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, Jim. Thanks for giving me the space to present this column. I really enjoy these interviews. How did you come to learn about haiku?
Back in the hoary old days before the internet, people discovered things from the ministrations of teachers, or by word of mouth, or through books. For me, it was from Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, where a thinly-disguised Jack (and Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder) all learn from a 4-volume set of books titled Haiku, compiled and edited by Englishman R. H. Blyth. I looked it up in The Reader’s Catalog and it really existed! So I ordered it and found it was exactly what I was looking for at the time. I have come a long way from my early understanding of the genre, but there’s no question that Kerouac’s depiction and Blyth’s explication were major reasons why I found it so simpatico.
Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
I came to haiku on my own, via Kerouac and Blyth, as mentioned. I did not study it at any point in school, and I never had a mentor.
The first haiku that made me aware of the potentialities of contemporary haiku was Ruth Yarrow’s
warm rain before dawn:
my milk flows into her
It convinced me that haiku was not simply a relic of another country’s literary history, but could contain matters of central importance for contemporary writers.
Beyond this, I think it is impossible to be a serious haiku poet without having a working relationship with the entire history of the genre. This arrives, of course, gradually and requires that one put in the time it takes to come to know it. But throughout this study what is most important is to keep in mind the dictum of Bashō: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the masters; seek what they sought.”
Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?
I most often write in the middle of night. I keep pencil and paper bedside and write down whatever comes to me. I try not to judge or edit what I am given, but simply accept it with gratitude. I try in the morning to read my handwriting, and often fail. Whatever I can make out I try to organize into something coherent, still without judgment. These fragments I put in my working file and don’t look at for at least a year, usually longer. When I go back after that time whatever needs doing — keeping as is, editing or trashing — often seems very apparent to me. And I will play any poem that I plan to keep over and over in my head, a kind of lapidary process until it is worn smooth.
I also subscribe to the ancient and ridiculous superstition of offering fealty to the Muse. This acts as a triggering device for me, a useful fiction that reminds me that I am not the fount of poetry, merely its amanuensis. That’s my process. I’m likely more patient about this than most poets are willing to be, and I don’t recommend it for everyone, but it has served me well for a long time.
How do you approach reading haiku?
What is amazing to me about haiku is that after all the poems I have read over the past 40 years, they still often have the capacity to surprise me. So though I read a lot of haiku in a professional way, I find there is still a considerable pleasurable element that persists.
For those just starting out, what advice would you give?
The best advice I can give to any poet just starting out is not to give up your vision of what poetry is for you. There will be temptations to compromise that vision for a variety of reasons — to get published, to make money, to please an editor or peer, and so on. My personal experience as a poet, and in working with thousands of others, is that you will find that none of these is worth it in the long run. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn about haiku and how to write it — you absolutely should learn everything about it you can. The ideal is to have the history, practice and techniques of the genre at your fingertips, and meld that with your unique vision. That’s how those who have made an impact on the genre have done it.
What are some of the fun ways that you have used or experienced haiku?
There have been hundreds of ways — I’ll tell you four of my favorites.
One year, for the gala fundraiser of a large artist’s colony here in Virginia, I was asked to supply haiku for each place serving at the formal dinner. Pairing a haiku to what I learned of each benefactor was a lot of fun, and we raised a record amount of money in the process.
In 2000, I had the good fortune to be able to travel around the world in the name of haiku and took part in the formation of 11 different national haiku societies. The conception of these organizations had been in the air for some time, but needed a final impetus to carry through. I was honored to be that impetus.
There can be fewer pleasures greater than seeing one’s poetry carved in stone. I have visited the Katikati Haiku Pathway (New Zealand) twice, to view my 2 stones (amidst dozens more) carved with my haiku, ranged alongside the Uretara River, for all to see.
And just this past year I have had the great honor to have had a few dozen of my monoku treated to original paper art interpretation by Canadian poet and artist Terry Ann Carter. The result of the collaboration was my most recent book, The Endangered C, which also includes commentary on the resulting haiga by Claudia Brefeld, editor of the German art magazine Haiga im Focus. Collaboration is undoubtedly one of the joys of any artist’s career.
What are your favorite haiku that you have written? Can you share a story behind one of them?
Our poems are like our children, and we love them all, even the ones that are not maybe as brilliant or successful as some others. And often my favorite is my most recent, regardless of any other merits it may have. But also, as with our children, the one that is my favorite today may not be tomorrow. So with this in mind, I offer 3 poems, one with a story:
My most recent haiku is
early spring . . .
a flutter of being
in the thin light
I have no idea if I’ll decide if it’s any good, but I like it because it is the latest.
My favorite haiku today (at least for the purposes of this interview) is
the river makes
of the moon
This was first published in ant ant ant ant ant in 1996, and has been widely anthologized since then. It is often my favorite poem, in part because it seems to me one of my best.
And my poem with a story is
the high fizz nerve the low boom blood dead silence
This first appeared in roadrunner 11:1 in 2013. I ask you to live with the poem a few seconds and decide what, if anything, it might mean to you. I have heard quite a few theories about what it might portend: a rendering of the moment of death; a dream; an incident in battle; others. But we should keep in mind what it actually is: a collocation of words chosen and arranged to stimulate a response in a reader. And this collocation of words is decidedly strange, whatever it may “mean”.
The poem’s story, though, is actually quite straightforward. Unusually (for me) this is a work of strict (if evocative) reportage, and recounts an experience inside Christopher Herold’s sensory deprivation tank. When one finds one’s self in such an environment, one’s own body sounds are amplified and become entities in a way they cannot when competing with the clamor of the outside world. And the ironic ending of course is that dead silence is full of noise!
What haiku-related project are you currently working on that brings you joy? What do you like about it?
As is usual for me, I have quite a few things going on. Besides the several books and anthologies I am preparing for Red Moon Press, I also have my own writing projects. One is a potted history of haiku in the West in three volumes, the first volume of which is complete and being pitched to potential publishers. The opportunity to regard the wayward development of the genre outside Japan has been a pleasure. I’m also (slowly) working toward a collaborative project with Dutch artist Corine Timmer featuring (non-haiku) one-line poems based on a linguistic bestiary. There are other things too but I can’t keep track of them all, so it’s probably better if I stop there.
You founded The Haiku Foundation in 2009. Did you ever expect it to grow so large? What were your initial goals behind starting THF?
The growth of The Haiku Foundation is astounding to me, and far surpasses my original conception of what it might be. The reason for this growth and activity is the fantastic team that has assembled around this concept. The original impetus for creating THF is stated in its original mission statement: 1) to archive the first century of haiku activity in English; and 2) to create opportunities for our second.
In my first thinking about a potential organization from 2004, I anticipated we would be a repository of materials — a library, databases for a variety of categories — and an outlet for haiku activity — contests, awards, publications — but once we went public in 2008, we quickly evolved beyond these most basic offerings. And the interest we have generated around the world prompted us to add a third tenet to our mission statement — to seek active exchange with other haiku languages and cultures around the world. Today we are a global resource unlike any other in our field, with no indication that we are anywhere near our capacity. As haiku keeps growing, so will we, and I’m excited to see where we might be going next.
Jim Kacian is founder and president of The Haiku Foundation, founder and owner of Red Moon Press, editor-in-chief of Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, author of 20+ other books and editor to scores more. He lives in the Shenandoah Valley with his partner of 30+ years, Maureen Gorman.
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