Small Thoughts: Writing and Submitting Haiku

By Michael Kriesel

I came to haiku after thirty years of writing minimalist nature poems. Those years of writing helped and hurt. In a lot of ways, I knew what I was doing. I just had to remove the I. I had to stop editorializing, to even the smallest degree. I had to abandon cause-and-effect style writing. I had to let the images speak for themselves.

Haiku is what resonates between two images. It’s unlike other forms of poetry. Haiku dwells somewhere between the poem and the Zen koan. It’s closer to a meditative state than other types of writing. My mental state’s different when I’m writing haiku. It’s somewhere between the trance of chanting / meditation and the state of mind I occupy while writing “normal” poetry. I’d say there’s a connection between writing haiku and meditation. Certainly the latter enhances the former.

I sent what I thought were my first few haiku to Frogpond, the Haiku Society of America’s quarterly journal. The gods were kind. Not to my poems, which weren’t even haiku—but in the editor they found. John Stevenson replied in two weeks. He told me what was wrong with my poems, and kindly encouraged me. Three months of feedback, guidance and encouragement resulted in my first two haiku being accepted by John for the Spring / Summer 2006 Frogpond.

                    empty lockers                               empty beer can
                    the janitor sweeps                        crickets
                    a red mitten                                 chip away the light

Later, I found another mentoring editor: Charles Trumbull, at Modern Haiku. What’s best, these two aren’t anomalies. Everyone I’ve met through the mail in haiku’s tiny universe has been wonderfully supportive and encouraging. It reminds me a lot of my experiences with the members of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, since joining that organization a few years ago. I have about a dozen keepers to show for a year’s worth of tinkering. I maybe threw away a hundred.

When I first began exploring haiku, I consulted Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms. It defines haiku as three lines with 5 – 7 – 5 syllables—a form most of  us learned in grade school. But all that’s changed, as I found out when I hit the Internet. The agreed-upon form is less rigid these days. Seventeen syllables is no longer required.
R.H. Blyth, a translator of Japanese haiku in the 1950s and 60s, suggested haiku in English should be a stressed form, since English is a stressed language.

Some haiku have two lines. Once in a great while, a haiku has four. There’s also a popular form with just one line. Here are a few of mine:

whale of stars swallows me                                    gravel loud as frogs one headlight out           

(Modern Haiku Winter / Spring 2007)                        (Wisteria July 2008)


                        crows standing in a field I lose again at chess

                                    (Modern Haiku Summer 2008)

Besides haiku, there’s senryu. Haiku relates nature to human nature. Senryu deals with human nature. The boundary between the two is sometimes fuzzy. I present two of mine:

door flies open                                                 paper plate
Miss September                                                floats on a lake
barely hides me                                               we lived here

            (Seems #40 Fall 2006)                                   

There’s been a renaissance in English-language haiku since the 1960s. The first magazine devoted solely to original haiku in English appeared in 1963 in Platteville, Wisconsin. In 1968 the Haiku Society of America (HSA) was founded. Currently it has 800 members. Today there are dozens of haiku magazines, electronic and print. The Internet’s the place to find out about haiku. Critique groups and theories and contests abound. Page after page of award-winning poems from the last several years can be yours at the touch of a print button.

Now the bad news. Few academic journals publish haiku. There may be a reason Turco’s Book of Forms ignores the last four decades of developments in the haiku form. Haiku doesn’t lend itself as readily to the MFA mindset of explication / competition. Most haiku writers are middle-aged or older. There’s also more of a spiritual element to haiku than you find in many academic journals, where the emphasis is often on language and experimentation.

There’s hope in the small press. Since the late 1990s some minimalist-style poets have been trying their hands at short nature poems and the occasional haiku. Most of these writers are in their early thirties. I think as they get a little older, you’ll start to see haiku appear more often in the small press.

For now, though, here in America haiku’s pretty much a squatter in the basement of the ivory tower. There’s some pretty serious segregation going on. If you pick up a haiku journal, you won’t see the names of any mainstream poets, or even small press poets, for that matter. Meanwhile, few haikuists ever leave their pond, though there are exceptions. HSA President Pamela Miller Ness’s work appears frequently in the small press zine Lilliput Review, which specializes in short poems; HSA Vice President Michael Dylan Welch edits Tundra, devoted to the short poem, where Ted Kooser and other major poets have appeared. 

Rengay is a recent development in haiku. These six-haiku sequences between two poets or more are super popular, because they’re so much fun! The Rengay was invented by Garry Gay about 20 years ago. His two rules: more than one participant, and adherence to a theme. Be warned: Rengay are really hard to get published. Everyone’s writing them, and the few haiku journals publishing them only run one or two per issue.

Here’s one I wrote, where some of my grandfather’s sayings finally came home:

Elegy for Barns

Quite a world
one half fucks
the other
                        sunlight climbs the wall
                        grandpa’s glass of muscatel

40 years farming
those cows never
took a vacation

                        the starter just clicks
                        after an hour
                        he gets off the tractor

But if you say something
then you’re the asshole

                        it finally snows
                        dead battery
                        left on the lawn

Alvin Kriesel
Michael Kriesel

I’d been writing haiku for a few years before I tried my first Rengay. Though interested in the form, I’d yet to find a writing partner. Then while collaborating on some free verse pieces with Cathryn Cofell, the form came to mind and we wrote a couple. Here’s one of them:           

Eat Me

I swing into you,
a surprise attack of fist.
Skin connecting skin.

first kiss
I chip her tooth

I break you open
for breaking me wide open.
You terrorist.

peeling sunburn
from your back
I eat it

Do you feel me wind through you?
Know me as tapeworm, hunger.

eating even
the seeds
her first orange

Cathryn Cofell 
Michael Kriesel

Not all the sections in the above two examples are “true” haiku. But so what? Deviation from dogma is how evolution occurs. One haiku editor’s objections to Elegy for Barns were that my grandpa’s segments weren’t haiku, and that the language was too rough for haiku’s soft-spoken genre. Another editor said the poem came close to making the cut for his magazine. But I’ve grown less concerned with haiku’s rules of the road, and more interested in whether I’ve got a good poem. You can learn to write “true” haiku, and then move on to use elements from the form to enhance your other verse. Condensation and resonant imagery are the two biggest things haiku added to my other poems. But now I’ve started going back to haiku’s forms themselves, and using them in new-ish ways. And I’m not the only one. Sequences of haiku and haiku-like poems are sometimes being used to tell a story—in this case, one about modern-day vampires, by Wisconsin poet Wendy Vardaman:

Suburban Vampyres

Unlike the other
mothers, one look’s all she needs
to calm wild children.

The first grade teacher’s
phone call wakes him up: “There’s some-
thing wrong with your son.”

She tries hard to fit
in—never brings friends home—wears
long, bite-hiding sleeves.

Friday night—can’t get
a date—Mom lies: “There’ll be more
like you at college.”

You think you’re liberal
until your son confesses:
he’s been one for years.

Broken glasses, blind
as bats, he cracks his teeth on
a mannequin’s neck.

Camping vacation,
mix business with pleasure,
mentor mosquitoes.

And here’s an example I wrote that has a more pronounced story arc:

Zombie Summer

purple tulips
zombie fingers poke
through melting snow

in the corn
scarecrow wanders
zombie crows don’t fly

army on TV
I shoot
the moaning wind

zombie summer
everyone wears
an orange hat

zombie girl chained
in a basement
music starts upstairs

trick or treaters
tell real zombies
by the smell

Lincoln’s statue
students chant
zombie rights!

Christmas sale
white ashes
land on shoppers

"Suburban Vampyres" and "Zombie Summer" appeared respectively in a pair of Popcorn Press anthologies: Vampyre Verse (2009), and The Hungry Dead (2010). The poems also illustrate another new trend in haiku: genres. Science fiction haiku is everywhere. Another new form is vaiku (vampyre haiku). And there are more. Are these poems “true” haiku? Maybe not. And maybe that’s a good thing. How’s that saying go? Don’t let your dogma eat your karma?

Some of the info in this essay came from Haiku: A Poet's Guide, by Lee Gurga, 2003. Lincoln, Illinois: Modern Haiku Press, 2003. Foreword by Charles Trumbull. $20.00 postpaid in the United States from Modern Haiku Press, Box 68, Lincoln, IL 62526. Buy this book before you start. It’s readable, enjoyable, full of great examples.

The Haiku Society of America. Annual dues $33. Membership in the HSA includes a year’s subscription to the Society’s journal, Frogpond. In addition, members receive a quarterly newsletter. Membership application available at:

Frogpond, Editor: George Swede                       
Box 279, Station P                                               
Toronto, ON M5S 2S8                                                                       
Sample copy $10                                                
(Make checks payable to HSA)                       

Modern Haiku, Editor: Charles Trumbull
POB 33077
Santa Fe, NM 87594-3077
Sample copy $10
(Make payable to Modern Haiku)