New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Rowan Beckett
New to Haiku is pleased to interview Rowan Beckett, founder and editor of #FemkuMag and ubu.: small absurdist poems. They are also the co-founder and co-editor of Otoroshi Journal, along with Joshua Gage. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Rowan!
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, Rowan! How did you come to learn about haiku?
The person who introduced me to haiku does not deserve to be named. They lost their right to credit in my story the first time I was abused by them.
That sounds so hard, Rowan. I’m glad that you stayed with the haiku community. Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
I didn’t have many “mentors”, but Mike Rehling was kind enough to give me the history of haiku over a few lunches. Mike was also the first editor to publish me and give my voice a platform. Other than that, it was mostly just workshopping back and forth with Tia Haynes, posting in Facebook Groups for feedback, reading, and studying.
Even after five years I’m still studying the basics, which I wouldn’t be able to do without the help of Joshua Gage who’s been studying haiku for over 15 years. He’s surprised me with several books including the Higginson series, Richard Gilbert’s The Disjunctive Dragonfly, and others. He also workshops with me, which I appreciate because although I’m sure there’s some bias, the standards he holds me to are almost as high as those I set for myself.
marlene mountain has certainly had the most influence on my poetry. It wasn’t until reading her work, specifically her monoku, that I was aware of what haiku are capable of being. When I go back and read my earlier poetry, it doesn’t feel like my own. I was just writing about cherry blossoms for the sake of cherry blossoms because it’s what I thought haiku were supposed to be. marlene’s use of kigo intertwined with political undertones is what drew me to study haiku more deeply in the first place. After realizing that I could use seasonal images to juxtapose modern issues like mental illness, sexual assault, and religious trauma, it was game on. If marlene could do it with pre-millennium politics, then I could utilize haiku as a vessel for healing and awareness of trending topics in today’s society.
Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?
I’d say that 90% of my poems have been written from a bed or recliner. As a neurodivergent and disabled poet, I don’t have the luxury or privilege of going out into the world very often. There are certainly poems of mine that were written as close to the moment as you can get, but most of my haiku are authentic experiences written months, or even years, after the initial moment occurred.
How do you approach reading haiku?
I try to read twice as often as I write, whether I’m sifting through online and print journals, study material, individual haikai collections, or helping to workshop poems in Facebook groups. I don’t think it’s possible to advance as a writer without reading. It’s important, crucial even, to see what else is being produced, especially as English-language haiku is consistently evolving. When reading, I try to not give the poem an immediate “yes” or “no”, but to breathe it in and let it live in me for a moment. I see how it affects me, and why it does or doesn’t. If it’s not working for me, I ask myself what I would do differently – this helps me understand if the disconnect is between the haijin and haiku form, or me and the poem itself. We’re not going to connect with every poem we read, and that’s okay. If the poem resonates with me, I think about why it’s working for me. Is it the image? The juxtaposition? The “ah-ha” moment? A new technique? Is it the tone or the content? Do the senses used by the poet inhabit my body? What can I taste, see, hear, smell and feel? What memories of my own are evoked by the poem? If the haiku I read takes me on a journey of my own, if I leave saying “I wish I would have written that”, then I know it’s a damn good poem.
For those just starting out with haiku, what advice would you give?
Read and study. I absolutely cannot emphasize this enough! Here are several of my go-to resources. I have included free resources as well because I know I struggle with being able to afford books and journals. Education should not be limited to those with financial privilege.
“How to” books:
- The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson with Penny Harter
- Haiku World by William J. Higginson
- The Haiku Seasons by William J. Higginson
- The Wonder Code by Scott Mason
- The Disjunctive Dragonfly by Richard Gilbert
- The Art of Reading and Writing Haiku by Randy Brooks
Print collections and anthologies:
- moments/moments/moments by Marlene Wills (marlene mountain)
- The Language of Loss by Debbie Strange
- Keeping Score by Susan Burch
- Fire Rainbow by Robin (Anna) Smith
- Leftover Ribbon by Tia Haynes
- Origami Lilies by Joshua Gage
- S/HE by R.W. Grandinetti Rader
- The Unworn Necklace by Roberta Beary
- Senior Admissions by Bill Kenney
- Wishbone Moon edited by Roberta Beary, Ellen Compton, and Kala Ramesh
- Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku edited by Bruce Ross
- A New Resonance (series) edited by Jim Kacian
- The Ohio Haiku Anthology edited by Joshua Gage
- The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa edited by Robert Hass
- Robert Epstein Anthologies
Free online “how to” resources:
- Graceguts: “A definition of haiku”
- NaHaiWriMo: “Why ‘No 5-7-5’?”
- marlene mountain: “one-line haiku”
- Roberta Beary’s “Why I Write Haibun, or The Holy Trinity of Haibun”
- The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words translated by Kris Young Kondo and William J. Higginson
- A Glossary of Japanese Literary Terms compiled by Jane Reichhold
- The Old Tin Roof by marlene mountain
- One-line Twos by marlene mountain and Kala Ramesh
- Her Fading Henna Tattoo by Hifsa Ashraf
- Running After Shadows by Hifsa Ashraf
- I AM by Vandana Parashar
- Mouth Full of Stones by Debbie Strange
- After Night Rain by John McManus
- The Crow by Chris Gordon
- Breaths by Joshua Gage
- Robbed by Susan Burch
What are some of the fun ways that you have used or experienced haiku?
If you had asked me this a year ago, I’m not sure I could have given an answer because I’ve mostly used haiku as a vessel for healing, but my most recent book, Hot Girl Haiku, was hella fun to write! Although I feel I remained true to my raw voice, writing this book allowed me to relive my college party days. I could smell the pot, taste the vodka, and feel the pounding hangover. It’s not the traditional haiku collection by any means, but it was a break from my norm and my hope is it’ll reach younger generations and allow them to see that there’s a place for anything and anyone in haiku.
What are your favorite haiku that you have written? Can you share a story behind one of them?
Instead of sharing a few favorites, I’d actually like to do something a little more vulnerable and compare my first published haiku to one of my more recent ones.
a squirrel discovers
Failed Haiku, Issue 16 (2017)
Now, this is not a bad haiku, especially for a beginner, but it’s simplistic and lacks emotional texture. I wrote what I thought I was supposed to feel, not what I actually felt. I wish I would have tried to dig deeper. When I wrote this haiku, it was my first big snow after moving to the Great Lakes region from a warm, humid town in the south. I wanted to convey the effect of “wonder” the snow had on me, but because I was trying to take myself out of the poem and focus solely on nature and observation for the sake of “traditional haiku”, what I was trying to convey here is completely lost. I used “wonderland” in line one because of the song “Winter Wonderland”, but since “wonderland” is not a concrete image, the ambiguity could easily lead the reader towards “Alice in Wonderland” which is not anywhere near what I was going for. While you want to leave the reader with enough room for interpretation, the haijin is responsible for technique, form, intention, and clarity, all of which I failed to execute properly because I was nowhere near well-read, or studied enough.
In this haiku, not only is the reader provided with a concrete image in the first line, but also kigo to establish spring as our season before hitting the juxtaposition. When selecting kigo for my poems, sometimes it’s difficult to find specific images that resonate with me. Even something like “withered blossom” would not have worked for me because while it does convey decay, the flower is still much too poignant. The worm moon is the first moon of spring and its name literally comes from the earthworms that sprout from the soil once the ground begins to thaw. The image of worms finally emerging from the soil only to be picked apart by the nearest robin is about how my illness makes me feel on a consistent basis. To take it a step further, completing the juxtaposition and “ah-ha” moment in line three, I tried to evoke this vision of worms gnawing at decaying flesh since I always say “I feel like I’m rotting from the inside out.”
What haiku-related project are you currently working on that brings you joy? What do you like about it?
Oh, I’m forever working on things! Joshua (Gage) and I have set a goal of writing at least 15 new rengay this year. We’ve been lucky enough to have quite a few published, as well as receive an honorable mention in the 2021 Haiku Society of America (HSA) Rengay Awards, so we’d (eventually) like to publish a book of our rengay. I’m in the process of starting a haiku blog with a panel where we discuss various haiku, what they mean, and why they’re important. I also have plans for at least four anthologies published through Moth Orchid Press and plan on submitting several different proposals for presentations, readings, workshops, etc. for Haiku North America 2023.
You are currently the editor of #FemkuMag and ubu. and co-edit Otoroshi Journal with Joshua Gage. What do you like best about editing? Do you have advice for new poets learning to edit their own work?
The best editing advice I can give is to read and study. I feel like I’ve said that a thousand times already, but it really has been the entire foundation of everything I know. Knowing form and technique like the back of my hand allows me to rephrase, switch images, and adjust line breaks in the moment the poem is initially conceived. It becomes muscle memory and eventually you don’t have to “edit” as much as just knowing what works and what doesn’t. Also, find your haiku soulmate and workshop with them. I mentioned Tia before, but the thing I love is that we have no boundaries. There’s no shame in trying something new that might fail. I had also said that sometimes as a new writer it’s difficult to convey exactly what you want to your audience. You know what you’re trying to say, but if the haiku is too personal, it might lose its universalism. Balance is important here because while you want to remain true to your authentic moment and emotion, you also need to make sure readers don’t get lost in ideas that might go over their head. This is where having an outside perspective can sometimes be critical to the potential success of a haiku and its fullest effect on the audience.
For me, editing is the opportunity to hand someone a microphone and lift them onto a platform they might not have otherwise. It’s the opportunity to educate, to gain empathy, to see things from a different perspective, and to connect with people who have similar experiences. Being an editor is the ultimate trust fall exercise. These poets probably have no idea who I am and they are counting on me to know what’s good for them, for my venue, and for the community in that particular moment. As an editor, I get to choose what is put into the world. I get to propose these incredible ideas for change and to watch people fearlessly jump on board with me, for them to share their stories of pain, sorrow, ecstasy, rage, fear, guilt, shame, and this never-ending ache for change, it’s really rejuvenating and inspiring. It gives me purpose in life and drives me to be a better person.
You’ve spoken out in the past about the importance of haiku tackling themes of social justice. How can haiku best be used to promote social awareness and societal change?
First we have to hold poets and editors accountable for publishing poems that divide us. We have to stop the gay jokes and transphobia in haiku and senryu. We have to stop making fun of people outside of our “norm”, whatever that might be. And we certainly have to stop appropriating trauma for “the sake of awareness”. If it hasn’t happened to you, don’t write about it. If you haven’t experienced homelessness, don’t make us believe you were homeless. If you weren’t raped, don’t make us think you have been. If you’re not BIPOC, don’t write from the perspective that you are. There are massive differences between imagination and appropriation, as well as censorship and basic human decency.
If we want social haiku to be effective, they must come from authentic personal experience. We all experience pain at some point of our lives and all experiences are valid. You don’t have to make up trauma for the sake of shock value; you just have to dig a little deeper into your own. I know first hand that stripping down bare and putting yourself on display for the world to see is awkward, terrifying, and vulnerable, but it’s also incredibly empowering. Through my poetry I’ve been able to speak my truth, and even with some judgment, there’s still freedom I didn’t have before. If you aren’t ready to share your truth now, that’s okay. We’ll be here to listen when you’re ready to speak.
Haiku is a powerful vessel for creating social awareness and change. We, as haiku poets, have the ability to juxtapose our personal experiences with kigo, or something else people can relate to. This provides understanding for those lacking that particular perspective. For instance, consider this poem of mine:
she prays away
Failed Haiku, Issue 58
This poem is about much more than just being queer or part of the LGBTQ+ community. I also hint at religious trauma, neglect, forcing yourself into societal norms, etc. I specifically choose the day moon because it’s a familiar image to just about anyone. We know that the moon isn’t what illuminates Earth during daytime, but it’s still present. For me, this is what it’s like to have family try to take away a part of me that will always exist. Even though readers might not understand what being queer (or being disowned because of it) is like, they’ve seen a day moon trying its best to remain visible when it’s being outshined by the sun. I believe expression of experiences through haiku like these can create empathy, understanding, and awareness.
I could honestly go on about this forever, as it’s what I’m most passionate about, but I don’t want to drag on and on. I will say, however, that I do plan on writing several essays about social awareness in haiku that break down everything I’ve glossed over here, so please plan to look out for those!
Rowan Beckett (they/them/Mx.) is a queer, disabled, neurodivergent poet and activist who uses writing to heal from trauma. Editor of #FemkuMag, and ubu., co-editor of Otoroshi Journal, and publisher of Moth Orchid Press, Rowan coined the term “femku” in 2017. Recipient of more than 15 haikai awards, they are proud to be included in A New Resonance 12 and to have given presentations at Haiku North America (2019, 2021). Rowan’s fifth and sixth books, Recycled Virgin (2020) and Hot Girl Haiku (2021), are available for purchase. Please contact Rowan directly to buy them.
This post was edited on June 24, 2022 and May 4, 2023 to reflect changes to Rowan’s name and gender. Their deadname is Lori A Minor.
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This Post Has 4 Comments
Julie and Lori,
Bravo! A standing O for an informative interview.
It’s a refreshing concept that haiku is a big tent, with room for everything in the entire spectrum of the human experience, from frogs and old ponds to hot girls. As our Western culture transitions from what it used to be to whatever the Hell is “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born”, I agree haiku should be out there providing insights, staying relevant, while still tethering us to the universal magic of Nature.
Great interview, Julie and Lori! Trauma appropriation is an interesting concept. I know I’ve written poems from a friend’s or loved one’s account or from a legitimate fear or dream I’ve had. Buson’s famous “a piercing chill— / I step on my dead wife’s comb / in our bedroom” was written when his wife was still alive, for example. I use death as an example because death comes in forms that are still very much alive. The poem perhaps speaks to the fragility of life, for example, and poems about other trauma-inducing events may have similar meanings. “There are massive differences between imagination and appropriation, as well as censorship and basic human decency.” I’m not sure it isn’t a fine line.
I’m not sure it’s that fine of a line. A man or husband can imagine the loss of a loved one. I don’t know much about Buson’s life, but I imagine he felt heartbreak at least once in his life, before he married, and then was able to transpose that emotion onto his marriage and imagine life without his wife in his famous haiku.
However, if I were to write haiku about about my feet in a gynecologist’s stirrups or what it’s like being a black man in a 24-hour convenience store, then I’m appropriating that trauma. If I were to write a poem about being locked in a mental in-patient ward for a suicide attempt, I would be appropriating that trauma.
It’s not a fine line. If the trauma or emotion hasn’t happened to you, don’t write about it. Teach the folks who it’s happened to and let them tell their stories with their own words.
Thanks, Julie, for another outstanding interview! This continues to be an illuminating, inspiring series.
Lori, it’s great to get to know you a little better, and I’m grateful for all the advice and resources–always looking for more journals, books, and poets to read. Also hope to emulate some of your practices. You’ve been a great innovator in form and theme–truly a life blood for this venerable genre.
Again, many thanks for all your work–both of you!
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