An Interview for Writing It Real

First published by Sheila Bender on her Writing It Real site on 13 April 2006. I first wrote the answers to the following questions in January and February of 2006.

 

Sheila Bender: Tell me about yourself as writer. Where does haiku fit in for you as a writer?

 

I’ve been writing since I was a child. My middle name is Dylan, and my parents named me after Dylan Thomas, so I’m sure that gave me an awareness of poetry and writing before I was even aware of it. I read voraciously (two or three hundred books a year), mostly poetry, books about writing poetry, a lot of haiku, occasionally a biography or novels, plus books on travel, language, and those delicious books that defy classification. I don’t know why, but I’ve always gravitated towards short poetry, even as a child, so when a high school English teacher introduced me to haiku around 1976, I immediately liked it. It was just one of many sorts of poetry I wrote, though, and didn’t become a specialty for me for at least ten years. During that time, among other things, I began to read books about Taoism and Zen, and began to encounter “real” haiku in translation. The first book of haiku I bought (at a Kinokuniya Bookstore in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London) was a collection of Bashō’s haiku translated by Lucien Stryk. Then, in 1987, I discovered Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (second edition, 1986) and it radically altered my perception of haiku. Because the vast bulk of the poems in this definitive anthology of English-language haiku were not in the pattern of 5-7-5 syllables (which I had thought was essential), it challenged me to figure out why they were still haiku. I have since learned that the 5-7-5 pattern is basically an error in English, though it continues to be widely mistaught that way. Instead, other techniques are actually more important in the haiku, and it was these strategies that made the poems excel in van den Heuvel’s anthology. Organizations such as the Haiku Society of America, which I joined in 1988, have provided much helpful information and connection regarding haiku. Since then, haiku and related Japanese genres of poetry have been a mainstay of my writing. The compression, immediacy, and evocative power in haiku serve, for me, as a conduit of personal expression, and the techniques that make them work can also help with all other kinds of poetry, and even fiction and nonfiction. (In the 2005 edition of Poet’s Market, from Writer’s Digest Books, I had an essay on this topic—how haiku techniques can help you improve your writing.)

 

SB: Tell me about yourself as publisher and editor. How did you decide to devote your magazine Tundra to short poetry and with an emphasis on Japanese forms?

 

In 1989 I joined the staff of Woodnotes, the quarterly journal of the Haiku Poets of Northern California. That same year, I published the first book from my press, which I called Press Here. My press has now published about thirty books of haiku, senryu, tanka, and related Japanese genres, or books of criticism, essays, and interviews related to these arts, and about half of them have won Merit Book Awards from the Haiku Society of America as the best books published in given years. In addition to my background in English literature (MA in English) and in publications and graphic design (starting with grade school and high school yearbooks, and professional editing and design work as an adult), it was only natural for me to be attracted to running my own small press. If I publish one or two books a year, I’m pleased, though I wish I had time to do more. The most recent book, in September 2005, was Tracing the Fern, an anthology of haiku and senryu by attendees of the Haiku North America conference, held at Centrum in Port Townsend, Washington (I cofounded this biennial conference in 1991).

        In addition to running Press Here, I became chief editor of Woodnotes in 1991, and published it on a quarterly basis until 1997. Then, in 1999, I began Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem. While Woodnotes focused purely on haiku and related genres of poetry (it is more accurate to think of haiku as a genre of poetry rather than a form—form is just one aspect of the genre), I was concerned that haiku was somewhat ghettoized and could be better appreciated as part of a larger spectrum of poetry. To give the journal a niche, though, I decided to keep it focused on short poetry. I first imagined the concept of Tundra around 1995, and in 1996, poet Dana Gioia (currently the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts), who was very enthusiastic about Tundra, and is on its advisory board, suggested that I limit submissions to thirteen or fewer lines. The journal needed an arbitrary cutoff, and eliminating sonnets seemed helpful. I’m grateful to Dana for this advice—and for the many poets he has connected me to over the years. Tundra welcomes poetry of all kinds, by the way, and I would not say that it puts most of its emphasis on Japanese genres of poetry. Rather, it seeks to integrate these genres with the larger spectrum of poetry, something I think it has done well.

 

SB: What have been the successes for Tundra and what are the trouble areas or most difficult parts of the venture?

 

The successes of Tundra, as I see it, have included the many fine poems published there, including poems by a lot of nationally recognized poets. Poets published so far, or forthcoming, include Robert Bly, John Brandi, Billy Collins, Dick Davis, Madeline DeFrees, Tom Disch, Dana Gioia, Jane Hirshfield, H. L. Hix, X. J. Kennedy, Ted Kooser (featured poet in issue #2), Samuel Menashe (featured poet in issue #1), Peter Pereira, and many others. Another success is that, somehow, without much effort on my part, I continue to get new subscribers every week, so the journal is on a sound financial footing (so many small press journals require grant funding, or are underwritten by the editor/publisher). I’ve been a bit flabbergasted by this side of its success, though it still has a long way to go to be financially viable in a business sense, since I don’t pay myself for my work. The biggest trouble, in recent years, then, has not been finances, but time. In the last three years, I’ve moved (from California to the Seattle area), started a new job, bought a house, and my wife and I have started a family (we now have two young children). This and the fact that I continue to write a lot of poetry (haiku and longer poetry, as well as essays, articles and reviews), and have also organized several poetry conferences in 2004 and 2005, has meant that Tundra has not come out as regularly as I’d like. I keep up with submissions (many thousands of them each year), responding usually within a month, and have accumulated enough acceptances to fill at least one or perhaps two issues, but I need to make the time to push the next issue out the door. I enjoy the graphic design, but some of the professional requirements are more than my current computer equipment can handle, so I wish I had design help, especially for the cover. Though Tundra has done well via mail-order subscriptions, I would really like to get the journal into more bookstores, so distribution is a large issue as well—and I just don’t have time for that. I believe, to provide a journal with the best respect, it needs to be available in bookstores. While Tundra has a national and even international subscriber base, I’d at least like to get it placed widely in Seattle area bookstores, but limits of time have kept me from doing this. The great majority of people who see the magazine keep reminding me how worthwhile the venture is, though, which is encouraging, but I need to clone myself to be able to finish everything that needs attention to make the journal as thoroughly viable as I’d like it to be.

 

SB: Tell me about your teaching. What do you do to help people objectively “highlight the crystal image, the defining moment?”

 

I’ve been teaching haiku workshops for about fifteen years. While haiku is just one sort of poetry, a successful haiku, using traditional Japanese techniques (and not the sort of pseudo-haiku one sees far too frequently in English), is a poem of intense feeling. Yet it achieves this intensity by being objective. Most beginners at haiku in English can’t help but directly state their thoughts and feelings in haiku. Perhaps it’s part of the Western mindset to do this—to analyze and assert oneself in this manner. But the best haiku specifically seek to avoid this assertion of personal feeling or assessment. By withholding this emotion, the poem gains the power to evoke feeling, and the careful creation of the poem helps to direct the reader through specific images to specific feelings. Rather than writing about feelings, if a poet writes about what caused his or her feelings, and has the discipline to stop there, then the poem can be much more powerful as a result. So, when I teach haiku workshops, which I’ve done at various poetry venues, conferences, and festivals in the Puget Sound area, as well as elsewhere, I focus on this control of objectivity and subjectivity. It helps to put the image in the present tense to make it more immediate, and to make an image singular image rather than plural to sharpen its focus. Though I refer to haiku when I say this, these thoughts could easily apply to any sort of poetry—or other kinds of writing. So, too, is it worthwhile to control the difference between implication and inference. You don’t (necessarily) want the poem to present an inference (something you’ve figured out). Rather, you want to let readers figure it out for themselves (let them do the inferring). To do this, the poet’s job is to imply something carefully, yet know when to stop so that the reader is empowered—and engaged—to see that you are implying something. The poem may take a chance, and perhaps not click with everyone, but when it does click, the effect will hopefully be rewarding to the reader as they enter into the image-moment of the poem. And again, although I’m talking about haiku here, there’s no reason why the same technique can’t be used in other writing. Indeed, cinematography has employed this “collage” technique for decades, where the cut from one scene to the next routinely implies something. If you look at very old movies, from close to a century ago, you’ll see that they spell things out a whole lot more. But more and more, with sophisticated audiences that “get” what is happening when the film cuts from A to X (skipping things in between), the movie becomes more intelligent, more compressed. Early film theorists, especially Russian theorists, have specifically credited haiku as an influence for this technique that is now deeply commonplace in film. To give a specific example in haiku, consider this poem of mine:

 

        an old woolen sweater

             taken yarn by yarn

                  from the snowbank

 

First, I hope the reader begins by asking why. Why is an old woolen sweater being “taken” from a snowbank? And how? Why yarn by yarn? Without my saying a thing about birds or nests or springtime, I’m hoping that readers will make the leap to realizing that this poem is about a bird building a nest. The snowbank may initially suggest winter (all traditional haiku have a seasonal reference), but this poem is really about spring, when the snow is melting, in this case revealing a sweater forgotten in the snow during a long winter. As the sweater emerges from the snow, a bird pulls threads from it to build a nest, yet I’ve not mentioned bird or nest or spring anywhere in the poem. When I use this poem in my haiku workshops to talk about implication, not every student gets it, at least not right away, but when they do (that I’m talking about a bird building a nest) a flash of realization crosses their faces. This is exactly the effect that a good haiku seeks to create. It does this through implication, through trusting the image, through writing about what caused a feeling rather than the feeling itself. This is the crystal image, the defining moment. It relies on the ordinary having the capability to be extraordinary. In this way a good poem will show us ourselves, and our interesting lives, in new and authentic ways.

 

SB: How long have you been a Northwest literary participant? Where did you come to the Northwest from? How has your background mixed with the Northwest literary scene/arena?

 

I’m originally a British subject. I was born in England, and grew up there and in Ghana, Australia, and Canada. My parents still have their British accents, but I lost mine when I was about 13. Travelling a lot as a child, teenager, and young adult (I’ve visited about 45 or 50 countries) has given me a wide appreciation for different cultures (not just Japan). In any event, for better or worse, I’ve always had a feeling of otherness or not completely belonging. In Canada, many of my friends had relatives nearby and we didn’t. They had local history and I didn’t. They knew how to ice skate and I didn’t. When I moved to the United States for college and graduate school, I was not American but “Canadian.” And though I added Canadian citizenship when I was 17, I still wasn’t as Canadian as my friends in Manitoba and Alberta, where I chiefly lived until college. And even now, though I’ve lived in the United States more than even in Canada, I’m still “other”—I have a green card but can’t vote in U.S. elections (though I also don’t have to do jury duty, so thank goodness for small blessings). And I remain conscious of both Canada and England in ways that Americans may not be able to imagine, such as what the current exchange rate is, or what the temperature or weather was in Winnipeg or London this week. In addition, my wife is Japanese (though she has nothing to do with haiku, please note—she says it’s something that “old people do,” which, in Japan, is often true!). We visit Japan regularly, and our two children are Japanese citizens as well as American (and also Canadian and British citizens, actually). All of this adds up to a cultural richness, I realize, but also some degree of disconnection, of always feeling alien. And even now, after having lived in California from 1986 to 2002 (the longest I’d ever lived anywhere), I feel this sense of otherness in having moved to the Northwest in 2002. I have been thrilled with how open the literary community has been to me in this area, and that otherness is quickly dissipating, but there’s still this feeling of transitoriness. We all live transitory lives, I know, but it’s something else entirely when you’ve needed to apply for a work visa or can’t register a car brought from Canada because of differences in emissions controls. These things all add up. However, having lived in Washington state from 1981 to 1985 (except for a year of college in England in 1983–84), it wasn’t an entirely foreign place to me. My parents have lived near Vancouver, British Columbia for about five years and my brother’s family has been in Anacortes for twice that time, so I’ve been visiting this area for a while over the years. So it feels more or less comfortable here for me here (less so for my wife), but there’s still this feeling of distance.

        To help combat this anticipated disconnection, when I moved from California I made an exerted effort to connect to the poetry scene as much as I could. I sought out organizations and got involved. I’m a board member of the Washington Poets Association (and, at my instigation, it now runs the Francine Porad Haiku Contest, named, at my suggestion, after one of the leading haiku writers in this area). The WPA also put on the Burning Word poetry festival, which I was heavily involved in. I’m vice president of the Eastside Writers Association (a group for writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and more that meets monthly). I also became a board member of the Redmond Association of Spokenword, and through that organization I created the Poets in the Park poetry conference, which I staged successfully in 2004 and 2005. I was one of the volunteer editors for the Poets Against the War online anthology, which made some wonderful connections, and I also joined the Microsoft Poets group for monthly critique sessions (though this has since fizzled out). I started the “Haiku Garden” reading series at the Japanese Garden in Seattle, and I’m also active with the local Haiku Northwest group, and also hosted a national meeting here of the Haiku Society of America, as well as the Haiku North America conference this past September [2005]. I’ve also made the effort to attend various poetry readings in different venues around the area, often as a featured poet, and attended the excellent poetry reading series put on by Seattle Arts and Lectures, and made connections with other poets and publishers in this area. I’ve performed my poetry at both the Bumbershoot and Folklife festivals, given readings at Elliott Bay Books, been the featured poet at the Seattle Haiku Slam, and have otherwise tried to say, “I’m here.” All of this activity has connected me with some wonderful writers (including you), and has helped create a sense of belonging for me.

        I see this activity as somewhat transitional, however. This heavy involvement was to bring me up to speed, so to speak, with connections and friendships in this area, to somewhat match what I enjoyed in the San Francisco area before moving north. I’ve tried to maintain my own writing practice, and have been pleased with my increased output of longer poetry (though less haiku and tanka than before). But with these various connections made, I now feel I need to focus more on my own writing. I’m overdue for a substantial book of my haiku (a press I respect has offered me the opportunity to publish a hardback book with them, but I have put it off due to busy-ness—am I crazy or what?). I have several writing projects that never quite get finished (like this one in doing an article/interview for Writing It Real). It seems I need to back off from all the organizational duties (sometimes they’re distractions) and stick to my knitting. I know I’ll continue to organize events and give readings and workshops, because that’s part of who I am, but I also want to balance it with more writing for myself.

 

SB: Do you have exciting plans for future writing and literary projects?

 

I’d like to pull together a “best of” collection of my haiku. I have ideas, too, of smaller collections of haiku on specific themes. These include a book of haiku about “hands” that I’d like to call Gestures, a sequence of haiku about Pacific Northwest wildflowers, and a few other ideas. I’ve also been toying heavily with the idea of editing a “Northwest Haiku Anthology,” if I can secure a publisher. I don’t think I have enough longer poetry of sufficient quality for a book manuscript, but I’d like to get more of my longer poetry published in local journals. For 2006, I’ve also thought that it would be good for me to concentrate on writing for which I get paid. I’m happy to do a lot of writing for nothing or very small pay, but why not set my standards a little higher? I don’t expect to make my living off poetry (I still have my day job as an editor at Microsoft), but I can turn it up a notch. Consequently, I’m interested in freelance writing jobs in this area.

 

SB: What advice do you have for those out there writing short lyric poetry and haiku?

 

This is a huge question, and not one I can answer easily (though partially I already have in previous questions). I teach workshops on this subject. If I may, I recommend reading my essay “Becoming a Haiku Poet.” Mark Twain is rumoured to have said “I’m sorry this letter is so long; I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” It turns out he didn’t actually say this, but I am still drawn to the sentiment. And I believe that it’s harder to write a good short poem than a good long one. The pressure on each word is greater in a short poem, and the condensation and implication has to be more powerful than with a longer poem. Or at least, if it is, the short poem can be powerful and effective out of proportion to longer poems. How to do this well is something I’m still exploring. Haiku has been helpful, though there are plenty of techniques that don’t work in haiku that do work in other short poetry. If I may emphasize anything regarding haiku, it’s that it’s being widely mistaught in North American schools for decades has led to people deeply misunderstanding the genre. It shouldn’t be 5-7-5 syllables in English. It relies on kigo and kireji (season words and cutting words, the latter to create a two-part juxtapositional structure). It is often most effective when objective. If any of this is a surprise to those who think they write “haiku,” then they need to study it more. And even those who don’t write haiku (or write it much) but think they know what it is could benefit from a deeper understanding. Haiku can serve as a microcosm for what works or frequently doesn’t work in longer poetry and other writing. It’s a way to connect to your real self, to the authentic in your daily life—a way of “writing it real.” As French philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote, however, “haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.”

 

SB: Might you share some of your haiku with writing it real subscribers?

 

Ah yes, the poetry! That’s where it’s really at. Readers can find a selection of my haiku, paired with photographs, online at Open Window, and many other haiku of mine are available online, often translated into other languages. The following are some favorites, in no particular order (I include haiku as well as a few senryu, haiku’s more humorous cousin):

 

tourists talking

in several languages—

the glassblower exhales

 

landing swallow—

the ship’s chain

dips slightly

 

relaxing my arm

      butterfly

 on the bullseye

 

a waiter interrupts

our argument on abortion—

a choice of teas

 

first snow . . .

the children’s hangers

clatter in the closet

 

an old woolen sweater

     taken yarn by yarn

          from the snowbank

 

clicking off the late movie . . .

     the couch cushion

     reinflates

 

his favourite deli—

the bald man finds a hair

in his soup

 

grocery shopping—

pushing my cart faster

through feminine protection

 

first star—

a seashell held

to my baby’s ear

 

home for Christmas:

my childhood desk drawer

empty

 

empty silo—

    spring wind pops the metal

        in an out

 

scattered petals . . .

the thud of my books

in the book drop

 

scent of wisteria—

she finishes translating

the birth certificate

 

dwindling fire—

our conversation shifts

to death

 

reading in bed

     my pulse flickering

     the lightly held bookmark

 

a few pines

tagged with ribbons . . .

winter stillness

 

morning sun—

     a patch of frost

in the holstein’s shadow

 

nursing home lounge—

a child’s puzzle

left unfinished

 

record high—

this heat

even in my toothpaste

 

summer moonlight

   the potter’s wheel

      slows

 

tulip festival—

the colours of all the cars

in the parking lot

 

toll booth lit for Christmas—

from my hand to hers

warm change

 

spring breeze—

the pull of her hand

as we near the pet store

 

the scent of autumn

drawing us out once again—

the rusty porch swing

 

after the quake

     the weathervane

          pointing to earth

 

Valentine’s Day—

she reminds me

to fasten my seatbelt

 

meteor shower . . .

a gentle wave

wets our sandals