New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Joshua Gage
Welcome back to New to Haiku, Josh. How did you come to learn about haiku?
When I was an undergrad, Robert Hass’s The Essential Haiku came out. Joan Larkin, my teacher, encouraged us to experiment with the form, so we wrote what we thought were haiku, but they were bad. However, we knew enough to know that 5-7-5 wasn’t the goal, so baby steps. Then, the next year, my poetry teacher Tracie Morris introduced me to The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, and my mind was blown. I started writing “better” haiku, but they still weren’t great. I dabbled on and off until I started working with Gene Murtha, Ferris Gilli, and others, to learn about the key elements of haiku.
Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
Ferris was the one who really ripped me a new one when I started submitting, and made it clear that what I was doing wasn’t working. We had a lot of back and forth arguments, but her essays and checklist on haiku really honed my skills. As far as haiku influencing me, I think its painfully clear that I am a ripoff of Dr. Lenard D. Moore and his jazz stuff and Roberta Beary and her divorce stuff. I’m not even close to their phenomenal talent, but my reading fees are cheaper, so that’s a plus?
Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?
My writing comes in bursts. I’ll go for a walk, gather images, and churn out twenty haiku, one or two of which are worth keeping or editing. Alternately, if I’m writing to a theme, I’ll gather images from that theme and pair them with kigo from a saijiki (a list of kigo).
How do you approach reading haiku?
Voraciously? I love reading haiku, and anytime there’s a sale or something from one of the two big haiku presses, I try to buy what I can. The problem is that haiku is niche within niche, so things either go out of print quickly and/or are soooo expensive as to be prohibitive. I’m starting to enter more contests, though, so once I make my haiku millions, I’ll be able to afford more books.
For those just starting out, what advice would you give?
Read. Listen. Be humble, but be assured of your truths. The biggest problem I see with beginning poets is that they get a book or read a journal, and don’t delve deeply enough. More often than not, the books that they’ve discovered are not the best guides, so they come in thinking they’re experts when they’re mere beginners. I know some have even tried to start teaching haiku, which doesn’t serve the community at all. So I’d say read everything one can on haiku, gather all the knowledge one can, and listen to editors and other folks in the community.
However, don’t be afraid of your own voice or your own truths. Too many of the powers that be in English language haiku are afraid of innovation, experimentation, and taboo topics. ELH can’t expand without new voices, and those voices need to bring their own truths to haiku. We need more haiku from minority and oppressed voices, but the folks in power are terrified of this. I’m hoping with enough new energy we can topple the power structures in the community that are preventing us from growing and expanding.
I really enjoyed your Imagery in Haiku presentation. What advice do you have for poets giving the first public reading of their work?
Study slam poets and how they present. Study speech writing texts and videos and learn those techniques. Reading and performing haiku is not different than reading or performing other poetry. It’s just shorter, so the skills need to be compressed or magnified, depending, to get the desired effect. But there’s really nothing different between reading haiku aloud and reading other poetry or other writing.
What haiku-related project are you currently working on that brings you joy? What do you like about it?
I recently published The Ohio Haiku Anthology, which is the first anthology in twenty years of haiku poetry from across Ohio. I’m very proud of it, but selling and promoting it has been difficult. Less “joy” and more “honored, but righteously angry” concerning that.
Also, Lori A Minor has honored me by co-editing Otoroshi, our magazine of horrorku (horror-themed haiku). She’s a phenomenal poet and incredible editor. Her journal, #FemkuMag, is so influential and daring and necessary, really pushing the boundaries of what haiku can accomplish. I’m just lucky to be along for the ride.
Joshua Gage is an ornery curmudgeon from Cleveland. His newest chapbook, Origami Lilies, is available on Poet’s Haven Press. He is a graduate of the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Naropa University. He has a penchant for Pendleton shirts, Ethiopian coffee, and any poem strong enough to yank the breath out of his lungs.
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I agree with everything Lori and Joshua have said above, and would like to add that there is also a fundamental editor bias against poems that reflect the experience of nature as what it actually is, instead of what we wish it was. I’m tired of reading poems about herons and cherry blossoms when what I see in real life is plastic pollution, dwindling wildlife, drought and fire, and a dominance of humans over every corner of the planet. If you read the vast majority of haiku poems accepted for publication by journals dominated by white male editors, you would think we were living in the Garden of Eden full of monks meditating on birdsong instead of a rapidly deteriorating environment of our own making. So much for “modern” haiku. I got so fed up that I started Trash Panda Haiku so that people could have a place to send poems that are truthful about what we actually see in nature today. I also threw out the rules of what “is” or “isn’t” a modern haiku, and Trash Panda considers any poem of 17 syllables or less. I got tired of the endless erudite essays perpetuated in haiku journals on the topic, and personally experienced what I can only describe as interference from editors who liked my haiku, but wanted to artificially alter them for no clear reason except that they sometimes fit the traditional 5-7-5 form, which they considered archaic, even if the poem was great as it was. I find that “what the editors are looking for” is a continuation of their own privileged notion of what should or shouldn’t be considered a proper haiku. They would prefer to lock their views and preferences in place, along with their power, to the exclusion of the rest of us. Fortunately, evolution happens, in poetry as in nature, and the rest of us are getting a voice, whether they like it or not.
Great response by Lori A Minor, a must read in itself here.
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Really interesting comment from you here Joshua: “We need more haiku from minority and oppressed voices, but the folks in power are terrified of this. I’m hoping with enough new energy we can topple the power structures in the community that are preventing us from growing and expanding.”
Is it really “power structures in the community” or more that haiku may not be seen as relevant to many people? Is it seen as an older person’s art, or perhaps a fringe form of writing for cliques? So many people around the world do write ‘haiku’, good or bad, so I’m not sure it’s an active or passive exclusivity issue. If there is a cultural ‘wall’ preventing the expansion and growth of ELT, then there may be many factors involved, including accepted form, but I think there’s general agreement we’d like to see the genres grow. There are now plenty of innovative and open outlets for ELT, so I’d love to hear more from you on what you’re seeing in terms of defensive or obstructive power structures.
Hi, John. I’m a 28 year old chronically ill, queer womxn who also happens to be an abuse and sexual assault survivor. All of these things make me a minority and diverse voice in this community.
If you don’t see “power structures in the community”, it’s probably because you’re not affected by them. There’s a reason I started #FemkuMag. It’s a safe space for womxn and non-binary folx to talk about whatever struggles they might face. If you read some of the poems in #FemkuMag, you’ll see more bravery in those voices than you’ll see almost anywhere else in the ELH community. Why? No one wants to publish the raw, gritty, nasty bits of life, except Failed Haiku and Prune Juice. And HUMAN/KIND as well when they were open, but that’s pretty much it. Poems that I’ve had rejected from “big” or “haiku only” journals about my previous drug addiction, my abuse survival, or even just my graphic erotic haiku went on to be published in FH, PJ, and H/K. And yes, there were still haiku because they contained kigo and all the other things haiku are “supposed” to have. The other journals are just scared to publish the raw stuff oppressed voices face because it’s new and unfamiliar, but we’ve seriously got to get over this gatekeeping because all voices deserve to be heard.
And yes, haiku very much so used to be “seen as an older person’s art” because most of the haiku that were being published when I first stepped onto the scene in January 2017 were still cherry blossoms, crickets, frogs, and cicadas juxtaposed with other bits of nature, which is totally fine and beautiful and even though I struggle writing that way, I can still appreciate it. And most senryu were punny or fart jokes. However, I’m 28 and I connect with the world differently. Millennials and Gen Z are more open and social about pain, trauma, and mental illness. We’re louder and less subtle about activism and basic human rights. We even talk openly about sex. College kids might not want to read about trees, but they’ll read about activism, depression, and sex. Because we see things differently, we’re going to write differently. And this isn’t just true for the few younger people in the community, this is true for ALL diverse voices, and everyone in general. We all have different life experiences. As I said in my HNA presentation in 2019, you can take two people of the same race, age, and gender and imprison them for the exact same crime and they’d still have two very different life experiences. The raw stuff is important. It’s what makes us who we are and we deserve to be heard in more venues than just three or four.
If we want change, if we don’t want the form to “die off”, then we have to be willing to actively fight against those powerheads who won’t publish the “scary” stuff. There are a few of us doing that. GRIX (Robin Anna Smith), Susan Burch, Tia Haynes, Orrin Tyrell, Hifsa Ashraf, Kat Lehmann, Vandana Parashar, and of course Joshua Gage with this beautiful article, and Julie Bloss Kelsey by providing this series, but that’s not nearly enough. However, if you’ve read all this and still aren’t convinced, check out the very last haibun in issue 29 (April 2021) of #FemkuMag by Lisa Anne Johnson.
There is not enough time in the world for me to say all the things I want and need to about this, but that’s what presentations and workshops are for. And I’ve certainly been inspired to create and curate quite a few of those.
I’d also like to add that it’s not just editors who are gatekeeping. It’s literally anyone saying that we can’t write about the gritty bits or whatever life experiences we choose to write about because “that’s not what haiku are supposed to be.”
Hi Lori, I do completely understand what you are saying. I simply didn’t quite understand Joshua’s initial phrase “topple the power structures in our community”.
I hear a lot of people complaining about not being published in one mag or another. But surely all magazines state “read what we like/produce to get an idea of what we’ll publish” (or similar). So it’s on us as writers to either write in the style expected by the publishing houses or to do what you and Joshua are doing and create your own spaces for pushing the boundaries. I read all the writers you identify above and really value their work (I write with Hifsa a lot), but surely there’s room for all styles rather than a need to bring down notional power structures to make way for more ‘challenging’ themes. And if you are right that younger people aren’t interested in the more ‘traditional’ styles, then they’ll die out naturally.
I try to write in different styles and on different subjects, because I value diversity and agree with you both that we need to challenge constantly to move forward. Outlets such as FemKu (where I can’t be published), Noon, Bloo Outlier, human/kind, sonic boom, TrashPanda and Otoroshi Journal provide plenty of opportunity to publish diverse and challenging work.
You may be right that I don’t experience the same barriers as you, but that is very much changing. I think the editors of the large established magazines would be horrified to think they were not inclusive or open to moving the agenda forward. My view is they simply look for excellence in writing. If I get rejected (and I do a lot) then I consider sending the work elsewhere and/or amending the original piece to improve it.
I guess I worry about labelling people as ‘authorities’ or ‘power structures’, ‘powerheads’ etc when actually they’re just following their own guidelines for this niche world we operate in. If they didn’t it would be a real struggle to know what to submit. I’m interested in the writing only and I suspect so are the vast majority of people involved in short form writing. For me there are no barriers to the subjects we address, but we do need to write well. We can’t expect editors of haiku magazines where nature is the dominant subject matter to suddenly change to publishing experimental material that doesn’t fit the material they state they want.
All the best to you and Joshua for providing writers with venues for writing what we need to write. However, I also very much value all the other outlets and opportunities. If my writing doesn’t fit their guidelines, I can’t expect them to publish me. Cheers, John
I don’t have the spoons to say much more than this today because it physically hurts to type, but I’d like to say that I don’t agree with “writing to venue.” Often when writers do this the poems become fabricated. I certainly wouldn’t want womxn or NB folx sending poems to #FemkuMag (which is the name of my magazine, Femku is the sub-genre) on domestic violence or other forms of trauma if they haven’t experienced it.
Also, it seems what I said about the poems I sent to “traditional” haiku journals containing kigo was lost somewhere, so let please let me emphasize that again… the poems I sent DID contain kigo and all the other “rules” of haiku. The kigo just juxtaposed against my raw life experiences and trauma. I DID NOT ask any journal that publishes “nature only” to accept a straight up Senryu. I sent haiku. I’m just saying that powerheads and gatekeepers are too afraid of the raw stuff to publish haiku that mention it.
Hi Lori, I think we may both be missing each other’s points. My reason for highlighting Joshua’s statement: “We need more haiku from minority and oppressed voices, but the folks in power are terrified of this. I’m hoping with enough new energy we can topple the power structures in the community…” is on an “Advice to Beginners” page under “For those just starting out, what advice would you give?” So I’m simply questioning what those who are new to haiku would do as a result of this advice?
If I was arriving in haiku as an emerging voice, this could be taken as a warning that there are power structures in the haiku community who will attempt to block you if you don’t conform to their ideas of style and content or are fearful of publishing. I’m not sure how I would react to that if I was interested in writing haiku and wanted to pursue the genre further – it could be off-putting.
My point on writing ‘to venue’ is related to this. If you are an emerging writer, by all means write the things that are meaningful to you – in fact you must. But I don’t think you can expect a poem on murder to be published in, for instance, Autumn Moon Haiku Journal. You can write to the editor with the submission and put your point across but there does need to be an appreciation of what editors are looking for when you submit material. This isn’t fear or a restriction of artistic expression but it is the editor’s right to create a space devoted to particular style and content.
My instinct when I read statements about ‘power structures needing to be toppled’ is, ok, but is that the advice you want to give people who are new to haiku without explaining what you mean? What do want those new writers to do? All writing genres need new and challenging voices or stagnation occurs, but I do think a statement that says people in power are terrified of diverse and oppressed voices needs to be very clear and concise or we risk alienating the very people we seek to include. That is my sole reason for this series of responses and dialogue. So my original question to Joshua was an invitation for him to expand on his point so that people arriving in this community are helped along in their journey.
Okay, John. There’s a difference between “experimental” (which, it could be argued, is run by old white men) and “minority driven” or “social issues” or similar.
You wrote “I think the editors of the large established magazines would be horrified to think they were not inclusive or open to moving the agenda forward.” I’m sorry, but no, they’re not. I have heard major editors argue, at conventions, that haiku is becoming “too feminine” and arguing that #FemKuMag is the kind of journal they’re trying to prevent. I have heard major editors say that “depressing” topics (suicide, death, abuse, mental health, etc.) don’t belong in haiku. I have had editors of major journals tell me that they’re proud of publishing known male abusers and refuse to use the proper pronouns for trans poets. Also, if you look at the major journals and presses, how many of them are run and edited by primarily old, white, men. How many BIPOC do you see regularly in journals? How many LGBTQ+ poets do you see? When you look at the Touchstone and the Merit awards, how much diversity is represented there? Which presses get all the attention and who edits them?
So yes, if you’re new to haiku, and you’re a minority author writing about certain topics, you will get pushback. If you don’t feel this, then it’s because it doesn’t affect you. This isn’t a “nature” vs. “experimental” argument, or whatever, but literally about who is in power, how they keep that power, and what they do with that power. My point is that if you’re a young poet or a minority poet, expect to be rejected because of that, especially if you’re writing about diversity issues in your haiku. I’m trying to encourage these new poets to keep at it because sooner or later their voices will be heard. The editors of most haiku journals are not “simply looking for excellence in writing,” and are not concerned about outreach or similar in general, especially to minority and underrepresented populations.
Great advice. It was The Haiku Handbook for me as well that really opened my eyes to haiku and what it was all about.
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