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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Jonathan Roman

Today, at New to Haiku, let’s meet Jonathan Roman. Jonathan is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, Deeper Into Winter and Scratches at the Door. He is also the co-author of After Amen, a haiku memoir written with Tia Haynes. This collaboration was awarded a Touchstone Distinguished Books Honorable Mention in 2021 and earned third place in the Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Awards in 2022. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Jonathan.

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

A college poetry course served as my introduction to the form. I became addicted to writing shasei-like 5-7-5 poems. I then stumbled upon Cor van den Heuvel‘s The Haiku Anthology in my college’s library book sale & bought it for a few dollars. Once I read that, I never looked back.

Do you have a haiku mentor? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?

I’ve never had a mentor, but I try to observe good points in fellow poets & cobble them all together to make a mentor of my own. To name but a few, I aspire to emulate the ethereal quality I perceive in Deborah A. Bennett’s work, the breadth of poetic techniques on display in the poetry of Brad Bennett, the finely crafted yet personal poems of Antoinette Cheung, & the intellectual & experimental nature of the work produced by poets like Pippa Phillips & Robin Anna Smith—I could go on & on. I will always consider myself a beginner, & I’m always seeking to learn something from my fellow poets.

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

I used to sit at a desk & calmly write at home, but my children (3 & 5) have changed that. Now, I write where & when I can: on trains, in break rooms at work, etc. My process is simple: observe as much as possible & hope something stands out.

How do you approach reading haiku?

I come in with the hope of being overwhelmed. I want to love a poem on the first read, but often I’m frustrated, mystified, or intrigued, which leads to multiple readings & Google searches.

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

I enjoy hearing haiku. I read them out loud whenever possible (even on the train to & from work). For that reason, I enjoy The Haiku Pea Podcast. I would like to experience haiku in many more unique ways & I think it should be a goal of poets in the haiku community, especially editors of journals, to bring haiku to people in new & different ways. As for using haiku, I have been leaving my poems on trains for a while now & it is fun & satisfying when a fellow commuter finds one & shares it on Twitter or Instagram. People have even messaged me to ask questions about the poems.

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

I don’t have any favorite haiku that I’ve written. The only way I can bring myself to actually enjoy one of my own poems is when it somehow connects or resonates with someone & they enjoy the poem. But I did enjoy the creation & meaning behind one in particular:

prayer
tracing my son’s ribs
in sunlight

Hedgerow #129, After Amen: A Memoir in Two Voices (2021)

The genesis of this poem is fairly straightforward. Just as in the poem, my son & I were lying in a patch of sunlight on his bedroom floor, enjoying a rare quiet moment. As he stared off into space, I couldn’t help but marvel at him, how quickly he was growing, & how strange I still found it that he even existed. My experiences with a fundamentalist religious sect have left me as godless as one can be, but as I traced the faint outline of my son’s ribs, my mind wandered to Adam’s rib, to creation, to some kind of connection with the divine, & I knew with certainty that my son was the closest I would ever come to keeping a god again, that he was my only link to something divine.

But that only gave me one image. I wasn’t sure what to pair it with. The act of tracing with my finger brought to mind rosary beads. The tactile nature of my image & that of using rosary beads felt right. There was a relationship there but beyond that, the pairing held extra complexity for me because prayer was no longer part of my life. I no longer had a direct channel to a god, but I do have a connection to something that is as divine as I know. It is also one of the first poems I wrote where I felt that something had clicked for me. For once, I had written a haiku that had perhaps left something unsaid, that left the realm of shasei. In this poem, I was not trying to be clever, appeal to an editor or journal’s sensibilities, or even forcibly include a season. In summary, when I composed this poem, I felt for the first time that it would be possible for me to write deeply personal & effective haiku & senryu.

You and Tia Haynes wrote a haiku memoir together, After Amen, which was awarded a Touchstone Distinguished Books Honorable Mention in 2021. Congratulations! How did that collaboration come about? What advice do you have for other poets who wish to write haiku memoirs? How do you pace yourself when working on such personal material? Any advice for collaborating with other poets?

Thank you! That book came about because Tia & I met at Haiku North America in 2019. That is why I recommend attending conferences if possible. You never know who you will meet & connect with on a personal level, or what meaningful conversations you will have. I don’t think we set out to write a haiku memoir. We just wanted to share what we had gone through in the poetic form that we love. The level of honesty we displayed wasn’t a goal but a result of feeling liberated by the knowledge that we weren’t alone. But that level of openness can be taxing. Since there were no deadlines, we were able to take our time & write on our terms, according to what we could handle. I think collaboration is alive & well in the haiku community, so many others can speak to that more effectively, but I do think the backbone of a successful collaboration is the combination of poets. Do they have an understanding? Are they running on similar wavelengths? Do they share a similar passion or vision? For something short like a one-off rengay or tan-renga, this may not be essential, but for a book length collaboration or years-long writing relationship, I think it is vital. If that isn’t there, the resulting work may be subpar & the process could feel like nothing but a chore.

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

This is an interesting question because I have been wanting to purposefully change the direction of my writing to focus more on joy. I see much of the past in my work, a lot of struggle. I want people to read all of what I write, but I would like to be able to bring some joy to the reader as well, to bring some kind of positivity or light to combat the abundance of negativity.

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

Read more than you think you should. Attend a conference if you can. When you submit to a journal, always state that you would like feedback if possible. You never know who will oblige you & how valuable the comments will be.

In addition to poetry, Jonathan Roman enjoys speaking in the third person, writing fiction, playing basketball, & raising tiny humans. He is delighted when words conspire to make him feel. Say obscene things to him on Twitter: @deft_notes

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 6 Comments

  1. re:
    “. . . I have been leaving my poems on trains for a while now & it is fun & satisfying when a fellow commuter finds one & shares it on Twitter or Instagram. People have even messaged me to ask questions about the poems.”

    That is fantastic! 🙂

    I love how you have not only added your name but Twitter and Instagram handles and had nothing but positive and inquisitive messages. That is so brave, and cool, and obviously is doing a lot of good.

    warm regards,
    Alan

  2. Just hours after reading Jonathan’s comment this morning about his desire “to bring some kind of positivity or light to combat the abundance of negativity,” I encountered the following video from the National Gallery in London about one of Monet’s signature waterlilies pieces that was painted during WWI and very close to the action:

    https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/stories/why-does-this-painting-make-some-people-cry?utm_source=wordfly&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NG_2022Dec_Newsletter_NM&utm_content=version_A&promo=229501

    It’s well worth a listen.

    Disclaimer: I’m obviously a big proponent of the positive psychological benefits of haiku, as can be seen from my article in the current issue of JUXTA (beginning on page 15):

    https://thehaikufoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/juxtaeight-1.pdf

  3. Wonderfully thoughtful and insightful interview. Thank you, Jonathan (and, of course, Julie)!

    P. S. I’ll let Cor know he helped you course-correct; I’m sure he’ll be very pleased.

  4. Amazing interview, Jonathan, and thanks for the shout out! I know my experience in haiku would have been very different without you as a guide!

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