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Dialogue Mcclintock

VOLUME 2, ISSUE 2 - JULY 2002
Dialogue With a Poet

MICHAEL MCCLINTOCK
California, US

Susumu Takiguchi, Editor

 

I. A Creative Chaos

ST: I call the present situation surrounding haiku a "state of flux". However, this is not necessarily meant in a bad sense, though there are lots of "bad bits" in it. In other words, we find ourselves, curiously, in creative chaos -- arguably the greatest chaos ever, considering the number of people, languages, cultures and regional differences relating to haiku. As our starting point, might we establish roughly where you stand in the increasingly complex axis of world haiku co-ordinates in terms of different "schools of thought" -- or the conservative versus the progressive, or formal versus free? Are you part of the old guard or a leader of free thinkers?

MM: Poetry is seldom the result of committee work. "Schools of thought" can be like prisons, I think. Not good places to be. Too many walls, too few windows. Attempts to hijack taste and subsume the individual poet's freedoms, to create "new fashion" through talk and a form of consensual, committee-approved aesthetic purity -- however that may be defined, argued, sold, defended -- what are these things to me? We can be tranquil in ourselves, or write out of chaos...I do both.

That being said, I am an attentive reader. What others write, what others have written, is very important to me. I need their news of the world, good or bad. This is how we learn, as children and as adults. This is how cultures learn: they borrow, imitate, re-combine and find their way through time, always standing on some level or layer of the foundations that have preceded them. As individuals, we inevitably do the same. The state of flux to which you allude, is part of an overwhelming historical process -- a human process, involving human actions, choices, ideas, judgments.

But if we say we seek what Basho sought (and I do say that for myself), then we must really mean it. We must seek in our time what he sought in his. For me, this does not involve making a choice between schools, or finding a comforting role to play. Rather, it involves acknowledgement of the historical dimension -- culturally and in time -- determining for ourselves, how we wish to live, what we seek, what we write and how we write it. It does not involve seeing what Basho saw, but seeing what we look at and experience in our way, in our time -- as we seek what he sought. Our poetry will reflect the degree of our success or failure, as judged by ourselves (if we are able), and judged by others (as they most certainly will, one way or the other), in our own time -- and, just maybe, in the future. We can sift through the different points of view, schools and "thinking" about haiku all we want, but at some point we need to make our own discoveries and explorations and to write the poems. No "school" is going to do that work or write our poems for us.

II. Evolutions

ST: In your explorations and your search for such discoveries, what sort of process is working when you actually compose a haiku? Do you start with your haiku principles, then choose and create its theme, subject matter, style and form accordingly? Or, conversely, do you simply write anything that responds to your sensibility at the time of its composition, then worry about the principles afterwards? Or, don't you have any such system, but instead, "just be"?

MM: I begin with the particular moment and its objects, the feeling or emotion as best as I can recall these from memory. Once I am "there," I work to find the language. This may take minutes; frequently it takes days, weeks, months or years. Often, the language is not found at all, in which case there is no poem, just a lot of notes. I keep the notes. The "process," overall, I think, eludes precise description; it may even be a little different each time, depending on the subject matter or circumstance. It is hard to look over one's own shoulder and comment too exactly; to do that may require a kind of detachment I don't possess. I can't say I have any system, at all. But I do seem always to have an intent.

I think the evolution of haiku techniques is open-ended, not closed. New techniques and styles can and do emerge; I want to be ready to incorporate and use them in my work when and where I can, evolving my own style. Sometimes I might even need to force myself to experiment and explore, in unfamiliar ways.

ST: If you are moved, not by feelings suitable for haiku, but by feelings more in line with other forms of poetry such as tanka or traditional English poetry, what do you do?

MM: I always follow the feelings, thoughts and ideas, into the word tides -- the flows and currents -- wherever they lead me. I follow along, pay attention and do my best to listen to the sounds, shapes, and textures that I encounter, dredging for the right language. Sometimes I find it, sometimes I don't. The feeling, thought or idea determines the language wanted, and the shape the language needs to take. I seldom know beforehand, though I may have a scent or notion. The result may be a haiku, tanka or haibun. It may even end up as a letter to a friend -- or something else! I seldom set out to write a haiku per se, unless it is already there in my mind as haiku, in that language and shape -- as a habit of my own thought or way of perceiving -- in which case I just write it down. That happens less frequently. I write in many forms; I need them all. The form emerges from the content; there is nothing formless in the world, I often think, but still we must craft what we write. Otherwise, it remains a blob, a puzzlement, even to ourselves.

This crafting comes last in the process for me. "Process" is a word I dislike, by the way. It implies something more linear, organized and "by-the-numbers," if you will, than I have ever experienced in composition of any kind, much less in haiku or other poetry. It's a word we borrow from science and industry, then try to apply to intangibles, often resulting in preposterous fictions about how poetry gets written or how art is made. These fictions become fashionable, and are soon found put up for sale as a commodity at the local poetry workshop or seminar or retreat. Buyer, beware. By "crafting," in this case, I mean applying everything in my tool kit to the raw material of the poem; to shape it, hone it. To make its words do what I want them to do, and say what I want them to say -- to my own satisfaction. If someone else is happy with the result, then, perhaps something has been achieved. After all, the purpose is to communicate, but it is not always the result; and, of course, not always "for" and "to" everyone.

ST: Do you try to use what you regard as "haiku language" (haigon in Japanese), or are you more flexible, using any words or expressions, which are discarded by others as too "poetic" or unsuitable for other reasons?

MM: I try to use language that works for the purpose at hand. If it were possible to write without thinking, then we'd all be authors of the first degree. We can only follow our own mind about such things as word choices; we cannot be overly concerned about what choices others would make, or make for us. They will write their own poems, and I will write mine. And readers will read what they want to read, taking from the poem what they can of what is there. Foremost, so it seems to me, the concrete content and immediacy of a haiku needs a vocabulary of things, and that is what I am after. Emotions, associations and ideas adhere to the words themselves, often expressed through the arrangement and relationships of words one to another. Contrary to some of those "schools of thought" alluded to earlier, I think haiku is an emotional poetry, and that it contains and conveys ideas, substantiated through imagery.

III. Days of Future Past

ST: You have been cited in the The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms as a "master of contemporary English language haiku". Your haiku has been referred to as sensuous, as is seen in the following haiku:

letting my tongue
deeper into the cool
ripe tomato

pub. The Haiku Anthology 110

How has your own haiku style developed over the years, and where do you see yourself going with it now and in the future?

MM: I feel that haiku and its related literature, particularly haibun, will bear almost any weight we put on it. I want to relate my material to American literature while capturing the present gestalt as I see it, as I feel it, as I comprehend it, as I have found it. What I see, others see, I have no doubt. The reverse is also true. And so, we share and trade our perceptions of things and events. You might say that human beings pool their ignorance, hoping, in this way, to find some truth. In fact, if one person out of ten recognizes some of his or her own thoughts and feelings in what I write, and finds them expressed or clarified there, that is all I need for now and for the future; it is more than I need.

Change in our environments is constant. But, the language used to put it down on paper also changes over time -- in its specific gravity and color and substance -- to cope with the changes in ourselves, our surroundings, the subject matter at hand -- or in the particular interests that occupy us at the time. We, and to a relative degree, the language we use, are in a flux at all times, perhaps necessarily so -- otherwise, we might risk becoming mute and speechless.

ST: I sometimes feel that there are two potential enemies to an aspiring haiku poet (by this I mean all haijin, whether well-established or novice), in addition to many other stumbling blocks. One is the desire to teach. The other is the desire to judge. Perhaps, a third enemy would be the desire to edit. Have you got any secret weapons to defeat these enemies, or at least keep them under control?

MM: Yes, humility in each endeavor! And be on guard against temptations to divert your energies or distend your ego. This editing and teaching you speak of can be seductive, and appear sweet. A person needs to decide how much he really wants to do in those areas, and when and where and why. Then, make the preparations, which, to be blunt, involve much more than just having an opinion, or a few ideas about what to teach or how to edit. It's surprising how often these preparations are overlooked.

Paramount for me, is to make the literature, to do that work and to come as close to my artistic goals as I possibly can. The rest, finally, is fluff. But other views are just as valid. For instance, to teach, and teach well is a great thing. It is a matter of personal choice. So, hopefully we make our choices, and not have them made for us by others. Combining some amount of editing and teaching with writing poetry is common enough, but for me, the end of that spear is writing the poetry. What I have to teach is in the poetry, not in a lecture about theory, or written in chalk on a blackboard. What editing I have done, and still do, I have enjoyed. Through it, I have helped and have been helped by other haijin toward the main goal -- which, again, is writing the poetry.

IV. A Round Trip Ticket to the Present

ST: Until recently, you have been absent from haiku journals for as long as twenty years. What made you decide to come back to the haiku scene? Or more importantly, what was it that made you quit the world of haiku, and what were you doing before quitting it?

MM: At the time I left the haiku scene, I was wrapping up and ending Seer Ox magazine, a journal devoted primarily to senryu, but which also included haiku, pointedly written without a seasonal reference and grounded in the urban setting and experience. Seer Ox Press, the related venture, was publishing haiku and senryu collections by individual poets. This also ended. I'd just come back from a long stay with John and Marlene (Mountain) Wills in Tennessee, and a visit to William Higginson in Paterson, New Jersey, and Cor van den Heuvel, Alan Pizzarelli, Anita Virgil, Virginia Young, Elizabeth Searle Lamb, and many others in the New York City area. I gave a reading at Japan House and over Radio Pacifica, a National Public Radio station in New York City, and had some work published in The Village Voice. It was a very happy time, but also sad, as I knew I had to put that world behind me.

I'd completed my graduate work in information science at the University of Southern California (USC, Los Angeles). Now I needed to go to work with that -- to make a livelihood or become a wandering mendicant of some sort -- a romantic notion I actually had entertained, very briefly. But that is all it was -- a notion, and a silly one, impractical, and probably self-destructive. I don't think starvation helps one's poetry much, I really don't; and I saw my choices in these extremes. I needed to support myself and somehow keep the writing going at a survival level.

I was determined not to lose haiku, but I was convinced I needed to step down from my immersion in it and its world, to step away from the paths of publishing haijin. I knew it would be a long time away. I had made haiku and other poetry part of my life by writing, reading and study. But I would not immerse myself in the material as before.

I am back because I am now able to do so without any distractions. I think I saved about one out of every three dollars I earned; I have purchased my freedom and I am ready to immerse myself again.

ST: You've said, "My absence from the haiku scene does not mean I stopped writing." What have you been writing, then?

MM: During that entire period, I wrote haiku, tanka and other poetry; in parts, pieces, and in whole lots. I lacked the time to give it the needed attention; to finish, to polish, to craft. Knowing that I would not have that time for many years, I adopted a more relaxed attitude, letting it accumulate without much critical involvement. While I think it makes a marvelous record of that period in my life, much of it is useless except as raw material, which needs to be re-worked, finished and culled. I mix it into my current work, wherever I can use it, and hope to put the best of it into new collections. A master's degree in information science has given me opportunity and means to involve myself professionally in the study, collection, preservation, and dissemination of literature -- as part of my personal interests.

ST: Your following haiku received Honorable Mention in the 1979 HSA Harold Henderson Award:

the room's smallness
fills with light
this morning of snow

To me this reads almost like a translation from a Japanese haiku. "Smallness" reminds me of the "smallness" of the back garden, for which Kyoshi had a penchant. "This morning of snow" may be an odd expression in English, but it is perfectly natural to my Japanese sensibility. Your focus is not on the snow, but on the light generated which permeates a room, of which its "smallness" is suddenly perceived. All such feelings are very Japanese (you may say it's American too, but somehow huge American rooms of huge American houses filled with light reflected by snow (in addition to huge lighting systems) do not seem, at least to me, to be haiku-like.

V. Modern Exposures

What are your views about Japanese haiku? We hear voices in the West that there is nothing more to learn from Japan, haiku in English now being a well-established genre in its own right with its glorious tradition already formed, and that it is about time it should be left alone without interference from the Japanese. I lament those who say things of this sort, not because I am Japanese, but because such an attitude should be avoided for their own good, quite apart from being lacking slightly in modesty, if they still call themselves haiku poets. What is your position in this?

MM: I think there are many areas of conflict and friction ahead. English-language haiku and related literature will insist on its own maturity and growth. As part of that development and striving, it will need to distance itself from the haiku of Japan -- I think that is inevitable, even necessary. But it need not be an inimical relationship at all, hostile, or without a rich, valuable and continuing exchange. Overall, I'm sure it won't be.

There has been so little exposure in the West to the modern haiku of Japan. This was a big, big blind spot in R. H. Blyth's work. The work of Ueda, Higginson and a very few others simply has not remedied this huge gap in our understanding of haiku in Japan since the time of Shiki, where history seems to end -- if you are to accept the present record as complete. It is, of course, not complete. When you read about the amount of haiku written in Japan since Shiki, by tens of thousands (among them many hundreds of accomplished poets), and consider the dearth of translations, there would be cause to wonder how anyone could possibly believe we have learned all we can from the Japanese. How can we casually dismiss what we don't know, what we have not seen, what we have had no access to and have not read? There is a huge area of productive work ahead in order to correct this. Within this work exists a great potential for valuable exchange between Japanese haiku and that in the West.

You, yourself, have written a book about the haiku of Takahama Kyoshi. Important resources are appearing from recent ventures like Deep North Press; for example, Tsuru by Yoshiko Yoshino and Einstein's Century: Akito Arima's Haiku, both translated through the teamwork of Lee Gurga and Emiko Miyashita. This is exciting, interesting, important work, and we need more of it -- much, much more. Sono Uchida's first book of haiku in English, A Simple Universe, while a small publication (only twenty-four poems), is another example of the kind of important work ahead that will continue to enrich dialogue between Japan and English-language haiku.

As for small rooms and tiny houses in the U.S., Susumu, I have lived in many of them! Believe me, such places are everywhere!

ST: You have kindly expressed your approval of our haiku magazine, World Haiku Review, especially for:

"…its depth, breadth and openness to all styles, the many points of view -- a most welcome production..."

Yes, the World Haiku Club is a broad church and has, as one of its objectives, the elimination, or lessening of, factional rivalries, which have not only bedeviled Japan's haiku world but have also harmed haiku communities outside Japan. What is your advice on this score as someone who has been writing and publishing haiku since the 1960's?

MM: Well, as I think I have intimated elsewhere in this discussion, I prefer the broadest forum possible, but also independence from any single point of view purporting to have the magic lantern or Holy Grail in its keeping. At the same time, I think, generally, that frictions and rivalries, which have existed and continue to exist, are natural, to be expected and are healthy. They are part of the historical process and the ferment of ideas; that ferment is a sign of health, though at times it can be bruising, and frequently bitter. The alternative to conflict of this kind is, perhaps, a sleepy vale where little happens and no one cares enough about anything to make it matter -- that is a nightmare of another sort that I would never wish to see.

VI. Intimations of a Poet

ST: Speaking of ferment of ideas, Michael, you and your haiku have had influence on poets including Marlene Mountain. In her 1975 essay "old face/mustache put on . . ." Marlene wrote:

"Think of how many poppies (and haystacks, etc.) Monet painted. Then Cézanne and Michael McClintock came along and made Impressionism lasting like museum art.

a poppy . . .
a field of poppies!
the hills blowing with poppies!
(publ. Haiku Magazine 5:1)

'Not only did McClintock show us form, he gave us a concept to explore and expand. He gave it to me: 'a cloud/a sky of clouds/ the something or other blowing with clouds'; 'a sunflower'; 'a raindrop'; 'a young leaf.' Thanks Michael. Oh, I'll never put down such words and call them my haiku. Like the hardware store, they're only there for the mind."

To be compared with one genius looks like a good fortune. To be compared with two genii looks like a miracle. You must have learnt haiku from someone. Who have been the most influential haiku writers in your own development?

MM: I have learned most about haiku from those who have written it, and who write it today -- and of course, from those who have written about it. I came to haiku by way of the Imagists, the American Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, et al), and the Romantic poets and their predecessors (Cowper, Gray, John Clare) during my undergraduate work at Occidental College. There, I had a double major in English literature and Asian studies.

Though not named as such, the spirit of haiku -- that essential mind and heart which informs the techniques and poetics of haiku -- appeared to exist in the epiphanies and best moments of every literature I studied. In fact, haiku seemed to be imbedded everywhere. I still think so. (Maybe this perspective makes me a "pan-haikuist"?) I also found this to be spirit in the work of John Wills, Anita Virgil, and many others who were writing haiku at that time and writing today. All of whom have had their influence and made their impression on me, particularly in areas of subject matter: Wills' intimacy with his farm in Tennessee, Foster Jewell with the American desert, the streets of Alan Pizzarelli's New Jersey, Anita Virgil's wonderful insights into the exquisite beauty of ordinary objects and moments in the household, the kitchen, the bathroom. Additionally, even poor poets can instruct, don't you think? We need to understand failures as well as successes. Even the important poets have some of each.

R. H. Blyth's Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Ezra Pound's ABC's of Reading, and Alan Watts' The Spirit of Zen are three books that changed my life and helped set the course for my interests.

ST: Michael, you've been an Associate Editor, as well as Contest Editor, of Haiku Highlights and Other Short Poems, an early journal edited by Jean Calkins. It was, as Jane Reichhold has written in Aha!Poetry, a magazine which "introduced hundreds of readers and writers to haiku publication". You are one of the pioneers of haiku's development in the West. In those days, poets were trying to unravel and understand the essence of "real haiku". May I ask you this inevitable, impossible, and sometimes pointless question: How would you define haiku?

MM: Well, Susumu, if a definition were really possible, we'd have nothing left to write, and no reason to try. In any case, I have never known a poet to define poetry, other than in a poem -- and then, only so far as the poem, itself, goes. Definitions aren't the poet's work. Definitions are always approximations, always incomplete, and if used literally, they can -- and do -- blind us to what is in front of us -- now, in the present. By their nature, definitions are after the fact, retrospective and descriptive of the pre-existing thing -- in this case, the poem. They are useful for teaching, for sorting and categorizing, for comparing and contrasting, and for conveying certain kinds of knowledge or information or understanding. The poet might look for what seems useful among the many definitions of haiku that are out there, but then, one needs to move on. Potentially, every newly written haiku may change, by just a little, the definition we give the species.

VII. A Renaissance Man

ST: Jean Calkins later turned over the editorship of Haiku Highlights to Lorraine Ellis Harr, who changed the name of the magazine to Dragonfly. As an editor, Ms Harr taught and mentored her own style of haiku, upholding the traditional methods and values of Japanese haiku. She diligently worked to raise English-language haiku standards to those set by the Japanese -- and those to which she subscribed for her own poetry.

At that same time, there were those poets who were striving for a different, more liberal approach to haiku: what Jane Reichhold has described as a "totally American rebirth/reuse of the haiku". Were you one of the latter mentioned poets, and what was your vision for haiku during those years?

MM: I advocated what I called The Liberated Haiku, which was directed specifically toward dismantling the dominance of the 5-7-5 syllabic structure for English-language haiku -- together with its claims to authority, historicity and derivation from Japanese models -- and desirability as the English-language norm. Indirectly, this effort would work toward the establishment a healthier, more robust, less constrained orientation to the "received tradition." The aim -- to toss out imitation and authority; create our own haiku reflecting our own culture, literature, experience and values. For me, that meant to truly assimilate those aspects of haiku compatible to absorbing its fundamental orientations, while adding our own perspectives; to make haiku "ours." In this way, haiku could become a real vehicle for exploring our world, our time, our lives (pedantic and tiresome addictions to the past and to tradition notwithstanding, however badly they were misunderstood, misrepresented, or misapplied). The goal was, perhaps, to return to purer sources -- those qualities that were the original fountainheads and discoveries of what became "tradition" only much later.

VIII. Speaking of Senryu

ST: You were also an Associate Editor of Modern Haiku in the early 1970s. As you have touched on earlier, you subsequently founded and edited your own magazine, Seer Ox: American Senryu, introducing some of your liberal style. As I see it, Japanese and Western senryu may be two different things. Through the World Haiku Club, I've set up an experimental list, WHCsenryu, to drop all the definitions of, and discussion about, senryu, which have been reached in the West and to start exploring the possibility of discovering a form that could be called senryu without having anything to do with haiku. The comparison between haiku and senryu has been, in my opinion, the single most damaging obsession for both haiku and senryu. haijinx seems to be the first and, so far, the only attempt at correcting this trend, apart from WHCsenryu itself. I understand that you are more relaxed and sanguine about this situation, which I regard as a cul-de-sac, or slow poison for both forms. Any opinion?

MM: Anyone interested in senryu needs to read Alan Pizzarelli's collection Senryu Magazine, published last year, parts of which were reprinted in an important New York-based poetry magazine, Long Shot, containing other contemporary poets like Amiri Baraka, Virgil Suarez, Nancy Mercado, Alan Catlin, and many others. I reviewed Alan's book in Frogpond (XXV:1, 2002. While I don't want to repeat that here, I have to mention it, as it is at least a partial answer to your question. I think it's the single most important collection of senryu published in English anywhere, by anyone. It fully displays the potential for senryu in English. Alan demonstrates the possible range of the genre through pun, lampoon, parody and sly nose-pulling satire that is rich but never mean, farce, and completely idiotic, gross, slapstick humor and sight-gags. Of course, most thoroughly satirized, is haiku itself. We saw indications that Pizzarelli might go in this direction from the earliest edition of Cor van den Heuvel's The Haiku Anthology, back in 1974. Alan is the only haiku poet I know of who has given this kind of time and effort to the senryu, and his achievement is impressive. How influential it will really be is another matter.

Truly, I think senryu may never achieve a firm hold in English, despite wonderful efforts like Pizzarelli's. The reason may be that it is simply not needed in our culture. I see the same characteristic energies, caustic wit and humor of Japanese senryu, healthy and alive throughout the United States -- in the form of bumper stickers, printed on t-shirts, and -- I am not kidding here -- scrawled on public restroom walls. Not to mention the one-line quips, jokes and biting humor we find in political cartoons in newspapers and magazines, on late night television and in stand-up comedy. So, where is the need for senryu? As a separate literary form of expression, distinct from those things I have mentioned, could senryu do as good a job or better? We shall see.

But I think you are right. I think publications like haijinx, and groups like WHCsenryu may find a niche or create one, of some sort. I speculate English-language senryu will stay, for a very long time, an adjunct to haiku: a kind of sub-genre that orbits haiku literature and the haiku community. Still, it will probably not get too far beyond that community, due to the health and ubiquitous presence of those other, competing forms of humor in the broader society. In contrast, haiku has taken root because there is nothing quite like elsewhere in our culture or literature, whether in form, focus or utterance.

ST: Thank you for pointing out so clearly something I have long suspected: that the true reason why senryu in the West is treated as a second-class citizen, an unwanted mistress or a second fiddle to the over-praised haiku (which is more often than not worshiped as an object of idolatry). Our WHCsenryu, then, may be an ill-starred battlefield where we are fighting a sad, futile and loosing battle, to put it in my "senryu prose".

It also explains why sincere efforts by some to develop senryu in the West seem to go nowhere. Jane Reichhold once told us at WHC [Haikuforum/Debating Chamber 2000] to the effect that we would be much better off without senryu altogether. I was flabbergasted, but she really knows her stuff, doesn't she? Nonetheless, I still do think senryu is really an ugly duck in the West and that its time will come.

IX. Going on About Haibun

ST: OK, OK, let's move on. Apart from senryu, you have written in various other styles and genres. These include haibun, tanka and other forms. Do you have a favourite and if so, which and why?

MM: Haibun is by far the most interesting to me. I think its potential is enormous and hardly explored. There need be few or any constraints at all, except that it be written as an aesthetic whole, not a fragment. And that it include haiku as a part of that whole, not as a mere attachment, afterthought, as something tacked on but otherwise unneeded. Beyond that fundamental proposition, we should not encumber ourselves with any assumptions about the content or style of delivery for English-language haibun. That it must and will depart from being merely a tourist-occasion exercise in travel writing is certain. The haibun is open to a huge range of expression: from the surreal and dreamlike to straight discursive narrative -- even journalism: from impressionistic writing to exposition and storytelling, meditation and the personal diary -- an exploration of the wilderness of the self.

Unusual effects can be achieved, to the say the least, if compared to prose or poetry alone. In my opinion, haibun offers a kind of synoptic clarity and hybrid vigor that cannot be matched. For me, it has been a new dispensation, a new language of robust muscle. All my tools become useful. Every subject is approachable and malleable. I think there is a possible synthesis of prose and poetry in haibun that can be revolutionary, a watershed in literature. Haibun may be as close something "new under the sun" as history and literature ever offers.

And so, I am writing a lot of haibun. I am also working as a consulting editor and contributor to Journeys: A Quarterly of English-language Haibun, published by Hermitage West I write a column called "Tanka Café" for theTanka Society of America Newsletter, and am editing and publishing "The New American Imagist," a series of chaplets of contemporary poetry by individual poets, also in association with Hermitage West.

ST: On Randy Brooks' Millikin University Haiku Poets Profiles, you were interviewed by student, Andria Neapolitan, who asked you what your "muse" for writing might be. You replied in part:

"...Or maybe my muse, really, is memory. That may seem contradictory, haiku being about the moment, the "here and now." But everything we see and do passes instantly into memory: everything we see and do is framed by our memories. Memory is a mystery - its mysteries are my muse."

X. Variations on a Theme: The 'Nature' of Haiku

ST: You also stated in the MU article that you generally write from memory after the imagery and feelings have had time to mull about and brew. Is this still your way of haiku?

MM: Yes! Everything we see or do passes into memory even as we see and do it, or is lost. Memory frames all of our perceptions, thoughts and feelings. Our total experience, conscious or unconscious, exists within us as memory. The poem is an artifact created in language out of remembered experience.

Time and our sense of time are so strange! I often think the "present," as a dimension of time, does not exist, or that it is purely fictional, except as an interstice between the future, which is the inexhaustible source of time, and the past, which is where time disappears. Our existence seems to be poised at that point, where the two collide, and the future is changed to the past! This "present," where, we exist straddles past and future, but is never one or the other! It seems to me that a good haiku is timeless -- so when we speak of the "haiku moment" there is also that apprehension of timelessness.

The great poems are as fresh today as when first written, four hundred years ago or last year. That may be the magic of literature, the power of all art -- in that we are allowed to experience a meaningful sense of the eternal within the temporal. Perhaps that fundamental insight of haiku tells us something very important about human life, something of which we need to know and be reminded. Eternity haunts haiku. It is this sense that we carry away from the quotidian inconsequence found in so much of it.

ST: I hear that you plan to publish some of your best works from your early years, and explore the themes that are found in them by bringing them into your present. What themes have you found to be recurrent in your works, both past and present? What do these tell you about yourself, your environment and your poetry?

MM: For one, I am suspicious of "nature" as written in much of the haiku written today. Rather, I am suspicious of the actual depiction. It seems to be a highly sentimentalized and sanitized nature. A nature that appears to want to coddle human sentiment. Nature that acts on cue, like a puppet in silent little melodramas that are banal and ridiculous. This is a nature that I'm skeptical of and which, I think, is being selectively observed and highly choreographed much of the time.

Everything we observe in nature is not poetry, contrary to what some appear to believe or think. Such is not the nature I know or am familiar with -- a nature that is not always pretty or beautiful -- but frequently ugly and horrifying. Where there is beauty found in nature, it is frequently a terrible beauty. Those seem to be my themes, together with sadness, loss, isolation, rare and inexplicable joy, the ironies and cruelties in this thing we call beauty. Also, getting at that mystical "something" that seems to exist in the forms and substance and motion of this creation in which we live, that inherent meaning of things -- which seems to be itself immaterial -- and which modern physics seems to tell us, in fact, is without substance. What a mystery that is! And, of course, we have always sensed this "it", at least as far as written history indicates. Physics seems merely to validate what we have secretly known: this world and all the universe in view is a kind of dream, yet no less "real" for being called a dream. It's real enough, after all -- step in front of a truck and find out! Stand in the rain. Jump in the creek. Grow tomatoes.

So, for me the important themes are the ageless questions: what is this place, what are we doing here, where are we going? Why do we suffer? Why, for that matter, is there joy in such a place of suffering, turmoil, agony, death and destruction? What does the very presence of joy mean to tell us, or its absence? Anything? And, if nothing, then why nothing? Is beauty important? If so, where and in what do we find it? Should we seek it out at all? Someone might say that beauty is a lie and poets who trade in it are liars of the worst kind. What is the proof, either way? And what if there is no proof forthcoming -- none at all?

Out of all of this, another theme emerges for me: the theme of play. Over time, I have become more playful. Today I care far less, about the things that really don't matter than I once did. When I was much younger, I took many unimportant, foolish things very seriously indeed. Now, what I intend to do is play in and with it all until I am dead. And the whole time, I am sure, I will be asking and wondering how poetry -- specifically, haiku poetry -- can best report what I find. I suspect there are no final answers, only more questions, and only the writing of poems. We shall see. There will be a lot of poetry, though.

I don't want to depart from nature, from either its small or grand and awesome aspects, but more than ever, I have the desire to write haiku firmly grounded in more ordinary experience and things of ordinary life. Like the environment where I live, "the urban forest," as some call it. And finding haiku subject matter more in ordinary life, home and in town than in some splendid, natural wilderness, which is simply not where most of us live, but only occasionally visit, and which we see and report on merely as visitors (perhaps, too much). I was once devoted to it, but was always only a visitor, in spite of the secrets it seemed to reveal to me. I am more interested in writing haiku, haibun and other forms which reflect contemporary life as I find it.

That is the direction my haiku and related work has steadily taken since the mid-seventies, since editing Seer Ox, and completing the collection, Maya (Seer Ox Press, 1975). I do still try to write the vast landscape nature poem, perhaps out of a longing for what I do not really possess and for which I make no apologies. A recent poem about watching deer cross a high meadow into the clouds was one of those, and though there is that old joy in the poem, I also find in it a great deal of personal sadness, a sense of irretrievable loss.

ST: Would you share a number of your haiku that illustrate styles, themes, changes and variances in your haiku style since you began writing haiku?

MM: Gladly. Here is a selection:




MICHAEL McCLINTOCK:
A BRIEF SURVEY OF REPRESENTATIVE POEMS,
1968-2002


Written in the Period
 1968-1978:

All of the poems in this first section may be found in one or another of the three editions of The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van den Heuvel, and are taken from the original collections by Michael McClintock, presently out of print: Light RunMan With No Face and Maya.


summer morning . . .
pausing in my nakedness
at the window

Light Run

a small girl . . .
the shadows stroke
and stroke her

Maya

the merry-go-round
as it turns
shines into the trees

Maya

my bed
too narrow too short
for all the moon

Light Run

dead cat . . .
open-mouthed
to the pouring rain

Light Run

really can't you hear
: the moon in a pan

Man With No Face

pushing
inside . . . until
her teeth shine

Maya

twisting inland,
the sea fog takes awhile
in the apple trees

Light Run

overtaken
by a single cloud,
and letting it pass

Light Run

a broken window
reflects half the moon,
half of me

Light Run

I eat alone
& pass the salt
for myself

Man With No Face

hearing
cockroach feet;
the midnight snowfall

Light Run

boning
the codfish
complicating
my life

Man With No Face

a single tulip!
hopelessly,
I passed on

Maya

 


Written in the Period 1979-1996 :

Note: While I continued to write haiku during this period, I did not seek to have the work published. These, and other poems and materials written during this time, are now appearing regularly in haiku and other journals.

 

the day's first bull
trots into the ring . . .
snow on the mountains

The Heron's Nest, November 2000

we argue and argue
about how it will fly,
patching the old kite

Acorn #5, Fall 2000

the candle
flares, darkening
the basilica

Tundra No. 2, 2001

crescent moon . . .
moths come touching
spikes of the iris

The Heron's Nest, March 2000

heat lightning . . .
all the way into Mexico
the mountains rise

The Heron's Nest, April 2000

sea mist
the scent of the night
it spent in the pines

The Heron's Nest: Volume II, Number 5: May, 2000

leaving each shadow
as it was . . .
evening breeze

The Heron's Nest: Volume III, Number 02: February, 2001

visiting graves . . .
we flicker as we walk
down shadowed rows

Raku Teapot Haiku, 2002

April morning . . .
a woman with an axe
walks to the chicken house

Raw Nervz Haiku, Vol. II:1, 2001

that kid
who stole my marbles,
buried today

Modern Haiku, XXX.2, Fall 2000

a warm evening,
warm even
in the eyes of fish

South by Southeast, 9:11, Spring 2002 in the haibun,
"Men and Women on a Pier"

the dry season
yet droplets
on the spider's jaws

Modern Haiku, XXXll:3, Fall 2001

lazy me,
autumn's leaves
stay unswept

Still, Issue Three, 2001

Written from 1997-Present:

 

approaching spring . . .
a fire made of letters
written overnight

The Heron's Nest, February 2002


raining . . .
the soft mouth
a flower opens

Acorn #7, Fall 2001


New Year's eve . . .
rhythm of a push broom
high in the stadium

The Heron's Nest, January 2002


after the fireworks
and crowds . . . the moon
and cricket

World Haiku Review, No. 2, 2001


all the spring day,
the deer cross the high meadow
and into the clouds

World Haiku Review, No. 3, 2002


tall sunflowers
having grown old
walking among them

Mainichi Daily News, Haiku in English (Japan), June 2001

the fruitpickers
seem glum about it-
a record crop

Acorn #5, Fall 2000

hefting a plum -
I know by heart
my father's orchard

Frogpond, XXV:2, Summer 2002, as part of the rengay "Lotus Eaters" by
Michael McClintock and Michael Dylan Welch.


a hollow tree
the beginning
of dusk

still, Issue One, 2001


Resources/References

ABC's of Reading, Ezra Pound, New York, J. Laughlin, A New Directions Paperback, 1960.

A Simple Universe, Sono Uchida: Press Here; Michael Dylan Welch, Ed.,
1995. www.asahi-net.or.jp/~fs5k-ktu/haiku/universe.html
www.asahi-net.or.jp/~fs5k-ktu/haiku/spring.html

Acorn, A.C. Missias, Ed.; redfox press,P.O. Box 186, Philadelphia, PA, 19105 USA.home.earthlink.net/~missias/Acorn.html

Einstein's Century: Akito Arima's Haiku, Lee Gurga and Emiko Miyashita, tr., Deep North Press.

haijinx, Mark Brooks, Managing Ed.web@haijinx.com, Temple, Texas, USA.web@haijinx.com  www.haijinx.com

Haiku Highlights and Other Short Poems, Kanono, New York (1965 -72).

Haiku Highlights/Dragonfly Those Women Writing Haiku, Chapter 3 "Haiku Magazines in the USA," Jane Reichhold, Ed., ahabooks@mcn.org Aha!Poetry, AHA Books, Gualala, California, USA. www.ahapoetry.com/twchp3.htm

Haiku Magazine 5:1 (1971).

HSA Harold Henderson Award, Haiku Society of America, Howard Lee Kilby,
HSA Secretary, hkilby@hotmail.com, P.O. Box 1260, Hot Springs, AR 71902-1260, USA. www.hsa-haiku.org/haiku-henderson.htm

Frogpond XXV:1, 2002: Haiku Society of America (HSA), Jim Kacian, Ed., redmoon@shentel.net P.O. Box 2461, Winchester, VA 22604-1661, USA www.hsa-haiku.org/frogpond.htm

Journeys: A Quarterly of English-language Haibun, published by Hermitage West, Features short haibun under 250 words reflecting contemporary idioms
and life; not interested in imitations of Japanese models. Various editors; consulting editor and contributor, Michael McClintock.  $6 for 4 issues, payable to "Hermitage West", P.O. Box 124, South Pasadena,  CA 91031-0124, USA. Email submissions welcome (use subject line "Journeys") HermitageWest@aol.com

Kyoshi-A Haiku Master, Susumu Takiguichi: Oxford, Ami-Net International Press, 1997; Head Office, The World Haiku ClubLeys Farm, Rousham Bicester, Oxfordshire OX25 4RA England.

Light Run, Shiloh, 1971

Long Shot, Vol.25, 2002;  Long Shot, P.O. Box 6238 Hoboken, NJ 07030, USA. www.longshot.org/

Mainichi Daily News,"Haiku in English", Kazuo Sato and Isamu Hashimoto, Eds., mdn@mainichi.co.jp Haiku Column," Editorial Dept., Mainichi Daily News, 1-1-1 Hitotsubashi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8051, Japan.mdn.mainichi.co.jp/haiku/index.html

Man With No Face Shelters Press, 1974

Maya, Selected Poems", Seer Ox Press, August 1976 ISBN 0916064182

"Michael McClintock" Millikin University Haiku Poets Profiles, Adria Neopolitanwww.millikin.edu/haiku/writerprofiles/Michael McClintock.html

Modern Haiku, Lee Gurga, Ed., PO Box 68 Lincoln, IL 62656 USA. www.modernhaiku.org/index.html

"old face/moustache put on..."; Marlene Mountain, "hard to find" website
www.hardtofind.org/hardtofind/marlenemountain/essays/essay_oldface.html

Raku Teapot Haiku, John Polozzolo & Layne Russell; John Polozzolo, HC 73 Box 728 Alton Bay, NH 03810, USA.

Raw Nervz Haiku, Dorothy Howard;67 Court St., Aylmer, Quebec, J9H 4M1, Canada.

Seer Ox: American Senryu, Michael McClintock, Ed. www.epiphanous.org/wha/eng/us/m.mcclintock.shtml

Senryu Magazine, Alan Pizzarelli; River Willow Publications, 118 Schley St., Garfield, NJ 07026, USA; 2001.

South by SoutheastStephen Addiss Ed.; saddiss@richmond.edu
SxSE, PO Box 93, 28 Westhampton Way, Richmond VA, 23173 USA

stillai li chia, Ed., still@into.demon.co.uk 1 Lambolle Place, Belsize Park, London NW3 4PD, England.www.into.demon.co.uk/home.htm

Tanka Society of America Newsletter, Michael Dylan Welch, Ed. WelchM@aol.com P.O. Box 4014, Foster City, CA 94404-0014 USA www.millikin.edu/haiku/global/tankasociety.html

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, Boston: Bedford Books, A Division of St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1997.

The Haiku Anthology, Cor van den Heuvel, Ed.: Doubleday/Anchor, 1974; Simon & Schuster, 1986; and W. W. Norton, 1999.

The Heron's Nest, Christopher Herold, Managing Ed., christopher@theheronsnest.com ; 816 Taft Street Port Townsend, WA 98368 USA www.theheronsnest.com/

The New American Imagist, a series of chaplets of contemporary poetry by individual poets, also in association with Hermitage West, P.O. Box 124 South Pasadena CA 91031-0124 USA HermitageWest@aol.com

The Spirit of Zen, Alan Watts, Grove Press, Boston, Wisdom of the East series, 1969.

The Village Voice, Village Voice Media, Inc. 36 Cooper Square, New York, NY 10003 USA www.villagevoice.com/

Those Women Writing Haiku, Chapter 3 "Haiku Magazines in the USA," Aha! Poetry, Aha! Books, Guadalajara, California, USA., Jane Reichhold, Ed. jreichol@mcn.org : Aha!Poetry www.ahapoetry.com/twchp3.htm

Tsuru (Crane), Yoshiko Yoshino; Lee Gurga and Emiko Miyashita, tr., Deep North Press , Evanston, Ill. 2001.

TundraMichael Dylan Welch, Ed., WelchM@aol.com P.O. Box 4014, Foster City, CA 94404-0014 USA

World Haiku ReviewSusumu Takiguchi, Debra Woolard Bender, Eds.; The World Haiku Club, Head Office, The World Haiku ClubLeys Farm, Rousham Bicester, Oxfordshire OX25 4RA England. www.worldhaikuclub.org

Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, R. H. Blyth, Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1948.

 


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