Neal Whitman

sakura blossoms
loose in an envelope
priority mail

Neal Whitman
Pacific Grove, California

Congratulations on having your haiku selected as the top winner in the United States category in the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival’s 2019 Haiku Invitational contest. How did you first learn about haiku, and how much writing of haiku or other poetry have you done?

I first began to write general poetry in 2005 when I split my time between work in Salt Lake City, Utah, and our future retirement home in Pacific Grove, California. During my “off” time in Pacific Grove, I was a volunteer docent in Carmel at Tor House, built by the poet Robinson Jeffers, and, on a lark, I took an online poetry course with the winner of the annual Jeffers Poetry Contest, Molly Fisk. I discovered that I could write poetry and much liked writing it! Soon publishing poems exceeded my expectations. I was aware in a misinformed kind of way what haiku was and began to write it when I took a half-day haiku workshop at the San Jose Poetry Center in 2008. One of the workshop participants was a member of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society and joining became a no-brainer when I found out that their annual three-day retreat was held every year at the Asilomar Conference Center one mile down the street from our home in Pacific Grove. In 2011, I made a New Year’s resolution to also learn how to write tanka which I did without a workshop, but by reading, reading, reading.


What was the inspiration for your winning poem?

I was prompted by the universal emotion of reconciliation and looked for a concrete image in cherry blossoms that might show it. Cherry blossoms came to mind and it felt right to use the Japanese word, sakura. Getting postal mail is an important part of my day, so it followed that sending or receiving sakura in an envelope seemed to be a way to convey an act of conciliation. Priority postal service costs a bit more, but promises to expedite delivery. In addition, the word, priority, also is a way for the sender to express the importance of the receiver, a message I fathomed would be understood.


Describe the moment when you first learned you had won.

It was serendipity that the email came to me on the day my wife, Elaine, and I had picked up a sushi dinner to go from a local shop that afternoon. It was an hour before dinner and it was a total surprise when I opened the email and, stunned by the opening sentence, I asked Elaine to read it to me. Then how perfect for us to toast haiku friends with a cup of Japanese green tea with dinner as we anticipated how happy they would be for me when they would later learn the contest results.


Do you have favourite books or websites relating to haiku that others might benefit from in order to learn haiku as a literary art and to share one’s haiku?

I prefer to read in print versus online, and I have three shelves of haiku books at home. One of my first purchases was the set of the four classic R. H. Blyth books—his name close to the name of the famous Byron poem prompted me to title my award-winning haiku chapbook, Blyth’s Spirit, published in 2011. On the first day of each new season, I reread the associated Blyth volume. Also, again preferring print, I subscribe to several haiku journals, but my favorite is Geppo, the work journal of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society published four times a year because I like the feedback loop there where we vote on anonymous haiku by our members and then see results and commentary in the next issue. It helps me to see both what others thought of my haiku and to see the top vote-getting haiku. One of my “poetry rules” is that good poems make good teachers.


Please tell us more about yourself.

I prefer to tell others little about my “old” life as a professional educator, but will say that I loved my work and am grateful for my success in it. What I am happy to share is that every day I read poetry or read about poetry or write poetry or write about poetry or write to a poet. So, for me, poetry is a daily diet, not a dietary supplement. Though I “boycott” social media, I much like personal email, which enables me to have poetry pals near and far. I get a particular kick out of waking in the morning to email from a distant time zone (and even day of the week) that was sent while I was sleeping. Life-long learning is important to me, so it follows that being a volunteer is one way for me to learn new things. In that regard, I just finished my “tenure” as a docent at the Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, which was preceded by serving as a one-to-one bereavement counselor with our local hospice, and, before that, as I mentioned, a Tor House docent. The most important person in my life is my wife, Elaine. Every day we both aim to work when we work, play when we play, rest when we rest, and not to forget: Don’t wobble!


How does where you live and what you enjoy doing affect the way you write haiku?

Elaine and I “discovered” the Monterey Peninsula in 1984 and made it our annual winter destination, leading up to our buying a second house in 2001 that would become our future retirement home. We both believe that if you are lucky enough to live by the ocean, you are lucky enough. Monterey Bay and the coast from San Francisco to Big Sur, plus the land and the people who live here, nurture us and inspire creativity. Elaine is a wonderful photographer and also an award-winning haiku poet. From sunrise to sunset, we have much for both of us to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Although living here informs all forms of poetry that I write, in-the-moment experiences, such as walking along the coastal recreation trail, prompts me to step in the path of haiku traditions.