First published by Gilles Fabre in Haiku Ireland #7, June 2007. I wrote my answers to the following questions in January of 2007.
Gilles Fabre: When and how did you discover and start writing haiku?
Haiku crept up on me. I specifically remember first learning of haiku in a high school English class in 1976, and though I wrote “haiku” regularly after that, it was just one of many things I wrote. In the decade that followed, I also followed my interest in Zen and Taoism, which led me to various books where haiku made their appearance. That’s how real haiku crept up on me—by seeing various translations, reading poems in varying contexts. What I wrote in that first decade was all pretty much clueless. If it was 5-7-5 syllables, no matter what I said, and no matter how badly padded or chopped it was, I thought it was a haiku. Never mind season words, the two-part juxtapositional structure, internal comparison, objective imagistic description, and other wee necessities. I believe many people continue to be stuck in the “5-7-5” mode because, as did I, they learned about haiku at an impressionable age, and it’s hard to think that your saintly teachers could possibly be wrong. What broke the ice for me was reading the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s venerable The Haiku Anthology, where the great bulk of the poems are not 5-7-5. I had to figure out why. And though Cor explains why in his introduction, I also had to feel the reasons why for myself. But fortunately, that happened. The net result was that the book shifted my focus from form to content, and that immediately made a difference in the poems I wrote. In fact, in 1988, Robert Spiess accepted one poem for Modern Haiku from my very first submission to him:
my window opens . . .
a hundred frogs
sing to the moon
This was partially inspired by Hiroaki Sato’s book with “One Hundred Frogs” in the title. Since then, haiku has continued to open up many new and wonderful literary challenges, lively discussion, and warm friendships. Who knew that such a tiny genre of poetry could hold an infinite realm of possibility?
GF: What is haiku and/or what does it represent for you, and how do you see haiku’s place and/or role in the world?
In the Haiku Journey computer game, released in 2006 from Hot Lava Games [now MumboJumbo], and widely available through computer gaming portals online, I served as haiku editor for 540 haiku by 45 poets from around the world. I also wrote information about haiku that appears as you advance through ten different levels in the game. The first screen is a definition of haiku, which I’d like to share here:
“Haiku is typically a three-line poem that uses concrete sensory images to convey or imply natural and human seasonal phenomena, using a two-part juxtapositional structure as well as simple and primarily objective language. Originally a Japanese genre of poetry, now written and adapted in many languages worldwide, traditional haiku in Japanese consists of 17 sounds (not to be confused with syllables) in a pattern of 5-7-5. Because of differences in language, this rhythm is generally not followed for literary haiku in most languages other than Japanese. As intuitive and emotional poems, haiku often capture a sense of wonder and wholeness in presenting existence such as it is. Rather than presenting one’s emotions, haiku present the cause of one’s emotions, thus empowering the reader to have the same intuitive reaction to an experience that the poet had.”
Haiku is more than just such a definition, however. It can be a way of life, as it is for me. To some people, haiku is a spiritual way of life, and haiku certainly has many spiritual aspects for me. It is an approach to infinity, perhaps even an approach to God, and an endless celebration of curiosity and wonder at the world around you. Haiku is a way of reveling in the world around you—not just the natural world, but the world of human nature also. I believe it’s false or unrealistic to think that haiku can be a means to world peace, as some people have asserted, but it’s easy to imagine that if more people had the innate sensitivity that produces effective haiku, we’d have a lot less strife happening in the world. We’d all be too busy going on haiku walks! As nice as that sentiment is, though, I believe haiku should not have a political agenda, for any such agenda will too quickly distort haiku to its own needs, and the suchness of experience would be weakened or damaged. It is such a pleasure, when I teach haiku, to have students “get” a poem. You can see it in their faces, usually through a brightening of the eyes or even a smile or laugh. That moment of joy—or a deep manifestation of other emotions—lies at the heart of every effective haiku, and it’s a pleasure to record and share with others these transcendent approaches to infinity. And when students smile upon “getting” a haiku, invariably they turn their heads to share that laughter or joy or realization with someone next to them. I think haiku’s deepest pleasure is exactly that sense of sharing, a profound sharing of a deeper understanding of what it is to be human in a painfully beautiful world.