Approaching Infinity:
Interview with Michael Dylan Welch

First published in Simply Haiku 1:6, December 2003. Answers first written in October of 2003.       +

      Interview by Robert Wilson

You say, “Haiku is the world and her people.” You also say, “Haiku is a window into ourselves.” These are two very different statements. Or are they? Please explain.

I’d say they’re not that different. Perhaps they are two different parts of the same elephant. Haiku is about nature and human nature, so it’s about all of us, and our surroundings (including so-called “man-made” surroundings, for a house is not really any more “unnatural” than a bird’s nest is). Haiku is also about ourselves, in the way it can imply feelings in reaction to the sensory experiences we all have. Haiku is a poetic means of conveying experience, and if we feel and life deeply, and capture that living in our poems, we can share it with others. Likewise, haiku poets can feel and experience the lives of others through their poems. While haiku isn’t a way of life for all haiku poets, it is for many, and this way of life is a way of seeing everything more closely, including the world around us and inside ourselves. A good haiku, though, should not be about our thoughts or feelings, but should be about what caused those thoughts or feelings. By leaving out that reaction, we enable the objective haiku poem to imply that reaction, and that key haiku technique is what makes haiku so rewarding to read as well as write.

What is it about haiku that draws you to it?

I like to think of haiku as an approach to infinity. As a young child (around age six or seven), during naptime at school, when we had to lay our heads on our desks for a period of time, I used to hold my finger about an inch above the desk’s shiny surface. Then I would try to cut that distance in half, and then in half again, and then again. I figured, if I could hold my finger steadily enough, and divide each distance in half accurately enough, I would never touch the desk. That was my first approach to infinity (the infinitely small). And there’s echoes of this relativism in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, which I also remember from my childhood. And in the graphic art of M. C. Escher and the stories of Jorge Luis Borges.

        The connection to haiku is that the poem typically seeks to capture a moment of time, the infinite now. Some people, such as many Japanese haiku poets, do not see haiku as specifically aiming at the so-called “haiku moment” (this is generally a Western conception of haiku, largely influenced by Kenneth Yasuda, R. H. Blyth, and other Zen-influenced haiku enthusiasts, such as the Beat poets). However, I do think the moment plays a chief role in identifying most haiku (Japanese and otherwise), and I value this transcendent aspect of the genre, something that has clear spiritual overtones, at least for me. On the other hand, I hasten to clarify that I don’t think of haiku as a particular spiritual or Zen sort of poetry, though it can be that for some people. Again, in Japan, most Japanese poets are puzzled when they hear Westerners refer to haiku as a Zen art or as a spiritual poetry, though of course it did have some Buddhist influences.

        What draws me to haiku, beyond the abstract notion of approaching infinity through the poem is the way haiku can capture emotion and suchness in such a clear and immediate way. It’s wonderful to read a poem, and to make the leap that the writer has set up for the reader. And it’s wonderful to write poems that way as well, and see the moment of realization in the reader or hearer of the poem that matches your own realization that inspired the poem in the first place. Haiku, too, is a largely social sort of poetry, in that it requires a reader to finish it, filling in the parts that are intentionally left blank or unsaid. I am also drawn to haiku because it is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s a pastime, a hobby, a form of poetry and literature, a sort of meditation, a means of making you more keenly aware of everything around you, the same way a photographer is always seeing pictures in the landscape, framed in his or her head the way they are seen through a camera lens. And like photography, there’s a level of objectivity to the poem that should be honoured, yet also subjectivity in that you choose to focus on certain things rather than others. Haiku has introduced me to many wonderful people, and that’s perhaps the best accidental benefit of all!

You’ve edited several publications showcasing haiku. What criteria do you look for when selecting haiku?

I think I need a whole book to answer this question! It’s a synthesis of an objective depiction of an authentic moment (something that comes across to the reader as authentic, regardless of how “true” the poem may be to whatever might have happened or not). A good haiku typically has two parts, one part often juxtaposed with the other to produce what Harold Henderson called “internal comparison.” (Don’t just aim for juxtaposition, aim for the effects that effective juxtaposition can produce.) The poem should always leave something out, letting it be implied, and the reader’s figuring out at least that something is what gives the poem its emotional power. Haiku is intuitive, in that you intuit its “meaning,” even while it doesn’t try to “mean” anything but make you feel something. The writer’s burden is to capture a feeling without stating what the feeling is, and the effective haiku will communicate that feeling while controlling ambiguity (not necessarily limiting it). A good haiku will make an image or a moment come alive in the reader’s mind or heart, and the reader will be able to see, hear, smell, touch, or taste nearly as well as the poet originally did.

        In selecting haiku for journals such as Woodnotes, which I edited from 1989 to 1997, and Tundra, which I have edited since then, and the numerous haiku books and anthologies I’ve published with my press, Press Here, and other publications, I look for authenticity, effective capturing of the suchness of the moment, originality and freshness (being aware of the literature of haiku is the editor’s burden), and avoidance of contrivance. In addition I consider matters of craft, such as using present tense, avoiding titles and rhyme and overt metaphor and simile, using good punctuation or alternatives such as indents, creating clarity of meaning, and other techniques. It all adds up, but overall the poem has to somehow “click,” which is a wonderful thing. Everyone’s tastes for haiku will be different, and I value that difference, but I think as different poets and editors make their contributions to the genre (I consider haiku a genre, not a form), the best work will tend to rise to the top.

You’ve said, “I prefer haiku that are sharply imagistic, focus on the here and now, and are objective, yet intuitive.” Could you elucidate?

I think I’ve already answered much of this question, but to me a good haiku boils down to how it handles or controls objective versus subjective elements. T. S. Eliot wrote of what he called the “objective correlative,” meaning that objects naturally convey or correlate to different emotions, and that poetry can rely on these correlations to carry meaning and emotive power in the poem. This is especially true for haiku.

        As for focus, if I write about the all the furniture in a house, that’s not nearly as immediate and powerful as writing, say, of one piece of furniture:

                home for Christmas:

                my childhood desk drawer


However, sometimes the plural is what you need to focus on, as something’s plurality is its essence:

                tulip festival—

                the colours of all the cars

                in the parking lot

If a poem is written in the past or future tense, it’s not as immediate as a “now” poem:

                meteor shower . . .

                a gentle wave

                wets our sandals                            +

And as I’ve said, a good haiku leaves something out, so it can be figured out by the reader. For example, what is my subject in the following poem?

                an old woolen sweater

                     taken yarn by yarn

                          from the snowbank

Though I don’t mention a bird building a nest, the perceptive reader quickly realizes that this is my subject. And how old is the person depicted in the following poem?

                spring breeze—

                the pull of her hand

                as we near the pet store

Many people see a child, which is fine, though the poem doesn’t actually say that. Yet the details of spring, breeze, and the puppies and kittens we associate with a pet store do suggest childhood, don’t they? And I’m glad they do, because this experience actually happened in the autumn, on a windy evening, near a coffee shop, with an adult, but I think the poem as I crafted it is a superior poem.

        Underlying most good haiku, I believe, is a careful use of objective images. It’s not “the eager pull of her hand”—that would kill the very eagerness of youth that I’m trying to convey. By relying on objective details, the poem can produce a setting, focus, and ultimately a feeling that the reader figures out, intuitively. Haiku is not an intellectual poem (except when one is talking about its theory), but an intuitive one. You feel haiku, intuitively leaping to an understanding of them, rather than intellectually figuring them out. That’s the beauty of haiku.

        Where these objective details come from, of course, is our five senses. A good haiku is about what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. This is how experience enters our bodies, and this is what a good haiku typically focuses on in the present moment of experience. In fact, I’ve recently come across an idea that really appeals to me. It’s that the future can be thought of as being outside the body, and the past can be thought of as inside the body. How time moves from being outside to inside the body is through the five senses, at the moment of now. This is what haiku seeks to capture—the electric moment of the infinite now as it moves from the future to the past, doing so in the conduit into our bodies of our five senses.

You’ve emceed public haiku readings for a long time in San Francisco. How are they received? Are the haiku performed or just read?

I now also lead a reading series, called “Haiku Garden,” in Seattle, where I moved in 2002. Previous to that I led a long-running series in San Francisco called “Haiku City.” These and other readings have mostly been for other haiku poets, which is an audience educated to appreciate haiku, and thus highly receptive to this poetry. It’s quite another thing to make haiku work for a nonhaiku audience. Senryu is easy, because the audience can laugh at the humour or satire or irony. But sharing haiku is more difficult. I think it’s good for haiku poets to read for nonhaiku audiences with some regularity. As my friend Dana Gioia has written in his influential essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” it’s worthwhile to present the poems of other poets at poetry readings, to celebrate the canon of the best poetry, and the same is true for haiku, too.

        As for “performing” haiku, that strikes me as a bit of a crutch. Sure, haiku can be “performed,” but then it’s the performance that’s going to matter more than the haiku itself. That’s why I think it can be problematic to pair haiku with music or dance. It must be done carefully so that one isn’t merely entertained by one art or the other, and so that each art (or at least the haiku) stands on its own merits. Some people read haiku twice, which can be fine. But I also think, if the reader knows how to control his audience’s attention, reading each haiku just once is perfectly fine. I dislike the automatic assumption that haiku should always be read twice in public. What’s at issue is getting the audience’s attention, and a good reader will know how to do that with just a single careful reading of each haiku. (Though it’s fine to read a haiku again if an espresso machine starts snorting, or an ambulance sirens by.)

Which of the haiku masters have influenced you the most and why?

I think I would have to say Shiki, because the revolutionary thought that he promoted a hundred years ago is central to the revitalization of haiku as we know it even today. His notion of “shasei” (sketching from life) haiku is akin to the objective approach to haiku. Yet haiku is not simply bald “so what” descriptions, which Shiki realized. Sketching from life should be selective, in the same way that a camera is “objective” (like a “shasei” haiku), yet there are clear elements of subjectivity in that the photographer aims his or her camera here rather than there, at this height or angle rather than some other way, at a certain time of day, and perhaps at a certain moment of action. This is how haiku, even the seemingly “objective” or “shasei” poems, can become subjective, especially when the poet is carefully selective in choosing his or her subjects and how they are depicted. I value Shiki’s reforms of haiku, yet also value the giants that passed before him, especially Bashō. We have much to learn from all of the haiku masters of Japan, as well as the best haiku writers writing in English. What’s important, too, is not to think of the “masters” of haiku being only in the past in some distant country behind a mysterious and exotic cultural veil, but to realize that haiku is an ongoing dialog today that each poet can participate in. Whether the notion of “master” is appropriate or not for today’s English-language haiku, an attitude of humility towards the poems we read, if we want to improve our craft, can help us find our steps along the path.

In 1996, Jerry Kilbride, Garry Gay, California State Librarian, Kevin Starr, and yourself cofounded the American Haiku Archives in Sacramento. What is the purpose of the Archive? Is it accessible to the public?

Others were involved too, and the archives couldn’t have come about without the blessings of Elizabeth Searle Lamb, one of the key initial donors, and the Haiku Society of America, which pledged the HSA archives to be part of the American Haiku Archives. I’m very proud of helping to set up this archives, because I believe it will be of permanent benefit to all haiku poets. There is much work to be done, such as making a website that could more thoroughly explain the use and benefit of the archives [this was done in 2008], but the American Haiku Archives advisory board, chaired by Garry Gay, has begun to accomplish this. For example, we have a set of photographs that show the process of archiving each book (sometimes rebinding them, and often putting books in special acid-free containers). The archives seeks to preserve everything it can related to haiku in English, as well as the lives of the poets associated with it, including letters, ephemera, and books and journals. The original goal was that the archives would be a valuable repository for all haiku materials in perpetuity, for the study and enjoyment of future generations of haiku poets and scholars. The California State Library is open five days a week, and anyone is welcome to request materials through the rare book section, and materials will be brought to you in a climate-controlled room where you aren’t allowed to use pens. We are very fortunate to have the services of the California State Library, thanks to Dr. Kevin Starr, in preserving the history and achievements of haiku through the American Haiku Archives, and if haiku poets wish to have a tour of the haiku archives while visiting Sacramento, California, it can easily be arranged by contacting Jerry Kilbride, Garry Gay, or the office of Kevin Starr.

Any pearls of haiku wisdom you’d like to share with our readers?

To me, haiku is a valuable gift. It’s a means of communication, and so we should best use it by communicating clearly, without opaque or overly personal messages or images. If I could boil haiku aesthetics down to one piece of advice, I think it would be to say, don’t write about your thoughts or feelings, write about what caused those thoughts or feelings. Understanding the difference is vital to haiku.

        Let me conclude with three of my favourite haiku, so that poetry has the last word:

                Valentine’s Day—

                she reminds me

                to fasten my seatbelt                            +

                a few pines

                tagged with ribbons . . .

                winter stillness

                spring breeze—

                the oars fed

                into the oarlocks