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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Maeve O’Sullivan

Today, at New to Haiku, let’s meet Maeve O’Sullivan. A Touchstone-nominated poet, Maeve is the author of five poetry collections, and writes reviews and features about haiku for various journals including Blithe Spirit. She will be teaching an upcoming haiku workshop aimed at beginners on October 1, 2022, as part of the Bray Literary Festival held in Bray in County Wicklow, Ireland. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Maeve!

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

I first heard about haiku in a poetry workshop with Pat Boran at the Irish Writers’ Centre in 1995, as part of an introduction to a number of different poetry forms. I was initially fascinated by the syllable count, but came to realise that there was a lot more to the form than that. I started to read and write haiku, then I went on to read more and write more, and have kept going ever since. I always warn people that they’re addictive! It’s hard to come off ‘The Way of Haiku’, once you’ve taken the first step.

I also write longer-form poetry, including traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, as well as poems in free or open form. I love trying out new forms, in fact, and have written sestinas, pantoums, ghazals, terza rimas, clerihews, and more. But the haiku is a different animal, really, very special and outstanding in its own field! So my poetry writing life is very much a twin track. I find that longer poems usually start with an idea or a phrase, but a haiku will always start with a sensation. I’ve also tried a few other Japanese forms, with the haiga and the haibun being particular favourites.

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

I’ve never really had one single mentor for haiku, and still don’t. When I started to write and publish haiku in the late 1990s, there were a few journal editors who were very helpful with their encouragement and sometimes offered editorial guidance. I’m thinking in particular about Jim Norton and Seán O’Connor of Haiku Spirit (now sadly defunct) and also Colin Blundell, who was the then editor of Blithe Spirit. Later Lorin Ford of A Hundred Gourds (also now defunct), Mike Rehling of Failed Haiku; also the late Stuart Quine and the late Martin Lucas of Presence. Lucas’s essay, ‘Haiku as Poetic Spell’, was a big influence on my work. It’s still available online (highly recommended).

Journal editors continue to offer me that encouragement (via their acceptances) and occasional advice — and I’m dealing with a lot more of them now. There are also a lot more women editors now than there used to be, including Caroline Skanne (Blithe Spirit), Patricia Prime (Kokako), and Shloka Shankar (Sonic Boom et al), as well as non-binary editors such as Lithica Ann, formerly Lori Minor (#FemkuMag et al), which are welcome trends. I tend to only submit work to haikai journals whose editors’ work I admire myself – I don’t see the point otherwise. So that applies to all of the aforementioned.

Of course my publisher, Kim Richardson of Alba Publishing, acts as an editor for all of my collections, casting his eagle eye over all of my poems, long and short-form. I value this input greatly, and rate his own work very highly too. I’m proud to have been the first ever poet in the Alba stable, and they’ve gone on to publish several other Irish-based haikai poets including Amanda Bell, Gilles Fabre, Diarmuid Fitzgerald, David Kelly, Clare McCotter and the aforementioned Seán O’Connor and Jim Norton.

I have peers with whom I sometimes share haikai for comment, and they share their work with me. Sometimes this happens in a group context – occasionally after a ginko – and sometimes one-to-one, usually via email or phone.

In terms of influence, these are many and various. Going back to the masters and mistresses, Buson and Chiyo-ni are particular favourites:

a coolness –
separating from the bell
the bell’s voice

  • Buson (trans. Sawa / Shiffert)

Rouged lips
forgotten —
clear spring water.

  • Chiyo-ni (trans. Donegan and Ishibashi)

The late Ken Jones was someone whose work I always admired – and still do. This haiku of his:

aging address book
the living squeezed
between the dead

  • Ken Jones

partly inspired one of mine:

fifty-something
the birthday book of my youth
used for deaths now too

Elsewhere, 2017, Alba Publishing

There’s a great economy, humanity and integrity to all of his haikai, and he was very generous in sharing his expertise.

Roberta Beary’s collection The Unworn Necklace was also a strong influence quite early in, especially in relation to seeing how senryu could work so effectively, and how a narrative could be built up across a collection. Like all of their work, this collection is skillfully crafted, with a strong emotional honesty, so it’s not surprising that the collection was a finalist in The Poetry Society of America William Carlos Williams Award and also won a Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award.

all day long
i feel its weight
the unworn necklace

  • Roberta Beary

I like to use sequences in my own collections, grouped seasonally, geographically or thematically, and I usually have some sort of narrative running across each, however subtle. I’ve placed many of these sequences in ‘regular’ poetry journals over the years; those editors tend to prefer them to individual haiku. Sometimes they prefer them to the long poems that I’ve offered them in the same submission, so my different types of work are occasionally in competition with each other. I like to place haiku in mainstream journals, as they reach a different readership and show that a haiku is a legitimate poem. But don’t get me started on that.

There are many, many more haijin whose work I admire greatly, but I’m reluctant to name just a few of them in case I leave out others! The alternative is a too-long list which might look like a mere name-checking exercise, so I also want to avoid that.

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

My writing process for long-form poems is probably more ‘formal’ than that for haiku. For the former, I get an idea, sit and write the first draft longhand into a notebook, then type up the second or third draft in Word and then continue editing it. I’m a member of an excellent poetry workshop which meets monthly, so getting feedback from my peers in that is usually the next stage of the process. Then more editing, then submission to a journal, and the wait for a yay or a nay!

When it comes to haiku, I tend to let the ‘moments’ find me rather than chasing them down, so they can strike at any time. I used to use small notebooks to write them into, then transcribe them into Word files and further edit them there. However, when I embarked on a world trip six years ago, I switched to using iPhone notes for convenience. I ended up writing, editing and submitting the haiku I wrote on the trip all on the phone, and most of these made their way into my fourth collection, Elsewhere (2017, Alba Publishing).

How do you approach reading haiku?

Good question. I love reading haiku, but I have to be in the right mood. I subscribe to print journals Blithe Spirit, Presence, Modern Haiku, seashores and Kokako so look forward to getting them in the post, and to browsing them, usually with a nice cup of tea. I read with a pencil in hand, and mark my favourites with it. Sometimes I tweet haiku that really blow me away. I also like reading the reviews and essays. Of course I read online journals too, including The Heron’s Nest, cattails and the senryu journals Failed Haiku and Prune Juice Journal.

Of course I also enjoy reading haikai anthologies and individual collections. The latest of the latter that I read were The Selected Haiku of Sugita Hisajo (selected and translated by Alice Wanderer), published by Red Moon Press, and Kristen Lindquist’s e-chapbook It Always Comes Back, which is available to read for free on the Snapshot Press website, along with many others. I was enchanted by both award-winning collections.

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

Ooh, the responsibility of answering that question! I think it’s really important to be reading good haiku on a regular basis, daily if possible. It might be an idea to start a reading notebook as well as a writing one, somewhere to log your favourites. I’d also advise getting out in nature as often as possible, even if it’s just the local park. I’m going to cheat a little and quote Basho here:

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and you do not learn.”

What else? Be vigilant when editing: pare back your poems the way a sculptor chips away at her work. Try to use mostly nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs are luxuries! Don’t contrive your haiku or senryu, either by being slavish to the syllable count or by thinking that you need to use ‘flowery’ language: you don’t have to do either. I could go on but I’ll leave it at that.

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

Three projects spring to mind:

The first took place during Poetry Day Ireland, in April 2018. Entitled ‘Label Lit’, it was the brainchild of Maria McManus, who is also behind a series of Poetry Jukeboxes. The idea was to place over a thousand poems and fragments of poems, written onto luggage labels, in public places on the big day, with the poems ready to be discovered by anyone who might stumble on the label. I became part of this project, and decided to put haiku on all of my twenty labels, and blogged about it.

The second project was ‘Raining Poetry’, an art installation run by the Irish Poetry Reading Archive at University College Dublin (my alma mater) in 2019, in conjunction with a poetry festival there. They got a hold of some ink that could be used to write haiku on concrete, and had stencils of the selected haiku made up to make the ‘rainworks’. One of mine was included in the project:

poppy bed:
the unopened ones as lovely
as the blooms

However, the magical part was that the haiku only showed up when water was poured on it, or when it rained. I went out to see them and that was quite a thrill.

The third project took place in April of this year (2022), as part of the annual Japan Experience Day at the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Organised by Gilles Fabre, founder and editor of the seashores journal, it was Ireland’s first-ever haiku poetry slam, and I was asked to be one of the judges. I wasn’t sure how it would work, but it was successful. As with poetry slams, the best contenders combined good work with an engaging rendition of it. The slam was won by emerging haiku poet Liam Carson, who is definitely ‘one to watch’.

The thing that all three projects have in common is that they took haiku out of their usual ‘ghettos’ into places where the (Irish) public could engage with them, and they did this in very innovative ways. This is exciting for someone like me who tends to be evangelistic about haiku.

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

It’s hard to choose favourites but I’ll pick one from each collection and share a short story behind each one, if that’s okay!

tap water falling
a sinkful of ice
melting into itself

Double Rainbow (2005, Alba Publishing, co-authored with Kim Richardson)

I remember this ‘haiku moment’ as if it happened yesterday, although it happened in 1997, just before I left my apartment to go to a Séamus Heaney poetry reading! When Jim Norton was editing this collection, he singled it out as his favourite of my work. Double Rainbow is also available in THF Digital Library. This was originally published in Electric Acorn (1998), one of the first Irish online poetry journals.

youth orchestra:
ringless fingers
rendering Rossini

Initial Response (2011, Alba Publishing)

I’m fond of this haiku for two reasons: firstly because it’s music-themed (one of my passions), and the second because I attended the concert with my late mother, who was always very encouraging of young artists. This haiku was originally published in Blithe Spirit.

choppy Irish Sea
failing to dislodge
this red starfish

A Train Hurtles West (2015, Alba Publishing)

I wrote this close to where I grew up, on the south side of Dublin Bay, and it was first published in Presence. The waters can get very choppy, even on a calm sunny day. I admired the strength and resilience of the starfish, and I also loved that palette of colours, the red against the granite and the crashing waves. James Joyce described it as the ‘snot-green sea’ in the first episode of Ulysses, set in the nearby Martello Tower.

All Soul’s Day:
a small superman costume
on the barrio balcony

Elsewhere (2017, Alba Publishing)

I wrote this on my world travels, while in Medellín, Colombia and it was first published in hedgerow. I was on my way to a graffiti tour in the former hillside slums and caught the costume out of the corner of my eye. There was something very poignant about it. It got an honourable mention in the H. Gene Murtha Memorial Senryu Contest.

neck in neck
over the old racecourse –
two brent geese

Wasp on the Prayer Flag (2021, Alba Publishing)

The last one is from my most recent collection, having been published in The Heron’s Nest. I wrote it on a bird-watching outing in Tramore in County Waterford in the south-east. Brent geese overwinter in Ireland and are lovely to behold. A local friend pointed out the old racecourse to me and it came together eventually.

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

Once again I can think of three projects to mention, all very different:

The first project is a collection of haibun that I’m working on. It’s essentially a haibun memoir, and my goal is to write a haibun for every year of my life (I’ll turn sixty next year) so it’s not a quick project. So far I’ve published over twenty of them in journals, and have drafts for around ten more, so I guess you could say that I’m halfway there.

The second project is a bi-monthly gathering of haiku poets in a museum café in Dublin City, which I founded earlier this year. Called The Dublin Haiku Salon, it offers haikai enthusiasts a time and place to meet and nerd out together. We share individual haiku of the season each time, and it’s also a forum to share, swap or sell haikai books, anthologies or journals. We have a lively Facebook group too.

The third project just started in September 2022. It’s a new award for haiku written by Irish schoolchildren, in English or Irish. Called ‘Duais Basho’ (Basho’s Prize), it’s a joint initiative between Poetry Ireland and the festival of Irish-language literature, Imram. Both language strands of the competition are being judged by renowned bilingual poet and translator Gabriel Rosenstock, who is a fine haiku poet and has done so much to introduce the form to Irish adults and children over many years, in both English and Irish. He writes in both languages, and has also translated many classical haiku into Irish.

I’ve been contracted to deliver haiku workshops to some secondary (high) schools as part of the project, so am very much looking forward to doing that. Bring it on!

You’ve written about the connections between haiku and mindfulness, and you’ve also led workshops on the intersection of these subjects. Could you expand on this a little?

Yes, I wrote an essay for Blithe Spirit a number of years ago on this topic, which was subsequently included in A Silver Tapestry: The Best of 25 Years of Critical Writing from the British Haiku Society.

Kim Richardson and I used to lead a week-long workshop called Writing from Within at the Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat Centre in Eyeries on the ruggedly beautiful Beara peninsula in west County Cork. It combined tuition in haiku and related forms with exercises in mindfulness. Most people know that haiku has some of its origins in Zen Buddhism, and of course a certain level of awareness is needed for any type of writing, including haiku poetry. For me, the two are very much linked: when I’m being more mindful, I tend to write more (and better) haiku. The converse is also true: when I write haiku, that helps me to stay mindful. I don’t think it’s an accident that people talk about ‘haiku moments’ or ‘The Way of Haiku’, because writing haiku is a practice really, in my view, and not just a literary one. The custom of going on ginko in nature in groups also lends itself to that combined focus. Many haiku poets are practising Buddhists, but many others are not. Meditation and mindfulness, its secular sister, are very personal, so it’s up to each poet to figure out their own practice and how it links to their poetry. I got to explore my local parks and their flora and fauna more during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns, when I couldn’t travel very widely, so there are lots of local nature haiku in my latest collection, Wasp on the Prayer Flag (2021, Alba Publishing).

Anything else you’d like to share?

I put this haiga together in July 2022, using the wonderful – and free – Phonto app. I was doing a weeklong writer’s residency in a heritage town called Birr in County Offaly in the Irish midlands. There’s a lot of bog around there, so I visited a former working bog, now a tourist attraction, on my last day. They have a sculpture trail there, inspired by all things boggy, and I was struck by this one, called Sky Train by Michael Bulfin. A week or two later, I thought about matching this photo with the title haiku of my 2015 collection A Train Hurtles West, a monoku. I liked the contrast of the train which used to transport peat, now being ‘stuck’ in the bog, with the dynamism of the verb ‘hurtle’. I hope it works for you too.

Photo of Maeve O’Sullivan by Eimear Gallagher

Maeve O’Sullivan works part-time in further education in her home city of Dublin. Her poetry and haikai have been widely published, anthologised, awarded and translated. She is the author of five collections from Alba Publishing, the latest of which is Wasp on the Prayer Flag (June 2021). Two of these, Initial Response (2011) and A Train Hurtles West (2015) are available in THF Digital Library. Her work has been nominated for a Forward Prize (poetry) and a Touchstone Award (haiku).

Maeve is a member of the Irish Writers’ Centre, the British Haiku Society and the Hibernian Poetry Workshop. She also leads workshops in haiku and related forms, and writes reviews and features for various journals including Blithe Spirit and the Dublin Review of Books.

Website: www.maeveosullivan.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/writefromwithin
Facebook: www.facebook.com/maeveosullivanpoetry

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.

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