the cry of the cicada (on haiku, #1)

I got into writing haiku in a sort of odd way. I was enjoying seeing some of my poems getting smaller and more compressed. Being a very fragmented writer, if I could figure out a way of turning a single sharp observation into a small but complete poem, I’d go for it. I hadn’t really read much haiku though, but one night at the bookstore at the old Virgin Music  downtown, I picked up a copy of this book called The Haiku Year. It was a project where a bunch of friends decided to write a haiku every day and mail them to each other. The book complied them all together. One of the writers was Michael Stipe of R.E.M., which helped with the appeal, at the time.

They were lovely little things, that didn’t always followed the rules. One of the “rules” that many people associate with haiku, the 5-7-5 syllable structure, was thrown out the window. I learned later that this rule has been justifiably discarded by most ‘serious’ contemporary English haiku writers, despite it continuing to be taught in schools, and adhered to, generally, by a lot of people when they sit down to write haiku. (More on this, later.)

Anyway, inspired by the book, I started writing a lot of 3-liners that also didn’t bother with the 5-7-5 either (maybe it was too much like math) but concentrated on compression and the ‘surprise’ of a sharp turn. I started sending a few out to some contemporary haiku or short-form journals, one of them being Tundra, edited by Michael Dylan Welch. I don’t have a copy of what he wrote back, but I remember it being  gracious and taught me at least one common mistake people make with haiku:

The plural of haiku is haiku. Not haikus. (I still, perhaps somewhat irritatingly, continue to point this out to people at any chance I get.)

For a while I was obsessed with writing them, very much like a boy with his first camera. Going for walks I would filter everything I saw through that lens. I also found them a lot easier to send out because of their brevity and lack of any personal/emotional mucking around. So I did, and got a handful accepted in some journals. Michael also got me in touch with a local haiku group that helped me a lot with my development.

Here’s one I got accepted in a magazine called Acorn in 2002


power failure –
the kitchen sink
fills with moonlight


I had come here to talk about the rules or guidelines I have learned that make haiku such a beautiful mode of expression, but I’ve already taken a while getting here. I’ll save it for the next post, but in the meantime, I recommend you read this essay Becoming A Haiku Poet by Michael Dylan Welch, and if you want to get into the nitty-gritty about the form, there’s this essay by Keiko Imaoka.

Or an even better idea – for the people reading this in Vancouver, you could come down to the Cross-Border Pollination Reading tomorrow at 5pm at SFU where Michael Dylan Welch will be reading among some other great writers, including Catherine Owen and Jericho Brown. p.s. (Jericho Brown and Michael will also each be doing a workshop the following day at the Joy Kogawa House. More info on that here.)

Happy It-Finally-Feels-Like-Spring Day!


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