Q: What first drew you to haiku?
It was the clarity of them. While buried in the Cantos and The Wasteland as an undergrad in the Creative Writing Program at Knox College, they were a huge breath of fresh air. I was also in the midst of an intense Advanced Poetry Workshop where every word, line break, and image was questioned, poked and prodded which was giving me a bit of a fit. I was getting lost in my own verse. Looking at haiku, specifically the book The Essential Haiku, which is a collection of Basho, Buson, and Issa, the big three of the early Japanese cannon, quite honestly floored me. What these guys were able to do with so few words, and how delicately balanced and effortless they seemed to me left me breathless. They did what I had been trying to do with my art, which was to say what I wanted to say without saying it at all.
Q: What makes haiku different from other very concise literary forms?
There are several things that make haiku different from any other literary form, not just concise ones, such as each poem takes place in the present tense; they don’t preach nor are constructs of ideas or tell you about anything nor are generally part of a larger narrative, but, instead, show you a specific living point in time. This is done with a juxtaposition of two images with a third image or word, the cut, that makes the two images become more than the some of their parts. This can be accomplished in one, two, three or occasionally four lines on the page. The overall moment of the poem generally takes no longer than a human breath to heighten the immediacy of the piece. They are also almost always accessible on the first read through making the most of each word, each line. They also don’t have titles and the poet and the poet’s specific personal experience fades into the background of the piece. The goal being that when the reader reads the poem, the moment captured becomes theirs.
Q: How has your engagement with haiku changed and evolved since you first began writing?
My engagement with haiku continues to evolve. It began with a fascination. I was taken aback by the experience of the poem. Then I got hooked on the craftsmanship that goes into writing haiku, meaning becoming a connoisseur of all of the different tricks and techniques that are used to achieve that great haiku moment. And now I’m at a point where I’ve had some success, have two chapbooks, and am starting to write essays and give talks and interviews about haiku. This helps me to codify what I’ve learned and helps deepen my appreciation for them and hopefully spread the good word about this wonderful little genre. And still I am constantly finding that there is so much more to learn!
Q: How does haiku compare with contemporary experimental literary forms (such as fragmented verse, flash fictions, and collage poems)? Do you see these seemingly different traditions as compatible? How so?
If there is a general comparison to be drawn without getting into specific practitioners, it is the craft of reduction. When you are dealing a tradition that requires brevity, it forces you to pay attention to each word you use and how you use it. Everything matters in short works. And if you fail, the work is completely forgotten. But when you succeed, the work lingers. It’s easy to store in memory.
Q: In your reviews and literary criticism, you often discuss the relationship between the text and its reader. What does haiku make possible for the reader that may not be possible with other literary forms?
The reader is integral to the haiku. There is an old saying in Japan that a haiku isn’t complete until it is read. The reason being is that haiku gives the reader just enough detail to step into a moment and then the reader fills that moment in with their entire life experience. It makes it a really cool conversation, a really cool shared experience between the poet and the reader. And it adds to the timelessness to the work. Haiku are also moments witnessed by a human being. That sounds kind of silly, but it also is a connecting point to the real world. The moments happen. Take, for example, one of the most famous haiku, Basho’s “frog”. I’ll use the William J. Higginson translation:
a frog jumps in
In this haiku, it is required that a human be present to witness the frog, the frog jumping and both the sound of the frogs plop as well as the sound of water. This is what I mean by witness. The poem also gives us sparse descriptions. We know the pond is old. We know that there is a frog. We know that there is a sound. But we aren’t given any specifics about the pond, such as its size, location, or surroundings. We don’t know what time of day it is. We can infer that it’s Spring or Summer as that’s when frogs are jumping about, but it’s not specifically stated. We also don’t know anything about the frog. What kind of frog is it? And what caused it to jump? What did it jump off from? This is where the reader comes in. I can bet that everyone who reads that frog haiku can tell you what the pond looked like, what time of day it was, where the pond was located, and what the frog looked like. We do this because we’ve all seen ponds, seen frogs, and seen frogs jump into ponds. The reader fills in all of these details and thus personally identifies with the haiku, thus personally placing themselves inside the moment, a real moment, and witnesses the event happen. This, to my knowledge, is something unique to this form of poetry. Most other forms would ask the poet to supply more information. They are interested in knowing, seeing specifically what the poet knows and sees. Not so with the haiku. This is a big part of what makes this little form so exciting to write. They give the appearance of being very simple poems but they are incredibly hard to get right.
Q: At a reading you gave at Firecracker Press, you played musical instruments when reading some recent haiku. What role does performance play in your writing process?
Performance has very little to do with my writing process. I have a separate public reading process. Perhaps it is my theatre training, but I believe that when I do a reading, I need to give the audience something special. So I always pre-form my set list and rehearse it ahead of time to make sure that the reading has a nice flow to it and that I stay within my time guidelines for the event. Haiku pose a challenge for a poetry reading. They don’t have titles, are short, and should never require that you give background information before hand. The common convention is that a haiku poet will read the haiku twice before moving on to the next one. This helps ensure that the audience hears and consumes the poem. I do things a little differently. I use chimes between my haiku. My performance includes a greeting, a brief mention that the haiku that I am about to read won’t be 5-7-5 and joke that people should put away their syllable counters, and then I explain the chimes. I begin with three chimes, then do a haiku, ring the chimes, do a haiku, ring the chimes and proceed in kind. After the last haiku, I ring the chimes three times and that concludes the reading. What this accomplishes is a unique experience where the audience can relax into the reading. They understand up front how the performance will work and have an audible queue to cleanse their pallet between poems. It also frames the reading and gives it a natural beginning, middle, and end. And what’s cool about working with haiku is that my work is grounded in the four seasons, which allows me to put together a unique reading that fits the current season.
I also want to note here that I haven’t talked about 5-7-5 until late in this interview. That is on purpose. Haiku is not defined by a 5-7-5 syllable structure. It is not a sonnet which always must be 14 lines. It is a juxtaposition of 2 images with the cut. This can be done in 5-7-5 or not. In all cases, the fewer words/syllables the better, but 5-7-5 is not a requirement.
Q: Which poets are you currently reading? How does your life as a reader inform your poetry?
I am currently reading and rereading journals and anthologies. This is how I consume most of my haiku. Some of the journals that I’m up on are Acorn, A Hundred Gourds, Chrysanthemum, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, The Heron’s Nest, Shamrock and World Haiku Review. Some of the anthologies that I also read annually if not more than once a year are: The Haiku Anthology (3rd Edition), Haiku Moment, Haiku: Poems Ancient and Modern, and Haiku 21. Reading is extremely important to me and my writing process. I always have something to read close at hand whenever I’m writing. I often find that I will begin a writing session by reading as it helps me quiet the mind and get into the haiku zone. It also helps me to see the tricks and tools that people are using from the past as well as present, which makes the anticipation of each new issue so thrilling for me.
Q: What are you working on now? What do readers have to look forward to?
I am excited to have my first two haiku chapbooks available, Wasp Shadows (Folded Word) and Blowing on a Hot Soup Spoon (poor metaphor design), and am having fun doing readings and interviews showcasing these. They both came out this year, 2014, and they are receiving all the love and attention that first books get. This Fall, though, I will begin reviewing my work for my first full length collection of haiku which I would like to have out in 2016, the year I turn 40. In the mean time, I am a regular contributor to a number of different haiku journals around the world and am constantly sending new work out. People can check up on me as well as find ways to contact me if they have any questions about haiku or are interested in my books or having me do readings, workshops, or talks at my website, www.benmoellergaa.com.
About the interviewer:
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of eighteen books, which include VOW, PETRARCHAN, and SCORCHED ALTAR: SELECTED POEMS AND STORIES, 2007-2014, which is forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books.