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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners — Jo Balistreri

Today at New to Haiku, let’s meet Mary Jo Balistreri.  Jo played the piano and harpsichord professionally for most of her life before dedicating herself to haiku and the study of Japanese poetic forms. Her haiku and senryu have been published widely, appearing in Modern Haiku, The Heron’s Nest, Frogpond, NOON, Presence, Blithe Spirit, Akitsu Quarterly, bottle rockets, and failed haiku, among many others. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Jo.

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, Jo!

Thank you for this invitation, Julie. I am most appreciative as it has made me think through many things, especially the people that have had such an impact on my writing life.

How did you come to learn about haiku?

I came to haiku through a free verse journal that encouraged poets to write to other poets if they liked a particular poem. This would be approximately 2013. One of the poets wrote about haiku and gave some examples. He also gave links to various sites, and one of them was David Lanoue’s Daily Issa [@issa_haiku on Twitter]. I had no intention of ever writing haiku though I began reading Issa. At some point, David put out a notice to anyone who might like a mentor in writing haiku and I thought, why not learn another form? I thought of form something like a sonnet or a villanelle. Obviously, I knew nothing.

That single choice to say yes to a mentor changed my writing life, for my mentor was Ferris Gilli, an associate editor at The Heron’s Nest. Without knowing anything about the publication, I knew right away this was a serious haiku poet. She first sent me lessons in learning how to write haiku. We would take one lesson at a time. I studied, read, and wrote. She put so much into my training, gently guiding me, and showing me different options. She was always encouraging. Through Ferris, I began reading William J. Higginson and Lee Gurga. Another special book recommended by Ferris was Where The River Goes, edited by Allan Burns. Ferris set the foundation for the rest of my writing life.

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

Mentors are an important part of my writing. It had always been so in my musical career so looking for a mentor came to me naturally. Julie Warther [Schwerin], the Midwest coordinator at the time, found an established poet to correspond with me. Julie was always available for questions, and the partnership she created to share haiku with me was instrumental in my writing. She also introduced Mineral Point [the Cradle of American Haiku Festival, held in Mineral Point, Wisconsin] to me and in 2015, I attended, meeting her, and so many other wonderful poets.

I met my next mentor, Dan Schwerin, who had just begun the Haiku Waukesha study group, at dinner in Walnut Creek, Ohio. With others, we drove to Honey Creek to walk the outdoor haiku path that Julie Warther had introduced. Dan was an excellent teacher/mentor, introducing the study of other poets, teaching us through example with his own dedication, and enthusiasm, focusing first on “What do you like about this haiku?” and then asking, “Is there anything we can do to make it better?” His class played an important role in my development for years.

Another wonderful mentor was Ignatius Fay. Charlotte Digregorio through her books and blog posts is another. Alan Summers is an insightful mentor today and I’ve learned so much in working with him. He is knowledgeable and always encourages my voice, encouraging me to experiment. We have fun working together and it is wonderful having him to talk with about haiku, etc. He keeps me abreast of new haiku developments and always cheers me on when a poem is published. Alan adds a support structure to my foundation.

Poets who have influenced my writing number more than I can count, but the late Angelee Deodhar was an early influence. Stanford Forrester and Sean O’Connor come to mind as well.

Where do you most often write?

I most often write in a black leather chair with an ottoman to hold my books as well as my legs—my reading chair. It looks across the room into a full view of trees, flowers, squirrels, and birds.

How do you approach reading haiku? Do you have a writing process?

I approach reading haiku by first writing and this is my writing process which I began years ago in free verse —that is, to list 13 things I observe this day. It makes me aware without commenting on what has changed during the night, a kind of priming the pump. I write two pages in a journal. Only then do I begin to read haiku.

I read haiku out loud, and slowly. I probably read about 20 and then switch to a couple of free verse or form poems. I generally write one haiku before I walk. More haiku generate while I’m moving.

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

The only advice I can give is what has worked for me. I’m sure others have other advice that works equally as well.

For me, David Lanoue’s invitation for a mentor was essential. It made haiku personal and asked something of me as well. Ferris Gilli’s investment in me asked that I take this seriously and try my best. I may not have done this on my own.

Read abundantly. Read not only Bashō, Buson, and Issa but read about haiku as well. I still go back on occasion to read Lee Gurga. Richard Gilbert, though difficult for me, seems essential now too. Read the journals. There is so much material there. Read the HSA website. It never fails to amaze me at the breadth of material they offer.

Join a haiku group, and workshop your poems. The give-and-take provides food for thought and can take you to another level. Workshops are ideal for meeting other haiku enthusiasts and also safe places where learning what works and what doesn’t for a reader is really essential.

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

Gathering at conventions or festivals has been a fabulous experience. Because of family concerns, I have been to very few, but Mineral Point, starting in 2015, has always been a highlight. There was a haiku convention in Walnut Creek, Ohio in 2015, that I attended as well. Afterward, I went with others to the Inn at Honey Creek, Ohio to see the haiku path. That was
the beginning of the Outdoor Art Museum in Honey Creek.

I have enjoyed writing haiku for the botanical gardens in Illinois and taking trips there to see the changes. Contributing to sidewalk haiku has been fun. Going to book launches on Zoom and listening to podcasts on Poetry Pea have also been occasions I’ve enjoyed.

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

Some of my favorite haiku are listed below:

within rain
just the fluted song
of a wood thrush

  • tinywords, March 2019

social distancing
my shadow waves to me
from the other bank

  • Akitsu Quarterly, Fall 2020

This particular haiku happened during Covid and I was in Florida walking on the berm. Below was the long stretch of fresh water and then a bank on the other side. I saw my shadow by accident but once discovered, we did all kinds of hand waving, etc. It was fun having someone else with whom to play.

dragging the water’s shimmer behind them goslings

  • Blithe Spirit, 30.3
    Museum of Haiku Literature Runner-Up

forever in the shade
of pine trees
father reading to me

  • failed haiku, October 2020
    Touchstone nomination, 2020

a boy’s wind-up robot
chases the surf

  • bottle rockets #44, February 2021
    re:Virals 291, April 23, 2021
    Haiku North America Conference 2021 presentation: “Schrödinger’s MA and the Segue Axis,” by Alan Summers

the open lids of grand pianos sailing a sun-struck wall

trying to excavate the owl from my father’s well of forgetfulness

with the hemlock wind…
winter wren

  • Holden Arboretum Season of Haiku Trail, 2018
    A New Resonance 12: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, ed. Jim Kacian and Julie Schwerin (2021)

sunset bells slipping light into the sea

poinsettias inside the barbed-wire refugees

hands of twenty women
palming drumskins for Ukraine
our shared heartbeats

  • brass bell, March 1, 2022

This was an experience that will always stay with me. We could do little for Ukraine, but meeting together and coordinating our drumming raised our awareness and also for those who came to hear us. It really felt like we were one big heart.

a long table of twelve—
at the wrong end
of conversation

  • Kingfisher #6, Winter 2022

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

I’m working on a book, and it gives me pleasure that I can find minutes here and there from caretaking to take me to all my favorite places, my favorite people with whom many of these haiku are connected. These moments away fill my cup with energy for the tasks at hand.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Yes. A shout out to Tom Chockley and the Illinois haiku group on Zoom that I found after Waukesha Haiku leader Dan Schwerin moved to Sun Prairie. Also Migrating Geese, a haiku workshop with Brad Bennett, and the poets that meet and share life and haiku on Mondays. Cloudlanders is an international Zoom community started by Robin Anna Smith that meets monthly with a dedicated group of poets where haiku are shared and studied.

Jo was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and has lived most of her life in the Midwest. A professional musician, she performed on both piano and harpsichord. She also taught advanced piano students. That all changed when her seven-year-old grandson died. For the first time, music did not help. She could not transcend the grief. Eventually, with the help of others, she began writing poetry, coming to it out of necessity. She found that it provided a container for grief. She still played an occasional concert but began to concentrate on free verse. In 2009, she lost her hearing in ICU and though it took a long while, poetry became Jo’s creative outlet.

She was still writing free verse when haiku entered the picture in late 2014. She became serious about haiku in 2015 with Ferri Gilli as her mentor. She would go on to publish one more book of free verse poetry in 2019 (her 4th book) even though she was becoming more involved in the haiku community. She joined Haiku Waukesha with Dan Schwerin.

Today, Jo writes very little free verse. In fact, her entire life has changed through haiku. It seems she reads, writes, walks, sleeps, haiku. It is never out of her mind. It’s as if haiku chose Jo!

She has been published in haiku journals such as Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Presence, Blithe Spirit, NOON, The Heron’s Nest, bottle rockets, Aktisu Quarterly, kontinuum, Whiptail: Journal of the Single-Line poem, failed haiku, Prune Juice Journal and Blo͞o Outlier Journal. Her poems have been anthologized, and in 2021 she was presented in A New Resonance, 12—Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku. She has been featured twice on re:Virals. She has haiku on three public haiku paths and many have been anthologized.

Jo also writes haibun and it is a vital part of her writing life. The latest publications from 2022-23 have been CHO, Drifting Sands, and The Haibun Journal.

For more information, please visit Jo’s website.

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 3 Comments

  1. Always happy to see this smiling face and read your great poems! Great interview, Jo!

  2. Jo Balistreri is one of our top/foremost haiku and haibun writers, and very modest about it! :-)

    Great to see Jo mention how important it can be to have people who support her writing, as it is for people to support any of us, however long we have been writing and being published.

    warm regards,

    Alan Summers
    founder, Call of the Page

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