Tanya McDonald, “so many haiku about masks”

Our Bloodroot Haiku Award judge is Tanya McDonald. Here is what she has to say about the current role of haiku.

The challenges of 2020 have affected us all, but as a haiku poet and editor, I don’t feel that the role of haiku poets has changed from what it was a year ago. Our job has always been to pay attention to the world around us and to convey those observations and experiences through concise language. These observations may include nature scenes and seasonal references—cherry blossoms, migrating geese, etc.—but they may also include everyday human life.

If 2020 has changed anything in haiku, it’s the subject matter and vocabulary. This year, I’ve read haiku about tear gas and marching in solidarity, about rampant forest fires and evacuations, about standing in line to vote, about work-from-home and homeschooling, about social distancing and cancellations, about essential workers, about a future vaccine, about isolation from loved ones, and so, so many haiku about masks. I will read more haiku on these topics because this is our world in 2020.

Our role as haiku poets is still to witness, to document, to interpret, and to share with others. Our haiku not only illustrate an observation, they invite readers to bring their own experiences and emotions to the poem. In this way, haiku encourage empathy, not only with the poet but with the subject matter, whether it’s a fawn taking its first steps or someone sleeping rough under an overpass. Whether we act like it or not, we really are all in this together, and if poets can inspire more empathy toward our fellow humans and this planet, then perhaps there is hope for a brighter future for all of us.

Tanya shares this haiku with us, originally published in Presence #68 (November 2020):

his gift of lilac jelly—
back to normal
in air quotes

Tanya McDonald is known for her bright plumage and her love of birds. Her haiku, rengay, and haibun have appeared in various journals. She judged the 2014 Harold G. Henderson Haiku Contest (with Michael Dylan Welch), the 2016 Haiku Poets of Northern California Rengay Contest, and the 2018 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Invitational (with Jacquie Pearce and Paul Chambers). Last year, she edited the 2019 Haiku Society of America’s members’ anthology, A Moment’s Longing, which prepared her for the launch of her new, print haiku journal, Kingfisher in 2020. A Touchstone Award winner and a New Resonance poet, she lives near Seattle, Washington.

approaching haiku

Haiku is commonly described as a nature poem in three lines with 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second line, and 5 in the third line. This definition is at best old-fashioned and at worst erroneous.

The reality of haiku today is much more complicated. It is a powerful discipline that is ripe with the potential to engage with the world in new ways.

In my explorations of English language haiku, I have found the following approaches to be useful for substantive writing and the proper mindset:

  • use no titles (haiku are identified by their first line)
  • write in present tense
  • show, don’t tell
  • the 5-7-5 syllable structure has largely fallen out of fashion in favor of haiku with fewer than 17 syllables
  • use simple, everyday language
  • three lines is most common, but one, two, and four lines are also acceptable
  • avoid end rhymes
  • haiku experiences will arise from your surroundings, stay alert!
  • write directly, so that your readers can easily imagine themselves having the experience you’ve captured
  • let things be as they are, elaboration is unnecessary
  • don’t proselytize
  • present an experience for the reader to interpret
  • use a phrase and a fragment that juxtapose each other
  • see the universal connections in common, everyday experiences
  • name or imply a season
  • honor small, simple things
  • as much as possible, keep your ego out of it

For further exploration, visit The Haiku Foundation at: https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/

The following online journals display a wide range of the expressions contemporary haiku is capable of:

For a lively audio exploration of haiku, listen to the Poetry Pea Podcast: https://poetrypea.com/category/podcast/

a word from our haiku sponsor

Bloodroot Haiku Contest

A haiku contest rooted in North Carolina deserves a name that is native to the state, as is the spring wild flower bloodroot, but also a name that evokes a bit of the exotic and the mysterious: who can say they have discovered bloodroot in their wanderings?

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is common in the NC mountains and piedmont but also elusive – close observation is required to spot its pale bloom in the deep shade of moist woodlands.

Bloodroot is easily recognized once one has been initiated to the distinctive shape of its leaves but it blooms for only a couple of weeks in early spring, easy to miss, easy to overlook.

And bloodroot hides a wonder few have discovered: its root when pierced bleeds a bright red-orange sap, the blood of the forest. Some Native Americans believed its magical properties included use as a love charm.

Observe, learn, discover, mystify, charm – bloodroot as metaphor for haiku.

Bill Griffin, sponsor of the NC Poetry Society Bloodroot Haiku Contest
© 2019

For contest rules and submission instructions click here.

2019 bloodroot haiku winner

Crystal Simone Smith won first place in 2019’s Bloodroot Haiku Award. She is the author of Wildflowers: Haiku, Senryu, and Haibun (2016). Her work has appeared in numerous journals including: Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Haibun Today, and Wishbone Moon Anthology. Her co-authored book, One Window’s Light: A Collection of Haiku with Lenard D. Moore, Teresa Church, Gideon Young, and Sheila Smith McKoy, was the winner of the 2018 Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Award for best haiku anthology.

She opted to answer all my inquiries.

What do you remember about the first poem that you fell in love with?

In college, many moons ago, I attended a program in which a professor recited the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. I hadn’t read it so it was the joy of experiencing it that I loved. In fact, I hadn’t read very much poetry at all but, when I began writing poetry I wrote lyrically. I’m all but certain I can attribute the gift of lyric to that moment.

Describe your ideal writing day.

I love fall or spring when the weather is pleasant. If I can dedicate a day to writing, I prefer to do it away from the chores of home. Saxapahaw is a quaint little town with a river literally running through it. I like to escape there and write on the patio overlooking the river run when possible.

Which of your achievements has been the most fulfilling?

By far it was my first acceptance into a recognized journal (African American Review). It was the first time I considered being a writer. Without it, I may have never made the leap from poetry as a hobby to poetry author.

Who is your favorite poet, and why?

Lucille Clifton was a tremendous poet. Her writing was accessible, yet powerful. She wrote of life’s horrors and triumphs in a most unique way. I was immediately drawn to her as a young poet because of her style but more importantly, her consistent theme of survival celebrated.

How do you refill the well of your creativity when it seems to have run dry?

I seek inspiration anywhere I can and as a haiku poet I am very present in my surroundings. I try to stay aware so I don’t miss small, yet significant moments. Inspiration is omnipresent if we pay attention. Yesterday a kind couple let me stare at their newborn for ten whole seconds and I was so appreciative. (lol)!

She shares the following poem, which is forthcoming in “Down to Earth” by Jacar Press, 2020.


You know the clear-water creek is secreted
and runs through the pines behind
the Penns’ condemned red house.
It is evening and morning chores
of the unspoiled who fill jugs to ferry back.
You’re a summer chum and make added hands.
The Penns are landowners on welfare
with a no plumbing and no well—
neighbors your saved grandparents loathe
for all they lack. You adore the summon to help
fetch the water we siphon and secure in jugs
then wade in the ripples of our silhouettes.
One brags she prays away the contaminants.
You know nothing of deficiency or privilege,
who God loves least, or what winter means.

bloodroot haiku judge

Julie Warther, our judge for the Bloodroot Haiku Award, serves as Midwest Coordinator for the Haiku Society of America and is an associate editor at The Heron’s Nest. She was instrumental in establishing both The Forest Haiku Walk in Millersburg, Ohio, and the Seasons of Haiku Trail at The Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio.

Of refilling the well of her creativity, she writes:

Basho said “go to the pine to learn of the pine”, so I head outdoors. For me, this means a wooded walk with my dogs or kayaking on the Tuscarawas River near my home. Sometimes, it’s as simple as sitting at my patio table with nothing but a notepad and my favorite Pilot G-2 pen. Conspicuously absent is my phone or anything else that might serve as a distraction. I seek silence and solitude. There is usually deep breathing involved – the kind I forget to do unless I am specifically attempting to be mindful. Once I can clear my mind of the “clutter”, the beauty of small things becomes apparent.

She sent this haiku to share. It was originally published in The Heron’s Nest XVI:1

sun-soaked chrysalis
the effort
no one sees