Beginner’s Mind

The “Beginner’s Mind” feature in Woodnotes started with issue #27, and ran for five issues, celebrating the haiku origin stories of 22 poets, presented here in the order of appearance. The initial announcement of this feature, in issue #26, read as follows:

We would like to begin a new feature for Woodnotesto be called “Beginner’s Mind.” Send the editors your story, written in a paragraph or two, about how you first became acquainted with haiku and why you were attracted to this brief poetry. What first inspired you? Was it a class you took, a book you found, a person you met? Tells us how you first came to read, write, or appreciate haiku. And include, if you like, your first published haiku (with credit information). We’ll try to include stories from two or three of our members in each future issue. This is a way for us to get to know each other better. We look forward to your participation!

What transpired was a set of engaging and sometimes vulnerable and surprisingly personal stories, sprinkled with haiku, some of them understandably formative. Contributions such as these added an endearing touch to Woodnotes, helping to build and connect the HPNC community. +

The following entries appear in the order published. In alphabetical order the featured poets here are Esther Bankoff, Tom Clausen, Carlos Colón, Carol Conti-Entin, Cherie Hunter Day, Marje A. Dyck, David Elliott, Gary Hotham (who revised his contribution for inclusion in his book, Spilled Milk: Haiku Destinies), Keiko Imaoka, Larry Kimmel, Matthew Louvière, George Ralph, William M. Ramsey, Ronan, Ce Rosenow, John Sheirer, Gail Sher, Helen J. Sherry, John Stevenson, Laurie W. Stoelting, Tom Tico, and Jeff Witkin. The photos added here were not part of the original publication of these pieces.

Helen J. Sherry — San Diego, California

#27, Winter 1995

My first exposure to haiku was in the poetry section of the Sunday Columbus Dispatch in Ohio. During the early 1980s I was designing a line of note cards, and thought this three-line verse would be the ideal accompaniment to my illustrations. I offered to commission a fellow member in the National League of American Pen Women, Yvonne Hardenbrook, to write a few haiku for me. Her generous response was a suggestion to teach me to write my own. She patiently tutored me by mail, recommended books to study, and eventually suggested that I submit my efforts to haiku journals. Two editors, Lorraine Ellis Harr (Tombo) of Dragonfly and Robert Spiess, Modern Haiku, gave me encouragement by publishing my earliest works, and by offering valuable critiques. I am grateful to all those who helped me find a place in the world of haiku.

This is one of my earliest published haiku:

yellow finch

extending the color

of forsythia

Modern Haiku XV:3, 1984 +

Carol Conti-Entin — Shaker Heights, Ohio

#27, Winter 1995

As 1991 approached, my trusty inner guide ordered me to stop putting words into my journal—to draw instead. How scary for this former musician, whose visual sense had long been dormant. But what excellent preparation for a “chance” encounter, eight months later, with a library copy of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology.

At last, an ego-free and succinct verbal language! Surely something this genuine should be easy to write, right? Ha! There ensued several years of trying, failing, even giving up, but also of learning to see, of purging myself of metaphoric thinking. Then, in early 1994, came a moment so suitable for haiku that it nearly wrote itself. I sent it off to Mayfly and forgot about it. Seven months later a letter arrived informing me that it had been accepted for Issue 18.

midwinter thaw:

on the dented trash can lid

sparrows bathing

Gail Sher — Berkeley, California

#27, Winter 1995

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center: Summer 1969

Others may wear monpe, jibon, and hippari but Chino Sensei’s are impeccable, his tabi spotless, and Danish schoolbag, though Danish, on him seems the epitome of Japanese elegance. He knows how to walk to the zendo without hurrying. He knows how to eat and how to manage a lover within the stringent monastic schedule. His pristine composure inspires absolute confidence so that when I go to him to mention my desire to write, that I sort of, sometimes write haiku, he immediately takes it up, “Write one a day. Make it a practice.”

silent snow

silent house

I stand in the moonlit doorway

Woodnotes # 23, 1994

Ce Rosenow — Portland, Oregon

#27, Winter 1995

As I’m sure is the case with many Americans, I first learned of haiku in elementary school. The few days we spent on the form allowed me to be somewhat familiar with it when I re-encountered haiku in 1989. I was producing a poetry program on KSCU radio in California and recorded two shows with vincent tripi and Jerry Kilbride.

vincent and Jerry were so enthusiastic about haiku and the haiku community that I was immediately intrigued. vincent also gave me a copy of his book, Haiku Pond: A Trace of the Trail and Thoreau, as well as information about the Haiku Society of America and a number of haiku journals. Hearing these wonderful poets read their own work and discuss the haiku form prompted me to learn more about haiku and to begin writing haiku myself.

Esther Bankoff — San Francisco, California

#27, Winter 1995

Adrienne Rich’s admonition that “to enter into the order/disorder of the world is poetic at its root, as surely as it is political at its root” found a home in my heart. As a septuagenarian who began writing poetry two years ago [1993], I found my way to haiku’s juxtaposition of two-image unrhymed poetry on June 23, 1995, at the “Haiku City” reading at Border’s Books, Union Square, in San Francisco. I’m looking forward to life with my beginner’s mind and my political heart.

John Sheirer — Enfield, Connecticut

#28, Spring 1996

When I began graduate school in 1985, I discovered poet Allen Ginsberg’s journals, where I read a dozen or so haiku, few of which followed the syllable pattern I had been taught in junior high. But I didn’t care about syllable counting because these were some of the most inspiring poems I had read to that point, certainly more interesting than anything I had read in my courses. About the same time, I was actively reading small press poetry journals and eventually discovered Modern Haiku, Wind Chimes, Frogpond, the High/Coo mini-books, and many others. I quickly got hooked and read whatever haiku books and magazines I could get my hands on. Some of the poets I discovered then (Alexis Rotella, George Swede, Michael Dudley) remain among my favorites today. I also wrote many hundreds of bad haiku before getting even close to understanding the form.

Later that same year, my first published haiku appeared in Too Much Good Air, an underground magazine published by some undergraduate students who spent their late nights strung out on caffeine and photocopying their magazine at a local 24-hour Kinko’s that offered major discounts between two and four a.m. I scratched this poem into a notebook on a sunny afternoon at the corner of Union and South Court streets in Athens, Ohio, catty-cornered to that same Kinko’s:

summer streetcorner

yuppie women admire

hare krishna’s braid

Two weeks later, the poem appeared (pretty much as filler) in Two Much Good Air. Readers chuckled, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. And the poem has certainly endured in my affections; it recently found a place in Rumblestrips, my new collection of haiku and senryu—a full decade after that day on the streetcorner.

Keiko Imaoka — Tucson, Arizona

#28, Spring 1996

I cannot be sure when I first became aware of haiku and tanka in my childhood in Japan. They seemed to have existed for a long time in the perimeter of my awareness, undifferentiated from proverbs, mottoes, aphorisms, and song lyrics that were phrased in similar forms. Sometime during my grade school years, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (Ogura Collection of One Hundred Tanka, edited by Teika Fujiwara around 1235) became known to me as a New Year’s card game, in which players compete to capture shimonoku cards (100 cards on each of which the last half of a verse is printed, spread out on the floor in front of the players) that finish the verses being read aloud. At abacus school, where we played this game at every new year’s party, my prowess in the game improved dramatically when I was in the sixth grade, after I had memorized all the poems with my tenth-grade sister who was required to do so in her archaic grammar course in school. I had learned to recall each poem by the first few syllables, which enabled me to locate the last parts of the verses quickly.

Although I knew the words to each verse precisely, I had very little idea as to their content at the time. The vocabulary and grammar used in the tanka are so far removed from the modern Japanese language that many of the poems cannot be comprehended without specialized knowledge. In senior high school, we discussed, analyzed, and translated the poems into plain Japanese, just as we did in an English grammar course. Likewise, we labored begrudgingly to translate small portions of The Tale of Genji and the first paragraphs of Basho’s haibun, Narrow Road to the Far North, through the course.

For most of us high school kids and other lay readers, haiku and tanka were poems to be appreciated only by reading the accompanying translations and interpretations. These traditional verses seemed boring, irrelevant, and hopelessly old-fashioned to the kids of my generation who were immersed, however unconsciously, in Western culture. They were simply not the genres I could imagine myself writing in at the time. (Contemporary Japanese tankaists use a combination of the modern vocabulary and archaic grammar. In recent years, the emergence of Machi Tawara and other young tanka poets who write about common concerns of youths has done much to promote tanka among the younger generation. Similarly, the popularity of haiku among young women has surged within the past year with the rise of a young poet named Madoka Mayuzumi to celebrity status. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people who practice haiku and tanka are the elderly.)

Many years later in 1992 and a world away, I happened to pick up a library copy of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology, and was immediately captivated by the brief, unassuming poems that were supposed to be “haiku”—I did wonder what about the poems made them haiku, knowing that the English language lacked the syllable-based rhythm that is the core of Japanese haiku. There was no specialized vocabulary, no archaic grammar to contend with in English haiku; just simple and plain language that even grade-school kids could understand. I started to write English haiku about my desert surroundings and wildlife, and to translate them into Japanese. Since then, I have also come to appreciate traditional as well as modern Japanese haiku and tanka. One of my first published haiku was about the celestial entity I had never seen while living in Japan.

the Milky Way falling

I think of

starless Osaka nights

Haiku Southwest, July/October 1993

and in William J. Higginson’s Haiku World (Kodansha, 1996), page 187 +

Jeff Witkin — Potomac, Maryland

#28, Spring 1996

While looking for books on Wallace Stevens in my local library, I saw the cover of Cor van den Heuvel’s anthology, which reminded me of Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki. I brought it home and was utterly blown away. I was welcomed to the Haiku Society of America in a note attached to my three-line poems rejected from Frogpond in 1993. Not having a clue as to what I was doing wrong, I wrote to Alexis Rotella whose work I had admired in the anthology. In a few words, she reminded me of some basics and turned me on to books and journals. The patience and guidance of Robert Spiess and Michael Dylan Welch were instrumental in the development of my early writing and in my current work. Now, having so many supportive and talented friends and colleagues, I continue with a beginner’s mind. And like many before me, I hold to the sentiment of Santōka that haiku is integral to a joyous life. In November of 1993 I was welcomed as a member of the Haiku Poets of Northern California by Michael Dylan Welch, who, stretching the deadline for submissions by a novice, accepted my first published haiku for Woodnotes #19:

one last leaf

through bare branches

the blackbird

Larry Kimmel — Colrain, Massachusetts

#28, Spring 1996

My first awareness of haiku came from a Japanese friend. I wrote about 20 or so haiku at that time, and saw four published in Dragonfly edited by Lorraine Ellis Harr. Below is one of my first two haiku published in Dragonfly (IV:1, January 1976, page 54):

The winter field;

through thin clouds, the moon

. . . and a dog barking

Twenty years later, while working on the camera-ready copy for Braided Rug (a book of haiku and variations by Carol Purington and sally l. nichols), I came to see, more and more, how the haiku form was the answer to certain poetic needs I’ve had. Although I’ve been much influenced by haiku through the years, writing an ever more concise and imagistic style, I had not realized that it was just the form for those many small but significant events that I have been holding in mind or in notebooks, all these years, waiting for a poem in which to use them. “Why wait?” I thought. “They’re already haiku moments. so why not express them as such?” And so I have, and would like to thank the editors, sponsors of contests, and new friends for their wonderful welcome to the haiku community this past year.

John Stevenson — Nassau, New York

#29, Summer 1996

I’d been writing poetry for over 30 years before encountering my first haiku, but it was my theatre work that provided me with that experience. For five years I’ve been deeply involved in something called Playback Theatre—improvisational performance of true stories drawn from the lives of audience members. Playback seeks to capture the essence of these stories with a few telling details and with the unfolding and opening of moments of experience. The stories can be intense but do not need to be. Playback works very well with “nothing special.”

There are Playback groups all over the world and during the summer of 1992 I attended an international gathering of Playback actors. At one point I was working on an exercise with a woman from Japan. We had some spare time and decided to see if we could find a joke we’d both laugh at. This proved difficult at first but we persisted and finally did find one. The answer was a joke that relied on an “acted out” punch line rather than a verbal one. We went on to talk about language and poetry and she shared her favorite haiku with me.

Another encounter, with a New Zealand writer attending that same Playback gathering, encouraged me to offer my poems for publication. I had good luck with that from the beginning. But, as I scouted Poet’s Market, the poems that caught my attention among the samples were often haiku. As a result, I submitted a batch of “haiku” to Brussels Sprout and received my first ever rejection letter! It was the most gentle and encouraging sort of rejection imaginable and so I tried again.

My first published haiku, from Brussels Sprout, Volume X, Number 1, 1993:

blanket of snow

hides its shadow


Marje A. Dyck — Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

#29, Summer 1996

In 1983, I came across The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J. W. Hackett. This book inspired me to become a part of the community of haiku writers. Being an outdoor enthusiast (my second career choice would have been naturalist), I was delighted with haiku as an expression of the vital moments that occur in nature. I joined Haiku Canada and corresponded with and was encouraged by Rod Willmot and anne mckay. Later, I joined the Haiku Society of America and began to write haiku regularly. In 1986, I went to a writer’s workshop and decided to begin my writing career. I took several pages of haiku and had them critiqued by an established Canadian poet, Lorna Crozier. In 1988, my first submitted haiku was published in the Japan Air Lines contest anthology. Eight years later, the first line of that haiku is the title of a chapbook that will be published this fall [1996] by Proof Press, Aylmer, Quebec (Dorothy Howard, editor). It has been a privilege and a delight to be a part of the “family” of haiku enthusiasts.

Rectangle of light

janitor vacuums silently

in the night

1993 photo

Tom Tico — San Francisco, California

#29, Summer 1996

In 1965, when I was 23, I was reading a book on Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki and came across haiku for the first time. I was struck by the clarity and simplicity of the form. Previously I had never been interested in poetry—thinking it too obscure, too intellectual—but I found this mode of expression very appealing. Shortly after this I purchased four little books published by Peter Pauper Press; they contained numerous translations of classic Japanese haiku. What a delight to discover the four great masters and their talented colleagues!

I remember I was in the front room of the Victorian house I grew up in. I was looking out the window, and I saw two cats back to back in a window across the way; in their pose they looked like mirror images of one another. Somehow I thought of this experience as a haiku and wrote it down. Throughout the next week a number of experiences came to me that I thought of as haiku, and I recorded all of them. I never had any intention of writing haiku; they just started coming to me.

Then I happened upon Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku, a book that thoroughly kindled my enthusiasm. I wrote to him, asking if he would read my haiku and make suggestions. Most cordially he agreed. Subsequently he told me of the magazine, American Haiku, and encouraged me to submit. I sent in eight or ten poems; the following is one of two that were accepted:

a lonely park path.

only my grinding footsteps

and the birds’ silence.

American Haiku, Volume IV, Number 1, 1966

Ronan — Eugene, Oregon

#30, Autumn 1996

In 1979 I was teaching algebra and English in both high school and college as well as writing articles for education journals. All the while I continued to read and write poetry. Looking for more reading material at a library used book sale I ran across copies of Dragonfly that intrigued me. I saw the haiku as not only inherently interesting and challenging but as a form that would force me to concentrate on erasing one of my writing’s weaknesses—verbosity. After getting all the material my city’s library had on haiku, I found myself enjoying efforts to express in haiku special moments of awareness. Lorraine Harr, editor of Dragonfly, generously critiqued my work and accepted some for publication. As my reading and writing of haiku increased, I began to notice why certain haiku were, for me, particularly effective and memorable. As I read various journals I’ve come to feel a kinship with many of the writers whose work I see repeatedly. How generously they share their haiku moments with us! Their writing offers a sort of mysterious, quiet kind of friendship where both writers and readers know that their efforts are appreciated even though they do not know each other in a personally shared time or space. Being an active member of the “haiku community” continues to be an exciting privilege.

scattering his ashes

on the brown hills

wind trembles the grass

Winning haiku of the Oregon State Poetry Association, 1990.

Carlos Colón — Shreveport, Louisiana

#30, Autumn 1996

I wrote my first two haiku in 1974 for an oral interpretation class. Both were 5-7-5, and both had titles. In the first, “Chun King,” haiku was associated with Chinese food; in the second, “Zulu as Kono,” haiku was associated with Hawaii (more specifically, Hawaii Five-O). I was obviously confused!

Throughout my years in writing, I have had most of my success with short poetry (usually humorous rhymed verse), so when I came across a number of haiku publications in the 1990 Poet’s Market, I decided to give them a try. Also, because I had been writing poems in various shapes, I felt I could easily work within the constraints of a haiku. I had previously written a rhymed poem in the shape of a turkey, and the poem even had internal rhyme as well, so I figured I should be able to shape my thoughts into 17 syllables. Well, it wasn’t that easy! I spent weeks on one haiku and never got it right. A few years later, I revised it enough for publication, but I still consider it more abandoned than finished.

A haiku workshop at the Shreveport Writers Club by Marian Poe finally got me traveling on the right footpath. A poem I wrote there was accepted by Robert Spiess, who was gracious enough to correct a dangling modifier for me. Spiess’s rapid response for rejection/acceptance was one of the overriding reasons I continued writing and submitting haiku. When you are used to three or four months for each rejection, a two-week rejection is refreshing . . . well, in a way. The poem as revised by Robert Spiess appeared in Modern Haiku, Volume XXIII, Number 3, Fall 1992:

in sunlight

dandelions glisten

wet with herbicide

Discovering Marlene Mountain’s concrete poetry in Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology was also a significant event. I had been writing concrete poetry for 20 years but had never considered using it in a haiku context. I feel fortunate to have later collaborated with Marlene Mountain, and with Alexis Rotella, and with many more writers whom I greatly admire.

Tom Clausen — Ithaca, New York

#30, Autumn 1996

In 1984 a coworker gave me a copy of R. H. Blyth’s autumn Haiku volume. He felt that some of my poems were like haiku and I would be interested. I remember perusing that gift but it wasn’t until four years later when an Ithaca newspaper did a feature on Ruth Yarrow that my interest began in earnest. The article gave some wonderful examples of Ruth’s haiku and insight into some essential aspects of haiku creation. I quickly began to read everything I could find about haiku and subscribed, one by one, to the haiku periodicals of that time. My first submissions to Wind Chimes were promptly returned with a note suggesting they were not haiku but some other periodicals might be interested. My first published haiku was in Modern Haiku, edited by Bob Spiess, who revised the poem to make it read better. Although not a particularly memorable haiku, I do remember the acceptance of my poem, and that crisp one-dollar bill went a long way to enchant me with the power and depth of haiku. Over the years haiku has become a way of life, knowing, sharing, honing awareness, distilling experience, and finding in the mundane the absolutely sublime.

ducks riding the lake

brushed rough by wind;

pilings rimed with ice

Modern Haiku XX:2, Summer 1989

Laurie W. Stoelting — Mill Valley, California

#30, Autumn 1996

The whole thing seems quite by accident. I signed up for a writing class at our community college—something to do with my wanting to be a travel writer, which is what I told the group at our first session. But the instructor turned out to be a poet. A very good poet. I tried poetry. I was instructed to use concrete images to express abstract ideas. I did not know what this meant, exactly. Also, there were other mysteries. The word haiku was mentioned several times. This was the spring of 1994.

In the fall, classes resumed. I noted a course listing “Haiku as Meditation.” What was haiku? From the class description I sensed that finding out might unlock the mystery of “concrete images” and so help me with my poetry. Besides, a field trip to the Green Gulch Zen Center was included and this enticed me. I took the haiku class from Carolyn Talmadge.

Do you know the rest of the story? I was already amazed how much I liked the process of writing—quiet, completely focused, alone with myself, trance-like. Meditation. Now I was simply stunned to realize that I had been composing haiku—without words—every time I reached the summit of a nearby ridge, hiked the local fire trails, spent time wandering beside the marsh. Carolyn helped me to understand the haiku form, what worked, what didn’t work. With her encouragement I joined the Haiku Poets of Northern California and submitted a poem to Ebba Story, then associate editor of Woodnotes. Ebba accepted this haiku for Winter, 1994 (issue #23):

to a chorus of crickets

the earth

gives up its light

I thought being published was some kind of miracle. But what turned out to be the really stupendous thing was the community I entered when I started writing haiku, when I joined HPNC. A few people I had known haphazardly before. We were now soulmates in our reverence for the natural world. People I had never known encouraged me, especially Ebba, critiquing me tirelessly. Michael Dylan Welch made me believe I could write more than one genuine haiku. vincent tripi introduced me to Modern Haiku and now suddenly I have the gift of patient advice from Robert Spiess. I don’t think this will end.

And yes, haiku did help my (longer) poetry.

George Ralph — Holland, Michigan

#31, Autumn 1997

I had of course heard of haiku, and had the vague and commonly held notion that they were little descriptions of nature written in three lines respectively of five, seven, and five syllables. I think I had tried composing one or two, and found my results fairly silly. Then in 1982 I spent a semester at the University of Hawaii studying the performing arts of Asia, with the goal of developing a survey course in Asian theater to offer at my own institution. I soon found that my major interest was in the classical theater of Japan. A study of the Noh drama in particular led logically to a fascination more broadly with the Japanese poetic tradition. I began to read what I could get hold of on this subject.

When I returned home I began writing at least one haiku a day, as a form of self-discipline, with no idea that anyone actually published haiku in English. I took walks, pad and pen in hand, and worked on concentrating on the experience of the present moment as a means of breaking with the typical Western routine of a frantic-paced living by tomorrow’s schedule. I kept reading as well as writing, and discovered that there were compelling reasons not to insist on the 5-7-5 structure, and that a haiku is more (or less) than mere “description.”

Eventually I came upon Harold Henderson’s books, and learned that there was an American journal, Modern Haiku, devoted to haiku in English. After I tracked down its current address and editor, Bob Spiess, I subsequently came across Lewis Sanders’ The Red Pagoda. I sent my first poems to these two outlets. Then an issue of Haiku Review that Randy and Shirley Brooks used to publish alerted me to other periodicals, and brought the realization that there existed indeed a community of poets engaged in the practice of English-language haiku. One of my earliest haiku to appear in print, the result of a stroll down my own street, was published in Modern Haiku (XVI:2, Summer 1985):

gold-brown in the sun

caterpillar tents swelling

into autumn fruit

Editor’s Note: I am saddened to report that George Ralph died suddenly on May 18, 1997, at the age of 63. This was the last submission I received from him.

William M. Ramsey — Florence, South Carolina

#31, Autumn 1997

As a college student in the mid ’60s, I was introduced to Bashō’s frog splash in a world literature course. I didn’t get it. I retained of that experience only the 5-7-5 syllabic convention then considered de rigueur.

In Paris one summer in the ’60s, I befriended an American art student named Jack, from Madison, Wisconsin, who shared with me his moped and his haiku. He told me there was burgeoning interest in haiku in the Madison area. His moped was great. His very fine haiku I naively perceived as minor poetic “effects,” and as for grasping a haiku moment, or a Zen moment, I just didn’t get it.

In the early ’90s haiku came to my attention again, I forget how. Subscribing to a couple of haiku magazines and scrutinizing Poet’s Market listings, I mailed out some marvelous haiku (that is, the syllables were mechanically exact 5-7-5s). Inexplicably, the rejection slips suggested that, still, I just didn’t get it.

Then Francine Porad of Brussels Sprout advised on a rejection slip not to heed the 5-7-5 “requirement.” Now something remarkably important happened: I actually read haiku instead of looking at their syllable counts. More indeed seemed to be there than slight images in miniature. Gradually it appeared to me that haiku is a sensibility, a disposition in observing life—in preciously slender and very exactly felt moments. Moments, I came to suspect, actually counted, existing as more than building blocks to more significant stretches of work, travail, and achievement. Soon I was checking out library translations of great Japanese haiku masters, coming to perceive in the resonant haiku moment more. And still yet more. Now Bob Spiess of Modern Haiku was amiably commenting on rejection slips. Wow, there seemed to gracious people out there willing to help me get it.

Here’s my first accepted haiku, appearing in Brussels Sprout (XI:2, 1994):

the whiskers tickle

as my fingers grip

the catfish lip

Well, it was a moment if nothing more. Not nearly so resonant a moment as a haiku about listening to an Edith Piaf record, sleepless at two in the morning with coffee and cigarette, written by my Paris acquaintance, Jack. I wish I could remember his last name. I would like to thank him.

Cherie Hunter Day — Portland, Oregon

#31, Autumn 1997

My first encounter with haiku was in my sixth-grade English class in which we read selections from the Norton Poetry Anthology. I can still see the page with a single haiku. I’m pretty sure it was a translation of Bashō’s frog haiku, but what I remember most was the white space that surrounded the weight of those three little lines, like a bird flying freely in a white sky. Beneath the haiku was a footnote of explanation in six-point type that took up one-third to one-half of the page. The footnote describing the meaning of the haiku seemed like a cage. I decided then and there that haiku was the way to say a lot in a few words and to explore the freedom of all that white space on a page.

I began keeping a journal and studying haiku in the early 1970s. Early on I read Harold Henderson’s The Bamboo Broom: An Introduction to Japanese Haiku and the four volumes of R. H. Blyth’s Haiku. I read everything about haiku that I could get my hands on. A turning point for me was when I discovered The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English by Cor van den Heuvel, and William Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. Haiku was alive and well in English!

Only in the past five years have I submitted my work for publication. One of my first published haiku was the following (in Frogpond XVI:1, Spring–Summer 1993):

balanced in the wind

first one foot, then the other

white-throated sparrow

How appropriate that this haiku should reflect my first encounter with the haiku form.

Gary Hotham — Laurel, Maryland

#31, Autumn 1997

I Was a Teenage Haiku Writer, or, God Bless You, Mrs. Maloney, Wherever You Are

My first contact with the haiku came during my sophomore year at Maine’s Presque Isle High School from 1965 to 1966. Our English literature textbook focused on world literature and included a short section on Japanese haiku. I particularly remember a haiku by Kusatao Nakamura on the greening of spring and his child teething. The image and moment stuck and has resonated in my memory for years. I don’t remember now who did the translation for the textbook but here is R. H. Blyth’s version:

Among the myriad leaves of spring

My child has begun

To cut his teeth.

At that time our English teacher, Mrs. Maloney, decided that we would write two haiku for homework that she would read aloud in class the next day without attribution. One haiku was to follow exactly the 5-7-5 syllable count while the other could be less strict in form. One might think this an easy assignment for me but back then writing poetry was not the kind of homework I looked forward to. I don’t recall any specifics about the two I wrote other than they attempted to be humorous. Hopefully the written record of them has vanished into the thin air of such juvenilia. Since then I have written enough bad haiku that have been published and confront me from time to time that I don’t need those two to come back and embarrass me. And that was my introduction to the haiku.

I didn’t start writing haiku then. But, when I began writing poetry on a regular basis during the summer between my sophomore and junior year (1966), haiku was a poetic form I would attempt from time to time with some success (in my own mind anyway). And when I did start sending poems out to magazines my haiku were the ones that got accepted more than any other type. I ran across Eric Amann’s magazine, Haiku, in Toronto, early on in its existence. It was full of his excitement about haiku and I had some poems accepted there. I also submitted to Jean Calkins’ Haiku Highlights and Leroy Kanterman’s Haiku West where I managed to get a few haiku published.

By the end of my freshman year at the University of Maine (1969) I had stopped writing altogether—the frustration level was too high between what I wanted for my poetry and what I was producing. And besides, I had too many other interests. It wasn’t until my senior year (1972) that the urge to write poetry re-asserted itself and the focus of that effort became the haiku. Its brevity, the sharpness of its imagery, and its penetrating focus on a state of being or a moment in time helped me create the poetry I wanted to write. It’s a form that, as James Tipton stated it so well in Cor van den Heuvel’s 1974 edition of The Haiku Anthology, gives me “the possibility of discovering new energy through words put together with precision and emotion.” Since then, writing poetry has been a very regular endeavor and the haiku has been the structure for those poems. So, I thank you, Mrs. Barbara Maloney, for what you brought into my life 30 years ago. God bless you wherever you are.

(Kusatao Nakamura’s haiku from R. H. Blyth’s A History of Haiku, Volume Two, Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, page 218.)

Matthew Louvière — New Orleans, Louisiana

#31, Autumn 1997

During the winter of 1951 I worked in a U.S. Army medical tent, as a technician, processing Korean patients from nearby villages. The interpreter in the tent, based just below the 38th parallel, may very well have introduced me to haiku: “parting / snow / mountain / tent / half-moon / your sad / smile / lingering.” A few hours later I boarded a ship that took me to northern Japan, armed with a letter of introduction to the Sasaki family that owned and operated a Japanese inn in Sapporo. And on New Year’s Day of 1952 I found myself ensconced in a room at this inn with a haiga scroll hanging on the wall. The Sasaki family was very gracious to me over a period of about 15 months. They introduced me to many of the Japanese arts: to koto music, gardening, flower arranging, architecture, the tea ceremony, the art of carpentry, art dealers, linen manufacturers, to Sapporo’s haiku poet—a Mr. Kondo and his family. I felt very much at home in Japan, for I grew up in Louisiana on Avery Island and was associated with its bird sanctuary and jungle gardens, with acres and acres of flora from both China and Japan. I felt especially drawn to haiku, indeed to the voice of ancient Asia, hearing haiku said by various voices—by Mrs. Sasaki, by her daughter Tsuyuko, by Mr. Kondo, and recitations in the tea houses. One of my efforts at haiku from the early 1950s was published in Dion #6 in 1966 (Englewood, California):

hopping out at noon

the shadow of the tea bowl

returns by nightfall

About 30 examples of my early efforts at haiku were published during the 1960s and 1970s in journals such as Janus-SCTH, Haiku Highlights, Firefly (Whitehorse, Canada), Dragonfly, and Modern Haiku (1976). And so it is that I have been enamored by haiku all my adult life. Early in 1986, however, I began a concentration on haiku writing and have been at it ever since.

David Elliott — Factoryville, Pennsylvania

#31, Autumn 1997

My first memory of reading haiku was when I discovered the Peter Pauper Press collections translated by Peter Beilenson, which could be found in their distinctive racks in most bookstores when I was in college. In graduate school, studying contemporary American poetry, I then became interested in Gary Snyder’s work, which expanded my interest in poetry inspired by Asian traditions. When my wife-to-be, who was studying Asian religion and culture, showed me her copy of one of Blyth’s books of haiku translations, my interest in reading haiku intensified, but I didn’t write more than about a dozen of them in five years, and the ones I did write were not particularly good. It wasn’t until about 1979 that I began to take haiku writing seriously and found the addresses of a few journals. My first submissions went to Dragonfly and Lorraine Ellis Harr, whose brief comments were helpful in pointing me in the right direction, but my first publication in that journal was helped along a bit by her editing, so I don’t feel like it really counts. A bit later, Bob Spiess took the one printed below for Modern Haiku (Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer 1980) with no editing, so I consider it my first. What made it significant for me was that it was the first haiku I had written where I was aware of working with the sound of the language—the slant rhyme of “bell” and “hill,” “black” and “thick”; the assonance of “sheep” and “feet,” “thick” and “mist”; the alliteration of “feet” and “face.” Not all of my haiku are as full of such effects, but I have continued to feel best about the ones with the most interesting sounds and rhythms.

Sheep bell on the hill,

black feet and face showing through

thick morning mist