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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Hifsa Ashraf

This week, New to Haiku is pleased to interview Hifsa Ashraf. Her book, Her Fading Henna Tattoo, won honorable mentions in both the Touchstone Distinguished Books Awards for 2020 and the Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Awards for 2021. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Hifsa.

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

I became familiar with haiku accidentally when I was moderating one of the biggest Google Plus communities, POETS. Someone shared a haiku that intrigued me. I was inspired to write a three-line poem — that was my initial perception of haiku. I remember Martha Magenta and Brendon Kent started an interactive discussion on my poem that helped me to know the basics. Another haiku community on G+, Haiku Nook, also developed my interest to explore this form. Later on, I read some essays on Graceguts and AHA poetry and started writing haiku. After a few rejections from some journals, I gave up on writing haiku but then Michael Rehling’s acceptance email for Failed Haiku motivated me enough to dig deep and explore this form more.

Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?

I am a self-taught haiku poet like many others but I feel blessed to have had some great mentors right from the beginning who helped me to revise and improve my initial haiku. I would like to particularly mention a few names who helped me through my initial understanding of haiku: Alan Summers, Nicholas Klacsanzky, Brendon Kent, and the late Martha Magenta. The work of Debbie Strange influenced me deeply and I tried my hand at tanka and haiga after reading her work.  

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

To be honest, it’s spontaneous. I have written most of my work, especially a couple of books, in a day or two as I felt myself drowned into my imagination, a bit disconnected from the outer world. My surroundings are a big stimulant for writing — I have chosen bold social issues to write about. I usually write about humanitarian crises, mental health, and socio-political themes, as the dark side of realities inspire me to write. Besides humanitarian crises, rain and seasonal transformation are other elements that inspire me the most. My Urdu and Punjabi poetry is greatly influenced by the rain, especially monsoons.

Your fourth poetry chapbook, her deep-rooted scars, was recently published by Alba Publishing. I know this collection is close to your heart. Can you tell us more about it?

Being a feminist, I love to write about women’s rights and gender-based taboos. Her deep-rooted scars, by Alba Publishing UK, is another ‘too feminine’ poetry collection that I am immensely proud of. Her deep-rooted scars is about half-widows, or Kashmiri widows, whose husbands have disappeared, are missing, and are not confirmed dead due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Indian-administered Kashmir.  These women are not officially declared as widows due to the unverified deaths of their husbands. It’s a small tribute to all those half-widows who are continuously facing abuse and socio-economical, legal, financial, and mental health issues without having any protection and support in that region.

How do you approach reading haiku?

I recommend reading the work of some fine poets – for example, Alan Summers, Nicholas Klacsanzky, Michael Dylan Welch, Jim Kacian, Brendon Kent, Debbie Strange, Adjei Agyei-Baah – for quick haiku learning based on my personal experience. I often read haiku books from The Haiku Foundation’s digital library and consider it one of the best sources of learning haiku.

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

Believe me, not every three-line poem is a haiku and not every five-line poem is a tanka. Read the basics first by following the authentic sources I mentioned earlier — Graceguts and AHA poetry. Follow the true practices of haiku writing and do justice with this short-form poetry. Also be patient whilst exploring this form as it will take some time before you get the pulse of it. Please read the work of authentic and published poets (as appear in The Haiku Foundation Registry). Read and submit to the best haiku and senryu journals – such as Failed Haiku, hedgerow: a journal of small poems, Acorn, Stardust Haiku, Prune Juice Journal, Presence, Wales Haiku Journal, and, for regular practice, I recommend Haiku Dialogue – if you want to know how much your work adheres to the authenticity and quality of haiku poetry.

Being an editor at Haiku Commentary, along with Nicholas Klacsanzky and Jacob Salzer, I recommend new haiku writers read the commentaries of haiku and related forms that we regularly share through our blog. This will help you to understand the idea/theme behind a haiku and give you the big picture of this short form. We have shared the commentaries of a few beginning haiku writers in order to give them encouragement to continue their haiku journey. I encourage you to explore it more and submit your work as well. 

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

I have written both good and bad haiku. But, the haiku that I have compiled as my micropoetry books are my best work. Every haiku in my books is a real story, and I can extract more stories from them being a storyteller so it’s difficult to say that one particular haiku is my favourite. I often mention my first haiku as my top favourite; it was published in haikuniverse back in 2017 and is now part of my micropoetry book, her deep-rooted scars. The haiku with a little bit of revision is:

the walnut door bangs
back and forth

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

Recently, I have focused more on compiling my work as books than submitting it to various journals. I have had four books published so far and I am working on four more, one at a time. The issues in my surroundings inspire me to use this form as a tool to become a voice of the voiceless and highlight issues in a subtle way by putting myself into their shoes and letting my imagination run wild for the hidden places that are still in the dark by connecting the dots through my poetry. I like being a part of those stories to create more stories out of them. I feel contentment and fulfillment when my work on some social issues gets published, appreciated by people, and especially when I donate the proceeds to charity organizations that are working for human rights, especially for the rights of women and children. Because of my background in psychology, I often advocate for mental health through my poetry. Now, it has become my signature style in poetry and comes naturally to me when I write.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Be real and honest whatever you write. This is how you can give the true reflection of your creativity. I always enjoy work that is based on some real personal experience as it gives me a chance to know the unique life experiences of others and learn from them. Last but not least, please focus on authentic sources of information when it comes to this genre. Without knowing the basics, your haiku may get published, win, or get appreciated by others, but it may not make any difference in the long run.  

Residing in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Hifsa Ashraf is a pioneer in her country for writing modern Japanese-style micropoetry in English. Her work has been widely published in international journals, magazines, blogs and anthologies. As an editor, she jointly curates the Haiku Commentary blog and is the founding editor of the soon-to-be published bilingual micropoetry magazine Saawan Rut. She is the author of six micropoetry books on cultural symbolism, gender-based taboos, Islamophobia, mental health, and women-oriented sociopolitical issues. She received special mention for her poetry collection, Her Fading Henna Tattoo, in the Touchstone Distinguished Books Awards 2020 and in the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards 2021. Her recent collection is her deep-rooted scars, published by Alba Publishing, England. Please visit her blog to view her published work or follow her on Twitter at @hifsays.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments. The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy for more information.

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 8 Comments

  1. Hifsa genuinely cares about people and women in particular. She has been instrumental for me in writing and artworks with her inspirational ways of communication. She is firm and soft at the same time. I’ve known her since the G+ community days. She is a wonderful friend, mentor and teacher of poetry with a side of life skills to go by. She has been an integral part of many a poet’s journey. Thanks Hifsa!!

  2. First published haiku in 2017 and already four books published and working on four more!!!! I’m jealous of the work ethic. Very inspiring!

  3. Thank you Julie and Hifsa. Hifsa, you have inspired me to write more about social issues and as the THF digital librarian, it made my day to read that you consider the THF Digital Library as one of the best sources for learning haiku!

    1. Indeed it’s an intriguing and worth inspiring journey especially when I followed hifsa(bubbly) since the beginning, phenomenal achievement in the field of writing and I never hesitate to say, she is my first guru of the sort. Wishing the best to receive many accolades on the way.God bless
      Prasanna Kkumar

  4. re:
    “I have chosen bold social issues to write about. I usually write about humanitarian crises, mental health, and socio-political themes, as the dark side of realities inspire me to write. Besides humanitarian crises, rain and seasonal transformation are other elements that inspire me the most. My Urdu and Punjabi poetry is greatly influenced by the rain, especially monsoons.”

    We certainly need new voices, young and old, to tackle the big issues, and bringing in the classic method of an aspect of the natural seasons, although they are disappearing, and even the new seasons perhaps, is the new and immediate challenge for all of us?

    Alan Summers
    founder, Call of the Page

    1. Exactly! I was thinking to write about some new natural phenomena. Hope, will get some inspiration.

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