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Interview with Dhugal Lindsay
by Robert Wilson

Q. You've stated that "some of the schools under the "traditional" umbrella have lost sight of what a haiku truly is. Many are content to word sketch (shasei) and often suffer from a lack of depth." Could you comment on this?

A. The essence of haiku that I admire is the search for fundamental Truths. Many shasei-type haiku introduce facts but not Truths. I believe such Truths can even be found in the absence of facts, although they are much more readily found in our relationships with entities from the natural world. In fact, sometimes two haiku can introduce completely different entities or objects within the poem yet still approach the same Truth. As an example,

no shadows within
the shadows, but the lion roars
circus in moonlight


The circus grounds are lit up in the light of a full autumn moon, the shadows falling crisp and stark against the silvery sheen of lunar light. The poet's attention is drawn by a caged lion roaring at a shadow, perhaps that thrown by a nearby tent. She peers into the shadow expecting to see a human form or an animal hiding in the shadow, its scent having given it away to the keen nose of the King of the Beasts. But within that shadow lies no deeper shadow--it is empty. The lion roars not at an intruder but at something greater, more subtle, something unable to be sensed by an unattuned human observer. We are reminded of another haiku by the late haiku Master KATOH Shuuson that also attempted to capture this Truth, although in a different form.

yukiyo ko-wa naku fubo-yori haruka-na mono-o yobi

its parents do not know
what the child is crying for
this snowy night.


Although many excellent haiku written using the "shasei" (sketching-from-life) technique exist, more than often they fail. This is because they attempt to capture facts first, as concrete objects, and pin them down into the word-vessel that is haiku. The haiku that "work" are then preened from the rest, resulting in a large proportion of so-what haiku with only a few gems that have serendipitously managed to approach a Truth. This is of course a valid technique for writing quality haiku, provided that the poet possesses the where-with-all to filter out the successful haiku from the bad. However, the "traditional" school attracts a larger proportion of haiku novices and enthusiasts than does the "modern" school and in the democratic world of the haiku workshop these haiku-like constructions are fielded with the all-too-few gems. In many workshops the "best haiku" are voted on democratically by those same novices who were unable to successfully self-filter their own work and the overall quality of haiku at those workshops spirals into abysmal depths. At other workshops this problem is "solved" to some extent by having only the sensei (teacher/mentor) or sometimes a small committee of veteran poets pick the best poems.

Rather than using the "shasei" technique one can also try to capture the nebulae that sometimes hang on the edge of our consciousness when we directly experience the pumpkin-ness of a pumpkin or momentarily share the ether that connects that pumpkin to some other entity/object and also to ourselves. Sometimes this experience will just happen out of the blue when one is in a receptive frame of mind and sometimes one must spend many minutes or hours observing/experiencing an entity before something begins to materialize in your conscious mind. Suddenly something goes flash/click and you are left thinking, "Wow! What did I nearly grasp there? I just experienced a Truth--something that underlies reality as my ego-self perceives it. What was it? Where did it go?" You then mentally backtrack, physically backtrack, and try to pin down what combination of entities in what relationship caused that flash. This is the hardest part of making haiku. Exactly what facet of which entity in what relationship with what facet of which other entity . . .  And then, because a haiku is just a collection of words on a page, how should one verbalize such an experience? What name to call each object by? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet but nonetheless we must name each and every entity in our nascent poem. Some qualities of the entity that may have contributed to your experience may not be readily apparent in the most commonly used describer for that object. One may need to pick a combination of words that alludes to previous haiku that incorporated those qualities or that facet of the entity. One may use a different kanji character than that which is most commonly used for that pronunciation/word in order to stress certain facets of the entity over others. This is all part of the craft of haiku. But what is most important is to capture that nebula in your mind that refuses to take on a concrete shape but which you know conceals a Truth. If upon reading a haiku one understands exactly how its parts interrelate and work together, then that haiku is quickly forgotten. It is merely an exercise in craft and conscious thought. But if one reads a haiku and, although being able to access the experience, one can't quite understand why the haiku works--That is a haiku to remember. Here are some examples of haiku I have carried with me through the years that still niggle at my consciousness for reasons unknown. Would that I too could make this kind of haiku.

hakutou-ya koe aru mono-wa subete sare

white peach . . .
things with voices, all of you,
get lost!

- KATOH Shuuson

ga-no manako sekkou nareba umi-o kou

the moth's eyes
glow red, yes the ocean
is the place for me

- KANEKO Tohta

Perhaps Shuuson himself sums this up most succinctly in the following haiku.

kiri-wa hare yuku mou mieru mono-shika miezu

fog starting to lift
now i only see
those things that i can see

-KATOH Shuuson

Q.  You've said that "Popular haiku in the West is often far-removed from the original essence of haiku, although many talented non-Japanese haiku poets do exist." You suggested that poets "read as many JAPANESE-STYLE haiku as possible until you get the feel for what haiku really is about." How is "popular haiku" in the West often far removed from the original essence of haiku?

A. Many things have changed since I wrote that in 1994. Nevertheless, the vast majority of haiku I read on the web or in haiku periodicals are mediocre at best. Edited anthologies are far better. On the web the same problem exists as I outlined above for the "traditional" haiku school in Japan. With haiku periodicals the editors are faced with the daunting task of sifting through large numbers of mediocre-at-best haiku and selecting from these for "keepers". When guiding a beginner it is hard to say "This is a great haiku for a beginner. Unfortunately, it can only really be thought of as a mediocre haiku in the larger scheme of things because similar themes have been explored by poet A and poet B and indeed by most beginners I have offered advice to. Keep making haiku like this though and in a year or two you will probably make something original enough for me to publish." A compromise must be drawn between encouraging and cultivating beginners, and providing high quality haiku on the pages of your magazine. My advice now to beginners would be to read the major English-language haiku anthologies from not only the United States but also Britain, Australia, and other countries where English is the native language. Such a background not only guides beginners away from exploring the same territory as previous poets but also facilitates allusion to previously published haiku--one of the most commonly used "higher techniques" in Japanese haiku. Other techniques commonly used in Japanese haiku but frowned upon in Western haiku are now experiencing the limelight in various books and essays so no doubt the English-language haiku scene will evolve again over the next few years.

Q.  Why is the use of kigo words important when writing haiku? Can one write a haiku without a kigo word?

A. Haiku in Japan have traditionally included a seasonal reference. Of course, there have been exceptions to this rule, even by the father of haiku, Basho himself. However, such haiku, when they have worked, have been considered somewhat of an oddity, fortuitous experiments that by some miracle have managed to capture that kernel of spirit that gives a haiku life, even without their integration of a seasonal word. Even so, many is the haiku workshop (kukai) that I have attended where a kigo-less poem has been chosen by several of the haiku poets present as one of their favourite of the session. During the ensuing discussion it invariably comes to light that this poem lacks a season word and, nigh on 50% of the time, the discussion then ends, the offending haiku relegated to oblivion and forgotten. However, many also are the times that the haiku is appraised by its other merits and, seasonless or not, it is kept and adds to the haiku literature. Why should this be so? The majority of haiku poets in Japan, and indeed haiku theorists (a career path I believe is peculiar to Japan), believe that kigo are an essential facet of haiku. There is a recognized necessity for some word, phrase or linkage that allows individual haiku to resonate off and from each other. Granted, a haiku can be powerful and full of insight in its own right. However, it is often the case that a given haiku is enriched by the associations with other insightful haiku brought to it through the kigo they share. With such a short poetic form, the insights that can be gained through a single poem are limited. Haiku poets in Japan invariably consider that which has gone before them when crafting a haiku. Whether this be to allude to a previous haiku through the choice of language and so to benefit from this resonance or to distance their creation from such associations. The very act of omission is noted, of course, by the educated haiku reader and the intention of the poet thereby grasped, in effect the omission of a specific kigo-related phrase becomes a kigo in itself. In Japan, the kigo as a concept is considered integral to haiku. The vast majority of poets define the kigo as a seasonal word or reference but experimentation has started, in the form of zo (various key words), on other interpretations.

Q.  Who has been the strongest influence on you as a haiku poet, and why?

A. That would probably be SUGAWA Yoko, my homestay mother in 1991, who first introduced me to haiku. Other strong influences come from KATOH Shuuson and from KANEKO Tohta. The former for haiku practice and the latter for haiku theory.

Dhugal LINDSAY (1971- ) Born in Rockhampton, Australia. Presently doing scientific research on deep sea midwater organisms using crewed submersibles and remotely operated vehicles at the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center (JAMSTEC).

First became interested in haiku through his host family while in Japan for a one year exchange to Keio University in 1991. Joined SUGAWA Yoko's "Fuyoh" (Rose Mallow) haiku group and KATOH Shuuson's "Kanrai" (Midwinter Thunder) haiku group in 1991. Joined "Haiku International" haiku group in 1993 and started attending "Riku" and "Kaitei" workshops upon invitation. Occasional appearances at haiku workshops and discussion panels nationwide, on national television as a guest poet and/or member of a judging panel, and on national radio (Japan/NHK and Australia/ABC). His work has been introduced in the Yomiuri Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun and Japan Times newspapers in Japan and in The Australian newspaper in Australia as well as in numerous journals and haiku-related magazines.

Editor of the Haiku Universe Internet page and coeditor of Fuyoh. "The first Westerner I have come across to make haiku of substance in the Japanese language." -KANEKO Tohta, honorary chair of the Modern Haiku Society (of Japan).

Work published in English in the books Haiku Seasons, Global Haiku, and the Australian Haiku Anthology, in the journals Modern Haiku, Haiku International, South by Southeast, Paper Wasp, Acorn and Rose Mallow, and in electronic form at HaikuOz, the Australian Haiku Society web page ( His essays have appeared in Modern Haiku, Acorn and Rose Mallow. His first haiku collection, Mutsugoro (The Mudskipper), published in 2001, won the 7th NakaNiida Haiku Award for best haiku collection by a developing poet (first time a non-Japanese has ever won a haiku award competing with other haiku poets composing in Japanese.)

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