2023 Trailblazer Interview

The following poem won a 2023 Trailblazer haiku award, and this interview by Robin Smith appeared on the Trailblazer blog in August of 2023. See also “2023 Trailblazer Award.”

interview by Robin Smith

winter funeral

lots of s’s

in our whispers


What inspired the poem?

Many of my haiku are inspired by memories, this being one of them, remembering a few funerals I’d been to over the years. More particularly, though, this poem was inspired by my Dad’s funeral in February of 2014 (he had died late in January, after a brief time in hospice care). And now, as I write this a few months after my mother died in April of 2023, I think of her too, and her funeral. No doubt readers of this poem will think of funerals they’ve attended. Shared experience lies at the heart of the best haiku.


What was your process for writing it?

As with most of my haiku, I usually work them out in my head, sometimes extensively, before I write them down. As a result, I seldom have drafts of poems, and that’s the case with this one. I wrote this poem on 7 March 2014, two weeks after my Dad’s funeral. While we waited for the service to start, which I helped to lead, I remember hearing lots of whispers from family and friends, and somehow the S sounds stood out. What did that mean? I wanted to trust that experience, and not explain it.


How do you think the poem helps to push the boundaries of or contributes to the genre?

I don’t think haiku have to push boundaries. Those that do can be excellent, but so can those that don’t. I’m not inclined to privilege either one but welcome them both. And both can be hard to do. To me, the genre of haiku is fortified by moments of emotive immediacy, implication, empathy, and vulnerability, and if my poem does any of that, then I’m pleased to contribute to the fortification of haiku. And if each of my poems connect with just one reader, that’s enough. For me, a poem is a trailblazer if it finds a path to the heart.


What other forms, formats, or iterations did you consider, and why do you think the poem had to be written this way?

I had not considered any other format or iteration, at least not in this case. Sometimes too much trickery can get in the way. I wanted to trust the image. Also, I recall the old Doritos slogan: Crunch all you want, we’ll make more. That’s the way I often am with my haiku. I keep making more. I aim for organic form in my haiku, and I stop working them out when they feel right in my mind and on the tongue. Kenneth Koch wrote that “When you finish a poem, it clicks shut like the top of a jewel box.” When this poem clicked shut for me, I moved on to writing other poems.


Is there anything else you want to share about the poem or your writing practice?

Haiku, for me, is an art of empathy, for both writers and readers. We pay attention. We notice our own feelings, and if we write about what caused our feelings, rather than the feelings themselves, we empower empathetic readers to have the same feelings (or close to them) for themselves. It’s a sort of misdirection, and the ideal reader (“on whom nothing is lost,” as Henry James desired) will see what’s going on. What’s happening in my poem? Necessary socializing, politeness, and respect, and a bit of mystery. What words are being said often that make the S sounds seem to be prominent? That awareness gave me a feeling, but I wanted to write about what caused my feeling, so I leave the feeling itself up to each reader.