From Off the Beaten Track: A Year in Haiku
Off the Beaten Track: A Year in Haiku, featuring thirty of my haiku, appeared in January of 2016 from England’s Boatwhistle Books. In early 2013, editor and publisher Hamish Ironside asked me to contribute by writing haiku daily for April that year—that cruelest of months. The idea was for each of twelve authors to write haiku every day for a given month, and thus to cover an entire year of quotidian experience as the seasons unfolded. The kicker was that six poets were well-established haiku writers (me, Hamish Ironside, Matthew Paul, Christopher Herold, George Swede, and Bob Lucky), with the others being accomplished writers but essentially new to haiku or inexperienced with it (Hugo Williams, Matthew Welton, Sally Read, Momus [Nicholas Currie], Fabian Ironside, and Éireann Lorsung). This resulted in a wide-ranging book of poetry presenting haiku as each author perceived it to be, cumulatively freeing the genre of expectations that sometimes seem to constrain even the English-language haiku community. In other words, each group was showing the other what haiku could be.
The book offers no foreword or introduction to explain itself, but lets the poems speak for themselves. Nor does the book include any author bios, putting further focus just on the poems. A brief afterword (unsigned) provides only the slightest guidance to the reader after the poems have done their own talking, referring to the collection as an “experiment” that may well be “off the beaten track.” As the afterword says, “The hope was that [the six less-experienced writers] would bring to the project the ‘beginner’s mind’ that is traditionally considered an important element of haiku in a more literal, perhaps purer sense than a more experienced haijin would be able to.” More specifically, the afterword notes that “The point of the project . . . was to both juxtapose and integrate the two camps, and in doing so perhaps achieve a little more integration of the currently quite separate worlds of haiku and other forms of literature.”
Of the more experienced haiku writers, two were in England, two in the United States, one in Canada, and one in Saudi Arabia. Of the six other writers, four lived in England, one was an American living in Belgium, and one was a Scot living in Japan. The book also features artwork by twelve different artists, one for each month. The Boatwhistle website includes author and artist bios, sample poems, and a news blog with author interviews (including my interview, also here). While you’ll have to read the entire book to decide if the experiment works, you can at least read my contributions here. Hamish Ironside selected the following thirty poems out of 151 I had written in that productive month. See also the postscript at the end, which addresses issues of imagination, experience, and empathy as they relate to daily haiku writing.
against the blue
graveyard cherry blossoms
the steering wheel warm
for the first time this spring
rain in the forecast—
what have I done
with my afternoon?
the rest area sign
says free coffee
a eucalyptus leaf
between my fingers
a dried-up cactus
in the garden shed
we roll down the windows
to hear the ocean
elbow to elbow
at the poetry reading . . .
her black coffee
a day without rain—
I save the thickest envelope
to open last
old gas station—
one suction cup popped loose
on the closed sign
after the news
the morning paper
my shaver changes pitch
as I plug it in
graupel in the shadows—
the schoolyard tetherball
twists in the wind
up from the valley
wet with blossoms
reading glasses left
on the kitchen table
tossing out a box
of old business cards
national haiku day—
where’s a scrap of paper
when I need it
moss on the path—
you ask me, quietly,
if I have summer plans
a library book
left under an oak
soap bubbles popping
on the lost puppy poster—
inner city park
little league photo day—
on the catcher’s knees
we add new harmonies
to a disco tune
on an old memory card
a photo of my sister
in her chemo wig
the ferry quiets
as it drifts in to dock—
I learn something new
about my mother
a stand of larch—
the towhee tells me
to go home
the story again
of the wasp nest
I hear nothing more
after he says loam
the bald coach
removes his cap
she goes on telling me
about her divorce
Before and after I wrote my contributions for Off the Beaten Track in April of 2013, Hamish Ironside and I had an ongoing discussion, some of which I share here, about the balance of experience and imagination in the writing of haiku. His personal approach is to write pretty much only from direct and recent personal experience. I often favour that approach, but do not limit myself to it. I find that empathy makes it possible to write about the experiences of others, and I also feel that one can write effectively from long-ago memory and imagination, especially when readers can seldom tell from the poem itself whether the poet “actually” experienced what the poem depicts. My feeling is that even a so-called “actual” experience can come across as lacking authenticity if it is not crafted well. So for me the point of haiku, in this regard, is to craft the poem so that it comes across to the reader as if it is authentic. In other words, authenticity is judged by the reader, not the writer, regardless of what “really” happened, but it is up to the writer to make the reader believe. As an example from classical Japanese haiku, Buson’s wife was alive when he wrote about stepping on his “dead wife’s comb” in their bedroom. We are, after all, writing poetry, not diary entries (see my essay “Haiku Stances”). Furthermore, as I’ve written in “Haiku as History: The Ultimate Short Story,” all haiku are written from memory, even those written just after the event. What matters is the vibrancy of that memory, not its recency. The following are two slightly edited email messages that were part of our discussion.
From: Hamish Ironside
To: Michael Dylan Welch
Sent: Mon, May 20, 2013 2:06 pm
Subject: RE: Haiku project
I just had another look at your April haiku, bearing in mind some of your comments, and have got the selection down to 30 (attached here), which we could regard as the final selection, if you’re happy with it.
A few comments that struck me on this reading. Interesting (and well judged) that you use a question mark at end of 3 April but not 17 April. The lack of question mark really makes the latter poem one of my favourites, but the former does need the question mark. 5 April (burn ban): this is one I like more with every reading. 10 and 12 April are two more favourites. And 13 April is great; for one thing, I learned a new word! Had to look up “graupel” (“towhee” was the other word I had to look up). 13 April is one that is musically very pleasing—by which I mean not just the rhythm but every aspect of the sound of the words; they all go very well together. 14 April, too, is one I liked very much from first reading. So these mid-month ones were, for me, when you really hit your stride. 16 April is another I liked instantly, and this may show partly how subjective haiku can be, because I just happen to be mildly fascinated by business cards. 18 April I like a lot because of the commas around “quietly.” 20 April’s first two lines are you having fun with the sound of the words, and very successfully. Why do so few haiku make use of the sounds of the words? 23 April is one of my favourites, as I mentioned before. And the ones now selected for 25, 26, 27, and 28 April are all ones I like very much as well.
From: Michael Dylan Welch
To: Hamish Ironside
Sent: Mon, May 20, 2013 4:04 pm
Subject: Re: Haiku project
Your selection [of my April poems] works very well—thanks. I appreciate your close reading and all your comments. It’s a profound luxury to have one’s poetry given such attention.
Now to the question, if we dare, about which poems are “made up” or not. As I mentioned, I tried to give extra attention to writing from the moment, more so than usual for me, in addition to writing from further-away memory. Would you care to guess which poem is which? Stop reading now if you really want to think about that, then come back here to read my thoughts below on which are which.
To be honest, it’s a little hard for me to tell, because they’re all memories, and I don’t always remember how recent the memory is. Or it’s complicated by the notion that something here-and-now might trigger a poem, yet what I’m writing about isn’t just the here and now—I also have in mind past events too, more often than not. Nevertheless, I think I can say accurately that the following poems were written FULLY from the moment (about a third of all the poems):
April 2 — A definite experience of noticing the warmth of the steering wheel, warm for the first time in the spring, and then noticing the clouds after I started thinking of what else to put with the last two lines.
April 3 — After an unproductive afternoon; I think I’m trying to blame that on the rain!
April 4 — Written while on a drive with the family—and with kids you know you need to stop at rest areas frequently—or “lay bys,” as I remember them being called in England. Around here, charity organizations staff the rest areas to give away cookies and coffee, hoping to get donations, so electronic signs on the freeway announce “Free Coffee” when a charity organization is on hand. To me this poem feels a bit flat—maybe a so-what poem—but perhaps the haziness of the sun and doldrums of the day might be cured by fresh coffee. Or do you see something else in the poem? By the way, I’m not a coffee drinker myself, but my wife is.
April 8 — To be honest, this poem feels a bit flat, too. Although written from the moment, while attending an open-mic poetry reading, it feels a little like a so-what poem, and normally I might tinker with it, probably adding something strictly not from the moment. Perhaps you see more in this poem than I do, or maybe it’s just that the black coffee says something about the poetry reading itself?
April 10 — Seen while stopped at a traffic light while looking for gas.
April 12 — I’ve been noticing this for years, and finally wrote a haiku about it—thanks directly to your encouragement to write more actively from the moment.
April 15 — Definitely written from the moment, although the moment was a few days before when we had finished our taxes, not on tax day, April 15—so how far back in history does something have to be before it’s no longer in the moment?
April 23 — Written about my sister, who had cancer a few years ago—now in remission—and seeing a photo of her wearing a wig, although I saw the photo on my computer, not an old memory card. But of course “memory card” has so many irresistible overtones, and I wanted the poem to be ambiguous about whether my sister was still alive or not. This is one of my favourite poems of the month, along with one I wrote immediately before this one, but you didn’t choose: “funeral’s end— / a whisper passed / from ear to ear.”
April 24 — Completely from the moment, on a ferry trip in British Columbia on this date, noticing that moment when the engine cuts, including the reverse engine, and the ferry drifts that last few feet into the dock.
April 29 — Written when I took my son to see the Seattle Mariners at a major league baseball game, although I don’t recall that the coach was actually bald.
The following poems are hybrids, partly or mostly written from the moment, but with not-in-the-moment additions:
April 1 — I added the graveyard reference.
April 9 — It was actually a sunny day, but the first line came to me and stuck in my head after the last two lines came to me when I walked to the corner mailbox to pick up our mail.
April 13 — We did have some graupel in April, I assume on this date, but I don’t remember for sure. But the rest of the poem was written from my knowledge of a tetherball at my son’s school, although I never saw it anytime in April, and the image of it twisting in the wind is easily imagined.
April 17 — Inspired on National Haiku Day, but I made up or remembered the part about needing a scrap of paper. I have needed paper for a haiku sometimes, of course, but I usually always have my notebook with me, so I didn’t really need any paper—but that doesn’t make for as interesting a poem.
April 21 — My son’s little league photo day was actually on an earlier day, and the truth is that in his league catchers would never have mud stains on their knees because they wear large knee pads, and wouldn’t be likely to play if it were too muddy. But I do recall one of the players having muddy knees, and the rest of the poem fell together—and I do believe it could be possible for some little leaguers, even if not my son’s league.
April 22 — Written on a car trip, but I was by myself. I don’t recall actually singing along to anything, or even hearing disco on the radio, but I was recalling a car trip a buddy and I made in the summer after high school graduation, and singing along, to the disco song “Ring My Bell,” a 1979 song by Anita Ward. I just looked that up—mostly we were making fun of the song [singing as badly as we could], since we hated disco, although certain disco songs have since grown on me a bit over the years.
April 25 — Written while visiting my parents, but the sapwood addition is made up, added for whatever overtones it brings to the poem, in addition to providing a concrete image. I don’t even remember now what new thing I’d learned, though!
April 30 — Written at the Seattle Mariners baseball game I took my son to, but the last two lines are essentially made up, although we’ve all experienced someone going on about something that we might not be interested in.
The following poems were written more about memory:
April 5 — Thinking of the eucalyptus trees in California—we don’t have them in Washington State.
April 6 — Remembering my grandfather’s garden shed in Watford [England]. I don’t remember when the cactus image happened, but I had a specific cactus in mind, with all the soil hardened and shrunken away from the edges of a small pot. And estate sale is just a general memory to provide a context.
April 7 — I wrote this in Vancouver, British Columbia, and wasn’t on a coastal drive, but it came to me from the action of rolling down the car window for something or other—the action reminded me of the California coast.
April 11 — Must have been inspired by seeing the day’s newspaper not yet read, but I don’t remember. Mostly it’s about the idea of personal news outweighing newspaper news, but there was no weighty personal or family news inspiring this. Interesting that this was written four days before the Boston Marathon bombing.
April 14 — Almost completely imagined, and not even from memory. The inspiration was seeing a parked car covered with cherry blossoms, so [at least] that much was in the moment. I recalled someone else’s haiku about a car carrying the first snow down into a valley from a higher elevation, and this seemed to be a nice way to reciprocate the idea in a different season.
April 16 — I did see a box of old business cards, but I didn’t throw them out, and I wasn’t doing spring cleaning. But the old business cards made me think that I probably should throw them out and probably should do some spring cleaning . . .
April 18 — I would say this is almost completely imagined, except in the very general sense that my wife and kids have been thinking about possible summer plans. Of course we’ve all seen moss on a path, but I wasn’t seeing that on this date—the juxtaposition is just an intuitive pairing, trusting the subconscious.
April 19 — I think it was raining on this date, and my kids do get books from the library, but the detail of one book being left under an oak is made up. After thinking of several possible trees, I think I chose “oak” for its sound with “book.”
April 20 — Written in response to the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society’s Tokutomi contest season word of soap bubble—they supply a list of kigo to write about for their 5-7-5 contest, and many of the poems I’ve written for it in the past have felt hollow and manufactured to me, even one that I won first prize with once [I think this is mainly due to the oddity of some of the seasonal terms, some of which are peculiar to Japan]. Here, I’m making up practically everything, although of course I’ve really seen all of the poem’s various details separately. Yet I’ve tried to create something that feels believable, and it works well enough for you to have selected it. Glad you really like all the P sounds in this poem—all written unconsciously, actually, and I’m glad to have you point out the sounds you like in this poem, although now I worry that it’s overdone.
April 26 — Mostly made up, written while driving between Vancouver and Seattle. Trees were on my mind, and the phrase “a stand of larch” started me off. I can’t explain where the rest of the poem came from, but it just popped into my head—well, I was driving home. This is among my favourites of the month, and I’m glad you picked it.
April 27 — I’ve gone blank on what inspired this, but I know I was driving between Vancouver and Seattle, so not a direct experience.
April 28 — Definitely a memory—you know how a poet will say a particular word [at a reading] and your mind goes off on an tangent thinking about that word, even if the poet is normally good enough to hold your attention. I don’t remember this ever happening with the word “loam,” but that was the word that popped into mind—it feels nice and earthy.
Any surprises here? I hope there are no disappointments. I like to think that you chose these poems (even the somewhat “made up” ones) because they still felt believable. So they’re mostly pastiches of memory, some of them, yet they still work well, or at least I hope so.