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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Neena Singh

Today, at New to Haiku, let’s meet Neena Singh. The author of two books of poetry, Neena fell in love with haiku six years ago. Her haiku poetry has since been awarded and published worldwide, in journals such as The Heron’s Nest, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Presence, Akita, contemporary haibun online, kontinuum, cattails, and Wales Haiku Journal. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Neena.

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

Thanks, dear Julie, for the invitation to this interview. It’s an honor for me.

Haiku was a mystery to me when I published my first poetry book, Whispers of the Soul —The Journey Within. Though I did write free verse and three-line poems (thinking that these were the traditional 17-syllable haiku), the intricacies of haiku were unknown to me. Then, through divine serendipity, Dr. Angelee Deodhar, a celebrated haiku poet, came into my life.  We started corresponding and meeting as we lived close by in the same area of Chandigarh city in North India. She shared books, journals, and website links and became my mentor, friend, and “haiku guru” as I used to call her to her wry amusement. She instilled in me a deep fascination for haikai poetry, and life became imbued with its beauty. Her passing was a great personal loss as well as a loss to the world of haikai literature.

When I started writing haiku, I adhered to the seventeen-syllable count of 5-7-5, but as I read journals like Frogpond, The Heron’s Nest, Modern Haiku & Presence, I realized that this was the least valid attribute. English-language haiku need fewer syllables as they have longer tones than Japanese syllables. The paradox of haiku is that we always suppose we can write them easily, being just three-lined, yet it is extremely difficult to write good haiku. Even after my second book, One Breath Poetry, and hundreds of publications in journals, I still feel writing haiku is an ongoing journey, requiring study, practice, and more practice.

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

I have been fortunate in receiving guidance from many established haiku poets. The first advice I received from Angelee was to “read, study, and write, do not be in a hurry to publish.” I was not even aware of journals; she helped me to submit my work, and later it was Dr. Pravat who would give feedback on my haiku and advise me where to submit them.

Dr. Pravat Kumar Padhy mentored me in writing and polishing my haiku, senryu, tanka, tanka prose, and haibun. He is generous in sharing his knowledge of the genre and sent me many well-researched articles and essays on haiku, tanka, and monoku to broaden my understanding. I owe a debt of gratitude to him for his constant motivation and friendly guidance.

Kala Ramesh through an extensive online TRIVENI Gurukulam Mentorship Program, Alan Summers through The Haiku Foundation website, and the generous guidance and informal mentoring from many editors of journals, especially Fay Aoyogi (The Heron’s Nest), Paul Miller (Modern Haiku), Ian Storr (Presence), Rich Youmans & Terri L. French (contemporary haibun online), Richard Grahn (Drifting Sands Haibun), Joe Woodhouse (Wales Haiku Journal), Bryan Rickert (failed haiku), Patricia McGuire (Poetry Pea), & Irene Zahava (brass bell: a haiku journal) among others who inspire — each interaction with them has added to my learning. Responding to the weekly prompts of the editors at Haiku Dialogue, and reading their selections and commentaries is a great learning experience.

I was greatly influenced by the Masters, especially Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa. As my writing is mostly experiential and close to nature and Zen, I could connect with their writing. Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is my all-time favorite. A visit to Kyoto, Japan, and initiation into Soka Gakkai Buddhism based on the teachings of the monk Nichiren, made me more mindful and attracted me to the minimalistic style of writing poetry.

I have learned much from attending Michael Dylan Welch‘s presentation at the Japan Fair. He says that instead of writing about our reactions to stimuli, in a good haiku we should write about those things that cause our reactions. If our haiku take advantage of this technique, our readers can experience the same feelings we felt, without our having to explain them. I find this advice valuable.

There are so many good contemporary haijin whose work I really enjoy reading . . . tough to mention all. Social media connectivity has made it easy to connect with most of them.  It helps to read their work, learn, collaborate and write linked verses, rengay and haiga. The haiku community is wonderful and has gifted me with many new friends from all over the world who inspire me. I greatly value their friendship.

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

I write wherever and whenever inspiration strikes — it could be in my home, in the garden on my walks, while traveling, or visiting new places, simple observation, reading, playing, walking, eating, bathing, dreaming — it could happen anytime, anywhere. Then I pen it in my diary/phone/whatever is close by before it slips away (at times it does!). I wish I had a daily writing process, but haiku writing doesn’t work as a process for me, it’s more a love for life, nature, and poetry!

Yet submissions are process and time driven! Submissions are to be made timely and a record has to be kept. I use color-coded sheets on Google Keep for recording submissions, acceptances, and publications. If the housekeeping is missed (which happened a couple of times at my end), then the grave error of parallel submissions can happen and that is inexcusable. Editors have been forgiving when I acknowledged the error, sought pardon, and withdrew my poem.

Review and revision are integral steps of haiku writing for me. Even while submitting, sometimes there is an inner call for an edit, and intuition works. I have a beginner’s mind and feel that there is no end to learning.

How do you approach reading haiku? 

Reading haiku is almost a daily ritual. Being an avid reader, I love to read books on haiku and have just finished reading R.H. Blyth‘s volume on Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics — a brilliant and deeply moving book. Now, Poetry and Zen—Letters and Uncollected Writings of R.H. Blyth is by my bedside (gifts from my son). I greatly enjoy surfing the websites of The Haiku Foundation, Graceguts, TRIVENI Haikai, and American Haiku Archives.

Studying R.H. Blyth’s four volumes on the History of Haiku and The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku by William J. Higginson further enhanced my understanding. I refer to these volumes often and have read them time and again.

The Haiku Anthology edited by Cor van den HeuvelHaiku in English: The First Hundred Years edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns, both issued from a library in Seattle, inspired and enriched me.

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

Nowadays, plenty of excellent resources are available on the internet. A beginner needs to study the works of haiku masters and contemporary poets.

  1. Jim Kacian’s First Thoughts—A Haiku Primer is very instructive and interesting. It covers chapters on the history, definition, form, content, technique, language, and how to write haiku illustrating these with vivid examples of haiku written over the years by poets. I found How to Haiku by Bruce Ross very useful too.
  2. The Haiku Foundation’s website is another valuable resource for all poets and it has golden nuggets for both new and experienced haiku lovers. I have gained from all of the interviews featured in New to Haiku.
  3. Studying the saijiki for kigo words is imperative for writing quality haiku. Kala Ramesh says we must memorize them so that two kigo are not used in the same haiku.
  4. Getting to know the names of trees, plants, flowers, and birds one encounters and using them in haiku adds beauty and makes the haiku more concrete.
  5. Keep a journal for haiku. I write the date and an idea/draft of the haiku, also small phrases, words, and sensory images; later these can be used in penning haiku. I use a journal in my study at home and Notes on my phone if I am outside, which I then transfer to my journal.
  6. Composing haiku is a path—a way of observing life and catching the ephemeral with brevity. It does not “tell” but “shows” and captures a moment in time. The core of a haiku is the “white space” or “ma” and we are advised to “look closer between the lines, and even between the words.” Here the poet disappears and the reader steps in.
  7. Join a haiku group. There are many on Facebook and there is our TRIVENI Haikai India website with the mission of promoting the enjoyment of haikai and tanka literature and also for creating a common platform for all haikai poets, irrespective of boundaries both physical or imagined. It greatly helps to communicate with poets, and the reading/sharing/workshopping helps in improving the quality of one’s work.
  8. Finally, don’t be in a hurry. Enjoy the beauty of haiku, its present moment awareness and its brevity. Be true to yourself and your voice. Your experience is unique to you, and that should reflect in your poetry.

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

Collaborative writing is a fun experience for me. Recently, I enjoyed writing rengay with Sherry Grant, Billie Dee, Bryan Rickert, Vandana Parashar, & Shreya Narang. It was a wonderful surprise to receive 2nd place in the 2022 Gary Gay Rengay Award of the Haiku Society of America for the rengay, “Weavings,” that I wrote with Billie Dee.

At TRIVENI Haikai India, Kala Ramesh organized an online zoom session – TRIVENIgeetmala – a one-of-its-kind fun event where we put music/sang some tunes between our haikai which gave a singsong rhythm to our poems! Being a music lover, I really enjoyed singing and listening to other poets singing!

We also had a TRIVENI virtual ginko wherein 44 poets participated, followed by a TRIVENI Ginko Walk Meet wherein we talked about our experience and shared the haiku inspired by the walk. The excitement and energy were almost palpable, thanks to Kala Ramesh.

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

Some of my published haiku:

peeling layers of childhood green mango chutney

  • Heliosparrow 28th Dec 2020, featured in THF re:Virals on 9th January 2021

wooden ladder
on the neighbour’s wall
the moon climbs down

  • Poetry Pea Podcast, Season 4, Episode 6 on 15th March 2021 & in Spring Journal. Honorable Mention with commentary.

autumn dusk
an old friend’s hand
in mine

  • THF Monthly Kukai, The Haiku Foundation, April 2021 on the theme of trust, 3rd Prize

childhood memories . . .
I open and close
the wrought iron gate

  • Haiku Dialogue, The Haiku Foundation, 6th October 2021, Touchstone Award for Individual Poems Short List 2021

sudden rain . . .
I pick magnolia blossoms
from Buddha’s lap

  • 13th Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum Contest, Haiku of Merit, October 2021

rain bath
shedding the dust
a peacock’s cry

bird feeder—
a chickadee’s beak
laced with snow

  • THF Monthly Kukai, The Haiku Foundation, January 2022, on the theme of “snow”. Honorable Mention.

last train home . . .
the fishmonger’s basket
filled with potatoes

kite flying . . .
a street child colors
the unmasked sky

between two worlds the space of a breath

  • Haiku Dialogue, The Haiku Foundation, 29th June 2022, flowers – a death poem, Editor’s Choice

long afternoon
a glossy drongo
whoops me out

  • Haiku Dialogue, The Haiku Foundation, 3rd August 2022, on alliteration, assonance, consonance, Editor’s Choice

Let me share the story behind the following haiku:

wooden ladder
on the neighbour’s wall
the moon climbs down

This was a moment of enlightenment for me. On my late evening walk in the neighborhood, I saw a wooden ladder propped against the wall of a neighbour’s house—a common enough scene, and then suddenly clouds parted and the full moon in all its glory appeared to be climbing down the ladder . . . lighting up the rungs one by one, and the haiku was born! M. Shane Pruett, the Community Judge of the episode, selected it as his choice on the theme of exaggerated reality and wrote a beautiful and insightful commentary.

What haiku-related projects are you currently working on that bring you joy? What do you like about them?

I am enjoying working on a book of my published poetry (haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun, tanka prose, rengay, cherita, gembun, and haiga), motivated & supported by haijin friend Ravi Kiran, and a new book of Hindi poetry.

Being a member of the indianKUKAI team at Triveni and organizing the contest quarterly is a joyful endeavor as I get to read haiku submitted by poets from all over the world on a set theme.

I am also associated as a guest editor with The Wise Owl—a literary & art e-magazine publishing poetry, stories, essays, anecdotes, travelogues, musings, podcasts & reviews of books, wherein we have showcased haiku, senryu, and tanka poets this year with articles and book reviews by Dr. Pravat Kumar Padhy. We interviewed Alan Summers, Kala Ramesh & Michael Rehling. It was my honor and privilege to record a tete-a-tete with the great Michael Rehling and the video link is here. We plan to do more such interviews/podcasts/articles and spread the love of haiku all over the world.

Can you tell us more about the non-profit you run for underprivileged children? Your work sounds really valuable. How does your work with children influence your poetry?

The desire to work for the education and health of economically underprivileged children had been my dream. I was fortunate enough to set up a non-profit along with my husband — the Bharat Prakarsh Foundation — as a public charitable trust. We believe that our mission of education and health empowerment of children at government schools and day-care centers promotes human capital for the growth and equitable development of society. We conduct quality interventions by providing scholarships to meritorious yet economically disadvantaged students, counseling and mentoring them, and providing teaching aids. For children in government daycare centers, we have assisted in long-term projects for reducing malnutrition by providing information and incentives. Both poetry and my work with children stem from empathy, sensitivity, and sharing. Both make me more caring and mindful and add purpose and richness to my life.

Anything else you’d like to share?

The journey of life is wonderful and full of mystery. As a senior banker, after 30 years of corporate life, when I moved in 2007 to the arena of social work and philanthropy, I had not envisaged writing haiku poetry though I had been writing free verse since school and college days. In 2016, at the age of 60, I fell in love with haiku poetry! Now I want to write more haibun, tanka prose, and haiga. Poet ai li‘s cherita and gembun interests me. I have been writing them and would like to write more such story-based poems.

A Touchstone nominee on the Shortlist for Individual Poems in 2021, Neena Singh’s poetry (haiku, senryu, tanka, rengay, haibun, tanka prose, cherita, haiga) has been featured in The Heron’s Nest, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Presence, Akita, contemporary haibun online, Under the Basho, Akitsu Quarterly, Prune Juice Journal, kontinuum, drifting sands, Ribbons, cattails, THF’s Haiku Dialogue, Wales Haiku Journal, Acorn, failed haiku, Poetry Pea, brass bell, DailyHaiga and others. She has self-published two books of poetry—Whispers of the Soul and One Breath Poetry.

After three decades of contributing to the banking industry, Neena devotes her time to social work and penning poetry. She runs a non-profit for the education and health of underprivileged children and lives in Chandigarh, India with her husband Prithpal and beloved Labrador Rumi (with whom she loves to play catch ball). A nature lover, Neena loves to go for long walks in the public gardens which greatly inspire her muse. Sitting on the garden swing in her home, reading haiku, and conversing with trees, flowers, squirrels & doves is her favorite leisure time activity.

Neena can be contacted via:

Twitter – @NeenaSingh7
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/neenas
Instagram – @neenapp

We’d love to hear from you in the comments. The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy for more information.

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 26 Comments

  1. It was so nice to read this interview. Inspiring and informative!
    This was even more special to me personally because one of your mentors, Dr. Angelee Deodhar, was my Aunt and also my inspiration to try my hand at haiku.
    I would love to connect with you! Thank you,
    Sumita

    1. Dear Sumita,
      Thanks for your sweet appreciation.
      Dr Angelee was a great mentor and a lovely human being. So glad to hear that she inspired you too! Please feel free to connect with me—neenarotary@gmail.com is my mail id.
      Best wishes, Neena

  2. What an insightful interview! Thanks a ton, Neena ji and Julie.
    Your warmth and passion is palpable in everything you do, Neenaji, You have the right mix of sensitivity, maturity, talent and determination to learn. Wishing more power and success to you.

    1. Dear dear Vandana, such sweet words of praise from you make me light-headed!
      Thanks for your support and friendship….you were a great mentor in the Triveni Gurukulam and I learnt much from you. We should meet soon. Love & Take care!
      Neena

  3. I am so grateful to Julie for this space to learn and grow. Your questions truly produce life-altering advice.
    Neena, I have long admired your work, but I knew nothing about you. How delightful it was to discover we share a love of helping under-privileged children and haiku. I have so much to learn, and you have provided a wonderful path.

    1. Dear Eavonka, thanks for your lovely comment. Truly this feature of THF is a great place and I have benefited much by reading the earlier interviews. Thanks to Julie and the talented poets interviewed,
      Happy that we share the gift of empathy. It gives life purpose. Wish you all the very best on your haiku journey.

  4. Thanks a lot to Neena and Julie for this stunning interview.

    I often read Neena’s poems which are inspiring and profound. I am quite new to haiku and thank you for your precious suggestions and tips.

    1. Dear Mariangela I am so touched reading your comment. Thanks for the sweet appreciation. Glad that you found my tips useful, credit goes to Julie for her insightful questions and this great feature! Wish you all the very best on your haiku journey.

  5. An inspiring and much needed litany of advice, even to those of us who have been writing for a very long time in this genre!

    A great mentor and incredibly generous, Dr. Angelee Deodhar was so right about this, which is invaluable: “read, study, and write, do not be in a hurry to publish.”

    I can relate to this as I studied, for a solid five years, all of the historical haikai verse I could find at the time, and it was an incredible adventure in itself. Although I did send out work, some of it terrible, I knew I mustn’t run a single haiku workshop until I had served that ‘five year apprenticeship’ that I lovingly imposed on myself.

    And this is so true, from Neena:
    “Review and revision are integral steps of haiku writing for me. Even while submitting, sometimes there is an inner call for an edit, and intuition works. I have a beginner’s mind and feel that there is no end to learning.”

    I still find myself sending off to a journal a little too soon at times! If the poems are there, and you have them ready in time, take that extra day or two.

    Like Neena I bow to my beginner’s mind and that there is no end to learning, ever.

    warm regards,
    Alan

    Alan Summers
    founder, Call of the Page

    1. Dear Alan grateful for your read and detailed observations about the interview.

      You have always been a great mentor and there is so much to learn from you.

      Warm regards,
      Neena

  6. It was wonderful reading about your journey, your insights, and pointers for beginners. Thank you🌸🙏 for sharing. My best wishes to you.

    1. Thanks dear Vani for your positive comments about the interview and your good wishes. Deeply appreciated. Wish you all the best!

  7. Thank you Julie for this wonderful interview with Neena. It is insightful to read about the accidents that lead to haiku.

  8. Thanks dear Julie for interviewing me for “New to Haiku”. I am deeply honored. Your insightful questions made me look within and retrace my journey.
    Reminded me of Robert Frost’s lines—
    The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

  9. Dear Pravat, grateful to you. Your motivation and appreciation as my mentor touches me deeply. Thanks for your beautiful haiku.

    1. Thanks Patrick san for your kind words. Glad you liked the interview. Julie is a great interviewer!

  10. Congratulations dear Neena on being interviewed! You are doing great in the field of poetry! My best wishes to you.

  11. Thank you, Neena, and Julie for such a wonderful interview. Neena, your gentle manifestation and touch of compassion will render a new light to poetry lovers. You have cultivated the language of simplicity and explored the essence of haiku poetry with a different flair.

    stillness–
    the river on its
    gentle journey

    Pravat Kumar Padhy

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