Helen McCarthy

NaHaiWriMo daily writing prompter for September 2016

1. How did you get started with haiku?

For a school project I had to do a comparison of bushido and the mediaeval European culture of courtly love, and was interested to learn that Japanese nobles were expected to be competent poets, or at least cultivated enough to appreciate poetry. But I didn’t start writing haiku until many years later when my partner and I were in Portmeirion in North Wales, on a beautiful white-sand beach in a tiny hidden cove. My first haiku came into my mind absolutely complete, as if it was something I saw, rather than something I made. I started to read haiku more often and more carefully than I did as a schoolgirl, but I didn’t write many more until December 2009 when I had a very similar experience in a snowy forest—a poem just arrived in my head. I decided to tweet haiku regularly as part of the process of learning to write them rather than just waiting for them to turn up of their own accord. I write haiku every morning. I think that I look at everything more precisely and carefully since I started writing haiku, and open myself up to the experience without holding back. I think I owe that to my favourite Japanese haiku makers, Issa and Santōka.

2. Tell us more about yourself.

I live in London, a city that claimed me on my first visit in my teens. I get constant inspiration from its beauty and diversity. I’m the eldest of a large family and I’ve been making things all my life. At school and university I costumed many plays and I worked in theatre costuming for a while, before life changes meant moving into jobs with shorter and more regular hours. Apart from poetry I make art, lately mostly in the form of needlework and collages of found objects. I’ve had a dozen books published in seven languages, all seemingly unrelated to poetry although I believe poetry informs everything I do, and I sometimes teach and speak about my specialist topic (Japanese popular culture) and about the creative life. People can follow my tweets @tweetheart4711 or my “Face Made for Radio” blog.

3. What does NaHaiWriMo mean to you?

A chance to share the joy of making haiku with more people. Everyone can make poetry and it is the most enriching and fulfilling spiritual and artistic discipline to make haiku.

4. What one piece of advice would you offer to those who are new to writing haiku?

Don’t bog yourself down in restrictions—Santōka taught me that the only thing that matters about a poem is whether it works. But do read lots of haiku, both classical ones and modern ones. Some of my favourite haikuists are on Twitter, and some online Japanese newspapers run haiku in English. Most haiku networks are very welcoming—the Akita International Haikuist Network welcomes people working in many languages and the base language of the group is English.

5. Please share three of your favourite or best haiku.

The following poem from December 2009 was the one that got me started on my haiku pilgrimage. It breaks several rules but I still like it.

first snows of winter

sudden, delicate, perfect

as a child’s laughter

This next one was written in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, and was published in my collection A Heartbeat from Disaster from Beckton Books.

the cherry blossom

less petals to fall this year

across more graves

And this was my entry for the British Haiku Awards 2010—it didn’t get a mention, but I still love it.

homeward through snowfall

my way a dream, already

erased by fresh drifts