Breathe fresh air into your haiku by Taking it Beyond Five-Seven-Five

 First published as an “Insider Report” in Poet’s Market 1998 (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1997), pages 336–338. When it originally appeared, the haiku at the start of this essay was published incorrectly as “an old sweater / taken yarn by yarn / from a snowbank,” but I’ve corrected it below. I’ve also inserted a few clarifications or corrections in square brackets.

       by Glenn L. Marcum

an old woolen sweater

      taken yarn by yarn

            from the snowbank


all my books collect dust

except the one of love poems

you gave me that day

when the spring rains

kept us indoors


“Be your own editor,” says Michael Dylan Welch, recalling advice he read in a Poet’s Market interview with Elizabeth Searle Lamb seven years ago. “Don’t submit five or six similar haiku expecting the editor to choose the best one. While the editor’s perfectly able to select a good poem, it’s important for the beginner to take the responsibility of deciding which are the best to submit.”

        Welch writes haiku and related forms, senryu, tanka and haibun, as well as concrete and longer poetry. He is also the editor of Woodnotes, a journal of haiku and related poetry that has included work by Ronan, Cherie Hunter Day, Jeff Witkin and Helen K. Davie. Woodnotes recently ceased publication, however, to make way for a new journal, Tundra, which showcases all forms of short poetry.

        A cofounder of the American Haiku Archives at California State Library and a current first vice-president of the Haiku Society of America, Welch also manages to publish three chapbooks of haiku per year through Press Here, a California small press operation founded in 1989. Recent volumes include the work of William J. Higginson, Sono Uchida and Virginia Brady Young.

        Like many others, Welch admits he came to haiku with the superficial understanding that it was a syllabic Japanese form limited to the traditional 17 syllables arranged on three lines in a pattern of five-seven-five. However, he often receives haiku that might have been much more effective had they not been padded or chopped to conform to this syllabic arrangement. “It continues to be, I believe, mistaught this way. In English this strict syllabic notion just doesn’t apply. The reason is, simply, that Japanese syllables are not equivalent to those in English. Translate a 17-syllable English haiku into Japanese and it’s way too long.”

        Welch’s approach to haiku was reshaped by Zen and Taoism studies that instilled in him an awareness of haiku as a spiritual or transcendent poetry. Thus inspired, he read widely about haiku and discovered a book which had a profound impact on his writing: Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology (Fireside/Touchstone, 1986), a collection of North American haiku written in English. “In it there are poems of various lengths, syllables and line counts, and even some concrete poetry. Suddenly I had a dramatic shift from thinking of haiku as a syllabic form to understanding there was something else in the content that made these poems haiku. It was like opening a window for fresh air. I’ve become more deeply enamored of haiku ever since.”

        Writing is not a planned activity for Welch. Inspiration comes from any source at any time. It might be a word read in a newspaper or poem, something overheard on an elevator that reverberates or triggers a memory, or he may be literally “stopped” by an incident. “Late for work one morning I rushed downstairs, put my hand on the doorknob and was stopped. It was still cool and dark inside the house but the doorknob was very warm in my hand. I stood there thinking about the bright sun shining on the other side of the door warming the doorknob and later translated it into haiku.”

        For inspiration he occasionally plays a word game involving randomly opening a copy of 14,000 Things to Be Happy About by Barbara Ann Kipfer (Workman, 1990), a book containing many concrete, imagistic nouns and phrases. “An entry about the Avon Lady might evoke childhood memories of my mother talking to door-to-door salespeople, a very tactile experience for me, and the poem I’ll write will tap the reader’s memories of something similar. That’s how haiku works—it captures something we’ve all experienced and the reader finishes the poem, enlarging it.”

        In the submissions he receives, Welch looks for objectivity and fresh, keen perception. He believes haiku works best when objective words imply a subjective feeling or intuition of the moment. On a practical note, Welch also looks for a SASE [self-addressed stamped envelope], a name [and address] on each page of poetry submitted and correct spelling. Unfortunately, he regularly receives submissions that lack these criteria and strike him as unprofessional.

        As both poet and editor, Welch finds the skills of each enhanced by the other. Reading 4,000 submissions a year—as well as thousands of haiku for pleasure—has sharpened his understanding of the mechanics of the form. “While reading, I’m constantly thinking, ‘How do I feel subjectively? Does this poem touch me?’ I try to empathize, express an understanding as to why they do or do not work. The hard part of editing is taking the time necessary to see where the writer is coming from on his own terms. This process of empathy has also helped me clarify my own approach to haiku and its limitations.”

        Welch developed this empathetic process during his time as editor of Woodnotes, a quarterly publication founded in 1989 by the Haiku Poets of Northern California. Woodnotes grew out of a regional focus, and under Welch’s editorship, which began with Issue 3, rose to the forefront of the haiku community to stand alongside such journals as Frogpond and Modern Haiku. “In 1996 I took it over as an independent publication because the subscriber base had become so nonregional as to no longer fit the purpose of its founders,” says Welch.

        The new journal Tundra reaches beyond haiku to include all forms of short poetry, up to 12 [actually 13] lines, and drops the regional notion altogether. Haiku will remain a primary focus, but Welch feels broadening that focus will help integrate the “too often insular” haiku community into mainstream poetry. He also looks to improve his own poetry as he reads a wider range of submissions.

        Besides Canada and the United States, Woodnotes’s readers have hailed from Australia, Japan, England, Romania, Croatia, India and Greece. Once established, Welch expects this international readership to continue and perhaps grow for Tundra.

        Welch also feels the Internet can be an enormous benefit to the haiku poet, offering everything from serious poetry to science fiction and Spam haiku. However, he warns the beginner that misinformation is common; everything must be taken with a grain of salt. “It’s a level playing field where anyone can make a comment, informed or otherwise. The reader has no idea who has authority. I highly recommend the Shiki List, Japan’s Matsuyama University discussion list [for haiku]. They also have a website posting the results of a biweekly haiku contest and offering feedback.” In addition, Welch is helping develop a website for the Haiku Society of America.

        As final words of advice, Welch offers that writing is not enough. “Reading is an essential part of being a poet. Tap into your enthusiasm and broaden it. Read as well as write; process what you read. As a beginner I wrote for myself. I didn’t read and, therefore, had no context for my writing.”

        He recommends William J. Higginson’s Haiku Handbook (Kodansha, 1992), Bruce Ross’s Haiku Moment (C E Tuttle, 1993), and Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology as good introductions to haiku. “If you don’t enjoy reading, it’s hardly fair to expect others to read your work. But you can’t force yourself. If it’s not a pleasure then don’t bother.”

        And most importantly: “Edit yourself. What Elizabeth Lamb said was a big influence for me, and I’ve repeated it to many people. So, if you’ve just written 20 similar haiku, ask yourself ‘Do I want all 20 poems to be published?’ Your answer can only be ‘I’d rather have the best published.’”