The following short interview first appeared in The Measure of Emptiness (Foster City, California: Press Here, 1991), a collection of haiku and senryu by Lee Gurga, introduced by Jerry Kilbride.
Lee, your first book of haiku, A Mouse Pours Out, was published in 1988 by High/Coo Press. How did you first learn about haiku, how long have you been writing, and what have you learned along the way?
I was not born and raised out here in the cornfields, but up in Chicago. It was there when in high school (1966, I think), that I discovered Blyth’s Haiku on the shelves of a bookstore. His books opened up a new world to me. I tried writing some haiku at the time, and in fact had one published in 1971. As the years passed, I read and reread Blyth’s books, not being aware that there were any other books available, or that there were any other people in the country interested in haiku as I was. In a way this was a disadvantage for me—Blyth is little help to those wanting to learn to write haiku. On the whole, though, I feel well served; by having only Blyth to focus on, his love of haiku permeated me, as did his suggestion that haiku’s most profound use is as a vehicle of awakening.
Through all my moves and changes of direction over the years, I never failed to have at least some of Blyth’s books with me. Volume I wore out and was eventually lost. Volume III likewise. Volumes II and IV remain on my shelf, loved only slightly less than my wife and our children.
I did write a few attempts at haiku from time to time, but only became aware of the North American haiku community in 1985 after seeing a review in Newsweek of William J. Higginson’s Haiku Handbook. What an amazing gift that was! The haiku world was no longer an artifact from the past, but something living and vibrant in which I could participate. Through Bill’s book I was led to Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology and Harold Henderson’s Haiku in English and many other books. On the last day of 1985 I sent about a dozen of the poems I had written in the early 80s to Elizabeth Lamb, my “patron saint” of haiku—Our Lady of Santa Fe via Kansas, if you will. To my delight and eternal gratitude, Elizabeth accepted two poems, which were published in Frogpond in February 1987. Since then I have had other poems published, some of which have been well received.
Haiku is a demanding art—one that Judson Jerome has said is easy to learn, but one at which it is very difficult to excel. What motivates you to write haiku?
Several years ago, a friend sent me a set of Ram Dass tapes. In one tape entitled “On Relationships,” Ram Dass explains the concepts of “acquired karma” and “given karma.” As they pertain to relationships, he explained them in this way: An acquired karmic relationship is one you have with the people you interact with in a casual or voluntary activity like, say, bowling. If you stopped bowling, you could stop seeing these people and fall out of relationship with them permanently. On the other hand, a given karmic relationship is different in that you are in relationship with that person or thing whether you want to be or not. For example, one is in relationship with one’s parents or children whether one chooses to be or not. You can choose to ignore that relationship, but even if you break off all contact, you are still in relationship. I feel that my relationship with haiku is of this kind. Even if I choose not to write haiku or not to be involved, the relationship is still there, beckoning. My personal destiny is somehow intertwined with haiku, and has been since the dawning of consciousness in adolescence. I don’t feel this with any other kind of writing, nor with any other activity with the exception of planting trees and wildflowers. But please don’t misunderstand me: this is not to say that I suppose there is anything “special” about my work, or that it is better than the writing of those differently related to haiku. But then, of course, the aim of haiku is “nothing special”—that special “nothing special” that somehow touches us at the core of our being.