Tell me about the logo.
For some time (long before NaHaiWriMo) I had thought it would be fun to create a “No 5-7-5” graphic—the text “5-7-5” with a red slash in a circle on top of it. I used this as a logo because I wanted the NaHaiWriMo site to have at least some educational value, too, as well as inspirational, and I think the discussions it produced helped to educate a number of people into rethinking their presumptions about haiku. Too many people learn haiku (in English) merely as a 5-7-5-syllable poem, have no idea why 17 syllables is actually much longer than the 17 sounds they count in Japanese haiku, and, worse yet, have no idea about the other techniques used in haiku, several of which are more important than form. I had no idea how many people might participate in NaHaiWriMo, but at the very least I hoped a few of them might learn something new about haiku. I recall that two people objected to the logo when the Facebook page first appeared, and I offered an alternative image (“I [heart] haiku” with “haiku” presented in Japanese characters, which I’ve since had made into a T-shirt for myself), but the responses I got to the new image were that people vastly preferred the original image. I suppose it’s somewhat provocative, but perhaps that’s useful to prod people out of their misperceptions of haiku. The irony is that, so long as the poem hits other necessary targets for haiku, there’s nothing all that wrong with 5-7-5 itself, even in English. In fact, here’s one of mine:
the colours of all the cars
in the parking lot
But too many people think 5-7-5 is the only target, pay little or no attention to the other necessities, and they pad or chop their syntax to force the poem into that form, creating far more problems, without even realizing that they’re aiming at an unnecessary target (at least in English). To explain all of this, I wrote an essay, “Why ‘No 5-7-5,’” which I put on the website (it’s been getting a steady number of hits). The logo may offend some people, but it might very well be the people who are offended who need to hear its message. And perhaps, for those who like it, the message that they (and the logo) espouses makes them part of a club. They get it. Rather than exclude anyone, I hoped to include others, although they might have had to rethink their understandings of haiku to get it. I think a lot of people did.
Lots of people have been asking me to make the logo into a T-shirt, and I plan to do that before too long.
Why one haiku a day versus just writing 28? Even though there’s a recommended word count per day, in NaNoWriMo, the goal is simply to get to 50,000 words.
I’ve read in the past that it takes about three weeks to ingrain a new habit into your routine, so rather than dash off 28 haiku on the first or last day and think you’re done, I thought that making it a daily routine would be better. It helps you hone your awareness of daily life. Years ago, my camera was stolen out of my car. A year or so later, when I got a camera again, I noticed that I regained my habit of thinking in terms of the photographic frame—wondering how scenes in front of me might look as a photograph, whether now or later might provide the best light, or if the picture I saw in front of me might be better if I framed it from over there rather than here. I think haiku does the same thing, making you aware of seeing the world in a particular way, being more highly attuned to seasonal changes and all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle experiences of ordinary life—and then inspiring you to transform that awareness into words. So the goal to write one haiku a day over the course of the month was deliberately intended to instill (or support) a habit in whoever participated—a haiku habit.
I’ve set myself the task of writing one haiku a day for an entire year several times in the past, so I know how hard it can be to sustain one haiku a day for a set period of time, yet one haiku a day seemed a challenging yet reachable goal. I managed to finish 53,000 words for my NaNoWriMo novel in November. It was much harder than I imagined, but I figured if I could do that (while not even being able to write for one of the month’s weeks), surely others could write a mere 28 haiku in February. Of course, it’s not just words but content that matters, which is why writing good haiku is a lot harder than some people think. I love what Roland Barthes once said in his book Empire of Signs: “Haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.”
In early developmental/planning stages for NaHaiWriMo, you considered a number of hubs for the month. Why did you finally decide to keep the main page on Facebook?
I began only with a Facebook page, actually. The website was an afterthought, partly to promote the Facebook page, and also to provide more extensive content than was practical on the Facebook page. The website includes instructions for participating, my essay on the matter of form and 5-7-5, links to various haiku societies, and, for fun, a comments page (have you checked that out?). I didn’t really wonder (let alone predict) how the Facebook page might turn out, or what would happen, but it took on a life of its own and participation and enthusiasm spread by word of mouth. It greatly exceeded my expectations, by leaps and bounds. In fact, for the month of February, 2011, the NaHaiWriMo page received 64,516 individual views of all the various posts and comments. This includes repeat views, but it’s still a staggering number. I set the page to be openly viewable to the public (as opposed to being viewable just to people who “Liked” it or being a closed group), and the site averaged a monthly userbase of a little less than 500 people (including folks who regularly visited the site but didn’t happen to click the Like button, although most of them did). About two-thirds of participants were women, and the majority were age 45 and older, according to the site statistics that Facebook made available to me as site creator/administrator.
How do you feel about the Like button on Facebook in relation to sharing haiku during NaHaiWriMo?
Bless Facebook! I think the Like button was crucial, together with comments, to creating a sense of community on the NaHaiWriMo page (indeed, throughout all of Facebook). I was surprised that people wanted to share so many of their poems on the page. I’m glad they did. And when people could indicate which ones they liked, it created a sort of instant kukai (voting for favourite poems in the tradition of a Japanese haiku meeting). The comments that people often also added were gravy. Every once in a while I posted a discussion question on the main page (in addition to the Discussions section), and people weighed in on the various topics. This was a deliberate attempt to provide some possible educational value to the site, especially to folks new to haiku, and also an attempt to create some enthusiasm for the proceedings. I think the site would have done just fine on enthusiasm without these discussions, but it was good to have a mix of head and heart on the page. It’s one thing to write a haiku, so often done from one’s heart, but it’s also useful to be able to think about the poems and various issues involved in writing haiku, so you can improve your approach to the genre. Haiku needs both the head and the heart. But most importantly, sharing and reading haiku by hundreds of people, and clicking Like for favourite poems, really helped to create a supportive and enthusiastic community—certainly not something I had planned or anticipated. I think some poems got more Likes simple because of the time of day when they happened to appear, but generally a lot of good poems were posted daily, and the best ones did tend to get the most positive feedback, whether from Likes or from comments of appreciation.
You didn’t post any of your own poems during NaHaiWriMo. How did you feel about the poems you wrote by the end of the month? Would you be willing to share a few now?
I made a conscious choice not to post any of my poems to the NaHaiWriMo page. Just as I never published my own poems in my journal Tundra, I didn’t want the page to be a place merely to show off my own poems. That’s fine for personal Facebook pages or blogs, and even for some journals, but I wanted to point at the goal, to write haiku daily, and to point at everyone’s poetry, not just mine. I did end up posting one poem, on February 23, via a short webcam video posting, but that was all (I wish more people had posted videos of themselves reading their haiku, but that never happened—maybe next year?). Here’s the poem I posted by webcam, in response to the prompt of “bell”:
a trace of snow—
the cat’s bell
reminds me of you
As for other poems I wrote during the month, they were not really any different than ones I would have written anyway (I usually write about 650 haiku and senryu a year), except that I did try to write for as many of the prompts as I could. Here are a few selections (not always following the prompts):
your hand in mine
the sky so full
an urn in my lap—
the seaplane descends
from snow into rain
a delicate rain . . .
the photo of the body
passed from hand to hand
a little stone in my sole—
from which mountain trail
did it travel?
the mall cellist
draws us in
a show of hands
in the jury room—
the snowman’s belly
drooping in the sun
the old rocking horse
without any eyes
a cherry tomato
bursts in my mouth
it was here where I finished
my daughter asks me
a crow’s distant caw
carries me home
the plums in front
of the Egyptian embassy
not yet in bloom
That last poem recognized the revolution against the Mubarak government in Egypt that raged during February, and the poems by other poets frequently reflected the events of the day, whether a massive snowstorm that covered much of the eastern United States, Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day, or other events like the devastating February 22 earthquake in New Zealand. The poems, in effect, became a sort of shared diary. I’ve written elsewhere how I believe vulnerability is vital to making haiku work (see “Seeing into the Heart: Vulnerability in Haiku”), and the poems posted to the NaHaiWriMo site, at least for me, helped to create a wonderful community exactly because they were vulnerable to some degree, a vulnerability that was self-confident enough for each poet to share his or her daily diary of haiku. We laughed and cried with each other all month long. Who knows how many wonderful poems were never posted to the site, too.
The NaHaiWriMo page wasn’t alone on Facebook, did you know? Jessica Tremblay, a fine bilingual haiku poet who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, created “NaHaiWriMo en français” (in French). I was challenged to post a haiku in French, and shared this one on their Facebook page on February 1, such as it is:
je rends hommage
ceci n’est pas un poème
Speaking of Jessica, she also contributed a popular haiku comic to the NaHaiWriMo site each day, in her “Old Pond” comic series, focusing on NaHaiWriMo. The complete set also appears on her site [see also her NaHaiWriMo comics for February 2012, August 2012, February 2013, and February 2017, and also see her NaHaiWriMo Tips].
In addition, Andrew Shattuck McBride ran a NaHaiWriMo promotion on the Writer’s Digest online forum for Japanese-Style Short Form Poetry, and many poets created NaHaiWriMo blogs for their poems, or posted their NaHaiWriMo poems on their existing blogs. It was wonderful to see!
Did you yourself find a challenge in writing every day? How did this differ from your usual writing routine?
I’ve been trying to write a haiku daily for many years. I used to make myself catch up if I missed a few days, but stopped doing that because sometimes you have to live your life before you can write about it. The same is true for NaHaiWriMo, and I hope no one felt guilty if they missed a day. In my year-long writing habit, if I miss a few days, I usually catch up eventually, by accident if not design! So the daily habit of NaHaiWriMo was how I usually write haiku anyway, although I did try to give it special focus during February. What was different was providing the prompts and writing in response to many of them. I tried to keep nearly all of them objective, to promote the objective focus where I think the best haiku always start (subjective elements can be wonderful, especially in the hands of a skilled haiku poet, but usually only if at least some part of the poem is grounded in an objective image). Yes, some days it was a challenge to write, but that’s always been true, even if you do have a daily haiku habit. I also wrote a lot of my neon buddha poems during the month, too. They’re not necessarily haiku, but they were a vital part of my haiku habit during February.
What inspired you to start doing themes/prompts?
I originally had no intention of offering prompts at all, but on the very first day someone suggested that I do so, and so I thought, why not. I wish I could remember who suggested this, or possibly look it up on the page’s history, but displaying all the past postings is very time consuming, especially when there were so many. My first prompt was “hands.”
I believe all haiku are written from memory (even if that memory is very recent, like a few second ago)—or, as Wordsworth defined poetry, “powerful emotion recollected in tranquility.” I believe a good prompt can trigger a memory, and one can write a strong haiku as a result (it’s not the recency of a memory that matters, but its vibrancy). It’s also in the Japanese tradition to write haiku for a kukai in response to prompts (usually assigned season words), and also important to the renga and renku tradition in Japan to write spontaneously and responsively to previous verses. These are skills that I think all haiku poets can benefit from if they develop them, and I believe this skill extends to writing spontaneously in response to personal experience. You can kill the freshness of the inspiration if you rework the poem too much, or get too far (emotionally, not temporally) from the poem’s initial inspiration (or “triggering town,” as Richard Hugo called it), but I wanted the prompts to get people going. So I hoped the prompts would act as a catalyst for people, to supplement their own haiku habit for each day. I always considered each prompt to be optional. Poets could respond if they felt inspired, but no problem if they didn’t. It turns out that many people did follow the prompts, and expressed appreciation for them. A happy accident—certainly nothing I had planned!
What do you hope people got out of this experience?
One especially rewarding outcome of the NaHaiWriMo experience, and the community it created, was that people didn’t want it to stop when February ended. I asked Alan Summers if he would be willing to offer prompts through the month of March, and I was pleased when he agreed to take on that task, and I’d like to recruit new prompters for future months, too, as long as interest continues. According to the Facebook statistics, participation dropped off a little bit in March, but only a little. A surprising result, though, has been that the number of Likes for the site steadily increased, even in March, despite the fact that a few people didn’t continue their active participation. The prompts continue to be helpful, I think, in engaging the community that developed. I tried to extend this community by encouraging people to join the Haiku Society of America or other organizations, check out the discussion forum at the Haiku Foundation site, enter contests, subscribe to journals, and more. I hope some people have taken advantage of these opportunities to become more deeply involved. Haiku is, after all, a wonderful community.
I can tell you one thing I particularly enjoyed, and that was connecting with dozens of new haiku writers around the world. For example, I had a nice email exchange with Annie Juhl, a haiku poet in Denmark who I discovered was a fan of kayaking. Although relatively new to haiku, she obviously had a knack for it, so it was pleasing to see her post her poems (even though English, I believe, is not her native language). She said she saw that a friend had Liked the NaHaiWriMo page, checked it out herself, and got hooked. I’m glad to have made a number of new Facebook friends as a result of NaHaiWriMo, and I’m sure I’m not alone in gaining that wonderful benefit. What’s more, it’s a community that stretches worldwide, even while most poems posted were in English (even though sometimes not the poet’s first language).
Many people commented on the page about the benefits they got out of NaHaiWriMo. I could quote dozens of different people, but I’ll select one comment from Daphne Purpus, who lives on Vashon Island, Washington (I hope she might get involved in the Haiku Northwest group, since we live not too far from each other—although this isn’t why I’m quoting her). On March 9, in a bit of a discussion about how people heard about NaHaiWriMo, Daphne wrote this (I’ve slightly edited this):
I’ve just started writing haiku (mid-January) and as part of that endeavor I googled haiku, found the main [NaHaiWriMo website] with great articles about haiku and learned about the February challenge (on 1/31 actually!), and so I thought what the heck. I’m enjoying this, I’m 65 yrs. old, never done anything like this before, working at building community, so why not be a bit brave and give it a try. Well, after my first post, I was hooked!
What do I like about the site? That’s easy. I like the open welcoming spirit that I find here. I love the diversity on every level. I am learning so much from reading all the great haiku and it is exciting to me to see what others do with the same prompt. I make sure I post my own [haiku] first, but then as I look through what others made of the same prompt I am amazed by the richness of the form itself, and I also am getting (I hope) a better feel for the genre. And of course, there are also the nonprompt-generated haiku that I love as well.
These comments warm me! And many other poets expressed similar thoughts, whether new to haiku or seasoned old hands. I never really imagined what others might get out of NaHaiWriMo, except perhaps to learn more about haiku and to gain the haiku habit, but the greatest benefit that surprised me was the community that evolved. It’s a particular pleasure, too, to see that it could surely survive and thrive without me!
One other comment I would make is that NaHaiWriMo has demonstrated to me the expressive power of social media. The worldwide connections it has fostered have been remarkable to me, and I’m very grateful for it. I believe various haiku organizations around the world could do more with Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter, because these and other social media outlets provide a tremendous way to connect and inspire people. They are great ways to attract a younger audience, and yet they are vital among older haiku poets too. NaHaiWriMo never came close to the viral popularity of some videos on YouTube (and I doubt it ever would), but it still demonstrates how social media can very quickly and powerfully build a superb community—even if by accident (as with NaHaiWriMo).
Whatever happened to make NaHaiWriMo work, I hope that happy accident happened because of a useful core idea. On February 27, I posted the following: “Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface of the first imperial waka anthology of 905, the Kokinshu, began by proclaiming that ‘Japanese poetry takes as its seed the human heart.’ In all our writing, especially in response to the prompts, I hope we can remember to write from the heart (kokoro, in Japanese).” My prompt for the very last day of NaHaiWriMo was to write something from the heart, as deeply as possible. That, really, is the soul of haiku—and, I hope, the soul of NaHaiWriMo.
Any changes you anticipate for next year’s NaHaiWriMo? (Assuming there’ll be another NaHaiWriMo.)
I certainly hope NaHaiWriMo will continue again next February. I would be thrilled if that were the case. I hope it might attract a much greater number of participants, too. It’s not the numbers that really matter to me, though, but that people might catch the haiku bug, and get into the haiku habit. I hope haiku could enrich their lives as much as it has mine. That enrichment comes not only from writing and reading the poems themselves, but from sharing them and reveling in the community. Haiku poets come from all walks of life, and it’s incredible to meet so many talented and diverse poets through a community like this. So I hope that NaHaiWriMo might grow next February (and in the months of engagement between now and then). But other than that, I hope nothing changes, because the way it is right now is very pleasing indeed. I hope others feel the same way, too.