Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6

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INTERVIEW: Richard Krawiec by Robert Wilson

Q. Richard, you work closely with those who have lived hard lives. Homeless people, those in prison, migrant farm workers, etc. What drew you into this kind of work and how does it affect the haiku you write?

A. I grew up one street over from the projects in Brockton, MA. The people on our street, primarily first generation immigrants — Russian, Polish, Irish, Dutch, Italian, Lithuanian - weren’t upwardly mobile. They were trying not to fall back into poverty.

Many of my friends lived in the projects. So I grew up hanging around with people who were primarily excluded from society. When I began to write, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I found myself telling the stories of those who were ‘voiceless’.

Even though I went to college, earned a Masters degree, I always felt more comfortable around working class people than suburbanites. I think I began working with those excluded from society because I recognized the value of their stories, and wanted to see their voices out in the public; I also felt more comfortable sitting around a table in a homeless shelter than at a cocktail party at a University Professor’s home.

It affected my haiku writing in this way, perhaps — even from an early age I learned to look outward for my material. It’s hard to write haiku if you’re narcissistic.

Q. I am moved by your haiku:..... through the blinds---stacked rows of white sky. I understand that it was written during an outdoor class on haiku taught for women in prison. What inspired this haiku?

A. Actually, what inspired this was sitting in a classroom with the women prior to going outside. Knowing these women would be returning to prison after our class, I naturally found ‘symbolism’ in common objects. The Venetian blinds, of course, are a type of vertical bars. As I stared at the blinds, barely slitted, I noticed the white sky like a series of stacked lines. I tried, in subtle ways, to connect this image with the theme of prison by limiting the images. There’s ‘blinds’ and all it connotes, both lack of ability to see, a barrier, something that keeps the light out, and the stacked lines which I changed to ‘rows’ because it reminded me of both prison line-ups and the rows of bunks in a prison. I don’t know if anyone else will get it, but I see an irony in the stacked rows here being the white sky, which in a metaphorical way is impossible for people in prison to embrace. It’s there but it’s not, a tease of freedom.

Q. You usually start off your day writing haiku, saying it is a way to connect with the day. How does the writing of haiku help you to connect with your day?

A. Short story writer Raymond Carver once said that he begins his day by writing. “That way no matter what else goes wrong, you’ve done that.” My sentiments are similar. What makes writing haiku first thing in the morning important for me is that it forces me to get out of my interior world. It’s so easy to become preoccupied these days; personal problems, information overload, etc., etc. Beginning the day by looking outward, seeing what’s there, what the world is really like each particular morning is essential for my mental health. It’s like when you have children. Through watching your children, when they’re young, discover the world you relearn how to look at the world with a fresh eye. Writing a haiku to begin the day is like taking a walk with a toddler, slowing down and learning to pay attention all over again.

Q. You are the author of a Pulitzer Prize nominated novel (Faith is What?). That is a big jump from writing haiku. Are the writing processes interrelated?

A. The writing processes for prose and poetry are totally different. I’ve been in a poetry group for over 12 years (Lenard Moore, by the way, is a member of that group) and, although I’d been writing poetry all my life, I didn’t really learn how to ‘rewrite’ poetry until I’d been in the group for 6 years. Even then, it wasn’t because of what someone said, or showed me — somehow I arrived at an intuitive understanding of what was necessary.

Writing a novel is like building a house, with the difference being that you can replace bricks, walls, entire rooms if you don’t like the way it came out the first time around.

Writing a poem is more like making bread. You have to be much more precise about your initial ingredients, because, it’s very difficult to change once you’ve started mixing things together. If the core material for your poem is flawed, you probably can’t salvage the loaf — you’ll have to throw the entire thing out. Now, you might find this ball of dough isn’t really bread, it’s more suited to a coffee cake, or a cinnamon roll. You can make those sorts of changes. But you can’t turn it into, say, a stir fry.

Prose you can hack around with a hammer. In revising poetry you need small precision tools.

In haiku in particular, I find the revision a concentrated, delicate process. I still think haiku is an extremely underrated form of poetry. Even famous poets who write haiku, often their work seems casual, dashed-off, as if they don’t really respect—or understand— the form. Because it’s such a concentrated poem, a haiku needs more consideration before it’s put to the page. It needs a great deal of mental revision.

In a novel, you can put anything down, because you’re going to have tens of thousands of words and plenty of time to change them. The process is one of moving a story forward, then refining the structure.

In a haiku, which is only a palmful of words, you need to get most of the words right before you put them to paper. Then it’s a matter of shaping, pinching, gentling, forming, adding a dash of nutmeg, or a simple glaze.

Q. A follow up question. What attracted you to haiku?

A.. Like most people, I was attracted initially to haiku because it was short, and seemed like something that would be easy to accomplish. Because of its length, it was fun. Honestly, too, in school they taught the 5-7-5 form and so I felt the same joy in putting together a haiku as I felt in putting together a puzzle. Mistakenly I thought, as most kids do, it didn’t matter what words you put down as long as you got the syllable count right. I stuck with the form because I realized it was very challenging. It is really hard to make a poem work in such a short space. There’s this paradox — simple images, complex meaning. The insight into life you get from a good haiku is different from the insight you get from a poem that takes you on a short journey. In a way, a haiku often works like the moment of epiphany in a short story. But unlike in a story, or even a poem, where you build up, a larger context, within which the epiphany exists, a haiku is a pure moment of epiphany. This is it — the world.

Q. Regarding the homeless, you say that "these are people who on a day to day basis are much more connected with what it takes to survive. They have sharpened observation of how the world works." Observation is one of the key ingredients to writing good haiku. How are they as students in some of your haiku classes?

A. Not just the homeless, but those in prison, those with low literacy skills, those who are surviving on the margins — they have to pay real close attention to the world in order to survive. For that reason, the concept of close observation comes naturally to them. Also, rarely do I encounter anyone who has written poetry before — although I did meet one man in a shelter who’d once taken a workshop with Neruda in Cuba. Because they come with no prior expectations, they listen, and they’re willing to take risks with their writing.

Q. You have taught poetry workshops in the public school system for students in grades 3 through 5. You made the observation that "children seem to process information differently than they once did." How is this so? How did you facilitate your students into writing haiku.

A. Sven Birketts, among others, has written some about this, but for the most part nobody wants to discuss the drastic change that is taking place in the way children are learning to process and access information. Technologies alter the way people see the world. In an oral culture, people see the world as a series of stories. In print culture, sentences. In our new culture, which Birketts calls ‘electronic post-modernity' — people see the world as a series of random, discrete, bits of data.

There is a crisis in the way children, raised on video games, play stations, TV can no longer think. They cannot sustain any line of inquiry, they cannot focus and concentrate on a problem, they can no longer marshal intellectual energy to approach a problem. Think of how a video game operates — if you get stuck you use a cheat, or start over. Increasingly, this is the process children are using to ‘problem-solve’. Cheat, or start over, but don’t put any effort in trying to think things through.

I approach haiku as poetry first. Even with 3rd graders we discuss images, line, music, rhythm, compression of language and meaning. I put Basho on the board and compare his work with ‘roses are red, violets are blue… ” and we talk about which one is a poem, using the criteria we are looking at. Then one at a time we look at a number of haiku and discuss what makes a haiku a haiku. Then we do what haiku poets do — we take 3 by 5 cards and walk outside and use our five senses to observe the world. I call this ‘collecting images.’

From there, we return to the classroom and start by taking their images and asking questions that will allow the writer to refine that image. For example, if their image was “a rock”, we might ask, Where was the rock? What did it look like? Was anything near it? Why was it interesting to you? They learn to observe first, refine those observations, and finally choose other images to compare or contrast that they can put together in a 3 line poem.

Q. You said recently, "As I get older and feel time is running out, I want to spend it creating poems." Why poetry?

A. Why do I like licorice? It’s the same unanswerable question, in a way. I just do. But there are reasons.

I still write other stuff — in fact, I’m working on a novel, and a memoir of sorts. Earlier in my life, if I were writing fiction I couldn’t write poetry, and vice versa. That’s no longer the case. I feel comfortable moving between the forms, and I think that’s just because I’ve matured a bit, and understand the needs of each form better.

If I had to guess ‘why poetry’ I might come up with something like this. Sometime after your forties you begin to understand a few things about life, and you want to share those understandings. Even if what you understand is how little you understand. Poetry is the perfect form for focusing your attention in ways that allow you to discover/present what you witness in the world. When I write haiku I am constantly confronted, when the work is going well, with a series of ‘Ah-ha’s. It’s like what I was talking about earlier, about epiphanies. I write a poem and think Ah-ha, that’s what I see/feel/know. It’s a way to the interior. A self-discovery that looks outward, connects with the universe. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true.

Q. What poet has had the greatest influence on you in the writing of haiku, and why?

A. You know, I keep going back to The Essential Haiku edited by Robert Hass, featuring the work of Basho, Buson, and Issa. Obviously, Basho is impeccable, although I think my work stylistically is closer to Buson. But my dirty little secret is I really like Issa — his voice comes through so clearly, this funny, grumpy, crotchety, wise man. It’s amazing to think the same poet wrote:

..... Insects on a bough
.....floating downriver
.....still singing

as well as:

.....A bath when you’re born
.....a bath when you die stupid

But in some ways, the poet who has had the greatest influence on my writing haiku is not a haiku poet. It’s Denis Johnson because of his startling use of images, his stunning language, his willingness to push his work to the limit, to excess even, to the point where it may not work but it attempts to break the boundaries of language and discover new meaning. I guess what he’s taught me is precision, and ambition. Don’t settle for the easy poem. Even in a simple form like haiku, a form that is relatively quiet, you still need to try to make choices that extend you and your work and challenge your reader.

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. I’m in the process of editing an anthology called "Taboo Haiku." I’m fortunate to have some superb Associate Editors working with me on this. Here’s the web address, if anyone’s interested in submitting.

I first got the idea for it a year or so ago when my youngest son, who is 11 now (and has written some good haiku himself) said his favorite haiku was Issa’s:

.....Pissing in the snow
.....outside my door makes a very straight hole

Being 10 at the time, he proceeded to look through the book and find every poem that had a ‘naughty’ word in it. That made me realize that haiku with language, haiku about sex, haiku about bodily functions — there seemed to be a whole series of ‘taboos’ that people didn’t write haiku about, or, if they did, rarely found publication space. So after months of hectoring and pleading I finally talked a small publisher in NC into taking a chance on publishing an anthology called "Taboo Haiku." He's now become very excited about the project. I’m excited about the prospect of putting out a first rate book featuring the finest English-language haiku from around the globe on taboo subjects. Interestingly, after I started the project I found an essay by Robert Gibson at WHC that discussed this very topic. I’m hoping this does well and convinces this publisher that haiku can be a viable publication choice. If so, then I will feel glad that I opened up another publishing venue for books on haiku. Maybe he’ll be willing to publish other haiku books in the future.

Richard Krawiec has won Creative Writing Fellowships from the NEA, NC Arts Council (twice) and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In addition to haiku, he publishes poetry, essays, and stories in literary magazines around the globe. He has published two novels, Time Sharing (Viking Penguin) and Faith in What? (Avisson Press) and a collection of short stories, And Fools of God. He's also written plays for adults and children that have been produced on stage, and has co-authored a screenplay for an independent film. He directs a non-profit, VOICES. He's taught writing to people in homeless shelters, literacy classes, prisons, etc. He teaches haiku a lot to children in school and to women in prison.

Krawiec says: "I've had a strange haiku 'career' in that I published some haiku 2-3 decades ago (honestly, I don't remember where), continued writing haiku as well as lots of other creative stuff, then returned to focusing primarily on poetry a decade ago, in particular haiku. Unlike most writers, I don't spend a lot of time submitting my poems (or stories for that matter) - I have a lot of publication credits, frankly, so I don't feel a driving need to 'get published'; I would rather spend my time writing. I have about 500 finished haiku I've written in the last couple years that I'll send out when I get around to it. I know that probably sounds strange, but I guess as I get older and feel time running out I want to spend it creating poems.