Aubrie Cox interviews Michael Dylan Welch
As a haiku poet in North America, I’ve had the Seabeck Haiku Getaway on my radar for several years now. This haiku retreat, roughly an hour outside Seattle, Washington via ferry, began in 2008 and has been growing in content and attendance ever since. In 2014, due to the nagging and generosity of others, I was able to finally fly halfway across the country to indulge in a four-day weekend saturated in haiku and good company. Alan Pizzarelli was the guest speaker and the theme for the weekend was sound.
Aside from a gorgeous view and remote location, the annual retreat has a lot to offer, almost too much to take in for one visit. There was no shortage of presentations and workshops, along with bookmaking tutorials, haiku history lectures, nature walks, hokey pokey breaks, and even a roast of organizer Michael Dylan Welch. All attendees ate together in the communal dining hall and the majority of us stayed on the retreat center grounds. I had the privilege of rooming with the cartoonist-in-residence Jessica Tremblay, the artist and author of Old Pond Comics. It was a treat to finally put faces and voices to names I had read in journals and communicated with online, including A Hundred Gourds’ own tanka editor, Susan Constable.
If the Seabeck Haiku Getaway resembles the Northwest North American haiku community at all, then it’s a group of passionate and energetic poets. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and I was delighted to see the amount of local talent from the Seabeck and surrounding area. Even more so, I felt it incredibly important and inspiring to see veteran haiku poets playing, conversing, and learning alongside people writing haiku for the very first time. Regardless of the experience level, everyone was excited, and everyone wanted to hear each others’ questions and answers. It may have been difficult to find time to actually reflect and write, but no one’s voice was left unheard.
Shortly after the retreat, I had the opportunity to interview Michael Dylan Welch and asked him to reflect on the 2014 retreat as well as future plans. His answers not only highlighted the vibrant history of the Seabeck Haiku Getaway, but the careful consideration one must take when planning and organizing such a retreat. This interview has been edited for publication [see shorter, edited version].
Interview with Michael Dylan Welch
How did the Seabeck Haiku Getaway start?
The seeds for Seabeck were sown in Asilomar. For about a dozen years I attended the annual long-weekend haiku retreat held by the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society at Asilomar, a beautiful conference facility by the ocean in Pacific Grove, California (near Monterey). We shared meals in the dining commons, walks along the beach at high and low tides, ambles through the dune grass, tidepooling, and much sharing and discussion of haiku. Featured guests included Robert Hass, Clark Strand, James Hackett, Patricia Donegan, and many others. When I moved from California to the Seattle area in 2002, shortly after that year’s Asilomar weekend, I became active in the Haiku Northwest group, but the group had never held a weekend retreat. I immediately missed Asilomar. Around 2004, maybe 2005, I remember doing some research online to look for retreat centers. My search then didn’t reveal Seabeck, and all of the retreat centers I found were rather expensive, too far away, too big, or too small. The door wasn’t opening yet, but I did keep looking.
In 2004 I started the Poets in the Park conference in Redmond, Washington, and repeated it again in 2005. This event was for longer poetry, though, and was a conference rather than a retreat, and no one stayed overnight, even though the activities lasted two days (incidentally, I revived Poets in the Park in 2014 as a one-day poetry festival, and will repeat it in June of 2015). This activity gave me experience in running poetry retreats, as did my direction of the Haiku Society of America’s 30th anniversary retreat in San Damiano, California, in 1998, and of course my work with the Haiku North America conferences, beginning in 1991. In 2004 I also became a board member of the Washington Poets Association, and helped to stage its annual Burning Word poetry festival until 2008. That was a one-day event, and didn’t help me come up with good retreat centers where accommodations and meals could also be provided. Despite these forays into poetry event development, the door to a weekend haiku retreat still hadn’t opened.
Around this time, I became closer friends with Alice Frampton. She was from Seabeck, Washington, a small town on Hood Canal, a tidal, saltwater branch of Puget Sound, less than an hour from Seattle, via ferry. But at the time she was living in British Columbia, near Vancouver, close to where my parents lived. When I visited my parents, it was easy for me to visit Alice. In 2002, Naomi Beth Wakan invited British Columbia haiku poets to Gabriola Island for what became the annual Gabriola haiku weekend, run by Pacifi-kana, the west-coast region of Haiku Canada. When Alice became the Pacifi-kana regional coordinator for Haiku Canada, she also helped to coordinate this haiku weekend (which started out as just a single day, with a handful of people getting together for a haiku walk, a kukai, a presentation or two, and a potluck dinner). I attended many Gabriola weekends, later editing its tenth-anniversary anthology, Tidepools: Haiku On Gabriola, and sometimes carpooled to the island with Alice. Seeds were being sown here!
In 2007, Alice moved back to Seabeck to care for her aging mother, and around then I mentioned to her that for two or three years I had been wanting to start a haiku retreat for Haiku Northwest, but had never found the right retreat center. That, of course, is when Alice said, “How about Seabeck?” She had known about the Seabeck Conference Center all her life, and had even worked there as a teenager. She said they were a nonprofit organization, and rented their facilities only to other nonprofits, thus making their prices remarkably inexpensive. They had a lovely campus nestled between wooded hills and a small lagoon right by Hood Canal and its aging marina. They had a mix of heritage buildings and purpose-built accommodations and dining facilities. No TVs anywhere! I knew I had found the right place at last—the door finally opened. Together we investigated the facilities and fees, booked a date, and started building a program. Emiko Miyashita was our first featured guest, from Japan, and we had more people in attendance (thirty) than I would have expected, even drawing a few attendees from outside the Northwest region. And we’ve been growing ever since, expanding from the original weekend to be a long weekend. Attendance has increased every year, too, with a few people coming from across the continent. We’ve been fortunate, too, to have such guests as Penny Harter, Charles Trumbull, John Stevenson, Paul Miller, Marco Fraticelli, and Alan Pizzarelli.
What are some Seabeck Haiku Getaway traditions?
Years ago I read a magazine article about the value of ritual in one’s life—daily rituals, weekly, monthly, yearly—and rituals at particular places, or with particular friends or relatives. Not just the usual rituals such as putting up a Christmas tree, but your own personal or group rituals. It’s something I’ve valued in my own life, and have emphasized in my family. For example, when school is out every year, I take my kids out for ice cream somewhere special. Rituals are something that haiku poets pay attention to as well, by observing each season closely as it unfolds. At the first Seabeck retreat, one tradition I started was to begin and end with a theme song, usually with lyrics of relevant inspiration for haiku poets. I would play the song as nearly the very first activity, and also the very last. My intention was to create a transition into and out of the retreat, and to use the song and its lyrics as a sort of focus for the weekend. For the first retreat, held in the fall of 2008, the song was “Ordinary Miracles” by Sarah McLachlan, and the lyrics speak about the value of appreciating ordinary miracles in everyday life, something that any haiku poet can relate to. It has become increasingly difficult to find suitable theme songs each year, so this particular ritual may eventually need to be replaced by a new one, but I do already have a song in mind for our next retreat, so we’ll see what happens.
Alice also started a tradition that first year, which arose partly out of practicality. To save ourselves the trouble of making name tags for everyone, we asked people to make their own name tags beforehand. The results have been very creative over the years, and I’ve enjoyed photographing many of these nametags. We even had a contest for the best name tags that first year. Even without the contest, though, people have been very creative from year to year, and this fun little ritual continues to save us the work of making name tags for everyone.
Other traditions have grown over the years. Tanya McDonald took over from Alice Frampton in helping me direct the Seabeck retreat after that first year, and she had an idea that we’ve continued ever since. We call it the Haiku Sputnik. It’s a round metal ball that hangs from the ceiling. It has a couple dozen thin metal arms with little clips at the ends. We’ve printed up a selection of our featured guest’s poems every year, on index cards, and have clipped them to this haiku satellite, hanging it prominently in our main meeting room. Every year I try to watch for our featured guest taking a look at the poems, discovering that they’re his or her own poems. You can see a picture of the Haiku Sputnik and some of our other creative ways to display haiku by visiting Old Pond Comics.
A more recent tradition is our Saturday-night talent show, which has proved very popular, and lots of fun. Some people start preparing for it months in advance, and it allows us to showcase talents other than haiku, such as singing, dancing, drama, longer poems, storytelling, and more. We’ve had a ukulele chorus, and Dejah Léger has also shown several of her “crankies” (storytelling scrolls rolled in front of a light to show silhouetted art, accompanied by song), including a haiku crankie she made during one weekend featuring everyone’s haiku. I couldn’t begin to do justice to the variety we have, and the range of talents we’ve enjoyed. We all loosen up and have a lot of fun.
We have yet more traditions. They include publishing a retreat anthology each year. One of them, called Seeing Stars, even won the Haiku Society of America Kanterman Book Award for best anthology in 2010 (for books published in 2009), featuring “galactiku” inspired by Penny Harter’s workshop using photographs taken from the Hubble space telescope. We also have a formal kukai every year, something I started at the first retreat. It’s a nod to Japanese tradition, where everyone votes for their favourite poems submitted anonymously on index cards. We have prizes, and the top poems are included in the anthology. We also have a silent auction, to help raise money, a bookfair to showcase everyone’s haiku and related books, and a display of weathergrams about the grounds. This last activity was started by Barbara Snow, and we’ve continued doing it ever since. She had us write haiku on strips of grocery-bag paper and then use biodegradable string to tie our poems to trees and bushes around the grounds for everyone to discover (including hundreds of guests attending other conferences the same weekend as us, and for weeks afterwards). He also have a “freebie” table for sharing haiku handouts (trifolds or other little collections of our haiku to trade with each other), nature walks in the woods or to the lagoon, beach, and marina, anonymous workshops, a featured handcraft activity (such as suminigashi paper-making, handmade bookmaking and bookbinding, sumi painting, and more), the “haiku hat” (from which we draw poems for the anonymous workshops), readings of haiku by featured poets, an opening-night reading by our guest poet, our write-at-your-own-pace “renkurama” (renku sheets in our lounge area that you contribute to all weekend long), our t’ai chi and do-the-hokey-pokey breaks between some sessions, the annual group photo, visits to the “bouncy bridge,” the announcement of winners for Haiku Northwest’s annual Porad haiku contest (lately with flute music by James Rodriguez), Jessica Tremblay as our cartoonist in residence, and a display of professionally framed haiga in our dining hall, featuring exemplary work by the Puget Sound Sumi Artists. These are all traditions that help to make the Seabeck retreat very engaging for everyone who attends. How do we fit it all in?
A more recent tradition has been making and walking a labyrinth on the grass near our meeting room. This was started by Margaret D. McGee in 2013. This has definitely been a group ritual, verging on the magical and transcendent. We’ve decorated these labyrinths with fallen tree boughs, pinecones, leaves, and poem strips, and even old bleached animal bones. Walking through the labyrinth, where we always seem to fall silent, helps us focus on being present, and also reading the poems at our feet as we walk. In 2014, Margaret put the labyrinth near the dining hall so more people from other conferences held the same weekend could also enjoy it, and the conference facility is even planning to install a permanent labyrinth for everyone to enjoy year-round (they also love our weathergrams!).
Having a guest speaker is of course our biggest tradition, finding someone fairly well known in haiku circles who has something to teach us or who can celebrate haiku with us in an inspirational and informative way. In scheduling activities for the weekend, I’ve always tried to balance what I call the head and the heart, to provide intellectual stimulation and instruction, but also more spiritual, social, and fun experiences, keeping in mind the use of our hands as well as our minds. Another vital tradition is for everything to be a shared experience. We don’t have concurrent sessions where you have to make hard choices, as you do at Haiku North America, or most other literary conferences. The only exception has been when I’ve offered a haiku workshop for beginners, while the more experienced among us attend an anonymous workshop, and a couple of times when we’ve broken into smaller groups for renku. We cater to people learning haiku for the first time as well as those who are more advanced, so it’s a challenge to make it all succeed, but our attendance has been growing steadily each year, so it seems to be working. We have descriptions of all past retreats—including schedules, group photos, and the names of guest speakers from each year—on the Haiku Northwest website. I also created a PowerPoint show, called “Five Years at Seabeck,” for our fifth anniversary retreat, which included many photos and facts from our first five years. I’m sure I’m missing other traditions and rituals, too. I think this mix of the familiar and the new is part of what attracts people to Seabeck.
How does this haiku conference and retreat differ from others? What does Seabeck have to offer poets that’s special to the area?
I suppose all the rituals and traditions are part of what makes Seabeck different, all shared experiences, yet these traditions are really only a small part of the larger mix of presentations, workshops, haiku walks, and poetry readings that make each Seabeck weekend memorable. We also try to have new activities each year, or revive something that we might have done in the past. In 2014 I bought dozens of paper lanterns and small electric tea lights for everyone, and we had our first-ever night ginkō (haiku walk). We walked silently, in single file, from our meeting room out to the waterfront, then back over the wooden bridge that spans the lagoon, through the moon viewing platform (that’s my name for it, anyway), through the labyrinth, and up into what’s called the Cathedral in the Woods, where we then talked quietly about what we had heard and felt while walking, and also read a few haiku. Then we shared chocolate truffles before heading back inside to get out of the rain. It was one of the most magical activities we’ve ever had at Seabeck, but we’ve also had many other highlights over the years, and each one seems impossible to top.
We tend to have the same core people from year to year, but also fifteen or more first-timers every year, which provides fresh energy. It’s mostly the people who give Seabeck its unique character, I think, as different people take turns sharing what they know or feel regarding haiku poetry. We always gather in the fall, and cross our fingers that the fall colours are peaking when we visit, so we can enjoy the cedar flashing (when the cedar trees turn rusty), the flaming yellow maple leaves, and the appearance of all the mushrooms and wooly bear caterpillars. We haven’t yet spotted an orca in Seabeck Bay, but maybe that will happen one of these years. We’ve heard the grawk of cranes, watched double rainbows come and go over the sound, seen many deer on campus, and enjoyed the views of the mountains from nearby Scenic Beach State Park. The retreat brings together many of the best and most active haiku poets in the region, so anyone from farther afield would be able to meet some wonderful haiku poets by coming to Seabeck, and would get to experience our ferries and forests, the Olympic mountains that loom over the retreat center (sometimes with fresh snow in the fall), and of course Puget Sound—with a side trip to Seattle on the way. Our talent show is unlike anything I’ve seen at any other haiku event, too. On the other hand, we’re not really trying to be different from any other haiku retreat or conference. In fact, I’d be happy to adopt successful activities from other haiku retreats, some of which we’ve already done by having the Asilomar retreat as a model (and the Gabriola weekend as an influence as well), and to have other retreats adopt some of our traditions. It’s not a conference like Haiku North America, where you have to choose between competing activities, and not a pure writing retreat either, where you might be off on your own. I chose the name “getaway” very carefully, because the Seabeck haiku weekend is really a hybrid between a conference and a retreat—meeting the needs of both the head and the heart.
Seabeck has been growing in attendance each year, but it also has a loyal group of returnees. What brings them back year after year?
I think our attendees bring each other back. It’s a reunion each autumn, to see old friends—and of course make new friends too (our weekend schedule deliberately includes an attendee list with home towns and email addresses to facilitate communication after each retreat). I’d like to think all the traditions, or at least most of them, are appealing enough that they help to keep people coming back, but it’s really the people, our featured guests, and the sharing of our experiences all weekend that I believe keeps people coming year after year. And as attendees talk about the retreat, more people seem to be coming from farther away, which has been wonderful, because we get to know new people and receive fresh influences. The growth in attendance is also a concern, though, because at some point the retreat could be too big, if it isn’t already. We prebook as many rooms as we can, and so far haven’t run out, but we’ve come pretty close. So the limit on accommodations and the size of our meeting room might help to keep attendance from getting too large. We had about fifty-five attendees in 2014, which is a significant number when most of them attend all four days (Thursday through Sunday). I suppose price is a factor, too, since the registration fee actually makes it cheaper for California attendees to fly to Seattle and pay our reasonable registration fee (which includes all meals, activities, and accommodations) than to pay just the registration fee at Asilomar—although we don’t have Asilomar’s lovely beaches or predictable weather!
I have to ask: Why is the weekend so busy?
In 2014, the Seabeck haiku weekend was definitely the busiest it’s ever been, and it seemed busier than intended, I think, because, unlike the previous couple of years, we sometimes had trouble staying on schedule. It’s also very hard to say no to good workshop or activity proposals, so I’ve tried to fit everyone in as best as I can. A lesson learned from this is to have more breaks, which will help us recover from sessions that might go too long. I also want to have more time to walk in the woods or down to the oyster-shell beach, and more writing time. And to say no to some proposals. Yes, the schedule in 2014 was jam-packed, but we’ll loosen it up next time, definitely. It was also packed in 2013, but although we managed to stay on schedule then, I’d still like to make the next retreat less full, even if we can’t always keep everything on track.
I’ve always had the philosophy that if people are investing a lot of time and money to attend, you want to give them a full slate of activities. And if some people have less energy, then it’s up to them to choose which events to skip, if they need to—this is advice I always emphasize on the first night. But I’m reluctant to schedule nothing at all at certain times just because some people might feel overwhelmed and want a scheduled break. That feels unfair to those who do have the energy for everything, or pace themselves if they need to take an occasional break. However, in 2014, for the first time, even I felt like it was too busy, when I usually have lots of energy for everything. So we’ll definitely be relaxing the schedule for 2015. Each retreat takes its own course, and in 2014 we also happened to have less writing activity, so we’ll also be building more deliberate writing sessions into the schedule as well. But we’ll also keep a lot of the usual traditions too.
Was there anything different in 2014 compared with previous years? What plans do you have for future Seabeck getaways?
Something we did for the first time in 2014, in addition to the night ginkō, was to focus on the sense of sound. Because the retreat takes place next to the waters of Puget Sound, it was fun to have “Sound Haiku” written at the top of the retreat schedule, with every meaning that heading implies. Not every presentation echoed this theme, but we had several workshops that did, such as Susan Constable’s inventive workshop on writing haiku in response to sound prompts, or Richard Tice’s overview of the use of sound in Japanese haiku, and your own presentation on musicality in haibun prose. For the next few years, we’ll be exploring each of our other primary senses, one at a time. For 2015, with Randy Brooks as our featured guest, we’ll be focusing on touch, and I hope to have a writing workshop where you reach into paper bags to feel different mystery objects (no slime, I promise). And we’ll see what else we can do with our focus on the sense of touch in haiku, hopefully hearing several creative presentations and readings that emphasize touch and texture in haiku, and how these poems touch us. I can see us even having an erotic haiku workshop, maybe late at night, or a panel discussion on “touching haiku” that risk being too maudlin. Something else I’d also like to do at the next retreat is to finally schedule time for us to enjoy the paddle boats available at the lagoon, and maybe to have a ping-pong tournament, or to play horseshoes. We might not use the tennis courts, but there are lots of other free amenities on the conference grounds that we’ve not taken advantage of, so that will definitely be something new for us to try in 2015. Our next retreat will be held on the first weekend of October, the earliest ever, to avoid a conflict with the Haiku North America conference later in the month, so our fall colours will only just be starting. That will make the retreat a little different, perhaps more “summery.” Sunsets won’t be so early, either, so maybe we’ll find ways to take advantage of that, plus the full moon that will occur two days before our retreat. We’re also very open to new ideas, and any attendee, or anyone thinking about coming, is eagerly invited to propose workshop or presentation ideas. But of course, I won’t be able to say yes to everything. In 2013, Angela Terry took over from Tanya McDonald in helping me run the retreat (also serving as registrar), and I know she has some fresh ideas too.
What was your favorite part of the weekend in 2014?
Definitely the night ginkō. It far exceeded my expectations, despite the rain—or perhaps even because of the rain. I was determined to have the walk even if it was raining, and was nervously watching the weather all weekend. But something about the rain, and our focus on sound while we walked, and all the paper lanterns in a row, each one tinged blue by its light, was something to behold—a procession. Attendees have circulated some wonderful pictures. You can see a few, with Jessica Tremblay’s detailed report about the weekend, at her website. There were many other highlights, too, such as walking the labyrinth, hearing Alan Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver talk about their “Haiku Chronicles” podcasts, Susan Callan’s “flag book” craft workshop (where we all made exquisite handmade books), RaNae Merrill’s “Haiquilts” talk and display, all the poetry readings, and a special guest presentation by the Seabeck Conference Center director, Chuck Kraining, on the history of the retreat center, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014 (we learned that Seabeck, in its early lumber days, was once more populous than Seattle!). On a personal level, I also enjoyed giving my presentation on “Haiku on Steroids,” showing pictures of my visit to Bashō’s birthplace in Iga-Ueno, Japan, sharing haiku handouts, putting out my “Haikuseum” display, and having good conversations at dinner with as many people as possible. I tend to be energized by all the activity, so really I enjoyed everything! I hope everyone else did too, even though we know we need to relax the schedule next time.
In 2014 you were roasted by a handful of poets (me included), led by the infamous Joey Clifton (played by Alan Pizzarelli)—what are your thoughts after?
It was a blast. I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know about myself and all my foibles, but I was very grateful for the good-natured ribbing. All the roasters had clearly done their homework and had a lot of fun, even though it was at my expense. When Alan first proposed the idea, I was reluctant, since it meant a focus on me (and I already have a large presence at the weekend), but Alan seemed keen on doing it, and it was also an opportunity for him to dress up as Joey Clifton (you had to be there) and ham it up. It was a great way to end our Saturday-night festivities, and definitely something different to do. However, I have to confess that I’m a little relieved that the video-recording of the event didn’t turn out. Ahem.
Obviously, because of Seabeck’s location, there’s a strong Northwest presence at the conference. Do you feel as though the attitude of Seabeck reflects the Northwest haiku community at all?
I suppose the Northwest haiku community can’t help but be reflected in the way Seabeck comes across each year. I’m not sure that we have any stance towards haiku that’s peculiar to our region, but then perhaps we can’t see it because we’re in it, like a fish that’s unaware of water. Our poems are about the mountains and oceans and forests that surround us, yet also about our ordinary lives that are no different from most other North American locations. Nevertheless, our trees are taller than the Midwest or Florida or Ontario. Our mountains are definitely taller than Iowa’s. These things are bound to inhabit our poems. But maybe this is a question that is best asked of you, or any other visitor to the Northwest haiku scene, or Seabeck in particular. What do you think? I do know that Francine Porad, who founded Haiku Northwest in 1988, tended to emphasize social aspects of the local haiku community, and the group has been very nurturing as a result. She definitely provided the “heart” of the group. Perhaps I provide more of the group’s “head,” or try to balance both head and heart, as best as I can manage. In that sense, for better or worse, perhaps the Seabeck retreat reflects me as the main director, to at least some degree, or that people might think so. But the presentations and activities mostly arise from the members and attendees, not me—with my encouragement to balance both intellectual and emotional needs, the head and the heart. Underlying it all is an appreciation for each other, nature, and the seasons, and a passion for poetic expression. I think that may be one of the greatest attractions to the Seabeck Haiku Getaway, come to think of it, that for one delirious long weekend each year, we all get to be with other people who are deeply passionate—and not just about haiku.
Where can folks find out more about the Seabeck Haiku Getaway and get news about future retreats?
At Haiku Northwest’s website. A subpage focuses on the Seabeck retreat, with general information, directions, and summaries of common activities—and a display of all our group photos. The site is updated with information about each year’s retreat some months before registration opens in the summer, and we aim to have the complete schedule online at least a month beforehand. This year we plan to have at least a skeleton schedule online much sooner. We also have a new Facebook page for the Seabeck Haiku Getaway. We know we have to raise rates slightly for 2015 (after not raising them for our attendees for three years, even though the retreat center had raised what they charged us). But it will still be a superb deal. Seabeck will continue to be a place for enjoying and developing a few prized rituals and traditions, but more importantly a place for friendships and always a place to share haiku passion. I wish that every haiku poet could join us at the Seabeck haiku celebration that we are fortunate to enjoy every year.