Tsunamis, Santōka, and Cid

Originally written on 12 June 2011 as an email to Scott Watson, living in Sendai, Japan, shortly after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the area. See also Quiet Souls.”

Dear Scott,

I’ve thought many times to write to you, since the tsunami, which I’m sure is still a daily stress. I was riveted by reading your blog entries as Don Wentworth presented them on his blog—although I confess I couldn’t keep reading them (too intense for me at the time—although I hope to go back to them). Even the typos were part of their veracity, and spoke of the difficult conditions under which you were writing. I was glad, at least, to hear that you had survived, although it must have been and surely still continues to be terribly difficult with so much loss and destruction around you, not even counting the nuclear threat.

As you may know, my wife is Japanese, and we visit Japan fairly often. None of my wife’s family was directly affected by the earthquake or tsunami (they live mostly on the opposite coast and near Nagoya, although one cousin in Narita was missing for a day). I was in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, which damaged my home then, so I have a sobering empathy for even the smallest earthquakes—although I can’t imagine what such a large and long quake as Sendai’s might have been like. I have many earthquake haiku (as I’m sure you do).

after the quake

the weathervane

pointing to earth

I’m also prompted to write because I recently bought a copy of your Santōka translations, Walking By My Self Again, from Ce Rosenow (at last weekend’s Haiku Society of America meeting in Bend, Oregon)—congratulations on the book. Santōka seems endlessly ripe for interpretation, and I look forward to reading the breezy variety I see in your book. Have you seen my translation with Emiko Miyashita of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, from PIE Books? I’ve also done versions of a hundred Buson poems that I think were spontaneous in ways very similar to your versions of Santōka, letting them loose (if Santōka weren’t loose enough).

I also recently read your “Five Years of Death: Cid Corman” essay [video recording below], which completely nails my perception of Cid too. Regarding his boasts, I would add that he said (repeatedly to me and others in person and via his blue aerogrammes) that “I write a publishable book of poetry every day.” He also said, “If you can improve any of my poems, it’s yours.” I took that at first to be generous and unpossessive of his own work, but later came to understand it as a huge expression of ego, that he thought his poems were perfect as they were (indeed, that was often true), and that he defied anyone to make them better. He certainly had his shortcomings, but I feel, like you, that they have fallen away over time, or have become part of the wabi-sabi texture of who he had to be. I think we all needed that time to accept Cid’s off-putting traits, or to put them into perspective.

I once stood in Cid’s study, where stacks of manuscript pages and books were literally a health hazard if they should fall over on you. He gave me issue #13 of Bongos of the Lord [edited by Scott], and Frank Samperi’s The New Heaven Now, from Bob Arnold’s Longhouse. Despite his faults, he was generous, not just with books like that, but with his time, and his voluminous letters, and by expressing a deep and genuine passion for the way of poetry and anyone he felt was also pursuing it. Devotion, as you put it. Even so, you could tell that he fed on adoration, or at least admiration. His acceptance of every visitor was indeed generous, but it also made him seem slightly pathetic or desperate. When I visited, he bragged about his productivity, and would read me any poem if I asked him, and eagerly told me about anything I pointed to in his den. I was in awe of all the valuable poetry books (many first-edition hardbacks, it seemed) crammed into the bowed shelves, practically each one of which I could have spent a day with (I wondered how many of them had personally signed inscriptions). And oh how I wanted to read every single page of all those many stacks of typing paper, some stacks almost as tall as me. How I wished I had a million dollars for his archive—as you probably know, that was his asking price—“at least one million dollars.” I have wondered what happened to all his books and papers since he died, and whether Shizumi is still living in the same house or if she has moved. And I wonder how she is doing herself.

While I visited with Cid, my wife talked with Shizumi (in Japanese) in their small and cluttered living room. Shizumi served Hiromi tea and small gummy sweets. My wife remembers Shizumi telling her that Cid had left everything in America to be with her in Japan, and that she looked after him and helped him with the computer and email (Cid and Shizumi looked so comfortable together, at least to me). She told Hiromi that their rent was $300 a month for that small two-story attached house they lived in (funny how my wife remembers that detail when I asked her about our visit just now). I think they were grateful when my wife and I took them to dinner at a favourite restaurant nearby. When he came out to meet me on our walk to his home from Ryoanji, Cid wore a black beret—and also wore it to the restaurant. My wife tells me that my own den is starting to look like Cid’s.

That one time I saw Cid was on October 24 of 2002, just as the leaves were starting to turn in Kyoto. I asked him to sign volume three of my haiku autograph book. This is what he wrote:

I picked a

leaf up

It weighed

my vision

I knelt and

placed it


where it was

After I saw Cid in Kyoto, he had agreed to do an interview with me, about haiku and his approaches to it. Haiku was one of the many ways Cid changed the flow of poetry in America. I procrastinated for more than a year and had finally written out my questions to him right at the time (although I didn’t know it yet) that he had the surgery that sent him into a coma. Those questions, still unanswered, continue to haunt me.

In shared respect for Cid, and I trust, each other.