Snow from a Bamboo Leaf:
The Art of Haiku

an interview with Hiag Akmakjian by Lequita Vance


First published in Woodnotes #6, Summer 1990, pages 14–15, shown below. Hiag Akmakjian’s haiku book was originally published in 1979 (cover shown at the top here), and the entire text is available online on the Internet Archive (free log-in required). The book was reprinted in 2017 (cover also shown), I believe with no textual changes, and is available on Amazon. Akmakjian died in Wales in 2017, shortly before the book was republished, but at the time of this interview I believe he lived in Carmel, California, where Lequita Vance also lived. See Hiag Akmakjian’s Wikipedia page and read his obituary.

Hiag, your book, Snow Falling from a Bamboo Leaf: The Art of Haiku, published in 1979, and now out of print, is one of the more valued books in my haiku library. I find myself returning to it over and over to add to my understanding of haiku and because it is such a lovely volume. Can you tell us what led to your interest in haiku and to the writing of the book?


The first haiku l ever read were the great classic Japanese haiku. I happened across them in Daisetz T. Suzuki’s wonderful book Zen and Japanese Culture and was astonished at their expressiveness and power and fell in love with the succinctness of the form. I ran out to a bookstore and bought every haiku book I could find and read and reread them with pleasure—and then reread them some more but with mounting annoyance. The translations were so self-conscious they were distracting. I disliked the misguided literalism of the translators. And they wrote in stilted English. You had to read between the lines to get any emotion at all. So I decided to bypass the barbarity of the renditions and read the haiku in the original. I bought a mammoth Japanese-English dictionary that cost me, then, a week’s pay, or more than my rent at the time, and a pile of Japanese grammar books. I translated a few just for myself, to reread once in a while, and then a few more, and the idea of a book began to take shape. As part of my interest, I studied the poetics of Bashō and Shiki and a few others and put them together as the basis of a poetics for myself. I wanted to learn how to write. The book, you could say, was my first conscious attempt at the art of poetry, which is the power within prose—just as, I believe, prose is the power within poetry.


In these eleven years since your book was published, what changes do you notice in English-language haiku? If you were to write a new edition of the book today what additions or changes would you make?


English-language haiku are improving more and more, in my opinion. It’s as though the art form were coming of age among American haikuists. In the past, haiku were all too often verses with Sunday-supplement prettiness: exactly what Bashō said to avoid. Or they fell into the most common of all errors: they presented an image. And that was it. What they always lacked was the contrasting element that breathed life into the image. Or they tried too hard and became cerebral and clever. But in recent years, haikuists have become quite sophisticated and do admirable work. Some English-language haiku that I’ve read easily hold their own against some of the best Japanese. It would give me pleasure to name the poets I have enjoyed the most, but in my ignorance I might leave out some whose work is just as good but I happen not to have read.

A new edition of my book—why not? I would include several more haiku I’ve been working on, and add some insights into haiku and haiku writing, and the nature of their power to move us. How do those few syllables get their strength? What does Bashō’s statement mean, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo”? When he says a haiku poet gets inside a piece of wood and feels woodness, is he being mystical or is he telling us something important about how to write to convey emotion? I want to discuss these points of esthetics. I hope to make the new edition a richer book.


The lovely sumi-e illustrations in your book are your own—what can you tell us about them?


I like only one or two of my drawings. I hope next time to do better—and to include far less: only those that are alive.


Is there any hope that we might look forward to seeing more snow falling from your bamboo leaf?


I have more to say on the subject and hope I will find the right way to say it. I jot down thoughts as I go, record observations, enjoy life, and love my family (my definition of a full life).


Thank you from Woodnotes and from the haiku community at large for your rich contribution to the ongoing health and life of the haiku form.


Thank you, Lequita.


The original publication of this short interview in Woodnotes #6 included an illustration by Hiag Akmakjian from his book, Snow Falling from a Bamboo Leaf.