Haiku on the radio.

I was very happy to appear on the NPR and WBUR radio program On Point last week, for an hourlong discussion of haiku with the host, Tom Ashbrook.

Guests included Frogpond editor George Swede and economist Stephen Ziliak (the author of an essay called “Haiku Economics” in the most recent issue of Poetry) as well as myself.

I’ve been an admirer of George’s haiku (and essays) for a long time, and I was impressed by the generosity of his approach to the form. It was also a nice chance to explain why it is I see a confluence between Twitter and texting and haiku.

Many listeners called, tweeted or e-mailed their own haiku in to the show, and George and I both read quite a few. It was one of the most enjoyable and pleasant radio experiences I’ve done yet.

Haiku on the radio.

Woodrat Podcast 21: In which I talk about poetry and technology

Poet and publisher Dave Bonta spoke to me on the phone awhile back for his “Woodrat” podcast. He got me to talk about everything from how I handle submissions to tinywords, what my publishing philosophy is, why haiku is important, and what I learned from studying poetry with Louise Glück. We also talked about Twitter, of course, and how haiku is well-suited to distribution via that and other modern technologies.

It’s about 35 minutes long. Dave’s post also includes links to some of my favorite haiku and other micropoems published on tinywords.

Link: Woodrat Podcast 21: Dylan Tweney.

Woodrat Podcast 21: In which I talk about poetry and technology

.haiku column No. 1 – Haiku Society of America

Thanks to the internet, haiku is making a return to the kind of collaborative, interactive spirit out of which it originally emerged almost four centuries ago.

As the editor of tinywords, I’ve seen this kind of evolution emerge spontaneously on many occasions.

To see what I mean, let’s first rewind the calendar a few hundred years.

Before haiku was a genre of its own, before people thought that a 17-syllable (or shorter) poem could stand on its own alongside triolets, sonnets, sestinas, ballads and epics, there was an art form in Japan called haikai no renga.


It was a kind of party game: A poetry master would kick things off with a pithy short verse, and then other people in the group would collaborate (and compete) to come up with subsequent verses, each one subtly or cleverly linked to the one before.

Matsuo Kinsaku was a master of this form of poetry, and attracted many students and supporters. (In those days, it was actually possible to make a living as a poetry master!) But around 1682 Matsuo became dissatisfied and started traveling around Japan.

As he went, he wrote compressed travelogues interspersed with very short poems. They were kind of like those initial verses, except instead of being used to start a collaborative chain of linked verses, they stood on their own.

Over time, his new approach gained popularity, power and subtlety. His students collected his verses into volumes, and added their own — except now, instead of the short verses being linked together into chains, each one stood on its own. The concept of haiku, as a standalone poem, was born.

Since the 17th century it’s been primarily an individual activity, like other poetry: The poet, transfixed in a moment of solitary inspiration, writes a haiku and then, later, publishes it.

Of course it doesn’t always happen exactly like that, but that’s generally the outline of how we think of haiku — and other poems. They’re the product of one mind, usually, and they stand on their own.

But on the internet, haiku don’t have to be like that. Indeed, one haiku may spark a whole chain of responses, turning it into something more than just a poem on a page.

On tinywords.com, haiku are published as poems, like on any other literary journal. But like many websites, we also allow readers to post comments, or as I like to call them, responses.

In some cases, those responses are simply comments like “beautiful imagery” or “I loved this one.” But sometimes, people post their own haiku in response. On occasion, that’s sparked a whole chain of linked verses, each one responding to the one that came before.

The most spectacular example is this haiku by Patricia Prime, which was published in 2005 on tinywords:

hail storm

tiny white balls

bounce on the deck


Five years later, my tastes have shifted somewhat, and the haiku feels a little flat to me: It’s one-dimensional. It presents a vivid image but there’s no contrast or tension. But it clearly struck a note with the readers, who immediately started posting their haiku in response, many of them quite lovely:

white out

a windstorm of

pear blossoms


On a sheet of ice

the chick trying to free itself

from its mother’s claws

–R.K. Singh

a bearded iris

sporting new growth–

cottonwood fluff

–Ed Schwellenbach


And those are just the first three. Eventually, a back-and-forth developed between the haiku’s author and a frequent commenter, and the chain of verses extended to more than 300 in all.

That was a completely spontaneous happening. No one said, “Let’s have an online renga,” or “let’s see how long we can keep this going.” It just happened.

It wasn’t the only time that a chain of responses emerged on tinywords like this. But it doesn’t happen as frequently as I’d like, and I’ll admit that the reasons for that are somewhat elusive.

Part of it has to do with the spirit of the commenters: Whether they are moved to contribute their own haiku or simply comment, in the manner of workshop participants.

Partly is has to do with whether the language and interface of the journal encourage that kind of call-and-response.

But part of it is just magic. When it happens, the literary journal turns into something more — a community — and the haiku takes on a communal life through the screens of those reading it.

It’s a wonderful thing.

Originally published at Haiku Society of America tweney haiku column.

.haiku column No. 1 – Haiku Society of America

On haiku and micropoetry.

This essay is forthcoming as a broadsheet from Cross+Roads Press, and is based on an interview published on Basho’s Road in December, 2009.

For me, poetry is language under compression. And there’s no more compressed form than the very short poem. Skillfully done, a tiny poem can speak volumes — it can pack a massive emotional and sensory load.

To avoid melodrama and sentimentalism, it’s important for the emotional impact to be indirectly expressed, through metaphor and suggestion. There are exceptions, of course. But I’m most attracted to poems that are referential, concrete, objective and sensory — though with an underlying layer of larger intellectual, emotional, or metaphorical significance. Haiku, with so many rules to choose from, is really well suited to making all that happen in a small space.

You can see what I’m talking about in the work of Basho, Buson and Issa as well as modernists like Pound and Williams. A. R. Ammons explored the very short poem to great effect, and Richard Wright’s haiku show a deep understanding of formal haiku. More recently, poets like Joseph Massey have really pushed the boundaries of how much freight a few words can be made to carry.

There are lots of great examples in the archive of haiku published by tinywords from 2000 to 2008 and in tinywords’ newer archive of haiku and micropoems published since 2009.

* * *

I’ve never been that interested in the debates about what qualifies as haiku; I’m looking for good, striking poetry, whatever it’s called.

There is lots of interesting work in this vein going on through other forms than haiku, such as one-line poems (monostiches), tanka, micropoems, flash poetry, etc. Twitter has been a big part of this efflorescence, because it’s a built-in platform for publishing and sharing very, very small snippets of text.

Also, I want to sidestep all the debates and questions about what is really a haiku and what’s not. I find haiku’s long and rich history, and its many rules, are a great source of inspiration, and all that is very helpful in crafting good poems. But arguments about what constitutes a haiku are not especially interesting. The form is a means to the end, which is creating great poetry.

* * *

Basho’s great contribution was the attempt to make haiku a direct expression of a particular moment, of the thing in itself. The manifestation of a phenomenon should appear as vividly in the haiku as it does in real life. At least, it should seem to do so, without the overt imposition of the author’s ego or perspective.

Basho’s style evolved out of his close contact with Zen Buddhism. Granted, unless you’ve been sitting meditation for years, a poem is not likely to be the key to enlightenment! But I’m unapologetic about the poem’s attempt to convey reality. It’s not a very fashionable position for contemporary poetry, but I stand by it.

Like Jack Spicer, if I could put a real lemon into a poem, I would. “Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem,” Spicer said. I think Basho would have agreed with that.

* * *

The idea for tinywords came to me in mid-2000, shortly after I got a cellphone that was capable of receiving text messages. I didn’t know many people who were into texting so I started looking around to see what I could do with the service. It turned out I could get weather updates, sports scores, news headlines — none of which seemed particularly interesting to me.

Then I thought: what about poetry? Haiku are short enough that they ought to be able to fit into the 160-character limit of an SMS message, and wouldn’t it be nice if you could get a haiku on your phone every day? Of course no one was doing this, so I decided to start.

It just seemed like a good way to humanize technology, and to send people a little moment of poetry at a random point in the day — something that would remind them, gently, to wake up and pay attention. Or maybe just bring a smile or a thoughtful, puzzled frown to their faces!

Since then, I’ve been amazed by the diversity and sheer number of people who read and subscribe to tinywords: People on every continent and in all walks of life. While most of the readers are based in the U.S., there are strong contingents of readers and contributors in England, Poland, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

* * *

The readers have taught me how valuable and accessible poetry can be, even when it’s difficult or adventurous. People respond so enthusiastically to tinywords — they tell me that they love receiving the poems, and that they missed them when we weren’t publishing them, that they’re a bright spot in their days. People share them with their friends. One group of students even read each day’s poem aloud in their school cafeteria.

That’s the other genius of the very short poem: Because it is so small, is it unintimidating. It is not hard to learn how to read or write haiku. Writing very good haiku is an achievable goal for many people. And they’re easy and fun to share with others.

And then there is the simple fact that short poems don’t take a lot of time. Even in the busy-ness and swirl of modern life, reading or writing very short poems can be part of a daily practice. And that, I think, is the key to enjoying any art, and much more so to mastering it.

As Waverley Root said of wine, “Drink it every day, at lunch and at dinner, and the rest will take care of itself.” You could say the same about reading and writing poetry.

On haiku and micropoetry.

A day in the life of a haiku editor.

The haiku and micropoetry journal I edit, tinywords, got 875 submissions in the course of 2 weeks for our upcoming summer issue. Since I expect I’ll be able to publish about 50 or 60 poems in this issue, that means the acceptance rate is going to be significantly less than 10%. It also means I have been spending a lot of time sending rejection notes the past couple of evenings.

tinywords is set up a bit differently than almost every other literary journal. Poets submit their work using a web form, which puts each poem into a review queue where the editors — myself and several others — can read and rate them. Every poem is read several times by several different editors. In this queue, all poems are presented anonymously or “blind”: we don’t see the name of the author.

In my experience, switching to anonymously reviewing haiku has made a huge difference. Each poem has to stand on its own, without the benefit or hindrance of an author’s reputation. Previous appearances in prestigious journals don’t help, since that information is also hidden.

This system means that widely-published poets have no more advantage than rank beginners. Nobody can rest on their laurels. Nobody gets less consideration because they lack a reputation.

It also makes it easier to give each poem fair consideration. Sometimes a poet will submit an excellent poem in the middle of a handful of mediocre work — or a stinker hidden in the middle of otherwise excellent poems. In the past, when I reviewed incoming haiku via email, it was easier to issue a blanket acceptance or rejection. The anomalies were carried along with, and shared the fate of, the poems that surrounded them. Now, each poem stands or falls on its own merits.

An unfortunate side effect is that poets get an individual rejection or acceptance e-mail for each poem they’ve submitted. Unfortunately these are almost all form letters (there’s no way I could practically write 800 individual responses in the course of a week or two). That can seem hurtful or insensitive to some. But I think the benefit of individual, anonymous consideration of each poem outweighs this downside.

My objective with tinywords is to publish excellent poetry, and the publishing system is set up to serve that goal.

A day in the life of a haiku editor.

Sun CEO Departs in Geek Style, With a Haiku

Photo of Jonathan Schwartz by Webmink/Flickr.com

Sun’s erstwhile CEO Jonathan Schwartz announced his retirement Wednesday night in a uniquely geeky way: With a haiku posted to Twitter.

Financial crisis
Stalled too many customers
CEO no more

Schwartz’s decision to announce his departure in the form of a short, Japanese lyric was, perhaps, a veiled jab at Sun’s new boss, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, a noted Japanophile who has spent years building a $200 million house, in the wealthy Silicon Valley suburb of Woodside, that’s said to be a replica of a 16th-century Japanese emperor’s castle. It’s likely that the hard-charging, Samurai-inspired Ellison has no particular love for the pony-tailed, Java-loving Schwartz, who bet the farm on an open-source strategy that didn’t pan out and brought Sun’s share price from a split-adjusted peak of $250 to a recent low of $3.49, making its acquisition by Oracle easy. Now Ellison has started cleaning house, slashing back-office personnel and shaking things up in an effort to return Sun to the kind of profitability it once enjoyed.

It’s not the first time that technology and haiku have collided, and in fact, open-source computer geeks seem to have a real affinity for the form. In the early 2000s, spam-filtering service provider Habeas inserted a copyrighted haiku into the header of every authenticated e-mail message; the idea was that if the bad guys tried to spoof the header, they’d be committing a prosecutable copyright violation. Impish programmers have often inserted haiku error messages into the systems they manage, geeks have been collecting spam haiku since the earliest days of the Web, and there’s even an open-source operating system named Haiku (it’s based on the now-defunct BeOS).

With Schwartz showing the way, will other CEOs turn to haiku when they get pushed out? Probably not. They would do well, though, to consider the brevity of life and the futility of their ambitions. As the 17th century haiku master Basho wrote:

Ah, summer grasses!
All that remains
Of the warriors’ dreams.

(Translation: R.H. Blyth)

Disclaimer: The author has long-standing haiku blog, tinywords, which has nothing at all to do with technology.

(Originally published on Wired.com’s Epicenter blog)

Sun CEO Departs in Geek Style, With a Haiku

in conversation with norbert blei

From my own experience, and the experience of friends who had spent months to years to a lifetime devoted to little magazines and small presses, I knew in my bones that tinywords had become overwhelming. This stuff eats you alive. But I also knew, it’s damn hard to let go once you made your mark. There’s that little voice that keeps calling you back.

From a long interview about tinywords, between me and poet and publisher Norbert Blei.

in conversation with norbert blei

Some haiku from November

after the last train a man works the floor polisher alone almost

snow calculus — the slow accumulation
of almost nothing

turning the corner into the sudden warmth of sunlight

in a light rain
a woman pushes a shopping cart, singing “Wish You Were Here”

new glasses: all of my mistakes now painfully clear

the wool smell
of grandfather’s army coat —
frost-tipped leaves

(contributed to the 1,000 Verse Renga Project)

Some haiku from November