How I Came to Haiku

Not previously published. Originally written as an email sent to Rich Krivcher on 13 August 2009, asking me how I came to haiku, for use at the 13 September 2009 Two Autumns reading run by the Haiku Poets of Northern California. I was one of the featured readers for this annual reading, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. I was also one of the readers at the very first reading in 1990. See also Finding My Way to Haiku and My Window Opens: A Personal Haiku History, similar essays, and Feathers and Fire: Growing into Tanka, about how I came to tanka.

I first learned of haiku in a high school English class, in Alberta, in 1976. My teacher, whose name was George Goodburn, spent probably all of fifteen minutes on haiku, but it was enough to hook me for life. I still remember the class. I don’t recall him saying much more than the usual prescription that haiku is supposed to have a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. He may have mentioned nature, but certainly not season words or cutting words, nor primarily objective sensory imagery. Our assignment was to write a few haiku, and I recall turning one in (among several) that said something about “the thunder applauding the lightning’s performance.” That might be clever, but you can see that I had a long way to go. Over the next ten years, I steadily encountered haiku in translation, mostly in books I read because of my interest in Zen and Taoism. It didn’t quite dawn on me that almost none of those translations were 5-7-5, and it never crossed my mind to wonder why, even though I continued to write poems in a perfect, if naive, 5-7-5 pattern.       +

I remember buying my very first haiku book, a translation of Bashō by Lucien Stryk, at Kinokuniya Bookstore in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was the summer of 1987, and I was spending a summer semester of graduate school at the University of London. I began to buy many haiku books after that. In fact, I soon got a copy of the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology, and finally I was confronted with the fact that most of these poems (more than 88 percent, actually—I counted) were not 5-7-5. And then a dramatic change happened. As I began to figure out and internalize what was going on in these poems (what was making them haiku other than any kind of syllable pattern), my sense of haiku shifted from form to content. My own haiku improved dramatically as a result. The back of Cor’s book had information about the Haiku Society of America, and I joined in 1988. I sent my very first submission of poems to Modern Haiku in late 1987, and was thrilled to have one of them accepted and published in 1988:


my window opens

    a hundred frogs

        sing to the moon


The poem was partially inspired by Hiroaki Sato’s book, One Hundred Frogs (the original longer edition with essays, not the short flipbook edition limited to poems). I hadn’t yet read the book, but had gotten a copy for myself, and at the time I lived in Southern California, and was struck every night by the loudness of frogs in an irrigation ditch not too far from my dorm window. At the end of 1988, I moved north to the San Francisco area. HSA Secretary Doris Heitmeyer, after I wrote to inquire, put me in touch with the local haiku poets there (I just missed the February 1989 formation meeting of the Haiku Poets of Northern California). The first HPNC meeting I went to was in Golden Gate Park, in the summer of 1989 (I remember there were taiko drummers across the meadow from where we had gathered around a few picnic tables). I brought copies of my second book of haiku to the meeting, titled Egret—for some reason it was very important to me to bring that book, although there wasn’t much opportunity for people to take a look. vincent tripi quoted one of my poems to me, having remembered it from the Haiku Quarterly contest, where it had won an honourable mention. This was the first time I had met vincent, as well as Garry Gay, Paul O. Williams, and Tom Tico. I forget who else was there. Probably Davina Kosh and Carolyn Talmadge and James Chessing, but I’m not sure. I met Jerry Kilbride later. By this time, HPNC had published the first two thin issues of Woodnotes, and I came on board as an associate editor for the third issue, taking over typesetting, proofreading, some editing, and production, and I continued with the journal, soon becoming its chief editor, until its final issue, #31, in 1997, replacing it with my new publication, Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem.

So that’s how I came to haiku, and how I got involved with HPNC. This was just a few months before the October 17 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, for which I helped Paul O. Williams produce the group’s first members’ anthology, titled After Shock, and of course in 1990 I was fortunate enough to be one of the four featured readers in the very first Two Autumns reading, held in Berkeley on October 27, 1990. I know the original plan was to have two experienced readers and two less experienced readers. I was definitely among the less experienced! The four readers, as shown here in a photo by Garry Gay, were Paul O. Williams, Michael Dylan Welch, Patricia Donegan, and Eugenie Waldteuful. John Thompson served as editor for the first book to commemorate these readings, titled Two Autumns. My poems in the book were all about frost and snow.

I have so many rich memories of HPNC and its many fine poets—all the many events we held over the years, all the fine friendships developed. I’m very grateful to Garry Gay for his leadership and foresight in creating the Two Autumns reading, which is certainly one of the crowning jewels in HPNC’s history. I’m honoured to be part of both the original reading and now the 20th anniversary reading all these years later. How quickly the years pass!


View photos of my trip to read for the September 2009 Two Autumns reading, celebrating its 20th anniversary.