Michael Dylan Welch is the vice president of the Haiku Society of America and the creator of NaHaiWriMo. In this interview, he talks about his personal history with haiku (and other related forms) and offers advice on how to fine-tune your haiku writing skills.
NOTE: I plan to incorporate many of Michael’s points into haikuHoopla.com’s description of haiku.
1. Please share a haiku you have written.
a seashell held
to my baby’s ear
2. Why did you pick this one?
It’s one of several of my haiku that have won contests, this one winning grand prize in the Basho 360th Anniversary Contest sponsored in 2004 by Mie Times in Japan. This haiku is one of my favorites, but other poems of mine have been anthologized or quoted more often than this, so I chose this one so that it might have fresh readers. I hope readers can feel the moment here, even if they’ve not had kids. I wrote the poem for my first child, when he was a baby, and I hope it conveys my appreciation for nature and my sharing of that appreciation with my son. And perhaps it conveys a sense of wonder, too. I also like the shell/held and star/ear sounds, which of course ties in nicely with the fact that this poem is about sound. And yet the juxtaposed first line is visual, and points to a time of day, dusk, when the first star appears—and this reference might be interpreted to suggest that my son is the “first star” in my life. In Haiku World, William J. Higginson indicates that “seashell” is a spring kigo or season word, too, which emphasizes the idea of “first” and beginning. I hope readers can enter the moment of experience with the poem, which is really the point. Haiku are not intellectualizations or judgments, but refined and restrained brushstrokes that deliberately leaves something out so that it can be implied or suggested, including one’s emotional response.
3. How many have you written? How often do you write? What inspires you?
I’ve written many thousands of haiku and senryu, probably more than 10,000. At the National Haiku Writing Month (NaHaiWriMo) page on Facebook, and at NaHaiWriMo.com, I encourage others to write every day (the Facebook page has become a year-round phenomenon where a daily writing prompt inspires more than a thousand people to write haiku). However, I don’t write every day myself. Several times in the past I’ve done that for as long as one or two years straight, but now just let the poems come when they will. That, fortunately, is often, in spurts, and I usually write at least 500 to 600 haiku each year. It’s a matter of paying attention, first of all, and then translating one’s experiences and contexts into words, while aiming at the common and recommended targets for haiku in English, including a seasonal reference (kigo), a two-part juxtapositional structure (equivalent to a kireji, or cutting word), and primarily objective sensory imagery. And no, 5-7-5 isn’t one of the necessary targets in English, despite how widely most of us were taught. In Japan they count sounds, not strictly syllables, and their words have more syllables per word than ours do in English, so they use up their seventeen sounds much faster (with fewer words) than we would in English. As I say in my haiku workshops, 100 yen does not equal 100 dollars. Likewise, the sounds counted in Japanese haiku do not equal syllables. The word “haiku” itself is an example. We count it as two syllables, but it counts as three sounds in Japanese. For more information about the myth of 5-7-5, please visit “Why ‘No 5-7-5′”. I also recommend the Essays page on my graceguts.com website, at Essays, especially “Becoming a Haiku Poet.” Other vital reading on the subject is available at Further Reading. At any rate, what inspires me to write haiku is usually personal experience, moments of heightened awareness felt through my five senses. I try to show, not tell, what happened, yet not all of what happened. By avoiding judgment or analysis, I try to leave something for the reader to feel or figure out or understand. And without this vacuum of what is left out, there is nothing to suck the reader in.
4. Why do your write haiku? How did you get started?
I first learned of haiku in a high school English class, way back in 1976, and have written them ever since. Like nearly everyone, at least in North America and the West, I was mistaught, but I immediately gravitated to this short genre of poetry and eventually learned much more about it than the superficialities of merely counting syllables—which is perhaps the least important factor of haiku, even in Japanese. Around 1987, I started buying books of haiku, translated from Japanese or written in English, as well as books about haiku (I now have at least 4,000 haiku books and journals). It gradually became clear that I had deep misunderstandings of haiku, and I went through a process that I’ve seen essentially 99.9 percent of all the most established haiku writers in English go through—a transition beyond 5-7-5, to write with organic form, without counting syllables, to value content ahead of form. When I first read the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (Fireside, 1986), I was confronted with nearly 90 percent of the poems not being 5-7-5 (and those that were 5-7-5 tended to be among the older poems in the book). The editor explains why, of course, but it took a few years and more study—and much writing practice—for the reasons to sink in. Roland Barthes once said that “haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.” The point is that the apparent artlessness of genuine haiku is not easy at all. I write haiku because it’s a way of deepening my connection to the world—and people—around me. And then sharing these poems deepens these connections even further.
5. Do you work with other forms related to haiku, like renga, senryu, haiga, tanka, etc.?
Yes, all of them. In 2000 I founded the Tanka Society of America, and served as its president for five years (I’m currently vice president of the Haiku Society of America, which started in 1968). I’ve written many renku (the modern term for renga), tanka, and senryu. In 1993, my press, Press Here, published what I believe to be the first anthology of senryu, titled Fig Newtons: Senryu to Go. And I also do traditional haiga a little, but mostly what’s called shahai, or photographic haiga, typesetting poems onto my digital photographs. You can see examples of my photography through the Photographs page on my website, and also in the November 2012 haiku ebook I published, With Cherries on Top.
6. What advice would you give to aspiring haiku writers?
Seriously think about the presumptions you have about haiku, especially the notion of 5-7-5 (in English). Stop assuming it’s correct. Look at all the leading haiku journals and anthologies of English-language haiku, where you’ll see that 95 to 98 percent of the poems are not 5-7-5. Then strive to understand why—and internalize that. With practice, hitting the more important targets for haiku can become ingrained (that’s what I feel Basho meant when he said “learn the rules and then forget them”). I also have a simple Haiku Checklist and recommend all of the content on the Essays and Further Reading pages of my website, as already mentioned. But more important than that is to write haiku as much as you can. Share it with others who have more experience. After you’ve written a thousand of them (at least), then perhaps try submitting some of them to the leading haiku journals, such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, The Heron’s Nest, Acorn, Bottle Rockets, Haiku Canada Review, Blithe Spirit, Presence, among others. Join the Haiku Society of America or other similar organizations elsewhere. Try to find a dedicated haiku group to join in your area, or start one. And be patient with your poetry. Write to share with others, but don’t do all the work for them—leave enough out so that a feeling and meaning can be implied.
7. Where can people read your haikus?
By the way, the word “haiku” is both singular and plural, so it’s not necessary to say “haikus.” And haiku never have titles, either, and usually avoid rhyme. And that’s just the start of it! Who would have thought that something as brief as haiku should have so many targets and guidelines! It’s natural for folks new to haiku to focus on all these rules and targets, but eventually one settles into a constant sense of wonder and appreciation for the entire world, where the poems come more freely. And at some point perhaps it’s no longer even necessary to write haiku at all, but just to be one with life. Yet I can’t resist.
[Editorial note: future versions of this Q&A will use the word haiku instead of haikus]
Let me share another spring haiku:
scent of wisteria—
she finishes translating
the birth certificate
I recall the memorable scene in the movie American Beauty where one of the characters videotapes a white plastic bag. It blows for several minutes in random ways against a red brick wall. As the character says in the movie, “That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.” He goes on to say, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” That, to me, is the joy of haiku. No wonder so many of us can’t resist.