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An Interview With Robin Gill by Robert Wilson

Robin D. Gill, Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! 1000 Holothurian Haiku.
Published by Paraverse Press, 2003

Q. What was behind your reasoning to author a book containing one thousand haiku about sea slugs?

A. It began the way most collections of anything begin. You fall for a few prime specimens, this causes you to notice others, and before long, you are hooked. In this case, I think it started with the discovery of three or four of Issa’s sea cucumber haiku in close proximity on a single page of his journal (which is reproduced in its entirety by Shinano Mainichi Shinbun). The first of these was the title poem, with its powerful opening uke namako! with a rhythm identical to our “open sesame!” or “abra-cadabra!”

uke namako buppou rufu no yo naru zo yo

arise, sea slugs!
you know, the whole world
is buddhist now!

Whenever I translate a poem, I do it differently – you will not find this version in the book ( “arise” just came up in a letter from J.R., so I use it). Issa’s other haiku are equally intriguing and more puzzling so I was drawn to them as one might be drawn to a good riddle. (To properly savor them requires more explanation than I could provide in a short interview, so I will not introduce any more of them.)

Then, I discovered several of Shiki's namako poems:

konton o kari ni nazukete namako kana

if it had a name
“sea slug”

ametsuchi o waga umigao no namako kana

the sea slug

a face that says
the whole wide world
was my doing!

mui ni shite namako ichiman hassen sai

doing nothing
the sea slug lives
a million years

I like Issa’s haiku for their powerful emotive quality, and Shiki’s for their being conceptual rather than merely objective, and thought they might form the nucleus for a small book of sea cucumber haiku. I had no idea where I was headed. A couple dozen, all old haiku, grew into a couple hundred. These were swelled by more introduced to me by K.S. who is mentioned in the book, and then the discovery of some interesting contemporary haiku – sorry, I cannot recall which – led me to seek more and send questions to some of the living authors, who volunteered yet more, and before I knew it, I was being put into namako haiku by some playful poets . . .

Q. To write such a book had to be an arduous task. What kind of mindset was needed to write so many haiku about sea slugs?

A. I can only take credit for about 100 of the haiku. The rest, you should note are all written by Japanese (except for one by L.D.). Still 100 is no small number. I guess the main motive is my love for developing metaphor. Most of my own poems are filling in places I feel there ought to be a poem. Since I grew up by the sea, it helps to have had some memories to mix in. And I guess it helps not to feel constrained to write only genuine haiku.

For example,

metaphorical taxonomy

my specimen
of silence,
a sea slug in alcohol

This is my take on a passage in an English language novel by Linda Watanabe McFerrin called NAMAKO: sea cucumber. And, I do not actually have a specimen. Perhaps I should add that the Silent Sea Slug is one of the most well known metaphorical sea slugs in Japan. The first mention of namako in the Record of Ancient Matters has the namako refusing to voice obedience to the Gods and having its mouth lacerated (just-so) by the dagger of a furious Goddess.

Q. What is your criteria for writing haiku?

A. To me, haiku are good for many things and many types of haiku can be good. There are warm haiku, haunting haiku, historical haiku, puzzling haiku, seasonal haiku, complaining haiku, imperative haiku, observant haiku . . . any number of possibilities. While I do recognize that some are better than others, I think we must be careful with a single catch-all category of "superior haiku” (shuuku) (or “good haiku” as a sub-version of the same). I favor a 7-beat total and 3 centered lines, but am not averse to exceptions. Haiku should satisfy the ear and I think that means having enough snap to compensate for lack of rhyme, except in cases where a different sound sense is demanded; and they should satisfy the intellect by keeping a surprise for the end of the haiku, as far as it is possible to do so.

Q. What is your perception of the sea slug since writing your book?

A. Before encountering the sea cucumber in haiku, it was only something I had stepped on and found yucky and used as a one-shot water pistol. In other words, I had limited consciousness of the sea cucumber, period. Collecting and figuring out Japanese haiku about the namako put a whole museum of metaphorical sea slugs into my head. I am happiest with the concept of the Sea Slug as a Taoist sage taking it slow, a parallel for the ecological ideal of low-energy living. The research I did on the real thing added a bit more: an animal with no brain made of smart material that eats dirty stuff and poops it out clean --- one need not be a monomaniac to appreciate that! Since I rarely move, I guess you could also say I have come to identify with my subject.

Q. You say your book is a light-hearted romp through science, metaphysics, and literature reminiscent of Borges, Carlyle, De La Mare, Montaigne, and Sterne. Please explain.

A. I hope to resemble Borges for never losing sight of the way there are any number of ways to do anything, and writing in a style I call hyperlogical. Carlyle for the way one theme, clothing, is stretched to cover everything (and the German character for my Namako Hakase and keigu are also persona) in Sartor Resartus; De La Mare for the way he collected poems into chapters to describe the world of dreams (but my books are in Japan, so I am not sure my recollection is accurate – this may be more true for a different book of dreams published by O.U.P.); Montaigne for essaying on and on, fearing no subject and always entertaining us with a proper mix of anecdote and observation; Sterne, for what the Japanese novelist called his sea slug-like style, for I too wander and end up losing time . . . As I answer your question, I am thinking I should add Dillard for her ample use of quotation from science books in her nonetheless lively Tinker Creek, Eiseley and Gonzalez-Crussi for the mix of personal matters, science, literature and symbolism, Hofstadter for playing with science, albeit in a manner my scant knowledge of math will not allow, and Thoreau who proves that careful observation and metaphysical sidetracks may be complementary and Melville for making every other chapter of his novel one of fact and fancy, thus giving us an example of truly creative nonfiction together with the narrative. . . . I like writers who blend or zig-zag back and forth between science and literature and hope, in my crude way (I make much use of footnotes, more in lieu of long parentheses than for academic citation) to do the same. Hopefully, it makes for fun reading, but that may depend upon the reader.

Q. The Japanese language and mindset is vastly different than the English language and mindset. How did you bridge the gap when translating your haiku into English from the original Japanese?

A. In my opinion, the gap between exotic tongues is too big to pass over in silence. I explain, but the explanation is supplemental to the haiku, for an explanatory haiku is no fun. Sometimes a cluster of multiple translations can explain meanings too plentiful too be squeezed into a single translation without seeming to be explanatory. At any rate, I hope this book demonstrates that. You be my judge!

Q. Why haiku?

A. I consider myself more of an editor than a writer. Haiku is 90% selecting and, with one’s own work, revising. How could anyone with editorial sense want to do anything else?

Q. What first attracted you to haiku?

A. Blyth’s books, though at first I must admit to being more appreciative of senryu. And age, I guess. Children may play with haiku, but the Greco-Roman body-centric mentality we all share to a degree in youth makes it hard for us to really fall for haiku. Then, Issa. Reading several thousand of his haiku in the Iwanami pocketbook (selection by Maruyama), I found I enjoyed them and then went on to read all of his work. He is, on the whole, an easy poet to read, so I was able to learn enough to move on to other poets. I was especially delighted to find the rich layers of meaning in old poems: observation + allusion (to another poem perhaps by borrowing a phrase) + allegory (for some life situation) + metaphorical fitness. Reading this way is a skill that takes years to develop and, I feel, is not properly appreciated over here, or for that matter, by young Japanese. Whether haiku people in Japan will admit it or not, it IS intellectual and it is FUN.

Q. Who is your favorite haiku poet and why?

A. Perhaps, Kasanjo (1807-1830), because I imagine all of the poems she might have made if she had only lived longer. If “could-have” doesn’t count, I would say the late 15th century renga master Sogi. Modern saijiki tend to leave him out as pre-haiku, but Shiki was thoughtful enough to include his work (and that of other renga masters) in his 12 volume anthology of haiku by category (bunrui-betsu haiku zenshuu). While his themes are less varied than in later haiku, his poems on subjects such as cherry blossoms have the wit of Issa and the class of Basho. Like Yayu a couple centuries later, his disposition is sweet.

Q. My question for you. How many haiku did Shiki write about sea slugs?

A. Twenty-one! He wrote more than any other poet until Takasawa Yoshikazu, who sent me several score only weeks before deadline! (Talk about a slug-fest!). Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! has a Poet index so it is easy to see who was interested in namako.


Robin D. Gill is a well known author in Japan, with six books published from leading houses, including, Hakusuisha, Chikuma Bunko, and Kousakusha. He lives in Florida with his Puerto Rican Crested Anole and the ocean breeze.

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