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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Scott Mason

This week, New to Haiku is pleased to interview Scott Mason, author of The Wonder Code. This book won a Touchstone Award from The Haiku Foundation as well as a Merit Award from the Haiku Society of America. Scott currently serves on THF’s Board of Directors as Director of Strategy. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Scott.

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

First, Julie, thanks for inviting me to share my thoughts about something I so love!

My entry into haiku was pretty much accidental. I was something of a late bloomer as far as my interest in any poetry went – for me, it all began at about the same age Bashō was when he took his last journey. Sometime around 2000, I enrolled in an adult-education poetry class and workshop in Manhattan. As the term progressed, I found myself composing shorter and shorter poems that ended up being more and more nature-based. Just then I recalled a fleeting encounter my wife and I had with haiku on a hiking trip in Japan ten years before. So I decided to send a batch of my own haiku-like efforts to the first haiku journal that appeared in my internet search: Modern Haiku. And, voila, two weeks later I received a crisp one-dollar bill in the mail for one of them!

The thing is, that particular poem was one I considered an outlier – I had only included it on a whim at the last minute. So that made me want to find out more about what this haiku thing actually was. As you can see, I was just lucky. But once I started reading the journals and absorbing the “classics” — Blyth, Henderson, Higginson, van den Heuvel — I loved a lot of what I found there. I was hooked.

I also consider myself fortunate that I didn’t “learn” haiku in grade school, which almost certainly would have meant syllable-counting – in other words, arithmetic, not poetry. I came to haiku without most of the unhelpful ideas common in our popular culture, and only when I was ready in terms of my own life stage and life experience to truly sense its depths and possibilities.

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

Not really a single mentor, but quite a number of folks have been very helpful along the way, especially John Stevenson, Peggy Willis Lyles and Cor van den Heuvel – each the closest thing we’ve come to a haiku master in English. Again, what luck! I submitted poems to John when he was editor of Frogpond and to Peggy during the first part of her tenure with The Heron’s Nest (THN). Both were kind in their encouragement and generous in their suggestions. And of course over the last decade I was fortunate to work with John as a member of THN’s editorial team. I got to know Cor first through the Northeast Metro chapter of the Haiku Society of America (HSA) and then through the Spring Street Haiku Group in New York City. We’ve become good friends over the last fifteen-plus years.

All three have produced amazing work, some of it legendary. If I had to choose one as my greatest personal influence I guess it would have to be Peggy for the meticulous craft, vivid imagery, effective sound-play and emotional resonance I find in nearly all of her published poems. It was an honor to be invited to speak about Peggy’s work at Haiku North America 2019 in Winston-Salem.

Overall, I’ve found the haiku community to be incredibly supportive and almost all its members very approachable. Peggy, for instance, was only too happy to suggest books for me to study when I asked her for recommendations beyond those just mentioned. If you’re respectful of others’ time and willing to put in the work, your fellow haiku poets can almost always be counted on to share their knowledge and experience.

I met Peggy in person only once, just for a minute or two at Haiku North America 2003 in New York City. I’m glad I took that opportunity to say thank you.

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

My haiku writing process, such as it is, has no fixed pattern. Most of the time I’m focused on other matters, but if something happens to catch my attention and set off a twinge of emotional response, I’ll try to record what that was for later reflection and possible use. The memo app on my phone is perfect for that. If I hear some snippet of conversation or a particular expression that piques my curiosity or captures my imagination, I’ll also try to record and play around with that at some point.

If I have one haiku writing “strategy,” it’s to put myself as often as possible in the type of setting where poems just naturally tend to bubble up. For me, that’s any wooded trail or stretch of beach. The haiku that result don’t necessarily take those places as their subject or setting, though occasionally they do.

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

Before offering any advice, let me mention that I consider the most important gift a haiku poet can possess is not one of innate literary talent or stylistic flair. Instead, it’s a deep sense of curiosity and, secondarily, a sense of play.  If you have a natural inquisitiveness about the world around you, then that will make you want to explore and to share what you discover. And a sense of play will sustain you through the process of self-editing, which then becomes less a chore and more a game of skill. Polish can develop over time.

My first piece of advice for anyone new to haiku is to put down your pen or push yourself away from the keyboard. Instead, read haiku. Lots of haiku. Then read more. When you read each haiku, I’d recommend that you do so in two phases. To begin, just let the poem wash over you. Don’t think about it so much as experience the feeling it imparts and whatever it evokes for you. The second phase is more analytical: see if you can begin to figure out why you felt how or what you felt, if anything, when you initially encountered it. What was it in or about the poem that accounted for that? Do this enough and you’ll begin to acquire some of the insights and skills needed to write powerful haiku of your own. Beyond that, it will instill the fundamental recognition that an effective haiku is one which engages the reader emotionally and sometimes intellectually, rather than one which simply declares the poet’s own thoughts or feelings.  It’s all about connection.

If you have computer access, there’s absolutely no reason not to be able to read lots of haiku. The Haiku Foundation offers dozens of haiku collections in its digital library, and plenty of other haiku elsewhere on its website. The Haiku Society of America’s website features all the poems that received awards in its annual competitions, going back forty-five years in the case of the Henderson contest. The Heron’s Nest has archived on its website the more than ten thousand haiku it’s published over the last twenty-plus years. The list goes on, but that’s a pretty good start. I still try to read thirty or forty new haiku for each one I send out.

My second piece of advice is to let each new haiku “marinate” before you do anything with it. Set it aside for a week at the very minimum before revisiting it. If my own experience is any gauge, half the time you’ll find yourself wondering a week or more later, “What in the world was I thinking?!” … and you’ll be happy you didn’t let it escape and cause you the embarrassment! In my observation, too many haiku newcomers are much too quick on the trigger. What’s the rush?

My ultimate piece of advice is to think of your reader. Will he or she have a sporting chance of experiencing from your haiku some semblance of the feeling that caused you to write it in the first place? It’s often helpful to share your poems with a friend or family member who’s sympathetic but also candid, and whose opinion you respect. My wife Carla often acts as my first reader. Sometimes it’s surprising to hear what others do or don’t respond to in your work, but that’s the whole point of asking. It’s a data point. Then it’s up to you to decide what to do about it.

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

While I’m not sure which of mine I’d consider my absolute favorites, I’ll share two poems that I happen to like more than most. Curiously, the word “how” appears in both of them. Here’s the first:

inchworm …
how long it took to return
to wonder

When I first became involved with haiku I also began to notice things I hadn’t noticed for decades, not since I was a kid. One of those things was the tiny green creature that stars in this poem. I’ve since come to think of this haiku as my personal ars poetica.

Here’s the second:

how deer
materialize
twilight

This poem itself seemed to materialize, unbidden, almost like some visitation. More so than any other haiku of mine I believe it captures something that most of us have encountered in real life but not on the page. Another reason I’m partial to it is because of the response it has generated from others. For one thing, it was featured in two important anthologies within a couple of years of its appearance. I suppose all this reflects my “audience response” orientation as a career marketing professional. I realize, of course, that poetry isn’t intended to move product. Just hearts and minds.

You’ve given a number of informative haiku presentations over the years. Which ones would you recommend for new haiku poets?

Let me offer two. The first is actually a video-recorded interview of me conducted by the author Ben Cheever (click here to view). It was a lot of fun, and I think I managed to articulate a few useful thoughts about haiku.

The second is a talk I gave at my local library several years ago. A number of people in the haiku community have told me they found it interesting and helpful.

 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Two things, actually, each something that I happen to love about haiku.

The first is that I’ve come to see and experience haiku not only as a capacious literary form but also as a wonderful life practice. Haiku has made me both more attentive to and more appreciative of the everyday wonders that surround us. It’s vivifying.

Second, I find haiku to be not just life-enhancing but also life-expanding. Through these tiny poems I’ve come to partake in the everyday experiences and perspectives of others from vastly different cultures and times. I truly believe that haiku has helped to make me at least a little bit wiser and more compassionate as a person – in other words, a better human being. It’s humbling.

I sincerely feel that our world would be healthier and happier if everyone practiced haiku!

Scott Mason is author of The Wonder Code: Discover the Way of Haiku and See the World with New Eyes, recipient of the Kirkus Star from Kirkus Reviews, the Touchstone Distinguished Books Award from The Haiku Foundation and a Merit Book Award (Best Prose) from the Haiku Society of America. An editor with The Heron’s Nest from 2011 to 2021, Scott currently serves on the board of The Haiku Foundation as Director of Strategy. His own haiku have received the top award in more than two dozen international competitions.

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 book of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Title IX Press. Connect with her on Twitter @MamaJoules.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Good interview. Especially enjoyed this:

    “I also consider myself fortunate that I didn’t “learn” haiku in grade school, which almost certainly would have meant syllable-counting – in other words, arithmetic, not poetry. I came to haiku without most of the unhelpful ideas common in our popular culture, and only when I was ready in terms of my own life stage and life experience to truly sense its depths and possibilities.”

    When I tried writing my first haiku as a college freshman in 1964, I wasn’t so lucky. Not only were my poems 5-7-5, but a la one of Henderson’s books, they rhymed! Ha! Fortunately, I recovered from this handicap. 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing, Scott. I, too, think the practice of reading and writing haiku has made me a more attentive, appreciative and compassionate person. I’m not sure who I would be had I not found it!

  3. The Wonder Code is a must for all haiku enthusiasts. A lovely gift to friend, family or yourself. Happy reading!

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