Volume 1, Number 2, August 2003

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About Simply Haiku



Jim Kacian

Jim Kacian - Interview by Robert Wilson

Q) What haiku poet has had the greatest influence on you as a writer and why?

A) Haiku and the haiku community have had the greatest influence on me as a writer, more than any single poet. However, if I had to list a name or three, I would say that John Wills has had the greatest impact on my own writing of haiku.

I think the best writers create a context in the minds of their readers, a place either familiar or desirable, or both, and Wills' sense of place made me feel most at home when I was first coming to the sensibility of haiku.

There have been many others as well, of course. Elizabeth Searle Lamb had the greatest effect on me as an editor, through her kindness, gentle persuasion, and breadth of knowledge. There have been many others of these as well, and Francine Porad probably had the greatest effect on me as a reader of my work.

Q) What constitutes a good haiku versus a bad haiku?

A) Haiku are rarely entirely good or entirely bad. They usually have some elements which recommend them in both directions. So the simplest answer is that a haiku is good if it has an accumulation of good elements which is greater than the accumulation of bad elements. Some of these good and bad elements will be objective, and some subjective. Most people, with guidance and practice, learn to write good haiku, and learn to weed the bad elements out of their poems, so the worst of them become just flat, rather than bad. What interests me more is great haiku, and great haiku usually involves greater risk than competent or good haiku (like anything else, really). It also risks failure. More comprehensively, what makes a great haiku usually involves either a new perception of reality, or a new expression of reality, or both. Neither of these things happens very often, which is why we see so few really great haiku, though we see good and/or competent haiku quite frequently. If we marry a new perception to a new mode of expression, with a suitably large content and with plenty of resonance, we have a masterwork.

One shorter answer is: resonance--good haiku have it, bad haiku don't.

Q) How important is it to use a kigo word in haiku?

A) Kigo are extremely important in poems that require them, and unimportant in those that don't. Kigo is a magnificent shorthand system, and can bring so much to a poem in a short compass. Well applied, volumes can be condensed, and the history of haiku brought to bear in a short phrase. But forcing kigo where they don't belong is simply an artistic error.

Q) Haiku is three lines in length. What makes it a poem?

A) Haiku, of course, vary in lineation, from one to four, and even to shapes and vertical arrays. This is artistic selection, and often the right choice has a huge impact on the effectiveness of the poem.

None of this makes it a poem, however, any more than mere brevity does to me. A poem is a special construction of language in which the elements (the words, the spacing, the punctuation, etc.) are arranged so as to compress the greatest amount of associative meaning into a single space. Prose is essentially at odds with poetry: it is information-driven and single-minded. Poetry is intentionally multifaceted, allusive, enlarging: the term we usually use in haiku is resonant. So, what makes it a poem is not its length, or any other external characteristic, but its organization to maximize the potentiality of each of its elements, thereby creating a larger effect than the words might have suggested if you had seen them in a list. Again, resonance.

Q) Any advice for those new to writing haiku?

A) I spend a great deal of my time helping newcomers come to terms with the vagaries of haiku, and probably the most important thing to suggest is that people just keep writing. Facility comes only with practice, and it's extremely useful to have your tools sharp.

After you've written a few hundred poems, and you have some idea of how they work, then seek the advice of someone whose judgment you trust--an editor, an author, someone who's been doing this for a while, and probably has a larger sense of the history of the genre. Consider the feedback you get there, incorporating all the suggestions that have to do with history, ambiguity, word choice, etc. into your work, and laying all the suggestions that have to do with content, style, and personal matters to the side for later consideration. Write a couple hundred more, incorporating your new knowledge. Ask for more feedback, and broaden your search this time: send poems to lots of editors. By this point, you'll be embarked and you won't want or need any further advice.

One caution, though, which poets don't always consider early on: don't be in a hurry to publish. Your sensibility will change, as will your skills. But all the poems you publish, even those earliest groaners you will deny in later years, will bear your name forever. You do yourself the best service by waiting until you are sure of your taste and sensibility before flooding the market with your work.

One final comment: don't be afraid to let things age. If these poems are timeless, then what's another few months? Everyone will have a different sense of how long is long enough. For myself, I don't publish anything i've written in the past year. I need that long before I can look at my work objectively, correct where I can, discard where I can't. This practice has saved me a lot of embarrassment over the years, though not quite all . . .

Good luck, and enjoy the journey. [end]

Jim Kacian
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