Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2003

An Interview Email to Alyson Ludek
Michael Dylan Welch's Haiku

Dear Alyson,

In response to your query of April 25, here are some answers to your questions, as well as some miscellaneous comments. My apologies for not responding sooner, and I hope that these comments are still helpful to you.

You mention that Marlene Mountain was a great source of inspiration to me. That was true for me around 1987 or so, when I first began to realize that haiku is not a quantitative verse (counting syllables) but a qualitative verse. Concrete poems by her and others in Cor van den Heuvel's The Haiku Anthology (second edition) flew so directly in the face of the "5-7-5" concept of haiku that it made me confront my perception of the genre and rethink it. Indeed, most of the poem's in Cor's anthology made me confront my misperception, as something like 85 percent or more of the poems in that edition were not 5-7-5. So Marlene's work was a catalyst for rethinking my understanding to form, though I can't say her work was any overarching inspiration that I wanted to emulate directly.

Where do I get my inspiration for haiku? I believe it can come from many places, and does not have to be as narrowly inspired as some people think -- that is, primarily or only from direct interaction with nature. I believe haiku can be properly inspired by vivid memories (no matter how old), by other poems, by television, by conversations, and a host of other things in addition to personal experience. Haiku is, above all, a poem, and a primary purpose of poetry is to convey something to the audience. The reader should be able to experience and feel and think about the poem based entirely on the poem itself (or occasionally on its context). Ultimately, the reader can't really know or prove whether the experience "really" happened or not, so a different way to judge the poem has to come into play. That method is one of assessing the poem's authenticity -- does it come across to the reader as believable. This assessment has nothing to do with whether the experience depicted in the poem really happened or not (that's a question of process), but whether the experience seems as though it could have happened, or resonates with the reader's own experience (which is a matter of product). I believe in the value of the product ahead of the process of writing, because valuing the finished product will lead the poet towards making literary decisions (in crafting a poem) rather than towards making decisions to preserve whatever the original experience was (which may compromise the poetic value of the finished product).

So what inspires me? Experience and memory, definitely. Reading other poetry or fiction or articles with stimulating ideas (even if they have nothing to do with haiku) can also get me going. An image or a memory or *something* may lodge in my consciousness. It may be something beautiful, or something stark or ugly. Or it may be something simply intriguing. But it does not begin to become a poem until I frame the image in words -- starting with a single phrase. That may be all that comes to me. A rusted wheelbarrow. The pull of someone's hand. Watching a meteor fall. I let the phrase swim around for a while, and look out the corner of my eye (at right-angles to what's in front of me, literally and figuratively) to see what else is happening, so that I might find a suitable juxtaposition or context (my haiku frequently have a background/foreground structure, or a context/focus structure, not necessarily in that order). And soon (though not always), something will resonate with the primary image I began with, and the poem's two parts will begin to formulate. I also don't like to discount the value of selective randomness, because sometimes picking something that seems unrelated to juxtapose with a primary image may not be all that unrelated after all -- the subconscious gravitates towards certain juxtapositions for a reason, and the conscious mind might not always realize why at first. So poems happen, and I let them work themselves out. I usually carry a notebook with me, but I usually work out a poem in my head extensively before I write anything down -- and often I make very few revisions to the poem at the time I originally write it down. But then I let the poems alone for many months, sometimes more than a year. Eventually I'll go through my notebook and fish through it for poems to consider publishing. At this time, with fresh eyes, I may revise some poems, though there are definitely many that I feel I don't need to change at all. Because of this process, and partly because I write a lot of haiku, most of the poems I publish are usually one to five years old before I send them out for publication. I hope that readers who happen across them will find something in them that resonates for them, as that is the ultimate reward and motivation for me in writing haiku. And in reading haiku, too, the reward is finding an experience and image, carefully implied, that resonates with one's own experience and perception. Thus haiku is ultimately an act of sharing and commiseration.

You also ask if I have a favorite subject to write about. My first reaction is to say no, that anything will do, whether light or dark. To me the subject has to click, to resonate with me somehow, and then I trust myself to write about it, believing that it will resonate with others. Otherwise, I imagine one would be too paralyzed to write. Haiku need not be all sweetness and light, at least not all the time. Likewise, haiku had best not be dark all the time, either. Robert Bly talks about the dark side of human existence, the shadow side. Perhaps we need more of that in our Western haiku, even in a poem that presents something beautiful. Shiki's cheerful poems are somehow tinged with the urgency of knowing he would die young. Beyond this, though, Cor van den Heuvel has written in The Haiku Anthology (third edition, which has twenty of my poems) that much of my work is "domestic," and I think he's right. I do write about people and home and relationships frequently, though this isn't conscious. I write fewer "pure nature" poems, I suppose, though now that I'm aware that I tend to write mostly domestic poems, I've tried to also explore "pure nature" haiku more than I have before. Other people are better at writing the pure nature poem than I am, though, but sometimes they leave me cold because of their impersonal-ness.

To me a haiku perception, even of a purely natural image, also presumes a human observer. This fact cannot be escaped. Even the objective depiction of a natural occurrence has the poet choosing to write about the image, and the reader who interprets it. A tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear still makes a sound, yet what is the value of that sound without someone to hear it? Thus the relationships of people to images, even images in nature, are important. They are important to me as a reader and a writer of haiku. So your comments about my poem, "toll booth lit for Christmas-- / from my hand to hers / warm change," the human element is important. In this poem nature is nearly absent (present only in the temperature, an implied cold at Christmastime). I think both nature and human nature can be important in haiku, and there's no need to exclude one or the other, yet, at least for me, the relationship of humans to nature amplifies the value of nature. I also like to remember, of course, that humans *are* natural. Birds build nests. Humans build houses. Why is one less or more "natural" than the other?

You asked about Zen and haiku. I recently heard Sam Hamill respond to a comment about his poetry. Someone had said that she really liked his Zen poems. He replied, "Which ones are not Zen poems?" I think that's the way it is with haiku, too. Everything is Zen. Yet unfortunately haiku has been over-zenned in North America because of the influence of the Beat poets, translators such as R. H. Blyth, and commentators such as Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, and Eric Amann, and because of the lure of the exotic and the tendency of Americans to pigeonhole foreign imports into neat boxes that enable them to apprehend what might otherwise seem too foreign. Haiku isn't Zen. The vast majority of haiku poets in Japan are puzzled by the American association of haiku with Zen. Yet haiku is Zen, too, for everything is, isn't it? I don't believe haiku should be presented or taught as a "Zen art," though of course there are overlaps with Zen precepts and the haiku aesthetic.

My own approach to haiku, after initial exposure to it in high school, and writing many haiku amid the other poetry I wrote for years afterwards, was that my understanding began to solidify through my reading of many books on Zen and Taoism as a young adult. In a sense, I came to a greater understanding of haiku through Zen. Eric Amann's The Wordless Poem deepened that understanding. Amann has since renounced that book, and says that he overdid the Zen association with haiku, but still it is an informative book on matters of haiku aesthetics. Amann was right about haiku aesthetics, pretty much, but less right about casting those aesthetics in Zen terms. And for me, too, haiku both is and isn't Zen. The suchness is what the haiku poet is after. That's what matters. Whether it's "Zen" or not is a separate question.

You also asked about form in haiku. Traditional haiku in Japan is chiefly a quantitative verse form (fitting a set number of syllables), but in English, a set number of syllables such as 5-7-5 (or other variations of syllable and beat count that have been explored) has no intrinsic real value or aesthetic effect in English. Thus I pay no attention to a set syllable count when writing haiku, though I do tend to write most of my haiku in three lines (though I do sometimes vary the indentations, punctuation, and other structural elements within the poem). I approach haiku using principles of "organic form," a topic that Denise Levertov has written about, based on ideas of "inscape" and "instress" from Gerard Manley Hopkins and other poet-theorists. Rather than let the haiku be truly "free form," which could be anarchic, I seek the "right" form that best fits the internal structure of what needs to be said, revising the poem until the "form" seems so natural and unobtrusive as to be invisible. The crutch of an external syllable count can easily make the reader aware of the scaffolding. Why not remove the scaffolding and let the structure itself shine?

As for emotion versus objectivity, that's a crucial question for haiku. I believe haiku is a deeply subjective sort of poetry. However, it uses *objective* means to produce such subjective results. A haiku should not be about one's feelings, but about what *caused* those feelings. This way, if the poem is about the causes of feelings (the things we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch), then the reader is free to interpret those experiences in the same way (or hopefully similar way) that the poet originally experienced them. Then both reader can experience the same emotional reaction to the cause of emotional (or intellectual) reaction that the poet felt. If the emotion or other response is spelled out in the poem itself, then it closes the poem, in direct opposition to the "opening" nature of haiku. Haiku should engage, and subjectivity stated overtly in a haiku tends to detach rather than engage the reader. I believe it's important for haiku poets, following the lead of scientists, to know the difference between inference and observation. We can observe a dog's leg twitching while it sleeps in front of a fireplace. We may infer that the dog is dreaming, and maybe even of chasing a rabbit, and though we can never know for certain, we may well be correct. However, haiku is the realm of observation, not inference, and frequently a beginning haiku fails because of not limiting itself to observation so that the "reader" may make inferences just as the poet did.

Yes, I believe haiku and photography have a lot in common. Both arts rely on objective means to capture a moment, though of course there is a level of subjectivity even in its objective means. That subjectivity amounts to the choice of pointing the camera at a mountain rather than a valley, or for the haiku to write about a dog's toenails rather than the shape of a cat's tail. We choose what to photograph or write about, and that act is subjective, framing the photo or poem as we wish. But then, beyond that, the poet and photographer rely primarily on objectivity in capturing the moment. The results are different, though, as photography becomes art through the effective application of compositional rules, though technical mastery of equipment and film, and through a knowledgeable relationship between the photographer and subject (whether a landscape or a wolf). Haiku becomes art by the application of refined haiku aesthetics and the mastery of language craft. Haiku, too, like photography, can be improved through a knowledgeable relationship between the photographer and subject. This is what Basho meant when he said to learn of the pine from the pine, to "interpenetrate" with the subject so you truly understand it and capture it at its height of suchness.

Photography and haiku have other similarities. One can manipulate both the photograph (especially digitally) and the haiku, creating an image or poem that is entirely pleasing yet perhaps not true to the experience or location. If one's goal is to create art, then such manipulation, in both haiku and photography, may be acceptable to some people. If one's goal is more "journalistic," then you might choose to avoid such manipulation. However, if one's goal is create something that comes across to the reader or viewer as *authentic* (where the finished poem or photograph -- the product -- is more important than the process of how it was produced), then one has artistic goals that separate the art from mere reporting or awareness practice. I see haiku as literary, not simply journalistic, though of course its power for authenticity, as with photography, relies on some degree of journalistic accuracy.

Though I am interested in photography, I would hasten to add that there are limits to the similarities between haiku and photography, and that one need not have an appreciation for understanding of one or the other to appreciate either art. One further similarity, though, is that in both arts one can train oneself to "see" differently, to notice things that could be captured photographically or in a haiku. Years ago, I had a camera that was stolen from my car, and for about a year I had no camera. When I got one again, I noticed that I had to retrain myself to "see" photographically, to frame images in my mind first before getting into position with the camera. I believe the same is true of haiku, in that you can train yourself to be sensitive to the images and experiences, and ultimately words and phrases, that become haiku.

In my online haiku and photography collection, "Open Window," I started by compiling a number of my favorite haiku and photographs, and then tried to pair them together in ways that weren't too overtly obvious (in most cases). I tried to create a "glancing" or sideways relationship between each poem and photograph, much the same way a renku verse links in a glancing way to the preceding verse. In a few cases I sought out photographs (ones I'd already taken) to match poems I wanted to use, and I also sought out poems I'd written to fit photographs I wanted to use. No poem was written for any photograph, and I shot no photograph just to match a poem, as I wanted each poem or photograph to have its own artistic motivation. I think sequenced all of the photographs together in an attempt at renku-like linking, where something connects the photographs together if they are viewed in order. The links may very well be tenuous and subjective, but more important to me is that viewers enjoy the individual photographs and the poems that go with them. I would hope that any one item should be able to stand on its own, but perhaps also gain something from the interrelationship.

What is the number one rule with haiku writing? That's a very difficult question. I would say to capture the experience of something on its own terms, objectively, so that a subjective reaction can be implied by the poem. This way, the reader can make his or her own inferences, making his or her own leaps of understanding or realization, and that act of participating with the poet is what gives the well-crafted haiku its energy and reward. I routinely enjoy reading haiku, and it's because of this restraint that enables me to participate in the poet's experience that keeps me enjoying the genre. If others might feel the same rewards in reading some of my haiku, then I am gratified, and the circle is complete.

I hope these comments are helpful to you in your research. I appreciate the attention, and wish you well with your project.

Best wishes,
Michael Welch

Subject: A moment of your time
Date: Fri, 25 Apr 2003 02:29:43 -0500
From: "Alyson Ludek"
To: WelchM

Mr. Welch:

My name is Alyson Ludek and I am a student in Millikin University's Global Haiku Traditions course, instructed by Dr. Randy Brooks. One of our assignments for the semester is a contemporary author project in which we do an in-depth study of a current haiku author. I have chosen you for this project, and would like to ask you a few questions, if you don't mind. I'm very interested in your work and would like to know as much as possible about its creator. If you don't wish to answer a particular question, or have additional information you would like for me to include, please feel free to let me know! I am very invested in making this project as informative, accurate, and in-depth as possible.

For starters, I have already reviewed your website for Open Window as well as Tagged with Ribbons, and so I have some knowledge of your background and how you got started in haiku. For instance, I know Marlene Mountain was a great source of inspiration for you and that you see haiku as a window into both ourselves and the world around us. When you are writing haiku, where exactly do you get your inspiration from? And relatedly, what is your favorite subject to write haiku about?

One element of your work that I have really grown to appreciate is the incorporation of human nature into your haiku. Even in haiku that contain seasonal elements, you often include some reference to human nature that makes the poem easy to relate to. For instance, one of my favorites is

toll booth lit for Christmas—
from my hand to hers
warm change

The seasonal element exists, but the focus is still on human nature. Am I interpreting this right? Or, more specifically, how do you view the conflict of humans vs. nature? Is one more important in haiku, or neither, or both?

It has been said that aspects of Zen are apparent in haiku; in fact, Eric Amann argues in The Wordless Poem that the two are practically intertwined. What is your opinion of Zen in haiku? Do you consider elements of Zen in your work?

Also, what consideration to elements of form do you take while writing your haiku? Do you make conscious efforts to vary your haiku structurally by line and punctuation breaks or by varying your links? Or do you find form to be more unconscious and developing naturally as part of the writing process?

Another aspect haiku critics consider is emotion vs. objectivity. How do you feel about this topic, and where do you think your work stands in this area?

From looking at Open Window, I know that you feel haiku and photography share a lot in common. How has the relationship you have built between haiku and photography been enriched by your work with both of these mediums? And what exactly is your process for matching the haiku with the photos? Do you complete one first then seek out a mate, or do you create both independently then match them later? (This one isn't for the paper, I was just curious after looking at the website. The photographs are absolutely beautiful.)

Finally, there has been a lot of debate over rules of haiku writing. What would you consider the number one rule to consider when writing haiku?

In advance, thank you so much for taking the time to assist me with this project. I know this email is incredibly huge and long-winded, and I apologize for that. I am a big fan of your work and am anticipating learning more about both you and your haiku.

Thank you again! Have a wonderful day.

—Alyson Ludek

©2003 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors