Interview: Lisa Ann Markuson on Modernizing Haiku

May 17, 2018 4:00 PM

The minimalism of Haiku poetry– it’s English form dictated simply by the syllabic pattern 5-7-5– allows this traditional Japanese verse to span languages, cultures and ages. Like many American students, Lisa Ann Markuson was exposed to Haiku at the age of 8, but her connection to the 17-syllable form has proven much more abiding. The “Haiku Gal” now organizes spoken word Haiku events, has published a book and has a web mini-series in the works. TWELV had the chance to sit down with Markuson to discuss her inspiration, modernizing the Haiku form, traveling to Japan and more:


Tell us a little about your background. Where are you from?

I was born and raised in the beautiful capital of California, Sacramento. It’s a mid-size city that is ranked the most diverse and most ethnically integrated city in the United States. It’s overlooked as less exciting than CA’s cultural capitals of San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it has a rich history, beautiful connection to agriculture and nature, and a growing artistic scene. If you glean one thing from this interview, let it be that next time you’re in California you really must spend a day or two in the Sacramento area.

When did you first become interested in the Haiku form? Have you written other forms of poetry? 

Sacramento has very significant Latino and Asian communities, including Japanese Americans, many of whom have been in the area for up to 5 generations. My public school education exposed me to the traditions of so many religions, languages, and cultures. Everything from Spanish class starting in second grade, to schoolwide Chinese new year celebrations, to studying the art of haiku as one of my first conscious memories of any form of poetry. I was 8 when I started writing haiku.

What draws you specifically to Haiku? And why do you use a typewriter?

The content of a haiku is delightfully evocative, while it’s form feels so grounded and concrete. It’s a perfect contrast, and has a universality that resonates in any language or culture. Haiku is also perfect for exposing people to poetry who are not very familiar. There is one simple rule for our contemporary Western-style haiku: 17 syllables. You can travel to infinity from that starting point.

The typewriter is another simple tool that engages the imagination and helps pull us out of our mundane day-to-day existence. Nostalgia is powerful, and opens people up to a new and unexpected experience, but again, in a way that they can understand and isn’t too scary. But we also do plenty of work without typewriters. We do calligraphy, stage performances, commissioned poetic works, multimedia, and have published a book.

Is there a specific place you like to write? What inspires you?

My favorite place to write is at an event full of people ready to be surprised by the gift of a haiku written on the spot for them. The interaction with another human being is what inspires me the most. We humans are so simple at our core, no matter how much we try to complicate ourselves: we are sad, lonely, craving connection, battling ego, looking for love, yearning for meaning, adventure security… all these deeply human feelings can be seen an honored through our poetry.

When I’m writing for myself, I want to see beautiful nature, hear and feel the living breathing biology we are surrounded by. Coffee and wine also inspire me...

What comprises the Haiku form? What rules do you have to follow?

We are very familiar with the more nuanced ancient Japanese guidelines for haiku, and when I write for myself I am more apt to apply seasonal references, cutting words, and the like. But when we perform for Western audiences, we just adhere to 17 syllables, or 5-7-5. 

Haiku is rooted in traditional Japanese culture. How do you make this form of poetry modern?

This is a great question. We bring the form into contemporary society by loosening the rules, often focusing more on wit (more like senryu) and a surprise element than strictly contemplation. We also move the inspiration from it’s grounding in the natural world and seasonality, to whatever is most relevant to the person in front of us. 

 We ourselves try to stay in a play of deep reverence for the original form though, and the Japanese culture that gave birth to this artform that is not only staying relevant but perhaps growing in importance in our hectic and rootless culture right now.

Which poets do you most admire?

Basho is huge for me– I visited his home in Tokyo! Chiyo is also a big inspiration– it is heartening for me to know that, while few, there were women poets in the 1700’s getting respect and recognition too. Issa I also love, for his haiga. EE Cummings has also been an inspiration in minimalist poetry, and Gertrude Stein as an interdisciplinary arts organizer. Contemporary idols and friends: Thuli Zuma, Marcos de la Fuente and all the poets of the Kerouac Festival, and activist spoken word poet (and also one of our haiku artists) Anthony McPherson

Do you have a favorite Haiku?

This is one of my favorites and most-liked on Instagram, by Anthony McPherson. This one, a 7-year-old student in my haiku workshop wrote- the day after Donald Trump was elected President. This is definitely my favorite that I have written.

Have you been to Japan? How did you feel at that time? If not, do you hope to visit? 

I did finally get to visit Japan for the first time last year. I went for 6 weeks and saw quite a bit. I spent a lot of time in Tokyo, but also traveled to Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima (my favorite city), Miyajima, Naoshima, Komoro, Nagano, Sapporo for the snow and ice festival, and Kawazu for the early cherry blossoms. This photo is a beautiful embodiment of what I experienced there. Being in Japan was like visiting the Garden of Eden, or Mecca, or the place that the first Viking ship was built (I’m of Swedish heritage). It was extremely powerful, educational, inspiring, overwhelming at times, and I can’t wait to go back and explore more.

Are you drawn to other aspects of Japanese culture?

I am drawn to basically all aspects of Japanese culture, except talking less. Japanese hospitality and cuisine are to me the global human ideal, and I find Japanese design and cultural products to be the most highly evolved on earth as well. I have been studying and enjoying the language, food, art, history, bathing (onsens) philosophy, and nature of Japan and the Japanese diaspora since my childhood, and I’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg. Other artforms in which I particularly want to develop skills are calligraphy, ceramics, macrobiotic cuisine, rakugo, bonsai, and furoshiki.

What effect do you hope your poetry will have on readers?

I want every person to be surprised, delighted, see their topic in a new way, and feel that the poet who wrote for them gave them a totally unique and genuine moment of care and attention. It’s an ichi-go ichi-e kind of experience. The hope beyond that is that when people receive a poem, it will make them a little more likely to share a bit of care and empathy with another person. Let the poems have a ripple effect.

Do you have any exciting plans for this year?

There is so much happening this year! We are almost finished with our first mini web series, 17 Ways, which is leading up to a full-fledged scripted series currently in development. We are also evolving our brand and upgrading the name of our company - we’ll be officially known as Haiku Studio by Summer ‘18. We also just hosted Haiku Duels in NYC and LA- it was our first self-produced event in Los Angeles and we have more Haiku Duels happening later this year in more cities. This is our fifth year in business together, so we’re really reaching a new level of maturity and capability- so stay tuned.

Could you write a Haiku for TWELV?

My pleasure! I will go a little more traditional Japanese style for you.


lose count of the month

the letters fall where the may

blossom rain leaf snow


Then, why not a contemporary style too?



looking good or good looking?

i’d rather be both






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