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Interview with Gary Hotham, September 6, 2010


Gary Hotham as been crafting English haiku for over 40 years. His latest book, Spilled Milk, with Pinyon Publishing, represents a decade of noticing, observing, and crafting finely-tuned poems.

PINYON: Please tell us a little about yourself.

GARY: My father was a potato farmer in northern Maine, and I spent my life there before going to college. We lived in a farmhouse in the middle of acres of farmland, then came the forests and surrounding mountains. The northern view had nothing to block it, so it went on forever into the horizon just like a prairie or ocean. When my wife, who had grown up in a city in a river valley, and where the homes only had a few feet between them on the side, first saw this view she thought it was like being at the end of the world.


PINYON: When did you start writing?

GARY: I started writing poetry while in high school, when I was about 16 years old. I’m not sure why it started. I had never been very interested in poetry.  It is one of those mysteries in life without a good explanation. At first I thought it might be fun to do light verse—Ogden Nash and Richard Armour were two models. But that didn’t last long.

Some more specifics as to why the focus on haiku is in my essay, God Bless You, Mrs. Maloney, Wherever you Are, which prefaces my collection Spilled Milk.


PINYON: Why do you write?

GARY: To remember, to enjoy, to understand, share, think, discover... to slow my life down, and to see what our words can do.  In a previous essay I said, "just as Adam during his time in the Garden of Eden named the living creatures, the poet names life’s various moments and states of being."

To add a little excitement and danger to the act of writing poetry, one could compare a poet to a racecar driver. Just as the racecar driver takes the vehicle to its mechanical limits and stresses his own ability to keep it on track to finish and maybe win the race without a major crack up, so a poet in many ways takes the language to its limits, pushing his skill to use that language in a poem. For me, the challenge is to write a haiku that recreates moments or states of being with precision and with as much concision as possible.


PINYON: Do you use a computer when you write?

GARY: I still use pen and paper at least for my first jottings and drafts. I prefer a fountain pen—which I think gives me more thoughtful control than a ballpoint—and an 8 ½ by 11-inch notebook. There is something fascinating about how the words flow out with the ink.

At the pen and notebook stage I’m usually at my desk, early morning, although not as early as William Stafford (who started at three a.m.). Once I have something I think might work I put it on a 5 by 7 note card. Then as time goes by, and a good haiku appears to be on the card but needing more work and thought, I write it down on an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper. Large to small and back to large, one could say.

After that I go modern and use the computer to wrap-up.


PINYON: Are there special people (family members, other writers, friends) that have influenced your writing?

GARY: The poets—William Stafford, Robert Bly, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams who were doing or had done work I thought highly of. Of course I was reading and discovering many others. And for a project in second year Latin class I translated T. S. Eliot’s The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock into Latin. I’m not sure how they influenced my writing.

When it comes to the haiku itself there were no specific writers in the English language at the time with a body of work that inspired me. The early days of my haiku world were mainly influenced by translations from the Japanese. I’m not quite sure how that influence worked out in my haiku. I think it's easier now for someone beginning to write haiku to find good direction and worthy models from the work published in anthologies, haiku journals, and the many collections by various writers.


PINYON: Have you always been a haiku writer?

GARY: Almost always.


PINYON: Do you write in other styles of poetry?

GARY: I've made rare attempts at another popular Japanese form, the tanka, and a few more attempts at the free verse lyric.


PINYON: What is it about haiku that appeals to you?

GARY: My essay, Short Word Prejudice, an after word in Spilled Milk, speaks to that appeal.


PINYON: Where do you get your ideas?

GARY: Essentially from my own experiences and what I perceive of life around me. Sometimes a haiku comes from an immediate experience. But I think most poems are developed from the near and distant past, as I recollect in tranquility. I find it very difficult to write about something that hasn’t happened to me or been part of my experience.


PINYON: Which aspects of writing are easier for you?

GARY: Picking out and buying my next writing notebook, but other than that none that I can think of.

PINYON: Which are harder?

GARY: Finishing the haiku to my satisfaction.


PINYON: Is place (i.e., where you live or work) important to your writing? It's difficult to imagine, for example, Basho writing his great haiku anywhere but in Japan.

GARY: Well, Basho was a traveler although within the country of Japan, but I suspect that some of the places he visited were quite different from his home place. Location is important, but I think Basho’s language and culture was the most important part of his haiku, and he could have written great haiku in other countries. I may be wrong about that since some groups of people think a specific part of earth’s real estate really defines who they are. I live as if home is wherever on God’s green earth my family and friends and co-workers are, although in this modern age they can be spread pretty far. Still, it is difficult to be so far away that one can’t make quick contact by some means of transportation or telecommunications.


PINYON: As your new book, Spilled Milk, shows, you are a haiku innovator. Is expanding the haiku structure important to you? Or was it something that just happened, that you found important for those specific poems?

GARY: I don’t see myself as much of an innovator other than working with many others over the years in taking the genre from the Japanese and creating an English language version. I have played with the physical structure of the haiku. In the past, I have put some of my haiku on one, two, or four lines. In the last few years, I have placed the dash that I use in many of my haiku on a line by itself. I have always thought the dash, whenever I used it, was an important part of my haiku. Of course with a form so small, any part of it is important. This current playing with the placement of the dash has been an experiment highlighting it. I’m not sure if it’s working out to my satisfaction. I have received a few negative responses to it from some editors, but perhaps it was not so much about the dash as about the haiku itself!

I think one can say that while the Japanese version was once our model for writing the haiku, the English language haiku now has its own life and voice. The model was based, as we understood it, on translations of various levels of quality and what the scholars of Japanese literature told us about the form. The haiku genre isn’t like a fast food franchise such as MacDonald’s or KFC where the owner maintains very tight control of the product so that it looks, tastes, and feels the same anywhere in the world. Writing haiku is not like manufacturing steel, where with the correct engineering, you can do it anywhere in the world. I’m not sure what the Japanese think of what we’ve done with their haiku. Although they have different schools of thought and direction for the haiku, they  might be wishing we’d call our version something else! I am grateful, as I once said a long time ago, to the Japanese for creating the form.


PINYON: Are you affected by other people's comments about your writing? Or do you write independently of others' opinions?

GARY: Well, as with all comments, one has to consider the source and whether the comments speak to what is important about the poetry I am trying to write.  Early on in my writing career I heard that writing in the haiku genre just shouldn’t be done—and that came from such literary worthies as Robert Bly and Cid Corman. This was way back in the 1970’s. Also at one time in the mid-70’s I considered doing an MFA in Creative Writing. Of course there weren’t as many of these programs back then, but I did find a couple I thought might be worth the effort and expense. Both turned me down, and one MFA director sent some very negative comments about the form itself and my wasted effort writing haiku.  I saved some money from those rejections! And even back in my youthful 20’s there was no turning back from the haiku.  

I have never taken a poetry workshop or been part of a writers’ group. Not that I am against them, but the time and opportunity never presented themselves. Perhaps I write independently, but I only publish by an editor’s opinion. When I send my work out, one or two rejections are not the last word on my haiku, but after a few more rejections, one begins to think a bit harder about that specific haiku.

So editors have been my poetry workshop or writers’ group. In addition, I have been open to the opinions and comments of my wife and daughter—and when she was alive, my mother-in-law. Their comments and facial expressions can be showstoppers. So I've had to be careful about pursuing their advice.


PINYON: Is it true that a haiku writer should also be a gardener?

GARY: I wouldn’t say every poet or haiku writer should be a gardener, but perhaps we all should be gardeners whether we aspire to be a haiku writer or not. It will probably mean less time for mischief making, more tomatoes and zucchini to share with others, and flowers for one’s table and for the neighborhood bees and butterflies. In addition, there are the gentle revelations of the wild morning glory vines twisting around the garden fence with their deep blue blossoms in the early morning dew.


PINYON: Do you have any advice for other writers wanting to write haiku?

GARY: Think of writing as a worthy discipline that needs to be worked on in a regular way. Take it seriously. Don’t wait for inspiration—write it down now—inspiration will come with revision—at least one hopes so.

Read widely—we will never understand the wide diversity of people and the varied voices of humanity, but reading is a great supplement to all that you won’t see or feel in your own life. Listen to others. Reading and listening will help invigorate the wide-ranging curiosity I suspect most writers already have about life.

If haiku is your genre of choice, then read widely and deeply in haiku. If books aren’t spilling off your shelves or crowding the space in your electronic reader, then you are probably not very serious about the craft.


PINYON: What's your next project?

GARY: It is an on-going one: the great American haiku... deo volente.