Tundra #1: Welcome

First published in Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem, #1, July 1999, pages 5–7.

Tundra began on Hammerhorn Mountain in the coastal ranges of Northern California on a last-of-summer afternoon. Hammerhorn is a nondescript peak in the remote Yolla Bolly Wilderness. Hiking to its summit with two poet friends that Labor Day weekend nearly five years ago, I stopped to write a haiku in my notebook:      +

stone in my hiking boot—

the rat-a-tat-tat

of a woodpecker


Despite what I heard, the sound was surprising. Around me I could see no trees. A few stunted bushes and bent pines clumped in gullies here and there along the trail, but mostly the hike took us over dirt and scree.

        A few steps after writing down my poem, it occurred to me that the landscape seemed tundra-like—windswept, rocky, populated mostly by moss, lichen, and scurrying spiders, seemingly barren. The tundra is hardly a desolate place, of course, and in it lies a rich purity found in small and simple details. A good short poem is like that, I thought. At that moment “Tundra” struck me as being a serviceable title for a poetry journal, suggesting simplicity, purity, concision, and intensity. Or, as Robert Kusch of Rutgers University later wrote to me, “I especially like the name Tundra for a magazine. It suggests the condition of ‘no mind’ that is the ground for an authentic haiku.” Whether for haiku, brief free verse, or other short forms, it came to me on that stony trail that Tundra could be a home for short poetry.

        Once to the summit of Hammerhorn Mountain, we could see Mount Shasta far to the north, barely covered with snow after a drought winter and a hot dry summer. Hammerhorn’s summit was a desolate place that seemed to once accommodate a fire lookout shack (I imagined Kerouac scanning the horizon from such a vista). There we ate our lunches, let out a barbaric yawp or two, and turned for camp.

        At the time, I was editing the quarterly haiku journal Woodnotes, and knew well Cor van den Heuvel’s poem, “tundra,” a small lowercased word that first appeared by itself on an otherwise blank page in the window washer’s pail (Chant Press, 1963). By including the poem in the first and second editions of The Haiku Anthology, which van den Heuvel edited (Doubleday, 1974; Fireside, 1986), the poet initiated a debate as to whether “tundra” is a haiku or not. How could it be, some argued. But it capitalizes on the haiku’s imagistic spirit, relying on visual as well as verbal apperception, others countered. The ongoing discussion has, I think, been largely beneficial, as haiku poets position their approaches to haiku relative to benchmark poems such as this. As a consequence, I knew that naming a short poetry journal Tundra would certainly bring van den Heuvel’s poem to mind for many poets, especially those writing haiku. Be that as it may be, the name Tundra stayed with me. If I needed any further convincing, the name also struck me as suitable simply because I am Canadian (also British, but that doesn’t help the story). So here we are.

        In each issue of Tundra I plan to provide a pleasing variety of reading, including a featured poet, an interview or article relevant to short poetry, book listings and reviews (please do send your books of short poetry for listing or review), plus a variety of short poems and translations presented in an aesthetic sequence. In the arrangement of poems, I have not segregated or labeled the various forms, trusting readers to know their cinquains from their senryu, their clerihews from their double dactyls. I also wish to not be afraid of dark poems—or of light ones.

        Specifically, this issue begins with Samuel Menashe as featured poet. Dana Gioia and I selected the poems, and Dana has provided an appreciation of the poet’s work. Menashe’s poetry has appeared in Harper’s, Commonweal, The New Yorker, The Threepenny Review, and numerous other journals, as well as in books from Gollancz, October House, Viking, Penguin, and the National Poetry Foundation. If Menashe’s poetry is new to you, his books are consistently fine collections of short poetry, and well worth seeking out.

        I’m pleased to present an extensive interview with poet and novelist Janet Lewis, about whom Evan S. Connell once observed, “I cannot think of another writer whose stature so far exceeds her public recognition.” Lewis is best known for her 1941 historical novel The Wife of Martin Guerre, but her oeuvre includes numerous other novels, poems, children’s books, criticism, and translations, dating from the 1920s to the 1990s. In this interview by Catherine Kordich and me, Lewis shares her thoughts on imagism and short poetry, and reminiscences of poets and writers from one end to the other of the twentieth century. Sadly, Lewis passed away a few months after the interview, which we believe to be her last.

        This issue also presents an introduction by Hiroaki Sato to the free-rhythm haiku of Japanese poet Seisensui, along with thirty-two of Sato’s translations. I also include “Spring’s Last Light,” a haibun by Matt Morden.

        And of course the poems. In this issue and in future issues my primary purpose is to showcase short poems that objectively highlight the crystal image, the defining moment. It’s a venture aimed at elevating short poetry, and one that might better integrate haiku and other short forms into mainstream poetry. As Tom Disch noted in a letter to me, “very short poems . . . are not greatly prized by editors, despite the example of diamonds and rubies.” I am one editor, however, who wishes to emphasize the vitality and elegant simplicity of short poetry. As Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Here’s to the simple, so often revealed in short poetry.

        What, however, is a “short” poem? In his anthology of short poems, Eight Lines and Under (Macmillan, 1967), editor William Cole admits to “cheating” on his limit now and then. I’ve put a cap of thirteen lines on what I prefer for Tundra. This is an arbitrary limit, of course, and a thirteen-line poem with long lines may actually be much “longer” than a tall, skinny poem with twice as many lines. The concept of “short” is therefore subjective. Within the pages of Tundra, you’ll find occasional exceptions to the thirteen-line maximum for two reasons. First, I’ll make exceptions in the service of quality. And second, I don’t mean to define short poetry too arbitrarily or just as thirteen lines or fewer. How long, after all, is a short piece of string?

        The premier issue of Tundra would not have happened without the generous help of others. I thank all of the members of the Tundra advisory board, especially Dana Gioia, Steve Sanfield, Lee Gurga, Cor van den Heuvel, and Garry Gay, and particularly Dana for his encouragement and inspiration. Special appreciation to Hiromi Takayanagi for all her support and inspiration. And thanks as well to Peter Donaldson for his photograph on the cover. Thanks also to the charter subscribers, the many hundreds of poets who submitted work, and especially to all the poets whose work I am honored to present in these pages.

        For me short poetry is a vital part of American poetry. I trust something of that vitality reveals itself enthusiastically in the poems to come.