Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

Healing Haiga
by Mark Smith

It is my strong assertion that art heals. For years, therapists have used the creation and interpretation of art as a means by which people can come to terms with traumatic events. Being no expert in this field I cannot provide numbers in terms of success rates, etc., but I do know this recent haiga collaboration with a former student of mine at Frostburg State University, Sara Otto, helped me to see the value of art as therapy; in particular, the haiga's collaborative process as a catalyst by which people can overcome personal adversity.

The past seven months of my life have been the most trying and pivotal. As a soon-to-be-survivor of divorce, it has not only been the support of family, colleagues, and friends, but also the collaboration on a "word and visual" series that deals directly with thoughts and feelings sparked by this event that led me to realize people can turn to solitude initially as a means to cope, but they cannot fully heal there.

Of course, this assertion goes against the grain of many haiku aesthetics. The great masters—Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki—would certainly argue that life's answers are in the world waiting for us; we only have to quiet ourselves, be perceptive, seek the solace, and record our revelations in three lines. This is a humble and simple explanation of their healing process. I cannot argue against this line of thought, but for me another healing layer was needed, being asked for creation. This was when I came to the conclusion that an impartial visual compliment was needed for my haiku series. I wanted to test several things: (1) my haiku's emotional and imagistic clarity, (2) what an "outsider" oblivious to the event that sparked its creation thought, and (3) ultimately what the "outsider," who would be a visual artist, would ultimately create to complement them.

Sara's perception of my expectations was minimal. The only ground rule set was that I would give her the haiku and there would be no discussion of them in terms of meaning or what I ultimately thought would be their visual compliments. I simply told her to draw what she saw. And being the astute person she is Sara researched the haiga genre. At first, she concluded that in these haiku the "picture was already there; it just needed to materialize." As she studied further and began working on the illustrations, she hit on my struggle and overall intent of expression in this haiga series: "[there's a sort of] transition between the literal and the figurative," the "ancient ruins, once the hub of civilization, now only a resting place for lone travelers."

Along with these insights, Sara's strong spiritual convictions about faith, decency, and redemptive power, not to mention her amazing ability as a visual artist at the college freshman level, made me realize that I had made the right choice in terms of the artist and the haiga's charge of contrast. At the time of this collaboration, I had little faith, thought the worst of people in terms of decency, and thought redemptive power an archaic philosophical idea. But once Sara's creations began to fill my e-mail box—I have never seen the originals—my faith in the world changed.

The two haiga that helped me heal most were "in summer leaves" and "early autumn snow." The first haiku mentioned was initially a poem of jealousy. I thought how could these birds be frolicking as if in love when I have just failed at love? As any writer knows, the initial catalyst of a piece does not always make it into the final product. However, I was certain that an underlying bitterness was present in the haiku. Sara's illustration, in contrast, shows the healing power of togetherness and love in the birds' red wings swirling in circles, almost creating a wind of positive energy. And in "early autumn snow" my attempt was to convey the want of burying myself emotionally into black "feathers" where all could be forgotten. The melancholy of the man walking away from the viewer with a dark bird on his shoulder reveals, as Sara wrote, "those bleak days when (we) have to wrap up in many layers." The sense of the two of us connecting on the "bleak" level was affirming, but what was more affirming was her light scatter of footprints that lead us into the unknown white of snow, that of what has been trampled and left behind to fend for itself. In times of serious self-doubt, we can bury our heads and let the snow pile up or we can follow footprints to another way.

So, as Sara suggests, there is a "transition between the literal and the figurative," but there is also a transformation from the literal, to the figurative, and back again. In order to let haiku-painting evolve, and in order to let us evolve into healed human beings confident once again in who we can become, we need impartial perspective, a scary leap of faith into what we perceive to be right, and a world of living contrasts. The answers are waiting if we have the courage to look, to confront, and to create.


Please see Mark Smith's and Sara Otto's Haiga pages.