An Interview for Haiku Ireland
First published by Gilles Fabre in Haiku Ireland #7, June 2007. I wrote my answers to the following questions in January of 2007. My Special Guest feature also included a selection of twenty of my haiku plus the following biographical sketch.
Michael Dylan Welch was born in Watford, England, and grew up in England, Ghana, Australia, and later Canada. He is now also a Canadian citizen, but lives and works near Seattle, Washington, where he uses his M.A. in English as an editor for Microsoft. His wife is Japanese, and with their two young children they visit Japan regularly. Michael’s parents gave him his middle name after Dylan Thomas, which predisposed him for poetry—an interest he had even as a child.
He first learned of haiku in 1976 in a high school English class in Alberta, Canada, and has written haiku regularly ever since, but only began publishing them in 1988 (he lived in California from 1986 to 2002). For many years (1989 to 1997), Michael edited Woodnotes, published by the Haiku Poets of Northern California. In 1989 he started his press, Press Here, which now has about thirty titles in print, many of which have won Merit Book Awards from the Haiku Society of America.
In 1991, Michael helped to found the Haiku North America conference, which is now a nonprofit corporation of which he is a director (the 2007 conference will be in Winston-Salem, North Carolina). In 1996, be cofounded the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento—the largest public collection of haiku outside Japan. He served as vice president of the HSA in 1997, and again from 2003 through 2006. In 2000, he founded the Tanka Society of America, and served as its president to the end of 2004, helping to usher in the recent surge of interest in tanka (in 1994, he edited what was probably the first anthology of English-language tanka, Footsteps in the Fog).
He is currently editor/publisher of Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem, and is coeditor of Cascade, the journal of the Washington Poets Association, of which he is also a board member. In 2004 and 2005 he founded and directed the Poets in the Park conference, currently helps organize the WPA’s Burning Word festival, and regularly teaches haiku at numerous poetry retreats and conferences. Since 2003, Michael has curated the summer Haiku Garden reading series at the Japanese Garden in Seattle, and also curates the monthly SoulFood Poetry Night at a bookstore in Redmond, Washington.
Michael has published several thousand haiku, senryu, and tanka in hundreds of journals and anthologies in more than a dozen languages (including some in Gaelic, translated by Gabriel Rosenstock). In 2006, he served as haiku editor for “Haiku Journey,” a computer game that features 540 haiku by 45 leading haiku poets from around the world.
His haiku have won first prize in each of the Henderson and Brady haiku and senryu contests run by the HSA, the Drevniok contest run by Haiku Canada, and the Tokutomi contest run by the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, among wins and placements (as well as judging) in many other contests. His other poetry, including tanka, has also won awards and been published widely. He has noticed, with irony, as has Roland Barthes, that “haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.”
Gilles Fabre: When and how did you discover and start writing haiku?
Haiku crept up on me. I specifically remember first learning of haiku in a high school English class in 1976, and though I wrote “haiku” regularly after that, it was just one of many things I wrote. In the decade that followed, I also followed my interest in Zen and Taoism, which led me to various books where haiku made their appearance. That’s how real haiku crept up on me—by seeing various translations, reading poems in varying contexts. What I wrote in that first decade was all pretty much clueless. If it was 5-7-5 syllables, no matter what I said, and no matter how badly padded or chopped it was, I thought it was a haiku. Never mind season words, the two-part juxtapositional structure, internal comparison, objective imagistic description, and other wee necessities. I believe many people continue to be stuck in the “5-7-5” mode because, as did I, they learned about haiku at an impressionable age, and it’s hard to think that your saintly teachers could possibly be wrong. What broke the ice for me was reading the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s venerable The Haiku Anthology, where the great bulk of the poems are not 5-7-5. I had to figure out why. And though Cor explains why in his introduction, I also had to feel the reasons why for myself. But fortunately, that happened. The net result was that the book shifted my focus from form to content, and that immediately made a difference in the poems I wrote. In fact, in 1988, Robert Spiess accepted one poem for Modern Haiku from my very first submission to him:
my window opens . . .
a hundred frogs
sing to the moon
This was partially inspired by Hiroaki Sato’s book with “One Hundred Frogs” in the title. Since then, haiku has continued to open up many new and wonderful literary challenges, lively discussions, and warm friendships. Who knew that such a tiny genre of poetry could hold an infinite realm of possibility?
GF: What is haiku and/or what does it represent for you, and how do you see haiku’s place and/or role in the world?
In the Haiku Journey computer game, released in 2006 from Hot Lava Games [now MumboJumbo], and widely available through computer gaming portals online, I served as haiku editor for 540 haiku by 45 poets from around the world. I also wrote information about haiku that appears as you advance through ten different levels in the game. The first screen is a definition of haiku, which I’d like to share here:
“Haiku is typically a three-line poem that uses concrete sensory images to convey or imply natural and human seasonal phenomena, using a two-part juxtapositional structure as well as simple and primarily objective language. Originally a Japanese genre of poetry, now written and adapted in many languages worldwide, traditional haiku in Japanese consists of 17 sounds (not to be confused with syllables) in a pattern of 5-7-5. Because of differences in language, this rhythm is generally not followed for literary haiku in most languages other than Japanese. As intuitive and emotional poems, haiku often capture a sense of wonder and wholeness in presenting existence such as it is. Rather than presenting one’s emotions, haiku present the cause of one’s emotions, thus empowering the reader to have the same intuitive reaction to an experience that the poet had.”
Haiku is more than just such a definition, however. It can be a way of life, as it is for me. To some people, haiku is a spiritual way of life, and haiku certainly has many spiritual aspects for me. It is an approach to infinity, perhaps even an approach to God, and an endless celebration of curiosity and wonder at the world around you. Haiku is a way of reveling in the world around you—not just the natural world, but the world of human nature also. I believe it’s false or unrealistic to think that haiku can be a means to world peace, as some people have asserted, but it’s easy to imagine that if more people had the innate sensitivity that produces effective haiku, we’d have a lot less strife happening in the world. We’d all be too busy going on haiku walks! As nice as that sentiment is, though, I believe haiku should not have a political agenda, for any such agenda will too quickly distort haiku to its own needs, and the suchness of experience would be weakened or damaged. It is such a pleasure, when I teach haiku, to have students “get” a poem. You can see it in their faces, usually through a brightening of the eyes or even a smile or laugh. That moment of joy—or a deep manifestation of other emotions—lies at the heart of every effective haiku, and it’s a pleasure to record and share with others these transcendent approaches to infinity. And when students smile upon “getting” a haiku, invariably they turn their heads to share that laughter or joy or realization with someone next to them. I think haiku’s deepest pleasure is exactly that sense of sharing, a profound sharing of a deeper understanding of what it is to be human in a painfully beautiful world.