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 back to New to Haiku, Jay. What was your first experience with haiku? What brought you into haiku?
I was probably in my 20s and I loved going to bookstores. I was in a bookstore outside of Washington, D.C. because my sister’s boyfriend worked there. I think it was Politics and Prose. I’m sure it’s still around; it was very popular. What I found was this book – The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa, edited by Robert Hass. What was cool about this book – it was looking at the founding fathers of haiku. So, it’s looking at Basho, Buson and Issa – classical haiku, not contemporary – but it was obviously really good stuff, so I really enjoyed it. And then I started writing and submitting to a few journals, just figuring stuff out by going online and doing searches. Fast forward twenty years and I had been re-reading Hass’ book. Not too long after, I went to the Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, which is really fantastic. They have a tea ceremony, samurai sword battles, haiku readings, taiko drumming. I spoke to some of the people that were participating in that haiku reading and asked if they knew of a group here in New York that meets that I could participate with. Tony Pupello, editor of tsuri-dōrō, put me in touch with the Spring Street Haiku Group, which is really great because the Spring Street Haiku Group consists of Cor van den Heuvel, Scott Mason. . .big time people who’ve been writing and studying haiku for decades. It was like being thrown to the lions because our group – I don’t know if this is New York or whatever – they were very critical. Most of the other haiku groups are warm and fuzzy but for some reason this one was not. That’s fine. I feel that being critiqued is no problem because it helps one learn better.
Do you have a haiku mentor or mentors and what did they teach you?
My mentors are the people that were (and are) in the Spring Street Haiku Group like Scott Mason and Cor van den Heuvel, Mykel Board. It’s a good group. There’s a former editor of Frogpond, Bruce Kennedy. There’s a lot of high quality people there. It was great and I learned very quickly, being part of that. They vote you in – not anyone can join.
What are some fun ways that you have used and experienced haiku?
Fun ways. . . Well, I find all of it fun! I don’t see it as work. I mean, it’s interesting. To be successful at haiku, you do have to approach it sort of like work; you have to be very organized and disciplined. That’s part of the recipe for success. But, to me, it’s fun. It’s like a hobby. I really enjoy it. I enjoy reading, I enjoy writing, I enjoy participating with the groups. Right now, obviously, I’m performing a lot of administrative and managerial tasks as part of my position, so that’s not as fun as doing the poetry itself, but it’s rewarding because I’m helping other people learn about it.
What advice do you have for new haiku poets?
One thing that newcomers, I think, need to understand is that you should not get discouraged. You have to take feedback, first of all. You have to improve. Part of improving is getting feedback and taking that feedback seriously, and learning about haiku on your own. There are a lot of new haiku poets who just start spewing out poems and they don’t learn about the form. They just don’t do their homework. When I was associate editor at Frogpond, you’d immediately get these submissions from people and you’d be like, oh god, I wish I could talk to them. I wish I could just give them the basics. If you are getting discouraged, maybe the reason is that you have to do more, you have to learn more. Don’t just think that you know what haiku is and don’t think that you can write it very easily; haiku is something that takes years and years to get good at. If you submit to a journal and you get rejected. . .some people, I’ve heard stories, didn’t get into Frogpond, and then they never submit to Frogpond again. That’s crazy! You just have to get better – and there’s obviously ways of doing that – and then, be persistent. And then, you will get accepted and you’ll feel better and you’ll improve. It’s no different than painting or any other endeavor. Journals, like Frogpond, where we get so many thousands and thousands of submissions, we can’t often provide feedback. But there are many editors who do. I think Susan Antolin is very good about taking the time to provide feedback for Acorn. What I would recommend is that if you get a rejection, then ask why. If editors are willing, they will get back to you and say, well, this is what I liked and didn’t like about your submission.
Won’t you annoy an editor by asking for feedback on a rejection?
Well, I think that people shouldn’t have the fear of doing that. And, truthfully, I think if the editor legitimately doesn’t have the time, they can just say that. But I don’t think that’s true for all journal editors. John Stevenson, of The Heron’s Nest, is very good about taking the time to write feedback to people. So, it might be hit or miss, but I don’t think you should be scared of asking. If they say no, they say no and then ask somebody else.
You know, it’s interesting because there’s some haiku you write that you like that others don’t – they’re more personal – and then there’s other haiku that you’re like wow, okay, I guess they liked that one, I don’t know why it got picked by that journal or a contest or a judge. I think you need to differentiate between the poems that are more personal – that you really like because they touch upon your personal experience or emotions that others might not be able to relate to – and the ones that aren’t. But you know, I’m very persistent. I just keep sending stuff out until it gets in somewhere.
Anything else you’d like to share?
HSA has resources for beginners. (Learn more here.) As part of our mentorship program, we are compiling a collection of archival material for teachers and for learners. There’s going to be files they can download, links to websites like Graceguts that will explain the basics to them. Randy Brooks has some materials on how to teach haiku, so that will be good for some individuals. There’s already some materials on our website. We’ve got more. Just recently, Brad Bennett, Bryan Rickert and I went through this effort where we collected these materials. We’re going to make them available to all of the people in the mentorship program group but then we are also going to post this information as part of the update to our website. Randy Brooks is working on the website update and I’d say hopefully it will be up by the end of summer. If anyone wants access to these materials sooner, they can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send them what they need.
Jay Friedenberg is President of the Haiku Society of America and served for two years as Associate Editor of the organization’s journal Frogpond. He is a member of the Spring Street Haiku Group that meets monthly in New York City. Jay has had his poetry accepted in numerous U.S. and international journals and has published several book collections of his work. He has won multiple U.S. and International haiku contests.
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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.