Monday, 19 May 2014 22:08

Inside the Mind of a Haiku Poet

Written by 

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Most creative people have called themselves a poet at one time or another. We scribbled in those black and white composition notebooks in our teens and twenties, (which we found and destroyed in our thirties). We sat in smoky coffeehouses (in the days when smoking was still allowed in public places—because, let’s face it: it’s romantic to write angsty poetry when there’s smoke billowing around). Our young insights were profound to us, and we had to get them out on paper. It was exciting to think we were part of an underground movement, a kind of mystical understanding that belonged to a certain crowd. Then we moved on to other things when we realized poetry—good poetry—is hard. But there are those who didn’t “move on,” simply because they knew it was what they were supposed to do for the rest of their lives.

Ben Moeller-Gaa is an example of this. His second chapbook, Wasp Shadows, explores moments in time witnessed by his receptive mind and peaceful heart. Published internationally in over twenty-five journals, Ben is also the author of Blowing on a Hot Soup Spoon, an editor of River Styx, and his haiku has appeared in Red Moon Press’s 2011-13 Best of English Language Anthologies.


The haiku’s Japanese origins date back to the ninth century, although the term haiku is fairly young. This form is derived from its tanka origin, but was only introduced to the Western culture in the nineteen-fifties. It was finally embraced and adapted by the Beat movement, as poets like Kerouac helped bring Eastern teachings into this American subculture. It is also probably the most intimidating form of poetry, as most of us remember from grade school, counting off that precise five-seven-five syllable format on our stubby fingers. This severe style has become much more relatable for audiences today. Still steeped highly in tradition, the modern haiku is no longer quite so constrained. Themes of nature still exist, but modern poets have steered this ancient style into something more intimate and accessible to almost every walk of life.


I met with Ben at one of his evening refuges, McGurk’s Irish Pub and Garden on a warm spring evening. The sun sat overhead and refused to go down, casting long shadows in between the buildings that added to the golden glow of this little haven. Around us was the chattering of other patrons, worn-out from a day’s work and desperate to relax. The garden provided all of us a bit of sanctuary from the busy streets of Soulard, transporting us into a lush and verdant European courtyard, or maybe a cobblestoned section of the Garden District in New Orleans.


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These visits to McGurk's are important to him, Ben explained. He can sit in silence and observe the goings-on around his table, and also meet up with his colleagues who pop in for a drink. It was his place, he went on to say, not just a weeknight evening routine, but an essential custom that keeps him in a particular creative and positive state of mind.


As the sound of the waterfall drifted from the nearby koi pond and the ice rattled in our glasses, we chatted about inspiration and the writers’ struggle to find their “voice,” reflecting on where we belong in the creative world alongside our peers. Then we explored the world of haiku and Ben’s latest literary contribution.


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Wasp Shadows is a simple, but intimate look into little moments of discovery. Beautifully designed with calligraphy by Folded Word editor, JS Graustein, it is a sensory time piece that illustrates the passing of seasons, of daylight into twilight, and urban sounds dwindling as nature takes over, like the exchanging of strings at a concert symphony. Each poem hums with an energy belonging only to it, and no two have exactly the same reverberation.


AR: First of all, tell me a bit about your career as a writer. How did you get involved in the writing community here in St. Louis?


BMG: I started out doing open mics. There used to be a place called Café Danielle next to Left Bank Books in the Central West End that had a weekly open mic and I was a regular there for a few years after college. This was the late 90’s. Then I got involved with local theatre and film working with the Tin Ceiling Theatre Company and Wicked Pixel Cinema as well as writing and directing plays for the now closed Ravissant Winery in my home town of Belleville, Illinois. But what really got me in the door was getting involved with River Styx. A waitress friend of mine from McGurks, Allison Trombley, stepped down from being a contributing editor for poetry and suggested that I give it a try. And so I did. That was nearly ten years ago and I haven’t looked back since.


Being a part of River Styx has opened a lot of avenues for me. One big one was simply being around poetry all the time. When you read for a journal, you are exposed to a huge amount of work from all over the place. It is very humbling and you quickly learn how rare the really, really good poems are. A second was being a regular to all of the great River Styx Reading Series events. The journal brings in some really great writers which, in turn, brings out many writers in the community who come to attend the readings. Over the years you meet and mingle and get to know people. Then as I started to branch out to take in more of the many great lit events around town, you see some of the same people and relationships start to grow.


Another great reading series, the Poems, Prose and Pints, started by Kristen Sharp and John Dressel at Dressel’s Pub in the CWE, was where I really got a good foot hold in the community. Because that show had 5 readers plus The Dressel each month, it really exposed me to a much wider group of people. I became a regular audience member, then a regular reader, then guest host and then the full time emcee for the last year it ran. I also became part of the (Un)Stable Writer’s Group through this series, of which I am also still an active member today.


I would also like to add that while I have now been around the block a few times and have become a familiar face in the St. Louis writing community, I still feel like there’s a whole lot more to explore. We have such a rich writing culture here with events almost every night of the week that it’s hard to take it all in. The new Prose/Poem series starting up at the Stone Spiral is one that I hope to be attending more of as well as the Shine Goodie House readings down at the Soulard Art Market.


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AR: What kinds of poetry did you write before you discovered haiku?


BMG: I experimented with all sorts of stuff. I think before I went small and stayed small, I had an interest in poems that had interchanging rhythms centered around word repetition. If you’ve heard Dwight Bitikofer’s ‘Train’ poem, that would be akin to stuff I toyed with. Otherwise it was a lot of free verse of various shapes and sizes.


AR: What elements of traditional haiku do you incorporate into your poems, and what rules do you love to break?


BMG: I am not a big rule breaker when it comes to haiku. If anything, I am still trying to get a handle on everything that makes a good haiku a good haiku. While I have had a good number of my poems published now, they pale in comparison to the many unsuccessful haiku that I have written. This is a big part of why they are so engaging to me. They are hard. But when they work, there is nothing else quite like them. They are like the TARDIS in Dr. Who, something that looks small on the outside, but are vast once you step inside them. And a good haiku requires that you step inside and fill up the room with your own experiences.

This idea that a haiku needs to be both specific and vague at the same time is something that I definitely strive for. Another is that haiku take place in the present moment. They cannot take place in the past or the future. Another is that a haiku can't be overtly personal. The poem can be from my life, for example, but the moment it becomes something only from my life, the haiku dies. The haiku poet should fade into the background of the poem. Where the haiku poet makes their individual mark is through the images and moments they capture. Haiku are also a juxtaposition of two images with a third image or word or phrase that ties the two images together, making them become more than the sum of their parts.


Take the following haiku, for example:

a little frog

on our sundial

passing time


This haiku has two images, a frog and a sundial, that are tied together by the third line of "passing time.” This third line speaks to both the frog and the sundial and gives the haiku its pop. Notice that there is very little description provided about the frog or the sundial. Outside of "little,” there is zero description. And yet, I have found over and over again, that people connect to this piece. Everyone instantly sees a frog and a sundial. They step inside the poem and place these two images in a setting, in a season, and they can describe in great detail what the scene of the haiku looks like to them. This is what I mean when I say that good a haiku requires you to step inside and fill them up with your own experiences. Most other forms of writing would ask the poet for more details to try and nail down exactly what the poet sees. That is not the case with haiku. It is perhaps its greatest of qualities. It cares about and leaves room for what the reader sees.


AR: What is your process for taking a moment that inspires you and breaking it down into the smallest element that still tells a story?


BMG: Excellent question. The process begins with having a moment in time that peaks my interest. Case in point, all this week, on my lunch walk, I've encountered the same white egret. It hasn't been near the pond I walk by before, but all of the sudden, these past three days, there it is. As soon as I saw it the first day I knew that there was a haiku there, but it eluded me. Today, the third day of encountering this beautiful bird, the poem started to form.


The difficulty, for me, is not with finding an initial image; it's with finding the second image. It's tricky because just because other things are present at that moment doesn't mean that they are nor should be part of the haiku. In this case, with my daily walk and meeting up with this egret, I had a lot of secondary image options to choose from. And I struggled until it hit me that I was going about it the wrong way. So instead of thinking about images straight up, I asked myself ‘why am I captivated by this lone egret?’ The following haiku suddenly emerged:


alone again

at the water's edge...

white egret


AR: What I find most wonderful about your haiku is that you create these ‘universal moments.’ You paint a picture using only a few words to bring anyone instantly back to a personal memory: a wasp shadow bobbing about, or an uncomfortable silence shared between two people. What do you think is the most integral key of illustrating a moment?


BMG: U2's guitarist The Edge talks about writing songs by saying that he likes guitar riffs that, when you hear them, sound like they've always existed. The best haiku are like that. It is a very difficult thing to nail down, much less map a process to, as each haiku emerges differently, but when they work, they arrive like this. The key is to strip the moment down to its very essence without losing its edge so that it is both smooth and defined at the same time. To get access to this key, it takes a lot of reading and writing and rewriting. And then it takes an equal amount of work and courage to recognize when you've hit the mark and move on.


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AR: What journals do you submit to?


BMG: One of my goals that I had when I went all-in haiku is to be consistently published in journals, a number of journals in a five-year period. So that eventually it would be that when an issue comes out, they’d expect to see me, and when I wasn’t there, they’d be, ‘Oh, I wonder what happened with that guy this time!’


AR: You’re building an audience.


BMG: I’m building an audience, and building a name for myself, and the key to that in my mind is consistency. I don’t enter any contests, I just submit to journals, and see if I can find a nice consistent streak. And I figure after five years of doing that I would get into some sort of a habit or routine of submitting, I would know what the deadlines are and I’d be good at keeping tabs of where I was submitting and when, and it would become something that would be sort of ingrained in me. So, I’m in about year three-and-a-half to four of that, and so far it’s been working out pretty well.


There are more literary journals devoted entirely to haiku than you would imagine, and Ben rattled off a half-dozen, mentioning a few that abandon the traditional structure and recreate it into the avant-garde.


BMG: It’s maybe a strange thing for people to hear about. I’m probably not the best person to speak to about avant-garde haiku. There are people in the fringes of English haiku that are starting to do different things. Trying to even develop a separate school. Haiku over the years has had many different schools, many different springs of thought, it has kind of split and formed and split and formed, so this is a natural thing. It’s kind of the first time something like this has started to happen in English haiku. It’s kind of an exciting thing, but I write a little bit more conventionally, I’d guess you’d say. Ideas come from anywhere. I mean, as we’re sitting here on the patio, who knows what could come out and come at me, like the brown birds that are pecking at our feet and the fountains and the tables next to us, all sorts of stuff.


AR: Have you already thought of a thousand different ideas just sitting here in the last few minutes?


BMG: That’s just it. I don’t really come and think of ideas. What I would need to do is come and sit down and take a couple deep breaths, and I would probably bring out an anthology, or I have a new issue of Acorn in my bag here, and I would start reading some of those. As soon as I start doing that, I kind of start getting into a haiku-zone. And things just start jumping out at me.


AR: So, you would say they come from a contemplative state, rather than a thousand ideas that come at you, the way some people write fiction.


BMG: I very rarely go into writing with intent. Like “I want to write about this, or I want to write about that…” I might get a number of images coming at me at one time, and I’m sitting there with my haiku sketchbook, and I’m writing one after the other…and I’m not afraid of writing bad haiku. You have to write a bunch of bad. Most of the stuff I write is bad. I’ll be writing about the little birds on the pavement, and as I’m writing that, all of a sudden something else sneaks its way in, which is the haiku I’m meant to write. If an image hits me I’ll write it down, because you never know.


I’m in a couple writing groups. One that meets regularly is the (Un)Stable Writers, and I also meet with the haiku poet John Han, and we meet once a month and just share a month’s worth of writing. And we’ll go through and talk about everything. Sometimes I’ll have five or six versions of a haiku and I’m not sure which one I like best, so I try to get some feedback from other people and see what people respond to.


AR: What is the one thing you would like your readers to take from your haiku?


BMG: I think that the one thing I hope people take is that they notice something that they might’ve walked past. They notice something that had been there in the room with them or outside with them, and for whatever reason they’d been too preoccupied with something else to notice.


One thing that I really like about haiku is that it focuses on these little things that most people are too busy to pay attention to. That’s one of the reasons why I like getting into a calm state, because when you start down the track of writing haiku and thinking through a haiku mind or lens, it’s amazing what opens up to you.


To learn more about St. Louis’ poet Ben Moeller-Gaa and his chapbook ‘Wasp Shadows,’ visit his website at:




‘a little frog’ appears in Notes from the Gean: 3:2 (2011) & ‘Wasp Shadows’ Folded Word (2014)


Photos by Autumn Rinaldi


Wasp Shadows Cover, Design, and Calligraphy by JS Graustein




Special Thanks to Folded Word Press