The Haiku Gatekeeper:
An Interview with Robert Spiess
First published in Modern Haiku 33:3, Autumn 2002, in the Robert Spiess memorial issue shortly after he died, in the flagship haiku journal he had edited for almost a quarter century. Introduction originally written in July of 2002. On her Baymoon website, Joan Zimmerman said “This is a remarkable essay of living history.” New here is the last sentence of the third paragraph, starting with “As it turned out,” which corrects an error in the original publication. See also “For Robert Spiess: In Memory of the Haiku Gatekeeper,” an earlier and longer version of the introduction. You can also hear Robert Spiess read and talk about haiku at YouTube video 1, video 2, and video 3. + + + + + + + +
Starting in the mid 1990s, by mail, I conducted an interview with Robert Spiess about haiku and his role 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.” We continued to exchange letters, but after the break that ensued, I never quite got around to continuing the interview.
I think my main reason for hesitating was that I was unsure which final questions to ask him. 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 most for?” I suspect he probably wouldn’t have had an opinion, perhaps being too modest to wish that strongly for posterity to remember him either for his poetry or his editing. Perhaps he would have wanted, instead, to be remembered 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. More important, however, 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, usually with no corrections to the typing, which suggests to me that he must have written out his answers before typing them, sending me a polished version of what he wrote. I sent him batches of questions many months apart; his replies usually came back to me three to eight weeks after I sent the questions. His only changes to the text were usually brief 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 obviously had decided that he did not want to say “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. As it turned out, though, he crossed it off because he had simply repeated himself and said the same thing elsewhere in the interview, which is to say that he did view himself as relatively liberal.
Anyone who knew Bob Spiess knew him to be humble, with high ethical standards, 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 on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin. I believe he seldom talked about himself because of his Buddhist practice and the humility that came from reading Thoreau and Buddhist texts. He read the entire canon of Thoreau’s writings several times, 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 kidded him about, yet he remained resolute about this self-assessment to the end.
To have edited Modern Haiku for thirty years, twenty-four of them as its chief editor, as well as his earlier 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 American haiku more than any other person, aside, perhaps, from translators such as R. H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson. 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 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 make the grade. His kindness in using this endearing phrase reflected the absolute rather than relative standards I believe he applied in editing haiku.
I believe Bob’s humility kept him from knowing, till late in his life, how widely loved and praised he was. Certainly he had his faults, but a few key events clearly recognized his exemplary contribution to American haiku. Perhaps the first of these was 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. At the 1999 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 were applauded, only Bob drew a spontaneous and prolonged standing ovation by all the conference attendees, just in response to his name being called, before he had even read his haiku. It was a moment of impromptu appreciation, a moment that turned into minutes, that left Bob visibly moved and overwhelmed.
Bob’s second prominent honor was his being named, in spring of 2000, as the honorary curator of the American Haiku Archives in Sacramento. Every year the archive’s advisory board appoints an annual honorary curator, and Bob was the committee’s unanimous choice for the 2000–01 term.
A third and probably his greatest 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. Even so, he almost did not go, and literally had to be coaxed to the airport. After the trip, though, Bob was clearly deeply touched and humbled by the honor, and delighted at last to have made a trip to Japan.
A much more personal honor awaited Bob. At the instigation of Charles Trumbull in the early fall of 2001, news was spread through the Internet, unbeknownst to Bob, about Bob’s forthcoming eightieth birthday. Haiku poets everywhere were invited to send Bob a special message on October 16, 2001. To save Bob the trouble of carting extra loads of mail from his post office box, people were asked to use Bob’s home address. The mail carrier must have loved that! Apparently several hundred letters, cards, and other tributes poured into his mailbox at 2830 Tomahawk Court.
Unlike the official public awards and honors, I suspect 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, 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 an unspoken memorial in honor of Bob’s influence.
Yet there was still more. In February 2002, Bob made the decision that he could no longer continue to edit Modern Haiku. He prepared a letter to be made public 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 world about his illness, though Bob himself did not go to any effort to tell anyone that he was sick. 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.”
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 time of his eightieth birthday in October of 2001 that he would pass away fewer than five months later.
Now, of course, he is gone. His cancer, when it was discovered, had already spread to too many organs for surgery to be of any help. He chose to forego chemotherapy, choosing simply to accept medication to lessen his pain. In the end, when he felt he could no longer be himself, he asked to be taken off hydration and passed away a few days later.
With each haiku, life connects to life. 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 its 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. 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 an 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 haiku, to continue to memorialize the ephemeral moment, as he himself wished to do. 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, poet, editor, and friend, a true pillar in the temple of haiku, and the greatest gatekeeper of American haiku.
Interview with Robert Spiess
Michael Dylan Welch: How and when did you first become interested in haiku? What keeps you thriving with it?
Robert Spiess: It was in the late 30s or very early 40s that I became acquainted with haiku, through the writings of such personages as Amy Lowell, Yone Noguchi, Lafcadio Hearn, Harold Henderson’s The Bamboo Broom, and Asataro Miyamori’s An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern. The sheer simplicity of expression and brevity of the poems enthralled me, for it was during this time in my life that a strong interest in poetry was developing.
World War II brought a three-and-a-quarter-year hiatus in my continuation with haiku. After the war, my fascination with haiku returned and I read such works as Kenneth Yasuda’s A Pepper Pod, and the four volumes of R. H. Blyth’s Haiku as they became available.
I began writing haiku along with other poetry, and the first haiku I had published (may it rest in peace) was in early 1949 in American Poetry Magazine. In 1963 I saw the first issue of American Haiku in a bookstore in Madison. AH was the first magazine to be devoted entirely to English-language haiku. I was greatly taken by the publication and submitted a few of my haiku, of which two were published in the second issue.
One of the reasons I may be “thriving” (thank you for the kind word) with Modern Haiku is that the attributes and qualities of haiku are so myriad. I am continually stimulated by receiving excellent haiku with new and deeper or higher perceptions in them; and I delight in being able to introduce new haiku poets, and to encourage others who are writing “not quites.”
MDW: In the thirty years since you became associated with American Haiku, how do you think English-language haiku has changed? Are we writing better haiku now? What have we learned?
RS: Perhaps the most obvious change has been in the increased use of much freer forms or structures for haiku instead of the formal or classic 5–7–5 syllabic pattern. Also, haiku have become tauter, fewer words; there is less syllable-counting. There is more experimental work, such as concrete haiku, but these often tend to be tours de force rather than genuine haiku.
I believe there are relatively fewer haiku being written that are merely similes or metaphors, and also less anthropomorphism, pathetic fallacy, personification, and so forth. The subjects included in haiku are more diverse—the city, persons, the homeless, poverty, destruction of the environment, social concerns, and many others—there are still too many haiku that are only recordings of stimuli or just journalistic or scientific descriptions.
As it is not possible to know the number of haiku that were written each year in the 1960s or the number that are now being written each year, so the proportion of good haiku then and now cannot be determined. To answer your question, however, I once did an analysis of the overall quality of haiku published then and now. I took 100 haiku in sequence (omitting senryu) from Vol. II, No. 2 (1964) of American Haiku, an issue for which both James Bull and I selected the haiku, and paired them with 100 haiku in sequence (omitting minimals and haiku that were in a sequence or group) from Modern Haiku Vol. XXV, No. 3 (1994), for which I was the sole selector. I evaluated haiku #1 from AH with haiku #1 from MH, #2 with #2, etc.
The evaluations resulted in:
23 of the haiku in AH were better than MH haiku.
54 of the MH haiku were better than their AH counterparts.
23 were ties.
If we would be forced to break the ties, we probably would give half to AH and half to MH. Then we get a ratio of 65H for MH to 34H for AH. Either way (with or without breaking ties) it seems that published haiku now are of better quality than those that were published thirty years ago.
MDW: Through many years you have distinguished yourself as both a poet and editor. How do you differentiate these two aspects of yourself?
RS: To coin an oxymoron, I suppose I could say that I need to be “integratively schizoid!” But realistically, as editor of a haiku journal I must be openly aware and appreciative of those now-moments of haiku that others have and of which I as a poet and an individual person might not have been able to experience due either to my environment or particular sensitivity-opaqueness. As editor, I need to be able to say to myself when reading the haiku of others, “Hey, that’s neat! As poet myself I never would have been able to have perceived that event-experience the way that poet did.”
MDW: Tell me about some of your other poetic influences. Which non-haiku poets have most affected you? What might you talk to them about if you could spend an afternoon together?
RS: I have no idea as to what degree I have been influenced in my haiku by particular writers, excluding the vast panoply of those with whom all of us are familiar, such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, etc. Since first coming upon the poetry of Emily Dickinson I have been enamored of her poems, and have wondered about what might have been created by her in the line of haiku had she been acquainted with them. I am also deeply taken by the Chinese poets with their genius for the concrete and for their favoring intuition over intellect, the holistic over the dualistic. Even the Chinese yin-yang concept is in essence unitive or holistic. Thoreau, too, is in the top group, of course. In addition to having read his Walden, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, etc., I have read twice the one million words of the fourteen volumes of his Journals.
There are so many other writers I feel indebted to that I would have to undergo hypnosis to recall them, but a few that immediately come to mind are Emerson, Robert Frost and Robert Francis, John Clare, Gilbert White for his The Natural History of the Selborne, Diasetz T. Suzuki, Frithjof Schuon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Lama Anagarika Govinda, Saigyō, Santōka, Robinson Jeffers, A. E. Housman, Lorine Niedecker, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Masao Abe, the cloistered French nun Carmen Bernos de Gasztold for her Prayers from the Ark and The Creatures’ Choir.
MDW: What are some of the best rewards that surprise you as editor of Modern Haiku?
RS: In general, I try to take each day as it comes and act in accordance with what it brings, not to be particularly concerned with the future or to lament aspects of the past—although I try to avoid repeating past errors. Perhaps there is a streak of Taoism in me.
Although I deeply appreciate the kind words about Modern Haiku and the works of its contributors, I do not keep a scrapbook of them. As for letters of rebuke (mild or strong), I try to give appropriate consideration to them and institute remedial actions if they seem advisable.
My fulfillment in editing Modern Haiku comes from trying to make it a superior English-language haiku periodical, a journal rather than another haiku magazine, for it to be a forum for the best haiku and the various views about the haiku genre. I am in agreement with Linchi, who remarked in reference to what poets’ lives should be like: “They have naught to do but go on with their life as they find it in the different circumstances of their earthly existence. They quietly arise in the morning, dress, and go to their place of work.” And now my place of work is the desk (actually a large teakwood table) of Modern Haiku.
MDW: About how many poems and articles does Modern Haiku receive and publish every year? How have these numbers changed in the past 20 years?
RS: Modern Haiku currently publishes some 800 or so haiku and senryu yearly, 15 haibun, 20 essays and articles, 30–35 book reviews and translations of foreign haiku. I estimate that 12,000–14,000 haiku and senryu are received each year. This is considerably more than, say, ten years ago, and the number increases each year. One time I received 250 haiku in a single submission, all being about the Hawaiian Islands by a person who had visited there. Not one was accepted.
The percentage of haibun and essays that are accepted is significantly higher than the percentage of accepted haiku; and I believe that the proportion of senryu received and accepted in relation to haiku slowly increases.
When a haiku passes my initial screening, I read it aloud in order to gain a deeper feeling for it, for it is the rhythm, the music of the words that carries or contains the essence of real felt-significance of the haiku. Before a haiku can be anything within the genre it first must be a poem, not some sort of intellective message that merely transmits information. Genuine haiku poets accept the view of the renowned physicist-philosopher Werner Heisenberg (formulator of the uncertainty principle in physics) that the universe can be perceived as being made out of music and not matter.
Recently Modern Haiku was ranked second out of sixty in the “New Poets” category by Writer’s Digest which ranks those markets that often publish poets whose work is new to their publication. Although I do not give new haiku poets any breaks by accepting their work if it is not up to standard, I do encourage their efforts and devote some time to replying and try to point out both the good and undesirable aspects of their work.
One problem in editing Modern Haiku concerns haiku that are very similar to ones that have been published in the past. Of course, I cannot recall all the haiku I have read in my life, but certain haiku often trigger my recollection of their being remarkably similar to haiku I have previously seen. New haiku poets seldom have read many of the haiku that have been published over the years, so they believe that haiku on such subjects as the following are unique: a kite or the moon caught in the branches of a tree; the wind lifting the wing of a dead bird or the wind moving a rocking chair on the porch where grandpa, who is now dead, used to sit and rock; looking at oneself in the mirror one day and seeing the face of one’s mother or father; the tide erasing one’s footprints; and the last leaf falling from the tree (with the last words often arranged in a fluttering down manner. Lately there have been several haiku received on the subject of hearing the voice of someone, now dead, on a telephone recording device. I am nonetheless amazed at the number of haiku being written on subjects that essentially have not been touched upon before, or which perceive in a fresh manner subjects that often had been written upon.
MDW: How do you balance your inner needs as a poet and your routine obligations as an editor?
RS: I hope it is evident from the contents of Modern Haiku, both haiku and prose, that, regardless of my own “type” of haiku, I am appreciative of a wide range of haiku and the various opinions about it. My few anathemas are against the merely novelty haiku; sentimental and pretty-pretty ones; intellective comments masquerading in haiku form; salacity; prose in the semblance of haiku; shop-worn and trite subjects; the “Japanesque”; the banal, ego-centered haiku; and I suppose a few other kinds of haiku more or less of this ilk.
MDW: Some poems are obviously not haiku, some poems are haiku, and some are good haiku. As editor, to what extent do you see yourself as a “gatekeeper” for the genre?
RS: If haiku publications did not have “gatekeepers” (read: responsible editors) then anyone could publish a haiku magazine; all they would need to do is open the envelopes, see if the pages had print on them that was not a letter of inquiry, assemble the pages and send them to the printer. Voilà!—a haiku magazine.
I hope that my fifty-five years of interest in and study of haiku and very many years of being an associate or full editor of haiku publications have allowed me to learn the rudiments, and by luck a bit more, of what constitutes the various levels of haiku quality. I do not believe that if an author produces a piece and calls it a haiku that it necessarily or automatically should be considered such, for the writer can be too close to her/his own work and too emotionally attached to determine the quality of the haiku, or even if it is a haiku and not some other type of writing. Physicians and attorneys, for example, need to undergo a period of training before they are allowed to set up a practice. Perhaps neophyte haiku poets should be a bit cautious before they hang a shingle reading “Haiku Poet.”
Obviously, different haiku editors may assess any given haiku in a dissimilar manner, but editors who are honest with themselves can determine from letters received how their publications are doing. By “honest with themselves” I mean that they can recognize letters of mere flattery from critical ones from persons who have achieved some stature in the haiku genre.
I suppose that my standards for assessing haiku, aside from such conditions as breath-length, etc., are: Am I innerly stirred by it? Does it evoke a responsive chord in me? Do I feel or have kinship with what the haiku portrays? Yes, I miss on some both ways: being feelingly obtuse about some and rejecting them (fortunately there are other haiku publications), or perhaps being a bit sentimental about others and accepting them when later, after seeing them in print, I have second opinions. I try to be reasonably liberal in my view of haiku, but tend to avoid what appears to be mere novelty.
MDW: What responsibilities do you see Modern Haiku having to English-language haiku at large? And what about to poetry at large? I think most people would agree that Modern Haiku is the premier haiku publication in the world outside Japan.
RS: As editor of Modern Haiku I believe that my responsibility to English-language haiku is to produce the best haiku magazine that I am capable of, and this entails the journal’s being a forum for various viewpoints about the haiku genre regardless of my personal concepts, though the articles and essays must be more than mere opinion that does not have substantive foundations.
From time to time I receive comments that Modern Haiku should also publish tanka. Since there are other publications that do this, however, and as Modern Haiku received enough good haiku, senryu, haibun, essays on haiku, and reviews of haiku books to fill its pages, I refrain from expanding its coverage of poetry genres.
I really do not know how much haiku is published in high quality poetry magazines, but suspect that it is very little, and the few “haiku” that I occasionally do see (often by name non-haiku poets) usually are rather bad. Haiku is actually such a complex genre that general poetry editors seldom seem to realize its unique attributes as poetry—most unfortunate.
MDW: In the 1980s and ’90s haiku seems to have blossomed in various countries around the world. What are your thoughts on world haiku? Do you think it can or should be different from American and Japanese haiku?
RS: From the proliferation of haiku publications and organizations in countries other than the U.S., Japan, and Canada, it is apparent that the writing of haiku has become almost worldwide. Modern Haiku receives and publishes haiku from many countries. This certainly helps us in the U.S. to feel-realize the perceptions, conditions of life, attitudes and so forth, that haiku poets in other countries have, and this is a cultural boon for us. This being said, however, it is also important for there to be local haiku publications in these places, for I find that the best haiku are created by persons who are in tune or in vital accord with their locality and its unique conditions.
I am not sure of the reasons for the world-wide burgeoning of interest in haiku, but surmise that part of it is due to an increase in sensitivity among a number of poets with concern for the destruction of our natural habitats, with the sense that we are becoming too alienated from our roots in nature.
Thirty years ago, in the first of four lectures at the University of Chicago, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the internationally distinguished philosopher and professor of religion, remarked that nearly everyone who lives in metropolitan centers in the West has an intuitive feeling of a lack of something in life. This, he fully believes, is because of their artificial environment from which nature has been excluded to an extreme degree. The void created by the loss of nature in human life tends to manifest itself in many ways, sometimes taking violent and desperate forms. There can be no peace in human society and within one’s self as long as there is an attitude of aggression toward nature and the entire natural world.