by Robert Wilson
RW: Since 1979, you have worked as a psychotherapist with combat
and non-combat veterans. Many of the combat veterans served in Vietnam.
In 1984, you wrote a chapbook published by Brooks Books entitled On
Sacred Mountain. It is a small collection of haiku that gives readers a glimpse
of the war and how it affected the soldiers who fought in it. Why did you
write this chapbook? And why the use of haiku?
ET: First I want to thank you for the honor of appearing in Simply
Haiku and for your own service to veterans and all of us in your own writing
about Viet Nam and in offering this interview.
On Sacred Mountain was my second chapbook with Brooks Books, following
The Dawn That Bleeds in 1980. It was published five years after I began
with Viet Nam veterans.
I began veteran psychotherapy
work in 1979, before Post-traumatic Stress Disorder was even recognized
as a psychological diagnostic category. That
first five years of doing psychotherapy with veterans was my own initiation
into the hell that is war. Even though I wasn’t under fire and my
life wasn’t threatened, the imagery of war is so painful, arresting,
disturbing, violent and volatile that is takes on a life of its own. It
becomes “like a black crab feeding,” vet Gustav Hasford wrote
in his war novel The Short Timers, eating its way into the heart and soul,
infecting the mind. The concept of “secondary trauma” due
to overexposure of family, friends and caregivers is now recognized in
mental health field.
I wrote On Sacred Mountain, my first little collection of war haiku, as
a way to help cleanse myself of the war imagery that was accumulating
in my own psyche and causing me, as well as my veteran clients, so much
Equally important, I wrote it as a form of witness. James Hillman recently
wrote in A Terrible Love of War, “because the dead are speechless
and the veterans don’t talk . . . ” Through my work with veterans,
I was initiated into the true nature of war. Like poets of old who accompanied
warriors but did not fight themselves, it became my obligation, calling
and duty to witness the truth of war, to speak for the dead and the veterans
who could not, to bring the truth about war and its effects back to the
Why haiku? There are many reasons that you employ in your fine book Vietnam
Ruminations. As a poetic form, it is uncanny that haiku appears in key
ways to be similar to the experience of war itself. Both the haiku and the
experience present as spontaneous, fragmentary, non-conceptual, imagistic
and immediate. Both cut into the psyche through the impact of their imagery.
Neither gives us time to breathe or recover. We are hit or not.
RW: As a follow-up
question, Professor Ikuyo Yoshimura of Japan once stated, "Haiku
is fundamentally nature poetry and war is fundamentally the destruction
of nature." War and haiku are polar opposites. Why then a book of
haiku about a war that took thousands of lives and ravaged a country?
ET: War poetry has been written since archaic times. Sometimes it celebrated
the warrior spirit, but often it recorded history and helped survivors
and the culture witness and heal. Further, the Japanese tradition that gave
us haiku also gave us samurai warriors who were required to master an
form such as poetry or painting. Some samurais were haiku masters. Haiku
helped provide warriors with balance, grounding, discipline, beauty and
the restoration of form.
If haiku is a form of nature poetry, we must include human nature as part
of nature. More specifically, since haiku explores the human encounter
with raw nature, war haiku explores the destructive dimensions of this encounter
in several simultaneous ways. It exposes the darkest dimensions of our
nature. It offers painful examples of what we do to nature. And it poetically
replicates a war-like experience for the reader.
Haiku is a small, beautiful, and highly organized form (even in its free
styles) that helps us reconstitute the world and aids us in organizing
and preserving experience. War does the opposite. So I created haiku from
of the most painful stories I heard. For example:
Fire leaps from a tree
the only safe place to hide
behind a body
This helped contain
and organize an experience that, by its nature, destroys containment and
Robert Cagle was a combat infantryman who
has twice traveled back to Viet Nam with me. He says that “writing
poetry provides a place for me to begin stitching my Soul back together.
Each poem is a piece of my Soul.” After our last journey to Viet
Nam, Bob wrote:
Ox hooves on the street –
VC mortars in the night –
thudding then, thudding now
Like all poetry and
like nature itself, haiku is ultimately creative and life affirming. That
reason haiku can be an effective vehicle
for expressing war’s lessons. In our devotion to healing, haiku can
help us to psychically and imagistically reconstitute those fragments of
world, mind, and soul that were severed by war and violence. In Bob’s
haiku, the peaceful sound of ox hooves makes him spontaneously recall
the terrifying sound of Viet Cong patrols transporting their mortars by
through the jungle at night. In his poetic resolution he realizes the
similarity but does not return to a combat consciousness. He is reconstituting
that was shattered. During war, mortars destroyed oxen and men. Now the
ox now surrounds and contains the mortars. Life over death. Thus, by writing
haiku, we can literally reorganize our war-fragmented minds.
RW: As a non-veteran, what do you use as your source material when writing
haiku? Usually people write from their own experience. You are writing
haiku about the experiences of others. Are you breaking new ground?
ET: By faithfully writing
about veterans’ experiences from within,
I am practicing
Basho’s teachings. His principles are worth careful study both for
the writing of poetry and the practice of the healing arts. The master of
haiku taught, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine,
or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.” I go to
veterans and other war survivors to learn of war from those who experienced
Basho taught, “. . . you must leave your subjective preoccupation
with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.” As
both therapist and poet, I strive to see and feel the sufferer’s
experience from within. I strive not to impose any psychological or intellectual
on it first, which most of us do when confronting war and violence in
order to protect ourselves from overwhelming pain.
Basho again: “Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the
subject have become one…” I use maximum respect, compassion,
intuition, imagination, nonjudgmental listening. I believe the dictum of
the Roman playwright Terence: “
nothing human alien to me.” God knows what any of us would do in
response to the horror of modern combat! Rather than judge, conceptualize
I seek oneness with the inner world of my therapy patients. When I relate
war stories, the raw material is sometimes the experiences of my patients.
But only after I have internalized, identified and relived these experiences,
albeit in physical safety, until I reach their inner luminosity, as Basho
might say, and they in some sense become my own.
We cannot understand
the horror and pain of war unless we have, in some sense, lived it in
this deep way.
I feel honored that many veterans have
said that I am a rare civilian who “gets it.” One combat medic
said that this was his only proof that a bridge between the veteran and
civilian worlds was possible. Without that bridge, no homecoming, no healing,
Is this breaking new ground? The ultimate question I ask is whether the
haiku or healing is truthful, beautiful and an act of peacemaking -- principles
Basho, Issa, and others who combined the poet-priest roles, would advise.
Poetry therapy is a
recognized field, so encouraging people to write for their healing is
practice. Writing poetry from others’ experiences
in order to help them reorganize what was fragmented in them may be novel.
And only a very few of us write war haiku and it is even debated whether
war is a fit haiku subject. Practicing psychotherapy, poetry-writing and
traveling to the country of war service as a holistic and integrated healing
and peace-making effort is certainly extremely rare but wonderfully effective
and has brought great healing to people on both sides of the ocean.
Further, I do not only
write about our veterans’ war experiences,
but also about the experiences of the Vietnamese people both during and
since the war, and about their culture and mythology. For example, here
is a haiku from my forthcoming collection The Golden Tortoise, to be published
by Red Hen Press next April, on the 30th anniversary of the end of the
war, about the wartime experience of a Viet Cong woman:
Swinging in her hammock
between banana trees
cradling her AK
I make even grander
excursions into new poetic territory when I write in haiku, series, waka,
free verse and English language forms about
Vietnamese mythology, culture and spiritual practices. All these, including
sonnets and epic verse, are represented in Golden Tortoise. To the degree
that we can, through pilgrimage and poetry, achieve interpenetration of
our cultures, we can achieve a “marriage” of former enemies
that promotes both individual and world healing.
In your newest collection of haiku, some of which are included in this
issue, you deal with healing and a better tomorrow.
Where rifles clicked
in new green trees.
Could you expound on this?
ET: Too often, in the mind of a war-traumatized veteran or civilian, the rifles
still click. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a consciousness
frozen in war. Further, the Viet Nam War (which the Vietnamese call the
American War), was so overwhelmingly destructive that plant and animal
life were destroyed throughout much of the country. In this haiku, every
shows the possibility of transformation and regeneration – rifles
no longer click either in the jungle or the mind and animal and plant
life are both returning. Chameleons click when they sing. It is wonderful
sit with veterans and Vietnamese friends on the banks of the Mekong River
or in a Central Highlands minority village listening to the jungle sounds
and laughing together that those clicks are only lizards and we need fear
no longer. Such experiences and images can replace those frozen into that
war consciousness we call PTSD. With such experiences we literally re-imagine
and reconstruct our own minds that were wounded from war and violence.
We see Viet Nam differently. We know that Viet Nam is no longer at war,
it is healing and forgiving and regenerating. Then we can too! I pray
that these images in haiku form can achieve similar results for suffering
as the actual visits do.
RW: How did your visit to Vietnam this year influence and affect your
ET: In several ways.
Viet Nam is a Buddhist country and its people and their practices, values,
daily lifestyles are all genuinely and profoundly
spiritual, infused with acceptance, compassion and forgiveness. The Vietnamese
have accepted their losses and suffering from the war. Even more, they
and forgive us. They do not blame American GIs or civilians. They do not
have the rage or mistrust or vengefulness that so many Americans have
and that often characterizes PTSD. So Viet Nam’s most significant
influence is spiritual. Through sincere spiritual work, belief, and practices,
really do have the possibility of healing individuals, cultures, and the
journey I make to Viet Nam provides more new imagery and experience. I
meet new people and see new places as well as
return to old ones. The poem in this issue, “Long-Haired Warrior,” tells
the story of Mrs. Thien, whom I met for the first time on this recent journey.
In traveling, healing and writing, the deeper we penetrate and immerse in
other people and cultures, the deeper the possibilities for healing. In
this sense, each journey deepens and no experience is repeated. And, I hope,
the haiku that result have an increasingly deeper level of spiritual resonance.
I am asking deeper questions about the possibilities of healing through
spirituality. Perhaps I am receiving deeper answers and Viet Nam is helping
point the way. To illustrate this possibility, I offer this waka from my
most recent trip. I wrote it after leading a veterans’ healing circle
in the Thien Mu Pagoda outside Hue, the home pagoda of both Thich Quang
Duc whom we remember for burning himself in protest, and the great peace
activist Thich Nhat Hanh.
tell me how you smile and laugh
while your children fry?”
at play greet you.
Warblers in my Bo tree sing.”
RW: Do you share your haiku about Vietnam with the patients you treat?
ET: Yes, I share them with both veterans who travel with me and vets at
home. Of course, veterans have to be ready to receive them and I make
sure of that first. I never impose haiku or any other strategy on someone
a healing process. Some veterans are still too angry or alienated to form
a new relationship to a former enemy or their own past. But many veterans
are anxious to know that Viet Nam is healing and does not now look like
it did when they left the combat zone. Haiku helps paint this new picture
and replace imagery.
Some veterans who work
with me take up the writing of haiku themselves as an act of healing.
Robert Cagle says, “The writing of
poetry has enabled me to look at situations that existed, especially during
the war, and remember them, and put them into perspective. The ghosts
that haunted me for 36 years have become a better part of me, not rulers
I write to heal myself, to remember moments, smells, feelings, pictures
in my mind that must be laid out and stitched together into the fabric
of what is my Soul. This healing becomes tangible because it is on a piece
of paper. . .”
Another veteran, Beth
Marie Murphy, was a nurse on a hospital ship who spent every day of her
of duty tending our soldiers and Vietnamese
all suffering from the worst wounds modern technology can create. She
also traveled back to Viet Nam with me twice and now goes herself as well.
Marie says, “I find writing haiku helpful to my healing because it
assists me in coming to the essence of the issue and using images that expand
what I am trying to say. When I write prose I can write and write but never
really address the key issue. The format of haiku forces me to distill these
elements down to their central meaning and importance. And in doing this
I often see things I have not seen before such as a deeper meaning of an
experience.” Regarding the ongoing tragedy of Agent Orange, Beth
Fields of lush green growth
carpet the brown-scarred earth
and twisted children
And regarding the Vietnamese practice of building empty tombs for their
loved ones missing in action, she wrote:
Windy tombs fill the land,
windy souls float through the countryside
dream-like spirits seeking home
The experiences of
both Bob and Beth Marie with the healing powers in haiku confirm Basho’s statement that “The real capacity of haikai
resides in its capacity to correct and refine the commonplace.” The
correction and refinement is to the psyche and how it carries and processes
its traumatic experiences.
RW: How long have you been writing haiku and what poet or poets have had
the most influence on your poetry?
ET: I have always loved the great haiku masters. I began reading them
as a child. I broadened my study through my young adulthood to include modern
Asian and English language haiku forms and experiments. I began writing
haiku and other poetic forms in my early teens and by age 15 took a vow
that no matter what else I did with my life, I would always write. So
my mid-teens I sensed that haiku was a spiritual practice, one manifestation
of a wonderful spiritual path that could support and guide us through
the life cycle.
In terms of influence,
I must bow before the masters Basho and Issa and the earlier poet-priest
From Basho I learn elegance, selflessness,
the loss of ego and full identification with the other, the careful and
conscious use of “high” and “low” language and
subject matter. And of course he was a master of haibun travel writing.
all his travel sketches at least annually. My new collection The Golden
Tortoise is haibun broadened to include other verse forms and practiced
in the modern world and in service to healing and peacemaking.
From Issa I learned to include myself and the all-too-human, to love all
creatures as my equals, to find joy and affirmation in the tiniest matters,
as you do in Vietnam Ruminations to invite the lizard into my home as
a welcome guest. The Buddhist otherness, serenity, elegance and formality
of Basho along with the loving embrace of self and world of Issa combines,
for me, into one great spiritual effort of loving and compassionate encounter
with our troubled and beautiful world in order to endure and transform
to restore community, and to help us pierce our veils of illusion to seek
moments of enlightenment and truth.
travel, to write, to heal and make peace–these combine into
one integrated and essential activity of the soul for Edward
Born in the Bronx
in 1951, Ed makes his home in Albany, NY, near mountains he and
his wife Kate Dahlstedt love. Ed and Kate have 3 children. All
5 practice poetry and other arts.
holistic healer, poet, writer, educator and journey guide, Ed directs
Sanctuary: A Center for Mentoring the Soul, in Albany,
NY. He also co-directs the Center on Violence and Healing at Sage
College. Every year he leads journeys to both Greece and Viet Nam.
His first complete
haibun collection, The Golden Tortoise: Viet Nam Journeys,
will be published by Red Hen Press in April 2005,
30th anniversary of the end of the Viet Nam War. Ed has spent
25 years studying the war and helping veterans heal and come home.
combines haiku and other poetic forms with travel narrative to
and reconciliation journeys Ed leads in Viet Nam.
Ed is also the
author of The Practice Of Dream Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek
Mysteries Into Modern Medicine (2001) and Sacred
With the Viet Nam Beast (1989). His next book, War
and the Soul,
will be published in Fall, 2005.
2005: Simply Haiku