Today at New to Haiku, let’s meet Kat Lehmann. Kat is a founding co-editor of Whiptail: Journal of the Single-Line Poem and an associate editor at Sonic Boom. She is also the inventor of sudo-ku, a new experimental haiku form. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Kat!
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, Kat! How did you come to learn about haiku?
It was a scenic route! I became obsessed with poetry thirty years ago while in graduate school. Back then it was Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Louise Bogan, Emily Dickinson, e.e. cummings . . . so many poets. I would work 12 hours in the biochemistry lab, then come home and read poetry for another few hours. Sometimes I would spend the evening dissecting a single poem. Other nights I would go to the local big chain bookstore and re-alphabetize their poetry shelves that were always in disarray.
Flash forward to my days as a new mom. We had just moved from California to Connecticut, and we knew nobody local. A friend suggested I try a newish thing called Twitter.
(I think we met at that time, Julie Kelsey! We did! So fun!)
Before long, my tweets evolved from new mama ramblings to micropoems, then to haiku and tanka. I loved seeing how complicated an idea I could fit into the then-140 character limit. And my attempt at a mommy blog (popular then) quickly became a repository for creative nonfiction, which later helped me transition to haibun (a hybrid prose-haiku form).
When a family member’s lifelong illness peaked, that story poured forth as free verse and micropoetry. A three-year writing frenzy became my first book Moon Full of Moons (2015), which is about the journey of seeking happiness in the midst of ongoing loss. No one was more surprised than me when the Journal of Poetry Therapy reviewed it.
None of the poems of Moon Full of Moons had been published individually; I didn’t realize that’s what poets did! I panicked because of the vulnerability of the poems and because I had never appeared in a literary journal but somehow had a full-length book. I was doing it all wrong! Using what I learned on Twitter, I sent a submission to hedgerow: a journal of small poems. Thankfully, editor Caroline Skanne accepted my poems. Here is my first published haiku:
my birth place
a distant memory—
hedgerow 11 (2014)
What does writing haiku mean to you?
Writing haiku can feel like pulling knowledge from within myself, even when the poem is based on an external experience. Writing is a type of therapy. Poems can be questions that answer themselves or allow me to tap into revelations that are difficult to access otherwise. I write for myself and share in case it is helpful to another’s experience. It’s wonderful to hear that a poem helped someone feel less alone.
Do you have a haiku mentor? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
I never had a mentor. I just tried to unpuzzle why certain haiku work and others don’t. It wasn’t until late 2020 that I shared unpublished work with someone for mutual workshopping, which is something I find quite enjoyable now with individual friends or as part of a haiku group I help moderate.
I enjoy working with some writing partners, the primary one being Bryan Rickert. We have different but complementary writing styles, and that’s part of the fun! My head tends to be in the clouds, and Bryan is more grounded. It’s great if you can find a symbiotic dynamic with another writer.
For inspiration, I read old issues of Roadrunner or a handwritten notebook of my favorite haiku. I took a couple of Alan Summers‘ classes last year, which was a nice reset. I like to open the work of confessional poets or e.e. cummings’ first book Tulips and Chimneys to rethink the possibility of stories and what can be done with language. Pretty much anyone who pushes their craft to a new level of expression can be inspiring.
Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?
I keep a notebook with me at night to capture associations made in the twilight of consciousness. I’m good at writing legibly in the dark! In my waking hours, I try to stay open and present to notice everyday magic. I’m often unsuccessful, but when I bring myself into haiku awareness, life becomes a meditation. I prefer the sound of running water when editing my work. The natural white noise helps me find the signal.
When something emotionally heavy occurs, I write the experience in a raw way as a sort of brain dump. I let it sit, often for years, until I can read it with clarity. At that point, I can excavate and smooth poems from deep in my own experience. If I write about it too soon, I cannot see the jagged edges. This is how I honor the experience and make it into art.
I consider poetry to be a collaboration with words and the deeper self. I have to remove my intention to access whatever wellspring is there. I make wheel-thrown pottery, which is a collaboration with clay. The shape within a vase—the emptiness—is where the flower lives. In the case of poetry, sometimes the words are there to show what they’re not saying. I have to hold the flower loosely so it doesn’t get smothered by desire.
I don’t believe in writers’ block, as ideas are always connecting subconsciously. A haiku is like a stray cat. If you try to pick up the cat, it will run away. But if you sit still and ignore it a bit, the cat will curl up in your lap, perhaps insistently.
How do you approach reading haiku?
Above all, I am a perpetual student. I try to step into the world of the poem and meet it where it is. This can take time with deeper poems and single-line haiku that have multiple reads.
I look up words I don’t know. Many haiku poets have specialized and advanced knowledge in other fields, so it’s natural for them to use uncommon words. My training is as a PhD biochemist, so science terms show up in my poems. As writers, we cannot guess what a reader will or won’t know. If we change our poems for unknown readers, we risk losing richness just to avoid a particular word. Many times a quick search will show why that word was necessary for the poem.
That said, I adore the elegance of a poem captured simply. I’m in awe when a complicated moment can be expressed in a handful of words. I love being surprised by a new voice or style, so I stay open to all of it.
For those just starting out, what advice would you give?
In addition to the obvious advice of reading, I would say to keep your haiku explorations playful. I like to break a poem into different formats (one-line, three-lines, vertical, concrete, etc) to see the result. It’s fun! Try this with your own poems and the poems of others. What effect do different rhythms and phrasing lengths have? Different consonances, assonances, and mouthfeels? Does your haiku have multiple reads or expand upon reading? What makes the poem work better in certain arrangements than others? What can you learn from that?
Learn about the diversity of what has been done, but be cautious about “rules”. Sometimes a “rule” is someone thinking their aesthetic should be everyone’s aesthetic. The best aesthetic is the one you find for yourself, the one that expands your artistic vision. What do you want to say with your poetry? Haiku is big enough for all of us.
Lastly, write your own stories. We need them. It’s unnecessary to borrow trauma or to write to please a reader (or editor). Cultivate your voice. Dig deep and write the poem that only you can write.
What are some of the fun ways that you have used or experienced haiku?
This is haiku-adjacent. In 2017, I started my Ripples of Kindness project. I was thinking about the joy that comes with finding a dollar on the street, and how that joy is out of scale with the value of the dollar. So I intentionally left dollars for strangers to find: under a windshield or under a rock. It felt amazing, and my joy, too, was beyond the scale of the $5 I had spent on my experiment.
I decided to take things a step further and leave five copies of my meditations book Small Stones from the River in public spaces for strangers to find (small stones cause a ripple . . . get it?). In each book, I wrote “You have found a Ripple of Kindness! Feel free to keep or share with a friend. We can all put something good into the world—just by doing it!”
Being a “Book Fairy” felt better than leaving those dollars! It reminded me that giving can be immediate and simple. I didn’t stop after five books, and the project grew as I used proceeds from book sales to give away books in public spaces around the United States and then internationally. People volunteered to be a Book Fairy when they were traveling to some far-flung place, sometimes even buying the books! I would ask only for a photo of the book awaiting its forever home. The Book Fairies would report that they felt that they were the ones receiving the gift. Hopefully these little surprise gifts helped inspire other types of random giving, starting little cascades of kindness.
Before the pandemic brought the Ripples of Kindness project to a halt, books were left for strangers to find in 17 states and 14 countries. Here’s a list and photos of some of the locations: https://katlehmann.weebly.com/
What are your favorite haiku that you have written? Can you share the stories behind them?
It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but I will share some poems and thoughts that are currently resonating with me. My poems are often haiku or have a natural component. Even if nature isn’t explicitly stated, I am a part of nature and cannot see something that is not nature. Everything is nature. In Small Stones from the River, there’s the line “if you water a seedling, part of you will bloom”. My book Stumbling Toward Happiness includes “If you want to enter the roots of a tree, say a grand oak or a modest maple, you will find a way to fit.” The blurred line between self and nature has a certain accuracy for me that separation lacks and is informed by my science background in which we are all connected in dynamic balance.
I shake the night
from my wings
Kingfisher, Issue 5, 2022
This is a nice image for me to think about, inspired by morning gulls. There’s also a metaphorical edge to this poem. The morning sea can be seen as a fresh start. The night is opposition. And shaking the darkness from my wings is my empowerment to discard and rise above that opposition, to be free. But what I love most about the poem is I can feel through the poem what it’s like to have wings.
In addition to nature poems, I write a good deal about healing journeys. I had a difficult childhood, and poetry has been a wonderful way to express that journey. In the below poem, the fallen leaves are the difficult experiences from a previous season that is no longer occurring. The poem works in both the abstract and as a description of something I do all the time. In the woods where we live, the autumn leaves are thick and there’s a possibility of tripping on something underneath. This double reading is something I enjoy doing in my poems.
brown leaf carpet
I learn to walk
on what came before
Wales Haiku Journal, Winter 2022
The next is my first published single-line haiku! It’s a long, slow path to realize you are always home, that we carry home with us.
turtle path she found her way home
hedgerow 22, 2015; Neverending Story, 2016
Lepidoptera is the taxonomic order that includes butterflies and moths. Forgiveness is metamorphic for the one who forgives, and doesn’t require the other person’s response. It feels appropriate to include ALL the butterflies here, not just one species, to indicate the deeply transformative freedom of forgiveness. Lepidoptera might require a google, but I would argue it’s a necessary word for this poem.
closer to forgiveness lepidoptera
Sonic Boom 17, 2020
A final haiku was inspired by two coinciding events. First, we were in the process of moving from our house by the river, which meant leaving my first real home. Second, my husband was on a work trip to Europe. What remains when the things we love are not with us? Answer: the things that cannot be lost. I am what remains. In addition to feeling its emptiness, I feel the empowerment in “what remains”. I love that I can sit in different places within the haiku, and different meanings apply at different times. It could be read as what remains when the body dies or a relationship ends. This openness is, of course, intentional, and, I believe, part of the strength of the haiku.
after the river is gone
this empty bed
Mayfly 68, 69 (cover), 2020; Red Moon Anthology, 2020; Under the Basho, 2020; Haiku Commentary, 2020; The Haiku Foundation Touchstone Award, 2020
What haiku-related project are you currently working on that brings you joy? What do you like about it?
I have several commitments that I enjoy! In addition to editing Whiptail and just starting as an associate editor at Sonic Boom, I’m on the book panel for The Haiku Foundation Touchstone Awards, and I judge the occasional contest like Trailblazers. It’s quite a bit of reading of other people’s work, which is a blessing and always interesting.
In addition to these, I perpetually have multiple projects underway. Currently, I am working through several of my old journalish documents and writing haibun from them as they inspire me. It’s overwhelming on multiple levels but satisfying, like Japanese kintsugi art, only with words.
You are known for your innovative approach to haiku. Where do you find your inspiration to create and try new forms?
To be honest, I don’t set out to create a new haiku form beyond just playing or experimenting to try to make a pesky poem work better. It’s important to me to feel that the haiku has arisen organically from its internal moment.
Sudo-ku is an experimental multi-haiku form I created that involves weaving poems on a grid. This form arose while doodling and watching my daughter’s swimming practice. I started by doodling a single poem to create two poems from one, then playing with multiple, interrelated poems on a single topic. This laid the ground in my mind for both sudo-ku and omniku (a single haiku that can be read in more than one direction).
Writing sudo-ku feels like building a puzzle then solving it to create a higher-order poem on a theme. If I had intended to create sudo-ku, it never would have happened. The name fits the structure, which is reminiscent of sudoku math puzzles. Oh, and the homonym of sudo/pseudo is intentional, just like marlene mountain wrote that her pun of unaloud/unallowed haiku was intentional. I did not expect sudo-ku to be well-received, so it was a way of beating any critics to it! I was thrilled when my first sudo-ku was accepted by Human/Kind Journal.
Many times the inspiration to innovate comes from a poem that isn’t working. I tend to work on my poems for a long time: months or even years. If a piece is falling flat, I go back to the original idea and try again to remove my desire from the poem. Let go of it. Let it wiggle. What does the poem want to be? I’ve written a number of haibun in uncommon structures simply because they didn’t feel self-actualized in the typical order of Title-Prose-Poem. The poem determines the form, not the other way around, even if it means the form needs to flex to enable the poem.
With Robin Anna Smith, you recently founded and co-edit a journal of one-line poetry, Whiptail: Journal of the Single-Line Poem. What have been some of the greatest joys and challenges on this journey?
Challenges: The biggest challenge is when people assume that Whiptail is intended to be a radical, futuristic journal. I mean, we absolutely love experimental stuff as Robin and I both enjoy innovating in our own work, but we are captivated by a quietly deep and elegant poem as much as we are by an inventive poem. We don’t consider single-line haiku to be inherently radical. In fact, it’s steeped in tradition as it is largely the way Japanese haiku are written (a vertical line), so in that sense it’s less modern than three-line haiku. We want to curate the different aesthetics and expressions possible with single-line poetry: haiku, tanka, concrete poems, haiga, shahai, and sequences. We recently wrote an article about the form for the Haiku Society of America newsletter, reprinted here.
There’s a blog of haiku commentary on the Whiptail site called the Lizard Lounge, which we hope is interesting whether someone is new to single-line poems or already comfortable writing and reading this sub-genre. We hope the Lizard Lounge shows that single-line haiku is an option for everyone when the single-line structure suits the meaning and expression of the poem.
Joys: Working with Robin is a wonderful experience. I’m grateful to work with such an experienced and gifted editor. I love when we find a groove and get in each other’s minds when assembling an issue. We put a great deal of effort into each issue and try to include new people. First, we take what we consider to be the absolute gems that are sent to us. Then we let themes emerge organically among the selected poems and organize them into pages, like the chapters of a book. Finally the poems in each page are sequenced and titled according to the theme, along with header art. The issue release is something we’re really proud of, like assembling a mini-collection in a few days.
Nominating poets for awards and anthologies is a joy, and we love receiving messages from those who appreciate that we support poets this way. But really, we get a good deal of satisfaction from doing what we can to highlight a sometimes overlooked or misunderstood sub-genre of haiku and giving space to the poets who write it.
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