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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Julie Warther Schwerin

This week, New to Haiku is pleased to interview Julie Warther Schwerin, associate editor at The Heron’s Nest and member of the Red Moon Anthology editorial team. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Julie.

Julie Schwerin at the Dover (Ohio) Public Library’s StoryWalk in 2017. Sixteen of her haiku, illustrated by high school students, were included in the display, which celebrated National Poetry Month.

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 to New to Haiku, Julie! How did you come to learn about haiku?

My initial exposure to haiku was while learning to count syllables in Miss Zingg’s 2nd grade classroom. As I was good at counting syllables, I loved haiku! Then I all but forgot about it for three decades.  I was writing freelance articles for children’s magazines when a bout with breast cancer and the resulting treatment led to an inability to concentrate — even on a 500 word article.  So I decided to focus on writing children’s poetry instead. While exploring different poetic forms, I ran across haiku again. Once I joined the Haiku Society of America and started reading Frogpond cover to cover, I forgot all about children’s magazines and jumped into writing haiku with both feet!
 
Where do you compose your haiku? Do you have a writing process?
 
My three children were still young when I started writing haiku, so I wrote here and there whenever I could during the day or after they were in bed for the night. Since those daytime opportunities usually came in short bursts, haiku proved just the right form for me. Now my writing primarily takes place on nightly walks through my neighborhood. My feet have to move to get my mind in gear. I find I usually require a prompt to start writing — some sort of experience with nature, or a theme to write to. So being outside helps.  Reading other haiku helps. Writing collaborative poems with friends also helps get me in a haiku state of mind.
 
How do you approach reading haiku?
 
My initial reading of any haiku, whether for making a journal selection or for my own enjoyment, is a very gentle one: allowing it to wash over me as it will. I picture the image in my mind and allow myself to experience what emotion I will without too much thought.  Then I go back and reread it to see what it was that caused the poem to affect me the way it did. I look for techniques that were employed and senses represented.  If I am wearing my editor’s hat, I ask myself if switching line order or cutting a few words might improve the poem. It is always easier to see these things in others’ poems than it is my own. But this sort of exercise helps me to be a more critical reader of my own haiku as well. 
 
For those just starting out, what advice would you give?
 
I would encourage new poets to read extensively, write often, and submit widely, but most importantly to get connected with other poets.  The most precious gift of this whole journey for me has been the community of haiku poets whom I now call friends. When I started writing haiku, I did so mostly in isolation. I tried to figure everything out on my own and was nervous about reaching out to other poets. This approach delayed my progress.  I would encourage new poets to join HSA. Participate in online activities like those at The Haiku Foundation. Attend a haiku study group and/or join a haiku group on Facebook. Find a few writing friends who would be willing to trade haiku with you for workshopping, either in person or via email. Attend a haiku gathering or conference, as these are good places to meet kindred souls. With all the resources available to poets, there is no reason to have to go it alone.
 
What are some fun ways that you have used or experienced haiku?
 
I’ve used haiku on my Christmas cards, painted haiku on rocks to leave for others to find, and had my haiku illustrated by high school art students and displayed as part of our community’s StoryWalk installation. I helped create haiku paths that placed metal signs on large boulders and QR codes linked to haiku on trail marker signs. Later this year, haiku will be printed on signs that will be placed in the landscaping of the Chicago Botanic Garden.  So I really like sharing haiku widely, but I have found I experience haiku best with others. I have several dear poet friends who write collaboratively with me; either rengay or tan renga. We share our lives through our links and our friendships have grown in the process. This is my favorite way to experience haiku. 
 
Can you share some favorite haiku that you have written? Are there any stories behind them?
 
this side of the pane
the wind nothing
but swaying treetops
 
I wrote this poem in response to a poet friend who asked me how I was doing following my mother’s death. I knew she really cared and wanted to know my true feelings. I sat at my computer, looking out the window at a very blustery November day trying to gather my thoughts and find words for my emotions. I watched the wind bending the trees in my yard. I knew if I were outside, that wind would be cold and harsh.  But I was inside and could feel nothing. This proved to be just the image to describe the numbness I was experiencing. 
 
April snow . . .
a heart
becomes available
 
Some poems write themselves. This was one of those. A young man in our community was awaiting a heart transplant.  Then, one April morning we woke to snow and he posted on his Facebook page that someone had just walked into his hospital room and told him they had a heart for him. This news engendered complicated and contradictory emotions. There was joy at the possibilities for him and grief for the life that was lost: spring and new life and snow and loss all at once. 
 
winter hike
catching up to the owner
of the tracks
 
I love that this poem leaves room for readers to remember or imagine their own scenarios.  But this poem stemmed from a very specific winter hike where I saw these strange little paw prints on both sides of a line through the snow.  I thought someone was playing a trick on me until I spotted a white weasel with its tail dragging behind it.  Mystery solved.
 
waking from the anesthetic tail first
 
This was my young dog, Butch, after having several teeth extracted.  He was slow to come out of the anesthetic so I was told to keep petting him and gently calling his name. Each time I said his name, he gave his tail one thump but was too tired to open his eyes or move otherwise. That tail thump was reassuring to me. It took a while, but eventually the rest of him came around too. 
 
honeysuckle breeze . . .
a circle of lowing
around the newborn calf
 
This brings back such good memories. I was leading a haiku workshop for the Ohio Poetry Association’s spring retreat at Malabar Farms in Mansfield, Ohio.  I arrived early and took a walk around the farm. As I walked along the pasture fence, I heard a cow lowing and turned to look just as her water broke and a small calf slipped from her to the ground. I stayed to see that the calf was okay. There were no other people around. The mother began attending to it and all the other cows in the pasture slowly worked their way over and encircled the new mother and her calf.  All of them were lowing. I feared it was in grief, but after what seemed a long time, the calf stirred and soon was on his feet. It was a little bull calf and would only have a three year lifespan, but I was honored to be present as he came into this world.
 
father’s grave . . .
tossing an acorn
in with the dirt
 
Let me first say, my dad is very much alive. But poems can come from many places. Several years ago, my father required open heart surgery and my mind ventured to the “what if?” If he did not survive, how would I honor this man who nurtured my love of the natural world?  I decided he would much prefer a tree to a stone and this haiku was born.  Fortunately, Dad is doing great and hopefully will be with me for many years to come.  I have not shown him this poem, however. 

 

Julie Warther Schwerin, author of What Was Here (Folded Word Press), recently married fellow haiku poet Dan Schwerin and moved from Ohio to Wisconsin. She served for five years as Midwest Regional Coordinator for the Haiku Society of America. Now, she is an associate editor at The Heron’s Nest and member of the Red Moon Anthology editorial team. She was one of seventeen poets featured in A New Resonance 9 (Red Moon Press) and has co-edited, along with Jim Kacian, Echoes 2 and A New Resonance 11, both of Red Moon Press. In addition, Schwerin was instrumental in establishing several haiku installations in the Midwest including The Forest Haiku Walk at the Holmes County Open Air Art Museum in Millersburg, Ohio, the Seasons of Haiku Trail at The Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio, and Words in Bloom: A Year of Haiku at the Chicago Botanic Garden, to feature the work of other poets and bring further awareness to haiku.

Julie Bloss Kelsey

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 book of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Title IX Press. Connect with her on Twitter @MamaJoules.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Hello Julie!
    Very interesting to read about your haiku development, thank you so much for the insights. Your haiku and their back stories are moving and delightful, especially ‘this side of the pane’ and ‘winter hike’.
    Warm wishes,
    Marietta

  2. Thank you to both Julies for this! As much as the insight into the creative process and the wonderful stories behind the (yes, breathtaking–I agree!) poems, the spirit of generosity and warmth here speaks to the very heart of what haiku is all about.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Laurie! I agree, Julie and I make a great team! Generosity and warmth is exactly what I’ve consistently found in this writing community too. I’m so grateful!

  3. Thanks Julie
    I loved your method of letting the poem wash over you as it will, to picture the images… and finally to play with the order and ask yourself if any of the words are not needed.
    I also loved your poems and the stories that inspired them. I think it is wonderful how writing and learning about haiku creates heartfelt connection and community. We all need that I think. Thanks again,
    Allison

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Allison. I’m glad you enjoyed the stories. They were fun to remember. Haiku is like journaling to me. If I can get that moment into a haiku, all the surrounding circumstances come back to me too each time I read the poem.

    1. Thank you, Scott! That means a great deal to me as I have learned so much from studying your haiku. I’m so grateful for all your encouragement.

  4. Julie,

    What a wonderful interview! I loved the explanations of where some of your haiku have come. They were truly delightful, and your April snow was particularly poignant. When I grow up, I want to be as thoughtful in my haiku as you are. Seriously, a great interview with such heart. Thanks for leading our group for so many years; your inclusion of me from the beginning brought me out of isolation, too. Ohio’s loss is Wisconsin’s (and Dan’s) gain, but you will always be a Buckeye to me.
    All my best,
    Nancy

    1. Thank you, Nancy! Yes, I will always be a Buckeye. Our Ohio group is such an encouraging one. And you are one of its brightest encourages. Thank you. Yes, community is such an important part of growth as a writer. Fortunately we have a supportive group here in Wisconsin too. I’m doubly blessed!

  5. I love this column and especially loved today’s with the explanations of what inspired the poems. These haiku stand alone in a wonderful way, but the background deepened their meaning.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the background stories, Peggy! Me too! True, a haiku should not need the whole story told to appreciate it, but it is fun sometimes to hear the poet’s experience that inspired it and compare it to your own as a reader. I’m sure they are widely different but no less meaningful.

  6. Very nice! I always enjoy hearing a poet select several poems and tell me how they began. These are some very touching stories about life. Thanks so much.

    1. Thank you, M. Shane! It is interesting to see which moments spur us to write haiku. Tom Painting has a wonderful writing exercise where he asks poets to draft a list of their “firsts” for each letter of the alphabet: (i.e.) first argument, first baseball game, first car, first dog, etc. Then to recall the stories of those experiences. Then to see what haiku stem from those emotionally-charged events. We all have stories waiting to be told and haiku is a great way to tell them!

  7. Dear Julie, Thank you for your excellent work as our Midwest Regional Coordinator at the Haiku Society of America. And thank you for your work in education, and support of the Education Resources at The Haiku Foundation. Amazing how the work grows in so many ways. I look forward to learning more from your interview with Julie Bloss Kelsey.

    1. Thank you, Ellen Grace! Your dedication to education has been an inspiration to me! Thank you for your support always!

  8. Julie,
    Finding your interview on haiku today was such a nice surprise! I enjoyed it all . . . and especially your stories behind some of your favorites. The new born calf and Butch’s tail are sure to stay with me.
    Thank you!
    Jill Lange

    1. Thank you, Jill! Yes, a love of animals is something many of us share and hold deeply. I agree, some of my favorite poems feature animals. I can’t wait to see the upcoming cat anthology from Bottle Rockets Press! Cats are some of the best haiku poets!

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