February Is National Haiku Writing Month
For many Arizonans, February is often occupied by two primary questions.
“How are the ski slopes in Flagstaff?”
And this year: “How do I make Valentine’s Day special, amid a pandemic?”
But haiku enthusiasts in Arizona and across the world this month are thinking about syllables during the annual NaHaiWriMo — National Haiku Writing Month.
According to Michael Dylan Welch, “The weight and the length of what you’re writing in 17 syllables in English is too long compared to the meaning and the content of the Japanese haiku. It’s not easier. It’s actually a harder challenge to write a shorter poem than 17 syllables. Some people say they like the challenge of counting the syllables, but it’s the most trivial of haiku’s challenges.”
He’s a technical writer by trade who hails from Washington. Every February for the last 11 years, he’s engaged haiku poets around the world on social media with NaHaiWriMo and chose this month because it’s the shortest, just as haiku is the shortest for of poetry.
Welch said from a traditional Japanese perspective haiku implements some pointed techniques, “and that includes the use of a season word, called a kigo (季語) and something called a kireji (切れ字) or cutting word. It’s sort of like a spoken punctuation. It divides the poem into two parts and in English, you want to try to have two parts like that in most of your haiku.”
He issues a series of daily prompts on his Facebook page and haiku poets are free to post their poems. This year, he’s channeling music. “An example is ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.’ Lucy…Maybe you’d think of the Neanderthal creature, or sky. You could write about sky, or diamonds.”
Valley writer D. Ellsworth Hoag, who has many books of poetry inluding two devoted to haiku, said the form sharpens you up for other things you write. “You have to be cognizant of how words sound. Some words sound harsh. Some words sound mellow and some words sound, what shall we say, almost melodramatic.”
Depending on which haiku poet you ask, you’re bound to hear differing philosophies on technique such as whether the poem should instill contemplation in a reader or must feature an element of nature.
Hoag said, “I’ve written haiku that are sort of social statements. One was the picture of a mother in her rocking chair, knitting. That is a very homey type thing but it hopefully brings forth a very strong image of love and warmth and other things along that line.”
For 35 years, author Natalie Goldberg’s best-selling book “Writing Down the Bones” has been the go-to guide for budding writers. Her advice to turn off your internal censor to just get words on a page in a first draft and the link between deep listening and craft are techniques borne out of her own experience.
And for haiku, she said humor can be a central characteristic, even though the form often is esteemed as extremely serious. “I wrote about this that I contemplated, ‘frog jumps in old pond...plop.’ I didn’t get that for years. That’s the most famous of Basho’s haiku and people have made fun of it. ‘Old poet jumps in...frog jumps out,’” she laughed.
Goldberg resides in Santa Fe and has a new book called “Three Simple Lines,” which is the typical layout for a haiku. Her work is about the art and history of haiku writing and she’ll be discussing it via a virtual event with Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix on Feb. 9.
She said, “In Japan, every syllable has a lot of weight and carries a lot. They don’t have ‘of, the, an.’ But, if we count those syllables in English we won’t have a lot of space to express much.”
Goldberg credits her studying with the late legendary poet Allen Ginsberg convinced her haiku should be ultimately focused on the experience and sensation of space, so that the mind leaps.
You can hear more from those featured in this story on Tom’s podcast “Word.” It’s about the literary arts in Arizona and the region.
If you’re a haiku poet, please enter KJZZ’s 3rd Annual Haiku writing contest.