce Feingold with the Touchstone nomination process. We’re going to make it more streamlined, and this will reduce some workload as it is a very labor-intensive process. I’m happy to be able to lend my assistance to the community in that way.
 
I’m co-editing at Sonic Boom and Yavanika Press with Shloka Shankar, which I just love as working with her is pure joy! I’m reading at kontinuum, which I’m excited to see where it goes. I’m a huge fan of Adam’s (co-editor Ádám T. Bogár).
 
I’ve got a new book of haiku in the works that I’m excited about as it will be longer than my previous mini-chaps and reveal a bit of a reset button for me. Perhaps a “B-side” people are less familiar with.
 
And some other surprises depending on how wiped out I am . . . I was supposed to be taking this year off to just write but that hasn’t really happened!
 
What do you see as the future of haiku? What directions would you like to see haiku take?
 
I would love for haiku to simply be “allowed” to go where it wants. I’d love to see more people (established and new) breaking out of prescribed molds and move away from checklists toward artistic expression. And of course, more true diversity and inclusion.
 
Anything else you’d like to share?
 
New voices are some of the most important voices in the community. New perspectives can really energize the community if we allow them. We need to get past our laddering system with newcomers at the bottom “paying dues” and a dozen or so “haiku gods” at the top. Not everyone’s learning process is sequential, and one person’s trajectory may be quite different from another’s. We should all be learning all the time. No level of haiku knowledge is a pass to stop challenging ourselves. Respect the process of evolution in your craft. Work toward writing the best haiku only you can. Haiku as a whole should be in a constant state of movement.
 
Read and share a variety of work from a variety of poets. Don’t just look for the work of people you know or that of the “keyholders” in journals. Everyone’s voice is important and we can learn a lot from new haiku poets if we pay attention. We need to strive for balance. But a scale is oriented horizontally – not vertically. 
 
Volunteer. Whether it is an administrative position at THF, posting on social media for a journal, editing, helping run contests, etc . . . there is a place for YOU to get involved. Don’t be afraid to be direct and ask. Most places don’t advertise that they need help, but as almost everything in the community is volunteer, everyone and everywhere can use some help, and people are really thankful for it!
 
 
When not duking it out with faulty autonomics & a spine that belongs in a circus sideshow, GRIX lies in bed, dreaming up ways to preserve their head in a jar & communicate telepathically via Ouija board. They read for kontinuum & co-edit at Sonic Boom & Yavanika Press. Twitter/Insta: @metagrix. www.grixartistix.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 26 Comments

  1. Grix,

    Reading haiku out loud is a must for me too and sometimes I’ll change the rhythm just to hear it differently or put stress on a different word. This is something I did in music during the process of learning a piece. Also from music in preparing for a concert, the chosen selections all had a six month rest. I would get them as far as I could, then put them away. It was always a revelation to take them out again—a gift of second sight.

    Your process is enlightening, especially the way you take your haiku apart as well as others—going slow, no hurry to make a deadline. Maybe when the haiku is ready, we should then look for a place to submit. Set out own parameters. I love the color coding and bolding, looking to rhythm, meter. . There’s so much to learn here. Now back to the top to re-read this out loud. Thank you so much.

    1. Wow, Jo! How interesting regarding the music. That totally makes sense and I can see how that distance could really give insight.

      Yes, I generally don’t look at deadlines until I have poems ready. Otherwise, I feel too pressured to produce. And I don’t want to be tempted to write *to* a specific journal. I’d rather write what I’m going to write and then look at what I have and see where they might fit. I do much better sticking to my voice that way.

      Best,
      Robin

  2. You know it’s a great interview when you go back to read it again. Also, great to know there is an editor/role model/poet like GRIX out there. Some great advice especially to slow down and really work on your poems. It’s easy to get lost in a journal filled with tons of other haiku, but if you really find your voice (still looking for mine), eventually you will stand out and be noticed, even if it’s just one compliment from another poet. For me, that would be enough to keep me writing and to remember when I’m struggling. Keep up the great work as always Grix!

    1. Thanks so much so the kind words, Rich! Much appreciated. So true about the sea of poems in some journals all flowing together sometimes. Of course we have to meet the individual guidelines, but beyond that, we are free to develop out own styles so that when one reads a journal, they can see we’ve put a part of ourselves in our work.

      Best,
      Robin

  3. Thanks Robin, wonderful to read and always love your work. I love your tips on the sound of haiku. I also love a haiku in the bath.

    ❤❤❤❤❤Robbie

  4. Wow–thanks for all of this! Been coming to the idea of a kind of Word Bank, myself, so will pursue that, for sure, along with patience, patience, patience. You are so right about the perils of impatience.
    Best–

    1. Thanks, Laurie! I hope you like working with a word bank. It really helps me so much! And yes, there is so much pressure to be everywhere and put out a lot of poems. It’s totally okay to go at whatever pace feels good to each of us!

      Best,
      Robin

  5. There is so much valuable information in this interview. I have read it several times now – just as I do when I read the haiku of others.
    Learning to read haiku is critical. For me, reading it aloud more than once, whether mine or someone else’s, is essential. In someone else’s work I often miss multiple interpretations if I read a haiku only once. But I never thought of color-coding!
    Perhaps the most important piece of information here is to write your “brand” of haiku. That is the true creative process that allows you to develop your own style. Thank you!

    1. Hi Margaret! Thanks so much for reading (multiple times, too!). Yes, we talk a lot about how to write haiku, and we tell newcomers to read a bunch of haiku, but we don’t talk much about HOW TO read those haiku. So much can be missed if you don’t know what to look for or if you don’t give yourself enough time to ruminate on it. There’s so much more to haiku than kigo, kireji, etc. We all have our own styles if we allow ourselves to follow where haiku takes us. No need to try to write like anyone else. How boring would it be if our poetic styles were all the same?

      Best,
      Robin

  6. Great advice GRIX, a really good set of guidelines and tips, and I the notes on challenge and diversity are particularly resonant. Thank you.

  7. So loved your interview, Robin. There are so many takeaways from this-
    1. “breaking down the rhythm/meter, bolding/italicizing the assonance/alliteration/dissonance, and color coding other poetic devices.”
    2. “No one else can be you or encounters the world in the same way, so write the best YOU brand of haiku that you can. Compete only against yourself. Don’t buy into the “winner” narrative – it only feeds negativity.”
    3. “ We should all be learning all the time. No level of haiku knowledge is a pass to stop challenging ourselves. Respect the process of evolution in your craft. Work toward writing the best haiku only you can. Haiku as a whole should be in a constant state of movement.”
    I also follow the process of storing words, phrases, feelings in a folder and go back to it time and again. Sometimes something clicks, most times they remain undisturbed for long.
    Thanks for sharing your journey and your process..

    1. Thanks, Vandana. I’m happy so many things resonated with you!

      So cool that you use a similar process with saving ideas/words for later. And yes, sometimes they sit for a long time before the right complement comes along. But it’s worth the wait!

      Best,
      Robin

      1. It was just awesome Robin to learn about vivisection and creating a word bank! Also everyone has a distinct style and it is very easy sometimes to gravitate towards somebody’s style unknowingly.It sure is of utmost importance to look out for your personal style. And lastly it really helps to know that everyone does ponder, make or break and read aloud their haiku till it is finalised.
        Thanks again
        Love
        Mona

  8. Love the interview! Regarding “breaking down the rhythm / meter, bolding / italicizing the assonance / alliteration / dissonance, and color coding other poetic devices”… I do this all the time with longer free verse poetry (others and my own), but I haven’t one it with haikai! I hear it and see it, but I don’t turn the ku into a coded rainbow! Haha…sounds fun to try though. Thanks for sharing your journey!

    1. Thanks, Kat! So funny! I’ve never done it with poems longer than tanka – possibly because the longer it gets, the more complicated it gets. lol But that’s also probably why I generally stick to the short forms. I’m a very visual person so it helps me to balance my poetic devices if a haiku feels somehow uneven/unbalanced. A lot of times once I see where it is heavy/light, it will assist me in choosing a better synonymous word to substitute in order to improve the poem. Let me know if you try it with haiku and what you think!

      Best,
      GRIX

  9. Robin, I enjoyed reading about your haiku experience and I will start reading haiku aloud, thank you!

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