Apr 25 Written by 

Talking With: Poet Ben Moeller-Gaa About Today's Haiku

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At a recent reading I met Ben Moeller-Gaa, well-published poet who writes only haiku. I had to ask what that was like.

-Tell us about your interesting last name.

My wife is a Moeller and I am a Gaa and when we got married we decided to join our names. The name Gaa is German, and it’s really that short. My family comes from the town of Hockenheim, where there are still Gaas today. I have no idea what the name means. It is a historical question mark.

-Where are you from?

Belleville, IL.

-How did you become interested in poetry in general, and in haiku specifically?

Poetry and I found each other in the eighth grade. The pulse of these early poems came from Metallica and Pink Floyd, where I learned about rhythms, rhymes, and conveying what was inside of me by studying their lyrics and trying to pen my own words to their songs. In high school I was introduced to free verse and also decided that this poetry thing was more than just a phase. I went on to Knox College to major in Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry and playwriting.

The combination oBenMoellerGaaf an abstract painting class, introductions to John Cage and 20th-century minimalist composers, and reading the Tao Te Ching prompted experiments with different poetical forms and structures while at Knox. I played around with some very, very short work. My advisor and poetry professor, poet Sheryl St. Germain, suggested that I might read some haiku. Her mentor Robert Hass had published a collection of Basho, Buson, and Issa translations, The Essential Haiku. This book was a revelation. It was the first time I’d read haiku that wasn’t 5-7-5, and these old masters spoke with immediacy, wit, and a clarity I hadn’t encountered before. And they somehow managed to write about everything and nothing with great sophistication and efficiency. It blew my mind.

Poetry took the back seat for several years to playwriting. In 2009, the winery I had been producing plays in closed and I decided to put playwriting aside for a while. I always have considered myself a poet first and foremost. With the focus solely on poetry, I started submitting work left and right and soon got tired of licking stamps, so I went online and found a few haiku journals that took online submissions. I dusted off my old work and sent it.

One journal was The Heron’s Nest. This journal has four editors. You basically pick one and send him or her 10 to 15 haiku for the issue. I picked the late, great Peggy Wills Lyles because she had a nice-sounding name. Within a few days I got a terse note telling me that if I was serious about writing haiku, then I needed to get serious because what I submitted didn’t quite cut it. She sent a reading list and suggested I read up, write, and then send her a new batch of work. At this point I was ready to hear this type of message and took her up on this. We went through a few more rounds before I got my first real haiku published. The poem:

an old dress on the line
fills with wind

-The Heron’s Nest: XII:I (2010)

During the two months of correspondence with Peggy that led up to this poem my passion for the genre really sank in and I decided to dedicate all my creative energy to it. This has been the only form I’ve worked in since the fall 2009. I absolutely love it. It requires my complete attention as a writer. There is no room for a lousy word, much less a lousy line. It also has brought with it a deeper appreciation for everything around me, big and small. 

-Who was your best teacher? What did this teacher teach you?

Sheryl St. Germain introduced me to so many things, one of them being haiku. When I got to Knox, she was the resident poet. She embodied my dream of being a real, working, published poet. When I encountered Peggy at The Heron’s Nest later in life, it was Sheryl’s smiling face that I saw in my head. Peggy generously mentored me for what would be the last several months of her life.

-What don’t people understand about haiku?

The idea that haiku has to be written with the syllable structure of 5-7-5 is an outdated idea that non-Japanese haiku poets moved away from some 40 years ago. The simple reason is that 5-7-5 in Japanese does not translate into 5-7-5 in English. Our syllables are too long. Most languages’ syllables are too long. And so with this notion of 5-7-5 put to rest, poets then focused on everything else that makes a haiku a haiku, like the juxtaposition of two images with a cutting word/line, how haiku takes place in the present tense, how haiku should not be overly tied to a specific moment in the poet’s life and instead should be open for the reader to step inside the poem and complete it with their own life experience, to name just a few.

Another misconception is that haiku is too simple to be taken seriously. True, haiku are accessible on a first read, but this brevity is very difficult to attain, much less master. The poems are deceptively simple. For me this is a huge part of the appeal. A haiku must say something. You can’t hide in obscurity or footnoted references. There is no room for that. If your haiku is too obtuse, you didn’t do your job as a poet. If your haiku is overly simple, then it falls flat. Mastering the fine line within the fine line(s) of a haiku can take a lifetime. There is no limit to the depths a haiku can travel to. Take a look at the work of modern haiku masters Carolyn Hall, John McManus, Anita Virgil, Roberta Beary, and Tom Tico, to name but a few.

-What is your educational background?

I have a B.A. from Knox College in Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry and playwriting. Knox is located in Galesburg, IL, the hometown of Carl Sandburg and right smack dab in the middle of where Edgar Lee Masters, who attended Knox, wrote his Spoon River Anthology. These two things were not lost on me when I applied there.

-What is your ultimate goal?

I’ve found that setting short, medium and long-term goals are very effective in staying focused as a poet. I give the Moeller of the Moeller-Gaa household credit for instilling this in me. My ultimate goal, though, is to have a long active life in local and global writing communities with a consistent and strong body of work. I don’t want to be the best that ever lived, just strong, active, and consistent so that, in the end, when people talk about haiku, and maybe poetry at large, my name will come up as part of the conversation.

Two Haiku by Ben Moeller-Gaa:

for no other reason
than this poem

-Chrysanthemum: 15 (2014)

moving from house to house
the goldfinch
and his song

-Architrave Press Edition 6 (2014)


Catherine Rankovic

Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.