Leaping the Chasm:
An Interview with Virginia Brady Young
by vincent tripi
First published in Woodnotes #17, Summer 1993, pages 4–8. See Raking Sand, the Press Here book from which this interview was excerpted.
The following conversation between vincent tripi and Virginia Brady Young is excerpted from Raking Sand, available July 1993 from Press Here.
Virginia, you have continued to be a singular presence in the haiku movement (so-called) through the loud and the quiet years, the rich and the varied. Is this reflective of a special kind of wisdom, tenacity, attachment, a long and loving tribute to the form? I think of Marianne Moore’s “I shall be there when the wave has gone by.
I don’t think I have any special wisdom, either in haiku or everyday life. I’ve always had plenty of tenacity and attachment, however. Any success I’ve had in haiku comes from my love and attachment to it. On the other hand, I must confess I’m not any more devoted to the haiku form than to the sonnet. One morning I wake up with rhymes in my head, which might result in a Petrarchan sonnet. On another day I’m caught by a blue jay scolding his bird-friends more than usual. For years I wrote haiku intuitively (or so I thought). Then one morning in upstate New York I came out of my house on the first day of spring and witnessed an ordinary occurrence in my cedar bough. It was laden with snow and I inadvertently banged the door harder than usual. The result was so unexpected and beautiful that I stopped in my tracks and stared. It was then I wrote my first haiku—that was really a haiku:
On the first day of spring
from one bough to another.
Although it wasn’t the best I’d written, it taught me more about haiku than I’d learned in the four years previously. After that I felt like my own antenna, feeling the pulse of nature all around me every hour of every day.
The greatest lesson of all came when my husband and I traveled around the world for six months on his sabbatical. Before we left, I had always had a great dislike for rocks, stones, boulders, even pebbles. I can’t account for this dislike. Clare and I spent one week in Japan and that changed my life, at least from the point of view of haiku. We visited all the temples in Tokyo and Kyoto, especially Ryōanji Temple where I watched a monk rake the sand in wavy paths. And the boulders, how perfectly they were placed. How meaningful it seemed. Also, I was astonished to see the hoards of Japanese people who came to look at the Ryōanji Garden and meditate there for hours. I knew nothing about Zen or meditation, but when we returned to the United States I looked up all the books on those subjects. It was remarkable how much my haiku improved from that one week’s experience and the readings that followed.
At least as important (if not more important) as any results one may achieve or experience is the day-to-day constancy of effort with the form. This idea of “constancy” includes an ability to accept where we are and what we’ve been given at the start (our tools, our basic core of sensitivities). Do have a “way” of working that has been fairly regular or time-honored? Please elaborate on your day-to-day practice of haiku.
I am fortunate to have my own study and a peaceful life for contemplation. I spend from six to eight hours a day creating poems, or thinking about creating them. I guess I was born with a passion for words. Even as a child, I begged my friends, “Teach me a word.” The sounds of words enchanted me and I read every poetry book from Whitman through Dickinson, Eliot, Pound, and Stevens. In 1969 I joined the Haiku Society of America and began reading Blyth, Henderson, Earl Miner, and others. I also thoroughly enjoyed being part of that small group of haijin who met regularly at Japan House. I formed lasting friendships with Cor van den Heuvel, Bill Higginson, Anita Virgil, L. A. Davidson, Geraldine Little, and Hiroaki Sato. We had magnificent debates at every meeting. We were excited by the smallest difference of opinion—whether a dash or a colon was correct in a certain haiku, whether capitals were better than lowercase, what was the full significance of ellipses, was there a place in haiku for the semicolon, and so on. We were all very spirited and articulate, and we would be drawn into an argument at the drop of a hat. All our discussions were taped and later transcribed by whoever was president at the time. I went through all the phases in haiku, writing merely descriptive scenes, imitating banal imitations, and writing my own versions of “So what?” poems. I greatly enjoyed seeing my small talent grow.
I must pause here to record one incident that I’ve treasured through the years. It influenced my attitude toward haiku for a long time after. Cid Corman, an American who lived for years in Japan, was scheduled to give a lecture at Asia House. Harold Henderson was eager to hear Corman but Professor Henderson was in hospital with his terminal illness. He asked his doctor if he could attend the meeting. Naturally the doctor said, “No.” The determined patient waited for his doctor and nurse to leave his room. Then he got up, dressed himself, and hired a cab to take him downtown from the hospital. Professor Henderson enjoyed every minute of the meeting. This greatly impressed me that a human being could have the courage to put poetry before health. After that night I found myself thinking more highly about haiku. Also, it was a great honor to have Professor Henderson present with us. I can still hear the sound of his irrepressible laughter.
Do you have a favorite definition of haiku, or one that most closely approximates your idea of what a haiku is? Jack Stamm once wrote that, “the silence around it is the only thing I feel safe saying about a haiku.”
Perhaps there are too many definitions of haiku. For the beginner it’s confusing; for the seasoned poet, superfluous. I certainly feel in tune with Jack Stamm’s comment. I also remember a definition by Clement Hoyt: “Haiku is an open poem through which the reader moves to the center of the universe.” Hoyt also said, “A haiku is not logical.” As for my own definition, I’ve never consciously had one. I know, however, that in writing haiku for so many years I’ve learned to think more deeply, to be more aware of the world of nature. Better still, I now feel profoundly involved in nature. There have been times when listening to a bird singing or watching a caterpillar crawling, I feel I am that bird, I am that caterpillar. So, if I had to make up a definition, it would be something like this—“The depth of haiku brings us to the essence.”
I have always thought that, in the practice of writing haiku, form is not as important as state of mind. If one is aware and present, as in meditation, haiku will naturally follow. It is connecting with nature and the oneness of our voice that is important. Would you agree?
This is not an easy question for me. I was born and brought up in New York City. I was a city slicker. Nature was something that never crossed my mind, except perhaps on the rare days when I went walking in Central Park. To highlight my ignorance, let me tell you of an incident that occurred in the first week of my marriage to my husband Clare. He was a great walker and I tagged along with him. It was mid-April. I inhaled the pure air of our small town in upstate New York. I smelled something I had never smelled before. I turned to my country-boy husband: “What is that marvelous odor?” Clare burst into uproarious laughter. “What is it? What have I said?” Still giggling, Clare replied, “That wonderful odor is—manure.” I’ve come a long way from that day to a love for Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. I’ve had to learn everything I know about nature as an adult, as a poet. It isn’t such a bad way to learn but I think living on a farm would be faster and deeper.
Haiku, by their appearance, especially to outsiders, seem quite easy to construct. There are those of us who know better. What exactly has been for you the most difficult thing about haiku?
Haiku, like every other creative activity, should never be approached by “The opposite is usually true. Haiku is challenging, at least saying “It’s easy.” for most poets. If you disagree and think it is easy to write, perhaps you are settling too soon for too little. I have observed that most Americans write what they think is haiku and very often their efforts bear no relation to even the fundamentals of haiku. Have you not read books of poetry purported to be haiku that were written in complete ignorance of the genre? What editor okayed them? What publisher published them? You ask me, what has been the most difficult thing for me about haiku? To dredge up the courage my early or intermediate haiku attempts: “This is dross; this is garbage, this is not haiku.” Usually, when this objectivity is achieved, the writer gives up writing altogether. It’s too painful to admit you might be second-rate. But the truth is that all people in all professions are usually second-rate until they learn how to be first-rate. And that learning process begins with unqualified honesty. To sum it up: To achieve anything in the creative categories, one must have humility, persistence, objectivity, and, above all, the desire and ability to read widely and deeply in the field, almost to the point of scholarship.
Do you have any thoughts as well as feelings pertaining to the direction haiku seems to be moving—or not moving—in English?
That’s an excellent question. I cannot claim to have the exact answer. Haiku, as the old masters knew it, has been changing and will continue to change. I see it as I know the history of the sonnet to be. Poets crop up here and there with their forms of the genre, with their rules, and their habits. Over a period of more than four hundred years, know-it-alls in the field of the sonnet have come and gone. Likewise in the field of haiku. There are those who think every idea they have is the last word. They don’t realize the essence of change is just that—change. Haiku in English is presently going through that process. The change may take a century.
In closing, can you give me, briefly, your point of view about the writing of haiku?
Almost all my haiku are written quickly and rarely revised. There has been much written about haiku, some of it from a superficial point of view. For example, must a haiku be 17 syllables, must it be about nature, must the second line carry the burden of the poem? Relative to haiku and nature, I have heard arguments and heated debates on the question “What is nature?” Is a skyscraper nature? “No,” says one side. “Yes,” says the other because skyscrapers are made from cement, steel, and other ingredients that can be traced back to nature.
As for myself, I’ve pondered a great deal on the subject of depth. I don’t like to write haiku that are just descriptions, just ruminations. I hope to feel a truth coming at me from nature. Some people say, “If it hits you, it’s a haiku!”, a remark that isn’t any help to beginners, however true it might be.
I believe depth is something that comes from the soul. If you don’t believe in the soul, you’d have to say haiku comes from the heart or the mind or both. Once, in seeking depth, I came up with this idea: Haiku is knowing there’s something there before you experience it. Another time a friend asked me for my personal definition that would bring out the comparison between haiku and lyric/free verse. I came up with this: Lyric/free verse poetry is building a bridge a across a chasm. Haiku is leaping the chasm.