Friday, February 15, 2019

Interview with Tom Clausen, Haiku Poet
                                                                                                      by Barry George

Tom Clausen is one of the most original and respected contemporary poets writing haiku in English. The author of numerous books, including Growing Late and Homework (Snapshot Press) and most recently Laughing to Myself  (Free Food Press), he has long been a regular contributor to the leading English-language haiku journals. His work has appeared in various anthologies; most notably, Norton's The Haiku Anthology. He is a member of the Route 9 Haiku group, four upstate New York poets who publish the journal Dim Sum. He is also an accomplished writer of tanka. In addition, he curates the daily online haiku feature of the Mann Library at Cornell University, where he worked for 35 years before retiring in 2013. A life-long resident of Ithaca, New York, Tom, along with his wife, Berta, have two grown children and their two dogs, one cat, and a finch. An avid walker, biker, and photographer, he enjoys "simply going about observing and documenting moments, beauty, and wabi sabi all around us."

I first met Tom at a haiku conference held in Kingston, Ontario, in the late 1990s. Already an established haiku poet at that time, he kindly responded to my subsequent correspondence, and has been most generous with advice and encouragement through the years. Considering his long experience with the form, I was interested in learning his thoughts about haiku today, as he writes it and as it is being written by other poets outside Japan.

The following are his thoughts in response to the questions I posed. Unless otherwise attributed, all poems and photographs are by Tom Clausen.

When did you start writing haiku, and what poets—or perhaps other authors or editors—influenced you in becoming a haiku poet?

TC: In 1987 I picked up a copy of a local free paper, The Ithaca Times, and read a profile about a local naturalist, Ruth Yarrow. The profile focused on her interest in haiku and included several of her haiku. I can remember reading this feature several times and feeling as if I was having a '"satori" moment each time! I was not feeling enlightened in the sense of a spiritual breakthrough, but actually in a way it was. Ruth's haiku were so entirely direct, succinct, intimate, and resonant to me that I was immediately aware that she was able to say something meaningful with just a few well-chosen words. This really got my attention and impressed me as being a genuinely humble and admirable form of poetry. One of her haiku to this day stands out for me as perhaps the most poignant and powerful little poem I have ever read:

after the garden party    the garden 

Six words, and yet it spoke volumes to me and contained an understanding of humanity that has always felt both haunting and rewarding. What this poem suggests to me is that in a gathering of people in a garden, the garden is not really itself until "after" the party is over. I've also felt that a subtext is how much more of the garden we might observe and receive if we were there, part of the party, but lingered after the party was over and everyone had left. To be in a garden by oneself versus with a whole group of people is such a different experience, and intuitively it is when we are alone with nature that we are most aware and open to the nuances and relationships possible.

In a way, my interest in poetry had been gradually moving towards the brevity of haiku for a couple years before I read the article about Ruth. I had taken a poetry class where my submitted poems were routinely returned to me with significant sections of the poem crossed out in red with comments like "redundant," "overly-wordy," "excessive," "unclear," and "repetitive." Others in the class had similar feedback on their poems, and I remember one friend in the class actually commented to me that perhaps we were headed toward writing haiku! I do not imagine  that the professor's intent was to steer the class toward haiku, but recall thinking that the snippets of my poems that were left after the cross outs might be like haiku.

Within a day of reading about Ruth Yarrow and her haiku, I started seeking out books at our library and bookstores about haiku. I was fortunate to find a copy of Cor van den Heuvel's Haiku Anthology and Bill Higginson's Haiku Handbook. Both proved to be invaluable sources of information with a marvelous variety of inspired haiku that became touchstones for me, and to this day serve as the examples of what is best possible in haiku. Within a week, I had subscribed to several haiku journals, including Modern HaikuFrogpond, and Wind Chimes. Within a month, I was submitting my first attempts at haiku and soon was receiving my first gentle rejections. I cannot even remember how long it was until I received an acceptance, but it was one haiku selected for Modern Haiku, and Bob Spiess, the editor, sent me a crisp one dollar bill. At the time he paid one dollar per haiku, and when I reached 50 published haiku, I sent him the $50 back as a thank you. The other editors, and the breadth of poets who were published in those days, were all incredibly welcoming, friendly, and best of all, wrote terrific and very memorable haiku. 

There were numerous poets whose haiku in the late '80s and early '90s provided great examples of the brilliance possible in haiku. Reading the haiku of these poets is entirely rewarding and serves to show what is possible in the haiku form. Every one of these poets and the editors I have had the good fortune to interact with at the beginning certainly inspired my interest, and led to my vow to myself that I hoped and planned to try to write haiku for the rest of my life. 

In the popular mind, haiku is often thought to be a nature poem of seventeen syllables. Yet most haiku poets in North America, Europe, and elsewhere outside Japan do not observe the strict 5-7-5 sound-syllable count that is better suited to the Japanese language, and they don’t always write about “nature.” What do you see as the defining qualities or most important values of contemporary haiku as you write it?

TC: Defining haiku has been a somewhat elusive prospect even for those steeped in the history, tradition, and definitions that have been established. The long-held identifying quality of it being a "nature poem" gets complicated when some would include humanity as part of nature, so that human affairs should be included in what is considered "nature."
The growth in popularity of haiku inevitably opens the sense of haiku to more diverse interpretations and definitions. I tend to go back to the definitions that I encountered when I began learning about and trying to write haiku. Some of those defining qualities included: being direct, immediate, concrete, in the now, showing rather than telling, simple straightforward language, a one-breath poem usually written in one, two, or three lines with usually less than 17 syllables, and a little poem of keen observation of relationship and connection.

A wonderful quality of haiku that I believe is recognizable whenever one begins to read contemporary haiku journals, collections, and anthologies is the great variety of ways in which haiku are written and how different the ways that they work can be. Personally I very much enjoy scouting out haiku that speak to me and that show me something I want to see and feel, whether it be a relationship, a juxtaposition, an intuitive feeling, a message or a hint at something transcendent, even if fleeting in nature. In my opinion, there is no formula or absolute defining quality for what  makes a haiku work for everyone or anyone. The best-loved haiku often have qualities that are both unique yet universal. That duality is certainly a desirable quality! There is a long-held association of haiku as being a poem with an "aha" moment of understanding or recognition. When we read a haiku that we like or love, there is usually a strong sense of being able to participate with the writer in the moment they have shared. This act of participation is an important quality of haiku and one that is not always easy to capture.

There can also be a definition of what qualities are not considered haiku. For instance, haiku are typically not a soapbox for opinion, metaphors, or telling a reader what to think. Haiku generally do not espouse rhyme, nor are they a statement or a sentence. One axiom that I remember reading in several places or hearing poets share is: "Learn the rules and then break them." This in itself suggests there are rules, yet poets who are well-regarded no doubt have written "haiku" that do not fit the rules.

To summarize, I would say that the values of haiku I most adhere to in my own attempts would be brevity, concision, clarity, directness, and observation that shares something I hope will be of interest and enable the reader to experience something that I witnessed and felt. 

I know that you write haiku about the natural world, and you also write about what might be called the domestic world—home, family, pets, work, going about one’s daily rounds. Are there any differences in the way you regard or experience writing about these two realms?

TC: These two haiku illustrate for me the key dynamic at work in writing haiku about nature: 

when I have sat long enough 
the red dragonfly
    comes to the wheatgrass 

               - Laurie Stoelting

on a mountain trail
but never alone 

               - Margaret Molarsky 

When we are out in nature, the ideal way to be out there and able to see and "receive" is to simply stand still and look, listen, and be patient enough to let things reveal themselves to you. It matters less where in nature you are than the reality that almost anywhere will be a place that will have beauty, nuance, and insight available to you if you take time to notice what is there. The near infinity of natural forms, shapes, designs, and inter-relationships is always now and always everywhere.  
It is a common human perception that we are alone and that loneliness stems from being without other humans to keep us company. A major part of where haiku arrive from is the recognition and understanding that in this life we are able to have a near infinite range of relationships and feelings for the breadth of life forms, as well as plants and literally everything. Having a haiku heart is to be entirely attentive, aware, and able to develop these myriad relationships, and to let them expand your consciousness and sense of belonging and connection to this incredible world we live in. 

Since 1988 I have always carried a small pocket notebook to record notes for little poems  and sometimes, when lucky, for when the little poem "writes" itself! I have learned that it is genuine good fortune to be open, ready, and disciplined enough to record things I observe as they happen. When I do not note things right away, it is more likely than not that "they" vanish into some netherland of lost thoughts fairly quickly. I always regret those lost poems, and each time I lose one, it helps me re-establish in my mind the importance of taking the time to write things as soon as possible after experiencing them! My writing habit has consistently been to write from direct personal experiences, whether it be in nature, at home, or on the job during the many years I was working. Rarely do I sit down and try to write a haiku. I need the haiku to reveal itself by virtue of something touching my senses or sensibility in a way that inspires documenting it. 

When writing little poems out in the natural world, I find that it is best to be by myself, to be extra-sensory aware of what is going on around me without the distraction of company and conversation.  

The little poems I write about family, friends, co-workers, strangers, and in social settings usually arrive because something insightful happens. When daily life presents an aspect of humanity that is humorous, insightful, satirical, haunting, truthful, or in some way worth sharing for levity and understanding, I tend to want to capture it if possible. These poems most often  jump out in my heart and mind as a moment that deserves recording. When I am bothered by something, that is another way in which I may want to write about it as a form of catharsis and transcendence. 

I will close with two of my little poems that illustrate the quality of senryu, which are haiku-like poems that typically touch on human foibles and the irony of the human condition. I have found long ago that there is no one other than myself more deserving of being critically examined and given some self-deprecating attention!

my wife admits
she is not perfect
but is glad I am

before sleep
laughing to myself
at myself 

Eastern thought is an inherent aspect of traditional haiku; for example, the haiku masters, especially Basho and Issa, were much influenced by Buddhist as well as Confucian ideas. Are there any particular philosophies or schools of thought that have significantly influenced your haiku?

TC: Personally, the most influential and sustaining aspect of haiku has been the poets that comprise the haiku community and the inspiring haiku that have become my favorites. Since I first began reading and trying to write haiku, I've enjoyed searching the journals and anthologies for those haiku that jump out and illuminate a place, a relationship, a sense, a moment, or a feeling. Going back to the masters, Basho, Buson, Shiki and Issa, and on to those who have created indelible collections of haiku today, I feel genuine gratitude for each and every one of these haiku. They are a lasting source of happiness and celebration that keeps me going! 

My interest in haiku developed simultaneously with an interest in Zen Buddhism and the writings of Alan Watts, Brother David Steindl, the Dalai Lama, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Mary Oliver, and R. H. Blyth, to name a few. At the time I discovered haiku I was attending a weekly zazen sitting at the Ithaca Zen Center with my wife, Berta. We would go every Sunday and sit silently for three 45-minute sessions, and a brief walking meditation in the woods between each sitting. Sitting there following the breath, listening to the silence, with occasional crows cawing and wind soughing in the trees, made for a great chance to let the "silt" in the mind settle out and begin to see what an empty mind might be....

morning zazen
marriage counseling 

There was a natural connection for me between haiku and meditation. I felt haiku was spiritual poetry with a devotional sense that was about just "what is" and is in the "always now." Haiku being poetry of the present tense appealed to me especially at this time in my life when I was drawn to celebrate the myriad "news" stories that were available to find in everyday nature, but not found in the other news that was "fit to print"! It was a great relief to recognize that within this world/universe there are parallel worlds/universes! 

For more than twenty years you have selected and edited the Mann Library's Daily Haiku at Cornell University, which showcases the work of a different contemporary haiku poet each month. What has motivated you to initiate and maintain this project, and are there ways in which doing this has affected your own path as a haiku poet?

TC: The Daily Haiku feature at Mann Library had a very simple beginning when I casually started taping a piece of paper with a haiku on it in our old dingy stacks elevator. It was an attempt to share my new-found joy in haiku, and was also posted in hopes that it provided a space for anyone to write something. When the library underwent a major renovation, the new building had an elevator that was quite upscale and not at all a decor in which a taped piece of paper would have fit. I assumed the daily haiku feature had run its course, and was quite surprised when our director, Janet McCue, informed me that she intended to retain the haiku feature, but have it as part of the online home page! It was her generosity of spirit and belief in my love of haiku that initiated this feature. It has been a great honor and pleasure to be able to share haiku with library staff, patrons, and whoever might discover the site online. 

When Janet retired, I was unsure whether the new director, Mary Ochs, would want to retain the haiku feature, and again was surprised when she assured me that, yes, it was still appreciated, and that it would be continued. When they revised the Mann Library home page, I was grateful to see, once again, that the haiku was still included. It has run for such a long time now, almost 20 years online, that I have become quite attached to the feature, but also understand that it could end at any time. In essence, I have viewed this feature as a great gift and chance to celebrate haiku with many who may not be familiar with the form. Although it is called The Mann Library Daily Haiku, I have posted some little poems that do not fit the tradition or definitions that are recognized by most in the haiku community. I have regretted any misconceptions that this may have created for some readers, but have always hoped that each reader will figure out for themselves what is a haiku and what isn't, or just enjoy whatever I post whether it fits their sense of haiku or not. Although I am not an editor, I enjoy making the selections and trying to share poets and their poems that will be of interest to others. Being the curator has truly strengthened my interest in reading haiku and becoming familiar with the range of poets writing haiku today. 

Over the past few decades we’ve come to realize, with far greater urgency, that the way most humans live poses a threat not only to our own survival but also to the well-being and survival of the rest of life on the planet. I’m interested to know if you think the prospect of global warming and climate change influences your haiku or your thinking about the significance of haiku in today's world.

TC: Despite the somewhat awful impacts that humanity has on nature, it is also some solace to see the resilience of nature and its ability to heal itself rather miraculously. 

bumper sticker
on the car ahead of me:
"Nature bats last" 

Global warming and climate change are genuine and very sobering concerns, and I believe haiku will  be informed by this reality ever more. I have not written poems that directly touch on climate change, but have generally written about our place in the universe and the sense of wonder that comes with that!   

end of the trail...
the world
without humans

the development
deer path

in a hollow
at the base of the trunk
a seedling 

I do think haiku present realities that illuminate the existence of parallel worlds that are all seamlessly connected. The wonderful and myriad microcosms that go on undeterred by the affairs of humans is an incredible testament to the tenacity of life forms and gives me hope that our world will survive despite us. To witness this currency of non-human life and to tune into the layers of living that exist around us is a daily reminder that we have a privileged place in this world, being able to observe, appreciate, and share in haiku, our witness. I can't help but imagine those who read and write haiku are likely to become ever more sensitive to this world that we are all passengers on. We are, in a sense, news reporters from both the heart and the edges of this planet and its human consciousness. It is expected and natural that our precarious and fleeting place on this planet enter into our haiku.

What do you find yourself writing about mostly right now, and are you working on any particular writing projects or collections?

TC: My writing continues to be about whatever moves me in a moment and without any conscious gravitation to certain subjects. I have tended to write while out walking or riding my bicycle, and am on the "lookout" for whatever might be worthy of taking a photo or making some notes. At this time I do not have any plans for a new book collection, but am part of the Route 9 Haiku group that publishes a collection of our poems twice a year called Upstate Dim Sum. This is easily my most sustaining connection within the haiku community and truly keeps me inspired and writing. The group meets almost monthly with the expectation that each of the four of us in the group—John Stevenson, Hilary Tann, Yu Chang, and myself —will present sixteen new little poems to each other. I regularly share my photos and poems on Facebook with friends, along with quotes, poems, and photography that I have found and hope others will enjoy.

What advice would you give to someone who is drawn to haiku and would like to learn and develop as a haiku poet?

TC: Read widely. Get outdoors. Walk widely. The more you read, the more you will read...the more you write, the more you will write...the more you walk, the more you will walk. So much of life is patience, practice, habit, ritual, routine, and believing in your own being as a miracle, and your experiences as precious and worthy of your writing. Read to find what you love. When you find haiku you love, you will have the beginning sense of what qualities make the poem appealing to you.

The best antidote to feeling you do not know what to write about or where to start is to pick up any anthology or journal and read the variety of published poems. It is almost a guarantee that it will get you going! Always carry a pocket notebook and pen or pencil, and be prepared to take the time to record notes about what you see for possible later work in shaping them into a little poem. When writing haiku, it is certainly advised to whittle the poem to the fewest and most essential words possible. The ruin of many haiku is excess and trying to say too much.

Before I discovered haiku, I had been trying to write longer poems and remember reading Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, which has wonderful advice for anyone aspiring to write or create. I highly recommend reading that collection of letters, any of Mary Oliver's luminous poetry, reading Rumi, Hafiz, and whoever you find who speaks to you and inspires you to keep on keeping on!


alone in the waiting room
      checking the plant
             for reality

heavy rain—
lilac blooms smush
against the window

cold autumn wind
in all the cracks
eyes of barn cats

snow filling
our tracks into the woods
by heart

old diary
rebuilt memories
of who I was

stifling a yawn
in the company
of myself

just oatmeal
the waitress says:


autumn path...
my thoughts
lose their place

on the horizon
just enough cloud
to hold some sunset

night train—
part of myself reflected
in thought

for the lost cat...
wind chimes

standing here
at this window, remembering mother
standing here



Barry George's haiku and tanka have been published in more than 50 journals and twelve languages.His poems appear in such anthologies as A New Resonance 2: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku; The New Haiku; Haiku 21; Streetlights: Poetry of Urban Life in Modern English Tanka; Kamesan's Haiku Anthology on War, Violence, and Human Rights Violation; and Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems. An AWP Intro Poets Award recipient and Pushcart nominee, he has won numerous international Japanese short-form competitions, including First Prize in the Haiku Society of America's Gerald R. Brady Contest. He is the author of Wrecking Ball and Other Urban Haiku and The One That Flies Back, a chapbook of tanka. His main interests are haiku and tanka, along with other poetry exploring our relationship with nature and the Earth.