Bookstories 10: Naomi Beth Wakan’s Haiku—one breath poetry

libraryofbabelEvery book tells its story, but what of the other story, the story behind the book? Bookstories offers an opportunity to tell that story. If you have a story about a book or poem you would like to share, contact us and we’ll help you make it happen. Thanks for letting us know the rest of the story!


Leading a rather casual life whereby we seemed to change domicile and career frequently, it was not surprising to find my husband (Elias Wakan) and I in Japan, on the way to take the trans-Siberian railway to somewhere, or other. We were persuaded to stay a while and so I went to Korea to change my visa status and from travelers, we became, overnight as it were, ESL teachers.

Somehow in those first few weeks of our 2-year stay in Japan, we found ourselves in the home of a woman who owned a small bar. How this happened I can’t quite recall as we are almost teetotalers. It was not an uncommon occupation for middle-aged women and some of them became quite wealthy. In her home, we met her daughters, one of whom was a poet. She showed me her small book of small poems and this was my first view of haiku. I was immediately entranced (although I couldn’t understand a word) and suggested I translate her book. As this was during the first months we were there, it was a totally ridiculous suggestion on my part. However, such things have never impeded me in life and so I rounded up a woman who ran a small cram school and supposedly had mastered English and I got her to do an initial translation. How I knew how to whip these small poems into shape, I don’t know, but whip them I did.

The time went by and I forgot about haiku as we had acquired cameras in the land of cameras and were looking to changing our careers once more into that of photo-journalists. On returning to Canada, we started lecturing, and showing our slides of Japan in the BC schools, since Japan had just been introduced into the BC curriculum. Suitable material was scarce and so we asked each other “What does it take to publish a book?” We didn’t realise you had to get an MA from Simon Fraser University and beg grants from the government before you undertook such a venture. We were just curious about something we hadn’t explored. We began by inventing a publishing house which we called Pacific-Rim Publishers. Our first book on Japan was called Japanese-an appetizer, which was not actually a book on sushi making, but was an introduction to the Japanese language. It was only an introduction, because, although I had mastered 2000 kanji (Japanese pictograms borrowed from the Chinese) during my stay in Japan, my actual understanding of how Japanese worked was skimpy. The book sold well and we were encouraged.

About this time a small book of haiku found its way into my hands. It was by Winona Baker and was called Moss-hung Trees. I was totally enraptured and, remembering my attempts at haiku during our first weeks in Japan, I decided to explore haiku. My idea was that if you know nothing about a subject and write a book about it, the book will be fresh because you are not academically overloaded, or indeed limited in anyway in your take on the matter in hand. It was in this way that Haiku—one breath poetry got written. With the passion of a novice, I loved reading books on haiku and gathering material for the book. I selected aspects that appealed to me—the immediacy of capturing the moment, the absence of heated emotions and brilliant ideas etc. etc. We couldn’t afford an illustrator, so I quickly shifted gears, and from haijin, I became for a brief while, an artist. We ran off a thousand copies and with a captive market of BC schools who were fixed in the idea that haiku were 3-line poems of 5,7,5 syllables, I set out to change this limited attitude. The book became a Canadian Children’s Book Centre choice.

The book sold 2,000 in BC alone, when Heian International, in the States, bought the rights. Because of them the book was selected and included in a small, but distinguished group of books on poetry for young adults by the American Library Association. There it sat along with Allan Ginsberg’s Howl and Langston Hughes’s The Dream Keeper.

Heian closed and later Stone Bridge Press took the title over and it gradually faded from view. Last year it reappeared, for it was honorably mentioned in the World Haiku Club competition for books on haiku. About the book they wrote:

[One of the most important areas of WHC activities is children’s haiku or teaching haiku to children. The author is a British-born, naturalised Canadian artist, writer, poet and haijin, who has become a “child” again, having learned after so many years “…to unlearn a lot of things and recall that I was once an imaginative, inventive child who knew how to play. I tap my dreams for my writing, my island for the natural forms found in my artwork. But my island also is a background for my haiku and my life on it enriches my dreams. In this way all my creative works blend together… the essence being play. From play comes freshness, frankness and joy.” (quote from the author)

Which better person, then, is there to teach haiku to children, and perhaps more importantly to us adults most of whom have lost “the child in us” and busy theorising, pontificating, dogmatising and attacking (she even lived in and presumably loved Japan)? Her way of haiku seems more akin to Japanese haiku than most other western writers. I wish I knew the author before and asked her to play her part in WHC as she is the nearest personification of what WHC is all about. Perhaps, it is no surprise that this this little gem of a book has received the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Choice Award.]

Later I wrote a book The World of Haiku as a trade book using and developing a lot of the material I had first covered in Haiku—one breath poetry. I had, by this time written thousands of haiku myself and been tutored by leading haijin. I loved this book, but I must admit it didn’t have the freshness and appeal of Haiku—one breath poetry. I had grown up.

—Naomi Beth Wakan

Book of the Week: Between the heart-beats

high_betweentheheartbeatsGraham High, painter and sculptor, can’t disguise his painterly eye in this, his first sizable collection (Ram Publications 2001) of haiku, including a 12-poem sequence, a rarity at the time.

You can read the entire book in the THF Digital Library.

Do you have a chapbook published 2009 or earlier you would like featured as a Book of the Week? Contact us for details.

Haiku featured in the Book of the Week Archive are selected by Jim Kacian, following a concept first explored by Tom Clausen, and are used with permission.

drip-dripping tap— water talks to the clock in its own language.
beached jellyfish, its desiccated print staining the ammonite.
among damp compost a bright yellow slug couples with orange peel.
over the river mist meandering, long and deep, slow as a river.
memorial bench— just me and a carved name under the beech tree.
sultry night— caterwauling moggies interrupt our row.

Bookstories 9: Christopher Herold’s In Other Words

libraryofbabelEvery book tells its story, but what of the other story, the story behind the book? Bookstories offers an opportunity to tell that story. If you have a story about a book or poem you would like to share, contact us and we’ll help you make it happen. Thanks for letting us know the rest of the story!


In the fall of 1980, a few months after the birth of my daughter, I was sitting at an upscale restaurant in San José, California with the poet/songwriter J. J. Webb. We were negotiating a contractual arrangement for me to play drums on his upcoming album. The monetary compensation was, well, let’s say uninspiring, and I told him so. J. J. shrugged and lifted his wine glass, pinky extended. I reached for a breadstick . . . and that was when the idea hit me. Why not angle for a trade? Three drum tracks in return for the publication of a collection of my haiku. J. J., in addition to his various writings (which are stellar, by the way), was the co-owner of a small press called Jarus Books.

“Haiku?” His eyebrows indicated confusion, so I launched into the briefest description of the genre I could formulate at a moment’s notice. After a few minutes, during which I covered but a tiny fraction what I knew he would need to know in order to gain a modicum of appreciation of the form, he was still staring at me blankly. Clearly I’d blindsided him; he’d come to the table with music on his mind.

I decided to abandon the academic approach and hit him in a way I hoped would be more visceral, with examples of the real thing (as I understood it). So I recited a few of my own haiku, the ones I could remember on the spur of the moment. J. J. broke into a broad grin.

“You got a lot of those?” he asked.

“Sure,” I lied.

I’d penned my first haiku twelve years earlier, while in the midst of a monk’s training period at a Zen monastery. Since that time my production of poems had been spotty at best. There was a reason. In the winter of ’68, no more than a few weeks after leaving the monastery, I signed my first recording contract and dove headlong into the music biz. Oh, what a contrast from monastic life! My pace in the 70s was so brisk I rarely relaxed enough to take notice of the limitless wealth of small wonders clamoring quietly in the margins of my senses. They were there, though, and occasionally insistent enough to wrench me from my relentless pursuit of Point B. I’ll take a guess that in the twelve years that preceded my meeting with J. J., I’d written no more than two or three hundred haiku. But the deal was made. I’d play on three songs of his album and in return he would publish my book.

Looking back on it, I am delighted that music spawned my first public offering to the haiku community. There was a problem though. At that time I didn’t know there was such a thing as a haiku community.

Not a believer in luck, I am nonetheless suitably impressed whenever synchronicity provides a bit of what most folks would deem good fortune. Not long before my manuscript was due to go to press, I met someone who would become my first haiku mentor, opening my eyes to what the form could be if I were to stick with it and explore in depth what it has to offer. He also generously agreed to write a blurb for the back cover of the book.

We chanced to meet at a ramshackle and decidedly funky old biker bar called Applejacks, located in the notorious little town where I lived: La Honda, California. For a town with a population of little less than 1,000, it has a colorful history. Ken Kesey lived there in the ‘60s, as did quite an assortment of hippies and pranksters, not to mention Hell’s Angels. A hundred years earlier, not long after the civil war, three of the infamous Younger Brothers’ gang, associated most famously with Jesse James, were known to have gone into hiding in La Honda.

I’d gone into Applejacks to quaff some beer after a big softball tournament in which I played shortstop for the La Honda Bandits. There was an empty stool at the bar next to a guy with a bushy beard who dressed like a backwoods mountain man: a threadbare madras shirt partially tucked into a pair of baggy overalls that were held up, barely, by broad suspenders. Turned out to be the exceptional poet, David LeCount.

Being excited about my book project, and having exhausted the topic of baseball, I brought up the subject of haiku. David looked at me kinda funny. One side of his mouth twitched up and his eyes produced a little twinkle. It was as if he’d said “Oh yeah? Really?” without actually uttering the words. David had been writing and publishing haiku for years.

He invited me over to his place and we continued our chat, the first of many lengthy conversations about haiku. He handed me a copy of Jim Hackett’s groundbreaking collection, The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J.W. Hackett, a book that made a huge impression on me. I was further amazed to learn that Mr. Hackett lived a short walk from both David and me. Though I longed to get to know the man, he turned out to be a fierce recluse. It took ten years before we actually met and he befriended me. I became his gardener—another story altogether.

I entitled my first collection of haiku In Other Words. It went out mostly to family members and friends. Through David, I learned of a journal to which I could send a copy. Perhaps I’d merit a review and stimulate some sales. The journal was Modern Haiku, and yes, I did receive a review. I shall be eternally grateful to Robert Spiess for being gentle with me. He noted that my book was “. . . excellently printed, illustrated and perfect-bound . . .” As for the haiku, “Most of them,” wrote Bob, “are statements, sometimes of an abstract or pseudo-philosophic nature.” He gave apt examples and then noted, “Better ones are those in which the poet presents specific images.” I was disappointed, only later coming to realize that I’d actually been fortunate—such a slight bruising for a clueless and uppity young wannabe. Even though somewhat disheartened, I also felt encouraged, enough that I continued to read and write haiku and to delve into its history.

My book drew little attention, but its production served as a valuable learning experience, both about haiku-craft and the business of publishing. The intense focus needed to choose what I felt were my best poems, and to refine them further; the challenge of arranging the poems in a pleasing sequential order, deciding upon fonts and point sizes, enlisting the help of an artist to provide illustrations . . . It was all so new to me. And like an early stage of a rocket that falls away so that the nose cone can burst free of the atmosphere, my first collection succumbed to gravity.

Music? I continued happily with a new jazz-fusion project. As for J. J.’s album, it faired no better than In Other Words.

—Christopher Herold

Book of the Week: A New Moon

feingold_newmooncoverBruce Feingold has a gentle way with haiku, with often a child-like tone, even as he covers turf from California to Maui to Tibet, and content from puppies to psychoanalysis. The charming illustrations by Eona are a good match in this work from 2004 (Red Moon Press).

You can read the entire book in the THF Digital Library.

Do you have a chapbook published 2009 or earlier you would like featured as a Book of the Week? Contact us for details.

Haiku featured in the Book of the Week Archive are selected by Jim Kacian, following a concept first explored by Tom Clausen, and are used with permission.

my mind

I lose my way on the trail
—cairns lead me back

startled puppy
barks ferociously—
aboriginal mask

in a distant mist . . .
children skip stones
on an old pond

transparent day moon—
a green sea turtle carries its grace
to white coral

a wayworn traveler
slips into hot water . . .
a new moon

Bookstories 8: David Rosen’s Clouds and More Clouds

libraryofbabelEvery book tells its story, but what of the other story, the story behind the book? Bookstories offers an opportunity to tell that story. If you have a story about a book or poem you would like to share, contact us and we’ll help you make it happen. Thanks for letting us know the rest of the story!


My first book of haiku (actually haibun) was with Joel Weishaus (my longest male friend and fellow writer/poet). I was visiting Joel in Portland, as he had recently moved there from Albuquerque. We were walking in Forest Park and Joel said, “We ought to write a book together.” I replied, “OK.” Then I mentioned haiku, knowing that we had that and Japan in common. A Japanese haiku poet in Japan had planned to write The Healing Spirit of Haiku with me. Then she decided, with my support, to write her own book. That became the impetus to collaborate with Joel. The work evolved and was a meaningful and healing experience for both of us. This book was initially published by North Atlantic Books (2004). However, after it went out of print, it was republished by Resource Publications (an imprint of Wipf & Stock) in 20!4.

My second volume of haiku, Clouds and More Clouds, was published by Lily Pool Press in 2013. Lily Pool is an imprint of Swamp Press. This collection was nominated for the William Carlos Williams Award, but did not receive it. However, it was a honor just to be nominated. The book was also nominated for The Haiku Foundation’s Touchstone Distinguished Books Award.

My next book [number 10], Lost in the Land of the Long White Cloud: Finding My Way Home, is a memoir written in the haibun genre. It is in press and will be published in 2014 or 2015.

Why did I write Clouds and More Clouds?

That book emerged as a result of my illness.

I was reading The Book of Psalms and my namesake felt blessed by God for his afflictions. Since I adopted that same viewpoint, I have written poetry and prose from the heart. My memoir is similar. Although we have never met, I feel like I know you.

Peace & light,

—David Rosen