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RW: Your new "book," Summer Thunder, a CD of haiku, senryu and
tanka, is both an eBook and an audio book utilizing the spoken word, sound
effects and music. How did you decide to do it this way? And the music in
Summer Thunder is hauntingly beautiful. Who composed it and why did you
elect to include music in the book?
AV: Why an eBook and an audio book on a CD? It came about because printing
costs to do a perfect-bound book just using a single color photo I wanted
for its cover were exorbitant.
That being said, quite unexpectedly, this recourse was suggested to me
by Frank Land, who helped with the prep work for my last two books, Pilot and
A Long Year. (Mind you, I knew nothing of eBooks or any of the
rest of what we did!) And now I find this mode of producing my work suits
Far better than just the printed book mode. As an artist, color, graphic
design, visual effects, have always engaged me–just as much as the
crafting of my poetry. And the printed medium that I could afford has always
been very limiting. Trying to achieve handsomely printed books has been
pretty much beyond my pocketbook–but I shoot myself in the foot:
I choose not to relinquish control to others to design my poetry books
Depressed at the thought
of not being able to produce this book as I initially envisioned it, when
was suggested that I could have everything I
wanted in it if I went the eBook route, I perked up at the idea that
I had any
option. The deeper I got into that process, with my highly knowledgeable
technical advisor/director who was willing to explore the new methods
required, the greater my ‘demands’ grew upon him as I saw
possibilities opening out before me. “So why can’t we do
this?” I kept after him . . . “and this?”
We had almost completed
the eBook, but even as that was developing, I added two more photos to
it. It made
no difference in an eBook whether
one photo–that lovely Dwight Hayes cover–or more. So,
I went for two more. Thanks to nepotism, I could have one photographed-to-order
by my daughter, Jennifer Virgil Gurchinoff, who is a photographer.
The resulting “Leaves” came
to be used as the “end-papers” and as the CD label and
for the mailing sticker. “Clouds,” the other photo of
hers that I decided to use, I already had on file.
When the eBook version
was complete, as my technical guide said: it was “underwhelming.” He
was right. It was visually lovely, silent–but over too soon
for a CD! He then suggested we do an audio version, filming, adding
I recoiled at first. And then, tantalized by one aspect of this,
I thought, “But
how wonderful to be able to have just a thread of music with it
. . . ” So, I promptly
set out and spent the whole night and hours more, listening to music,
passages that might fit in with my words and we never used any of
As we proceeded designing
the “package” I
realized I did not really know what a CD looked like. What it contained.
I rarely play them.
At a thrift store, I picked up an attractive used CD. To study.
And then, in an off-hand manner, curious as to what it contained, we played
of it. That is when I heard the opening notes of what I ultimately
selected for Summer Thunder: "Always There," by the contemporary composer-musician
Spencer Brewer. “I could live with that,” I told Mr. Land who
was not at all inclined to even listen to my picks from Ravel’s Quartet
in F! Or for any of the other snippets of early English music I’d
When I finally heard
the whole selection, it perfectly captured the mood–even
the simple underlying rhythm of some of my poems, of this book. Never mind
my frugal “thread of music”! “Can’t we have more
music?” I whined. (This works sometimes!) And I got it.
The same chance occurrence characterized what happened with
my cover photo. I came upon it in a recent local Virginia
gave me. Again, serendipity! My middle name.
As for reading my poems,
that was not my idea: Neither were the sound effects. And the idea for
reader of that part of the audio book was another last-minute decision.
A good friend–I’ve known him most of my life–now
lives nearby. He came right over and recorded for us.)
But, no matter the divergences
of opinion in the production of this CD, ultimately, everything that was
finally utilized pleased me.
Far more than any other “book” for it allowed
me to stretch my wings and incorporate all I love that could
make a work new and
different, fresh and beautiful.
It took the efforts and cooperation of several talented
and kind people to pull this off and I am grateful to each
and every one of them.
and offline in printed journals, there is a lot of talk about
and what isn’t English haiku. Is it a different
AV: I have
a confession to make. I read copious amounts on the subject
as I first
became involved with American
haiku: books on Japanese culture and
history, all the R. H. Blyth books, Harold G. Henderson’s An
Introduction to Haiku, Haiku in English, G. B. Sansom, Asataro Miyamori, a biography
of Yukio Mishima and a novel or two of his, The Art
of Tea by Okakura, Thousand
Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata, Alan Watts, Kenneth Yasuda,
Makoto Ueda, Donald Keene on Japanese literature, Earl Miner,
Ruth Benedict’s The
Chrysanthemum and the Sword, even a book by Edwin O.
Reischauer, our former ambassador to Japan. And more. I
also regularly devoured all the articles and the current
poems appearing in the English-language haiku magazines
of the late 1960s
and early 1970s as I tried to get a handle on what this ‘art’ was
about in order to write it.
As a basis
for writing my poems, I sought what I felt were the best
poems by the
Japanese through the centuries. I
was never, however, attracted by the many sentimental poems
that dotted their anthologies. The names of the poets were
of no particular importance to me at the outset.
I certainly paid no heed to what I noticed being reiterated
about syllable count in
English. A look at most of the poetry that notion produced
was enough of a cautionary note. I was only seeking what
I considered to be exemplary poems that moved me–and
there were so many in this brand-new-to-me poetic genre!
the poems I read by what were called “the masters” appealed
to me. I was truly a stranger in a strange land. (Though I did, admittedly,
from my high school days at Music & Art in New York City, have a familiarity
with and love of the Japanese woodblock prints which were such an influence
on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists. Even back then, my own
spare drawings were described by my art teachers as “very Oriental.” But
that was no more than an innate affinity.)
beginning, Henderson’s An Introduction to
City, New York. Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1958] showed me a path
I would follow.
I promptly ignored most of his finished, titled and rhyming poems
in the body of his text, favoring instead his rough translations
at the bottom
of each page. They were what he worked from. And there was what
I called poetry: terse, direct, powerful. Nothing extraneous. Stripped
still infinitely capable of moving me emotionally. This is what
I would strive to do.
My own first book, A 2nd Flake,
came out in March of 1974 [self-published, Montclair]. Of
it, Henderson said
: “This is what I hoped for–not
only haiku but also offshoots of haiku, poems inspired by
haiku, the makings of a new, vital, American development.” [Personal
correspondence: HGH to Anita Virgil, spring 1974.] Poems from
it are still being anthologized
as recently as this year. In A 2nd Flake I never
felt the least constrained to follow any set patterns regarding
format. So who can say in what regard
my work was or is now a “different entity” from
the Japanese haiku and senryu, from their haibun and tanka?
And does that really matter?
It all is inspired by and derives directly from nowhere
but the fine examples set by the work of the Japanese poets.
And as I move on into newer regions,
I suppose I’d have to say it is a development from
this initial inspiration.
My early “concrete” poems
in A 2nd Flake,
written initially as haiku, I then kicked up a notch by the
use of graphics in order to achieve
greater dimension via a visual treatment of them. I did
this (and continue to do this on rare occasions when a poem
lends itself to such treatment)
out of a reaction to a Buson poem in which he employed a
rebus to depict Mount Fuji! That delighted my artist’s
self. (For the curious among you, see it in R. H. Blyth, Haiku,
Eastern Culture, Vol. 1, p. 98.) So I
ran with it: among other things, I did a chicken foot, an
implied open doorway--a 1-inch vertical bleed strip printed
down the page-- through which the
reader could peer top to bottom at “rainsrainingand” and
turning [typographically] into “rainssnownow” followed
by a series of asterisk snowflakes. And I did a sequence
of poems on spring called “Lamb
Stew” in which, as I was adding peas to the pot, I
literally scattered the word “peas” in many
typefaces across two pages–just as would happen when
popping open a pod with your thumbnail! English-language
haiku or simply an example
adaptation of the Japanese art? I would say the latter.
the “talk about what is and what isn’t
English haiku in online and offline journals.” As I said,
I read a whole lot through the years as background material.
And as the haiku magazines my work was in kept piling
up, so did the talk about what is and what isn’t English
haiku. Ad nauseum. I read esoteric-sounding “Speculations” up
the wazoo, I read perorations, I attended Haiku Society
of America meetings where I had to listen to orations that
made me squirm–until
I decided this was an activity I had no wish stay close
to. These “authorities” were
more like a bunch of tigers chasing their tails, round and
round. Yet there are still practitioners who have parlayed
into a veritable
career! More importantly, I have noticed that they are rarely
capable of writing anything I admire as fine poetry!
Emily Dickinson had a poem touching on some of this:
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
[Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, The Modern Library,
Random House, New York,
is the point at which I definitely veer away from the Japanese
for “authority.” And rules. Which, interestingly enough, the
Japanese seem to conveniently forget they do change! This is how they, too,
have created new Japanese schools of thought through the ages. The unique
quality of The Four Pillars of Haiku stems from the fact that each of them
eventually went in more personal directions from what was the accepted “tradition” of
their day. They pushed the envelope. Once they had done so successfully,
others adhered to their paths and became “followers.” Funny
when you think about it, but true! I would point out that there
has never been an advance in any art (or anything else) that was not generated by the reshaping
or outright discarding of outdated or no-longer-functional “rules.”
end of 1974 I was basically “outta there!” “Online
and offline,” for the most part, I really pay no attention to. I live.
When I feel I have something new to say, I will write it down and save it.
Sometimes, enough good stuff comes into being and I put out a book of my
poetry. Only when I get good and mad about something–about as often
as Mount St. Helens blows–do I surface and stick my two cents back
in and holler “Foul!” Otherwise, I feel it incumbent upon anyone
who can write and reach the hearts of readers with good poetry–and
good sense–to do just that.
RW: Wherein does the Japanese haiku differ from English
AV: I think
the answer lies more in the way in which their poetry comes
being than in some of their final products. Its well-spring?
Because this poetry is such an integral
part of Japanese cultural activity, not only the attitudes
of the Japanese as a people
need to be recognized as inherently different from “The West,” but
their very lifestyle, firmly rooted as it is in ancient
traditions, dictates an unwillingness to countenance change
to their art. To their way of doing things. “The nail that sticks up will be hammered
down” is a well-known Japanese saying.
in a densely populated country of limited land mass is pretty
much a necessity to keep order, to keep things
Without a continent of their own as America has, the Japanese
have learned to create the illusion of space out of tiny
spaces. And they do it magnificently. Truly poles apart
from what I am familiar with! I retain (and therefore bring
to my poetry) that American
streak of independence, a willingness to explore new things,
new ideas, the comfort with large spaces and with the unknown,
the ease (most of
the time) with
which a multiplicity of ethnic peoples move amongst one
another, live together, exchange, blend or maintain divergent
heritages and histories--and
live in diverse lands. It makes us sprawlers. Mixers. We
are not able to be locked in by a commonality of seasons.
all “new-comers” here,
many-colored, more open with our feelings and with expressing them. Far
less restrained in social situations. As for homogeneity, we have none!
But the Japanese, as an ancient island people, are basically “on the
same page”– they share a similar culture whose
mores are familiar to all, whose allusions in their poetry
by all; they have
a common history. There is great security in all this.
it possible that people so different outwardly (as Americans
others who choose to write this poetry)
can be so “together” in
sharing affection and respect and a fascination with these tiny Japanese
poems? Because no matter where on earth we live, we are all pretty similar
in our response to the world around us and to the creatures and flora that
coexist in it. We all experience the same basic human feelings; we behave,
react, by and large, in similar ways, recognize–each in our own way–sorrow,
pain, loneliness, joy, suffering, humor, beauty, respect for that
which endures, love of home, seasons, friendship. In a word, we
This is our link. This is why the tiny haiku [and its related genres]
have come to charm and intrigue people all over the world now. I
could see in
the Japanese haiku parallels to my own experiences of nature, of
everyday life. Their universal quality. That the haiku carefully
selects these ‘small things’ to elevate into poetry was the major delight for me. I, too,
back in 1968 wrote with amazement when I realized one lazy bee-watching
summer day that “There are even/ very small flowers /for very small
bees!” That was before I’d ever heard of haiku.
It was accepted for publication in Haiku
Highlights [Jean Calkins,
editor, Kanona, New York], a magazine I sent it to because
it accepted ‘poems of eight
lines and under.’ And I was inclined to write very
I say the Japanese write from a slightly different place,
way in which they approach their poems differs
from the way in which I approach
mine, I refer to their acceptance of writing with underlying
rules and requirements of composition, to stringencies of
season words or phrases, and so on. None
of which was evident to me as I read through the translations
of Japanese poetry in R. H. Blyth’s six volumes on haiku–and much later
his works on senryu–I read strictly for the power
and beauty of the images and the feelings they evoked. I
as I set out to plumb my experiences for like poetic moments,
true to my life and times. Later on I became aware of the
use of astounding juxtapositions
of images which evoked another kind of experience altogether!
And then, of course, well-saturated with the poems of the
Japanese, I began to pay attention to all the discussions
that accompanied the poetry.
Much fascinating commentary, much contradictory commentary, much
information on Japanese life and customs that led me to
more reading. Still,
it felt comfortable enough to me to continue on and write
in this vein. And in
my very American and independent, nail-sticking-up mindset,
I ignored what
I felt did not really matter relative to what poems I admired
and why I admired them:
The sea darkens; the voices of the
white. . . [Basho, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku,Vol. 4, Autumn-Winter
Press, 1952), p. 339].
The razor, rusting in a single night . . . [Boncho,
in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido,
The spring sea:
all day long undulating undulating . . . [Buson, in Harold G.
Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (Garden City,
New York, Doubleday & Company,
Inc., 1958), p.97].
Lighting one candle with another candle, an
evening of spring . . . [Buson, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 2, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido, 1959), p. 55].
Skylarks are soaring, treading the clouds, breathing the haze . . .
[Shiki, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 2, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido,
The spring day closes,
lingering where there
is water . . . [Issa, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 2, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido, 1959), p. 38].
The turnip-puller points the way with a turnip . . . [Issa, in
R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol 4, Autumn-Winter (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952),p.348].
Alone in the editorial
department; summer rain falling . . . [Shiki, in R. H. Blyth,
Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p. 63].
Even to the saucepan where potatoes are boiling, a moonlit night
. . . [Kyoroku, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 1, Eastern Culture (Japan, Hokuseido,1949), p. 322].
Morning twilight; in their basket, the cormorants asleep,
. . [Shiki,in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido,
The moon has sunk below the horizon: all that
four corners of
a table . . . [Basho, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol.3, Summer-Autumn
Hokuseido, 1952), p. 404].
A basket of grass and
no one there–mountains
of spring . . . [Shiki, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 2, Spring (Japan,
The dawn of day; on the tip of the barley leaf the frost of spring
. . . [Onitsura, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido,
1950), p. 70].
Plates and bowls faintly through the twilight, in the evening
cool . . . [Basho, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, (Japan, Hokuseido,
There is no
trace of him who entered the summer grove . . . [Shiki, in R.
H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p. 266].
The coolness; through the
window of the stone lantern the sea . . . [Shiki, in R. H. Blyth,
Haiku , Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p.
On and on I read. Who thought about syllables versus onji, or
kigo, sabi, wabi, shiori,
yugen, yojo? None of that esoteric insider-information altered
the instant effect of these poems on me one iota. My God, this
is what I wanted
Yes, there will be many
Japanese haiku to which I do not respond. Those would generally (but not
be ones that focus on
or those closely linked with calendar-generated occurrences tied
to their customs. This narrows their appeal to ‘outsiders.’ And
certainly, those quantities of Japanese haiku that replicate–almost
verbatim–poems that were
written by others. I found that most irritating. And plagiaristic!
I viewed them as an impoverishment of creativity, originality–until
I learned about the way this work evolved: out of a tradition
of emulating the master poets’ work!
They were tributes, not rip-offs. (Go explain that to an indignant
hothead like myself when I first banged up against them. As president
of the Haiku Society
of America, I planned my June 1973 meeting around this very topic
Influence, Variation on a Theme, or Rip-offs?” And was
I surprised at how mistaken I’d been.) So here we are presented
with a definite cultural difference. Once I understood it, though,
I could accept it. But even so, it was not something
I chose to emulate–unless by way of senryu for the purposes
of satire, or when extracting from prose a phrase that makes
a “found poem.” In
each of these cases, the writer is bringing a new angle to that
same material. Shades of a ‘fair use’ standard in
There is a common denominator
to the best poetry culled from the main body of Japanese
haiku and its related genres which
is lasting in its impact. It is as true today as when it was
written. Its ‘colors’ may
occasionally differ from the American (or English or foreign
language adaptations) but that merely adds a touch of charm.
However, the underlying commonality of
most subject matter and the unique treatment of human experience
in Japanese haiku and senryu and in its foreign adaptations–when
you take only the excellent poems–is identical to my mind.
They set the standards by which I write.
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