after the quake
pointing to earth +
Michael Dylan Welch, an editor at IDG Books in Foster City, California, wrote this free-form haiku in response to California’s Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the same year he launched his own small press devoted to publishing poetry.
“I’d put together a book of my own poetry and made five copies of it to give to a few people. That got me going,” Welch said. “I named my press ‘Press Here’ after spending a couple of hours jotting down ideas for names.” He specializes mainly in Japanese poetry forms in English, and now has 18 titles in print, a few of which have won awards.
“I do all the acquisition, development, editing, layout, design, promotion, order fulfillment—it keeps me busy!” Welch said. “I also edit a poetry journal called Tundra focusing on poems of 13 lines or fewer (Tundra replaced another poetry journal I edited from 1989 to 1997 called Woodnotes). I expect to get the first issue out in June and am trying to arrange national bookstore distribution. Tundra includes work by such well-known poets as Jane Hirshfield, Dana Gioia, Samuel Menashe, Ted Kooser, Tom Disch, Steve Sanfield, George Swede, and many others. I’ve also talked on various radio programs about poetry and speak at literary conferences, poetry retreats, and so forth. Also, in 1997 I served as first vice president of the Haiku Society of America.”
Welch said that he first learned about haiku in high school and that he’d always had an awareness of poetry since he was a child. (“My middle name is Dylan, and my mother tells me I was named after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas,” he noted.)
Press Here focuses on Japanese forms of poetry, including haiku (seasonal poems, usually about nature), senryu (similar to haiku but more humorous and about human nature), haibun (a prose-haiku mix), and tanka (a five-line lyrical poem, typically about love).
“I have at least 2,300 haiku books, primarily in English,” said Welch. “If I spoke Japanese, a lot more books would tempt me!”
Welch said the five-seven-five syllable count is traditional for haiku in Japanese. “The syllable count in English tends to be shorter, though, because of differences in language and the fact that Japanese syllable lengths are shorter,” he said. “Most serious haiku published in English are about 10 to 14 syllables, in a free-form rather than syllabic style.”
Welch notes that many people have misperceptions of haiku. “Some while ago The New York Times did an article on the Spam haiku website, for which I was interviewed. I told them my relationship to Spam haiku was the same as my relationship to Spam—I’m a vegetarian.”
Welch said there was a quote by Steve Moss in The World’s Shortest Stories (Running Press, 1998) that he liked: “A haiku poem is short. So is a quarterback sneak. But nobody thinks they’re simple to execute—it’s just that the people who do them well make it seem that way.”
Welch recently learned that 20 of his own haiku have been requested for publication in the third edition of The Haiku Anthology from W. W. Norton. Later this year he’ll also have ten of his poems appear in Anthologie de Haikü from Les Éditions David in Canada (in English with French translations), and yet more poems in Global Haiku: 25 Outstanding Poets from Iron Press in England. Numerous other haiku of his have also been anthologized. He estimates that he has published over 2,500 of his poems, primarily haiku and tanka.
Press Here has received the Merit Book Award for Haiku Translation from the Haiku Society of America for a book called A Simple Universe by Sono Uchida. According to Welch, Uchida was until recently the president of Haiku International, the world’s largest international haiku society, and former Japanese ambassador to Morocco, Senegal, and the Holy See in Rome.
Welch was also involved in the formation of the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento in 1996. “It’s the world’s largest collection of haiku-related material outside of Japan. Of all the things I’ve done with haiku, I’m most proud of this because I think it will have the longest-lasting value,” he said.
Not only does Welch collect volumes of Japanese poetry, he also collects books on Lewis Carroll, author most notably of Alice in Wonderland, who died 100 years ago this year. “When I was in college I took a Victorian Literature class. I picked Carroll to write a major paper on and fell in love with his work. But it’s an expensive hobby. I have about 500 Carroll books—biographies, translations, illustrated versions, critical books, conference proceedings. I have a friend in San Francisco whose Carroll collection is worth millions.”
While Press Here publishes mainly poetry, Welch did publish one book called A Vote for Alice, his own political parody of Alice, revamped to poke fun at U.S. elections and politics.
Welch said he first learned the publishing business by the seat of his pants. “After graduate school I was a technical writer and then a publications manager for a small Windows software company,” he said. “I did complete software manuals—writing, proofing, print buying, etc.—which was really good experience. So when it came time to do my own books it became an extension of what I’d learned there. I’ve also found that skills I’ve learned in managing poetry publications have applied to computer book editing too.”
Welch said one of the challenges he faces is “lots of mail. Some days I get as many as 15 pieces of mail. I get poetry submissions, books to review, articles, queries, and subscription money too. I log in most pieces of mail and respond as soon as I can and try to write something personal. I accept about 3% to 4% of the poems I receive and I estimate that I receive 8,000 to 10,000 poems a year.”
Most of his submissions come to him via the post office. “I prefer them by snail mail rather than email,” he said, “so I don’t have to print them out. I’d rather consider them in hard copy anyway. Email just speeds up the mail back and forth, not my consideration time.”
Welch said he has a haiku website that he “threw together in about two hours last fall with a bonehead program. It has a statement of my perspective, a bio, a list of recommended books, and some sample poems of mine. The longer it stays up there the more I don’t like it. I just haven’t had time to improve it!”
Not only is he critical of his website, Welch has some critical thoughts about poetry online in general. “The reader really has to beware. Anything literary on the Internet shifts the burden of editing from the editor to the reader. There’s a tendency with conventionally published poetry and literature that the better work rises to the top. However, that tendency is greatly diminished on the Internet. You can find something online that says ‘The Pope is a crook’ and someone will believe it and cite the site. Somewhere else, someone will say the exact opposite and people will believe that. More and more people are becoming aware of this democratic nature and are judging accordingly.”
As if running a press weren’t enough, Welch is also a regular on the conference circuit and will be speaking at the American Literature Association later this month (May) on E. E. Cummings and Lewis Carroll who both wrote travel journals about trips to Russia. (In a bit a poetry trivia, Welch said that it is a mistake to use lowercase letters for Cummings’ name and a myth that the poet legally changed his name to use them. Cummings used initial caps, and the E. E. Cummings Society is actively involved in getting corrections made to reference books.) Welch is also assistant editor of Spring, the journal of the Cummings Society.
Welch also gives poetry workshops at universities, ElderHostel programs, and grade schools. He said that children at different ages respond differently to poetry. “Kids in grades seven to twelve are sometimes just lumps; they just sit there and won’t even say their name. But younger kids are really excited and responsive. In a kindergarten class I once read some of my nonsense poems, and they drew pictures of what I’d written about in one poem. They like to be entertained with tongue-twisters and wordplay.”
In addition to the workshops and poetry readings he gives, Welch has also judged poetry contests (including one for the Atlantic Monthly online), and hosts a haiku reading series at a Borders Books in downtown San Francisco.
Welch’s educational background is wide-ranging. He earned a masters in English from Loma Linda University, in Loma Linda, California, and his thesis was a study of the invented words and multilanguage puns in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. His undergraduate degree is a B.A. in communications media and English from Walla Walla College, in College Place, Washington, but perhaps his best education came in his youth. “I’m British and was born in Watford outside London. I grew up in Ghana, Australia, and mainly Canada. My dad’s an architecture professor and we’d always do lots of traveling on his summer breaks, around Europe and North America.”
He has been with IDG Books as an editor for two years, after having worked there previously as a freelancer. “I have a first edition, first printing of DOS For Dummies,” he said. “It was just an idea when I first freelanced for IDG Books. But look at us now!”
A Sampling of Welch’s Work
home for Christmas:
my childhood desk drawer + +
two crabs claw
to claw in the tidepool
the flashlight dims
the pull of her hand
as we near the pet store
a snail has left
its delicate silver trail
on my book of love poems
left out on your porch
clicking off the late movie . . .
the couch cushion
—First Place Winner, 1995 Brady Senryu Contest, Haiku Society of America
at his favourite deli
the bald man finds a hair
in his soup