by Mike Fell, Boatwhistle Books
In the first of a series of brief “spotlight” Q&A interviews with writers who contributed poems to Off The Beaten Track: A Year in Haiku, we speak to Michael Dylan Welch.
How was it to write a haiku a day for a month?
Writing every day was relatively easy for me, as it’s something I’ve done often before, even writing daily for an entire year—several times. In February of 2011 I started National Haiku Writing Month (www.nahaiwrimo.com), which has a very active Facebook page with daily writing prompts. The goal there is to write at least one haiku a day for a month, and although February is the “official” month (the shortest month for the shortest genre of poetry), the Facebook community writes year-round with daily writing prompts and a new guest prompter each month. So writing daily was something I was not only used to, but actively promoting with others. However, for this project I gave special attention to my poems when I was writing them (in April of 2013), and I ended up writing about three poems per day, on average, which is more than I typically write in a month. The focus of this project made me more productive. My usual practice is to write not only about daily experiences but also to be open to memory and other inspiration. But for my month I gave extra attention to daily experiences—thus the references in my poems to things like tax day and blossoming cherries. I think many of my poems have a seasonal awareness as a result, something that traditional haiku always have, although I don’t think they need to be slavish to that tradition. I have always carried a notebook in my pocket to write down haiku and other poems, so I wrote them at the breakfast table, in my den, in bed, in the car, at work, or out on walks. They reflected the day’s weather sometimes, or whatever else was on my mind. Haiku inspiration can come from anywhere, so having that notebook handy is a good way to be prepared. As the poet William Stafford wrote in his very last poem, the day he died, “‘You don’t have to / prove anything,’ my mother said. ‘Just be ready / for what God sends.’”
Of the haiku you wrote for the book, which is your favourite? Why, and what prompted it?
I have to invoke William Stafford again. When asked which of his poems were his favourite, he repeatedly said, “I love all my children . . . but I would trade everything I’ve ever written for the next thing.” But if I had to pick one (I’m such a bad father), it would be easy to pick “on an old memory card / a photo of my sister / in her chemo wig” because of its gravitas. My sister is still alive, fortunately, and seems to be completely recovered from her cancer, but it was still a bit jolting to find that picture of her on an old memory card—something that would be even more jolting if she wasn’t still alive (which the poem allows). But I think the poem I have to pick as my favourite is a more subtle one: “moss on the path— / you ask me, quietly, / if I have summer plans.” I’m always planning summer activities for my wife and two kids (aged 10 and 12), with lists of things we might do and getting them to rate each idea, usually something I start doing in April. From May to September I plot out things to do in the Seattle area—camping weekends, visits to the coast or national parks, theme park, zoo, and aquarium visits, going up the Space Needle, free days at local museums, indoor and outdoor options depending on the weather. I’m usually hyperactive with these plans, and very eager to make the most of our good summer sunshine. But here was a moment when someone (a poet friend) asked me, quietly, if I had plans for the summer. The quietness of the question, and the gentle sincerity of it, was what really struck me, because it was such a contrast to the frenzy that my summer activities usually amount to. There’s no moss on this rolling stone, so the moss on the path was a contrast, too, yet something struck me about being open to a more relaxed summer, to let a bit more moss grow on whatever path lay before us, or to at least recognize that this was fine for my friend. The poem is more about the relaxed summers my friend has than about the hyperactive ones I still have, but it’s also a moment of appreciation that both approaches can be wonderful. Even if readers don’t get all this (I don’t expect them to), I still hope they’ll feel a bit of nostalgia for that ritual of making summer plans, whatever they might be, which for me is a spring activity.
Any other particular favourites in the book by other writers?
As a fellow editor, I appreciated Hamish Ironsides’ “proofing a text / about mindfulness / without reading it.” How many times have I done that? The irony, and humour, is that this particular text is about mindfulness. The poem may seem light on the surface, but it isn’t light if you give it more thought. I could pick so many other poems, but the ones that speak of the extraordinary in the ordinary are what really lift off for me. Like Matthew Paul’s “evangelicals: / their keyboard player gives it / the full Rick Wakeman” (which makes the most sense if you know Wakeman’s keyboard gymnastics with Yes and especially his grand solo albums), George Swede’s “missing little girl— / the bottom of the poster / flaps in the wind,” or Bob Lucky’s “flat tire / the ping of fat raindrops / on the hood.” I’m very grateful to be part of this project with such an array of writers—thank you.
Off the Beaten Track: A Year in Haiku is available now from Boatwhistle.
Michael Dylan Welch was born in Watford (England), grew up in England, Ghana, Australia, and Canada, and now lives with his wife and two children in Sammamish, Washington. He works as a technical writer and editor. He has been writing haiku since 1976, and has been published in a vast number of journals and anthologies, as well as in his own collections of poems. In the past he has edited the journals Woodnotes and Tundra. In 1991 he cofounded the Haiku North America conference, now a nonprofit corporation of which he is a director, and in 1996 he cofounded the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento, the world’s largest public haiku archive outside Japan. In 2010 he founded National Haiku Writing Month (www.nahaiwrimo.com), celebrated with daily haiku writing every February. He has contributed greatly to haiku criticism, and many of his excellent articles can be accessed on his website at www.graceguts.com, which also includes (among other things) a more detailed biography—the abbreviated version given here represents just part of his huge contribution to haiku in English.