Today at New to Haiku, let’s welcome back 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. He is also the founder of NaHaiWriMo, National Haiku Writing Month. Thank you, Michael, for sharing your haiku journey with us. (Due to its length, this interview has been broken into two parts. You can read part 1 here.)
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 back to New to Haiku, Michael! What are your favorite haiku that you have written? Can you share a story behind one of them?
spring breeze— the pull of her hand as we near the pet store
To give you something new, though, how about this poem:
an old woolen sweater taken yarn by yarn from the snowbank
This is an example of a one-part haiku, with no cut in it, no “juxtaposition.” This is equivalent to a Japanese haiku that places the kireji (cutting word) at the end of the poem, which is often a way to emphasize something unstated in the poem, or to point to something outside the poem. That’s definitely the case with my poem, and I use the poem in workshops to demonstrate the risk a poet can sometimes take in creating an “aha” moment. That moment should occur for the reader, not just the poet, and when some classrooms don’t immediately get this poem, but talk about it, it’s gratifying to see the wave of smiles and sometimes gasps when they realize that this is a spring poem, not a winter one, and that it’s about a bird building a nest. It’s for this reason that I was particularly pleased when Bill Higginson included this poem in his Haiku World season-word almanac under the heading of “bird’s nest”—even though it doesn’t even mention a nest at all.
This poem was inspired by my years of living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. During the long cold winter months, children (and adults) would sometimes lose mittens or scarves or other clothing, and it would emerge in the spring when the snow melted. And of course the birds made the most of discarded sweaters in making their nests.
You can read more about “One-Part Haiku” on my website. While two-part haiku are far more common, and the most effective, there’s still a strong tradition (if minor) for one-part haiku in Japanese. If one is learning haiku, it’s important to understand why this juxtapositional structure is so important. It’s not just a matter of giving the poem no more than two grammatically separate parts, but of making them imagistically separate too. One part or image should be at right angles to the other, perhaps even to the point of being initially puzzling in their relationship. But if readers dwell in the poem, if it’s done well, they’ll resolve the momentary mystery of each juxtaposition, and hopefully get a feeling. The point of haiku is to share them, and the point of sharing them is to celebrate common human emotion.
I’m fascinated by your description of “one-part haiku.” In such poems, the cut effectively occurs outside of the poem, correct? Can it occur at the beginning, before the haiku even begins? Also, to clarify, could you explain the differences between one-part haiku and monoku?
Well, I would say the “cut” in a one-part poem happens at the end of the poem, the way a cutting word in Japanese haiku can appear at the end of the last phrase. I’ve never seen a cutting word at the start of any Japanese haiku.
One-part haiku can be different from a so-called monoku, which I take to be a poem presented in just a single line. One-line poems might have overt grammatical cuts in them, or not. Or they may take advantage of useful ambiguities, with pivot words or pivot lines (zeugma is a Western literary term for this). Regular (three-line) haiku can employ pivots, too, of course, but a one-line poem can take particular advantage of this. But a three-line poem could legitimately have just one “part,” like my old woolen sweater poem, emphasizing (I hope) something unstated that’s outside the poem, in this case the bird building a nest in spring.
I’ve heard some people admonish haiku that have no cut (not having two parts), and it could well be that such poems could be improved by introducing juxtaposition, in the same way that some poems can be improved by introducing a seasonal reference. But there are also at least some poems that work best as one-part poems. Yet this is separate from whether they might be monoku or not, I’d say. A monoku might have a cut or a pivot, or might not, but that’s also true of three-line haiku—it might or might not have a cut or a pivot.
As writers, it’s worthwhile to consider whether having a cut, or not, is best for each individual poem. In contrast, I would emphasize that it’s nearly always a problem for a three-line poem to have more than two parts, because that too easily diffuses the poem’s energy and focus. It’s important to understand what a separate “part” is, too—something that’s grammatically (as well as imagistically) separate from the rest of the poem.
What haiku-related projects are you currently working on that bring you joy? What do you like about them?
I always have various book projects I’m working on, usually anthologies. I’m vastly overdue for a book or three of my own haiku, but that hasn’t quite coalesced. I’d love to do several books of my own haiku essays, and a book of sequences. Lots of both of these on my website! My website also includes an extensive “Poems About Haiku” section, which is an online anthology of longer poems that mention haiku or haiku poets, or dwell in aesthetics akin to haiku. I’d love to see this as a printed book someday.
I suppose if any project gives me the most regular joy, it’s my Graceguts website, where I document my published essays, reviews, and poems (though definitely only a minority of the haiku, senryu, and tanka I publish). It’s a labour of love that I know many other people find useful.
One huge project was migrating my websites to a new system. At the end of 2021, due to a forced system migration, I vastly overhauled Graceguts (and all my other websites), which was hugely satisfying—especially because the website was almost lost, in its entirety, because at first I was told the site was too large to migrate automatically to the new system, which meant having to recreate every single page by hand. Fortunately, I found ways to streamline the process, but I did have to heavily revisit every single page (there are thousands), sometimes rewriting parts, and redoing many of the links. It was a huge amount of work for almost half a year, and thus especially gratifying when I finished just barely in time and didn’t lose the entire site after all.
At that time, I also spun off all the content relating to rengay into a new website, www.rengay.com. My National Haiku Writing Month website and Facebook page are also rewarding to me because I know how much others value NaHaiWriMo around the world for daily haiku inspiration (with guest prompters providing prompts year-round, not just in February, the official month).
A pandemic project was to create PowerPoint presentations of dozens of haiku sequences, some of which I’ve converted into short movies. A more recent project was “Holiday Haiku,” where I had thirty of my winter-themed poems projected onto a huge outdoor projection screen repeatedly every night for more than a month as part of a city holiday lights festival. And I’m working on “Hilltop Haiku,” a display in the town where I live, Sammamish, east of Seattle, of a set of my haiku by the side of the road, one line at a time (like the old Burma-Shave signs). I’ll augment this with a set of public haiku workshops and will invite public sharing of haiku too. I seem to be endlessly passionate about haiku, and love to share haiku because if others could have even just half the joy I get out of haiku, they’d be very joyful indeed.
You started NaHaiWriMo, National Haiku Writing Month, in October of 2010, holding the first event in February 2011, and have held it every February since. What are the goals of NaHaiWriMo? How can we participate?
The goal of NaHaiWriMo is to write at least one haiku a day for each day of the entire month of February—the shortest month for the shortest genre of poetry. I was inspired to start NaHaiWriMo by NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which I did in 2010, finishing a novel (I’ve done this two other times since then). Right when I was starting NaNoWriMo, where one needs to write at least 1,667 words per day to reach the 50,000-word goal for the month, it occurred to me that there ought to be month devoted to haiku too. A search online revealed that the term “NaHaiWriMo” had never been coined by anyone else, so I created the domain name and the Facebook page, and began a bit of advertising for what I hoped a few people might enjoy—that turned into thousands. On the very first day, someone asked if there was a prompt to follow. I wish I could remember who that was, because they instigated a process of providing daily prompts for every day of the month (my first prompt was “hand”). At the end of that first month, participants said they wanted to continue, so I started inviting guest prompters to provide daily writing prompts for other months throughout the year.
In January of 2014, I started doing short interviews with each of the daily prompters, and the website now sports a great number of interviews with these volunteers, helping everyone get to know the prompters a little better—and I also hope the interviews are a small reward for each person volunteering their time for a whole month. Patty Hardin has now done it eleven times! The biggest reward of NaHaiWriMo, though, has been how many thousands of people have been involved, and how it quickly became a worldwide community (we are careful to post the daily prompt before each day starts in New Zealand, which can take some figuring out of time zones to get right if one lives in North America or Europe).
To participate, just commit to writing at least one haiku a day in February. That’s it. However, if you want more camaraderie, then I invite you to join the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, where you can find the prompts and post your own poems too (which don’t have to follow the prompts, though most poems do). There used to be more commentary and workshopping on the poems a decade ago, and some of that does still occur (especially if requested), but there is at least lots of sharing—including lots of photo-haiga. It’s fun to explore regional terms from around the world, to be aware of seasons being different in the northern and southern hemispheres, and to see how poets rise to the challenge of writing about particular subjects (we had a lot of fun years ago with “nachos,” for example).
In 2012, I published a NaHaiWriMo ebook anthology, With Cherries on Top, and in 2017 I published Jumble Box, a printed anthology of NaHaiWriMo poems. The first book is available on the website, and the later book is available on Amazon, but you can read about it on the website too. Jumble Box also includes 28 haiga by Ron C. Moss, for which I’m very grateful.
During the pandemic, we also staged two worldwide Zoom readings by NaHaiWriMo participants. These took place on February 27 and 28, 2021 (or February 28 and March 1, depending on your time zone). And NaHaiWriMo isn’t just in English, either—pages for French, Bulgarian, and Spanish started in 2011, 2014, and 2020, respectively. If you aren’t on Facebook, you can still use the #NaHaiWriMo hashtag on Twitter or elsewhere, and we have participants on Instagram and TikTok as well. And Tumblr, Pinterest, and DeviantArt! Or post poems to your own blog. Or write daily haiku just for yourself! Whatever one does with haiku, of course, this poetry always remains a way to pay attention to your world, and a way to pay attention to your own emotions in reaction to your world.
Michael Dylan Welch has been investigating haiku since 1976. His Graceguts.com website is devoted mostly to haiku, featuring essays, reviews, and poems. He also runs Rengay.com 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.