RW: The name of your new book, In The Company of Crows, is an interesting choice in that crows for some indigenous cultures, including the Japanese Ainu, signify death. You wrote in the past:
Bashō said that each verse he wrote was in effect his "death poem." This speaks to the practice of mindful living—a deep awareness of the transience of all things. The moment we are born we begin our odyssey towards understanding the meaning of our lives in the hopes of coming to grips with the fact we must die. Ancient philosophers wrestled with this subject and we continue to seek answers about life and death to this day and no doubt always will. Our western culture looks to relieve suffering at the time of death, and often our last days are spent in a drug-induced semiconscious state. Dying is a highly personal matter and we whisper the word to ourselves. This is in sharp contrast to the centuries old custom in Japan of writing a death poem, sometimes just moments before one's last breath, surrounded by family and friends.
When you chose the title for your book, were you overtly or covertly referring to death?
the horse blinks away
a gnat's life
an ant hauls a dead ant
I freshen the water
of her bedside iris
CM: The passage quoted can be found in Simply Haiku, Vol. 2., No. 4, Sept/Oct. 2005, and is part of a haiku/photo presentation entitled "Illustrations of Japanese Death Poems." A good friend introduced me to Yoel Hoffman, the author and translator of Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death, and I was able to obtain permission to pair my photos with the death poems.
My title stems not only from my own personal fascination with crows, but from my interest in Native American and First Nations cultures along the Pacific Coast where I live and, in particular, their deep respect for the natural world, which is similar to the Japanese. Crows and ravens feature prominently through totems, masks and myths among Pacific Coast tribes such as the Tlingit, Kwakiutl and Haida, places I've visited. Crows, in particular, have also been subjects for my camera; and my first poem to feature a crow was written after the death of my sister-in-law, "The Light Reflected in Blue-Black," which was published in The Green Tricycle Poetry Review, 2002, and can be read here:
http://greentricycle.com/8/8root1.html. It reflects my early love of the natural world and my acceptance of death. Lynne lived literally at the end of a road with nothing but the Canadian wilderness beyond and on one of my visits, shortly before her death, we took a walk on one of the cleared paths. The ravens seemed to follow her, sometimes flying ahead of her at shoulder level. When she was tired, she'd stop to close her eyes and listen to the complex vocabulary of sounds coming from the treetops. When she'd continue, so did they, and as she meditated in the sun, I could hear the whap, whap of their wings overhead. The day felt mystical (considering the fact that we both knew she had little time left, and in fact died 3 months later). At first, Edgar Allan Poe's Raven with his ominous nevermore came to mind, but also the Trickster, who, in Native American myth, stole the light and brought it as a gift to a darkened world. The presence of the ravens certainly felt like a gift that day in the woods. They brought light to what could have been a dark, sad day. So yes, I was thinking of death, not morbidly, but in a natural way. I think the journey into death is an event as meaningful as our first gulp of air in our journey into life. This was my first experience in feeling a state of grace surrounding an impending death.
You've listed three of my favorite poems. The first, "heat wave," was written after photographing my neighbor's horse. While zooming in on its eye, just before the horse blinked I saw a gnat floating on the watery surface, and I thought, just like that a life has ended. I have stepped, to my shame, on ants, and I'm quite sure that one day, something will step on me, but I found it liberating to identify both with the innocent action of the horse and the resultant death of a gnat.
The second, "hot pavement," took place on my driveway where every year a colony of ants trek back and forth to their nest. It's impossible to walk to the mailbox without stepping on them and once, in this stream of black ants, I watched as one ant stopped to circle a dying ant before hauling it away towards the nest. This small action undoubtedly made me feel the smallness of myself within the universe. As Bashō says, "go to the pine to understand the pine," or do not separate yourself from the object: so in this moment, I became the ant. I enjoy the animism of haiku in preference to putting humans above other forms of nature. I revere John Muir's words on haiku: "there is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself."
The third, "death watch," was written while attending my mother's last moments. I couldn't prevent her dying, but I could keep her purple iris alive a little longer. Simple as that. You do what you can, knowing that the flowers, too, will eventually wither and fade. It gave me peace and I was allowed to feel the grace in her last moment.
RW: You live by the sea and are surrounded by a rich bouquet of geography, flora and fauna: herons, crows, orcas, waterfalls, squirrels, fog, snow geese, crabs, crashing waves, etc. You are a photographer and it's been said that you view the world through a photographic eye, yet when I read your haiku, senryu, and tanka, I'm privy to a world that's more than a photographic composition. It's as if you do as Buson is said to have done, communing with an open mind, without preconceptions, allowing what you see, hear, touch, and feel to speak to you.
Take for example, your haiku:
in the gull's cry
The juxtaposition between beach nap and experiencing youth in the gull's cry says much more than a photo. There is yugen (depth and mystery), ma (dreaming room), and kokoro (beauty and emotion), a combination of aesthetics that causes readers to think, to feel, to form their own interpretation of the haiku within their own realm of experience and cultural memory. I read this poem and for a moment, I am napping on the beach, in a state between sleep and wakefulness . . . perhaps a day dream . . . somewhere in my mind's ear I hear the cry of a gull and relate it to my youth, when I wasn't afraid to speak my mind, felt as if I were invincible, and even dreamed of flying. How did this haiku come to you? What were you thinking?
CM: Robert, like you, the Japanese aesthetic is important to me, and I have made myself familiar with most of the Japanese terms like yugen, ma, ushin, shiori and many others. I've foraged through Blyth, Ueda, and Yasuda for clues as to the meaning of haiku. But the book that most affected me was Joan Giraux's The Haiku Form. Her chapter on "Tone" offered a wealth of information on all of those terms. I felt the secret to understanding the spirit of haiku was to be found in the translation of these words, some of which appeared to defy translation into English. These authors helped me to identify the spirit of haiku I wanted in my own writing.
Regarding "beach nap" . . . living on the ocean as I do, I hear the cry of the gulls constantly, but there was something about this cry—caught between a dream/drowse state—that filled me with the sudden memory of a time when I was sixteen, years away from marriage with the future stretching before me, and lying on a beach blanket at Spanish Banks listening to the din of laughter, the splash of water, the pungent smell of vinegar fumes rising from hot fish and chips. I was young, free and hoping to meet a cute boy that day. A simple sound flashed me back to another time, another beach.
RW: I see in your poetry a deep respect for life, the Japanese "Way of Poetry," and a depth that is not word play or cleverness of speech. Wrote Shinkei in his book, Murmured Conversations, translated by Esperanza Rameriz-Christenson: "... putting on a fine outward appearance is the way of the many, but rare indeed is he who seeks to master his own mind." The majority of poems in your book are poignant, deep, asking the reader to complete the author's poetry with his/her interpretation.
go gently in your final hour
like the moon jelly
who in a transparent death
mirrors the color of sand
One person's interpretation of your tanka may differ from another's. A poem that says too much is seldom remembered. You don't tell all and it makes your poems memorable. What is it about Japanese poetry that makes it attractive to you? How important is it to you to have other poets read your poetry and complete your poems via their own experience and cultural memory?
CM: I think we all want to communicate, or why would we write? What makes Japanese poetry most attractive to me is the brevity and the sensory appeal of evoking human emotion through focused moments in nature. It's the white space, or understatement found in all good poems and sumi-e paintings: the room for readers to bring their own experiences to the moment. I want my poetry accessible and open to interpretation, but I also want the image to be what it is, in this case, a dying man, and a dead jellyfish on the sand. Then, I hope that the significance of the comparison comes through to the reader. I think as readers, our own experiences and memories play a huge role in how we respond to another poet's poem. Often it comes down to the age-old rule to show, not tell. Often a good poem will have a solid image that in itself is rich, but through connotation, word choice, association the meaning can resonate on more than one level. This poem is basically a requiem for an old man I knew was dying. While walking on the sand after a storm, I came across many dead jellyfish. Thinking of this man whose lungs were filling with his own tide, I felt the relationship of dust to dust, water to water, of a return to the elements for all things.
RW: When you compose a tanka or a haiku, what goes through your mind? What are you looking for? And when do you feel a poem you've written is finished?
CM: I feel my best tanka have been inspired by nature in some way. I want to engage the senses through vision, touch, smell, sound. I prefer rich images that correlate with my emotional state. I think it helped me to have spent years writing free verse. May I offer as evidence, a very early free-verse poem, which, even then, showed my interest in death and the natural world:
Sometime during high tide
the sea spat you upon the beach;
your thick, black, neoprene skin
split open to expose silky-white
dermis held in decay. Your jaw,
a fringe of baleen, your eye—
the one I could see—so tiny,
half-closed, a squint of resignation
lost in the folds of your face;
your flukes' dark wings
flung in a graceful arch—a dancer
on toes. Oh, but the worst—
your penis, pitifully exposed,
so still in its five foot reach,
so quiet its song.
With Easter dinner put on hold,
hot-cross buns left to rise,
we stood in awe—
felt the darkness of your death.
Someone labeled you a juvenile,
not fully grown, that before the next
high tide took you home
your bones would be harvested,
purloined by artisans for carving;
so I too, knelt,
and gently removed one fringed tooth
to whisk across my drum, to remember
your gray-whale song.
I am sensitive to the rhythms of poetry, the musicality of language, and the importance of choosing the best word. With respect to the classics, I try to keep to a s, l, s, l, l, style, but don't feel bound by it. My first tanka ever written won an award in the Tanka Splendor Contest which surprised me and of course encouraged my interest in tanka.
only a week
since you left
how did I miss the moment
the gibbous moon
I'm exploring more of the nitty gritty in tanka these days, like this one from "Amnesia," a series of tanka on my childhood:
hovering over a dish
of sweet potatoes—
I learned to be grateful
for the spoon in my hand
and this one from "Cemetery Walk," after one glorious afternoon spent wandering Queen Anne Graveyard. That day, I could barely make it home to my pencil and paper, as tanka were spilling into my mind.
yes, this too
could be my life—
a few stones
mixed with bright bits of glass
left scattered on a grave.
I'm still trying to find the spirit of this form, as I did with haiku. I can't relate to the courtesans who waited on and pined for lovers, but I do relate to the earthier works of Saigyo in Poems of a Mountain Home, translated by Burton Watson, and I'm currently enjoying Embracing the Firebird, by Janine Beichman, featuring the translated works of Yosano Akiko. I'm inspired by contemporary poets among us, especially those who move into new subjects other than wistful longing for a lover. There are too many to name, and I'm sure I would overlook some.
I revise a lot, except on rare occasions when a poem seems to birth itself. Most times, though, I send the poem out when I can do no more with it, yet months, years later, I can often find room for one more tiny revision! At a certain time though, you have to let your poems fly. However, I've learned not to submit poems too quickly in case they get published! I prefer to sit on my work. A fresh look can make a difference.
RW: What for you constitutes a quality haiku or tanka?
CM: There has to be something from the natural world in the haiku, not necessarily a specific seasonal word as they vary from country to country, but some mention of nature and the natural world within which to evoke human emotion. To me the best haiku are rich in sensory appeal, show an object or experience just as it is through the use of the best words possible in accordance with the beauty of our language. I am not against a little music, or alliteration such as "lilac in full bloom/bees bumping/into bees." Sometimes it works. I've always agreed with Michael Dylan Welch's words: "haiku isn't the least amount of words used, but the least amount necessary."
George Swede's essay "Haiku in English in North America" talked about the differing viewpoints of R.H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson. George felt there was room for more than one popular opinion, and I feel the same. What I consider a quality haiku or tanka may differ for someone else. Blyth says, ". . . to stay in reality and reveal the essential nature of the object or experience." I try to do that. For me, haiku is not so much symbolic as empathetic. In discovering the essential nature of things, we become part of those things, part of the natural world, not separate. Henderson said, "haiku are more concerned with human emotions than with human acts, and natural phenomena are used to reflect human emotions. . ."; and I tend to agree with him, too. Even unstated, the human presence is in every haiku.
I would say that I bring the Japanese aesthetics of haiku to my tanka, only with the freedom to state my thoughts more openly. I have a long way to go though, in developing my own tanka voice as I have not been writing tanka as long as I have been writing haiku.
RW: Who has been the greatest inspiration to you as a poet and why?
CM: I have enjoyed so many poets over the years and all have inspired my love of the English language in all poetry. It's hard to choose one, but certainly Mary Oliver speaks to the love of nature I hope shows in my haiku and tanka. I never tire of her poems or her unique voice. Two other poems that I live my life by, are these:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.
If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And in thy meager store there are but left
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.
—Sadi: Persian Poet of the 12th Century
Certainly I have my favorite haiku from Issa, Buson, Bashō as we all do, but I'm unable to say that any one classical poet is more favored or influential than the other.
I have learned from and been inspired by translations written by poets and translators of Japanese descent, such as Makoto Ueda and Kenneth Yasuda, and Susumu Takiguchi of the World Haiku Club has done much in trying to express the meaning of the more difficult aesthetic terms such as "Haiku-no-kokoro", or the soul and heart of haiku in his book The Twaddle of an Oxonian—Haiku Poems and Essays. A poem from the book: "moonless night / I throw a beetle / into deeper darkness." A wonderful haiku by anyone's standards.
I've been reading Japanese Haiku—Its Essential Nature and History by Kenneth Yasuda and I'd like, here, to quote a section that means a lot to me:
As Otsuji, a noted poet and one of the greatest haiku theorists, puts it: "We can enter the world of creation when we are completely sincere and humble before nature, yet free and fearless; when we are never separated from nature; when we do not introduce idle fancy or fall into cogitation." One aspect of the sincerity and humility he calls for, is the poet's willingness to surrender cherished intellectual concepts before the reality of his experience: "It is unnecessary to believe in some ideology or personal philosophy in order to compose haiku, because, since they contain ideas, there is a danger that the poet will compose haiku through logic where pure feeling should be the motive."
A more contemporary influence was the late William J. Higginson, poet, scholar and friend. He brought a poet's skill to his work while retaining what I feel was the spirit of haiku. I'd like to end this question with a quote from Bill that expresses best why I love the form:
The primary purpose of reading and writing haiku is sharing moments of our lives that have moved us, pieces of experience and perception that we offer or receive as gifts. At the deepest level, this is the one great purpose of all art, and especially of literature.
William. J. Higginson
RW: How has photography, your other great love, influenced your poetry and vice versa?
CM: Haiku brought me to photography. The study and writing of haiku helped me develop what I like to call "haiku eyes." I now see things that I would have passed by several years ago. I often take a photo of what I feel is a moment imbued with significance and write a haiku about it later. The photograph will bring it back to me. Many of my photos zoom in on life and I try to leave white space that will allow me to create haiga. Often, I feel my photos are haiku-like and speak for themselves, and I'm reluctant to add words that might weaken this feeling. Other photos seem to beg for a haiku, like my jellyfish triptych found here:
RW: You've written: "My interest in death has been expressed often in my poetry and in my photography." Please elucidate.
CM: What can I say? I feel it's just my nature to be attracted to the transience of life. I was born on the winter solstice. Autumn and winter, the dying-back months, have always appealed to me more than the greening-up months. I had a challenging childhood made easier by early maturity that accepted things as they were. I prefer weathered things to brand new. I respect heirlooms given to me as they hold the history of people who once lived and dreamed. I love old people, see their youth in their eyes. I've been this way for as long as I can remember, and who I am has very much to do with why I write haiku. In writing of death or the brevity of life, I feel very much alive.
Thank you, Robert, for the opportunity to share a bit of myself and my poetry with the readers of Simply Haiku.
Carole MacRury, of Point Roberts, Washington, is an active member of the arts community
on both sides of the US/Canadian border. After serving for three years as one of the judges
for the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival's Haiku Invitational, she will be leading haiku
workshops for VCBF Haiku Garden in the Spring, 2009. Her haiku and tanka have been
widely published in both US and international journals and in December, 2008, she released
her first book, In the Company of Crows: Haiku and Tanka Between the Tides. She had an
exhibit at the Blue Heron Gallery in 2007 titled Wabi-Sabi Photography, and her photographs
have also appeared on the covers of the Tanka Society of America's journal, Ribbons, and on
Modern Haiku. She currently holds the position of secretary/treasurer of the Tanka Society of America.