New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners — Ryland Shengzhi Li
Today at New to Haiku, let’s meet Ryland Shengzhi Li. Ryland is a poet and environmental lawyer. His haiku have been published in Frogpond, first frost, Modern Haiku, tsuri-dōrō, cattails, The Heron’s Nest, and many other fine journals. Last October, he presented a workshop entitled “Mindfulness through poetry: Buddhism and haiku” through the Young Buddhist Editorial. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Ryland.
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, Ryland! How did you come to learn about haiku?
I first learned about haiku in middle school as a 5-7-5 [syllable] poem. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started writing it seriously. I had just taken a class on formal poetry, and I wanted to explore more forms. Haiku piqued my interest because it was small and spare. I got a copy of Bill Higginson and Penny Harter’s The Haiku Handbook, which I still think is the best introduction to haiku in English. And then I got involved with a local haiku community, Towpath Haiku, where I met many talented and generous poets that encouraged me to keep writing.
Do you have a haiku mentor?
I have a formal mentor through the Haiku Society of America mentorship program, Annette Makino. Our mentorship group meets monthly, and we critique each other’s poems and write linked verse. I’ve learned a lot from our meetings, and several of our linked forms have been published. I highly recommend the HSA mentorship program to anyone interested in learning more about haiku or just connecting with a small group of haiku poets.
Outside of the formal mentorship program, I’ve met many people, especially through Towpath and the Inkstone Poetry Forum, who have supported me on my haiku journey. I want to especially give a shoutout to the late Ellen Compton, who welcomed me to Towpath when I was still a complete beginner. Roberta Beary, who I also met through Towpath, provides the most insightful feedback in workshops and has encouraged my writing in many ways. Jenny Ward Angyal, who moderates the Inkstone Poetry Forum, is one of my favorite poets and consistently spot-on with her critiques. I could list many more people. I really cherish the communal aspect of haiku.
Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?
I like the old Japanese masters, especially Issa. For me, his poetry embodies kindness and non-discrimination towards all things and beings, especially animals. Reading his work expands my heart and nourishes my spirit. David Lanoue’s Write Like Issa: A Haiku How-To is an excellent introduction to the poet.
Right now, I’m reading I Wait for the Moon, 100 Haiku of Momoko Kuroda, translated by Abigail Friedman. When I read Kuroda’s haiku, I feel a sense of gentleness and honesty; a grounding in the local and concrete; and also stillness and power arising from deep contemplation. For many haiku, translator Abigail Friedman also provides commentary, which give helpful and often necessary context for the non-Japanese reader, for instance about pilgrimage routes in Japan or the 3.11 earthquake. I highly recommend this book.
Where do you most often write?
I write most often when I’m walking in nature. This kind of writing is spontaneous. Something—-a blossom, a leaf, a mountain-—will catch my interest. I’ll look at it closely and appreciate it, and a poem is born. I’m not trying to write. It’s more like I’m a channel for the poetry of the thing that I’m with. I think of this passage from the Kokinshu:
“Listening to the voices of the warbler that sings in the flowers or the frog that lives in the water, we ask, what of all living things does not create poetry…?”
Basho describes a similar kind of writing process:
“One must first of all concentrate one’s thoughts on an object. Once one’s mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object has disappeared, the essential nature of the object can be perceived. Then express it immediately. If one ponders it, it will vanish from the mind.”
I also write when I read others’ works, which I usually do in a chair in my room. If there’s a poem I like, I might write something in response or even experiment with writing in a similar style. Other times, I’ll write while lying in bed, perhaps reflecting on something that happened earlier in the day or trying to get out some idea that’s been bothering me. Recently I’ve been working on a haibun about sugarcane burning in Florida. Learning about this unjust practice made me feel sad and mad, and I wanted to tell the story in my own words.
For those just starting out, what advice would you give?
Read haiku regularly. Read broadly – including the old Japanese masters, contemporary Japanese poets, and contemporary English language poets. Try reading a variety of journals and anthologies, and discover what works for you. For poets you like, read their books so you can more deeply appreciate their poems in the context of their oeuvre. If critical essays appeal to you, read those; they can broaden how you understand haiku.
Find community. If there is a local group, join that. Virtual communities can be great as well, for example, the HSA mentorship program or the Inkstone Poetry Forum. If there’s a poet whom you really like, don’t hesitate to reach out to them and introduce yourself. Your message will probably make them happy and may start a productive exchange. When you submit to journals, ask for feedback.
Cultivate a practice of writing. Discern if there’s a time, place, or activity that helps you write, and then do that regularly if you can. Don’t worry about writing bad haiku; you have to write a lot of haiku to produce some good haiku. Most of the haiku I write are bad haiku. Be gentle with yourself, and patient. Haiku is more than writing good poems for publication; it’s a journeywork of life.
Finally, listen to your heart, trust what you like, and enjoy the process. Everyone has different tastes, so become acquainted with your own. Don’t be disheartened if a piece you love gets rejected many times; maybe you tweak it, or maybe it’s fine just as it is. So much of haiku is taste. Out of every 20 haiku I read in journals, I maybe only really like one. Find what that one is for you, and cherish it; read and reread it if that makes you happy.
What are your favorite haiku that you have written? Can you share a story behind one of them?
Haiku are like kids, so can you really have favorites? But here are a few that I want to share with you.
This was the first haiku I published. One of my good friends who is not a writer also really liked this one, and that meant a lot to me.
of thoughts swishing
steps in grass
Modern Haiku 51:2 (2020)
The next haiku describes one of my favorite parts of summer. The first day of each summer that I see a firefly always feels like a special gift.
on my shoe
Akitsu Quarterly (Fall 2021)
Next is a poem about climate change, which is what I work on in my day job as an environmental lawyer.
sixth IPCC report . . .
my son wants
a bedtime story
Frogpond 45:1 (2022)
By the way, I don’t have kids, but I wrote this after hearing a friend talk about his son.
The last piece I’ll share is a haibun. It celebrates the work of the cleaning staff in the Washington DC Metro system. On many occasions, I’ve watched the staff clean in such a meticulous and mindful way. They remind me of my martial arts teacher and the way he would fold his uniform, or hakama. My teacher said that folding one’s uniform was not just something you did after you’re done with class, but itself a practice of mental presence and awareness. In the same way, through cleaning and other kinds of labor, one can accomplish excellence and cultivate the heart.
The sound of wheels rolling down a long hall of downturned faces dimly lit by phone-glow. The station manager and his trashcan pause: an overturned ice-cream cup. He takes it in between his thumb and index finger—gingerly—and with a snow-white cloth wipes away the leftover drips before spraying down the tile floor. One final look to make sure it’s spotless. And once more, there’s the sound of wheels rolling down the hall.
Akitsu Quarterly (Winter 2022)
Congrats on your new gig teaching a class on short-form poetry this spring at The Writer’s Center! What are your goals as an instructor? What do you hope your students learn about haiku? What do you see as the key concepts you’d like them to retain?
Thank you! At a basic level, I want my students to learn about haiku, including its history, techniques, and community. But more than that, I want my students to understand why haiku is meaningful to me, and I want haiku to become meaningful to them. I experience haiku as an act of joy and liberation. In the noisy din of modern life, haiku helps me to hear the birds, see the blossoms, and look deeply into myself and the world. Haiku helps me perceive the interconnections between all things, and the resonance among our lives and the natural world. I hope my students can get some of that. Most importantly, I want my students to enjoy haiku.
In case anyone wants to learn more about the class (which runs in May 2023) or to register, here’s the link. Feel free to reach out to me if you have questions or just want to talk about haiku. You can find me at li.ryland [at] gmail.com.
Ryland Shengzhi Li is a poet and environmental lawyer living in Northern Virginia, USA. Poetry teaches Ryland how to pay attention and to see the beauty and interdependence of all things. Ryland’s work has been published in Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Ribbons, Presence, and other journals. He is a member of Towpath Haiku. In his free time, Ryland enjoys being in nature, practicing mindfulness meditation, and learning new things.
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Love this Ryland! You’re a channel I’ll be tuning into!
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