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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1


Interview ~ Anita Virgil
                   by Robert D. Wilson                                                              [ printer-friendly version

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 me perfectly. 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 for me.

Depressed at the thought of not being able to produce this book as I initially envisioned it, when it 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 I used 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 sound, etc. 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, selecting passages that might fit in with my words and we never used any of it.

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 fragments 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 chosen.

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 magazine someone 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 including the Introduction was also Mr. Land’s. (The 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.

RW: Online and offline in printed journals, there is a lot of talk about what is and what isn’t English haiku. Is it a different entity?

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!

Not all 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.)

At the beginning, Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku [Garden 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 down. Yet 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 of cross-cultural adaptation of the Japanese art? I would say the latter.

Now to 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 this preoccupation 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,

So this is the point at which I definitely veer away from the Japanese reverence 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.”

By the 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 haiku?

AV: I think the answer lies more in the way in which their poetry comes into 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.

Conformity in a densely populated country of limited land mass is pretty much a necessity to keep order, to keep things working smoothly. 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. We are primarily 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 are understood by all; they have a common history. There is great security in all this.

How is it possible that people so different outwardly (as Americans and all 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 can empathize. 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 small poems.

So when I say the Japanese write from a slightly different place, that the 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 functioned empirically 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 wild ducks are faintly white. . . [Basho, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku,Vol. 4, Autumn-Winter (Japan, Hokuseido Press, 1952), p. 339].

The razor, rusting in a single night . . . [Boncho, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p.59].

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, 1950), p.203].

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, exhausted . . . [Shiki,in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p.146].

The moon has sunk below the horizon: all that remains, the four corners of a table . . . [Basho, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol.3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, 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, Hokuseido,1950), p.132].

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, 1952), p.125.]

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. 15].

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 was pure poetry! This is what I wanted to write.

Yes, there will be many Japanese haiku to which I do not respond. Those would generally (but not always) be ones that focus on uniquely Japanese holidays, 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 of “Imitation, 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 copyright law.

There is a common denominator to the best poetry culled from the main body of Japanese haiku and its related genres which provides its universal appeal: It 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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