Interview by Robert Lee Brewer
Please welcome Michael Dylan Welch to the Poetic Asides blog. He’s been here a few times before—as a guest judge and to share advice on writing haiku. This month (the shortest month of the year), he’s busy running National Haiku Writing Month.
Welch’s haiku, tanka, and longer poems have appeared in hundreds of anthologies and journals (including Brevities, Clover, Persimmon, Pontoon, Rattle, and StringTown) in at least twenty languages. In 2012, one of his translations from the Japanese appeared on the back of 150,000,000 U.S. postage stamps. His websites are www.graceguts.com and www.nahaiwrimo.com.
Here is one of my favorite haiku by Welch:
toll booth lit for Christmas—
from my hand to hers
Click here to read more.
1. What are you currently up to?
Poetically, I’ve published four books recently. The big one is Fire in the Treetops: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Haiku North America, which I edited for the 25th anniversary HNA conference in Schenectady, New York in October of 2015. This is a thick collection (416 pages) featuring 1,053 haiku by more than 500 contributors who are a who’s who of haiku in North America. A second book is Becoming a Haiku Poet, a brief primer on writing haiku poetry including resources and a checklist, with a foreword by Aubrie Cox. The third is A Warm Welcome, coedited with Angela Terry, which collects poems from a recent Seabeck Haiku Getaway, an annual retreat I’ve been directing since 2008. And the fourth book is one in which I’m one of twelve authors—Off the Beaten Track: A Year in Haiku, from Boatwhistle Books in January 2016 (I wrote a set of new poems for the month of April). And a fifth book is coming out this spring from NeoPoiesis Press in Canada, called Seven Suns / Seven Moons, a collection of collaborative surreal haiku cowritten with Tanya McDonald. I’ve also recently finished the second year of my stint as poet laureate of Redmond, Washington, but I continue to curate the monthly SoulFood Poetry Night and Redmond Association of Spokenword readings. I’m continuing to direct the Poets in the Park festival (coming up June 25, 2016), and have various other projects and activities in the works. I just finished a draft of a novel for the latest NaNoWriMo, too—and this time I think it has actual commercial possibilities. We’ll see!
2. I’ve long thought of you as a champion for haiku. What appeals to you most about this form?
The immediacy of the experiences in each poem. A good haiku reminds you of something that you know, but that you too often forget that you know. When an image is rooted in the five senses, it can’t help but be accessible to readers, so that’s a good place for a haiku to start. But the best ones have reverberations that go beyond that initial immediacy. The trick is to take the image from the ordinary to the extraordinary by the careful use of seasonal reference and juxtaposition. A good haiku is about what isn’t said. I love to champion haiku to correct misunderstandings (5-7-5 syllables is essentially an urban myth for haiku in English) but more importantly because I hope others could see the passionate connection to life that is possible through this poetry. As a bonus, haiku has connected me to thousands of passionate poets around the world—it’s a thriving and well-connected global community.
3. You’ve written many haiku over the years, but what do you like most in haiku that you read?
When you read a lot of haiku, it’s easy to see things that have been done before. In some cases that’s good, as in allusion and parody, but in some cases it’s not so good, as in plagiarism or simply being unoriginal with a tired topic. I call all of these haiku that bring to mind other poems “deja-ku.” In this context, the haiku that leap out for me are ones that treat a common subject freshly (it’s still possible to write in new ways about cherry blossoms, for example), or that write well about subjects that are uncommon (like the sound of an empty soda can as it drops into a recycling container). Haiku remind us of every facet of life through the five senses. If the poem makes me feel something, whatever the emotion is, then that’s what I like in haiku.
4. Could you explain National Haiku Writing Month?
I started National Haiku Writing Month in October of 2010. I was about to start doing National Novel Writing Month, and thought there ought to be a similar month for haiku. February seemed perfect for it—the shortest month for the shortest genre of poetry. So February it was, and I ran the first NaHaiWriMo in February of 2011. I created a NaHaiWriMo website and a Facebook page, and we now have about 2,200 likes on the Facebook page. On the very first day, in 2011, someone suggested that it would be helpful to have a daily writing prompt, and that tradition has continued since then. In fact, it’s every day, every month—we provide a new daily writing prompt year round for the community that continues to write together on Facebook, with a new guest prompter each month (they’re also featured in monthly “Meet the Prompter” mini-interviews). We’ve lately been working our way through the alphabet. For the last 26 months, each month has featured prompt words that start with a particular letter of the alphabet, and I’ll be finishing up with Z words in February 2016. There are also French and Bulgarian NaHaiWriMo pages too. The idea is to write at least one haiku each day for the entire month. No fair writing a bunch of haiku on the last day! They say habits can be formed if you do them regularly for at least three weeks, so I hope participants get the “haiku habit” after doing NaHaiWriMo for the entire month of February—and beyond. On the Facebook page I also post haiku-related comics for amusement, as well as links to useful resources for learning and refining haiku, plus the occasional discussion question. Mostly, though, the site is for sharing poems, and many people also post photo-haiga (combining haiku with a photograph). It’s an enthusiastic and supportive community (see comments about NaHaiWriMo), and there’s also a popular #NaHaiWriMo hashtag on Twitter. NaHaiWriMo has blossomed far in excess of what I could have imagined. In the very first paragraph of The Haiku Handbook, William J. Higginson wrote that the purpose of haiku is to share them. That’s what NaHaiWriMo is all about.
5. If someone is really into writing haiku, is there an organization(s) or event(s) through which they can get more involved with other like-minded poets?
In North America, the two chief organizations are the Haiku Society of America and Haiku Canada, both of which publish a journal and an annual anthology for members. They both have online newsletters and other benefits, and Haiku Canada has an annual conference (taking place in Whitehorse, Yukon, in May of 2016). The HSA has national meetings in various cities around the country, usually four a year. Every two years the Haiku North America conference is the big gathering of the tribes (next taking place in September of 2017 in Santa Fe, New Mexico). I’m a director and cofounder of HNA, which is a nonprofit corporation. The Haiku Foundation is another excellent storehouse for activities and resources relating to haiku, mostly with online content at its website, plus a video channel on YouTube. I especially value the event calendar, which lists all the haiku-related journal and contest deadlines and events—very handy! There are also local organizations for haiku, such as the Haiku Northwest group in Seattle, which I help to run, and many others. On Facebook, in addition to the NaHaiWriMo group, I also recommend Virtual Haiku. And not to be forgotten is the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento, which is world’s largest collection of haiku-related books and papers outside Japan. Anyone who publishes a haiku book or journal should send them a copy.
6. A poet who may not be known by most readers but should be—who is it?
I’ve been particularly enamored lately by European poets who excel at writing haiku in English, even though it’s not their native tongue. This includes Ralf Bröker (German), Deitmar Tauchner (Austrian), Johannes S. H. Bjerg (Danish), and Jörgen Johansson (Swedish), among many others I could mention. I think they all have haiku books available from Red Moon Press, which is the largest publisher outside Japan that specializes in haiku books—well worth exploring.
7. What is the biggest misconception poets have about haiku?
Well, the old 5-7-5 thing. Somewhere along the line it got stuck in Western consciousness (and in all the textbooks and lesson plans in our schools) that haiku was 5-7-5 syllables. But they don’t count “syllables” in Japanese haiku, and never have, even though that word is commonly used to describe what they count. The word “haiku” itself is two syllables in English, but counts as THREE sounds in Japanese. Japanese words usually have more syllables than their English counterparts, too, so they use up their sounds more quickly than we do (using fewer words). Consequently, if you write 5-7-5 syllables in English, you’re writing a much longer poem than what the Japanese write, making 5-7-5 a violation of the Japanese form rather than a preservation of it. Moreover, the superficial teaching of haiku in Western schools merely as syllable-counting has obscured the more important targets of seasonal reference (haiku is really a seasonal poem, not a nature poem) and a two-part juxtapositional structure, not to mention using primarily objective sensory images. As quoted in my essay “Go-Shichi-Go: How Japanese and English Syllables Differ,” Haruo Shirane emphasizes that “the term syllable is an inaccurate way of describing the actual metrical units of Japanese poetry.” It takes a long time to correct such deeply engrained misinformation, but I do believe changes are happening. My daughter’s elementary school textbook has it wrong, but other textbooks are more informed about haiku.
8. What one piece of advice could you pass on to other poets?
Always to read as much as you can—the poetry and commentary about the poetry. This is equally valuable for haiku as it is for longer poetry. If a point of view about haiku is puzzling to you (what, really, 5-7-5 doesn’t make something a haiku?), then research it more, and make sure to vet your sources to read the leading poets, translators, and organizations. It takes practice and discernment to figure out what’s trustworthy rather than repeating the same old urban myth, but eventually it begins to click. I wrote 5-7-5 haiku (all with titles, even, which haiku don’t have) for twelve years. Then around 1988 or so, I encountered the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (Touchstone, 1987), in which the vast bulk of the poems were not 5-7-5. With careful study and analysis, and practice at writing more haiku myself, I began to figure out that these poems were aiming at more important and more difficult targets than the paint-by-numbers superficiality of merely counting syllables. I was proud to have twenty of my haiku in the third edition (Norton, 1999). I also recommend Jim Kacian’s Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (Norton, 2013). This is the realm of haiku as a literary practice, informed by current (and not just ancient) Japanese tradition. In English, there’s a massive disconnect between what happens in this vibrant community and the public (mis)perceptions of haiku—which extend even to textbooks and other poetry guides by mainstream poets. It’s something that warrants correction, from top to bottom. I hope the value of the poetry that is being produced by the English-language haiku community will serve as an invitation (rather than a finger-wag) to come and check it out.