Interview by Raquel D. Bailey
First published on Lyrical Passion for National Poetry Month in April of 2009 (scroll down to see this interview). Answers originally written in April of 2009.
As I read in a few of your past interviews, you studied haiku for many years. What was it about haiku and Japanese short form poetry that drew you to learn about and write in this particular poetic style?
I learned of haiku in high school and began writing it (badly) then, and kept writing it (badly) for a dozen years. The twenty-plus years since then have been kinder. Like most students who learn haiku superficially in school, all I knew was the idea of a syllable count. It was a neat little bucket to put poetry in. In the years after I first learned of haiku, I began to read books on Taoism and Zen and encountered haiku in translation. I didn’t quite connect the dots that these poems weren’t in the “prescribed” syllable count, let alone understand why, but I enjoyed reading haiku more and more. Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (second edition, 1986) was a revelation. I finally saw and internalized the understanding that content mattered more than form, and that the traditional Japanese pattern of counting sounds could not be duplicated in English by counting syllables. The word “haiku” is three sounds, but two syllables. One hundred yen is not equal to one hundred dollars. Yet how many well-meaning teachers and textbooks, and even established poets, have made this erroneous assumption that Japanese haiku count syllables? This revelation about content over form immediately liberated my haiku, and they instantly improved in quality. Quite simply, I was no longer filling a bucket with seventeen apples. If you keep apples in a bucket, they’re pretty useless. But apples are much more enjoyable when you see them on the tree, in your hand, as windfall, or in a freshly baked pie. This was when I started studying haiku more earnestly, buying books devoted to haiku in translation, and then books of criticism, as well as collections of original haiku in English. More than twenty years ago, I repeatedly visited the Oriental Bookstore (now closed) in Pasadena, California, spending several hundred dollars on each visit, buying Blyth books and so much more. But really, I never considered this “study.” Rather, it was a passionate desire to learn more, to explore the history and examples of this resonant poetry down through the centuries. It’s a passion to figure out what makes a haiku tick. It’s an innate desire I would wish any aspiring haiku poet to have.
I was drawn to haiku because I’ve always been interested in writing short poetry, even as a child. As I’ve said before, for me, haiku is an approach to infinity. By focusing on supremely brief or ephemeral moments, haiku somehow captures the rightness of the whole universe. There’s something metaphysical about haiku, yet also something anti-metaphysical and paradoxical in its utter ordinariness. As Kerouac once said, haiku should be as simple as porridge.
For anyone interested in haiku, if it doesn’t come naturally to read haiku and, in balance, to read about haiku, then perhaps haiku is just a passing diversion. But literary haiku demands more of the writer than the superficialities that are taught—and mistaught—in our schools. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how experts typically practice their art or profession for at least 10,000 hours before reaching mastery or expertise. How many haiku poets rush in and expect success at a mere fraction of that devotion? I recall Jim Kacian once saying that he wanted to have written a thousand haiku before sending any out for publication. I usually sit on my own haiku for at least a year, sometimes several years, before sending them out. The space in time gives me fresh eyes to look at my own poems objectively, and to be more selective in what I send out. There’s no hurry. One of my favourite quotations on haiku is by French philosopher Roland Barthes, from Empire of Signs. He says that “haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.” The best haiku requires discipline and patience, and I think some of that discipline and patience comes from a careful reading and study of the genre, from questioning your own assumptions.
When do you feel you write your best work? Could it be a particular mood or a specific time of day?
For me, I don’t think there’s any particular time, or any particular best way. Good haiku, for me, have come in all sorts of ways (I had an essay about this in a recent issue of Haiku Canada Review). Driving to work last fall, I was momentarily surprised to see a bicycle in the ditch beside the road, and wondered if its owner had crashed. Then I saw the cyclist a few feet beyond the ditch, picking bright red berries from a thick bush. Many haiku come from momentary inspiration like that, but really the poem came slightly later, as I reflected on this experience, trying to put it into words. As Wordsworth said, poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. A key word in this definition, which also applies to haiku, is the word “recollected.” Even if it’s just a few seconds later, we have to process experience, to recall and re-form the experience. What matters is not the recency of experience, but its vibrancy. Thus good haiku can come from very old memories or from recent ones. All haiku is history. But it’s history brought alive as a sort of “present intense.”
I don’t believe, by the way, that haiku has to be inspired only by personal experience. Within certain limitations, the imagination can be a suitable source of inspiration, too. That’s haiku heresy to some people, but I think what matters most is how authentic the poem feels to the reader, regardless of its source of inspiration. If some people are less prolific with their haiku, it could be that they force an unnecessarily narrow restriction onto their sources of inspiration. Of course, the right process makes for good product, if you want to think of haiku that way. But when we read finished poems, the “product,” it should not matter to us one bit how the poem might have been inspired.
Upon researching Japanese short form poetry, I notice that there are very talented American haiku and tanka writers. If you could name one modern haiku writer in America that you admire greatly, who would that writer be? Why?
It would seem unfair of me to name just one at the expense of others. And at times, I’ve admired different writers because of what I needed to learn at the time. At other times, I may have happened to see more of a particular poet’s work, and grew to appreciate it. But over the years, I would say poets such as Marlene Mountain, Garry Gay, Cor van den Heuvel, George Swede, Ebba Story, Christopher Herold, Fay Aoyagi, and Carolyn Hall have all particularly moved me, and continue to do so with regularity. Even this list of names leaves off poets who I also greatly enjoy, such as John Stevenson, Lee Gurga, Ferris Gilli, Peggy Willis Lyles, LeRoy Gorman, and so many more. In the past, too, I particularly enjoyed Nick Avis, Adele Kenny, and Alexis Rotella. And Jerry Kilbride. I think what makes them all succeed is a sort of authenticity, an honesty that trusts the sharing of the self. Voice comes naturally. Each poet has a way of seeing the world in his or her unique way, and we relate to individual poems where we are able to recognize the same world, or where we are shown the world we know in a previously unknown way. Because each person’s voice and perspective is unique, I believe that haiku will have a never-ending potential for personal self-expression.
If you could describe your haiku / tanka poetry with one word, what would that word be?
I don’t think I could do that, nor do I think it would provide anything useful to readers, to be honest, because it too easily narrows down a person’s poetry. Some poems are pizza dough, others are mushrooms or pepperoni. I consider myself a hopeful and optimistic person, and I’d pick the word “hope” for myself, but not necessarily for my poems. Hope, for me, enables me to feel joy at every turn, and haiku are ultimately a poem of joy, even when they celebrate dark subjects. This joy leads to gratitude, too (I am reminded that Sam Hamill used “Gratitude” as the title of one of his poetry books). In an interview with The Paris Review, former United States poet laureate Billy Collins once remarked that “a very deep strain of existential gratitude . . . runs through a lot of poetry. It’s certainly in haiku. Almost every haiku says the same thing: ‘It’s amazing to be alive here.’”
I’m a closet Taoist, too, and like to feel that the universe is unfolding and flowing as it should. I am reminded of the scene in the movie American Beauty that shows a white plastic bag floating, dancing, in front of a red brick wall. As the character says in the movie, “That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.” After the main character dies, his voiceover at the end of the movie says that “It’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold onto it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.” That’s the joy—and hope—of haiku.
I am well aware that you have done several interviews about your haiku poetry and many writers and readers study your work. Which one of your haiku poems would you say is your most stunning piece of work? What about your favorite tanka poem?
I would shy away from considering any of my haiku or tanka to be stunning. That’s for others to decide, if at all. That’s such a personal choice, too. What might strike one person as extraordinary might not strike others quite the same way, or at least not at the same time. Rather than thinking of any of my poems to be stunning, I would feel satisfied if a given poem communicates to a few people. As an “unfinished” poem, haiku requires a careful reader, and I think each poem finds its own home. Each haiku, if it’s lucky, finds a unique reader who “finishes” the poem with his or her individual interpretation. That’s how I feel it should be, for readers. We each bring something with us to each poem, balanced with consciously trying to empty ourselves to see what the poem can bring us. It’s a wonderful dance, and each poem is a personal invitation.