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New to Haiku: Advice for Beginners – Tiffany Shaw-Diaz

Today, at New to Haiku, let’s meet Tiffany Shaw-Diaz. She is a professional visual artist and accomplished haiku poet. Her award-winning poetry has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Modern Haiku, The Heron’s Nest, Bones, Cold Moon Journal, Human/Kind Journal, and Suspect Device Zine. In 2021, she won a Touchstone Award for Individual Poems given by The Haiku Foundation. Thanks for sharing your haiku journey with us, Tiffany!

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.

around and around | acrylic on paper (2021)

Welcome to New to Haiku, Tiffany! How did you come to learn about haiku?

Like many people, I initially learned about haiku in grade school, where I was erroneously taught that haiku had to adhere to a strict 5-7-5 formula. As such, haiku didn’t interest me as a child or young adult. It wasn’t until I learned about Jack Kerouac’s free-spirited haiku, void of a forced syllable count, that I truly fell in love with the form.

Do you have a haiku mentor? Did someone else’s haiku greatly influence your own?

I’ve never had a haiku mentor, actually, but I also never felt the need to acquire one. Within the first year of my writing, I realized that I most enjoyed non-traditional short-form poetry, and as such, I needed to give myself space to develop my own voice.

chase me find me | watercolor on paper (2022)

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

I most often write late at night and in the dark, save for the glow of an electronic device. As someone who is introverted and neurodivergent, I am frequently over-stimulated and need solitude in order to mentally recalibrate. It is during those times of healing that I feel most inspired to create. However, poetry is not far from my mind during the day, and it is not uncommon for me to think of a haiku while navigating my normal routine. Some haiku poets prefer pen and paper, but I always write haiku on an electronic device when the muse whispers.

How do you approach reading haiku?

It’s important to let each haiku breathe as you read them. Let your eyes linger on the page. Let your tongue taste each word. A haiku is meant to be savored, as I suggested in a poem that was first published by Fireflies’ Light in 2020:

delicacies

i do not read poems
rather
i breathe them in
slowly
slowly
slowly
savoring each word
like the nectar
of a sun-kissed primrose

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

Perhaps not surprisingly, I recently wrote a poem about this topic as well:

on writing

it is one thing to see your poem
as you write it
but it is another to taste it
feel it
hear it
and breathe it in
as you write it

use all of your senses
and your creativity will bloom

Outside of that advice, I often tell people who are new to haiku that it is so important to be true to yourself. There are numerous publication and award opportunities, and it is easy to worship the allure of achievements more than artistic integrity. If you remain true to your creative soul, however, you will more easily touch other souls. I have been incredibly honored to have received, perhaps more than I deserve, several awards and nominations, but I will always most treasure the experience of fostering an authentic dialogue with fellow humans.

in the arms of wildflowers | watercolor on paper (2020)

A few other items:

* If possible, try to conquer your fear of rejection. It is always frightening to begin the poetry submission process, but it is an incredibly rewarding experience. I still remember how thrilled I was to receive my first acceptance email. I hope that each person who reads this article has the opportunity to have that experience, too.

* Research the publications you submit to. Not all publications are safe spaces, and there are editors in this community, unfortunately, who have racist, sexist, and/or anti-LGBTQ+ views. Publications and editors that support bigotry of any type have no place in the poetry community, and it is necessary that each poet fights for a more diverse and accepting poetry community.

* Share your work boldly. Be proud of your artistic journey. In turn, you might inspire others to try creative avenues they may have been too timid to previously explore.

intertwine | watercolor on paper (2018)

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

I absolutely love experimenting with syllable counts, line variations, punctuation, wording, and topics.

Additionally, while I was shelving books at the former library I worked at, I had a creative epiphany: Wouldn’t it be fun to develop a poetic form that was founded upon a lyrical, surreal dialogue? I felt incredibly isolated in my personal life, and in many ways, I only had myself to talk to. Thus, the seeds of Socratic verse – a sort of poetic question and answer session – were planted. Here is an example, which was published by Human/Kind Journal in 2020:

how many sapphires
does the ocean contain
within its depths

along the surface
of my skin
you will know infinity

I am thankful to Human/Kind Journal for publishing some of my first Socratic verses, and I am also thankful to Cold Moon Journal for publishing some of my most recent dabblings with this poetic form.

If you are interested in writing your own, here is the blueprint: At the heart of Socratic verse is a desire to explore the unknown, both internally and externally, through lyrical and surreal dialogue. Each part consists of 1 – 5 lines. The first stanza is not italicized while the second stanza is.

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

Oh goodness. I have published more than 800 poems throughout my career, so it is certainly difficult to pick some favorites; however, let’s start here:

to be
in a
river of
to be

This haiku (and, yes, haiku can be one, two, three or four lines!) was published by Cold Moon Journal in 2021 and nominated for a Touchstone Individual Poem Award by the editor, Roberta Beach Jacobson. I wrote this during a year of tremendous change. I started grad school. I ended a two-decade relationship. There was very little stability in my world at that time, so I sought refuge in art, in poetry. I wrote this poem to remind myself that I can find peace and simply float in this river we call life.

we are more than a distant clap of thunder

Here is another poem that was published by Cold Moon Journal in 2021. Ironically, I wrote this a few months before I joined the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which is a revolutionary, boots-on-the-ground organization. This was truly a life-changing event. For people who have been following my poetry for several years, they have seen an increasing amount of anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-war poems. To bond with like-minded people through the PSL, to tangibly work towards a better future for all working-class individuals, has brought a sharp focus into my life. Why be a distant clap of thunder when you can be a lightning strike?

stomach punch
and yet
i was born

This was published by Suspect Device Zine in 2021 and subsequently nominated for a Touchstone Individual Poem Award by the editor, Tim Gardiner. There is, quite naturally, a lot to unpack with this poem. It’s gritty, for one, but there is also hope here. My father did punch my mother in the stomach when she was pregnant with me, but I still entered this world roughly 39 years ago. While I no longer have contact with my family, my sense of self-determination has not changed.

An important note, since self-criticism is essential for artistic development: While I have published many poems that I do like, I have likewise published many poems that I no longer like. And sure, I wrote some perfectly acceptable poems during my formative years, but I certainly published several poems that lacked originality. Rejection letters are often a sore topic within the poetry community, but I am thankful for them. Many of them prevented me from publishing poems that were subpar or insincere while I was finding my artistic voice.

I enjoy your watercolor paintings. To me, many of them evoke a sense of movement. How is painting like writing haiku? How do these two disciplines impact each other to influence your creative output?

Thank you so much. For both my poems and art, I try to make them feel and look effortless, which takes more effort than one might realize! With my art, I never plan what I am going to paint – it is an improvisational process. While this might seem easy, it has taken me time to trust my creative instincts. With my poetry, however, my process is usually more structured. It is not uncommon for me to have a specific topic or type of poem in mind, so I will focus my energy toward that goal. While those two creative processes are different, they both do require practice and tenacity.

In terms of how my poetry and paintings influence each other, the most significant way would be in terms of my painting titles. Several of them have a poetic quality to them, and I frequently hear that people enjoy them.

jettison | watercolor on paper (2022)

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

I’m actually not working on any large projects at the moment, but many people have insisted that I publish a physical book of my poetry, specifically one containing my free verse poetry centered on recovery. I am certainly open to this notion, but I am also willing to wait until the moment is right. In the meantime, I simply love to write. It brings me so much joy to sit down and contemplate what I would like to share with others through the words I choose. Even when I win awards, I refuse to rest on my laurels. I automatically think, “What’s next?” Perhaps my ongoing haiku-related project is to subdue my own ego.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Yes! There are so many types of short-form poetry, so if you haven’t tried a certain type, then I encourage you to try it. When I first learned about haiku, beyond grade-school misinformation, I was not interested in monoku (or one-line haiku). Now? I love them and frequently write them, all thanks to my early experimentations with different styles.

Tiffany Shaw-Diaz is a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and two-time Dwarf Stars Award nominee who also works as a professional visual artist. She was shortlisted for The Haiku Foundation’s Touchstone Award for Individual Poem in 2020 and won in 2021. Her poetry has been featured in Modern Haiku, The Heron’s Nest, Bones, NHK World Haiku Masters, The Mainichi, and more than 100 other publications. Her chapbooks include: says the rose (Yavanika Press 2019), filth (Proletaria 2020), and tyranny of the familiar (Yavanika Press 2020). Her poems have been translated into French, German, Italian, and Mandarin. To learn more, please visit her poetry website: http://afterpinkhaiku.blogspot.com/

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 6 Comments

  1. Thank you Julie and Tiffany, whenever I become bored with haiku, I will read this article to find new inspiration.

  2. I love the movement in your art and poetry and wondered if they come from the same place or if they are separate impulses for you? I particularly admire ‘intertwine’ in the interview art, and wondered if the work inspires words or sensations that emerge as poetry later ( or immediately)?

  3. “on writing
    it is one thing to see your poem
    as you write it
    but it is another to taste it
    feel it
    hear it
    and breathe it in
    as you write it
    use all of your senses
    and your creativity will bloom”
    Tiffany is simply magical in its each and every detail.
    Thank you very much. Barbara

  4. Thanks Tiffany, very refreshing to hear about topics which seem to be uncommon nowadays among the usual focus on technique and process (as Keith alludes to also). Self-expression is important to many of us, and why would we be interested in any type of creative writing if we did not enjoy either our process or the outputs? So it’s great to hear about haiku which mean something, which communicate (and I include political content in that), and which are sincere, as well as encouragement to try different forms and experimentation. I hope these can fit within a healthy and diverse haiku community.

  5. This interview spoke to me in many ways, Tiffany. I’m glad you highlighted true personal voice. Finding one’s own voice is not easy amid the pressures of pleasing editors by following the mainstream, or the influences of reading others’ haiku, and articles — often prescriptive — about haiku. Those things seem necessary stages for understanding and development. But I often feel I’m getting sidetracked, and rebel.

    Also self-criticism, which can be a harsh and depressing thing at times; but also necessary.

    I love your:

    of course​
    the mountain
    wasn’t always
    — Tiffany Shaw-Diaz, Cold Moon Journal (May 15, 2021)

    ….which seems to apply here too…

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