Interview with Michael Dylan Welch

How long have you been writing haiku, and how did you get into it?

I wrote mostly short poetry as a kid, and learned of haiku in a 10th grade English class, in 1976. I’ve been writing haiku regularly since then, but for the first dozen years all I knew was to count syllables, and my haiku were very poor as a result. But in 1987 and 1988 I started buying books of haiku translations, and books about haiku in English, which radically changed my understanding of haiku. Instead of painting by numbers I was painting by experience, and I shifted my attention from form to content, which made reams of difference.

What was the first haiku you ever had published and, looking at it now, what, if any, edits would you make?

Other than in college publications, my first properly published haiku appeared in Modern Haiku XIX:3 in the autumn of 1988. I was 26 years old, and I received an uncirculated $1.00 bill for my efforts:

my window opens

  a hundred frogs

       sing to the moon

I’ve written about this poem in a short essay, “Opening the Haiku Window,” on my Graceguts site. See https://www.graceguts.com/digressions/opening-the-haiku-window. My original submission to Robert Spiess had “one hundred frogs” as the middle line, and he suggested saying just “a hundred frogs” to keep my originally specific number from suggesting I’d somehow counted them all. It was easy to agree with this suggestion. I don’t think I’d change anything else about the poem, even after 35 years.

What advice would you give to someone just starting their haiku journey?

I and others have repeatedly said to read a lot of haiku, and to write as much as you can, because both tasks will help you improve your craft. Harold G. Henderson referred to the “twin arts” of both reading and writing haiku—learning how to read them is just as important as learning how to write them. Careful reading cultivates a sensitivity to seasonal reference, objectivity versus subjectivity, the five senses, and especially the effects of two carefully juxtaposed images. But let me also say this: Although reading and writing a lot of haiku will help, if that feels forced, and you don’t have the natural passion to do this, then be sure to listen to your heart and read and write as much as what works for you. I’m thinking of my haiku friend Jerry Kilbride, who passed away nearly 20 years ago. He didn’t write many haiku, and published even fewer, but I think his “hit rating” was higher because each poem arose from a solid process that he was comfortable with. Another piece of advice, speaking of listening to your heart, is that it’s not enough just to notice things around you but to notice how you feel in reaction to those experiences. The next step, as I repeatedly say in my workshops, is to not write about your feelings. Instead, write about what caused your feelings, so readers can have an emotional reaction similar to yours. Or as Louise Glück said, a good poem should summon feeling (or idea), not impose it. That’s the secret to haiku, I think, along with a mastery of juxtaposition. Haiku takes patience, vulnerability, empathy, and practice.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

I’m probably most proud of my Graceguts.com website, through which I’ve documented my haiku and writing life since 2009 (plus much material from before then, the earliest of which probably dates to about 1988). It’s a labour of love, and I know from repeated comments that the content I’ve shared there has benefited others. In fact, years ago I received repeated questions about haiku, and instead of sending them an essay of mine, which was time-consuming, I thought it would be better if I just presented all of this content on a new website. And so Graceguts was born, taking its name from an E. E. Cummings poem (see https://www.graceguts.com/why-graceguts). Beyond that, a highlight achievement for me was giving the keynote address for the Haiku International Association annual convention in Tokyo in November of 2013. You can read my presentation, “Haiku Neighbours: North American Haiku Today,” at https://www.graceguts.com/essays/haiku-neighbours-north-american-haiku-today (photos of the event there too). I am especially grateful to Emiko Miyashita for helping to make my participation possible, and for translating a set of my haiku into Japanese, which I shared in a trifold with everyone at the event. You can read these poems, among my very best of the preceding 15 years, on my website at https://www.graceguts.com/haiku-and-senryu/first-snow. An event such as this is very public and on stage, much like organizing events such as the Seabeck Haiku Getaway or the Haiku North America conference, which energize me, but I also greatly enjoy helping people on their haiku path more quietly, off stage, such as when sending a letter to someone who asks a question about haiku or, say, how to make a haiku trifold or start and maintain a new haiku group. Such personal interactions are always highly satisfying, a sharing of passion.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I spend a lot of time on my website of course, but I’m also active in a racquetball league, playing at the open/elite level (the highest level below professional), and occasional tournaments. I used to have a national ranking, and would like to regain that, but I think I’d have to play tournaments more often. I also greatly enjoy photography, travel, hiking, reading, and (especially since the pandemic started) movies. I have about 14,000 books, all catalogued, and I always have a few books going by my bedside. I’m also passionate about music, especially guitar solos, and a huge new section I’d like to add to my website would be about favourite music. I used to be a radio DJ, and usually once or twice a month people tell me I have a strong radio voice, even though I say “um” too often. In addition to these distractions, I’m also president of the Redmond Association of Spokenword, and have also curated their monthly readings (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, etc.) since 2008. Also, since 2006, I’ve curated the monthly SoulFood Poetry Night readings. These two activities reflect my passion for longer poetry in addition to haiku, but I’m also founder and president of the Tanka Society of America, which of course is closer to haiku. I served two terms as poet laureate of Redmond, Washington (near where I live in Sammamish, a suburb of Seattle), and I recently helped to start the Western Washington Poets Network, for which I run the website. I also run websites for Haiku Northwest, the American Haiku Archives (with help from Randy Brooks), and NaHaiWriMo (which stands for National Haiku Writing Month, which I started in 2010). NaHaiWriMo is held every February (the shortest month for the shortest genre of poetry), where the goal is to write at least one haiku a day for each day of the month. Good thing I picked the shortest month of the year, to make that easier to accomplish, eh? I also run an occasional blog, called “Déjà-ku Diary,” discussing haiku that bring to mind other poems, whether in good ways or not so good. I need to post to this blog more often! But wait, there’s more. I also run the Rengay.com website, where I’ve documented many hundreds of collaborative rengay I’ve written, along with all the essays I know of on rengay (by me and by others). And with my press, Press Here (see https://www.graceguts.com/press-here), I also regularly publish a few haiku books, and want to ramp that up in the years ahead (first started in 1989). People wonder if I ever sleep, but yes, I do sometimes manage it.

Other than Japanese short form and the highly educational essays on Graceguts, do you do any other form of writing?

I write longer poems, too. and have been working my way through a poetry prompt book that provides a prompt for every day of the year. I’m nearly finished (though it’s taken me more than a year!), and when that’s done, I want to give attention to reviewing and revising all those poems. Actually it’ll be closer to 400 than 365 when I’m done, because I’ve written more than one poem for some prompts. And then I’d like to start submitted selections of these poems to journals. I’ve always done that, for year, publishing longer poems as well as haiku, but this will be a fresh and rather large wave of new material to send out into the world. For my day job, too, I’ve also contributed to various computer games, such as working on the scripts for Xbox games (each as long as a novel). I’ve also written two novels (one of which will remain hidden), a memoir about Jerry Kilbride, and have several other manuscripts in the works, some of which are about haiku.

Is there a project you’re currently working on?

Just one? I need to finish an essay about Canadian haiku poet anne mckay, a republication of Eric Amann’s The Wordless Poem (with an extensive introduction I’ve written), a new edition of Tidepools (an anthology of haiku from Gabriola Island), several new Press Here books, other essays on Mary Oliver, Richard Wright, Mark Doty, E. E. Cummings, Yone Noguchi, Lorca, and more (most of these are finished but still need to be pushed out the door). And I’m not even thinking about lots of other projects. For example, I have a database of thousands of quotations relating to haiku poetry. I’d love to organize them into themed chapters to publish as a book. Essays in the works, too, on William Stafford, Natalie Goldberg, Japanese aesthetics, and a book of Buson translations. Each project moves ahead slowly. I’d love to do books of my rengay, sequences, tanka, and a collection or three of my own haiku. I need to sleep less.

What is currently your favourite short form?

A small hint: It starts with H.

Haiku has so many subtle layers to it. What, in your opinion, would be the essential element in writing a good haiku?

The unspoken relationship of the poem’s two parts. Even after writing haiku since 1976, this is still the hardest thing to get right in haiku. A lot of people are motivated to write freshly, and I suppose we should all guard against tired images and tired phrasings, but I’m more motivated to write authentically, by which I mean to let my own heart speak (I don’t believe writing “authentically” means to limit yourself only to what actually happened). Expressing one’s heart through an effective juxtaposition will always be hard, and for that I’m grateful, because if it were too easy, I might have already stopped writing haiku.

Is there a particular translation of Bashō’s work you would recommend above the others?

Not sure that I’d pick just one. I think it’s best to read multiple translations, because I think you get at the poem by a kind of gestalt of many translations, and by learning the contexts and aesthetics. Some are very spare, like Lucien Stryk’s (one of his Bashō translations was the first haiku book I ever bought), whereas others are rather long (Sam Hamill and W. S. Merwin). The idea is probably somewhere in the middle, which is what I think makes Makoto Ueda and William J. Higginson more favourite among translators. Robert Hass didn’t work from the original Japanese, but his versions are very poetic, and I’d perhaps recommend his The Essential Haiku as a place to start.

Do you have any other book recommendations?

I have a web page for haiku book recommendations. Please see https://www.graceguts.com/essays/recommended-books-on-haiku. Beyond these books, almost any book of haiku is worthy of your attention—to read through slowly to see why each individual poem works for you, or perhaps doesn’t. You can learn from bad books as well as good ones. But that aside, how about this as a book recommendation: the next book that you are going to write!

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