Meet Lew Watts
A very warm welcome from the whiptail team. Tell us a little about yourself - your family, your hobbies, your dreams, or anything else you want the readers to know about you, apart from being a haiku poet.
First, many thanks for inviting me—it’s an honor. I was born and bred in Wales, but now live with my wife, Roxanne, in Chicago. How I got there is a long story that includes living in several countries before moving to the US in 2002. I retired early in 2010, and since then I’ve been living my own kind of dream—writing, sitting on boards that I like, supporting various non-profits. Passions? Apart from family (we have two sons and three grandchildren), I would say fly fishing (anytime, anywhere), rugby, and gin martinis.
What is something that people don't know about your poetry or poetry practice, process, or inspiration that you'd like to share?
In Wales, school days start with Assembly in which a hymn is sung and a poem is read. That’s where I first heard Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” at seven years of age, and that is where my love of poetry started. I have a PhD in geology and worked for many years in the oil & gas industry, eventually as an executive. Now, oil & gas isn’t exactly known for its poets (nor its Democrats), yet I wrote and published poetry throughout. This was long-form poetry, both metered and free verse, and since it was published in hard-copy journals (mainly in Europe), none of my peers or staff ever saw it—and I never told them. When my first collection came out in 2011, I was forced to “come out” as a poet. My haibun “Unmasked,” first published in Frogpond last year, describes the event.
What made you decide to try out haiku and/or tanka in one line versus their more popular enjambed formats? How does it feel different to you?
I rarely try to write one-line haiku—they just happen sometimes. But their frequency has increased in the last years through a strange quirk. I am currently working with the last copy of a beloved notebook (it is now out of print) and so, to save space, I started writing my drafts in one-line form, initially showing the line breaks as hashes. I always let my drafts sit awhile before either dumping them or transposing to a (draft) Word file, which is where I decide on structure. It’s amazing to me how frequently the one-line form survives, though it almost always needs pruning from my originally intended three-line version. The only time I try to write one-liners is if I’m seeking to complete a sequence, such as “Emergence” in whiptail 4. It’s then a matter of “sitting” with the existing haiku until one or more poems surface, hopefully, with similar balance and feel.
Many poets still struggle with the dilemma of whether a particular poem will work better as a one-line poem than the enjambed form and vice-versa. What is the deciding factor in your practice?
I’m going to generalize here (though I can already think of exceptions!). To my ear, a haiku that includes a strong cut, across which two images are juxtaposed, seems to work better with more than one line—usually, the cut can then occur at the end of one of the lines. But if the cut is softer (or even absent) so that the contrast occurs through a form of disjunction, then I usually lean toward trying a one-line version first. To me, great one-line haiku seem to shimmer. Unlike the “aha” moment of three-liners with a cut, their effect is more subtle—a quizzical, eye-opening shift that emerges as the disjunction unfolds. That is what I would like to achieve.
It would be a great help to our readers if you could walk us through your writing process from the conception to the eventual birth of a one-line poem. You are most welcome to take a one-line poem or two of yours to discuss, regarding how it came to be and/or process.
Do you have any tips for aspiring poets of one-line forms?
I rarely write haiku “in the moment” of an experience. Instead, an experience often triggers the memory of a moment, which I then write. This is what happened with this one-liner that was first published in Wales Haiku Journal, and was shortlisted for a Touchstone Award in 2021:
conger eel thrashing in the creel this hunger
This is actually a pandemic haiku, and my “experience” was a sense of irrational anger at being held captive at home. The “moment” was from my youth when I caught a conger eel and decided to keep it to eat. Cycling home, I could literally feel this eel thrashing away in the creel, and it continued like that for several hours. The haiku appeared almost fully formed, and I remember staring at it for a long time because something bothered me—particularly that I had ended it with “with anger.” This implied that the anger was that of the eel, whereas in truth it was I who was feeling angry. I wanted to convey/imply this without personalizing, and hopefully also creating a kind of disjunction. And so, I changed the last words to “this anger”—that way, there was ambiguity over who, precisely, was angry. But that’s when I noticed the internal rhyme of “eel” and “creel” (yes, I can be a bit slow sometimes . . .). The next morning, I got up and changed the last word to “hunger”—my hunger for the eel, the hunger for escape, the hunger for violence—which then provided a capping rhyme with the first word, “conger.” By book-ending the single line with an off-rhyme, the haiku is then able to pivot around the violent word “thrashing” that, I hope, sets up the disjunction of the final phrase.
As for advice, read, read, read! Oh, and maybe get a beloved, almost full, notebook.
Lew Watts is the haibun co-editor of Frogpond. His haibun collection Tick-Tock (Snapshot Press, 2019) received an Honorable Mention in the Haiku Society of America’s 2020 Merit Book Awards, and a further Snapshot Press book of haiku and haibun is forthcoming. His other publications include the novel Marcel Malone and the poetry collection Lessons for Tangueros. He lives in Chicago.