Tag Archive for James Preller Haiku

On Practicing Haiku

I am trying something new: come this March, I’ll be teaching a Haiku Workshop for continuing ed in my local community.

Here’s the write up:

Haiku Workshop *NEW!* Location High School – Room D120 Instructor Preller Length: 6 weeks Starting Date: March 11 Day & Time: Mondays, 6:30-8:00p Fee: $50 An exploration of the haiku, from traditional to modern, that includes reading a wide range of haiku, writing and sharing our own, and analysis in a workshop setting. One guiding principle for this class comes from the quote, “The smartest person in the room, is the room.” The teacher will serve more as guide than expert. Hopefully we all learn (and teach) together. Participants will be expected to read haiku, write your own, and discuss in class. James Preller is the author of many books for children and he’s eager to share his enthusiasm for the art of the haiku, and to learn more about the craft in a group setting. Limit of 15 students.

Rather than “teaching” per say, my vision for the workshop is that we’re making stone soup. Everybody brings their own ingredients. My role will be to help stir the pot, at least in the beginning.

I started writing haiku in earnest early in the Trump era. I found myself spiraling into darkness. Jumping on Facebook, reading the news, and hovering over the “angry” icon. Every day, upset and disillusioned and angry. And I eventually realized that I couldn’t continue to live like this.

Not sure how I arrived at it, but I decided to try to write at least one haiku first thing in the morning. Spend ten minutes, get something down . . . and then proceed with my regular program of getting upset, disillusioned, and angry.

People ask, “What are you going to do with them?” And my answer is nothing, hopefully. I’m not looking at it that way. Oh, maybe someday I’ll read them again, self-publish a selection, but that’s about as far as I can imagine.

It’s not about the results.

It’s about the process.

The act of stepping out of myself. Of seeing. Of being actively engaged in the natural world. Looking at that cat lying in a slant of sunlight. The way the fog lingers in the treetops. Those seven crows out on the front lawn.

However you feel about haiku — and it’s perfectly okay to not love it — I read so many that leave me flat, bored, restless — hell, I write so many that miss by a mile — I’ve come to believe there is value in the act of attempting one.

For starters, as a writer, haiku speaks to the essence of good writing. Clarity. Conciseness. A focus on the particular thing. Back to William Carlos Williams, “No ideas but in things.” Back to Ezra Pound and the Imagist movement. Get the ego out of the way. Deal with the thing itself. Or the magical juxtaposition of two things in close proximity. This is good practice for any writer of any genre.

Secondly, the haiku is about the present moment. About presence and attention. It is, at its ideal, a moment of heightened perception. Of truly being in the world, however fleetingly. In a time of social media, a time when we seem to be more and more detached from the natural world, haiku can bring us closer to the elements, reconnect us to be being human creatures on this earth.

So, yes, I do currently favor the values of traditional haiku in its focus on nature and the present moment. There are strong proponents and powerful arguments against the 3 line, 17 syllable approach. Many modern American haiku poets prefer a 12 syllable count, for example, and see that as closer to its Japanese origins. Some are experimenting with the one line haiku. Shrug, whatever. It’s all good, and yet inconsequential to me. For now, I like the even playing field of the 5-7-5 format, the strict demands of that specific structure. But people should write whatever they want, I have no axe to grind.

Anyway, I’m teaching this class — guiding this class — stirring this class — in the hope of interacting with other people. Reading and writing and thinking about the natural world, about language, about poetry.

That’s my haiku journey.

One other thing that I’ve discovered. By trying to write haiku, I’ve been confronted time and again with how little I know. Or, in a positive way, how much there is to learn. Today I spent time reading about recent experiments with evening primroses and how they might “experience” and respond to the vibration of honey bee wings by producing more nectar. A survival strategy underscoring the interconnectedness of things.

As a result of that, I made these two attempts . . .

Primrose hears the buzz

Of honey bee, makes herself

Sweeter than ever.

She hears him draw near,

Sweetens her nectar, beckons:

Evening primrose.

 

Writing haiku calls upon me to learn more about the natural world. This realization fed directly into a middle grade novel I just finished, Blood Mountain (Macmillan, Fall, 2019), about two siblings lost in the wilderness. It won’t be a recognizable connection to any other reader, but I know it’s in there, feeding the surface.

I think by writing the haiku, I’ve become a better observer, a better writer. Or maybe just a little happier.

By the way, I posted about this experience recently — and even dared to share a few random poems — and you can check that out by stomping on this link right here.

Carry on!

 

The Beauty of Bare Winter Trees: Haiku & Bill McKibben

Admittedly, I am contrarian by nature. I’ve always bristled at the idea of “peak season” when it comes to fall foliage. This idea that there’s a perfect weekend when the deciduous trees of the Northeast look their best. Sure, the colors are spectacular, no doubt. But I like the trees all the time, any day of the week.

Especially in the winter.

That’s when I can most admire their scaffolding, the structure and shape and enduring strength of the creature itself. They drop their leaves and apply their resources to more pressing matters, hunkering down to survive another long, cold winter.

These days, I frequently find myself driving from Delmar to Saratoga, up and back, about three times a week. My daughter, Maggie, rows for the Saratoga Rowing Association — and the water’s up there. So in the car we go. It’s more travel time than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m one of those people who gets excited every single time I see a hawk — or maybe it’s an eagle, it’s hard to tell. On a travel day, I spend about 90 minutes cruising on 87, listening to music and admiring the trees. And in winter, I can really see the random hawks perched on the limbs, feathers puffed up against the cold, giving them the appearance of jolly, fat assassins.

On most days, I’ll compose a few lines of haiku as I drive, hoping to jot them down later. I realize it’s a form derided by some literati, but I enjoy writing most of my haiku in the traditional 5-7-5 form, even though it’s somewhat out of style nowadays. I like the wordplay and rigor of it. Often my focus is on those trees, the winter weather. Here’s a few, like a fistful of almonds:

 

In the winter trees

her bony grip, long fingers

twisted and wind-whipped.

 

The wolf’s moon hangs low

beckons through bare branches, come:

a headlight drives past.

 

Where a branch broke off

the grandfatherly red oak

a barred owl now nests.

 

The plump winter wren

moves through the understory,

trills and whirls, tail down.

 

The tall trees lie down

in shadow across sunlit

snow, ever patient.

 

Amidst the white field

a stand of resolute oaks,

but not forever.

 

The sparse silhouette

against a gray winter sky

declares: hickory.

 

The beech holds its leaves

shimmering like winter moons

papery and light.

 

Steel-gray buckets tapped

into maples; the crows watch

from snow-covered limbs.

 

Crows seem skeptical

of melting snow in cold rain,

perched on bare branches.

 

The bare winter elms

reveal the assassin’s shape:

hawk perched on a limb.

 

Anyway, whatever. I don’t worry too much about ideas of quality — whether they are “good” or not — more interested in the process of attending to things, getting out of myself, and seeing. Basho’s “the journey itself is home.”

It made me happy to read the following passage in Bill McKibben’s most recent novel, Radio Tree Vermont.  I’ve been a huge fan of his work since reading his landmark book, The End of Nature, when it came out nearly 30 years ago. In this scene, Vern Barclay muses on Vermont’s trees after the giddy explosion of autumn colors has passed:

And when it was over, it was even better. The leaves were down by mid-October, and you could see the shape of the land again, see the late sun silhouetting the trees along the ridgetops as it set. You could sense the architecture of the hills, every hollow and creekrun and knoll visible from the road. When people thought of trees, they thought of leaves — that’s how a child would draw them. But the natural inclination of trees at this latitude was bareness — seven months of the year, at least upslope, they stood there stoic. Leaves were the fever-dream exception to the barren rule, and Vern felt calmer once they were down. 

 

AN ASIDE: My first book of haiku, written for children, comes out in the Fall of 2019, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre (of Harry Potter fame). It is titled All Welcome Here and celebrates the community of the classroom on the first day of school.