Interview by Neena Singh
The Wise Owl talks to Michael Dylan Welch, a world-renowned haiku poet who has been writing haiku since 1976. He has held the prestigious positions of officer, director, or board member of the Haiku Society of America, the Haiku Poets of Northern California, and Haiku Northwest. He is a cofounder of Haiku North America and the American Haiku Archives, and founder of the Tanka Society of America. Michael served two terms as poet laureate for the city of Redmond, Washington, is president of the Redmond Association of Spokenword, is the founder and proprietor of National Haiku Writing Month (NaHaiWriMo), operates a website devoted to rengay (www.rengay.com), and runs an extensive personal website devoted mostly to haiku called Graceguts (www.graceguts.com). Welch is also editor/publisher of Press Here haiku and tanka books (since 1989). He previously edited Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem (1997–2001) and Woodnotes (1989–1997). He currently coedits First Frost (since 2021).
Michael’s own haiku and longer poems have appeared in prestigious journals and anthologies in at least twenty languages, and he has won or judged numerous haiku and other contests. Welch has authored or edited True Colour (a collection of solo rengay), Here, There, and Everywhere (an anthology of longer poetry), all Haiku North America conference anthologies, With Cherries on Top: 31 Flavors from NaHaiWriMo (a free PDF book with his photographs featuring poems by NaHaiWriMo contributors), Jumble Box (another NaHaiWriMo anthology), Fifty-Seven Damn Good Haiku by a Bunch of Our Friends (edited with Alan Summers), and several art books from PIE Books in Tokyo with translations from the Japanese (with Emiko Miyashita), including 100 Poets: Passions of the Imperial Court, a translation of the thirteenth-century waka collection, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a translation from which was published on the back of 150,000,000 U.S. postage stamps in 2012. Michael lives with his family in Sammamish, Washington.
Thanks, Michael, for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl. We are indeed delighted and honoured to talk to you. We really enjoyed going through the haiku notebooks on your website Graceguts.
Thank you. The presentation of my haiku notebooks is a recent addition to my website. Doing the math on the number of notebooks, page counts, and average number of haiku per page led me to discover that I’ve written an average of at least one haiku a day since 1990. That’s a lot of haiku! Having a notebook process also helped me tremendously in organizing my haiku, empowering me to send them out for possible publication. Everyone should have a system to keep track of their poems.
You are a poet who has authored and edited several collections of Japanese poetry in genres like haiku and rengay. Our readers would love to know what attracted you to haiku and other related genres of poetry. Who introduced you to this form? Was there any creative mentor who encouraged you to study and then pen this form of poetry?
I was first introduced to haiku by my grade 10 teacher, George Goodburn, in 1976. I was already writing poetry regularly, and mostly short poetry, so I naturally gravitated to haiku when I learned about it, even if that initial learning was superficial. It took another dozen years, though, for haiku to become my main poetic output. Brevity is what initially attracted me to haiku, but only years later did I discover its many techniques (beyond superficial syllable counting) that proved to be a far deeper attraction—and a far deeper discipline. Cultural associations with Japan also provided an enduring attraction. The growing worldwide community of haiku poets has also helped to sustain that interest—it’s a wonderful family to be part of. The second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology, which I discovered in 1988, radically overhauled my understanding of haiku. Since then, I was particularly mentored by William J. Higginson who encouraged me in countless ways, yet also challenged me. Robert Spiess was also a fine model to follow as a demanding yet encouraging and respectful editor, and working on Woodnotes with various coeditors from 1989 to 1997 turned out to be a fine education as well. Many other poets have inspired me with individual poems, bodies of work, and particular books.
Our readers would be curious to know how you evolved as a poet of the Japanese tradition of poetry. Please tell us a little about your creative journey in this field. Who are your favourite poets of this genre?
I began an appreciation for literary haiku in English by devouring Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology. The next year, in 1989, I joined the Haiku Poets of Northern California, where the fellowship, sharing, and discussion of haiku instilled in me a lifelong love of haiku—and haiku poets. I soon became a coeditor and later chief editor for Woodnotes, the original journal of the Haiku Poets of Northern California, and that same year started my press, Press Here, to publish haiku and related books. Editorial selections made me think more deeply about haiku craft, balancing that with respect for individual voices. Layout and design of journals and books also made me think about visual and typographical opportunities in haiku, and how those too could be creative tools. Helping with publications morphed into helping organizations, all part of responsible literary citizenship, a giving back to the community. I have felt motivated, for decades now, to promote a deeper appreciation for haiku, and to help correct misunderstandings of the genre.
As for favourite poets, they’ve changed. Early on I was amazed by Marlene Mountain’s work that was so utterly different from what I thought haiku was “supposed” to be. Anita Virgil and Alexis Rotella wrote some marvellous early haiku books (I especially admired Anita’s A 2nd Flake). Over the years I came to appreciate the work of Lee Gurga and then Paul Miller (writing as paul m.). Jerry Kilbride was a great friend, too, and through him I began to appreciate how strong a haibun writer he was. Christopher Herold was also a strong but quiet influence when I lived in the San Francisco area, and I particularly remember visiting him in his Woodside cabin, sharing my formative thoughts on organic form as an alternative to so-called “free” form. Pat Shelley was an early influence regarding tanka. John Stevenson always seems to be rewarding reading, and so many others. More recently Brad Bennett and Kristen Lindquist have been poets I enjoy seeing in journals, or even looking them up in indexes when a new publication arrives. A crop of new voices is emerging, too, such as Jacquie Pearce and Annette Makino, and I think of Aaron Barry, Lisa Gerlits, Peter Fischer, and Antoinette Cheung among other rising talents. I’m leaving out dozens more I could mention. It’s more the poem that matters, though, because a strong poem by a poet I’ve never even heard of always matters more to me than the poet’s name.
You have also translated poetry from the Japanese language. I believe a poem from your translation of the collection Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, was published on the back of 150,000,000 U.S. postage stamps in 2012. Tell us a little about how you were introduced to the Japanese language and began translating poetry into English.
I have Emiko Miyashita to thank for many translation opportunities over the years, whether for numerous art books published by PIE Books in Tokyo (others have covered topics such as bonsai, furoshiki wrapping cloths, and Noh drama) or projects for the Haiku International Association, Japan Air Lines Foundation (such as its biennial children’s haiku contest), or the annual Traffic Culture haiku exhibition in Tokyo. My wife is Japanese, and we visited Japan frequently before the pandemic, but my interest in Japanese culture preceded my relationship with her—and may have helped with that relationship. I suppose my awareness of Japanese culture began around the time I first learned of haiku as a teenager, and began to read books about Zen and Taoism, where haiku made occasional appearances. One cannot study haiku, of course, without exploring Japanese culture and literature, and it all came to me naturally. A greater awareness of the language and literature led to opportunities to translate, and even opportunities to visit Japan and to speak for Japanese haiku organizations.
You have been cofounder of Haiku North America, the American Haiku Archives, and the Seabeck Haiku Getaway, founder of the Tanka Society of America, and an officer of the Haiku Society of America, the Haiku Poets of Northern California, and Haiku Northwest. We would love to know about the work you have done to encourage and support the various genres of Japanese poetry.
I seem to be energized by the promotion of haiku, always interested in contacting poets to connect them with other poets in their area. I have helped many haiku poets in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California connect with local organizations, but also elsewhere too (sometimes being surprised when I’m reminded of this years later when I’d forgotten). I have also mentored many poets over the years and have enjoyed seeing them grow and participate with the community. I’ve run haiku reading series at bookstores or gardens over many years that have brought people into haiku, and taught workshops at hundreds of different venues that have helped to spread the fire. NaHaiWriMo and my Graceguts and Rengay websites have extended these flames to the Internet, and I hope what I’m doing helps to inspire others, so we can all catch and develop the haiku habit. It’s a matter of looking for opportunities to promote haiku (not myself) and doing what I can as my time allows. I say yes to too many things, but I can’t help myself when it comes to haiku and related poetry. As an example of an opportunity, even just within the haiku community, years ago I noticed that no one was writing tan-renga, so I wrote an article about it in Frogpond, and now it’s common. I saw that no one had ever done a haibun contest in English, so I ran one in 1996. I loved how Haiku Canada published haiku trifolds in their journal, and I worked to promote that practice at Haiku North America and other haiku events, and now it’s a common practice. I also liked how Haiku Canada had an annual membership anthology, so I got that started with the Haiku Society of America too. Here where I live near Seattle, I’ve tried to engage numerous local organizations with haiku. For example, I judge an annual moon-viewing haiku contest for the Seattle Japanese Garden, and I’m involved with promoting haiku at local literary events, and through my local arts commission I will soon start a program of displaying haiku on signs by the side of the road, supported by workshops and a website—see Hilltop Haiku. I mention this not to toot a horn but to hopefully inspire others to try haiku promotion where they live too, and to be creative in how it can be done. What’s most gratifying to me is to see someone else learn to love haiku and related poetry and to be rewarded by it.
You have edited several journals of haiku and are also devoting your time and effort to your website on haiku called Graceguts. It appears that these genres of poetry have caught the imagination of poets across the world. How do you envision the future of these genres of poetry?
A metaphor might be in order here, from the world of popular music. I used to be a DJ and have a large collection of vinyl records and compact discs (don’t get me started on guitar solos). I’ve been to many concerts over the years, too, in both large and small venues. I remember once sitting in the nosebleed seats to see a concert by Genesis with 20,000 of my closest friends, and going to Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD festival with 100,000 people in Golden Gate Park. As much as I enjoyed the music, I’ve enjoyed far more going to concerts by lesser-known bands in smaller venues—I think of seeing Marillion at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano in California, or Camel at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, or seeing Jane Siberry at small clubs in Canada, or Patrick Ball (Celtic harp) in church venues. It’s the intimacy that matters, and that’s what I think we should remember with haiku, which I see as an intimate poetry of empathy and vulnerability. We could wish for literary haiku to be so wildly popular that people could sell millions of copies of their haiku books, for countries outside of Japan to have TV shows, or for haiku poets to be celebrities. I think this would be wrong for haiku, because haiku is a poem of the heart, where one heart shares with another. The act of sharing is a point of vulnerability, and when someone appreciates your poem, or you appreciate someone else’s, the poem at that point becomes blessed, or can be said to be born. In the first paragraph of The Haiku Handbook, Bill Higginson said the purpose of haiku is to share them. But what is the purpose of sharing haiku? To make intimate personal connections, and to validate our shared humanity. And that happens through a book held in your hands, sitting with a friend at a coffee shop discussing poetry, or chatting through email or Zoom connections, one poem and one poet at a time. No giant stadium haiku for me.
If I would wish for one thing for haiku in its future, though, it would be a better public understanding of haiku as a literary art, as opposed to Instagram superficialities. It’s an endless eyeroll to me to see how often people think haiku is just counting syllables. It may be an impossible goal, though, to educate the public—a public that doesn’t even want to be educated—yet this difference is also something that sets literary haiku apart. There’s an us-and-them tension, I think, between literary haiku as we know and love this art, versus the paint-by-numbers syllable counting that’s seemingly cemented in public consciousness, and maybe this tension feeds the reward of being in a specialized place (although it risks being a cult with a self-righteous feeling of “we know better”). We like haiku’s concert halls to be small. But educating the public, and actually changing perceptions, curriculum guides, and more, is like trying to move an iceberg, or maybe a continent. But perhaps the attempt can still be rewarding, in that literary haiku will (I hope) still find its audience if we at least put ourselves out there, even if we don’t try to change literary perceptions. Indeed, it’s better, I think, to show, not tell—not just in how we write, but in how we share haiku as an art form. Show good haiku. Get it out there, such as on roadside haiku signs or at poetry readings, rather than preaching at people, wagging your finger at them to tell them they misunderstand haiku. I’m telling this to myself here. There’s a lot to be said for promoting haiku through attraction, not proselytization.
Above all, though, I love to share rewards of attention through haiku. I think of Mary Oliver, who said, “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” That’s really the formula for haiku. We who write haiku pay attention, and cultivate our powers of attention, of really noticing—not just the world outside us but also our emotions within, and how haiku connects the inner and outer. And we are intuitively astonished (through “existential gratitude,” as Billy Collins has described haiku). And so we are innately drawn to share our experience—to tell about it, using our own unique voices and perspectives. That doesn’t even have to be through haiku, though. The delight of “haiku moments” could be shared through a story, a photograph, a dance, or another creative endeavour, or by holding out a bright red leaf to a toddler. Or it could be just in describing something that matters to us to a person who matters to us—or a stranger. And by sharing I think we can come together in a greater appreciation for what it means to be human.
We have been doing Japanese poetry Specials in our magazine and have covered various genres like haiku, senryu, tanka etc. The intention is to make readers aware of these beautiful forms of poetry. This Edition is a haibun special and our readers would love to learn about the form from an expert like you. You hosted the first English-language haibun contest way back in 1996. Please tell our readers a little about the special characteristics of the haibun form. (You may like to share a favourite haibun)
I don’t consider myself an expert in haibun. I’ve written dozens of them over 30+ years, as an extension of my interest in haiku, but other poets are far more accomplished at it—and more disciplined. I think of Jerry Kilbride early on (and there were others before him). Cor van den Heuvel’s A Boy’s Seasons is a masterwork of haibun. More recently Roberta Beary, Terri L. French, and Jennifer Hambrick (and I’m leaving out so many others). But I have been watching haibun for a long time and was pleased to have organized what seems to have been the first English-language haibun contest. Others have written more, and better, about haibun theory, but of course we know it’s a synthesis of title, prose, and poem, and the synergistic implications amid these elements. We fall into habits by presuming the text has to be autobiographical, which was why I was pleased to publish a deliberately fictional haibun once in Tundra (and I don’t mean fictionalized elements, but an extended fictional narrative), and we may have other presumptions to overcome in allowing haibun to flower, as both readers and writers. I confess that when I read haiku journals, I sometimes come to a halt at the haibun section, wondering if it will be worthwhile. It’s also a change of pace, and for me requires a different mindset. Fortunately, I do often find rewarding pieces, haibun that surprise or tell a compelling story, or that offer some other creative twist. In this, haibun isn’t much different from longer poetry, where I look for similar benefits and fulfilments, along with tightness and a high level of poetic craft. Of course, just because you write good haiku doesn’t mean you can write good prose, just as those who write good prose often discover that they can’t write good haiku. So there’s a rarity to the best haibun, it seems to me, where excellence in both prose and poem come together, with the essential added dimension of the right-angled relationship between these elements.
For those interested in what I’ve written about haibun, I offer the following links:
The preceding site categorizes my haibun under numerous headings, such as travel, personal stories, and death and dying, plus creative (experimental?) haibun, which I hope are useful. I’m particularly pleased with the “Historical Haibun” section, where I pair new haiku with famous texts by others, and of haibun techniques that I use in pairing poems with noncreative prose, such as in “On the Art of Writing Haiku,” “Quiet Souls” (remembering Cid Corman), and “Ringing the Bell: Learning Haiku from Mary Ruefle,” the latter of which was generously reprinted in Contemporary Haibun 16, even though I didn’t consider it to be a haibun (although the essay uses haibun-like linking and shifting).
If I might choose any one haibun of mine to share, I think it would be “Hearing the Owl,” not because it’s my best (in fact, it probably isn’t) but because it’s the most personal, including the postscripts I’ve added to it. This haibun has much to do with identity and belonging—and relates to the profound life-change I had early in 2022 when my wife and I became United States citizens.
Our readers would be curious to know if you are working on a new book or editing an anthology of poetry. When do we see your book in the bookstores?
I always have projects in the works, such as the 30th anniversary rengay anthology (I wrote the first rengay with Garry Gay back in 1992), an anthology celebrating the first 20 years of Tanka Society of America tanka contests, the overdue 2021 Haiku North America conference anthology, a reprint (with an extensive new introduction) of Eric Amann’s The Wordless Poem, a tenth-anniversary edition (expanded) of Tidepools, an anthology celebrating the annual haiku retreats on Gabriola Island in British Columbia, and an expanded reprint of Hammerhorn Lake, the first book of rengay, originally published in 1995. I sincerely hope I can finish all these projects (among others) in the year ahead, and continue expanding my Graceguts and Rengay websites. I am grateful for all site visitors and feel the most gratified if anything I’ve written benefits someone else, whether intellectually or emotionally. That’s the point of sharing haiku and haiku knowledge, it seems to me.
What advice would you give upcoming haiku/senryu/tanka/haibun poets/writers?
Read a lot. Write a lot. Read more than you write. Trust your own voice (in other words, don’t “try”). Know the literature, as best you can. Be not afraid. And follow Mary Oliver: Pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it.
Thank you so much Michael for taking time out of a packed schedule to speak to The Wise Owl. We congratulate you on all the hard work you have done to make haiku and other related genres popular and acceptable outside Japan. We wish you the best in all your creative pursuits and endeavours.
Thank you for this opportunity, and I hope your readers are inspired to explore haiku and haibun if it happens to appeal to them. It’s not for everyone. As E. E. Cummings said, his poems weren’t for “mostpeople.” Haiku isn’t either, but it might just be for you.