The Shadow Element: An Interview with Terry Ann Carter


the Christmas cactus
begins to bloom

Haiku by Terry Ann Carter
(Ekstasis Editions, 2020).
Reprinted with permission.

Terry Ann Carter is the author of six collections of long form poetry, two haiku guidebooks, and five haiku chapbooks. She has edited four haiku anthologies. As past president of Haiku Canada, founder of and facilitator for KaDo Ottawa (2001-2012) and Haiku Arbutus Victoria Study Group (2014-present), she has given hundreds of haiku and book arts workshops around the world. Haiku in Canada: History, Poetry, Memoir (Ekstasis Editions) and Moonflowers: Pioneering Women Haiku Poets in Canada (catkin press) were both published in 2020.


Rob Taylor: Could you talk a little about your “diagnosis” haiku, which you include in Haiku in Canada: History, Poetry, Memoir? How did it come into being? What do you think it suggests about what lies at the heart of a haiku?

Terry Ann Carter: The haiku “diagnosis” was written after I learned of my husband’s terminal cancer. When I came home from the doctor’s visit that revealed the cancer news, I saw our Christmas cactus on the windowsill, blooming. It had been dormant for months, and now the tiny tips of the green cactus were flowering like small pink parachutes. I remember taking the plant from the sill and sitting with it in my lap. I remember weeping. 

A reader who doesn’t know the situation would read this poem and (correctly) assume that the diagnosis was not a good one, that some illness or dis/ease was beginning to grow. But for me, the writer of the haiku, the blossoming of the cactus was part of my experience of understanding death. I would say that I was part of the bloom. That the bloom was part of me. My writing of this haiku gave me a deeper understanding. I was the poem. 

in and out of sleep
snow turns to rain

– nick avis

RT: In Haiku in Canada, you quote from Dr. Eric Amann’s The Worldless Poem, where he writes: “Clearly haiku is not a form of poetry in the Western sense” and later “haiku is more than a ‘form’ of poetry… a haiku is thus a manifestation of Zen and hence the expression of a particular state of consciousness.” As a poet who writes both haiku and other poetry, I’m curious about your response to this. Do you feel this distinction between your own haiku and your other poetry? 

TAC: Dr. Eric Amann (a founder of the Haiku Society of Canada, with George Swede and Betty Drevniok) was known for his Zen approach to haiku. His readings (and teachings) concentrated on this aspect. There were differing attitudes about the importance of Zen in the writing of haiku and since this was long before I joined the group, now called Haiku Canada, I never had the opportunity to discuss any of these ideas with him. I am not Buddhist, although I enjoy learning about this way of life. Most of the early Japanese haiku poets were either Buddhist monks, or, in the case of Chiyo-ni, a Buddhist nun. 

The concept of impermanence is at the heart of Buddhist teachings, and I am fascinated by this idea. It enters into some of my haiku, but definitely not all. I am deeply interested in the human condition, and often bring myself (in relation to others or in relation to nature or some seasonal instinct), into my haiku. 

meditation garden
for the dying
and the dying leaves

– Rhonda Ganz

RT: Do you read individual haiku, and books/anthologies of haiku, in the same way you read other poems/collections? If not, what are the differences?

TAC: I love to read haiku outdoors. Of course this is not always possible; I do it when I can. When I read haiku publicly, I ensure a “haiku silence” before the poem and after. When I am reading to a “haiku crowd,” I usually don’t read the haiku twice; these folks are accustomed to the brevity, the line breaks, the silences. When I read to the general public, I read the poems twice. 

I am also a lyric poet, and write and read longer forms. The longer poems feel (sometimes) like a story, or a re-creation of some particular place or person or relationship. There is metaphor, and extended metaphor, the lines just bubbling up and sizzling on the page. Haiku has a quietness about it; a shadow element. I am crazy for Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. It is a masterpiece and although it was written in the thirties, it still holds true for a Japanese esthetic today. I am curious about everything having to do with Japanese style and design… from gardens, to architecture, to flower arrangement, and I am sure that this is imbued within my haiku writing style.

rectangle of light
janitor vacuums silently
in the night

– J.W. Hackett

RT: Haiku in Canada has an unusual structure (as the subtitle suggests): part memoir, part history, part poetry anthology, part roll call of Canadian haiku writers. The practice of gathering the biographies of contributing poets into an essay is shared by other haiku anthologies, such as Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (eds. Kacian, Rowland and Burns, Norton, 2013) and The Haiku Anthology (van den Heuvel, Norton, 1999), but in your case the poems themselves and personal reminiscences are also rolled into the mix. You never know what will come next: a personal anecdote, a poet’s or writing group’s bio, a clutch of poems, an excerpt from an essay on the nature of haiku, etc.

In your foreword, you note that Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, which itself roams mightily, helped inspire the book’s form. Could you talk a little about how you settled on the book’s final shape? Did you draw on other influences, beyond Shōnagon, in approaching the task?

TAC: This book began as a talk that I was invited to give at a Haiku North America conference in Seattle, Washington, in 2011. It was perhaps nine pages in length and it was received very well. A second delivery came when I was a keynote speaker at a Haiku Canada conference. For this talk I had prepared some extra notes around the Toronto scene since I was speaking at Glendon College at the University of Toronto. The paper kept growing. I was living in Ottawa at the time; I facilitated a haiku group called KaDo Ottawa and we met at the Japanese Embassy for our annual spring meetings. My friendship with Mr. Toshi Yonehara increased my interest in the history of haiku, and when I moved to the west coast in 2012, I realized that I was in a great place to do more research. I was new to Victoria and wanted to meet like-minded folks, so I taught Japanese literary forms at Royal Roads University, in their adult extension program. I met many poets who wanted to learn more about haiku; soon the classes turned into social gatherings and Haiku Arbutus was born (I still facilitate this group). 

It was through Haiku Arbutus that I met Dr. Susumu Tabata, a 93 year old survivor of the internment camps of the Slocan Valley in the interior of B.C. during World War II. It was such an honour and a privilege to meet him, and soon “Sus” was a regular at our meetings. Spritely, with a great sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye, he was beloved by all of us. My essay began to take on a new direction as I researched the haiku written in these camps during this dark chapter of Canadian history. Members of the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society were also wonderful to help out. Many gave me resources that I would have probably never found on my own. I would take out the essay from time to time and add sections about groups (like mine) that were “starting up.” Now I had over a hundred pages and I began to think about a book.

The challenge now, was my writing “styles.” When I was referencing the historical facts, I needed historical accuracy, which created a certain tone. When I was writing about groups of poets, some who were close personal friends, the tone changed again. I was very uncertain about how to continue. I actually became quite despondent around the whole project and dropped it for about two years. I simply didn’t know how to mesh everything together. The title at this time was “A History of Haiku in Canada” and it sat deep within my computer.

And then one day, I was reading Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, which is her observations of Heian court life, including essays, anecdotes, poems, opinions, interesting events at court, and her famous lists, 164 of them. Her writing was called “zuihitsu” or “assorted writing,” and I knew I had found a model. I picked up the project and began working again, and by Christmas 2019 I had the manuscript completed and submitted to Richard Olafsen at Ekstasis Editions.

spring thaw
the ball
on the front lawn

– Dr. Susumu Tabata

RT: It’s no coincidence that the other anthologies I noted above were edited by men, nor—I suspect—that your major influence in structuring the book was a woman. In many ways, Haiku in Canada feels like a corrective in a literary tradition that has historically appeared to be dominated by men. In addition to this book, in 2020 you also published the collection of essays Moonflowers: Pioneering Women Haiku Poets in Canada (catkin press, 2020)How did writing Moonflowers influence how you approached writing Haiku in Canada?

TAC: Writing Moonflowers was a project that began (again) in a much smaller way. I was interested in the lives of some of the female poets “who came before me” and the research was a labour of love. I wrote them over a time period of five or six years, submitting the essays to the Haiku Canada Review (first under the editorship of LeRoy Gorman, and later under Mike Montreuil). Some of the research material for Moonflowers became quite important for the history book. The books felt “completed” in the fall of 2019 and with the assistance of my wonderful copy editor, Philomene Kocher, in Kingston, we set out to polish both books and submit them to presses. It was a gargantuan task; I never could have completed all the work without her. But I was thrilled to have them out into the world.  

Completing the research for Moonflowers gave me a “deep dive” into the lives of our pioneering women poets. I wanted to bring that knowledge and energy to Haiku in Canada, although (because of space) in much shorter allotments. I think that the work for Moonflowers gave me a stronger appreciation for these women. That appreciation flowed into Haiku in Canada and helped me shape it in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before the research.

each lilac showing me
what I do not know
about lilacs

– Claudia Coutu Radmore

RT: Haiku in Canada profiles many women who have had a great impact on the writing of haiku, most of whom I was unaware of before reading the book. Could you tell us a little about two women in particular, Fukuda Chiyo-ni and Kaoru Ikeda, and how they ought to be remembered within the larger history of haiku?

TAC: I became aware of Chiyo-ni through the book by Patricia Donegan and Yoshi Ishibashi, Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master (Tuttle Press, 1998). Chiyo-ni is one of Japan’s most celebrated female haiku poets. Her given name was not Chiyo-ni, but simply Chiyo (meaning “a thousand years”). At age fifty-two, she became a Buddhist nun and added the suffix ni (nun) to her name. She was born in 1703 in the small town of Matto in the Kaga region. A student of two of Basho’s disciples, she worked in an era when haiku was primarily a man’s domain. As a poet, calligrapher, and artist, she created poems of sensual beauty and human depth; her woman’s “point of view” is revered for its honesty.

Kaoru Ikeda, is a woman I “met” when I read her diary in Stone Voices: Wartime Writings of Japanese Canadian Issei by Keibo Oiwa (Vehicule Press, 1991). The diary records a life of cooking, gathering food, being surrounded by nature (she was interned in the Slocan Valley, between two mountains). Her writing reveals a way of collective living where friends and family members, young and old, gathered to exchange their knowledge, console one another, and put their feelings into traditional Japanese poetic forms. These haiku from Kaoru’s diary are perhaps some of the first examples of haiku (translated into English) to be found in Canada. 

Certainly Chiyo-ni has the broader sweep. Her poems have been translated into several languages; her influence is felt by many poets who study the form. Donegan and Ishibashi’s book pays a fine tribute to her, and since then, Montreal haiku poet, Marco Fraticelli has also written a book about her (composing fictional letters that Chiyo-ni might have written to a lover, juxtaposed to Chiyo’s own haiku, in a form called haibun). The book is titled A Thousand Years (catkin press, 2018). Her poems can be found on the internet and in small haiku collections. Kaoru Ikeda was not known as a “haiku poet”; she wrote haiku as a way to survive tremendous struggle and fear. She comes to life in Oiwa’s fine research. 

mountain life
gathering fallen wood
the right job for an old one

– Kaoru Ikeda
(trans. Keibo Oiwa)

RT: You’ve toured in grade schools extensively with the “Poets in the Schools” program, and you published Lighting the Global Lantern: A Teacher’s Guide for Writing Japanese Literary Forms (Wintergreen Studios Press, 2011). Many poets have bemoaned the scourge of the haiku-as-syllable-counting-lesson. How do you feel about the emphasis on 5-7-5 finger counting? More generally, what do you think our schools are doing well in the teaching of haiku? Where could there be improvement?

TAC: The emphasis on 5-7-5 syllable counting came as a result of a mistranslation by R. H. Blyth when he wrote “syllable” for “on,” which means “sound” in Japanese. Blyth was one of the first to translate Japanese haiku into English. Haiku scholars in English North America (beginning with William J. Higginson) have been “fighting the good fight” to change this misconception. It is the moment, not the syllables that are important (although most poets agree on not exceeding the seventeen syllable count). Students write wonderful haiku when they are taught by teachers who understand the form themselves. As a “poet in the school” for many years in Ontario, I always stressed that writing haiku was an activity for both students and teachers. 

As a judge for the JAL Foundation children’s haiku contest each year (which publishes haiku and artwork from students around the world) I find the haiku has broad ranges. Those that really grasp the form and write beautiful simple haiku are most likely taught by teachers who have investigated the scholarship. I think there is always room for improvement, and teaching haiku is a life skill. Students who really “connect” with the form will find that it becomes a lifelong passion, a way to survive, a way to celebrate and honour the great world we live in. 

I feel that there has never been a better time to teach these valuable lessons of haiku than right now, in these uncertain Covid-19 days. Young people (and older folks, too) are spending more and more time in nature. They are reflecting on inner thoughts. They are appreciating the small gifts of beauty all around them. What a great time to set that all down in this concise poetic form. This magic of the senses. 

The other day I was out walking; it happened to be the autumn equinox. As I walked a bus driver waved to me; I could see that he was headed in the direction of the local hospital. In my mind I simply noted it down: “a bus driver waves / en route to the hospital / autumn equinox” …and there it is. A moment of connection between me and a stranger. A stranger who waved. It was the autumn equinox. I will keep that moment with me always, in that short poem, composed as I walked along my path. This is what I would like teachers to teach. By living “the way of haikai” the writing becomes second nature (forgive the pun).

depends upon
this hyacinth blooming

– Ruby Spriggs

RT: You dedicate the book to your “haiku family in Canada and around the world,” and the tight-knit “family” of haiku writers is evident both in your anthology and in others. A name will appear in one context, then reappear again and again – at social gatherings, conferences, writing newsletter minutes, editing and publishing anthologies, etc. Everyone seems to know everyone! It got me thinking of haiku as the “poetry world of the poetry world” – just as the wider poetry community compensates for a lack of sales/audience by tightening its social bonds, the haiku community (a subset of the poetry community, if not a separate entity entirely) seems further removed and – perhaps because of that – even more bonded. Do you think there is truth to that? If haiku entered the mainstream – if it was consumed and distributed like novels and non-fiction – what do you think would be gained? What would be lost?

TAC: Yes, I think that the haiku community is a tightly knit community, almost a family. Our conferences are reunions. I think it is a subset of the poetry community, although there are some who write longer lyric poetry as well. I would like to see haiku enter the “mainstream” and I think, in some areas, it has. I don’t think it will ever be consumed and distributed like novels, but I think that anyone interested in the environment needs to pay attention to the environment. Needs to become a caretaker.  Haiku is a way of using the senses to be “alive” in the environment. And there are “urban haiku,” haiku not written about the moonlight and pines, but rather the rusted staples in the concert poster on the coffee shop bulletin board, or the tattoos on the waiter’s arm. There are ways (techniques) to compare images in a haiku, contrast them or associate them. Haiku can be composed by young school children and by eighty year olds, and everyone in between.  

end of summer—
in my son’s room
I try on his shoes

– Abigail Friedman

RT: Much of the activity of gathering and sharing haiku in Canada takes place in regional haiku groups. As you’ve mentioned, you founded two of the country’s largest (KaDo Ottawa and Haiku Arbutus Victoria Study Group). Could you explain for the uninitiated what happens at these gatherings? If someone lives in an area where there are no haiku groups, how would you suggest they go about connecting with other haiku poets, or starting a group themselves?

TAC: I can only speak about my own groups, KaDo Ottawa and now Haiku Arbutus (Victoria). We meet seasonally to exchange haiku, learn more about the form, listen to invited speakers, and occasionally participate in a kukai, a kind of anonymous workshop where poems are submitted for critique. Members of HA often tell me that this is a forum that is very appreciated. Poets are looking for feedback. Feedback in the haiku world sounds something like this: the kigo (seasonal reference) might not be clear, the space between images (kiriji) might not have an organic “flow”, a shorter-syllabled word might be a better choice, the language is too abstract (always the haiku poet is trying to find images to portray an emotion).

Often there is an invited guest who speaks to Haiku Arbutus on a specific theme. In the past, Marco Fraticelli, a Montreal haiku poet, read from two of his collections and gave a short talk on their origins; Ion Codrescu from Romania, an internationally recognized haiga artist, gave a talk on haiga (an image combined with a haiku); Michael Dylan Welch from Seattle gave a talk on the difference between haiku and short three lined poems. Often I will introduce a poet to the group, by giving examples of poems and short commentaries; sometimes there is a writing workshop connected to the presentations. Because I am a paper artist, I have also given workshops on how to use haiku in small books, in collages, in paper windchimes.

Starting a haiku group begins with an intention. Usually to bring like-minded people together. Even starting with just two or three people is a beginning. There are online resources for “beginning haiku poets”. An excellent resource can be found on the site of the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival. There is a teacher’s page, plus an array of excellent poems that have won the haiku contest sponsored by the festival each year. 

Joining Haiku Canada is also a way to find connection with other poets across the country. Haiku Canada publishes the Haiku Canada Review twice a year, containing (again) excellent poems, linked verses, haibun, reviews, and addresses of haiku journals around the world that are looking for submissions. They also publish broadsheets of members’ work. It is a fine organization; its colourful history is a big part of Haiku in Canada: History, Poetry, Memoir.

fifty autumns
is it the same wild goose
reminding me?

– Luce Pelletier

RT: It only feels right to end, as we began, with a haiku. What’s one haiku, written by someone else, that you find yourself returning to most often? Why do you think you’re drawn to it?

TAC: I would like to close with Chiyo-ni’s haiku about moonflowers. When we know that the moonflower only opens at night, we understand a profound connection between the sensuous female body and the fragile white flower shaped like the moon. In that beautiful concision of language and juxtaposition we are held (for a moment) in the mystical now:

a woman’s skin
as she disrobes

– Chiyo-ni
(trans. Marco Fraticelli)


Explore the history of haiku in Canada at your local bookstore, or via the Ekstasis Editions website or, I suppose, from Amazon.

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