Since the initial purpose of this section is to share my journey toward haiku I will offer a few observations. What is more important, in my own mind, is how someone stays on the journey, since that is the hard part.
My first contact with the haiku form came in high school. A wonderful English teacher gave us an overview of poetry that stuck with me the rest of my life. She covered every form, not just haiku, but encouraged us to write poetry in our own voice. I wrote continuously from that point forward, and I still think of her kindness in reviewing my first efforts and sharing her comments.
When I arrived at Michigan State University, as a Theatre Major in 1964, I went to the Student Bookstore, and at the checkout there was a copy of “Haiku Harvest”, published by Peter Pauper Press. I bought it, and although by today’s standards the translations are less than stunning, they were the best you could get for a buck. It should also be said that some of the haiku included in the book were not haiku at all, but zen koans. Oh well, it got me thinking about and writing haiku.
Sometime in 1965 Alan Watts came to speak at one of the many Kivas at MSU that served as lecture halls by day, and in the evening were the site of other speakers invited by various groups at the university. He was asked by someone about haiku, and he correctly answered that they were not a part of the practice of zen, but that the writing of haiku could be a valid means of expression for students of zen. I should note that Alan Watts wore a black suit, black tie, and write shirt. He also smoked a pipe, and afterwards had a few drinks with some of us. He was about as unconventional a zen buddhist I have ever seen, but his sincere and passionate love for the teachings impressed me. I followed his writings and tapes for the rest of his life. And, besides all admonitions to the contrary, believed that haiku and zen were somehow connected for many years. They are most certainly not connected, I know that now, but when you are eighteen, what the hell, I wasn’t listening to anyone anyway, so Alan Watts be damned.
My haiku were almost universally unpublished nonsense, and I drifted to free verse, but limited myself to nothing more than 22 lines. I have no idea where I came up with that number, but it stuck. As my poems grew shorter and shorter they got published more often. That whole ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ thing seemed to be paying off for me. I kept writing, but marriage, two sons, and the usual ‘stuff’ of life kept me busy and unfocused on haiku again for a couple of decades, and zen was a peripheral philosophical sideline.
Fate then dealt a determining card in the late eighties when I went to work for a Japanese medical firm, and then for a large Japanese Bank. I was suddenly able to talk to real Japanese about their culture and their poetry. As you might guess, they were more than happy to see a blonde haired, blue eyed american who had a real interest in their culture. Two executives at the bank also wrote haiku in Japanese, and were interested in finding out about English haiku. It gave me a chance to hear from them how they viewed both zen and haiku in Japan, and it was an eye opener that both of them wrote haiku, but not well, and studied zen although they did not practice it. They laughed at my initial ideas of Japanese culture, and kindly corrected me along the way. Not to leave out that we drank a lot, that is also a Japanese cultural ‘thing’. I still was not writing very good haiku, but I now had Japanese friends who did not write good haiku either. Strangely it gave me hope.
As my career path took me upwards, I still wanted to write poetry, and somewhere in the 1990’s I decided to just focus on haiku. So, since I now traveled all over the USA and a good chunk of the world, although not to Japan, I looked for books on haiku in english everywhere I went. Bookstores in London seemed filled with them, and strange as it may seem I bought my first copy of “The Haiku Handbook”, by William Higginson and Penny Harter, in a bookstore in London near the British Museum. Quickly, I latched on to Bill Higginson’s books, snapping them up as quickly as I could and reading them over and over, I often tell others that if you don’t have a copy of “Haiku World”, you are missing the best of Bill’s teaching. A copy is never out of my reach even as I type these words.
Once I got going, and developed a sense for what a ‘real’ haiku was, the one thing that kept me going was reading the work of other poets. Today if anyone wants to know about haiku, I tell them to read good haiku, and point them to the places where they can see well written haiku in a variety of styles. It is so important not to get stuck in one corner or the other of the ‘haiku world’, especially on the Internet, and to find both a style and a poetic voice that is uniquely your own. Don’t listen to self styled ‘experts’, even if they are well intentioned poets in their own right. Every great haiku poet in Japan or America has taken a path of their own. Don’t let anyone sell you their path, blaze your own. That said, let me share some of the resources that I have found most useful.
Print Journal Influences
There are only two print journals that are must have, in my opinion, and they are Acorn Journal and Mayfly. Why, you ask? Because they both have just haiku. No opinions, nothing to confuse you, just wonderfully presented haiku. They both are small, so you can carry them in your pocket, and both come out twice a year. These two are the crown jewels of print journals in haiku. Save your money and just focus on these two.
Internet Resource Influences
I would not be writing haiku today without the Internet. The ability to read good haiku in quantity is something only the Internet can give you. Some of my favorite spots include the Haiku Society of America site, and for starters their definitions. Hundreds of books have been written discussing the definition of haiku in English, but before you spend your money start by reading these, and don’t read too much into them. They also have a large collection of haiku, senryu, and haibun from their contests that run every year, and you can find them easily. Check the contest results out and read some of the best haiku written in English in the last few decades. You will see after spending time here that there are more ways to express yourself in this form then you can see anywhere else. I go back once a year and just read, and it is the best learning and inspirational tool you can give yourself, and it is free. Listen to everyone who has anything to say about haiku, BUT find your own voice, and develop your own patterns and ‘rules’ to govern your writing of haiku. No one person, group, or organization owns the definition of haiku, either in English or Japanese, period. Never forget that fact.
Internet Journal Influences
The Internet, Facebook groups, and Twitter are all filled with the work of excellent haiku/senryu poets. You can easily search for them by name. If you see a poet in one of the online journals simply search for them on any of the social media sites and you will find many more examples of their work. Pick your own favorites to read. Learning from example is one of the great teachers for all of us.
Below are some of my favorite online journals:
All the above are open to be read by all, and have extensive archives of past issues. You can find many of the best haiku poets on these sites.
A few of my favorite haiku poets, and this is a very short list since I have many good friends who write fine haiku, are included here: Ron C. Moss, Terri Hale French, Roberta Beary, Alexis Rotella, Sheila Windsor, Marlene Mountain, Paul David Mena, Sondra Byrnes, and Johannes S. H. Bjerg. There are dozens more, but if you google any of those listed above on Twitter or Facebook you will find many other poets interacting with them on other Internet platforms as well who are equally talented. Many of these folks have been, or currently are, editors of respected journals in Japanese based forms of art and poetry. The range here will show you poets who are also artists in other forms as well, and who clearly stand out above the fray in whatever they attempt. That said, I have hundreds of others who influence me every single day. Some are beginners, some are ‘old hands’ at the form, but all of them excite and teach me daily, and for free on the Internet. I am most influenced by poets who brave the web and share their work openly.They are the ones, in my opinion, who will keep the haiku form alive into the future.
What about me?
Well in the last twenty years I have had over 1000 haiku/senryu/haiga/haibun published. Most all have been in online journals, and my work is in dozens of anthologies published in many different languages as well, and that has been humbling. It has also been a lot of fun. I don’t submit much to print journals, and I don’t publish paper books. I just hate the thought of trees being felled for my little words. That said, you will find a lot of my work on the Internet with simple name searches. I have been an editor of several fine online journals, and done what I could to promote the form on the Internet. I truly believe that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are where the genre is heading, and even though I recently began my 70th year on this planet I plan to be in the ‘cloud’ with my poems and fellow poets for some time to come.
Some links to my work, and readings by me can be found at The Living Haiku Anthology. There are many other fine poets also there, and you will be amazed at the wide variety of styles, topics, and forms of haiku embraced by some of the best poets writing haiku in english.
One of my favorite poets is Lew Welch, and when people ask me to explain haiku to them I point to some of the resources I have listed above, and give them this quote from Lew: “Somebody showed it to me and I found it by myself.” Good advice. All the so-called experts in haiku can confuse you, but if you read good haiku, as found in good journals, and as written by good poets, you will find the joy of it for yourself. If anyone says you are just ‘making it up as you go along’, smile and say: YES, yes I am! No sense being a liar. Peace to you...