The Practice of Writing Haiku: Notes on the Pescadero Weekend Workshop with teacher Christopher Herold


Christopher Herold is a teacher, a haiku poet, the founding editor of The Heron's Nest (a monthly Web and hard-copy haiku journal), and a Zen practitioner.

In a recent essay in Modern Haiku, Cor Van Den Heuvel named Christopher Herold as one of the pillars of the development of haiku creativity in North America. This is how Van Den Heuvel introduces our teacher and his haiku sensibility:

"This poet likes to go off suddenly into the wilderness on camping trips. He has written haiku while on hikes in the Pinnacles National Monument and along trails in the Sierra Nevada. Herold's haiku are less subjective, less laden, or graced, with obvious spiritual messages than those of some other spiritually oriented poets ... Herold looks closely at small things."

Over the 2004 Labor Day Weekend, a few poets were privileged to attend a Practice on Writing Haiku with Christopher in Pescadero, California. We met in the home of our gracious hosts, Jim and Betty Arnold.

These are notes on that Pescadero Weekend Workshop.

Any errors in the notes are the errors of the student, not our teacher Christopher Herold, to whom I give a deep bow.

The First Day.

The intent for the first day was: "an opportunity to learn more about the process of writing haiku by reading some of the great poets, heightening our awareness of the moment and exploring a variety of techniques used to construct haiku. There will also be free time to wander and write during the day, and later share the poems we've written."

[Notes by J. Zimmerman]

The first day began with leisurely arrival, sharing of baked breakfast goods, and shoreline explorations.

We assembled with Christopher mid-morning. After introductions, Christopher talked about choices we make in writing haiku. They include:

  • What to include.
  • What to exclude.
  • How to set up a 1-line fragment and a 2-line phrase, so that we write 2 parts in 3 lines and produce a "polyrhythm".

Christopher encouraged us to develop a daily practice. He writes over breakfast about what captures him:

" Haiku can take you to a meditative place through intent focusing ...
Before writing anything, ask 'What is happening right now, at this very moment?' By doing this, a direct connection is made to the external world; we see how it is reflective of our human condition. Later on, if the experience is important enough, the connection will still be strong, the images will come back, and words will surface ... "

We each received a rich packets of handouts, which Christopher summarized and that we would use in the workshop and would take with us for later application. They included:

  1. Haiku Usually ... A list conceived by David LeCount of 15 haiku qualities, such as:
    "use little poetic device (no similes, metaphors, anthropomorphisms)"; and
    "reveal human emotion through natural images."

  2. "Positive Quality Check-list". A list of 13 items that a haiku writer could strive for. The last one was:
    "Poet transparency: The poet has stepped out of the picture so that you can enter without distraction."

  3. "Pitfall Check-list". A list of 13 items that a wise haiku writer eliminates from her work.

  4. "Haiku scavenger hunt". Each of the following features was illustrated by 1 or 2 haiku, and we were to look for these in our own haiku and the haiku that came up for discussion. A haiku could, of course, sometimes contain more than one of these features:
    • Pivot. Such a haiku can be read two ways. One has the cut after the first line. The other has the cut after the second line.
      "This triangulates an experience very effectively" (CH).
    • 5-7-5 with kigo.
    • Minimal. The example was 3-3-3, about half the traditional length.
    • Cutting after the first line.
      "Eighty to ninety percent of haiku cut after the first line" (CH).
    • Cutting after the second line.
      "This can give a resonance that is not seen in the more frequent cut placement" (CH).
    • Allusion.
      Often this is "a resonance with an important current event what it means at this time in history. ... [there is a danger that it] lacks universality ... [so try to have it] be accessible" (CH).
    • Sentence-Ku:
      "juxtaposing two elements without a cut" (CH).
    • Synesthesia:
      "one sense described in terms of another" (CH).

  5. "Examples of other haiku features". Each of the following features was illustrated by 2 or 3 haiku:

    • Alternative connotations of key words.
    • Precision in use of prepositions.
    • Musicality.
    • Minute observation.
    • Extra-ordinary in the ordinary.
    • Tightness in the present moment.

  6. A training exercise (by Timothy Russell).

  7. Basic Guidelines for work sent to The Heron's Nest.

  8. "Editors' Mind": Guidelines for a real-life exercise on how to to pinpoint haiku strengths and weaknesses in haiku that have passed an initial editorial screening and from which less than half will be chosen for the final publication.

  9. "The Big Cat": 151 haiku (listed anonymously) that had passed a real-life initial editorial screening.

  10. "Edit the Masters": A list of 5 haiku (of Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and Hagi-jo) translated by R.H. Blyth, for us to see if we could improve on the translated version.

Christopher talked for a minute about each handout, and gave a little more detail on:

  • The features of the haiku scavenger hunt (so that we might try to find them in our beach combing for haiku);
  • The training exercise (by Timothy Russell), which he especially recommended as a useful practice to help us "break up droughts" in our writing.

Christopher ended the morning session by reading "Japan" by Billy Collins from Picnic, Lightning:

    Today I pass the time reading
    a favorite haiku,
    saying the few words over and over.

    It feels like eating
    the same small, perfect grape
    again and again.


We broke for lunch and ginko walks.

When we met in the afternoon, we each read a few of the haiku that we had written during our walks.

Christopher gave each of us the opportunity to pick one of our haiku that we were struggling with. We offered it for suggestions to the group, which was very supportive in making comments encouraged by Christopher. This process let us identify strengths and weaknesses, particularly those listed in his handouts.

We had a break for refreshments and some more explorations of the shore. On our return, we celebrated with a congratulations cake that Kay Anderson brought, in honor of the 5-year anniversary of The Heron's Nest.

In the late afternoon, we began to assess the haiku in the "Big Cat", marking our favorites and making notes on why. The sun oozed like thick, molten copper through thin sea fog into the Pacific, and we finished our assessments in time for Christopher to enter our data in to his traveling computer, and tell us how many votes each haiku had received from our group.

By then time our hosts had completed preparing a delicious salmon dinner to share at the end of this day.

The Second Day.

The intent for the second day was: "'posing questions, making connections, dissolving walls, and exploring the art of conveying revelations through haiku.' And of course more time to seize the day, to write and share."

Never Endings.

To read and subscribe to The Heron's Nest, "where tradition and innovation meet ... and complement each other", see The Heron's Nest

The brilliance of authors and editors is reflected in this award-winning haiku in the September 2004 issue:

    weathered bridge
    everything but the moon
    drifting downstream
                         Rick Tarquinio  

As of September 2004, Christopher is assisted by four editors, who perform the initial screening of The Heron's Nest submissions.

In his recent essay in Modern Haiku, Cor Van Den Heuvel wrote:

"Herold has published three more books: Voices of Stone, a book-length haibun (Kanshiketsu Press, 1996); In the Margins of the Sea (Snapshot Press); and A Path in the Garden (Katsura Press), both published in 2000. Herold moved to Port Townsend, Wash., in 1998 and in September 1999, with the help of Alex Benedict, he started The Heron's Nest, the first monthly haiku journal to publish simultaneously on the Internet and in a print edition."

The philosophy of Heron's Nest includes:

It is our intention to present haiku in which the outward form of each poem has been determined by two important elements. The primary element is the poetic experience, faithfully and uniquely evoked in words. The second element helps to shape the first; it is the poet's knowledge and respect for traditional haiku values. When well balanced these elements result in work that is distinctively and unmistakably haiku.

"Poetic experiences" are those which inspire us to express ourselves creatively. "Haiku values" are the traditional underpinnings, both Japanese and Western, by which haiku sensibility has evolved into what it is today, and which will continue to shape haiku traditions in the future.

A Path in the Garden.

In 2000, Katsura Press published Christopher Herold's A Path in the Garden. It was a Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award Winner.

As of 2004, it can be ordered for a total of $16.95 ($14.95 plus $2.00 for shipping and handling). Please make your check out to Christopher Herold, and mail it to:

816 Taft Street,
Port Townsend, WA

Some of my [JZ's] favorites, to commend this delicious book to you:

   shovel handle
      dark with earth
         from my hands

   cloud shadow
   long enough to close
   the poppies

   winter chill --
   darkness in the hole I dug
   for a bare-root rose

   just a minnow --
   the granite mountain wobbles
   on the lake

      over the edge
         summer clouds

   three translations
      of the same breeze
         pine... oak... cottonwood   

         redwoods slowly sprout
   from the mountain's shadow

The book's beautiful watercolors were painted by Ruth Yarrow.

Other Books on Haiku.

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