WHR March 2013
Contents of the March 2013 Issue
Editorial : On a Haikin called Owen Bullock, on this page.
On A Haijin Called Owen Bullock
In this Issue I wish to present rather an unusual Editorial.
I like seeing photographs of New Zealand and enjoy hearing about her lovely places, so much so that I thought at one time of making her my resting place, or at least having the WHC’s World Haiku Festival there. What is it like to move to and live there? Someone else has done just that. My contact with New Zealand has until now been limited to her wines. Now, it has begun to assume flesh and blood.
Owen Bullock was born and brought up in Cornwall, UK. At 22 he moved to New Zealand where he now lives. I have long noticed that his haiku poems are a bit different from most others. Any haiku different from most others is a good news. I have become more than curious about him. So I have recently started a little dialogue with him and liked what I heard.
The dialogue is so pleasant that I get lost in a daydream: - I imagine myself sipping beer at a hotel overlooking Lake Wanaka surrounded by the Southern Alps in New Zealand. A stranger approaches and asks if he can join me, apparently because I am Japanese. It transpires that he writes haiku. His name is Owen Bullock. He lives in Katikati, Bay of Plenty up on the North Island. He is a writer and poet. That makes two of us. Only, I am an artist as well. We get on well with each other like a house on fire. I buy him a pint of beer. We chat for a couple of hours, mainly about his haiku. We have consumed six pints between us. This much is my fantasy. The rest is real, albeit only via e-mail exchanges.
* * *
As I have already said I like his haiku partly because they are different from others. “I think my haiku are a bit quirky.”, he admitted it in his own way. A Cornish sense of humour? Or has he acquired it in New Zealand? His doesn’t sound to me to be a quirky sense of humour, however.
Without prompting he continues, “There’s a lot of humour in my work.” Hurray! This is simply music to me. For I have been pontificating on the importance of humour in haiku for the last fifteen years ever since I discovered the deplorable lack of it in the Western haiku and other haiku influenced by it, which is nearly all the haiku in the world outside Japan. My heart-felt plea, however, has fallen largely on deaf ears. Either they don’t like my “pontificating” or they are actually deaf (and blind). Either way, they are far too gone in their being brain-washed in a certain set way. I drink to Owen. Here is a man who never knew me but has naturally written haiku with a sense of humour of his own accord! He is a natural. That, whether you like it or not, is the best way.
sunny day –
why not get
the divorce papers?
Every time Owen opened his mouth something interesting and/or out-of-ordinary came out. “…and people tend to say that I have an unusual way of looking at the world. Some find them odd but, for me, unless they evoke something new, they’re a waste of time.” Please do not overlook the precious gold nugget of a message contained in this remark of his. Haiku is, indeed, a different way of looking at things. It makes us look at things differently. If it doesn’t we must have got it wrong. As all of us have Buddha nature or kami within us even if we are not aware of it, so do we all have, as I believe strongly, potential as a haiku poet, or potential for looking at things in a haiku-like way. All we have to do is chisel our way, like Michelangelo did the marble, to reveal it and activate it. This Owen has done without any help from others. (People can still achieve this if only they believe in freedom and do rid themselves of all the things they have been taught about haiku and, most crucially, listen to what their innate natural self is trying to say.)
carrying one of the ants
that didn’t make it
The theory of, and justification for, minimalist haiku are very pretty. However, it is one of the most difficult tasks for any haiku poets to achieve, perhaps the second most difficult, next to understanding hai-i, or haiku spirit. Successful samples are few and far between. Nicholas Virgilio’s haiku (lily:/out of the water…/out of itself) is a classic and one of the best non-Japanese haiku ever written, let alone one of the best minimalist haiku. I adore good minimalist haiku. But alas, except for a small number of poets who are not only endowed with talents for minimalist haiku but also are equipped with stringent self-discipline and ability to maintain incredible amount of efforts needed, the minimalist doctrine has done far more harm than good to a countless number of lesser poets who blindly follow this trend for its own sake. What about Owen? He says, “…I tend to prefer very minimalist work or haiku which have philosophical depth…” Judging from his works I have seen, Owen is one of the more successful minimalist haiku poets. It is hoped that he will develop and produce more and more good minimalist haiku so that this particular branch of haiku will become genuinely a respectable school of haiku and wipe out the present deplorable situation where misconceived minimalist trend has been corrupting and standing in the way of what would otherwise be good haiku.
As was said before, Owen does many other things apart from haiku. His poems and fictions have been published. He was writing poems and reading Shakespeare when young and in his early teens. He therefore has a long and wide accumulation of literary basis. One of my strong contentions has been that one should not take one’s haiku too seriously, that ordinary haiku writers should remain amateurs and dilettantes and should therefore not behave as if they are some kind of professionals (except for those in Japan who earn their livelihood from haiku, which is rare anyway) in the shape of, most typically, a haiku academic, a haiku authority, or income-earning haiku poet. Let’s face it, you cannot possibly live on haiku. What this is telling us is that one should not be solely and exclusively be devoted to haiku alone as if it is one’s whole world. That would be the shortest and surest way to making one a haiku fanatic in the worst sense of the word, dogmatic, self-serving and dangerously competitive. Owen is very keen on haiku but he is by no means a haiku fanatic. His own words, “…Probably the fact that I work in many genres helps me stay fresh.”, are indicative of the importance of being interested in other fields as well as in haiku.
first lightI have to let go
I have said that Owen is a natural. This can be vindicated by his words, “…I don’t have anything in mind when I compose haiku; they come to me.” He is fortunate to have a natural talent for haiku. Most other mortals have to rely on those which should not be relied upon: haiku textbooks, seasoned haijin’s teachings, conventional dos and don’ts, haiku fanatic’s dogma, or any other second-hand information. Ideally, one should wait until haiku comes to one. All the rest should be just practice. We must not mix the two up. Most rarely, haiku is born rather than made. However, we might have to wait forever for that.
the zen garden
Does Owen present his haiku poems as they come to him, like a newly-born baby is presented straight out of its mother’s womb? The answer is NO. “When I’m editing them, I have in mind to make them as concise as possible, to make sure there’s a moment there, or to ensure that I haven’t myself read something too similar in the past, in which case I throw them away.” This self-editing is called suiko in the Japanese haiku writing and is extremely important. This is when the haiku tools in the haiku tool box can be brought out and put to full use. Many people tend to bring out such tools first and try to make them produce good haiku, which is putting the cart before the horse. All too often I see in people’s products all these tools and no haiku.
on the wave
I asked Owen who have inspired or taught him in learning haiku. Not surprisingly, all the right names were mentioned. Whether he chose them or they chose him is a moot point but judging from little but a few vital things I know about him he would have been very careful and discerning in choosing and rejecting his mentors. I might even go so far as to conjecture that he may also have learnt a lot from bad teachers as “counter-teachers” those things which he could identify he should not do, just like wise children learn from the mistakes of their parents. I cannot mention these names here for obvious reasons but interested readers can of course ask Owen. He only started writing haiku in 1999.
on the chess board
What does haiku mean to him and how is it different from his other activities? His answer may be useful to our readers: “I write haiku when I’m feeling more balanced in my life. When I’m disturbed by some strong emotion I write longer poems…I write fiction when I have a story in mind, or when I want to explore prose aesthetically – this is also a kind of poetry. I write haibun when I travel, or when collaborating…”
“…Each form is a mode for me, and attempting whichever mode I feel like is part of the richness of life. One of my early ambitions was to publish a book in as many different genres as possible…Often, readers in one genre are unaware of my work in another form.”
“…Haiku excites me because it seems able to achieve such huge effects with little output. But haiku isn’t quite a religion or drug, partly because of the peacefulness that surrounds my experience of it. Haiku is a tremendous gift that humanity has evolved and given to itself. I find that audiences respond unexpectedly well to haiku at readings, even when they are unfamiliar with them; this delights me.”
even now I decidenot to cross out
During the long course of my living in England I have come to know a few New Zealanders. Invariably they are exceptionally nice people. I have got to know them more deeply than merely on a superficial level where they could put an exceptionally nice face. This may well have engendered in me a longing for visiting New Zealand. I was naturally curious about how Owen moved to live in that country. The answer was simple enough, “I came to New Zealand simply because my ex-wife is a New Zealander (we say a 'kiwi').”
What about the landscape or nature in New Zealand? Owen says,“ The first thing I noticed was the space; there seemed so few people here in comparison with Britain. The landscape is wonderful. The bush is unique; it's damp and cool, a kind of haven and a kind of temple. I love swimming in the rivers, as well as the sea. I had never swum in a river until I came to NZ. I live not far from Waihi Beach and walk there several times a week; it's my favourite place at the moment.”Sounds like an ideal place to compose haiku as well.
Culturally, I found NZ quiet to begin with, but then I decided to get more involved and that changed how I perceived the country. New Zealanders are very down to earth, hospitable; people stay in each other's homes a lot, especially children, which took me a while to get used to. The food is bland, I long for more spice, so prefer Indian food, in particular - international cuisine is much more readily available now than when I first came in 1989. New Zealand is home now. But Cornwall is home too. I feel fortunate, that I have two homes.
That's interesting that you've considered coming to NZ. We had a haiku festival in Tauranga last year; there's a report on it in A Hundred Gourds: http://www.ahundredgourds.com/ahg21/index_feature.html
If you ever do decide to come I'd be happy to show you some local sights, the Coromandel peninsula is close by, one of the most profoundly beautiful locations.
One of my dreams has been to see someone like Owen emanate from the World Haiku Club. Unfortunately for us, he is not our product. However, the fact that someone like him has emerged spontaneously with the blessing of good guidance from some is something the world haiku community should celebrate. It also provides it with some hope for its future.
* See also Q and A with Owen Bullock and a selection of his haiku.
A Brief Account About Owen Bullock by Himself
I was born in St Austell, Cornwall, and grew up in the tiny hamlet of Greensplat in the middle of the China Clay country. I started writing poetry and songs aged 14. I fell in love with Shakespeare at school; I read the complete poems of Thomas Hardy when I was 16, and local poet Jack Clemo. I never knew that Clemo lived less that two miles from me, but I wouldn’t have known what to say to him as a teenager as I was very withdrawn and he was deaf and blind. Later I was influenced by Dylan Thomas, and I moved to Wales when I was 20 and started a family soon afterwards. Two years later (in 1989), I came to New Zealand with my ex-wife, who is a kiwi. We had two more children; being a father has been a vital and powerful aspect of my life.
The first New Zealand poet to influence me was James K. Baxter (who I’d read before I came to NZ). After talking with Alistair Paterson, editor of Poetry NZ, I immersed myself in contemporary New Zealand poetry and became involved through submissions of my own work and editing magazines. Alistair has had more effect on me than everyone else put together, through his insistence on rigorous editing and his drive to continue to explore the potential of poetry.
My favourite jobs have been daffodil-picker, busker and creative writing teacher. I teach at present and do some freelance editing and care giving work for the Salvation Army. It’s a strange mixture and changing hats often seems tiring, but it’s rewarding, too.
I enjoy music, especially jamming with friends, and juggling. My partner recently described me as a sunflower. She likens life, too, to this great bloom. Each thing we do is one petal of the flower, and there’s much to be experienced in each aspect of life.