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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners — Michael Dylan Welch (Part 1 of 2)

Today at New to Haiku, let’s welcome Michael Dylan Welch, aka Captain Haiku. Michael is the author of the popular Graceguts website. which contains  a wealth of information about both the history and practice of English-language haiku. Since 2008, he has been the director of the Seabeck Haiku Getaway, and he cofounded the Haiku North America conference in 1991 and the American Haiku Archives in 1996. Thank you, Michael for sharing your haiku journey with us. (Due to its length, this interview has been broken into two parts, and will conclude with the next installment of New to Haiku.)

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

In 1976, my tenth grade English teacher covered haiku briefly. I don’t remember if he ever mentioned nature or the seasons, but I doubt it. All I remembered was a 5-7-5 syllable count, and it took me a dozen years to learn that there’s a lot more to haiku than just this. It took me that long to learn that they don’t even count syllables in Japanese haiku, and that our syllables in English differ greatly from the sounds counted in Japanese. I envy other poets new to haiku who can graduate to these and other good lessons far more quickly than I did. Of course, one might still choose to write 5-7-5 syllables, but one had best also aim at the other targets for the poem to possibly succeed—such as primarily objective sensory imagery, juxtaposition, implication, and seasonal reference, among other options that are generally more important than painting by numbers.

Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?

My first mentors were the haiku books I began reading around 1987, especially Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology, which I still recommend highly (any of the three editions). I first read the second edition and I never dreamed that my haiku would appear in the third edition. Most poems in Cor’s anthology radically contradicted the superficial understanding of haiku I had (I even titled my early haiku, which is never done in Japan). But as I began to understand the value of objectivity and seasonal reference, and the effectiveness of a two-part juxtaposition, my haiku dramatically improved. So my first lesson was to emphasize content, not form.

If I had any other mentor, it would have been William J. Higginson, first through The Haiku Handbook, which I read in 1988. Through that and his other books, I learned about the history of haiku in Japan and how to write haiku well in English. Bill’s handbook is still the best guidebook for writing haiku, even after more than 35 years. Bill and I began corresponding around 1990, I think, and my strongest memory of our early interaction was his encouragement. Bill called himself a haiku coach and that’s a good metaphor. It’s good to find a mentor who encourages you, of course, but it’s also important that they take you to task when necessary, and Bill did for me, not so much in the writing of haiku but on my path to being a literary citizen and how to give back to the community through events, publications, organizational involvement, and in other ways. His greatest compliment to me, a year or so before he died in 2008, was to say he and I were a lot alike in our writing and translating skills, our passions and experience, and our desires to be ambassadors for haiku. That kind of encouragement goes a long way.

These days I feel mentored by any excellent haiku I encounter in the journals, no matter who wrote it. It’s beneficial to pay attention, to think about why a poem is fresh or works particularly well. One won’t be able to grow in haiku, or not as quickly, if one doesn’t think about the techniques that make each haiku blossom. But of course, don’t forget to simply enjoy the poem too!

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

I write whenever I feel inspired, although sometimes when I’m driving I’ve lost good poems because I haven’t been able to write them down. I also write when I give myself an assignment of some kind, which is also good practice because sometimes the best poems don’t come just from spontaneous inspiration, much as some folks like to believe. It’s good to make haiku a habit. The stimulus could be an experience or a memory, or the assignment could be an idea I want to try or a thematic subject a contest might require. But in either case, at least for me, that’s where the haiku begins, not where it ends. I try to craft the poem so it’s the most effective for poetic needs, not for the sake of making a diary entry, so I have no hesitation in changing the “facts” to serve the poem (as did Bashō and all the other great haiku masters). In other words, give yourself freedom, but also know when to reel yourself in and decide whether something doesn’t work—which sometimes happens with the feedback of other haiku poets you trust. I work out poems extensively in my head before I write them down, although I recognize that others might prefer to write down many different drafts if that works better for them. But the key detail for haiku practice, at least for me, is to write down my haiku systematically. I use pocket notebooks, write each poem by hand, and also include the date and location, which sometimes helps me remember the moment better, although not all poems are about when and where I wrote them.

The most empowering practical process I learned on my haiku path, though, was not just to regularly use notebooks but to have a system for submitting poems. My system was (and still is) to use index cards. I started this process before I had a computer and it still works for me (although with pros and cons compared to using a computer). When I finish a notebook, which might take more than a year, I go through it and select poems that I want to try publishing. I add each selected poem to an index card, sometimes revising it, and then use that index card to track where I submit the poem, whether it’s returned (I don’t say “rejected”) or accepted (which I always put in capital letters as a sort of celebration), and the date of response. I later add publication details when accepted poems are published. Having this system dramatically empowered me to submit, in ways that I couldn’t predict. I have an essay about my method, “The Practical Poet: Tracking Your Haiku Submissions,” on my website.

Another empowerment came from Elizabeth Searle Lamb, who edited Frogpond for many years. Early on, around 1991, I read an interview with her in Poet’s Market. She said to be your own editor, and to learn all the nuances of what that means—to take responsibility for one’s own writing, to make decisions and to understand why you make those decisions—ultimately, to be conscientious rather than careless. I guess this was a mentoring moment, too. I have an essay about this on my website, called “The Practical Poet: Be Your Own Editor.”

How do you approach reading haiku?

I read haiku constantly. I subscribe to pretty much all the print haiku journals and visit the online journals regularly, though I’ll confess that I don’t always read entire issues. It’s easy to overload yourself on haiku, so I sometimes remind myself to read slowly, or to read a page of haiku again if I find myself glossing over it too easily. If a poem is unclear, I try to challenge myself to move to where the poet is, and not expect every poem to move to where I am. I need to do some work too. I have an essay about this, “Thirteen Ways of Reading Haiku,” on my website. As Harold G. Henderson once said, “the development of haiku in English may depend on the existence of a body of trained readers as well as a body of trained writers.” One is unlikely to improve one’s haiku without reading haiku by others extensively and thinking through why particular poems do and don’t work, at least for you—and to recognize why certain poems work for others and not you. Bottom line is to read carefully, mindfully, and with an open heart. Each person’s poem, and the act of sharing it, is a moment of vulnerability, and if we read with empathy, we can feel what the poet felt, and validate each other’s humanity by appreciating what someone else has written.

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

For display purposes at events or when I teach in classrooms, I have what I call a “Haikuseum.” It includes wooden and paper boxes people can open to read haiku, and little art books to look at. This display used to include small statues of Bashō and Sora, which used to belong to Bill Higginson, but unfortunately they broke. I have more than 500 haiku in a very tiny font printed on a single page that people enjoy looking at with a magnifying glass (because haiku is a “miniature” poem)—kids especially enjoy this. And another sheet with the word “haiku” in dozens of languages from around the world. I have one of my haiku printed in Braille that I pass around at school events and the students try to guess what the poem says. I have a rengay collaboration on the theme of shells that I have printed out and displayed in a glass-covered wooden box, complete with shells inside each of the box’s many compartments. I have haiku bookmarks, haiku on “weathergrams”, and haiga and photo haiga printed out for people to look at it. All of these are fun ways to share haiku—and can be ways not just to share haiku in a group setting but to give to individual people. One of the best ways I’ve enjoyed such sharing has been to create one or two annual haiku trifolds, usually focusing on a theme or collecting some of my favourite published haiku from the previous year. I print a hundred or more of these and stamp each one in red ink with my “chop” (my name translated into Japanese) and give these out at haiku events. I’ve collected most of these on the Haiku Trifolds page on my website, where anyone can view or download PDF versions of these flyers. Beyond this, I’ve had my haiku printed on balloons, displayed publicly on plaques, written in chalk on sidewalks, chiseled in stone, or displayed in what I call “Haiku on Sticks,” which is a temporary installation of poems on cardstock paper folder over the top of dozens of bamboo sticks placed in public locations. There’s no end to creative ways to share one’s haiku! Many of these ideas make each poem accessible to the public and provide a new context for enjoying the poem.

Your website, Graceguts, is one of the most comprehensive English-language haiku resources on the web. What led you to start your website in 2009? What were your goals for the site then, and how have they changed over time? Which portions of your website would be most beneficial to someone new to haiku?

Thank you for asking. I had wanted for some time to collect my essays, reviews, and poems on a website. When I hit upon the name Graceguts (a term derived from an E. E. Cummings poem), that was the catalyst I needed. I didn’t want to just name a website after myself, and the combination of grace and guts seemed a suitable indication of what I thought might be possible on my website, and with my writing—not that I necessarily achieve this, but that I at least aspire to present grace and guts in what I create. For the first few years, it was a matter of finding content I’d written (some of which I no longer or never had electronic copies of) and presenting it in an organized way. I’m still occasionally finding old essays or reviews or sequences that I’d forgotten about and try to add. Other personal literary websites may be much more selective than I am, but I’ve taken the stance of sharing (almost) everything so it’s at least available (including my “Godawful Early Haiku” that remind me of how I used to write). Perhaps this page would be of interest to those new to haiku to see what not to do. Beyond that, or maybe instead of that, I’d recommend my “Further Reading” page, which presents essays mostly by other people, plus some of mine, on haiku form and other strategies for haiku. It’s mostly about fundamentals, but a few more advanced topics as well. After that, exploring my Essays and Reviews pages might prove beneficial. And for some fun, check out Digressions and Nothing.

My ongoing goals for Graceguts include continuing to share my work as it’s published and to provide a service to those interested in learning more about haiku. I omit most individual haiku that I publish, unless they fit a theme, such as poems from The Heron’s Nest or Haiku Society of America anthologies, but I do usually post all essays, reviews, and sequences, and I add new rengay to my Rengay website. I’m occasionally asked if I have essays on particular subjects, and I’ve sometimes written such essays as a result. Two I’d like to write, motivated by queries, are essays on how to start and maintain a haiku group and how to make haiku trifolds. But I also have many dozens of finished but unpublished essays, and dozens more essay ideas and unfinished essays (and book projects), so one challenge is prioritizing all these options. I am very grateful when I receive messages, sometimes from people I’ve never heard of before, saying how much my website means to them, or how a specific essay or even a specific phrase has been helpful to them. For those new to haiku, my Graceguts site might feel a little overwhelming, but starting on the Further Reading or Haiku and Senryu pages might help.

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

  • Write as much as you can, and read as much as you can, with whatever balance and priority works for you, and to whatever degree the passion grabs you.
  • Question every “rule” you are given and try it—and try doing the opposite. If someone says don’t rhyme in haiku, try it out repeatedly to see why it does or doesn’t work for you, or to see why it might work occasionally—and figure out why. You have hundreds of “rules” to explore, although I prefer to use the term “targets,” which are opportunities instead of obligations.
  • Subscribe to the leading haiku journals, get the best anthologies out there, and books of haiku by individual poets. Read the biographies of Japan’s leading poets. Even try reading “bad” haiku books to figure out why they might not work.
  • Become involved in local and national haiku organizations. Even if you’re not a “joiner,” these groups can provide helpful feedback and camaraderie—and news about contests or journals or other opportunities.
  • Find a haiku “buddy” or two to share haiku with, online or in person, in a focused way beyond the usual sharing at haiku groups. Haiku in Japan is very much a social art. In English, the social aspects of haiku have turned out to be its largest (and unexpected) reward.

And one more comment, about voice. People may say you need to “find” your voice. My suggestion is to pay no attention to that at all. Instead, just be yourself and your “voice” will develop on its own. Be aware of the literature so you’re not writing again what has already been written to death (fine to take your turn and get it out of your system, though), but instead of following the Modernist dictum to “make it new,” I recommend what Jane Hirshfield has said, which is to “make it yours.” Be yourself, and enjoy yourself, and welcome others who are being themselves too.

Michael Dylan Welch has been investigating haiku since 1976. His website is devoted mostly to haiku, featuring essays, reviews, and poems. He also runs and other sites. Michael is president of the Redmond Association of Spokenword, curator (monthly since 2006) of SoulFood Poetry Night, and director (since 2008) of the Seabeck Haiku Getaway. He also cofounded the Haiku North America conference in 1991 and the American Haiku Archives in 1996, and founded the Tanka Society of America in 2000 (currently serving as president). And in 2010 he started National Haiku Writing Month. Michael is originally British, grew up in England, Ghana, Australia, and Canada, became a Canadian at 17, and added United States citizenship in 2022. He lives with his wife and two teenagers in Sammamish, Washington.

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 print poetry collection, Grasping the Fading Light: A Journey Through PTSD, won the 2021 Women’s International Haiku Contest from Sable Books. Her ebook of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Moth Orchid Press (formerly Title IX Press). Her most recent collection, After Curfew, is available from Cuttlefish Books. Connect with her on Instagram @julieblosskelsey.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Thank you very much Michael. You are a true inspiration. I learnt about haiku targets from you at the HDU workshop.

  2. This is huge! And thank you so much to share your haiku journey, inspiring to read more and more.

  3. A wealth of fantastic information which makes me eager to see the next part!

  4. Excellent advice full of great tips and techniques. Good for starters and a reminder to regular practitioners. Thanks to you both!

  5. Thank you both for this interview! I particularly liked Michael’s suggestion to call them ‘targets’ rather than ’rules’. I shall try to see them that way.

  6. Thank you Julie and Michael, the interview was very helpful and interesting. I especially liked Michael’s rule – Question every “rule” you are given and try it—and try doing the opposite.

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