by Ruth Yarrow
Looking back on the 47 years that I have been writing haiku, I remember haiku poets generously inviting me into the haiku world. Of course men were among the important ones; I think particularly of Robert Spiess, Cor van den Heuvel, and Michael Dylan Welch. But there was a special camaraderie with fellow women poets. They opened the door to haiku, welcomed me in, listened so deeply that they heard things in my work of which I was not aware, encouraged me to develop new skills, included social/political issues in their writing, and modeled how to support haiku groups.
Opening the Door
I stumbled into writing haiku through teaching science. In 1972, only the second year of a new state college in southern New Jersey, Stockton State, I was hired to teach field biology and environmental science courses. In addition, each faculty member was challenged to teach something they probably weren’t trained in but loved. For example, the chemistry professor was a classical music fan so taught Baroque recorder; I enjoyed literature and poetry so taught a course on how cultures around the world viewed the natural environment as evidenced in their literature. When I was planning for the Asia section, I vaguely remembered having heard of a Japanese form of poetry that included nature. I read all I could find about haiku and asked my students to join me in trying to write it. The result: I got hooked.
A few years later, perusing the poetry section of a small town bookstore, I found the newly published first edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s Anthology. In it was a note that the Haiku Society of America was launching a periodical called Frogpond. When I received Volume 1 Number 1, I found the format the perfect door into haiku for a beginner. Any submission would be printed in a section entitled “Croaks -?” and those chosen by at least four of the judges would be published in a subsequent issue as haiku in a section labeled “Watersounds.” I enjoyed reading the submissions, noted my reactions and eagerly awaited the next issue to see which judges agreed with me. These early issues helped me to learn key attributes of effective haiku and introduced me to an array of early poets of haiku in English.
After three issues I felt ready to submit croaks. We had gone backpacking in the West and I was delighted to have published in “Watersounds”:
A marmot’s whistle
pierces the mountain
Two judges on the selections panel voting for this haiku were L. A. Davidson and Kyoko Selden. Kyoko also contributed scholarly articles, calligraphy and translations of Japanese haiku in those early issues. Because all Haiku Society of America members/Frogpond subscribers were listed with addresses, we were able to contact each other. When our family moved to Ithaca, New York, in 1979, Kyoko invited my family to dinner, my first experience of incredible Japanese hospitality. She and the early Frogpond community opened the door for me to the world of haiku.
As a mother with a preschooler, moving from New Jersey to Ithaca one week before our second baby was born while we were remodeling an old house around us and while I was launching the county Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, I only rarely sat down to write. But I could compose and revise haiku in rare quiet moments, such as walking with a sleeping baby to our preschooler’s cooperative nursery school, because I could hold all the words in my head. I delighted in having a form that could capture those moments that seem ordinary at first glance but you then realize are the essence of childhood. Support from other women poets at that point in my life was a real gift.
I received a generous invitation from Geraldine Little to come to her New Jersey home (luckily near where we visited my parents) and discuss haiku. Over cups of tea she shared her concepts of powerful poems and was very encouraging to me as a beginner. She suggested we write a linked poem together, so the haiku went by mail between southern New Jersey and upstate New York for two full years, and was published in Frogpond. I was impressed that she hinted at a wide variety of emotions with simple phrases, such as this eerily ominous one:
a beach umbrella
no one comes to
Some years later on a family trip to the southwest, we visited Elizabeth Searle Lamb’s home with the thick adobe walls that kept it cool on that hot summer day. She was also hosting Penny Harter and Bill Higginson, and generously listened and shared her joy in writing with all of us. Her poems struck me as finding power in the ordinary:
where the eyes were in the shed
Her history of “Haiku in English to 1978” brings home how deeply she was involved in and contributed to the beginnings of haiku in English.
It was the strong feminist haiku poet Marlene Mountain who listened deeply to my work in her unique way. Marlene’s work had long delighted me because she could say so much with the absolute minimum:
pig and I spring rain
I could feel the firm wet bristly back of the pig as it slithered in the mud with Marlene, suggesting complex feelings of exasperation, humor and springtime joy. Since I already admired her poems, I was surprised and moved when she pointed out that my haiku
warm rain before dawn
my milk flows into her
was a woman’s poem. She wrote in an interview with herself (she says “innerview”) in Frogpond:
“What is really exciting is Yarrow’s phrase ‘flows inter her unseen.’ Even ‘flows into her’ would have been more than adequate as an evocative phrase, but ‘unseen,’ wow! The intimacy deepens considerably, as it had by the pronoun ‘my’ (rather than ‘her’, although again that would have been more than adequate). What is this ‘unseen’ force which ‘flows’ from one female into another? Isn’t it more than milk, or water, or even blood?”
Marlene goes on from there to launch a discussion of the image as going beyond motherhood to reaffirm the ancient heritage of women, of matrilineal societies, and woman as the “Creator and Mother of All.”
I am most grateful to Marlene for her courage in dealing with issues that most of us haiku poets were avoiding. She was one of the few haiku poets to include her passionate emotions about what was right and wrong in the world. Her poems that she characterized as ‘pissed off poems,” Cor van den Heuvel dubbed “however admirable, something other than haiku or senryu.” Even when her poems felt powerful, such as:
less and less nature is nature
I found many of them closer to bumper stickers than poems. But her efforts inspired me to continue to struggle to find and to write effective political haiku. As she says in her “innerview” with herself:
“I: You’re throwing haiku into the political realm.
M: It’s already there. In an age such as ours, omission is as much political as . . . “
As when reading Marlene’s work, I have found it challenging to write effective haiku about issues that could be labeled political. Writing a successful poem on such issues can’t be didactic but needs to subtly include the issue and the poet’s emotions about it. Marlene and I tried a linked poem that included environmental and nuclear issues in the Reagan era. Some of my one-liners in that piece were anything but subtle. For example:
flicking off his speech on star war weapons the glowing dot
Some haiku poets have succeeded in subtly hinting at the tangled emotions about these issues, as in this one by Peggy Willis Lyles:
before he grinds the stump
he counts the rings
My family’s sabbatical year in the coal-mining region of West Virginia gave me rich material for haiku with undercurrents of power and wealth disparity. My husband and I interviewed over 100 coal miners and their wives, and I longed to capture some of the danger, strong community, and multigenerational culture of their lives. This is one I wrote after a trip underground:
the Jesus on his hard hat
And my husband’s:
lighted Pepsi sign
old miners basking
in the dim glow
Encouraging New Skills
Alexis Rotella was another woman poet whose work I admired, especially for her ability to perceive strong emotions in subtle behaviors:
the lace tablecloth.
In 1983, while Alexis was editor of Frogpond, she invited me to write comments on others’ work, submitted anonymously, to a new section of the journal titled “Haiku Workshop.” I didn’t feel confident to be the only critic, so Alexis joined me. I enjoyed thinking about other’s work and why it was effective or not. Being asked to take this role encouraged me to develop critical skills.
I confess that in this stage of my development, I was convinced that the one effective way to write haiku was contrasting or comparing two resonating images from the poet’s actual experience, that conveyed emotion, preferably including nature and season. While I still enjoy reading and trying to write poems that succeed in doing that, I now realize other approaches also express and inspire. But then I tended to be critical of haiku that didn’t fit that description. I am embarrassed to remember, when asked to do a review of Anne McKay’s book, that I doubted the authenticity of some of her haiku. I didn’t believe she could have experienced those details of Native American ceremonies in the Northwest. This no doubt stemmed partly from my racist bias that real Native Americans and culture were mostly gone. I was humbled to receive a gently rebuking letter, letting me know that she had close relations with people in the tribe and that her experience was genuine. I am still learning to question my assumptions and accept broader definitions of what can be haiku.
After Alexis’s encouragement to think critically, and after I had received various awards, I gained confidence that I could be an effective workshop leader to introduce others to the enjoyment of capturing key moments in this powerful poetic form. My workshops were interactive, often starting with sharing exemplary haiku on 3×5 cards clothes-pinned to a clothesline. I challenged participants to express why they liked the ones they chose, which enabled us to create a group list of what was effective. I often led these workshops outdoors, so people had immediate sensory experience of the natural world. At the end the participants tried their hand at writing a haiku, and shared them if they wished.
Including social/political issues
While I enjoyed leading workshops and continuing to read and write haiku as it gained popularity, I began to feel something was missing. For decades my husband Mike and I had worked on peace, justice and environmental issues, and that work generated emotions that I tried to capture in haiku. When reading other forms of poetry by women poets such as Carolyn Forché, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Nikki Giovanni, and Marge Piercy, who dealt with social and political themes, I began to suspect that very few published haiku broached those issues. I challenged myself to find ones that effectively did just that. Over the decades I have scrutinized haiku publications to find political themes and have written articles for Modern Haiku and Frogpond, and given presentations for HSA meetings, with the following titles:
“Haiku and the Mushroom Cloud”
“From Nature to Environment: What Happens to Haiku?”
“Haiku and the Environment”
“Haiku at Work”
“Haiku Awareness in Wartime?”
“A Haiku Eye on Camden”
“World Economy in Word Economy”
“Afterword” (a follow-up to the above-mentioned “Environmental Haiku”, focusing on climate change)
Recently, I have led workshops on the challenge of writing about racism: one at the 2011 Haiku North American conference in Seattle titled “Putting Our Own Early Awareness of Race into Haiku” and another at Vincent Tripi’s 2016 Haiku Circle on “Social Issues: Bumper Sticker or Poem?” In 2017, I gave the keynote at the Haiku North America conference in Santa Fe, linking to their theme of “Earth Tones.” By searching out haiku written by Native Americans, African Americans and Japanese Americans, I found a rich trove of haiku with undertones of the persistent racism in our nation, that I presented with the title “Skin Tones are Earth Tones.”
In all these articles, presentations and workshops, I wanted to convince myself that haiku could handle issues ranging from the threats of nuclear war and environmental degradation to inequality of wealth and racism. I admit I also wanted to poke at haiku poets to challenge and encourage them to stretch their range of subjects to include political issues.
Supporting Haiku Groups
In 1997 when our children fledged, we took early retirement from our teaching jobs and moved to Seattle to find peace, justice and environmental organizing work that could modestly sustain us economically. We reveled in backpacking in the wilderness that surrounds the city in every direction. I appreciated that haiku lends itself to capturing those moments of awe at the beauty of the natural world while realizing that our own footsteps or breath are part of it.
alpine lake –
my breast stroke’s shining arc
Another joy of living in Seattle was taking part in the first on-going haiku group I had experienced.
Almost immediately after we arrived in Seattle I received a warm phone call from Francine Porad, inviting me to the next meeting of the Haiku Northwest group. It often met in her home, and was attended by a delightfully diverse group of poets. They ranged from beginners to the well-published Michael Dylan Welch who was involved in the major haiku organizations, and from Bob Major who only wrote strictly in 5-7-5 syllables to Mas Odoi who wrote only senryu. Francine infallibly found something of value in each person’s submission, but also was able to directly challenge extraneous words or make suggestions to strengthen the poem. When we lost Francine to cancer, we continued meeting, often in libraries. As we shared our work, I found Connie Hutchison, who had been assistant editor of Brussels Sprout with Francine, particularly perceptive. Connie and Michael Dylan Welch generously helped me choose and arrange the haiku in my latest collection, Lit from Within, for which I was pleased to be given the Touchstone award. Haiku Northwest continues to be a strong support for haiku poets, using Francine’s combination of support and constructive criticism.
After 18 years in Seattle, I have moved back to Ithaca. The move was prompted by my husband’s death, both of our children and their families having moved back here, plus my second granddaughter’s birth and the opportunity of being her caretaker up to 30 hours a week. My life is full with family, and activist groups working for racial justice and alternatives to our nation’s militaristic foreign policy. But I miss the northwest wilderness:
the distant quavering
of a loon
And while a few of us in this town have given haiku readings, I miss the group support of Haiku Northwest.
Looking back, I am grateful for the women poets mentioned here, and many more I have not mentioned, who have called me in to the world of haiku. My experience tells me that haiku can be written by any of us humans in any surroundings about any subject, but that writing successful haiku remains a creative challenge to find and arrange the right words to capture the emotional experience. That challenge, and sharing the results, brings joy.