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Stephen Addiss Interview by Robert Wilson

Some of Stephen Addiss' artwork is displayed in Simply Haiku, March/April 2004, v2n2.

Q. In your book, A Haiku Menagerie, you write: "As we lose contact with other living beings, we are in danger of feeling ourselves alone in the universe; the arts of poetry and painting can help us to awaken our interrelationships with everything that lives." Could you elucidate on this?

A. We can divide human lifestyles into three main groups, namely hunting-gathering, agricultural, and urban societies. The first two kept us in close touch with nature, but as humankind moves more and more to urban life, this connection has become weakened. The arts, and especially poetry and painting, can help to renew our sense of self as part of a larger natural world. Haiku plays an especially important role, I believe, because of two factors. The first is how perception of nature is emphasized in this form of poetry in terms of personal identification, rather than difference. The second is that haiku invite us to enter and complete the poems, thus bringing us into intimate connections with other forms of life.

Q. Do traditional Japanese woodblock artists and haiku poets share a similar outlook towards nature?

A. In my series of books (A Haiku Menagerie, A Haiku Garden, Haiku People, and Haiku Landscapes), we use prints from artists of many different schools and traditions, most of whom would not be considered as woodblock artists. Instead, they were providing designs for woodblock books (rather than single prints) as a small part of their total work as painters. So your question can be enlarged: do Japanese painters and haiku poets have a similar outlook? I think the answer, in the large, is yes, although the different forms of expression have slightly different aspects. For example, painters are geared to visual interaction with nature, while a haiku poet may have a visual image in one poem, but may emphasize different senses such as sound, aroma, and touch in other poems. But I think their underlying spirit is very similar.

Q. You mention in your book that Matsuo Basho, the ancient haiku master, captured in his poetry, "the meeting between the universal pulse of nature and the intensely human aesthetic perception of a particular time and space." Why was this a breakthrough at the time and how did it change the course of haiku?

A. this was not entirely new to haiku, since Japanese waka poets as well as painters had emphasized this before, but in haiku it becomes the absolute focus of the art. In my view it was Basho who brought this intensity of vision to fruition in his haiku.

Q. How did haiku make poetry accessible to the masses in the early 17th century? And, as a follow-up question, how was a haiku poet's perception of nature different from that entertained by waka poets?

A. There was a general broadening out of culture after the three great Shoguns reunited Japan in the late sixteenth century. After almost a century of civil war, people responded to peace with a great flourishing of the arts, and this extended beyond the nobility and samurai class to everyday people. In painting, for example, there grew up a number of schools to respond to different audiences. Even the fields previously dominated by courtiers, such as waka poetry, now became practiced by people from many different walks of life. The "Three Women of Gion" poets, for example, ran a teahouse in the Gion Park in Kyoto, and added greatly to the waka tradition. So haiku was part of a larger trend, but by its simplicity of form and everyday imagery combined with depth of spirit, it perfectly suited the new interest by larger numbers of the populace to take part in poetic expression.

Q. Why did you choose to compile an anthology of Japanese woodblock prints and haiku about living creatures?

A. That book (A Haiku Menagerie) was the first of our series; in fact, at that time I only envisioned one book. Although at first it was difficult to find a publisher, when finally printed it was successful enough to spawn another, then another, and now a total of four with a fifth now being prepared. But at the time I was struck by the absolutely wonderful images, in both visual and verbal form, that were created by Japanese responding to birds, animals, reptiles, fish, and other living creatures. There was such immediacy and delight in both haiku and woodblock book prints that I thought it would make a marvelous book. Nothing quite like it had been done before; these are not haiga, since the poems and images were not created together. But nevertheless their interaction has proved to reach many people in the western world.

Q. As an artist, scholar, and poet, what is your perception of Buson in regard to his outlook towards haiku and its relationship with nature?

A. Buson to me is the one artist who combined absolute skill as a poet with absolute skill as a painter. Haiga by Basho and Issa, in contrast, have a special quality precisely because they were not painters, but rather expressed their feelings with modesty and simplicity. But Buson could go further, and in his haiga he was able to show his haiku spirit equally in two different but now unified arts--which I greatly admire!

Q. There is a controversy as to what is and isn't haiga. What is your definition of haiga?

A. I don't tend to like rigid definitions, but to me a haiga combines a haiku with an image, or it loses either the "hai" or the "ga." It might have more than one image, or more than one poem, but it should combine the visual with the verbal to qualify for the term. Of course, the image does not have to be a painting-- photography, collage, digital work, and even ceramics and sculpture can be utilized (even though "ga" literally means painting). But there is something very appealing to me about writing the poem with the same implements that create the image--be it rush, pen, pencil, crayon, pastel, or whatever. This creates a unity that I myself usually prefer.

To make the matter of definition more complicated, in Japan a kind of image, very simple and informal, became associated with haiga, so there developed paintings in haiga style without poems. These are not really haiga, I think, but perhaps the phrase "haiga-style" is appropriate here. Conversely, there were occasionally fully detailed and elaborate paintings with haiku that differ in style but still technically qualify as haiga. I suppose the question is whether you base your definition on style, or on the combination of poem and image. I prefer the latter, but perhaps a loose definition is not a bad thing.

Q. Who has been the greatest influence on you as a haiku poet and artist?

A. That's very difficult to say. Since I do a great deal of painting, calligraphy and pottery without poems, and also compose many poems without visual images, the influences are really broad and varied. But in general I came to my work through studying the Japanese masters, so it has been Basho, Buson, Shiro, Socho, Kodojin, and perhaps most strongly Issa, that I have admired for their combinations of haiku and image. For other kinds of poem-paintings, I have been influenced by the literati artist Gyokudo and the Zen Master Hakuin.

Q. What advice can you offer those new to haiku, haiga, and related art forms?

A. Have fun! There's an old Japanese saying that we get good at what we like to do, so the most important thing is simply to do it. Secondly, take time to experiment, try different methods, styles, approaches, and see what feels most interesting rather than most comfortable. Third, I think that one should not judge one's work while creating it, but give it a little time, and then look it over and learn where to go with it. Fourth, I think appreciation of what others have done is very important; creative people run the danger of becoming very self-involved. Finally, it's good to take one's work, but not oneself, seriously.

A composer, musician, poet, painter and Japanese art historian, Stephen Addiss is the recipient of four grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and one from the National Endowment for the Arts.

He has published 36 books or exhibition catalogs, including Old Taoist: The Life, Art and Poetry of Kodojin; The Resonance of the Qin in Far Eastern Art; and The Art of 20th Century Zen.

His paintings, ceramics and calligraphy have been shown internationally in London, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Beijing, as well as throughout the United States. The March/April 2004 issue of Simply Haiku featured some of his ink and brush paintings.

He holds degrees from Harvard University and the University of Michigan and taught for 15 years at the University of Kansas before joining the Department of Art & Art History at the University of Richmond in Virginia where he is the Tucker-Boatwright Professor in the Humanities.

Copyright 2003/2004 Simply Haiku