Mary Gamble

Gary Hotham: Haiku Genius

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Mary Gamble

Profile of
Gary Hotham


Gary Hotham: Haiku Genius
(an email interview essay)

Gary Hotham grew up in northern Maine on a potato farm. His parents and two younger brothers still live there. However, he and his sister both left for warmer parts. He has lived in Maryland since 1975 with various breaks in Germany and England. He is involved with several haiku groups including the Haiku Society of America (a long time member mid 70's), the British Haiku Society, and Haiku Canada. Hotham’s interest in haiku stems from the poetry’s "brevity, the sharpness of its imagery, and its penetrating focus on a state of being or a moment in time" (email 04/02/01).

Hotham’s poetry originally struck my interests because of its ability to catch a moment that really electrified my senses. His ability to elicit such a response impressed me. In his haiku, Hotham brings the moment to life. He draws the reader into the moment and creates a special impression. He has a special knack for creating exceptional and phenomenal images with very few words. Gary Hotham’s haiku is extraordinary.

His High School English teacher, Mrs. Maloney first exposed Hotham to haiku, during his sophomore year at Maine's Presque Isle High School from 1965 to 1966. He did not immediately become a haiku poet, but he did begin to experiment with different types of poetry including haiku. He even attempted, and often succeeded, in publishing his works in magazines such as Haiku, Haiku Highlights, and Haiku West. However, Hotham’s serious interest in haiku did not occur until his senior year of college in 1972.

In an email interview with Gary Hotham, I asked him "Who are your biggest role models in haiku?" His response was interesting.

When I first started writing haiku in the mid 60's there was not much of an English language tradition of haiku. I had favorite contemporary and dead poets but no haiku writers. I read and published in Haiku magazine and Haiku Highlights and Haiku West. I read translations of Japanese haiku writers: R.H. Blyth most notably. Cor van den Heuvel's first anthology of haiku, which appeared in 1974, brought together a lot of good haiku by various writers, which was helpful. I can't say there has been any one or two writers of haiku who I have thought "I want to write like them." I have enjoyed and appreciated the works of many other haiku writers but have not thought I want to write haiku like them because it just would not have been me. This was not true of my attempts at non-haiku poetry—I thought I wanted to write poems like Robert Bly or William Stafford or James Wright. In some correspondence I had with Bly way back then he was not at all encouraging of my attempts at haiku nor did he desire at that time to see it become a genre for English language poets to write. (04/02/01)

Gary Hotham has always been interested in history as well as haiku. As a result, his work often reflects a combination of both of these loves. "All his art is to recapture a moment and seize upon particulars and fasten down a contingency" (Breath Marks 99). Herbert Butterfield, the very distinguished British historian, wrote this quote to describe the work of a historian. Hotham is very interested in creating haiku which "recapture a moment." Hotham believes that historians and haiku writers are after interested in the same results.

Part of writing haiku depends upon motivations. Some haiku poets get most of their motivation from nature, people, life, and travels. Gary Hotham gets his motivation from all of these sources. He says that there usually is a personal experience that accompanies the haiku. Hotham is mostly concerned with portraying "the essence of a moment keenly perceived" (Breath Marks 100). Included are emotional energy, excitement, and depth in the small events, the brief moments of life. "The haiku is a great form of poetry with its pinpoint focus for capturing those brief moments in time and re-creating the associated states of being" (Breath Marks 100). To describe and explain the subject of content inspiration, Gary Hotham uses a quote by T.S. Eliot. This quote, found in "Why Haiku?" at the end of Breath Marks: Haiku to Read in the Dark, describes Hotham’s belief that the content of a haiku can be thought of in the same way T. S. Eliot describes the materials of the poet at work:

When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, and fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. (103)

In with this explanation, Gary Hotham includes God’s influence in providing the materials to write about. Hotham’s Christianity has been a big influence on his life and his art.

Gary Hotham describes his style, including his motivation, subject matter, and following of regulations, in more detail in his book Breath Marks. The following is a direct quote:

If you have read my haiku, you know I don't adhere strictly to those rules. My focus is on perceiving the essence of the moment with the best words and phrases I can think of. That focus becomes my rule. It certainly limits the number of words, although it doesn't arrange them in lines of 5, 7, 5. Too many words would mean more moments and diffuse the sharp edges of a single moment. One line, two lines, three lines, four lines—in most cases three lines does it for me. What's the "does it"? I think the lines, by separating the words and phrases, help intensify them—it gives them some space to expand. At least visually—and even when read aloud—the lines make one pause, giving some space to the sounds. Perhaps the space around a word or between phrases is like water on seeds or boiling water poured on tealeaves. Have you ever wondered how you hear the spaces between words? It's certainly easy enough to see them when the words are written. Is seeing space and hearing space between words the same? And of course haiku are not just nature poems. There are lots of trees, clouds, wind, snow, and rain in mine, if that is what defines a nature poem. But there are other things in them such as cups of coffee, daughters, famous men, blank forms, soup, dentists, and closets. But even in the ones that look like a nature poem there is us. As far as the materials of the haiku go and its subject matter, all of creation is legitimate. I think the content of haiku can be thought of in the same way. (101-102)

Hotham certainly contributes unmatched elements to haiku on a global level. Gary Hotham’s haiku combines his personal astuteness and proficiency to create poetry that individually connects with each reader. This is an outcome that is the goal of any haiku poet. However, Hotham is one of the few who actually achieve this purpose. In the Preface to his new book, Breath Marks, Hotham notes the power of language and how powerful it is here: "in three or four short lines to disconcert, disillusion, illuminate, delight, to capture the moment." This self-description is the best explanation to Hotham’s unique contribution to haiku.

For the purposes of this paper, I have organized Hotham’s haiku into a systematic sequence. First, I have grouped together the haiku that leave the reader with a sense of questioning. These are the haiku that keep the reader thinking about the moment well after he or she is done reading it. Also, these haiku create a sense of wonderment from the reader’s perspective. Second, I have placed the haiku that mention motion. These haiku center on a sense of progress and direction as well. I next quoted the haiku with attention to the sense of sight. These haiku are written explaining a specific visual image. These are some of the most beautiful haiku because they portray a sense of charm.

Hotham’s haiku often depicts an interesting and clever situation. Frequently, his haiku creates a scene, which makes sense, but is not particularly a daily occurrence for an individual.

stalled car.
foot tracks being filled
with snow

(Haiku Anthology 83)

This haiku paints such a striking picture. The perspective does not come from the driver. Instead, the writer seems to be just an observer of the situation and the beauty of the moment. This haiku places the reader right in the moment described. It is as if I am standing by the stalled car and straining to figure out where exactly the footsteps lead. The tracks are currently being filled so the path is unclear. Of course, being a great haiku there are many questions left unanswered. Where is the driver? Were there passengers? What is wrong with the car? How long has it been snowing? Did the car stall because of the snow? When will the driver return? Will the tracks become completely filled? What time of day is it? The possible questions arising from different reader’s interpretations of the haiku are infinite. The genius of this haiku is that it presents this moment and then leads the reader to continue thinking about the haiku after finishing reading the haiku.

Gary Hotham’s haiku often describes a moment or instance without directly spelling out the experience.

home early
your empty coat hanger
in the closet

(Haiku Anthology 83)

Hotham’s wording in this haiku is really impressive. Hotham effectively starts the haiku with "home early." This statement immediately places the reader in the moment of an arrival home at an unexpected hour. Also, Hotham does not say "you are not home." Instead, he gives us the image of the empty coat hanger, merely implying that you are gone. This wording is ingenious. Without using any negative words, Hotham gives the impression that this is not a good sign. This absence is unexpected. The implications here are that the missing individual is doing something that they should not be doing. Hotham’s inclusion of the word "you" instead of his or her brings the reader into a sense of inclusion in the poem. This personal incorporation places a bit of guilt into the reader. Hotham has now created a physical response from the reader. This haiku creates an immediate response involving questions. "Where is this person?" "Why are they gone?" "When will they be home?" "What are they doing?" "Will they get into trouble?" "Will the writer confront the culprit?" "Will the writer ignore the situation and pretend like it did not happen?" Hotham has created a truly great piece of work in a mere nine words.

In some of Hotham’s poetry, the moment caught contains multiple senses. In fact, some of the most poignant haiku that he has written combines senses to place the reader in the moment.

late evening heat
the newspaper rattles
in the fan’s breeze

(Haiku Anthology 84)

The reader can almost feel the heat, see and hear the newspaper rattling, and feel the fan’s refreshing breeze. Hotham’s haiku creates a setting that the reader can immediately picture. Even more amazing, Gary Hotham chooses the perfect words that prompt the reader to imagine himself or herself there in the moment. Hotham’s use of senses creates a personal connection to the situation. The impression given in this particular instance is sensational.

Gary Hotham creates many precious scenes in his haiku. Sometimes, he takes a person and concentrates on that one individual.

the newborn yawns—
her hands don’t go

(Global Haiku 64)

In this instance, Hotham isolates the child’s mannerisms. With these mannerisms, he creates an innocent display concentrating on the hands of the small child. The moment becomes an exhibition in which one part of the child is the center of attention. The yawn becomes not only an action, but also a scene that states a double meaning. The newborn’s hands cannot reach far in a literal sense because she is so small. Also, her hands do not reach far in the sense that she is unable to do anything on her own. She depends on her parents for feeding, clothing, bathing, and washing. As the child grows, she will be able to reach farther and farther towards independence and adulthood. Eventually, this child will have a newborn of her own and the process will start over again. Hotham does some really neat things with this poem. He captures a precious moment and makes a heartfelt commentary on the life cycle.

Hotham has written a few two-lined haiku. In this haiku, Hotham describes a moment in an untraditional way.

quietly the fireworks
far away

(Haiku Anthology 85)

This two line haiku paints a beautiful picture full of color and life. The word quietly is used in a very significant and interesting way. One thing that people often associate with fireworks is the enormous amount of noise that usually accompanies them. However, in this instance, the fireworks are so far away that they seem quiet. However, the work lends itself to many options. I’d like to think that this scene includes a couple sitting on a blanket a bit outside of town. Perhaps they have a picnic or some champagne. They watch the fireworks, but are not included in the loudness associated by closeness to the event. Also, the crowd of people attending the event is far off. These particular spectators are enjoying a special moment far away from any other distractions other than the pure beauty of the moment.

Sometimes, Gary Hotham uses his haiku to commentary on an everyday occurrence.

yesterday’s paper
in the next seat
the train picks up speed

(Global Haiku 64)

The haiku appears to be an acknowledgment of surroundings. The matter-of-fact tone of this haiku creates a feeling of appreciation for life. The moment is nothing special. No particular big event is taking place. The instant caught by this haiku is a simple one. However, the way in which Hotham has created this image is interesting. Until the last line, the reader does not know where this paper and seat is. Also, Hotham does not just simply claim that there is a passenger in the train. Instead, he creates an image of the train moving along and getting quicker. Perhaps this scene is one that is encountered daily by commuters. This scene could almost be second nature to some regular passengers on trains. Or, perhaps something happened yesterday that the writer is trying to forget about. Perhaps that paper from yesterday is a horrible reminder of an event from the previous day. Because of that, he does not pick the paper up, but notes that it is indeed there. The haiku creates almost a power struggle in the decision whether to pick up the paper or not.

Hotham often isolates a certain place in the moment and concentrates his writing on that place.

between the rocks
water the ocean
didn’t take back

(Global Haiku 64)

While reading this haiku, I get a perfect mental picture of the captured moment. The image illustrated is gorgeous. I imagine the writer is walking along a beach, perhaps climbing on rocks or hiking through an area with rocks. In this hike, the writer notices a beautiful occurrence between the rocks. Hotham’s choice of words is remarkable. The eloquent way in which he describes this experience creates an even more beautiful picture. Hotham portrays this image without directly stating that there are puddles of ocean water. By personifying the ocean, the account becomes two-dimensional. On one hand, the basic picture of the caught water is there. But the ocean is also claiming previous ownership of this water. The picture is clear and awe-inspiring.

This is another example of isolating one particular point of view of a moment.

trash day—
the garbage truck backs over
the new snow

(Haiku Anthology 83)

Hotham uses a normal occurrence in this haiku. However, he concentrates on one aspect of the experience. The focus is not on the garbage, the truck, or the day. Hotham leads our imagination towards the impressions the trucks tires leave on the new snow. Perfectly depicted, the reader’s mind is immediately consumed with that image of the first break in the fresh snow. Gary Hotham’s fist line (trash day-) could have gone in many different directions. Hotham’s focus on the ground and the imprint left from the truck is special. The poem inspires people to notice the small things. The emphasis is on a small part of the picture. The reader’s ‘eyes’ are drawn there because of Hotham’s beautiful words and eloquent word placement.

Gary Hotham’s work as a haiku poet has inspired many haiku poets to reach new and higher levels of writing. Lee Gurga, Past President of the Haiku Society of America said this of Mr. Hotham: "Gary allows us to see, hear, and touch the world around us as if for the first time. These poems are true classics of American haiku." This statement is indeed true. Hotham’s ability to capture a moment makes him a true genius haiku poet.


Bibliography of Published Books by Gary Hotham

Against the Linoleum (Yiqralo Press, 1979)

As Far As The Light Goes (Juniper Press, 1996)

Bare Feet (Longhouse, 1998)

Before All the Leaves Are Gone (Juniper Press, 1996)

Breath Marks: Haiku To Read In The Dark (Canon Press, 2000)

Footprints & Fingerprints (Modest Proposal, 1999)

Hair’s & Hawk Circles (Tel-Let, 1996)

Off and On Rain (High/Coo, 1978)

Pulling Out the Bent Nail (Wind Chimes Press, 1988)

The Fern’s Underside (Juniper Press, 1977)

The Wind’s View (Juniper Press, 1993)

This Blank Space (Juniper Press, 1984)

Without the Mountains (Yiqralo Press, 1976)

Works Cited

Hotham, Gary. Breath Marks: Haiku To Read In The Dark. Canon Press, 2000.

Hotham, Gary. Email interview. 04/02/01.

Hotham, Gary. "Selected Haiku." Global Haiku. Ed. Randy Brooks and George Swede. Niagara Falls: Mosaic Press, 2000. 62-65.

Hotham, Gary. "Selected Haiku." The Haiku Anthology. Ed. Cor Van Den Heuvel.
New York: Norton & Company, 1999. 80-87.

—Mary Gamble


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors