Tag Archive for James Preller Haiku

Look Who’s Illustrating My Next Book

Yeah, this artist, the great Mary GrandPre. Maybe you don’t know her name, but I’m pretty sure you know her work.

So. How does that happen? How does it work in publishing, the writer-illustrator connection? I get asked that a lot.

Though there are exceptions and variations, my book with Mary followed a well-established pattern. Back in 2016, I submitted a manuscript to my editor which was accepted for publication. Just words on a page. In this case, interconnected haiku.

Looking back on a my original submission to Liz Szabla, my editor, dated 4/22/16, I laid out my basic vision:

 

 

This collection of haiku celebrates the first day of school and a vision of community. It provides a loose, flowing narrative that carries readers through the multi-faceted moments in a school day as it touches a diverse variety of characters while they move from the bus stop to the morning pledge, to recess and lunch and the final bell.

The poems offer the illustrator opportunities to show a rich variety of children –- wild and brave, silly and earnest, friendly and a little frightened. Through the artwork, illustrations should highlight recurring characters and allow readers to see happy interactions and first steps toward friendship. We are witnesses to the beginning of a new, diverse, and open-hearted community.

There’s flexibility here. The final number of poems depends entirely on layout and editorial’s vision for the book. There are 39 included here (which strikes me as slightly high, compared to other haiku collections of this nature), whereas it could be decided to go with as few as, say, 23 poems –- allowing room for effective double-page spreads for a single haiku. 

Later in 2016, or possibly early in 2017, I was informed that Mary GrandPre had agreed to illustrate the book. I did not immediately recognize the name. The look of the book would be up to Mary, the art director and designers at Feiwel & Friends, as overseen by Liz. Often, that’s the beginning and end of a writer’s communication with the illustrator. My manuscript did not come with notes to the illustrator, as many do, beyond what I shared above.

To my delight, I did receive a lovely, complimentary email from Mary, asking for my thoughts about possibly cutting some haiku. There was a conflict where the weather described was inconsistent. We went back and forth — Mary was gracious and lovely — and I was very happy to eliminate some, because that was always my intention. I had individual haikus that highlighted the statue of liberty, a student in a wheelchair, and a teacher in a hijab. We realized that since those images would be reflected in the book visually, we were able to cut those haiku in order to make room for others.

For example, I believe everyone hoped there might be at least one spread where there was just one haiku. It turned out to be one that centered on the school library. I wrote:

 

LIBRARY

The library door

Opens: Hear the whoosh and thrum

Of the school’s heart beat.

 

Note on the haiku, which followed the traditional 5-7-5 syllable/line count: a haiku does not usually come with a title. But for this book, because it was intended for very young readers, I cheated a little and gave each one a title in the original manuscript. Somewhere along the line I fretted about that, it was a little impure, and asked Liz if maybe we should eliminate the titles. Liz replied that she liked them, believed they worked, and that they also added a visual element to the pages. I said, as I recall, “Okay!”

At a certain point in the process, it’s the only answer available. 

All Welcome Here will be published on June 16, 2020. I’m so eager to hold it in my hands — I’ll probably receive a printed copy in early May, best guess — but I’m more excited to visit schools and, perhaps, even develop some haiku workshops for students of all ages.

So, yeah, Mary GrandPre. How cool is that? How lucky am I?

Can’t wait.

 

INSPIRATION: When Trees and Haiku Meet — Robert Bly, A Pine Tree, and Basho

 

I try to spend some time each day thinking in haiku. Often I find that space while walking the dog in the woods or by the river or an open field. It’s a quiet, interior time without earbuds or podcasts. My haiku is almost always written in the traditional three-line, 5-7-5 form, with a focus on nature. I usually try to include a kigo word (a reference to the season of the year) and a division, breath, or caesura (often in the form of a colon or a dash that both separates and connects). There are endless variations, and that’s the beauty of haiku. Sometimes a lighthearted one might come, more senryu than serious haiku, and that’s what gets written. It’s something I started doing with more intention a few years ago. I’m not saying that I’m great at this. My focus is on process, not product. Basho’s great line, “The journey itself is home.” I accept that most of the ones that come to me aren’t going to be exemplary.

Thinking in haiku has given me an outlet for calm reflection, a brief time for thinking outside myself and the endless, grim news feed of our troubled world. This morning I wrote this one:

 

This pine has a life             

Of its own: there is nothing

It requires of me.

 

However, I’m not posting today to show one haiku. Mostly I was eager to share one of the sources of my inspiration, taken from the introduction to Robert Bly’s book of prose poems, The Morning Glory

I love this passage so much, as if it were written precisely for me, bringing together in one page my growing enthusiasms for trees and haiku and poetry and, importantly, this essential idea of getting “the self” out of the way. I hope you like it. Maybe Bly’s passage here, along with Basho’s haiku, will inspire thoughts and feelings in you, too. Embrace the process. Forget thoughts of “good” or “bad.” And see what happens. 

 

While we’re gathered here, I might as well tack on a few others . . . I’ve got hundreds of them.

I have failed to learn

The name of the bird that calls

From the high poplar.

Three twisted sisters

Beneath the great canopy,

Roots and arms entwined.

The soft grasp of dusk

Upon the winter shore: black-

Hooded plover waits.

Steel-gray buckets tapped

Into maples; the crows watch

From snow-covered limbs.

January rain –-

The old cat stretches, circles,

Eyes slant shut again.

The beech holds its leaves

Shimmering like winter moons

Papery and light.

 

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.