December 2003, Volume 1, Number 6

Interview With Bruce Ross
by Robert Mestre

Q) Onji aside, what do you think are the main differences between Japanese and English language haiku?

A) “Onji” not aside, the Japanese have 5 and 7 sound patterns in their poetry for centuries.The impact is enormous. Free verse obviously doesn’t provide the equivalent. English-language haiku lacks rhythm and music. Also, the codified flora, fauna, etc. in the saijiki are infinitely more subtle and universally available to the Japanese as a collective inheritance of feeling—unlike the “hit or miss” associations of English-language haiku poets. All this is not to say haiku in any language cannot connect to the “haiku Moment.” It can.

Q) Which classical Japanese haijin would you recommend a beginning writer study and why?

A) I would study the “big four”: Basho (for depth), Buson (for craft), Issa (for humanity), Shiki (for a modern voice). That works for the Japanese, modern and postmodern trends notwithstanding, and it should work for others as well.

Q) Which English language haijin would you recommend a beginning writer study and why?

A) I would have them study J.W. Hackett, Charles Dickson, and John Wills for precision of feeling in nature. Cor van den Heuvel for depth of feeling.

Q) What writers have had the greatest influence on your work?

A) I suppose Kerouac and Gary Snyder for a reorientation of spirit. Basho for haiku depth. Cor van den Heuvel for the persistence of his mental focus. Also the many classic and modern Zen practitioners writing about consciousness. And, in a deep sense, certain Native American beliefs and practices.

Q) If there was one tip that you can give people when writing a haibun, what would it be?

A) Don’t just tell a story, concentrate on feeling and its expression, especially in the linking of haiku to prose.

Q) What is your view on the offshoots of traditional haiga in different mediums?

A) I’m pretty much anachronistic (traditional) but open-minded. I like being stimulated visually and prefer expressionist overtures I see in some seemingly non-traditional haiga that look like wild Zen drawing to me. I am not so sure about much of the graphic constructions however impressive they are. Too suggestive of commercial art. Linking to photos seems a bit unnatural to me. Apparently the element of humor is also too often left out of haiga, traditional or not.

Q) In recent times there have been a lot of politics between orthodox or (non-conformist) and freestyle haijin in every Japanese short form. What is your view?

A) There have been disagreements as to style from Basho’s time onward. As Aristotle says, people are political creatures. Too often free expression degenerates into vacuity and nonsense. Follow the old masters but make it new. Unfortunately these times encourage political dialogue and one-upmanship as the final say on things. In Japan, apparently, things as you mention, are as bad as in the West. Astonishing that there is so much (negative) bother over such a little, wonderful poem.

Q) You have written many books, and earned and deserve every bit of your celebrity. Yet you are down to earth and always willing to help others. Why is this important in your life?

A) If that is true, I’m down to earth and willing (not always) to help others based on my parents’ attitudes toward life. St. Augustine said: “Every bit of light adds to the totality of light.” As a metaphor this suits me and perhaps describes what I am after—finding measures of truth and beauty in the earth around us and sharing it with others. What else is there?

Q) What is your take on the online poetry movement?

A) The online poetry movement initially overwhelmed me, but now I check in on selected sites to see what’s going on. I still have cybernetic-related misgivings about the medium (the medium “is” the message), and the proliferation of spam-ku is truly amazing but probably akin to the endless haiku jokes in the media—an inability to own up, particularly in males, to true feeling and therefore the need to be defensive, jokey, and “cool.”


Bruce Ross is the editor of Haiku Moment and Journey to the Interior, American Versions of Haibun and author of How to Haiku, A Writer's Guide to Haiku and Related Forms and three collections of haiku. He lives with his wife in Maine where they climb mountains, cross-country ski, and birdwatch


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