Meet Ryland Shengzhi Li
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.
Thanks for having me. I’m so happy to see a journal dedicated to the one-line form, which I think offers many special opportunities for expression. Thanks to Kat, Robin, Vandana, and the whiptail team for giving us this beautiful journal.
I live in the USA, in Northern Virginia, where I practice environmental law. Outside of poetry, I enjoy spending time in nature, painting, meditating, and building local communities around my interests. As for dreams, sometime in the next few years, I’d like to go on a long walk—perhaps on the Camino de Santiago or the East Coast Trail—and write a travelogue like Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior.
Are you active on social media? How do you think social media affects the writing process?
I have an Instagram account @rylandpoetry where I used to share my poems and short stories. I’m no longer active as I found social media to be too addictive and take up too much of my time. But maybe I’ll return to it one day, once I’m more disciplined!
Social media has affected the poetry world in profound ways. It’s democratized publication—appealing to editors and publishers is less important now that you can reach people on your own social media account. I think that’s both a good and bad thing. Good because writers can reach audiences, often very large audiences, much more quickly and easily. Bad because this means the writer can post whatever they want, even if the writing is bad.
Social media has also created an entirely new form of poetry, written by folks like Rupi Kaur (@rupikaur_) and other “Instagram poets.” Much of that work is about love and heartbreaks. But that’s not always true—Rupi, for instance, has written a fair amount about her South Asian culture and heritage. A lot of traditional poets have criticized Instagram poets as superficial and not really poets. But regardless, Instagram poetry appeals to a lot of people and has revived public interest in poetry. Even a second-tier Instagram poet will sell more copies of their book than pretty much anyone published in Poetry magazine. Some Instagram poets can even make a living from poetry, which is something that most traditional poets don’t even dare dream about.
I think there’s a ton of untapped potential for social media and short-form poems like haiku. Because they’re so short and demand only brief attention, they fit well with social media. While short-form poems aren’t quite as accessible as some popular Instagram poetry, they are far more accessible than what’s in most long-form poetry journals. The biggest social media short-form poetry account I have seen is @elhaikudeldia on Instagram. It features Spanish-language translations of haiku by the Japanese masters, set against beautiful Japanese-style artwork. It has about 95,000 followers. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a one million follower short-form poetry account in the next few years. All it takes is someone really into short-form poems, social media, a lot of work, and a bit of luck. Maybe you (the reader) and I can even work together on making this a reality.
I also think there’s a lot of potential to meld together elements of traditional haiku with those of Instagram poetry, social media, and the cultures of younger generations more generally. Take, for example, the basic line art that accompanies the poems of Rupi Kaur and many other Instagram poets. Obviously, you can accompany haiku with line art too. Aaron Barry does just that, and his recent book eggplants & teardrops is an innovative crossover between traditional haiku and Gen Z wit. I highly recommend it.
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?
In his book, The Art of the Poetic Line, James Longenbach declares that “poetry is the sound of language organized in lines.” Line is a defining element of poetry as opposed to prose, and lineation is integral to the meaning, sound, and feeling of a poem. I enjoy experimenting with line because doing so progresses my poetic craft and expands my ability for self-expression. It provides additional tools in the toolbox that I can select to best match form to meaning in any given poem.
For instance, a common technique is a single line containing multiple possible cut-points. This allows the reader to generate alternate readings and meanings that resonate with each other. Jim Kacian describes it like this: “Multiple stops yield subtle, rich, often ambiguous texts which generate alternative readings, and subsequent variable meanings. Each poem can be several poems, and the more the different readings cohere and reinforce each other, the larger the field occupied by the poem, the greater its weight in the mind.”1 whiptail’s recent analysis of my one-line tanka is a good example of this effect.
There are also other techniques, of course. Sometimes the visual look of a one-line poem just matches its meaning better. A classic example is Jim Kacian’s monoku:
gunshot the length of the lake 2
The one-line format helps me see and feel the gunshot traveling the length of the lake, just as my eyes travel the length of the line.
Another example is the feeling or mood that arises with a single line. For example, a one-line tanka can result in a lengthy line that feels dreamlike and has a stream-of-consciousness quality. Consider the following tanka of mine, which was originally published in five lines, but I think feels better as a single line:
if the plum blossoms receive the snow without a word why then do we mourn? 3
And there are so many other single-line techniques and forms. whiptail has a small, but excellent, library of essays on this topic that I recommend to any poets interested in one-line poems.
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 hope this isn’t a copout, but at the end of the day, a lot of it comes down to gut feeling. I think there are many poems that work in either one-line or multi-line formats, albeit the different lineation may nuance the meaning and feeling in different ways.
I would like to see more one-line poems in print. Right now, especially for tanka, but also for haiku, the one-line format remains uncommon. Many poets and editors have an attitude of, “unless you have a special reason to make it one line, you should follow the traditional lineation.” Another way to say this is, “we are not as familiar and comfortable with writing one-line poems, and therefore, we are going to write three or five-line poems if we aren’t really sure.” Now, I do think there’s a lot of merit to the traditional lineation, and in fact, I even have an essay analyzing the literary qualities of traditional tanka lineation (in five, end-stopped lines) that’s pending publication. And obviously, it’s important to ensure that the poem’s form and function fit, and not to just haphazardly rearrange lines. The same can be said for any formal choice. But what’s to say that the one-line format shouldn’t be the standard format? Tradition, I suppose is the answer, although rather ironically if we look at Japanese haiku and tanka, they are predominantly published in a single-line format.
That’s all to say that I don’t think you need some compelling reason to write a one-line poem instead of a multi-line one. Play around with it, see how you feel, set it aside and come back to it later and see how you feel then. You can workshop it and see how others feel too. And ask the poem, what form do you want to take?
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.
I’ll discuss my one-line tanka, which as I already mentioned, whiptail did a very nice analysis of .
a piercing call deep in the reeds are you also lost in this floating world like a dream
This started as a five-line tanka.
a piercing call
deep in the reeds--
are you also lost?
this floating world
like a dream
I wrote this while I was walking at Huntley Meadows, a wetland preserve in Northern Virginia near where I live. The first two lines (a piercing call/deep in the reeds) described what I heard and saw. The call evoked in me a sense of wandering and longing, and so I wrote “are you also lost?” The last two lines, “this floating world/like a dream,” are translated from the Chinese phrase, 浮生若梦, which occurs in a famous poem by the Chinese poet Li Bai 李白 (701-762 CE). These lines describe the fleetingness of the world—the fleetingness of stability and love, but also of wandering and loss. The word “floating” also accords with the wetland scene: the physical world that is floating in and reflected upon the water.
I actually submitted this to two journals as a five-line poem before deciding to rework it into a single-line format. I selected the one-line format because it accentuates the sense of reverie and stream-of-consciousness already present in the words and images: the piercing call, the lush reeds, the living being and emotions hidden therein, the sense of wandering and wondering, the ephemerality of the world. As in my own experience, everything blends together with fuzzy edges, kind of like a loose watercolor painting, or a dream. So it felt natural to not have line breaks.
In making this choice, I did not focus on the multiple cut points that the whiptail analysis describes so eloquently (although I have done that kind of analysis in writing other one-line poems). Rather, I focused on the one-line format accentuating the poem’s dreamlike meaning and feeling. So there can be multiple reasons for choosing the one-line form, or really, for making any formal choice.
Do you have any tips for aspiring poets of one-line forms?
Read whiptail, including the terrific library of resources for one-line forms. Read one-line poems. Write one-line poems. Have fun experimenting.
1 Jim Kacian, “Way of One,” Roadrunner X:2 (2010).
2 2005 Haiku Society of America Haiku Award in Memorial of Harold G. Henderson (2nd place).
3 Eucalypt no. 32 (2022).
Ryland Shengzhi Li (he/him) is a poet and environmental lawyer living in Northern Virginia, USA. Poetry teaches Ryland how to pay attention and to see the beauty and interdependence of all things. Ryland's work has been published in Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Ribbons, Presence, and other journals. He is a member of Towpath Haiku. In his free time, Ryland enjoys being in nature, practicing mindfulness meditation, and learning new things.