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March 1, 2023
By Marian Amo

In his poetry collections, Jacob D. Salzer beckons readers to unplug from the sea of digital distractions to soak in the beauty and wonder of life through the art of haiku and tanka. BookLife chatted with Salzer about the power of the art form, his creative process, and how he’s reaching like-minded readers.

What led you to the poetry style of haiku?

"The secret to tanka is the twist or turn in the poem, which creates two parts. "
I was first introduced to haiku at the Evergreen State College in 2006. I took a course titled “The Way of Haiku and Haibun,” taught by Kate Crow. This class introduced students to haiku, tanka, and haibun poetry by three famous Japanese poets: Matsuo Bashō, Kobayashi Issa, and Yosa Buson. The book we used is The Essential Haiku, edited and translated by Robert Hass.

Our teacher told us that haiku is about capturing a moment. I practiced meditation every day—and still do—and greatly appreciated the notion of simply noticing life happen without judgment and writing down the moment as it’s observed, using very few words. This was the first stepping stone on my haiku journey.

Each poem carries an experience behind the stanzas. Do you write spontaneously in a moment of inspiration? Or from reflecting on an experience?

I sometimes write down a moment just after it’s observed. Usually, those preliminary notes are not polished haiku; they are initial impressions or the seeds of one—or several—haiku. I frequently carry a small notebook with a pen and jot down notes of interesting things I see, hear, smell, touch, and, sometimes, taste.

Other times, I polish my notes into haiku when I come home to reflect and look at pictures I took. Sometimes a photograph can inspire a haiku. Most of my haiku are grounded in an actual experience based on something observed in waking life. However, sometimes a haiku is inspired by an imaginary moment or even a dream.

What is the difference between a haiku and a tanka?

English-language haiku have several different forms. As a few examples, haiku in English can be written in one line, two lines, three lines, or even four lines. Three-line haiku are most common in English.

They tend to have a balance between a “concrete” image and something more abstract or mysterious. This juxtaposition between a one-line fragment and a two-line phrase can create additional depth, resonance, and meaning between the two parts of the poem.

The cut or pause in the poem—in Japanese, this is called the kireji—creates the two parts. In English, the cut or pause is accomplished naturally by reaching the end of the line, or by using punctuation such as an ellipsis or a dash. In my experience, the secret to many haiku is that balance where the reader can fill in the gap and experience the poem in their own way.

Some haiku also flow as a three-line poem that describes a moment without juxtaposition between two parts. Haiku also tend to have a seasonal reference—called a kigo in Japanese—to help us rediscover our place and connections with Mother Earth.

One-line haiku in English—sometimes called a monoku—offer multiple readings and meanings. This is usually achieved by using one or more words in at least two different ways.

Haiku don’t use emotional words overtly, though they can express many emotions through imagery and contain hidden or implied meanings—as well as metaphors and wordplay—as expressed through the five senses. Haiku leave some space and mystery for the reader.

It should be mentioned that English-language haiku do not have to be written in a five-seven-five-syllable pattern, despite this being taught widely in U.S. public schools. English syllables are different than Japanese phonetic units, called mora. Each mora gets an equal beat of rhythm in Japanese haiku. While many Japanese haiku are written in five-seven-five mora, this does not equate to English syllables. In short, haiku in English should not be written in a rigid, mathematical structure. What the five-seven-five structure does give us is a general sense of rhythm in haiku.

Tanka in English are typically five-line poems. Tanka means “short song” in Japanese. They are lyrical poems and, in contrast to haiku, they can express emotions more clearly, though the emotions can be expressed in very subtle ways, as well. While the same balance between concrete imagery and abstraction or mystery often applies to tanka, there is also room for a wide range of emotional expression.

The secret to tanka is the twist or turn in the poem, which creates two parts. Thus, the art of juxtaposition is part of the DNA of tanka, which is a much older form of poetry than haiku.

What advice would you give to writers interested in the art of haiku?

I would recommend bringing a notebook and a pen everywhere you go to simply write down interesting things you observe with the five senses. I would also recommend keeping a dream journal, reading haiku journals, and joining the Haiku Society of America.

What are some ways to make poetry more appreciated and accessible to the general public?

I think every small way counts and makes a difference. We need to break free from the idea that poetry has no meaning or place in our modern society. Poetry is alive. It is something that moves and inspires people. Haiku and tanka can reveal things that we may suppress or don’t notice.