I write poetry

When David Jacobs left his first career in journalism, he discovered a love for reading and writing poetry. Short poems were top of his agenda, which eventually led him to haiku.

The Big Issue
my favourite seller
still missing

I wrote this haiku very recently. It's rather sad that this person who was quite a character on Hammersmith Broadway simply wasn't there any more. I don't know what happened to him and it struck me that he would make a good subject for a poem.

I was writing poetry for a long time before I properly discovered haiku but now this is my main focus.

What is a haiku?

Haiku (plural haiku) is a poetry form that originated in Japan. When written in Japanese, a haiku is supposed to have three lines with a syllable count of five/seven/five. Don't ask me why. It appears to work with the rhythms of the Japanese language but even the ancient masters experimented with different line forms.

Not surprisingly, this syllable count doesn't necessarily work in English. It's generally possible to say the same in English using fewer words and syllables. Even the word haiku is three syllables in Japanese: ha-i-ku.

Writers and experts have sort of concluded that the ideal number of syllables for a haiku in English is between 11 and 14. There are basically no rules and I find a poem will tend to find its own rhythm and form. Many writers, including me, are experimenting with one-line haiku now and there's even one famous haiku consisting of one word! It's an ever-evolving form.

the public courts re-laid first autumn leaves

The nature of haiku

The Haiku Society of America has defined haiku as 'the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which nature is linked with human nature'. Haiku in Japanese would require a seasonal word – for example, first day of spring, cherry blossom and the moon cycle.

If there is no nature reference, as in many English-language haiku (including many of mine), then it's technically a 'senryu'. There are lots of arguments surrounding this, though, and most senryu are generally classified as haiku.

Perhaps not surprisingly from the definition, haiku have been regarded by many as zen moments of enlightenment.

a better day
the sink ant
granted a reprieve

all the family
around the hatchback
summer's end

Starting to write

As a child, although English was always one of my best subjects I wasn't particularly drawn to English literature and although I liked writing, it wasn't a passion.

I liked the idea of being a journalist. I was good at English and writing essays and when I was finishing school it seemed like a good idea at the time.

At first I worked on local papers in West London doing general reporting, film reviews and sports reporting. I took photos, too. Then I moved on to a sports agency, which did stuff for all the national papers and I found myself writing mainly about football.

I decided I didn't like the life of a journalist but I carried on writing and started writing poetry. I read one or two modern poets, found a couple I liked and, as one does, I thought: "I might be able to do this too."

Getting into print

Actually, my writing was really bad at first and it wasn't until the late 70s that I started writing anything marginally good. But I carried on messing around with poetry – I rather liked urban themes – and finally started getting one or two poems published.

I got a copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and started sending my stuff off to the places that published poetry. First, I approached a lot of very small one-man-band magazines and they all took my poems so then I tried the more difficult publications: Poetry Review, London Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. At the start, they tended to return my poems but then London Magazine took one and gradually the others did too. The rejection slips started to turn into polite letters saying, 'We did like that but not quite enough.'

early booksI gradually progressed to book publication and self-published a few that were so bad some of my early poems will never see the light of day again! My first proper book, published in 1981 by Kit-Cat Press, was Marlowe Court, which was about a block of flats on the Hammersmith Road and the characters in and around it.

After that I was taken on by Peterloo Poets, who published my second book, Terminus in 1984, and Haarlem Road in 1988.

Some of the poems from these books were used for anthologies and educational publications without me knowing about it. It seems my publisher had said they could be used, which was fine. Oxford University Press used a couple, and the first I knew about it was when I suddenly got a cheque and a copy of the book in the post!

In 2004, my last book with Peterloo Poets, The Gardens of Onkel Arnold, was published. Sadly, Peterloo Poets don't exist any more because the publishing director died. It's a great shame that they folded because they were very good.

After that, I didn't write much for a few years as I had a lot of other things going on in my life. And then I started again four or five years ago, before I retired, just doodling a bit at work.

Poem power

I'd always liked the idea of a short poem because you could finish it quicker than a long poem. There were one or two haiku in The Gardens of Onkel Arnold but I didn't really know much about them. I'd just wanted to write short poems.

I started to write short stuff and suddenly I found myself reading haiku and thought, actually this is so short, it's even better than a short poem! This is a minimal form.

I like the themes and the way the Japanese linked nature with human nature and juxtaposed images. Despite haiku being so short, it's still difficult to get the right words in the right order. It poses the same problems as with any form of writing. You have to graft at it and change the words around to make it work. It's a challenge.

Unlike when I was writing mainstream poetry, I found breaking into the haiku journals much easier and that left me wondering why I hadn't focused on this particular form a lot earlier. It is more enjoyable to write and, for me, is also more enjoyable to read – unlike some of the more pretentious modern verse.

Just Before BedHaiku tends to involve the reader by simply presenting the images and letting the reader finish it off. With the Big Issue poem, it's what was unsaid that was important and hopefully the third line comes as a mini shock.

There are a number of haiku competitions around and in 2011 I managed to win the British Haiku Award, which is run by the British Haiku Society, with a poem that appears in my latest book, Just Before Bed:

Somalia famine
a child camps
inside its father

I also won a prize in the Haiku Calendar Competition, which will appear in 2015.

Finding haiku

I have a notebook, which I carry around everywhere with me to jot down any ideas. There's even a genuine coffee stain on it! Then I put my ideas on to the computer and start messing around with them. I always redraft and redraft. Once the poem is taking shape, I'll probably print it out and may do various drafts on the computer. But I always handwrite the initial thing, and I might redraft it by hand, too.

I do a lot of actual writing, with a pen. I've got piles of notebooks and I keep them all, just in case I go back to them and find something I missed. Sometimes when I re-read one that I thought was rubbish I think, oh that was quite good. Or I'll realise that some I thought were quite good are rubbish! I keep on reading and writing haiku and all I want is to get better. I'm highly motivated and have ambitions to be one of the best haiku writers. I like to think I could write a haiku that people would remember in 500 years' time!

I don't really know how I come up with a subject for a poem. I just suddenly get an idea. Haiku in particular are like that – I don't think up a topic; the idea just comes to me.

antiquarian book fair
a long line
of antiquarians

top hotel
grandma's chip bowl

rush hour tube
the kids on half term
all with seats

What the critics say...

"…his attention is ravished by the mundane, where ordinariness becomes luminous with tenderness…" Graham Mort, Poetry Review

"These urban and suburban studies are distinguished by a palatable blend of wit, melancholy and sharp observation." Vernon Scannell, Ambit

"Characteristics…include the deft use of language to connect one image to another, the bittersweet contiguity of reality and imagination, understated wit, and unassuming insight." Michele Root-Bernstein and Francine Banworth, Frogpond

"...he's one of that rare breed who are able to turn their hand capably to both the longer forms and haiku..." Matthew Paul, Presence

Just Before Bed is published by Hub editions. If you'd like to buy a copy, you can contact David here.

Love the 'sink ant' haiku. I

Love the 'sink ant' haiku. I can really understand the attraction of this form of writing: you can say so much so succinctly. I know nothing about poetry, but it seems that haiku is all about reading between the lines.

For me it was 'grandma's chip

For me it was 'grandma's chip bowl'. What came through (unsaid) was sheer joy as conveyed by the poem's final word.

The Big Issue one really

The Big Issue one really resonated with me. The last line packs such a punch. This has made me want to read more haiku.

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