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Michael McClintock Interview with Robert Wilson
[Q=Robert Wilson, A=Michael McClintock]

Q. What first attracted you to haiku and why?

A. You want the truth? I needed a new angle on literature, the study of which was driving me to desperate things, and I needed a new, better approach to writing poetry, my attempts at the time being hopeless, confused, and laughable. Haiku came to me like a mouse in the night, nibbling my cheese. I began to notice. It got to the cheese every time, and I had none left to eat for myself. So I brought haiku permanently into my home and invited it to teach me its secrets. That was many years ago. I think of that time and those first lessons with great fondness.

Kidding aside, my interest in haiku has gone through many phases or stages, and has taken me in many directions. Initially, and to this day, I am most interested in haiku’s use of language, how from such simple language such evocative material can be so directly, intimately, completely conveyed. So my interest was, and remains, linguistic, and all that that entails, including the aesthetic formation of haiku, its techniques and methods. I’ve studied and enjoyed haiku in a kind of parallel alignment with most of the subjects into which I’ve decided to settle myself and spend a great deal of time and energy--literature, art, philosophy, comparative religion. Haiku does have a perspective on these areas; it has something to offer on all of them. For all the talk about haiku’s setting aside of rational and intellectual impulses for a form of intuitive understanding--which it certainly also offers and is--I have found haiku to be an inexhaustible, intellectual romp.

Q. You have been both editor and competition judge. What to you constitutes a good haiku?

A. Well, I can only speak of its effects. A good haiku will be one that rings the bell, a poem that shows me something familiar in a new, meaningful way, in the simplest, most direct, best language. It will also be one that I want to read and re-read, again and again, over time, and that will continue to show me new things. What constitutes a good haiku, what enables it to do such things, is something I am still discovering. That is the short answer, and the only one you have the time for, or I the wits to offer.

Q. The Japanese, of course, gave birth to haiku. It has since gained converts and acceptance throughout the world. What is it about haiku that has caused the world to take notice?

A. Good poems by good haiku poets, in increasing numbers, over a sustained number of years: perhaps, that is one reason. It has to do with the quality of the haiku achievement, its validity and strength as an art or literary form, and its staying power as a small but strong cultural force that is free of and unencumbered by the rise and fall of passing fads and fashions and most of the other by-products of a culture that is chasing its tail and driving itself crazy. That would be one way to put it, I think.

But, more importantly, I think that haiku appear to offer to people and the world generally what generally people and the world are discovering they urgently need and do not have: a combination of things, involving personal connection to the world and other people around them, a meaning to ordinary, daily life, and a center or point of view that affords them something more nourishing to the soul or spirit than the impersonal, commercialized crap that constitutes corporate-made and corporate–marketed popular, mass-culture. That would be another way to put it, and I think it may have some merit and lead to any number of additional, related speculations. I suppose we might say that if the world didn’t suck, we’d all fall off--but I do think that haiku offer another view of the matter, and they convey that view in a way that is immediate, emphatic, and frequently unforgettable. People talk. Word gets around. Another convert appears, in the home, or on the street, or in the workplace. I am happy to witness it.

Q. My next question almost sounds contradictory. You once said, "Haiku is a permanent feature of English-language poetry, but has yet to enjoy unqualified acceptance." Would you please elucidate?

A. I may have touched on some of the reasons I have for thinking haiku has staying power in our culture in the remarks at the start, about how the content of haiku and its philosophical and aesthetic perspectives and values can easily transfer to so many huge subject areas involving human experience and knowledge.

Apart from that, and viewed as a movement in poetry, I can’t think of another that has had a similar long history--that has grown over the years as it has, rather than diminishing and finally petering-out as have most others over the past one hundred years. It takes a long time for a poet or a poetry to embed and take root in a culture, or to achieve the kind of absorption by a culture that really matters, and that can make a difference in that culture, that can add something substantial to it.

Most individual poets come and go before that process has taken place, and certainly most poetry movements. But not haiku. Every year, there are important little indicators, here and there, in which English translations of Japanese haiku, or original English-language haiku written over the past fifty years, is reprinted, read again, or reintroduced to a new generation and a broader audience of readers. That is real strength. Just a few examples are Dover’s popular and ever-ready The Classic Tradition of Haiku Anthology, edited by Faubion Bowers (1996); W. W. Norton’s edition of van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (1998); The Everyman’s Library series edition of Haiku, selected and edited by Peter Washington (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), which contains contemporary English-language haiku poets in its presentation of translations, together with excerpts of haiku-like writing in the work of poets from many periods of literature.These are not trivial things, insofar as poetry is concerned. Just the other day, I received in the mail an anthology of English-language haiku compiled and translated by Hiroaki Sato, titled Erotic Haiku (Yohan, 2004) published in Japan. Some poems in the book were written nearly forty years ago.

“Unqualified success”--that may always be fugitive; I do frankly wonder if it is not just an illusion, after all. Who or what is ever accorded “unqualified success”? Nothing in poetry. And how could such a thing ever be measured or, should it come, be recognized when it arrived? In his famous essay on poetry, Emerson even found fault with Homer and Shakespeare. So perhaps we should not be too concerned with it, but pay attention to and enjoy our work. Haiku has, in fact, enjoyed a great deal of exposure relative to other poetry and poetic tribes, and to the tiny portion of the publishing world that is allotted to poetry. The haiku community is strong and keeps its own history: That is also a very good thing, and rather rare. Brooks Books, for instance, is planning to publish (or perhaps it already has done so) a new edition of the haiku of O Mabson Southard (aka O. Southard). It promises to be bigger and more complete than any collection Southard published during his lifetime. That kind of memory, care, and value for a poet’s work reflects the ability of English-language haiku to endure, to throw something up onto the wall of time and make it stick. In poetry, in any age, there are few better indicators of success.

Q. The importance of using a kigo word in haiku has been stressed by many well known haiku poets. How important is this to you? Are there times when it is okay to not use a kigo word? And by not using one, does the haiku then become a senryu?

A. Discussions of kigo make me restless and usually leave me unhappy.

My view is this: The presence of what we call kigo does not necessarily make a poem a haiku; its absence doesn’t make a haiku a senryu. A haiku without a kigo word or phrase is just that: a haiku without a kigo. We should not assume, categorically, that the haiku is for that reason diminished, or is somehow a three-legged dog.

By all means, use a kigo word or phrase when it is needed. Kigo can be very effective in introducing associations of season, time of year, specific events or holidays, and so on, that are appropriate to what the poet wants to convey or evoke in the poem. But formal kigo can also introduce associations that are diffuse, irrelevant, imprecise, or merely gratuitous--meaning without cause or justification: uncalled-for.

Use of a kigo to establish a poem’s context or setting, or to introduce meaningful and effective associations to enhance meaning and depth--that is all fine, but words and phrases not “officially” identified or codified as kigo may also accomplish the same thing, and be more appropriate. What is most important to understand is the fundamental concept at the core of kigo, which is the use of language that can introduce into the poem effective, rich, and relevant associations. Kigo is a kind of ready-made tool for accomplishing that, but it is not a required tool in my book. Not at all.

Sometimes I think that the study, use, and refinement of specific kigo can be a big and unproductive distraction--the deeper you get into it, the more arbitrary and intricate become its restrictions, prohibitions, and rules governing usage, and the more distorted some of the results. This is especially true of some kigo having associational values that are geo- or culture-specific and that make no sense outside that geographic location, culture, or society.

I don’t think that any aspect of writing a haiku should be placed on “automatic,” or given any sense whatsoever of being part of a paint-by-numbers kind of process, or overly preoccupied with stock responses. The poem and its elements should reflect the subject matter or content of the poem. Haiku should be shaped to suit the poet’s intent or meaning, as part of their crafting. Sometimes that will include the use of kigo; at other times, it won’t.

Q. How does one better the ability to write quality haiku? Any advice?

A. Acquire a respect for and genuine interest in the medium, language. Practice.

You can have a life of haiku moments. You can attain great acuity and abilities of perception. You can achieve the heights of spiritual development. You can brush your teeth in Nirvana or become an empty mirror, but without language and knowledge of how to use it, no haiku will come of any of that.

Q. This question compliments my previous question. You write beautiful, well crafted haiku. Yet you never rest on your laurels. What do you do personally to improve your craft?

A. I try to write the poem as if it were either the first or the last ever to be written on the subject, and that it is my responsibility to make it stick and be memorable. If it is to be the last poem, I must make it worthy to stand alongside the ten thousand others; if it is to be the first poem, I must do everything I can to make it deserving of a position at the top of the page. Of course, in each case, there is a real danger of trying too hard. That just heightens the stakes, and has a wonderful way of clarifying the mind. Failing of either goal, first or last--which, in fact, is most of the time--I try to understand why the poem failed. I don’t then throw it away, but I do move on.

I think this basic method may have improved my craft over time; I can’t say that I really know. For sure, it has afforded me a keen sense of failure and struggle. That in turn generates renewed effort. It seems to me that once you have succeeded at something, it’s a bit of a grind to keep doing it, over and over again. Where is the return in that? Laurels are useless. Who wants to wear strands of salad around their head?

Q. You also write tanka poetry. What is and isn't a tanka?

A. Last year I wrote a fifty-page essay about just that--what is and isn’t a tanka--after thinking a lot about it over some thirty years. The essay became the introduction to The Tanka Anthology (Red Moon Press, 2003). Basically, my approach is this: In English, tanka, like haiku, is a distinct and identifiable form of short poem. Both have historic connections to the haiku and tanka of Japan, but both are also different, and justifiably so. They partake of the Japanese tradition, holding in common a set of distinguishing characteristics, but are at the same time, right now, developing their own distinct attributes, qualities, and features: It is a process of literary evolution, involving adaptation to another culture.

The core description I offer of English-language tanka is this:

“While poets continue to experiment, the contemporary tanka in English may be described as typically an untitled free-verse short poem having anywhere from about twelve to thirty-one syllables arranged in words and phrases over five lines, crafted to stand alone as a unitary, aesthetic whole--a complete poem. . . . During the last thirty years, it has emerged as a robust short form that is identifiable as a distinct verse type while being extremely variable in its details.”

The essay argues that tanka in English is still defining itself, through the poems, and from there develops what I hope is a fairly satisfactory discussion that illustrates the salient ingredients, parts, attributes and qualities, using specific poems as examples.

For some, that will be all the “definition” of tanka they need; it will suffice. They understand that the poets themselves define the form and genre, through the poems, how they write them and what they put into them--not the critic, not the essayist, not the cultural or arts historian, not the ideologist or theorist. And each new tanka that is added, by a process of general consent and persuasion, also contributes its special use of form, weight and measure to the definition. I prefer that similar relationships and processes exist within haiku literature.

Q. You step away from definitions, then?

A. Here I do, yes. As I do most of the time: It is just a preference of my own, though it is one I also advocate. I prefer to place the poet, or any artist, in the first or leading position, by which I mean in the primary role of creating the art. Historically, we know, that has not always been the case, or the prevailing climate. Those outside the direct production of the art itself will often dictate the content and form the art is to take, usually in service of some political or economic purpose. Their power base or social position permits them to assume this first or leading position. The result of this has usually been the fossilization or death of the art; it becomes codified within the functions of a bureaucracy. The process usually starts with definitions that are closed, in place of descriptions that are left open and can accommodate change, innovation, and growth. So, I am merely biased in the other direction.

At any given time, in any art--no less in tanka, haiku, or poetry generally--an element of each approach is usually evident. The tension between the two forces can actually have benefits. Overall, though, history seems to show that when the artist is not in the lead position, when conformity to a definition and a body of rules, permissions, and prohibitions dominates, the art dies and the artist finds something else to do. The dictates of social realism within the Soviet state comprise a recent example of culture-wide, artistic disaster.

At best, it seems to me, definitions about poetry or any art are a kind of useful conceit, or necessary but temporary fiction, which we use to establish a base for comparison and contrast between things, even as those same things are constantly changing and evolving into new, other things. Definitions are a teaching tool; they aren’t the thing itself. Usually, my advice to poets is to use them, absorb whatever general sense or application they may have, then discard them and return to work. Most readers might benefit from doing the same thing.

Q. Any advice for those new to the writing of tanka?

A. What does anyone do when they are new to something, interested in it, and want to “do” it? You begin to study and read about it, learn all you can about it, think about it, bring it into your life, make a seat for it in our heart and mind. Approach it as a lover--and with the same mix of joy and caution. Take what is there to take, test and question, give all you can in return, struggle with self-doubt. Let it drive you crazy. Yes, fall in love.

Q. What one haiku poet has had the most influence on you as a poet, and why?

A. Would it surprise you if I said R. H. Blyth? I think of him as the dominant haiku poet in English, and maybe the only one who will be well remembered a few centuries from now. Blyth was not just a scholar who translated Japanese haiku, but was the first and the best in putting haiku into the English language. That he did so as a process of translation is almost incidental to his achievement. He was also a fine, practical philosopher, and a wonderful critic, having profound immediacy. He not only rendered the work of the great and minor haiku poets of Japan into English, but showed how English could be made to carry the freight. Additionally, through his commentaries and analyses, Blyth gave to the poetry some of its finest illumination, making a home for haiku possible in our culture.

Like Nietsche once said of music, I can say of haiku and tanka: without either, life would be a mistake.

Michael McClintock, March 25, 2004 to Robert Wilson,

Additional interviews with Michael McClintock are available at these links:

1. From Stylist Poetry Journal: English-language Haiku and the Long View.

2. From World Haiku Review: Interview with a Poet.

Michael's biography is found here: Biography

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