Meet Pippa Phillips
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 readers to know about you, apart from being a haiku poet.
I grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, so I have always had an affinity for the ocean, particularly in the winter. The beach is at its most beautiful when it’s covered with snow. My friends and I spent many winter nights crowded around a beach bonfire and daring each other to swim.
After my nuclear family ended with the passing of my mother when I was 22, I spent my twenties traveling and teaching in Asia. I returned Stateside to study philosophy, but unfortunately, my story was like so many of the women-in-philosophy horror stories that I read as I prepared to re-enter academia. The sexism, racism, and elitism endemic to the field did not sit well with me, and I believe the United States university system has become a mechanism of class disenfranchisement. I decided to leave the field.
My departure coincided with the pandemic, so I turned all the energy I had devoted to philosophy to learning about Japanese micropoetry. Although I’d always loved Japanese literature, I’d never been particularly interested in haiku. I preferred tanka poets like Akiko Yosano and Machi Tawara, or free verse poets like Chuuya Nakahara. It wasn’t until I saw the poetry that Orrin Prejean was writing, that I understood what was possible in English language haiku. Bill Waters was my first mentor in this period, and did so much to point me to the right sources and haiku journals of note.
Are you active on social media? How do you think social media affects the writing process?
Social media is what brought haiku to my attention and most of my haiku network comes from social media. Annette Chaney, a Twitter friend, brought Seabeck to my attention, and it was the first conference I attended. I work closely with Lafcadio, who began her haiku journey around the same time I did. I depend on Alex Fyffe to keep me abreast of the amazing work the current generation of Japanese poets are putting out there. My mentors—Bill Waters and John McManus—are both people I met through social media. Jonathan Roman, with whom I often collaborate, played a huge role in helping me understand the lay of the land and the progress in my craft. I use Twitter frequently for workshopping purposes as well as for prompts to inspire me, and I have a separate account for haiku-specific prompts. I use IG for my art and to keep track of a scrapbook I’m making for my published poetry. Very recently, I’ve turned to TikTok to make poem videos and to recommend haiku chapbooks. For the most part, poetry-centric social media is not the toxic place many think of when they bemoan the state of social media.
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 probably started to write monoku before I really came to my understanding of it—I tend to learn by doing. At first, I would see if the poem I was composing worked as a one-liner, and it almost never did, since I was used to writing in the three-line structure. Alan Summer’s “Travelling the Single Line of Haiku” was very helpful, and eventually, I developed a feel for it—a monoku has a very different feel in my head, a sort of breathless breath. It’s also nice to identify a poem as a monoku or monostitch and avoid the whole 5-7-5 debate. I think these days I write more monoku than haiku. That said, I still have much to learn and struggle with—single-line tanka remains elusive to me.
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?
Lineation tends to create a preferred parsing for the reader. This allows the poet to employ and draw attention to pivot lines (or lines which equally complement the first and last line), or to create or underscore a surprising last line. It is also a form in which the juxtaposition of two elements is visually and audibly clear. When I first began to write haiku, I studied a few hundred poems taken from various journals of standing in order to study their syntactic structure. Most three-line poems I studied had the following two structures:
Although I still write in this structure, I began looking for different syntactic forms, especially in avoiding nominals and incorporating more verbs (I realize this goes against the grain of traditional English language haiku aesthetics). I noticed that monoku tends to have a more versatile syntactic structure. Many monoku lack a clear grammatical disjunction, which allows for a subtler exercise and understanding of juxtaposition. It is possible for a monoku to be an entire phrase, or even a sentence. A monoku better allows multiple parsings to stand on a par, or to let a poem percolate in its ambiguity. For instance, in the following poem, it seems to me that any attempt to lineate would be awkward or heavy-handed, as I break the reader’s expectation not in the last line, but at two separate junctures in the poem:
dawn breaking a window into song
whiptail issue 1, November 2021
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.
I think any haikuist will tell you that sometimes a poem just comes to you in its full form, and you just know it’s right and it needs no editing. However, I do have a few tricks.
First, I always carry a notebook on me in order to jot down phrases or words that stick with me. I transfer these to index cards. When I am in the mood to write, I’ll take out my box of cards and spread them out. Sometimes seeing two or three of the cards together creates a poem. Sometimes I’ll take them out if I’m trying to write in response to a prompt. I also use tarot cards a lot if I’m stumped. I’ll pick out 1-3 cards or do a Celtic Cross reading to see if it knocks anything loose.
I also use English language corpuses, like the Corpus of Colloquial American English. You can input words and generate lists of sentences in which a word or phrase is used—this helps me to avoid the more common or cliched ways of using words or phrases, but it can also inspire me. Another tool I use specifically for monoku is a phrasal verb dictionary. A phrasal verb is a verb and preposition combination which creates a distinct meaning—such as “break into” in my monoku above. Because the verb component of a phrasal verb nearly always has a different meaning than the phrasal verb itself, you have an immediate ambiguity to play with. For instance, in my “dawn” poem, I had three separate meanings to play with, only one of which came from the phrasal verb. Notably, “break into” itself is ambiguous: you can break into a run, into song, or into a building.
All that aside, the most important thing is that you let your poem tell you what it wants to be. People get married to an idea of what they want their poem to be and have a hard time letting it leave the nest. They want to fit in too much, or they’re enamored of some word or phrase, or they want their reader to interpret the poem in a specific way. Often, you have to let go of what’s precious to produce something precious.
Pippa Phillips (she/ her) is a peripatetic poet and artist who is working on her second novel. Having grown up on the ocean, she lives too far from it now. She is interested in the entanglement of the aesthetic and the ethical. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in numerous journals, and she currently reviews books for Frogpond.