For Robert Spiess: In Memory of the Haiku Gatekeeper

This is the original, longer, and previously unpublished draft of the introduction for “The Haiku Gatekeeper: An Interview with Robert Spiess,” published in Modern Haiku 33:3, Autumn 2002. Originally written in July of 2002 in Belmont, California.

Starting in the mid 1990s, by mail, I conducted an interview with Robert Spiess about haiku, his own poetry, and his work as editor of Modern Haiku. I sent Bob two or three questions at a time. In a letter to me with his answers to the last questions I sent him, he wrote, “Enclosed is the continuation of the interview. It has become somewhat lengthy and I believe it is time to conclude it—one, or at most, two, more questions.”
        But to my regret, I never sent him any more questions, as various aspects of my own life intervened. We continued to exchange letters, and I submitted articles and poems to him for publication in Modern Haiku, but after the break that ensued, I never quite managed to continue the interview.
        I think my main reason for hesitating was that I was unsure which final questions to ask him, finding it hard to choose a high point to end on. Bob also seemed to have only so much more desire to shine any spotlight on himself. I had written dozens of questions before I had sent him even the first batch, and had sequenced them in a way I felt would unfold well. But when Bob wrote that he wanted to conclude the interview, I never did make myself send him any final questions. And to my regret I never did ask him more interview questions at all.
        I had wanted to persuade Bob to answer more intermediary questions. Though I never sent it to him, in the summer of 1999 I had made a note to myself about a possible last question I wanted to ask him. It was, “Would you prefer to be remembered most as an editor or as a poet, and why? And which do you think you will be remembered for most?” But of course I never did ask this question, though I suspect that he probably wouldn’t have had an opinion, perhaps being too modest to wish that strongly for posterity to remember him for his poetry or his editing. Perhaps he would have wanted, instead, to be remembered just for compassion and kindness, for treating poets and others around him with dignity and respect. I am confident that Bob will be remembered as both a poet and an editor, as a leader and steady achiever in both arenas. But more important, judging by tributes that surfaced after he died, I believe he will be remembered as a compassionate human being, as a man who was always more concerned about others than himself.
        Bob’s replies to my interview questions were all carefully typed out on his old Smith-Corona typewriter, well into the computer age, usually with no corrections to the typing, which suggests to me that he must have written out his answers before typing them up, or sent me a polished version of what he wrote. I sent him questions many months apart from each other, so the interview took some time, though his replies usually came back to me three to eight weeks after I sent them. His only changes to the typewritten text were usually brief handwritten additions where he felt the need to expand an answer. I find it particularly interesting, in nearly two-dozen pages of typewritten answers, that he crossed out only a single one of his sentences. It was near the end of the interview. He had decided that he did not want to say the following: “I try to be reasonably liberal in my view of haiku.” Perhaps, indeed, he realized in himself that he was a gatekeeper for haiku, and that being too liberal was not what American haiku needed, or perhaps that he wrestled with whether he was liberal or not. Or perhaps his not wanting to say that he was liberal was merely an extension of his modesty.
        Anyone who knew Bob Spiess knew him to be humble, with high ethical standards, and as a disciplined man of convictions—about his personal beliefs and haiku. He seldom talked about himself, though I learned in one of his letters that he loved to canoe, and lived right by Starkweather Creek in the town of Middleton, Wisconsin, on the northwest outskirts of Madison. (That may explain why several of my best canoeing poems I had sent Bob easily found a home!) I believe he seldom talked about himself because of his Buddhist practice and the humility that came from his reading of Thoreau and Buddhist texts. He read the entire canon of Thoreau’s writings numerous times, no easy task even once, and he had a phenomenal collection of books about Buddhism. He considered himself a “theoretical Buddhist.” In talks with his friends about the afterlife before he died, this was something that fellow Madison haiku poet Mark Osterhaus and other friends such as Rex Owens and Tim Durfee chided him about, yet he remained resolute about this self-assessment to the end.
        Obviously, to have edited Modern Haiku for thirty years, twenty-four of them as its chief editor, as well as his earlier editing work with American Haiku, demonstrates superlative commitment to the haiku genre. As John Stevenson writes of Bob Spiess, his was “the first complete life in American haiku.” His own books were varied and remarkable, and frequently received high praise, including Merit Book Awards from the Haiku Society of America. Beyond this, though, through the pages of Modern Haiku he probably shaped the art and craft of writing haiku more than any other Westerner, aside, perhaps, from translators such as R. H. Blyth. He was tireless in responding to submissions with advice and suggestions, and the occasional correction. He knew when to encourage a beginner, and when to tell a more seasoned writer that poems from a given submission would not represent the poet at his or her finest. He was kind and gracious, yet conscientious, forthright, and rigorous when he needed to be, not being afraid to take a clear stand in matters of ethics or scholarship. He was widely known for saying “not quite” in his letters when poems didn’t “quite” make the grade. He was kind in using this endearing phrase, which reflected the absolute rather than relative standards I believe he applied in editing haiku—an approach I have tried to emulate in my own editing.
        I believe Bob’s humility kept him from knowing, till very late in his life, how widely loved and praised he was. Certainly he had his faults, as we all do, but a few key events clearly recognized his exemplary contribution to American haiku. Perhaps the first of these was at the Haiku North America conference that took place at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in 1999. Bob had not traveled to any previous Haiku North America conference, and in fact many haiku poets had never met him before. He had attended the 1995 Haiku Chicago conference, probably because the event was also not too far from Madison, and that was where I first met him in person. And he came to HNA in 1999, too. At HNA’s Saturday-night banquet, at a reading for contributors to the third edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology, Bob was one of the readers. Most people had never heard him read before. While other readers drew applause, only Bob drew a spontaneous and prolonged ovation. Indeed, he was given a minutes-long standing ovation by all the conference attendees. It was a moment of impromptu appreciation, a moment that turned into minutes, that left Bob visibly surprised and overwhelmed.
        Bob’s second prominent honor was his being named, in the spring of 2000, as the honorary curator of the American Haiku Archives in Sacramento, California. The archives, established in 1996, is probably the largest public collection of haiku books and papers outside Japan. It houses the archives of the Haiku Society of America and the libraries and letters of many prominent haiku poets, including Elizabeth Searle Lamb. Every year the archive’s advisory board appoints an annual honorary curator, and Bob was the committee’s unanimous choice for the 2000–2001 term.
        A third and surely the most prominent honor was Bob’s receipt, in the autumn of 2000, of the very first Shiki International Haiku Award from the Ehime Prefectural Government in Matsuyama, Japan. The prize, which included a first-class plane trip to Japan and ¥500,000 (approximately $5,000), was awarded at a special ceremony on September 10. Lee Gurga has told me that he had to beg Bob to go, and even arranged for some of his editorial duties to be lessened so he would feel more free to attend the ceremony. Yet still he almost didn’t go, feeling that it was too much bother. Bob even had to be coaxed to the airport! After the trip, though, Lee reported that Bob felt deeply moved and humbled by the honor, and delighted to have made his first and only trip to Japan.
        A much more personal honor awaited Bob. At the instigation of Haiku Society of America newsletter editor Charles Trumbull, who orchestrated a web of secret publicity through the Internet in the summer and early fall of 2001, haiku poets everywhere were invited to send Bob a special birthday message in honor of his eightieth birthday on October 16, 2001. To save Bob the trouble of carting extra loads of mail from his post office box, Charlie asked people to send letters to Bob’s home address. The mail carrier must have loved that! Apparently some hundreds of letters and cards and other tributes poured into his mailbox at 2830 Tomahawk Court. My very first submission of haiku to a haiku magazine was in 1988, to Modern Haiku, from which Bob accepted one poem. Looking back to this first connection I had with Bob, my own personal tribute for his eightieth birthday was to review all of the issues of Modern Haiku where he had published my poems to select my favorites. I put seventeen of them in a trifold haiku sheet, entitled “Morning Bird Song” [available to download or view online], named after one of my canoeing poems, which he had published in 1993:

                morning bird song—
                my paddle slips
                into its reflection

I cannot help but think of Bob when I read this poem, and many canoeing poems I write bring Bob to mind for me. I printed some four or five hundred of these flyers, and have delighted in giving them out to fellow poets in honor of Bob—in addition, of course, to sending him the first one. He wrote a letter of thanks to me, and I suspect that he also wrote thank-you notes to many hundreds of other people. We must have put a serious dent into his annual postage budget!
        Unlike the official public awards and honors, I believe this final honor—the cards and letters from many hundreds of fans, friends, and fellow poets—was probably the one Bob cherished the most. The outpouring of appreciation came from individual people, from seasoned poets who had long been influenced by him, and from beginning poets who had only just been touched by his guidance. Mark Osterhaus has told me that “Bob had a lot of incredibly solid friendships with a variety of people who didn’t know each other—Bob was the hub and his friends were the spokes.” Many of these spokes of friendship became apparent in the time just before Bob died, and new friendships formed as they came together around him, perhaps as an unspoken memorial in honor of Bob’s influence.
        Yet there was still more. On February 8, 2002, Bob made the decision that he could no longer continue to edit Modern Haiku. He prepared a letter to be made public through the Internet to explain that health reasons made it necessary for him to turn the reins of Modern Haiku over to Lee Gurga. When Bob was later hospitalized, word quickly spread through the haiku community around the world about his illness, though Bob himself did not go to any effort to tell anyone that he was sick. And the messages of love, appreciation, respect, and support flowed again, this time with increased thanks and compassion and with ardent wishes for improved health. They came in by the hundreds, many of them faxes or phone calls to Bob’s hospice bed, and the nurses and other staff, when they had time, and the friends who visited regularly, would read the messages to Bob. Mark Osterhaus reported to me that Bob was more touched by the letters and phone calls he received at this time than anything else in his life. Mark told me of talking with Bob in the hospice as he took his walker down the hall. Over and over Bob expressed his amazement at the outpouring of concern and affection. “I had no idea,” Bob said, “that there were so many people out there who cared so much to take the time to write.” I believe these messages of love eased Bob’s final days, perhaps giving him a larger sense of family and of belonging that may have given him peace.
        Bob struck me as energetic when I last saw him in 1999 (I recall the beam of his ready smile and the glint of delight in his eyes). None of us imagined at the celebration of his eightieth birthday in October of 2001 that he would pass away fewer than five months later. As the year 2002 began, I know many people in the haiku community felt elated, as I did, to honor Bob in our personal ways before he died.
        But now, of course, he is gone. His cancer, when it was discovered, had already spread to too many organs for operations to be of any help. The best he could hope for was medication to ease the pain, and perhaps chemotherapy to delay the inevitable. He chose, though, to forego chemical invasion, except for drugs to lessen his pain. In the end, when the pain grew too great, he asked to be taken off hydration and eventually became comatose and died in a couple of weeks.
        It is hard for me to write this because, as when anyone passes, one wishes to have done this or that, or said this or that. I will never get to finish my interview. I can only imagine how he might have answered the final question I now wish I had posed to him. It would have been to ask what he valued most about haiku poetry. I believe he would have answered that it was the connection with people that haiku afforded. I am thrilled that the connection became deeply manifested on his eightieth birthday and on his hospice bed, and that he knew before he died how widely respected and loved he was—not just officially or publicly, but personally, one person at a time, directly to him. How amazed he must have been at that time to find his mailbox so full with birthday greetings and letters of appreciation from around the world. And how overwhelmed he was, too, when this love continued as he began to die.
        I think haiku has great power because its very ordinariness can become extraordinary by the careful choice of juxtaposed details (Bob always insisted that the juxtaposition or “turn” in the poem was vital to haiku’s success). Haiku brings life to life, not just in the sense of making experience alive, but in bringing the observation and awareness of one’s own existence to the attention of another person, resulting in the joy of shared experience. With each haiku, life connects to life. We see ourselves more clearly for what we are in the larger natural world. We see each other more clearly through our poems. And we see, through our poems—as the earth turns on its poles, facing the ever-arriving sunrise of the infinite now—that we are a community not in competition with each other but in cooperation. For several decades, Bob found himself at the center of this community, as a humble leader, and as a fine poet with a determined and clear voice. No wonder he observed, in concluding A Year’s Speculations on Haiku, his book of observations about the way of haiku, that “Haiku poets memorialize the ephemeral moment.” Bob Spiess would probably consider his own life to be ephemeral, his own contributions to haiku literature to be of no great consequence, or at least that no fuss need be made about him. I think the best memorial we can give him, in contrast to the dismissal I imagine he might give of himself, is to continue writing our haiku, to continue to memorialize the modest and ephemeral moment, as he wished to do himself. Every moment of life should remind us, and death clearly does remind us, that the fleeting moments we seek to capture in haiku are impermanent. Yet, as Bob also wrote, “that impermanence allows us to be creatively free, [for] if the universe were fixed, true creativity would not be possible.” Here’s to this freedom, to the ephemeral moment, and to the eternal now. And here’s to Robert Spiess, a fine poet, editor, and friend, a true pillar in the temple of haiku, and the greatest gatekeeper yet of American haiku.