Today, at New to Haiku, let’s meet P. H. Fischer. His haiku have appeared in first frost, Modern Haiku, and The Heron’s Nest, among many other fine journals. He recently won the Vancouver category of the 2022 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Invitational. Congrats Peter! Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us.
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, Peter! How did you come to learn about haiku?
First, thank you, Julie, for the invitation to this interview. With the ink still wet on my first published haiku in hedgerow a little over a year ago, I feel like an imposter in this column! That said, I’m honoured to share with your readers what has worked for me as an aspiring poet, and I hope others will chime in with their best practices in the comments.
Like most, I’m sure I first learned about haiku in elementary English (or mathematics—counting syllables!) but have no memory of it. Years later, while taking university English classes in Toronto, I bought a used copy of H. G. Henderson’s Haiku in English and devoured it. I loved the simple, objective (yet full of feeling), nature-based poems that packed so much greatness into a compact container. It was a timely antidote to the self-absorbed, loquacious poetry I was writing.
What followed was a few decades of mere dabbling in haiku until the spring of 2018. As my second half-century encroached like cumulonimbus over the prairie, I fulfilled a long-held dream to walk the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. Trekking the pilgrimage alone, I committed to writing at least one haiku per day as a way of being present in each moment. This 900 kilometre ginko turned me on to haiku again, especially its meditative qualities. It wasn’t until 2021, however, in the middle of the pandemic (let’s hope it was the middle), that I took the next and most important step in my growth as a haiku poet. I began connecting with the haiku community. Why I hadn’t done this long before, I have no idea. If there’s one take-away I’d love new poets to hear, it’s this: reach out to the haiku family. There’s a place setting with your name on it at all our gatherings. You are welcome here.
Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
Yes, many! As mentioned, the haiku community not only welcomed me but supported, inspired, and encouraged me in numerous ways. I reached out to the Vancouver Haiku Group, Haiku Canada, Haiku Northwest, the Haiku Society of America, and accepted an invitation to join the Haiku Komo Kulshan group here in the Pacific Northwest. Suddenly, via Zoom (one of the few benefits to come out of the pandemic), I was regularly meeting, workshopping, and chatting with renowned poets that I loved reading in the journals. And they didn’t bite!
I’m grateful for the formal and informal mentorship I’ve received. Formally, I enrolled in the Haiku Society of America’s mentorship program, which connects new haiku poets with established poets. All for a few dollars more than the price of an annual Frogpond subscription—highly recommended! We met once a month as a small group of three or four, for support, discussion, and workshopping of our efforts. My mentors, Victor Ortiz and later, Anne Elise Burgevin, helped me immensely. Both wonderful poets took an encouraging role that inspired creativity and experimentation. Rather than being instructive/prescriptive like a sage on the stage, their gentle guide-on-the-side approach allowed for self-reflection, learning, and confidence building. Their celebration of any success, big or small, was the wind in my sails. My mentorship culminated with publication in the HSA Mentorship Program Anthology, The Unexpected Weight.
Informally, I continue to be mentored through the reading of many journals, essays (for example, Tom Clausen’s excellent A Haiku Way of Life), anthologies, collections, how-to-haiku books, haiku websites (The Haiku Foundation, Graceguts, archived essays on Modern Haiku, etc.). Basically, anything I can get my hands on! This column, for one, has helped me immensely. (Thank you, Peter!) It’s a treasure-trove of fabulous advice from haiku luminaries like Kala Ramesh, Mike Rehling, Bryan Rickert, Roberta Beary, Robin Anna Smith, Kat Lehmann, Alan Summers, and so many more.
Books that were especially helpful in my development include: Scott Mason’s The Wonder Code, Patricia Donegan’s Haiku Mind, Gabriel Rosenstock’s Haiku Enlightenment, Bruce Ross’ How to Haiku, William Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, Betty Drevniok’s Aware: A Haiku Primer, and R.H. Blyth’s 4 Volume Haiku collection (I recently found a full set in pristine condition in a used bookstore), among others.
While cooking or washing the dishes, I enjoy listening to haiku podcasts such as the Haiku Pea Podcast, Haiku Chronicles, or Ben Gaa’s Haiku Talk video podcast. I never fail to learn something from these podcasts and always feel inspired to put pen to paper.
Apart from the Japanese Masters (on whose shoulders we all stand), I feel I take bits of technique, and inspiration from so many poets I love reading including (to name a handful) John Stevenson, Chuck Brickley, Kat Lehmann, Carolyn Hall, Roland Packer, Ben Gaa, Bryan Rickert, Antoinette Cheung, Hifsa Ashraf, Michael Dudley, Jacqueline Pearce, Robin Anna Smith, Michael Dylan Welch, Lew Watts, Victor Ortiz, and just about everyone I read from India—Kala Ramesh, Vandana Parashar, Mona Bedi, Shloka Shankar, among others.
Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?
I am physically tied to my little haiku notebook and fountain pen at all times, even in bed. I’m an addict! Inspiration strikes at the oddest times, and I do not trust my memory to recall poems. The scratching of my pen across the page has broken my wife’s slumber too many times for her liking, but, as one of my senryu attests, the consequences of not being at the ready are tragic:
last night’s poems
Failed Haiku, Issue 67
Here’s a very rough statistical breakdown of where/when my muse most often visits:
- 40% Outside while walking (long solitary walks are the best), sailing, riding public transit, waiting in line, reading signs, dining at restaurants, viewing art, etc.
- 20% First thing in the morning while meditating or on the couch as I sip tea and watch birds at our window feeders.
- 20% Inspired by my reading/response to prompts. Reading exceptional haiku always primes the pump for me, as does responding to prompts. I religiously submit to each week’s Haiku Dialogue prompt, for example.
- 5% From my dreamscape. Dream haiku are wacky, wild, surreal, and once-in-a-while, golden!
- 5% Ruminating about the past. I’ve got more than half a century of material now, lol.
- 5% In the shower/bath. Eureka!
- 5% Zapped out of the blue, anywhere, anytime (while vacuuming, changing a bike tire, listening to John Cage, making love—true!)
I write at least one first draft of a poem per day, sometimes many more. Most are terrible. That’s okay. It’s part of the process. The first draft of just about anything is $*!#, as Hemingway opined. I write whatever comes to me, even a scrap of a poem—a line, a phrase, a word overheard, etc, then edit my writing, working through 5, 10, 15, or more drafts. If the poem satisfies both the internal critic (myself) and external critic (my wife), I transfer the poem from my notebook to the cloud for safekeeping (the sooner the better—I recently left my notebook in a pocket while my pants took a spin in the washer).
Specifically, I upload poems to my Trello board, where things get more serious, including allocating poems to specific journal columns for submission. Submitted poems receive a yellow label. Accepted/Published poems get a green label and added to the published column, while “returned” poems (my semantic preference over “rejected”) receive a blue label and assigned to further editing and/or reallocated to another journal column for a second, third, fourth try. For someone as disorganised as I am by default, this system helps keep things in order. At a certain point in my growth, and after the egregious mistake of submitting the same poem to two journals, I knew I needed to get organised to keep track of what’s what and what’s where and when poems needed to “ship.” Trello does the trick for me.
How do you approach reading haiku?
I approach haiku with reverence. For the poem, poet, and the welcoming space that surrounds the words on a page. I open a journal, an anthology, a collection, or a download, as if I were handling a sacred text. Surely that’s what it is! I expect to encounter the fullness of life in haiku—to be awed, moved, challenged, amused, maybe even transformed.
Just as I trust my heart and my intuition to take the lead when writing haiku, I rely on these faculties when appreciating haiku. Before analysing a poem intellectually, I always encounter it aesthetically, emotionally, even spiritually. Does it resonate with me? Can I take my shoes off here and enter this poem, pour a cup of tea, and stay a while or a lifetime? In my reading of a haiku, do I complete the poem, and does it fulfil me?
This knowledge of the heart doesn’t readily rise to the tongue. There are favourite poems that I can’t understand rationally or even articulate why I love them. I just do. That’s fine. In subsequent readings of a poem, I try to pick apart the poem and analyse the mechanics of it: its construction, the principles of haiku aesthetics it may employ, and whatever else may have informed it. Ultimately, I go to haiku asking the same questions that Emily Dickinson once asked of what she read. Does this poem make my whole body so cold no fire can warm me? Does this poem feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off? Reading great poems feels like that to me as well.
For those just starting out, what advice would you give?
As mentioned, I haven’t placed my haiku training wheels on the shelf just yet, so take this “advice” for what it’s worth. That said, beyond what I’ve already shared (connecting with haiku groups, reaching out for mentorship, reading/listening to as much haiku as possible, finding a system to organise your efforts, etc.) here’s what’s important to me and may be helpful for those taking first spins on their own haiku ride.
- Follow Ben Gaa’s Three S’s. I first heard Ben Gaa share his tri-part equation for writing haiku on Patricia McGuire’s Haiku Pea Podcast. If you haven’t watched/listened to the episode, do yourself a favour and click here. There are many other excellent haiku checklists to help with editing and evaluating your writing (Julie’s own advice and Michael Dylan Welch’s checklist, and Jay Friedenberg’s compilation for example) but I keep coming back to Ben’s three simple questions:
- Is the writing simple? Do I use everyday language that everyone can understand?
- Is the writing succinct? Are there any unnecessary words in the poem?
- Is it suggestive? Is there room for the reader? Are the images evocative, multifaceted, layered with differing perspectives? Does the poem invite multiple readings?
- Ask for help. Can you find a writing partner? Do you have someone to bounce ideas and first drafts off of? Besides workshopping poems with my haiku groups, I have emailed respected poets and editors and asked for their advice and feedback. I find most haiku poets to be open, welcoming, and incredibly helpful.
- Have fun! Yes, it’s important to learn the “rules” of writing haiku, but it feels good to stretch them once in a while, doesn’t it? Don’t be afraid to draw outside the lines. Don’t get bogged down by form and definitions. Let others debate whether your poem’s a haiku, or a senryu, or something else entirely. Choose to listen to the wishes of the poem itself; what does it want to say, what shape does it want to take? If it’s good, it’ll find a home. If not, move on. The haiku tap never runs dry!
- Put yourself out there. There are myriad opportunities to add your voice and give back to the haiku community. Volunteering as a workshop host at last year’s Haiku North America Conference, as a presenter at this year’s Haiku Canada Conference, and as a leader of two ginko walks at the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival, I have grown in confidence and community the more I get involved.
- Finally, a note for well-established poets. Please consider reaching out to an aspiring poet whose early efforts you have noticed and enjoyed. A quick message via email, social media, Zoom chat, etc., to say you appreciate a haiku or their growth as a poet or their contribution to the community can be incredibly meaningful for those of us still finding our way in haiku. I, for one, deeply cherish the messages I have received from poets I admire. Their encouragement was just the boost I needed to keep at it.
What are your favorite haiku that you have written? Can you share a story behind one of them?
a single light
hedgerow, Issue 136
the mooncake still cut
Autumn Moon Haiku Journal, 5:1
dad’s tool shed—
the taste of iron
in my blood
The Heron’s Nest, Vol. XXIV, No. 1
! ; v e $ m @ + + e < ! e $ $
Haiku Dialogue, Jan. 26th 2022
4’33” all the while snow
cooling my soup
mom stirs in
Modern Haiku, 53:2
freeing the kite
i stay awhile
in the oak branches
Haiku Dialogue, April 27th 2022
last tree falls in the
Modern Haiku 53:1
a boy asks the captain about
Trash Panda, Vol 3.1
Unlike most of my poems, this haiku came to me complete at the same time as the moment that inspired it. My family and I were on a whale watching excursion off the coast of Tofino, British Columbia. Approaching a pod of grey whales, the excitement among us tourists was palpable. No more so than from the eight-year-old boy across the aisle from me. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened as we watched one whale dive into the depths of the sea, her tail waving at us before disappearing. The boy slid across his seat and pressed his nose up against the window. While he waited for the whale to surface, he turned to the captain, who cut the boat’s engine. “Do you believe in reincarnation?” he asked the amused skipper. “Well, there’s a question I’ve never had in all my years on the water!” I chuckled and chimed in, “It’d be cool to come back as a whale, wouldn’t it?” The boy smiled ear to ear and nodded eagerly before turning back to the window. As everyone readied their cameras and binoculars, I took out my handy notebook and pen and scribbled out the above haiku. Glancing up at Linda, my wife, she smiled, knowing exactly where I was going with this one.
What haiku-related project are you currently working on that brings you joy? What do you like about it?
My biggest joy is the writing itself. From start to finish. Viewing life with “haiku eyes,” I love the anticipation of experiencing the extraordinary in the ordinary, quickly jotting down first thoughts and impressions, editing, rewriting, polishing, sending poems out into the world and, hopefully, finding readers who appreciate them. Someday it would give me great joy if a good number of my published poems put their heads together and stepped out as a collective with my name on the fancy book cover.
Currently, I am also set to begin my first stint as a guest editor with Haiku Dialogue. Following in the footsteps of many accomplished poets/editors at The Haiku Foundation, I accepted the invitation from KJ Munro with gratitude (and a good measure of trepidation), trusting that this is a great way to continue my growth as a haiku poet and to give back to the community that has given me so much. I can’t wait to get started.
I’m fascinated by the innovation in your haiku, particularly with regard to use of symbols and the incorporation of science and math concepts. Where do you draw your inspiration? How do you think we, as a haiku community, can extend our reach into science and math?
Ha! This question reminds me of the mathematics award I received when I graduated from junior high. I still fear my math teacher will call to announce the error and revoke my awarded plaque (thankfully, he’s long since retired). I’m actually terrible at math and only a smidge better at science. That said, I value these disciplines particularly for the creative possibilities within their symbols and language. Apart from a subconscious need to validate my junior high math award, I’ve included numbers, symbols, binary language, and computer coding in my writing because of my inclination to have fun, experiment, and play with new ways to communicate old truths.
I wrote most of my math and science poems in response to scifaiku prompts for the Haiku Pea Podcast, Haiku Dialogue, or Failed Haiku, but some result from my belief that anything can be the source of poetry. This is the amazing thing about creative writing. I’m inspired to stretch my imagination and knowledge through research on things like binary code, space travel, fantasy, black holes, numerology, flora and fauna, planets and stars, dreamscapes, etc. I think poetry and science/math are not antithetical but complementary. In fact, listen to the language of today’s quantum physicists—their descriptions of reality are highly poetic, mystical even. The intersection of science and aesthetics/poetics is exciting to me. Haiku’s axes of nature (horizontal/breadth) and spirit (vertical/depth) provide a meeting place for STEM types and Creatives alike. Wouldn’t it be great to hear of science teachers/professors using haiku to inspire self-reflection on humanity’s unity with the natural world? Perhaps some mindful academics are doing this already. May it be so.
P. H. Fischer (Peter) lives, works and plays in Vancouver, Canada, on the traditional, unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples. His poetry is published in a growing list of haiku journals including The Heron’s Nest, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Presence, first frost, Whiptail, Kingfisher, Prune Juice, Haiku Canada Review and others. He is the winner of the Vancouver category of the 2022 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Invitational and is Guest Editor of The Haiku Foundation’s Haiku Dialogue for October/December 2022. At this year’s Haiku Canada Conference, he gave a presentation entitled “Camino de Santiago: A Short Reflection on a Long Ginko.” For all he receives in return, Peter delights in paying his membership dues to Haiku Canada and the Haiku Society of America. Follow him on Instagram @p.h.fischer