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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners—Thomas Haynes

Today at New to Haiku, let’s welcome Thomas Haynes. Thomas is a former editor of Prune Juice Journal. His first poetry collection, leftover ribbon, was shortlisted for The Haiku Foundation’s Touchstone Distinguished Books Award. He is also the co-author of After Amen: A Memoir in Two Voices, written with Jonathan Roman. This collaboration was awarded a Touchstone Distinguished Books Honorable Mention in 2021 and earned third place in the Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Awards in 2022. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Thomas!

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

I was a stay-at-home parent of two young children looking for an outlet. Our library offered a monthly haiku meeting, which turned out to be run by the Haiku Society of America. At my first meeting, I was confused about why none of the haiku we were looking at were following the 5-7-5 syllable structure, but the other members were more than happy to explain to me the evolution of haiku over the past several decades and the general rules of the form. Those monthly meetings were foundational to my early writing and haiku knowledge formation.

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

Where I write and how I write has changed over time, ebbing and flowing with the seasons and trials of life. I used to carry a small notebook with me wherever I went to jot down any inspiration I would have. Now, those moments of inspiration are fewer and farther between. I have to be more intentional these days as they are packed with full-time work, part-time graduate school, and being a single parent. Recently, I’ve begun attending a get-together with some friends every week for a time of creativity. Some people paint or work on physical art projects and some write, all while enjoying relaxing music. Having a dedicated time to write makes all the difference, otherwise, my thoughts get lost in the busy stream of life.

How do you approach reading haiku?

At first, I would read all the haiku I could get my hands on and even though I didn’t understand it all, I just enjoyed reading it. Over time, I’ve become more intentional with my reading. I like to take my time and read a haiku or senryu several times and try to determine what method of juxtaposition is being used or what subtle layers the poet intentionally or unintentionally created. Often, I will read something then come back to it a few days later and read it again for a fresh perspective.

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

Find a group of people you can learn from. It is much easier to have people you can workshop with, brainstorm with, and ask questions from than to try to figure it out on your own. I also encourage people to attend larger conferences or gatherings in their area or country. There is an energy that comes from being around people with a similar passion that just can’t be obtained through Facebook groups or Zoom meetings. Additionally, read as much as you can from a variety of different sources. Read journals, books of haiku and about haiku. Read anthologies. Anthologies are wonderful for learning the variety of voices and techniques that are out there.

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

Special haiku events are always fun to be a part of! The Golden Triangle Haiku competition run in Washington, D.C. in the United States is a great example. One of my haiku was an honorable mention one year, so we took the kids to go see my haiku displayed on the streets of D.C. It was such a joy to point out to my children that those were my words on the signs. Similarly, I’ve enjoyed participating in public haiku events at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Holden Arboretum in Ohio, where I’m from. Something about seeing my words on a plaque nestled in a garden or as an audio file on a trail was immensely uplifting and energizing.

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

There are at least two haiku that I hold dear to my heart. The first one, I wrote in 2018 and it was published in Blithe Spirit Volume 28, Number 1:

late night bottle
how our rocking
becomes a prayer

It was a hard transition for me into parenthood. I struggled a lot with postpartum depression and losing my faith (which happened simultaneously). This haiku summed up those early years for me; the late night exhaustion, the questioning, the loneliness, the struggle to connect with my children, and the eventual blossoming of renewed hope for the future.

The other was published in 2019 in The Heron’s Nest Vol. XXI, Number 4:

sea glass
one day I won’t
remember

This ended up being the culminated haiku in my book, After Amen: A Memoir in Two Voices, which I wrote with my good friend, Jonathan Roman. We met at the Haiku North America conference in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Right away, we felt a connection and our initial long-sprawling conversation turned to religion where we discovered we had both deconverted from strict Christian sects: him from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and me from the Assemblies of God. We began writing about our experiences and sharing them over email. Over time it turned into a book that we are both very proud of. The process of writing After Amen was one of the greatest periods of growth for me as a haiku poet as Jonathan is an exceptionally skilled editor with a keen understanding of the form.

You were the editor of Prune Juice Journal from 2020 to 2022. What lessons did you take away from that experience? How does this impact your poetry today?

Having the opportunity to be the editor of PJ was a singular experience. I learned a lot about how so many of us write about much of the same things; that there is an international shared humanity with its own rhythms and seasons. It’s made me more aware of what I choose to write about and how I choose to write about it. I’ve also learned a lot about how I want to address/approach other editors and appreciate how subjective the process is. Each editor has their own preferences and preferred styles. A rejection is truly not a rejection of the poet’s self or self-worth but is merely a matter of taste. In a way, rejection doesn’t bother me anymore and I feel much freer to submit to journals I believe in and support than blanketly submit to everywhere all the time. It is so easy to get caught up in the “publish or perish” mindset when truly this is an art form about nourishing the soul. It needs to be done first and foremost to connect with ourselves, and the world and people around us, not as a means to receive publication credit.

You have been open as a poet about your gender transition. How has this informed your haiku journey? What could the haiku community do to better support our LGBTQ+ members?

I’ve learned that not every journal is a safe space to discuss gender or sexuality. Many people are not open to that kind of content in their journals and in some, I’ve seen unfortunate examples of transphobia and homophobia. Some of that even existed in PJ before I became editor there as senryu seems to be a more common vehicle for that type of writing. My hope in publicly transitioning and in writing about my journey is to create space for others to do the same and change public perception about what is acceptable to discuss in our poetry. Trans and queer issues need to be written about not by cis-gendered and straight individuals but by us, in our voice, in our words. Especially in my country, the United States, where being trans and queer is dangerous and we are being murdered or our rights are taken away from us daily, it is an act of protest to write honestly and openly about how I live and how I love.

I think it would be helpful for journals to have inclusivity statements on their websites and with their submission guidelines to welcome all people and the topics related to their lives. We also need to be supporting our queer and gender-diverse community members — as there are several of us out there — by inviting them to speak, featuring them, and giving them safe spaces to publish their work. Further, editors need to be critical when accepting any haikai-related pieces on LGBTQ+ topics that they are not furthering any othering or harmful practices. Also, all members of the community need to believe people when they share their name or pronouns and use them correctly.

Thomas Haynes resides in Ohio by the shores of Lake Erie. He is the author of leftover ribbon and the award-winning After Amen: A Memoir in Two Voices, co-authored with poet Jonathan Roman. His most favorite people in the world are his two children without whom he would have never found haiku.

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 8 Comments

  1. An interesting interview to read more about the first editor of PJ who never liked any of my haiku enough to publish them, compared to all the editors before him. It was good to see more of the person through his own words. So true that individual editors have their own particular taste.

  2. Great interview Julie and Thomas. I am glad that Thomas and I also got to have a short discussion about our religious experiences at the last HNA. I left a strict Southern Baptist church that was racist, homophobic and preached politics from the pulpit. I am happy to say that I and both my sons escaped that toxic environment. As poets we must use our words to support one another as human beings and speak our truths.

  3. What an interesting and inspiring presentation, Thomas! Thanks a lot for sharing your haiku journey and your precious tips.

  4. I’m so pleased that you came to that first meeting of our haiku group so many years ago. You have come a long way Thomas. I hope to reconnect with you in Mineral Point this August.

  5. Nice to hear from you, Thomas! Thank you for bringing up some of these topics, especially this one: “Trans and queer issues need to be written about not by cis-gendered and straight individuals but by us, in our voice, in our words.”

    It’s a real shame when some words become hot topics/trigger words for people to write about even though they have nothing to do with these people’s lives and they don’t have to live through the trauma that comes with them. They simply use related word(s) because they know they can write a poem that will get a reaction out of people. It’s gross and it’s cheap. No one needs anyone to speak for them and certainly no one needs to publish a poem that badly. People may not realize it but this can lead to misinformation being spread about the realities of what trans & queer folx face and that takes power out of our hands.

    Editors should be asking themselves if the poems they are reading sound or feel appropriated. We can’t all know everything about everyone but we can do our best to screen everything and think deeply about whether the work we publish feels honest or if it could be appropriating someone else’s trauma.

    Thanks for sharing! <3

    1. Some like Roberta Beary adopt a socially hot topic but say they are writing for those who who suffer and are disadvantaged or disempowered. Is that an inappropriate approach?

      1. Hi linsey — I can’t speak for the LGBTQ+ community, but I think there’s a difference between speaking out on a topic that no one was addressing in the haiku community at the time versus talking over diverse voices that are here now and haven’t yet been given a platform. I also don’t feel comfortable judging whether someone is or isn’t part of a community — from the outside, we can’t assume another’s experiences or identity.

      2. I initially replied to this because I thought the question may have been in good faith by someone newer to the community, but upon reflection and researching the email and the washed IP address, I realized this was not the case so I deleted my comment.

        I’m not sure why you are directing this at RB, but the OP has nothing to do with them or their work.

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