Literary haiku poets Jan Benson and Agnes Eva Savich will be our features on Thursday, April 13, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).
Jan Benson is an award-winning haiku poet living in Fort Worth, and her work
has appeared in translation in several foreign languages. Her haiku have been published in many of the world’s leading haiku journals and magazines as well as regionally in “form poetry” magazines. In 2016, she won or placed in three international haiku contests. She s a member of Poetry Society of Texas and The British Haiku Society, Jan Benson’s haiku poetry and public profiles can be viewed at The Living Senryu Anthology (http://senryu.life/poets-index/80-index-b/benson,-jan.html), The Haiku Foundation Poet’s Registry (https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/poet-details/?IDclient=1980), Twitter: @janbentx, Facebook: Jan Folk Benson.
Agnes Eva Savich lives in Pflugerville with her husband, two kids, & four cats. She has been writing poetry since she was 12 and haiku for over a decade. She has over 100 haiku published in literary journals such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and Acorn, has been translated into 5 languages, and has placed in international haiku contests. She has an early collection of poetry, The Watcher: Poems (Cedar Leaf Press, 2009) and a first haiku collection in the works.
CH: What first attracted you to writing? What is your first memory of writing?
AES: Writing was a vehicle for awareness of self. I was 12 and my two best friends and I were at a sleepover. Sometimes our group dynamic was such that two of us would be on the same wavelength, leaving the 3rd one out for a bit. On this occasion, faced with just my own thoughts while they were busy with something else, I grabbed a pink sheet of lined notebook paper and tried to write the stream of consciousness thought process I was experiencing of their bonding together and my feelings of alienation. When I read it to them, they cried (tweens and their emotions!) and I realized what a powerful tool for expressing and channeling emotions poetry could be.
Of course my next poem was a vehicle for the silliness of being young, called Ode to a Nerd, which we turned into a ridiculous rap (loosely based on the Beastie Boys) using a Casio keyboard and a cassette tape. So even in the beginning I knew poetry could also be a vehicle for the lightness of being.
JB: My first memory of an impetus to write was at age 26, one year after the birth of my daughter. I had been keeping a journal-style record of her days, using first person.
At her first birthday, I decided I had a life too and began to journal. The practice has continued to this day, though with a couple of interruptions. First, in the mid 1980’s when my mother was fighting cancer; Second, in May 2014 when a medical procedure in the hospital caused me to lose my brain… down to no capacity for speech, no short-term memory, no sequencing skills, no writing at all.
CH: What was your exposure to poetry while you were growing up?
AES: I can’t say that I remember reading much poetry in grade school, but by 8th grade they had us memorize The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe and I was also obsessed with The Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (which I still have mostly memorized). I also went to Polish school (like a good little Polish immigrant in Chicago; all the way through high school), where they made sure we memorized the Invocation from Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz in Polish and would test us on it every year (yup, still have that in my brain too).
I was also heavily influenced in early high school by the poetry of Jim Morrison, and I’m sure I was introduced to the classics in my AP English courses. I was more into literature than poetry, but I did get a comprehensive tour of the fundamentals in a great poetry course I took at Northwestern University. From there I came away with a healthy appetite for Sylvia Plath, Gary Snyder, Wislawa Szymborska, ee cummings, Robert Pinsky, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Bukowski.
JB: The long made short, there was little poetry.
Mother occasionally read children’s books to my sisters and I. She had no inclination for poetry, except for songs and ditties. I clearly remember the song “Three Little Fishies” that had a chorus of: “boop boop diddum daddum waddum choo / and they swam and they swam / all over the dam.”
In 6th Grade we were putting on a play for the PTA that Spring and I wanted to be in the play. My English teacher insisted I could not audition for the play until I memorized Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain!” Which I did, auditioned for the play, and took one of the speaking roles.
CH: When did you first start to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
AES: That was in high school for sure. I started my own zine with a friend; I submitted to the district student writing publication; my friend anonymously submitted my poem to her high school’s literary magazine where she had some editorial powers, just so I would see it in print; and I wrote about many experiences through the lens of poetry when they seemed to have meaning beyond just journaling about them.
The first poem that felt like a real work of art I wrote the summer I was 16 and attending band camp at the University of Kansas. There was a boy involved that I had a crush on and the poem I wrote about him afterwards really felt like a masterpiece to me! It was powerful to me that I could use poetry to describe an experience abstractly which would yield the same feelings in the reader that I had in the experience. It was also key that writing was a way to channel unrequited energy; he had a girlfriend back home or something, so it was just puppy love on my part, with no reciprocation or activity beyond talking. I would say after that summer, I felt like writing was my thing (along with playing oboe of course, which is what I was doing in camp, and still do to this day.)
JB: Truly, it was in a court ordered class for defensive driving after I was caught speeding in 2000 (Alvarado, TX) returning from a poetry fest in ATX.
In the car, as the officer was writing the ticket, I knew I was high on poetry, lost to the world of rules. But did not recognize myself as a poet until the class monitor asked our names, and what we do.
“Jan, I’m a poet”
CH: How did you become interested in Japanese poetry forms? How did they become the focus of your work?
AES: I became interested in writing shorter poems as a way of having fun and communicating experiences and feelings in a more condensed way. There’s this awful website, poetry.com, which back then had a couple of fun haiku contests going: magnetic poetry, where you had to make a short poem with only their given subset of words, and a “haiku this photo” contest. So for about a year I wrote a bunch of these pseudo-haiku, having no idea what the form was really about in the literary world. I threw a lot of metaphorical, poetical dense word clusters into 5-7-5 syllable, three line format and rejoiced at this neat little art form that could encapsulate my writing without having to go the distance of a full length poem!
But then I wanted to know what was being written in the ‘professional’ world of haiku, so I went and picked up a copy of Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology. By the end of the book, I knew haiku was a much more complex and nuanced writing genre, far beyond the 5-7-5 form definition being thrown around by school teachers and mass media. Eventually I joined the Haiku Society of America, subscribing to the foremost haiku journal Frogpond, where the true literary power of haiku as a genre really blossomed for me.
JB: In 1999, Fort Worth, at one of the various poetry venues, I made friends with a haiku poet and got interested in the concept of juxtaposition. I had to adjust my mind to the “new” rules, moving well away from my “elementary school” understanding of 5/7/5. I joined the group, workshopping and writing haiku, until I moved to S.C. in 2001 just after 9/11.
When I scratched my way back to Texas in 2010, I immediately picked up the practice again, learning even more devices and advancements in the genre.
In May 2014 when I lost my brain, it was a slow recovery. After about 9 months I thought I might be able to do haiku again, as a therapy. Haiku requires an equal balance of right and left brain activity.
After struggling alone, I joined The Haiku Foundation (online) for their haiku workshops. There I met the mentors, Alan Summers (Britain) and Marion Clarke (Northern Ireland), who were patient with my limitations.
CH: When I think of haiku, I think of its precision and richness. For me, it connects to and opens into the natural world and the movement of time. How do you experience haiku?
AES: Yes, for me haiku is the singular expression of a brief moment of time in which I feel deeply some facet of or delight in the meaning of life. Often this moment feels inexplicable, intangible, so all I can do is write down its details and recreate the scene so that the reader might too feel the subtle poignancy. Rooting it in season elicits richer commonly shared connotations and draws those in to add further flavor to the haiku.
JB: While I do use haiku as a therapy, I find it opens nature in me and provides a connectedness to the universe not before experienced.
Truthfully, I experience haiku through the academics; the research of this growing form is unlike any other under the umbrella of poetry. The devices are not at all common to Western genres of poetry and are a challenge to approach and sort out. Incorporating just the beginner level haiku devices has seen me grow to international notoriety as a haiku poet. I will gladly be sharing those devices during my presentation at BookWoman on April 13, 2017.
What encourages me forward are the ever unfolding and new devices that can grow my current catalogue of haiku and never allow the work to become boring.
CH: How has the practice of short forms influenced the way you approach writing?
AES: When I wrote longer poems, I would wait for inspiration to strike me. I am a natural introverted watcher of things, so inspiration would come at me just from being in the world.
With haiku, that happens sometimes, but most often I consciously create space for the inspiration to happen. I pointedly observe the details of the world around me and try to conjure forth what’s special. Sometimes it’s like tuning fully into a radio station and a perfectly formed cluster of words will come at me! But I am ok with editing that later, or taking incomplete pieces as they come – I spend a lot of time, say a lunch hour, just jotting down plain observations and then seeing on the page how these juxtapositions interact, and then try to dig deeper into what else I’m experiencing while observing the natural world. What thoughts was I just having, what else is going on in life, what memories just popped up out of nowhere? And then I apply that layer to what I’m observing and see how those things cook together.
A lot of my haiku get born that way. Staring at a pond full of lotus flowers and realizing I was just thinking about whether I’ll have any more kids, and how can I package that moment into a poem. Or even being in a work seminar and realizing the sound of everyone shuffling their papers has a magical feeling, and trying to capture that in a poem. I’ve also realized that not everything I write has to be amazing – some haiku are there just to be bridges to the really good ones.
JB: Oh, Brevity! Power and Joy are thy names!
I do believe it might do well to clarify here, that English Language Haiku is currently the most broad expression of the genre, and even the writers of Japanese haiku acknowledge its domination in the world of short-form poetry.
CH: When I think of your work, I think first of your haiku. How have the Japanese forms in particular influenced other writing that you do?
AES: Writing haiku has really sharpened my Occam’s razor: the simplest way to write something is the best way! I’m very influenced by the brevity and simplicity of haiku, which is rooted in my earliest literary love: Hemingway. I like to find a simple, direct, and clear way to say something, which then elicits connection and emotion. When I write a longer poem or prose, I wind up gravitating towards simplicity. When I edit an initially dense word cluster, I see how many words I can cut away for it to still have meaning.
JB: As I am yet recovering my brain capacity, I am all-haiku all-the-time. But yes, even in correspondence I notice and count on the resonance of words. Well worded brevity can be a powerful influence.
CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer? As a non-MFA writer, what paths of growth have you followed?
AES: I self-assign myself a lot of reading (online and print journals, forums, and books) as well as involvement in the haiku community. I have a robust journal and contest submission schedule (Google calendar) and tracking system (Excel spreadsheet) for all my haiku. In the early days I was a frequent participant in several yahoo discussion groups where many of today’s best haiku writers were active, and now it’s mainly Facebook groups and The Haiku Foundation Forums.
The kill-your-darlings path of workshopping poems in online forums is particularly conducive to growth. I am protective of my haiku but without question I have gotten very valuable feedback that’s nudged work towards a polished gem as seen through others’ eyes – because ultimately haiku belongs just as much to the reader as the writer. It’s all about recreating your experience for someone else to experience in their own way. It’s amazing what depths are added when you bring another person’s viewpoint into evaluating your work!
I also think it’s important to collaborate. I’ve participated in renku, which is collaborative writing where there’s a leader and you take turns (sometimes competitively) adding to a chain of haiku according to specific rules. I’ve also started collaborating, notably with Jan Benson, on haiga, which is art or photography combined with a juxtaposed haiku.
I also try to push myself into presentation roles such as leading a haiku workshop at an Austin Writergrrls retreat, speaking at Waco Wordfest, and reading at BookWoman events. I am also planning on attending my first Haiku North America conference this fall in Santa Fe, NM. Immersing myself in workshops and lectures and meeting many of the haiku community in person will be an amazing experience.
JB: Being classically trained as a musician in my youth did teach me discipline. One of my therapies prior to returning to haiku was regaining my musical knowledge. To this day, I will put down a haiku journal to listen to a concert or musician. Pop music as well as classical do the same for me…replenishing my spirit!
A learned drive is now built into me. I enjoy researching the academics of haiku. Further, many of the BBC and PBS series of dramas feed me. As well, I avoid images of war, and greed.
CH: Please tell us about poets whose work has influenced yours. How has your work changed in response to their work?
AES: I pick up clues that influence my writing from reading my favorite haiku poets. Jack Kerouac’s haiku teaches me that haiku can be cool; Chase Gagnon teaches me to stay authentic and that urban grit and detailed personal experience are amazing in haiku; Marlene Mountain teaches me that one line haiku can capture the multisensory gist of a moment in as little as 5 words; Jim Kacian, John Stevenson, and George Swede all teach me that what seems like a fleeting thought can be a universal truth; Chiyo-ni teaches me to appreciate nature juxtapositions with the eyes of a child; Johannes S.H. Bjerg teaches me to dive head-first into the abstract; Jan Benson teaches me to dissect and clarify the possible interpretations of words; Alan Summers and Mark Brooks teach me to be playful with nature and thought; Alexis Rotella teaches me to look for the true delights in any given natural scene; Jane Reichhold teaches me about tenderness and deep listening; and finally Peter Newton, whose work I am most heavily crushing on right now, inspires me to write about the indescribable by catching seemingly disparate clues out of thin air and putting them together like a chef using exotic ingredients to create a multi-dimensional experience. There are so many more that are universally delightful and inspiring, but those are some of the specific lessons I’ve picked up from this set of poets.
JB: In the haiku world, these dozen poets most influence me:
Marlene Mountain (USA), for her brevity.
Johannes S.H. Bjerg (Denmark), for his experimentation in the form
Roberta Beary (USA), for ubiquitous presence, and feminism
Debbie Strange (Canada), for her unique expressions of nature
Chen-ou Liu (Canada), for his tenacity to publish and be published
Agnes Eva Savich (USA), for her sophistication and knowledge
Brendon Kent (Britain), for his whisper-soft juxtapositions
Marietta McGregor (Australia), for her unique images
Ben Moeller-Gaa (USA), for nuances in Midwestern observations
Marion Clarke (N.I.), for her deft hand at shahai (photo haiku)
Michael Smeer (Netherlands), for his international mentorship
Alan Summers (Britain), for his ability to teach students the value of a close
read in haiku and mentoring others to see themselves as “more-than”.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
AES: I’m usually in the middle of like 6 books (it’s ok, with haiku you can skip around!) but the most recent favorite I’ve read is Christopher Patchel’s Turn Turn. He’s the kind of writer that whatever piece I read in whatever journal his work pops up in, I immediately feel like he’s reached into the deepest nethers to illuminate a universal truth and simultaneously stretched the boundaries of what haiku could be. He is currently the editor in chief of The Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond publication. I highly recommend his book, each poem is delicious like a French pastry baked from scratch.
JB: I read at least three books a week online. Fortunately, haiku has many PDF files on specific sites that one can access for free.
The most recent perfect-bound book I’ve read is the international anthology, “Wild Voices”, in which both Agnes Eva Savich and I have poetry. We will be reading from this book at the BookWoman Event.