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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Robert Epstein

This week, New to Haiku is pleased to interview Robert Epstein. He has edited 11 haiku anthologies; his most recent collection of haiku, Contemplating Nature: Pictures, Passages & Haiku, was published in 2021. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Robert.
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.
Welcome to New to Haiku, Robert. How did you come to learn about haiku?
I learned about haiku in my twenties long before I dared to start writing haiku. It was through my interest in Zen Buddhism that I discovered haiku in a book by Alan Watts, The Way of Zen. A few years later, I was intrigued by D. T. Suzuki’s observations on haiku in Zen and Japanese Culture, which I resonated deeply with and still do. R. H. Blyth’s books on haiku were extraordinarily eye-opening and inspiring. In the early 1990s, I rediscovered haiku and started writing in earnest, though I didn’t realize I lacked the fundamentals until I registered for an adult education class on this short-form poetry taught by the late Carolyn Talmadge, a longtime member of Haiku Poets of Northern California (HPNC). Carolyn was gracious in offering valuable feedback, which I greatly appreciated, and her tutoring led to the first poems I had published in Woodnotes, the journal of HPNC.
Do you have a haiku mentor? What advice did they give you? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
As I mentioned above, Carolyn Talmadge was very helpful, but I would not say that she was a mentor. Nor would I say that some of the early journal editors were mentors either, but I do want to express great appreciation for the constructive suggestions I received from them: Ebba Story, who edited Woodnotes; as well as the late Robert Spiess, longtime editor of Modern Haiku, and John Stevenson when he edited Frogpond. Fay Aoyagi, current associate editor of The Heron’s Nest, provides me with constructive input on poems that I submit to her. Roberta Beary deserves special thanks as I consulted her when I began publishing the first books of haiku I wrote as well as the haiku anthologies I edited. The truth is that I am mainly a loner, which may explain in part why I remain a hit-or-miss haiku poet to this day (and this is not false modesty).
As for influences, there are many! First and foremost, I am indebted to the Japanese masters––Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki––and I don’t mind saying so. I am in awe of the depth and breadth of Basho’s genius and his poems are a source of great inspiration, though they were written centuries ago. I have also been very inspired by dozens of contemporary English-language haiku poets and there is not enough space to properly acknowledge them all. That said, I will at least mention some: the late Eric Amann, Fay Aoyagi, Roberta Beary, Ernest Berry, Bob Boldman, John Brandi, Tom Clausen, Sylvia Forges-Ryan, Stanford M. Forrester, the late J. W. Hackett, Carolyn Hall, Penny Harter, Christopher Herold, Gary Hotham, Jim Kacian, john martone, Michael McClintock, Ron C. Moss, the late marlene mountain, the late Marion Olson, Renee Owen, Tom Painting, the late Raymond Roseliep, David H. Rosen, Alexis Rotella, the late Santoka Taneda, John Stevenson, George Swede, the late Nicholas Virgilio, Julie Warther.
Where do you most often write? Do you have a writing process?
I write wherever the haiku spirit moves me. I am often inspired to write while out walking in nature, which is why I bring along a small notebook and a small ball point pen. But, if I am working on a book of haiku, I might be jotting down poems from bed on post-its in the middle of the night.
I am not conscious of any kind of writing process to speak of, though perhaps someone filming me might observe something that I do not see. I will say that I frequently read haiku to prime the haiku pump, but I am not sure this qualifies as part of a well-defined process, because my intuition does not need, nor does it rely on, what others have written.
For those just starting out, what advice would you give?
At the risk of repeating what others may have already said, I think it is important to read a wide variety of haiku, from the masters to contemporary poets of all kinds. I would add that there is no end to this reading. . . it goes on forever! Without over-thinking what enamors or enchants you, it is useful to read slowly and pause to take note of what it is about this particular poem that moves or touches you deeply. Of course, the same could be said of those poems that leave you unmoved. What seems to be missing here? What might breathe more life into the poem, if you were the poet and could revise it?
As paradoxical as it may sound, I found my true haiku spirit by emulating the poets whose haiku inspired me. We all have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any, in my view. Consider how children learn: one main way they do is by imitation, so it makes sense to me that imitation is a natural way to learn the fundamentals of haiku writing. With time, patience and persistence I found my way to the well from which I draw water that nourishes the compost pile that is haiku. Learning haiku calls for patience and self-acceptance. Each of us has an inner critic that is well-intentioned, yet misguided. It only knows how to judge and criticize, which can be discouraging. It is best to thank one’s inner critic and reassure him or her that the compassionate side of you will be advising you henceforth. As writing teacher Natalie Goldberg urges, every writer needs to give oneself permission to compose the worst garbage in the world. This is wildly freeing and vital to anyone starting out as a haiku poet. Of course, a beginner is going to be confused, disoriented, tentative, maybe even overwhelmed at first, and this is all together natural. At the same time, as Shunryu Suzuki pointed out, a beginner’s mind also includes such qualities as: curiosity, spontaneity, receptivity, a spirit of adventure, openness, freshness. There is no need to be in a hurry to assume the mantle of expert.
I think it is important to allow the poem to write itself. That is, I do not impose the form on a poem. For example, I do not pre-determine that a given haiku will be three lines. It may appear in three lines, but it might form itself into two lines, or four, or one horizontal line. One might call this poetic license; I think of it as poetic freedom based on choiceless awareness (J. Krishnamurti).
Regarding the study of haiku, I heartily recommend the following sources for those starting out: Charlotte Digregorio, Haiku and Senryu: A Simple Guide for All, as well as her blog; Lee Gurga, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide; Patricia J. Machmiller, Zigzag of the Dragonfly: Writing the Haiku Way. For additional exposure to contemporary haiku, the following journals are essential reading: Acorn; bottle rockets; cattails; Chrysanthemum; Frogpond; hedgerow[: a journal of small poems]; Mariposa; Modern Haiku; tinywords. Jim Kacian’s The Haiku Foundation website contains a treasure trove of invaluable information, including a digital library of published haiku books.

Last but not least, I want to say a word about “rejection.” Most of us are sensitive to criticism in no small part because we are conditioned from an early age to want to be liked, to be accepted, to succeed. Our egos get mixed up in the pursuit of getting published and this is unfortunate, though understandable. Through personal and painful experience, I have come to reframe “rejection” as simply a function, for the most part, of goodness of fit. That is, this poem and this editor turn out not to be well-matched. I realized this by sending the same poem that was declined by one editor and readily accepted by another. I think it helps for new (as well as seasoned) poets to know that there is a distinctly subjective (if not arbitrary) element to the submission process. Of course, one needs to be able to dispassionately assess the merit of any given poem submitted. Not all poems are publishable and with time and experience, poets develop their powers of discernment in knowing where to send a particular poem to optimize its acceptance. I have also consoled myself in knowing that I can always publish unchosen poems in my own books, if I can’t find a home for them in the journals. As I write this, I just received a new chapbook by Adjei Agyei-Baah, which was inspired by his experience of journal rejection. The book is titled Finding the Other Door: Senryu Poems, and is well-worth reading.

How do you approach reading haiku?

I read the aforementioned haiku journals and have a large collection of haiku books and chapbooks by individual poets that I have accumulated over the past thirty years. I reread many of these books because the poetry is universal and enduring. For example, john martone‘s books as well as Ron C. Moss‘s books remain fresh and inspiring despite multiple readings.

What are some of the ways that you engage with haiku in your daily life?

I deeply enjoy reading and writing both haiku and senryu. I am passionate about haiku, and for thirty years it has occupied a central place in my heart. I will write haiku or senryu when I am in a light-hearted or playful mood; I am compelled to write senryu when I am angry or upset about something or when I am struck by a human foible, including my own; and I grieve the loss of loved ones by writing what I call mourning haiku.

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

I don’t have a great memory but a handful of poems stand out for me that I have written. Here they are:

zen garden
stands out

ragged clouds
what it feels like
to hold a rake

checkout time is noon
I turn in the keys
and everything else

blue jean patches
the sky will always belong
to my mother

tall, dry grass
so dry it hums
Dad’s death day

the answer is yes no yes breaking waves

uncertain future
I rest my head on a stream
of moonlight

in pine shade
for a while I forget
this life will end

I don’t care much for stories, as I am primarily interested in truth, so instead I will say that for the last 19 years I have spent the second Sunday in June in a day of remembrance of my father. I write haiku in his honor, and I have done the same for my mother who died the day before my birthday in 2017. During one such day of remembrance, I walked on a trail where I was surrounded by tall, golden grass that was nearly as tall as I am. The warm wind was blowing quite strongly; it called for my attention not unlike my father when he commanded me to do something for him. I listened and the dry summer grass spoke.

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

I recently completed a manuscript of haiku poetry that I paired with some fundamental teachings of J. Krishnamurti, a secular spiritual teacher whose writings I have studied for more than 40 years. The book is titled A Hummingbird Still: Haiku in the Spirit of J. Krishnamurti. This book is very important to me as a poetic expression of my love for, and deep gratitude to, Krishnamurti.

Inspired by Krishnamurti’s notion that meditation is not a “practice,” I am writing an essay proposing that haiku is not a “practice,” either. If one is awake and aware, intuition is free to draw from the well of insight that spontaneously reveals poetic truths.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Without wanting to engage new poets in controversy, I do want to say that I encourage those who have found their way to haiku poetry out of love for nature should feel free to write nature-based haiku. There are a number of haiku critics who appear bored by or impatient with nature-based haiku and ardently advocate for novelty and innovation as well as the use of artifice, of which I have little interest. I am not against experimentation! By all means experiment, but if haiku is for sharing––as the late haiku scholar, William J. Higginson––suggested, then the poetry one puts out into the world needs to communicate something intelligible and meaningful to the reader; otherwise, it dies in transit. With few exceptions much of gendai haiku strikes me as so surreal and insular as to be indecipherable.

I have devoted a considerable amount of time and energy my own mortality, which is anything but morbid. On the contrary, as the Buddha maintained: “Of all footprints that of the elephant is supreme, Of all mindfulness meditations that on death is supreme.” Some years ago, Yoel Hoffmann edited an excellent collection of poetry on the subject entitled Japanese Death Poems, and I edited an anthology called Dreams Wander On: Contemporary Death Awareness Haiku. I encourage all aspiring haiku poets to try their hand at writing death awareness haiku.

One last question. . .You’ve edited several collections of haiku on topics including grief, recovery, and the sacred. What do you see as the role of haiku in health and healing?

First and foremost, I want to say that the haiku anthologies I have edited over the past ten years have been labors of love for me; the themes I have chosen have all been close to my heart. The two most recent anthologies I edited were put together during the pandemic and corresponding with poets and artists from around the world was not only uplifting but counteracted the psychological effects of sheltering in place for a long time.

On a more personal level, I have said on more than one occasion that haiku saved my life: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. Having developed chronic health problems twenty years ago, I turned to haiku as a way of giving expression to my grief over multiple losses while still remaining creatively engaged. My life circumstances may have been circumscribed by pain and illness, but haiku preserved and elevated my spirit and for this I am eternally grateful. Sharing the haiku I have written about grief and loss, illness and pain, has counteracted loneliness and isolation. In addition, fellow poets have written to tell me how much they have resonated with my experience, which has been moving to me.

The mourning haiku I have written in response to the deaths of my parents has enabled me to ground these losses in nature. It is through mourning that one recovers a sense of wholeness as well as a deeper understanding of the human experience. Invariably, I have had important insights into the nature of life-and-death while grieving the losses of loved ones. The most profound insight I had was in realizing that my mother’s dying was her last act of love. I cannot put into words how healing this realization has been for me. Do not be afraid to grieve or to force yourself “to move on” quickly following the death of a loved one. Have the courage to face your losses and consider using haiku as a platform for attaining a fuller understanding of life-and-death, as the two are not separate or opposed to one another. One of the most moving poems I have read, which I return to often, is Basho’s last haiku and I will let the father of haiku have the final word:

sick on a journey
over withered fields
dreams wander on

Yes, indeed.

Robert Epstein, a strength-based and collaborative psychologist living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been writing and publishing haiku since the early 1990s. In addition to publishing several books of original haiku, he has edited numerous haiku anthologies. His most recent book of haiku is Contemplating Nature: Pictures, Passages & Haiku; his latest anthology is The Helping Hand Haiku Anthology.

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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 5 Comments

  1. I appreciate the time and energy that you spent in preparing and sharing such helpful guidance. Thank you.

    1. Dear Curt,
      You are welcome, Curt. And, thank you for taking time to read and post your appreciation!
      Kind regards,

  2. Thank you Robert, so much good advice and wisdom. I related to so much of what you say. I wondered whether you would recommend a particular translation of Basho? When I read book reviews they are often not so complimentary in this respect. Many thanks,

    1. Dear David,
      You are very welcome. Thank you for taking time to read and comment on the reflections I posted. Regarding a preferred translation of Basho’s poetry, I can’t say that I have a definitive favorite. To some extent, it depends on the particular poem. For example, I absolutely love what is more an interpretation than a translation of Basho by the late Robert Bly: the temple bell stops/but the sound keeps coming/out of the flowers. I have not been able to find a more profound version of this poem by any translator. I find it interesting to read the different translations of “old pond.” This is a longwinded way of encouraging you to read a few (or more) translations til you find one that resonates for you. Jane Reichhold’s book, “Basho: The Complete Haiku,” is one place to start; another is Sam Hamill’s, “Narrow Road to the Interior.” I also recommend David Landis Barnhill’s, “Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems.” Cid Corman has a quirky way of translating Basho that might be of interest: “Back Roads to Far Towns: Basho’s Travel Journal.” Hope this helps! Robert

  3. Robert said:
    “Without wanting to engage new poets in controversy, I do want to say that I encourage those who have found their way to haiku poetry out of love for nature should feel free to write nature-based haiku.”

    Just out of coincidence issue #3 of the Blo͞o Outlier Journal will be both a haiku only issue this time, and the theme is natural history/wildlife:

    The third issue will be haiku only, and the theme is natural history (wildlife):

    What is natural history haiku?

    I’ve been asked this a few times regarding the Autumn 2021 issue of Blo͞o Outlier Journal.

    It could be said they are powerful nature poems, and raw nature poems.
    It’s capturing nature or rather when nature captures us and we become merged.

    “Traditionally haiku are rooted in natural history and the seasons, and make us conspirators with wildlife, as nature half-writes the haiku before we’ve even put pen to paper.”

    Alan Summers, With Words and “what is a haiku”

    EXAMPLES on my FB page:

    Issue #3 with a NEW email address, will open for submissions later in August.
    Check out:

    Enjoy getting ready for issue #3!

    warm regards,
    editor-in-chief, Blo͞o Outlier Journal

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