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People Don’t Realize the Range of Subjects, Experiences, and Emotions Haiku Can Express

March 9, 2010 by · 3 comments

Interview with Barry George by Barbara Sabol


Barry George’s haiku have been distinguished through numerous publications and awards. Wrecking Ball and Other Urban Haiku, to be released April 1, 2010 by Accents Publishing, is his first collection of haiku. George’s haiku blend a distinctly urban content with the nature-oriented perspective of traditional haiku. A true son of haiku lineage, George’s haiku are sensory-bound sketches, alive with the sounds, smells, textures and colors of the city as a unique phenomenon in the natural world. At play in these haiku are well-balanced juxtapositions of the natural and man-made, vis-à-vis our societal habits and quirks, observed with humor and with heart.

George writes accessible, highly imagistic and insightful haiku that freeze-frame familiar moments in a way that captures our senses and engages our minds. Crafted with a gift for description, wit and delightful irony, Barry George achieves the poet’s task: to lift an experience from a quotidian backdrop and place it squarely in his reader’s imagination, whether that reader resides in city, town or country.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Barry about the Japanese literary tradition, his own experience writing haiku and how, over the years, the process has served both as a lens on the world and a mirror into the soul.

When did you first encounter and become inspired to write haiku? What element of the haiku form appeals to your poetic sensibilities?

Like many other people, I imagine, I was introduced to a 5-7-5 syllable idea of haiku in school, by my fourth and fifth grade teachers. Years later, when I began to realize that the longer poetry I was writing was getting shorter and shorter, I wondered if it might possibly be considered haiku. So I looked around to find what haiku journals existed. I discovered there were quite a few, and also that what I was writing was not quite haiku. But it was close. I found that I identified with the values the contemporary haiku writers espoused – compression, immediate perception, suspense, surprise, close observation of nature and human nature. Since then I’ve been writing mostly haiku.

Do you feel that there are there certain subjects that lend themselves more to the highly condensed haiku form than others? And in your own writing of haiku, have those subjects or images changed, perhaps from the more traditional nature-oriented to the contemporary “urban” haiku?

I’ve written about both nature and more contemporary urban subjects all along. In both cases, it’s something like taking a photograph. One or more images catch my eye (and/or ear) as forming a kind of scene or moment that I want to make into a poem. Most often, it’s what I’m actually seeing at the time – a flock of birds, the way trees are reflected in the river, something a person is saying or doing – but it can also be something I imagine or remember.

Do you identify with the Buddhist spiritual tradition that inspired the early haiku poets in your writing? If so, how do you integrate its spiritual and philosophical principles into your haiku?

For most of my life, I’ve meditated, practiced yoga, read writings about or derived from Buddhist and other Eastern teachings. Like these traditions, writing haiku is for me a practice of being in the moment. What haiku also has in common with these traditions is a focus on being open and receptive to both outer and inner worlds, and a faith that comes more from sensing and intuiting rather than from doctrine or philosophy. The Buddhist idea of “suchness” is central, too. Basho said “Learn of the pine from the pine; learn of the bamboo from the bamboo.” A haiku poet, like a Zen Buddhist, is letting nature and people reveal themselves, savoring or celebrating that, and perhaps also sensing that the essence of each individual part of the universe offers a glimpse of the whole.
Incidentally, I see these ideas as being central to Christianity as well, as, for example, Eckhart Tolle elucidates in The Power of Now and his other books.

What qualities attract you to a particular haiku poet or master? Reading through your book, I sense an influence from the 17th century haiku master, Basho, especially in haiku such as “hearing the train whistle/bound for the city. . ./here in the city,” which strikes me as a modernized version of his “Even in Kyoto/how I long for Kyoto/when the cuckoo sings.” Which haiku masters do you most admire? Do you attempt to emulate any of the masters, or rather draw your inspiration from them?

That’s very perceptive about Basho, and yes, his “even in Kyoto” haiku inspired my “hearing the train whistle.” I admire, and read over and over again, all four of the Japanese masters – Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki – and always get new ideas from them. I think most contemporary haiku poets do. The great thing is that their haiku serve as a touchstone, for inspiration as well as interpretation. In other words, their body of work also serves as the ultimate authority in debates about what constitutes a haiku.

It’s kind of like contemporary American legal issues being resolved by reference to the Constitution. Of course, as with constitutional law, there is room for interpretation as to how the spirit of the original allows for adaptation to changing circumstances. (Haiku, by the way, is both the singular and plural form of the word.) But to get back to your question, my favorite is probably Issa, who wrote about people and other creatures, including himself, with incredible insight, humor, and feeling.

Wrecking Ball and Other Urban Haiku_frontcover_sm

A current of irony and wry humor seems to run through a number of your haiku, which gives the poems the canny edginess of the acute observer. One example is the use of double entendre “spring” in the haiku about the accused teen, or the juxtaposition of synthesized and genuine nature in “a car freshener/tree-shaped/among fallen pine cones.” The tone of haiku like these seems to adhere more to the tradition of senryu, which relies more on satire about human quirkiness. Even so, the more traditional seasonal and sensory references also characterize your work. Would you say that your “urban haiku” are a blend of haiku form and senryu tone?

I think a few of my “urban haiku” are, strictly speaking, senryu rather than haiku; some are “purely” haiku; and many could be considered both haiku and senryu. Contrary to the popular conception, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive categories. Let me explain by giving some background. Haiku and senryu are related but different Japanese traditions. Both are short forms that evolved from the haikai no renga, a long form of linked verse written in alternating sound-syllable patterns of 5-7-5 and 7-7, respectively, that dates back to the 14th Century.

The opening “verse” of the haikai no renga – called the hokku – gradually became a free-standing form. Each of the four masters, beginning with Basho (1644-1694), played a role in this evolution, and Shiki (1867-1902) coined the term haiku. The senryu, which derives from the middle verses of the haiku no renga, is named for the far less celebrated Karai Senryu (1718-1790). He is considered the first to write, as a free-standing form, the kind of short verse which takes aim at human foibles.

It seems to me that poems that focus primarily on people and are witty or satiric in tone are clearly senryu, while poems that have a seasonal reference, focus on “nature,” and have a reverential or wondrous tone are clearly haiku. But there is also a middle way – the kind of short poem which celebrates human nature by identifying something that is endearing or ironic about particular people. The Japanese haiku masters wrote numerous poems of this kind. For example:

Harvesting radishes,
he points the way
with a radish – Issa (Stephen Addiss et al., trans.)

A whole family
all gray-haired with canes
visits graves – Basho (Addiss, trans.)

Such a moon! –
Even the thief
pauses to sing – Buson (T. H. Barrett, trans.)

These poems are haiku, and can probably be considered senryu too. Many, and perhaps most, of the poems in Wrecking Ball are along these lines. It’s also important to bear in mind that the haiku concept of kigo, or seasonal reference, includes not only cherry blossoms (for spring) and snow (for winter), but also references to human activities, such as graduation (spring) and grave visiting (autumn). The common feature, or value, of what I am calling “urban haiku” – whether it’s about a seagull, a wrecking ball, or a politician – is that the poem seeks to evoke some essential moment of experience.

Seasonal words run through your haiku, even as oblique references that have to do with certain activities, as you’ve mentioned – such as your haiku about baseball suggesting summer or trick or treat evoking autumn. Are certain seasons more conducive to writing haiku, or more natural referents for your haiku?

Above all, the change of seasons itself is important because it gets you to notice what’s different from day to day, or week to week. After a snowstorm is the time when I find it easiest to write plenty of haiku – because the whole landscape has been transformed overnight. Proportions and distances seem different, and with everything basically the same – quiet, white, and cold – it’s easier to notice what stands out.

I understand that you currently live in Philadelphia. How does your urban environment shape your haiku? And, in that vein, how does the writing of haiku influence what you notice and ponder in your environment? In other words, is there a mutually influential effect between city scenes inspiring haiku writing and haiku writing guiding how you perceive your urban surroundings?

I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in a housing development where they had spared most of the trees and just built the houses. We were surrounded by woods and fields and streams, so I spent much of my childhood out in nature. The changing seasons – May apples and dogwoods, snowdrifts, the scent and color of leaves – were dominant forces in that world. Maybe one of the reasons why, living in center city Philadelphia, I gravitated toward writing haiku is that observing nature and the evidence of the changing seasons here – which is not all that hard to do, actually – became all the more precious to me. And, I’ve also always liked observing people, and looking for what is especially telltale about them – mannerisms, clothes, characteristics – their “signature.” The grocer’s son wearing new glasses. And so in Philadelphia, I’ve had a field day writing that kind of urban haiku too.

How do you go about shrinking an impression down to the precise focus of haiku? Do you conceive the haiku poem in longer, open form, and then distill that description down to its essentials in haiku form, or does the impression initially occur to you in its spare three-line form?

When things are going well, the impression comes to me in the right size, you might say. Usually I see (or hear or sometimes smell) the image(s) that interest(s) me – and simultaneously begin playing with the way the words and lines are going to go. Sometimes the haiku pretty much writes itself there and then; sometimes it takes many revisions later on; sometimes it never quite works out. You can lose a lot of sleep over a single word choice. One other thing that’s important here is this. As I often don’t realize until later, the images that present themselves to me for a haiku seem to correspond in some way with what I’m feeling at the time. So that even though the haiku may be overtly about a train whistle or an air freshener, it’s also an expression of my emotions. In this way, writing haiku can help with self-awareness. You learn about yourself by what you notice.

Haiku is such a highly focused and compact poetic form that must require great concentration to write it. Do you have any rituals associated with writing haiku, some form of “centering” that leads you to a haiku state of mind, if you will, to help distill an impression into a vivid verbal picture?

The best ritual I know is riding my bicycle out from center city and around the Schuylkill River – on paths and roads that are part of Philadelphia’s enormous Fairmount Park. This is how I stay in touch with the changing seasons, learn what’s happening at the falls, see what birds are about, hear the crew teams on the river, smell the Lysol emanating from the park bathrooms. On a good day, I’ll come home with two or three haiku between my teeth.

The plaza in front of the enormous Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul – which is about halfway on my walk to work – is another good place to catch wind of a haiku. What’s important is to have regular times when I work on my haiku – type them into the master collection on my computer, select ones to send out to journals, and also read journals and books of haiku – and then pay attention as I go about my day. It’s also crucial to be in the habit of writing down a haiku or idea for one as soon as it comes to you, on whatever piece of paper is at hand.

Nearly all of the haiku in your collection are written in present or present progressive tense, which reinforces the strong sense of immediacy, of the poet saying, “look, this is happening now,” and the ephemeral and its lasting impression are thus captured. Is the use of present tenses part of the haiku tradition?

Yes, for the reasons you mention. A haiku evokes or captures a moment, or perhaps an immediate feeling/insight about a process that occurs over time. It’s possible to write a haiku in the past tense – as with a memory, for example – but you would still be writing about the moment, the instant, of remembering. And, of course, you can also evoke the moment without verbs, in a haiku that consists of phrases or fragments.

How is haiku regarded in mainstream literary circles? It doesn’t appear that many literary journals, except those devoted to Japanese poetry, publish haiku. Why do you think this is, and what changes in teaching and publishing need to occur to create a greater acceptance of the haiku and other Eastern forms of poetry?

That’s a crucial question. I think it has to do, first of all, with the fact that haiku are so short: I mean, how can something a few lines long be worthy of serious consideration? Also, our culture’s appreciation of haiku has been hamstrung by the mistaken idea that their primary characteristic is seventeen (5-7-5) syllables. The fact of the matter is that the Japanese and English languages are so different that most writers and translators of haiku in English (and other Romance languages) don’t write according to any fixed syllable count.

Instead they – we – emphasize haiku’s brevity, immediacy, imagistic language, and intuitive quality as distinguishing characteristics. Furthermore, the fact that haiku’s power lies in its subtly and suggestiveness – in apprehension by intuition rather than through logical explication – makes it easy to discount in an academic culture that tends to celebrate intellectual and linguistic brilliance. What I think is probably most important, though, is a misperception that real haiku – as opposed to 5-7-5 Internet spam – is merely a highly specialized form of meditative nature-poetry. In short, people don’t realize the range of subjects, experiences, and emotions haiku can express.

I think as more poets, editors, and readers in mainstream literary circles see the kind of versatile and vibrant haiku that is being written today, especially in North America and Europe, the form will gain more acceptance, and more adherents. I have some evidence for what I’m saying here based on my recent experience as a student in the brief-residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

As the “pioneering” haiku poet in the program, I knew in advance that two of Spalding’s faculty members valued the Japanese short forms, but feared the rest of the faculty and my classmates might not take my work seriously. To my delight, what I encountered, instead, was a great deal of interest in and support for what I was doing. In fact, the response I received most often was something along the lines of Wow, I didn’t know that you could do so much with haiku; I didn’t know that it was such a contemporary form.

I understand that you also write long poems, which, like your haiku, have been recognized and honored. Is your poetry primarily in the haiku form, and what other styles or forms of poetry do you currently write?

I write primarily haiku (and senryu); that’s what seems to come to me most naturally. If I have an idea that’s got a little more going on in it, then that might become a tanka – which (in English) is a five-line form that allows for more in the way of rhythmic and lyrical expression. And I like writing “long” poems as well. These tend to be either an extended memory, or a poem about a famous person – usually in recent history or sports. They’re often in the form of a first-person “persona” poem.

Congratulations, Barry, on your book, Wrecking Ball. Now that this first book of haiku is published, what plans do you have for future books and writing projects?

I’m not sure yet; I’m open. I know I’ll keep writing and publishing haiku. In addition, I have some tanka and persona poems that I would like to build into collections. Having written some plays a number of years ago, I know a part of me longs to get back to that – and to create some new characters who express themselves poetically and speak to the spirit in people.

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