Meet Michele Root-Bernstein
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.
Married for over forty years, with two grown children, I came to haiku some twenty-five years ago on a personal dare. In spite of my academic training as an historian, I had turned to writing about creativity with my husband, an historian of science cum scientist. Creativity studies are dominated by psychologists, which we were not. What we were interested in was understanding creative skills and processes from the inside out, subjectively as well as objectively. My husband had his artwork, along with his science, to experience creative behaviors. Though I felt something of an imposter, I thought I might learn how to write haiku and use what I learned in my study of creative imagination. A few books and many articles, essays, workshops and, yes, poems, later, I’m still working on it. I leaven my days with other kinds of arts and crafts, of course—off and on knitting, linoleum block printing, bread baking—all of which, along with haiku, help me make meaning by making things.
Are you active on social media? How do you think social media affects the writing process?
Not really, not in any consistent manner. Though I have tried NaHiWriMo in the past, I don’t feel all that comfortable posting newly minted haiku online. I suppose that shows my age, but I do appreciate the role that editors play in saving me from my worst solipsisms. On a related note, I do participate in a couple of closed-group kukai that rely on electronic exchange and Zoom—thank god for Zoom. My haiku study group would not have survived the pandemic without it.
What is something that people don't know about your poetry or poetry practice, process, or inspiration that you'd like to share?
When I think about it (i.e., when I feel a need to shake things up) my approach to haiku practice is to play, play with inspirational prompts, model poems, formats, and the revision of images and phrases I rediscover in my old notebooks. Otherwise, I try to remain open to haiku moments, as well as keep an almost daily appointment with the muse. I once read that if you don’t show up at your desk on a regular basis, how will the muse find you? I’ve taken that to heart, even on days when my mind seems a complete blank.
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?
Looking back at my records, I see that my first published monoku appeared in 2007. I distinctly remember trying to wrap my head around the form, with feedback on that initial effort at a haiku conference anonymous critique. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I was drawn to the way the monoku of other poets so often mimicked the sudden arcing of a thought within my mind. By 2015 or so I became more aware of what—technically—was working for me to deliver this cognitive sensation: extreme compression of imagery and voice, disjunction/juxtaposition created by a multiplicity of meanings in (usually) a single word, quick shifts in gestalt. These were not three-line haiku laid out in one line, but something quite different.
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?
As part of the extreme compression of image and brevity of expression, my first instinct is to look for multiple breaks in the language. To the extent that these open the haiku to alternative interpretations, the game is on. My second instinct is to look for a word (or words) doing double duty—a noun as verb, a verb as adjective, for instance. Often enough, there’s opportunity there for a compressed pivot from one line of thought to another or, more subtly, for an imagistic echo or association that adds to the verbal mix. My third instinct is to look for something uncommon or illogical, yet somehow colloquial, in the arrangement of speech—like the random non-sequitur that unexpectedly throbs with almost meaning.
It would be a great help to our readers if you could walk us through your writing process from 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 how it came to be and/or process.
Some of my most recent one-line haiku have come to me nearly whole—possibly because I am on the lookout for certain kinds of compression. In my notebook for June of 2022, after a trip to the Los Angeles chaparral, I went rather quickly from the two phrases “as far as the eye can see” and “the hills gone wild mustard” to “as far as the hills go wild mustard”, which was published later in the year. This monoku features the compression of three thoughts: as far as the hills go / the hills go wild / the hills go [wild with] wild mustard. Similarly, in July of 2021, with a woman’s change of life on my mind, I wrote down the two phrases “a small ache” and “where the moon used to be” and after a bit of verbal fuss, reversed the two to produce “where the moon used to be a small ache”. I spent time wondering “does this monoku need a second image or does it already have two?” The two alternate readings—first, as two phrases (as originally conceived) and second, as one phrase reinterpreting “used to be” not as a designation of place but of existence—seemed compellingly different. That feeling, along with the moon’s associations with menstruation, convinced me that the poem was indeed haiku.
I have also reworked poetic ideas that first came to me as three-line haiku into one-line haiku—invariably, because they just didn’t gel for me in the traditional format. In October of 2019, I was generating imagery with memories of a recent trip to Monet’s garden at Giverny. Toying with words and phrases about the light and the lilies, I soon sketched out “waterlilies / changing in the light / in changing light.” A note to the side indicates that I liked “the reciprocal action here,” i.e., that the light changed the lilies and the lilies changed the light. After which, I got hung up on whether the three-line haiku needed more imagery, a reference to color, perhaps, or to reflections of clouds on the water. It wasn’t until later in the month, when I collected haiku from my notebook for what I call “haiku drafts” kept on the computer, that I spontaneously turned the three-line form into “in changing light lilies changing light”, which was picked up for publication a short time later. Experiences like this make me a firm believer in setting aside early drafts for “marination” and creating multiple opportunities for revision in the writing process.
One final example, if I may. In my notebook for February of 2021, I find a random entry about the earthy smell of “the gone rain”–I think I came across the use of “gone” as an adjective in a novel and was enamored with (“crazed for” a haiku friend of mine says) the sound of it. About a week later I find the following three-line haiku: “in the faint / scent of a rose / the gone rain”. Later that month, I shared the poem in a kukai, minus the article in the third line. To my mind, I was playing with enjambment, some of which was appreciated in the kukai discussion, some not—at least as far as a three-line haiku was concerned. It was suggested that I consider the one-line form, but I was stubborn. Six submissions and six returns later, I felt compelled to drop the haiku into my stash of “favorite duds.” I didn’t want to let it go in its original form, yet time away allowed a change of heart and mind. A year later, I wrote a one-line version—“faint scent of a rose gone rain”—for the capping haiku in a published haibun, the word “gone” shifting between “rose” and “rain” just as I had always wanted it to do. And the lesson I take is this: due to conventions in how we read haiku, a poet can do things in one line that can’t be readily done in two or three. That, and never give up on an image or phrase you stay crazed for! Given some space to breathe on its own, it will find its true form.
Do you have any tips for aspiring poets of one-line forms?
Collect one-liners that you absolutely love by other poets. Ask yourself why are you drawn to these poems, what techniques do you admire most? Emulate those techniques in your own work. Be on the lookout for words that lend themselves to double meanings; phrases that lend themselves to sudden shifts in thought. Play with the possibilities. Be patient. And most of all, persist.
Michele Root-Bernstein (she/her) mostly devotes herself to haiku and assorted haikai arts. Her poetry appears in journals at home and abroad and her free e-chapbook, Wind Rose, on the Snapshot Press website. Recently book editor of Modern Haiku, she has facilitated the Michigan-based Evergreen Haiku Study Group since 2016. When she isn’t coaxing her cuttlefish muse, she’s researching creative imagination or otherwise turning her face to the sun.