Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2009, vol 7 no 4

An Interview with Colin Stewart Jones
Robert D. Wilson, Interviewer

RW: You have an unusual style of art that is completely different from anything I've seen in modern English language haiga. It reminds me of a quote by Pablo Picasso: "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain artists once they grow up." And this calls to mind something said by another great painter, Jean Miro, who said: "My characters have undergone the same process of simplification as the colors. Now that they have been simplified, they appear more human and alive than if they had been represented in all their details."

Tell us, Colin, about your style of art, and the relevance of using it with haiku in a haiga.

CSJ: I like that quote by Picasso. Before I went to school I was able to read and write, but before that I was able to draw—I was a natural draughtsman who could capture a likeness within minutes. A child has no preconceptions about the world and is not inhibited by society's constraints. It is when we are told how something must be done that self-doubt can creep in and then we lose freedom of expression we once had. When a child speaks his first words he does not worry whether he is using received pronunciation, he just talks. When it comes to visual expression, I suppose I have remained that child who first picked up a pencil. An eye for detail is paramount. Only then can one reduce visual expression to a few simple lines or colours. This, I believe, is the most effective means of communicating ideas and why I think my style is relevant to creating haiga. Why complicate matters if you don't need to? A haiku should do the same but with words. On the surface, haiku are simple poems but a good haiku says more than the sum of its few short lines. Likewise, a haiga should also be a synergist and take one beyond the poem and beyond the drawing to a wider appreciation of the whole.

RW: We chatted for a long time regarding your study and interest in Scotland. I have Scottish heritage on my mother's side of the family (Mobley) and a degree in world history. Your memory is sharp and talking to you was a breath of fresh air. What made you decide to study your heritage in universities then go to an entirely different mindset in your study of Japanese short form poetry, which has an entirely different view on life. As Dr. Donald Richie points out in his book, A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics, it is more intuitive than philosophical, especially in the area of aesthetics?

CSJ: I originally went to university to study politics and philosophy joint honours, but as is the case in most universities I also had to do other subjects outside my chosen field. I opted for Gaelic language and Celtic studies, mainly because I was partially brought up in the Western Isles (better known as the Outer Hebrides) and was always interested in Gaelic/Celtic culture. I soon dropped politics because I found it lacked interest for me, but I continued with philosophy until the end of my second year. I finally dropped philosophy when the lecturer was still asking "How can you be sure that if you leave the room this table will still be here and how can you be sure we are really here." I responded by asking him why did he take a register when I walked into the class. He had no answer so I decided then to drop philosophy.

Gaelic studies became more of a strongpoint for me as I progressed and I decided to make this my honours degree. Although I was awarded full marks for my dissertation by the external examiner, my official mark was 70% because I was penalised for being three weeks late. When I later met the external examiner at a conference he expressed the wish to see me write more on the subject. On the strength of my dissertation I went to see Professor Devine at R.I.I.S.S. and he decided to accept me onto his MLitt course which was a natural progression from the Gaelic Studies. I studied a lot of Gaelic poetry for my degree and this sparked my interest in poetry in general and an ex-girlfriend who was studying for a PhD in Scottish Literature introduced me to haiku of the 5-7-5 variety. That was all I knew about haiku. I literally believed that haiku was just about counting until about 2005 when I started to look into haiku on the internet and joined the Haiku Hut.

Robert, I have not read the book you mention, yet. Aberdeen is an oil town and haiku books are few on the ground and years of student debt means I cannot get a credit card to buy online. Aesthetics, as a branch of philosophy, came into its own in the West, through the work of Baumgarten and Kant. Kant believed aesthetic judgements are made entirely subjectively by the subject himself by referencing the commonality of our subjectivity. From a haiku point of view, I would assume the Japanese view of the aesthetic to be the opposite. However, the earlier Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, were both concerned with whether art could include and communicate knowledge and truth.

RW: Do you agree with Hagiwara Sakutaro, who in his book Principles of Poetry writes that the spirit of haiku is an "immersion in non-subjectivity, and oriental sense of nothingness . . . " [And as] "in poetry, it does not rebel, but rather enjoys all the routine trivialities of daily life just as they are"? And as Patricia Donovan writes in her new book, Haiku Mind, [haiku] "is a deep reminder for us to pause and to be present to the details of the every day . . . [a way] of being in the world with awakened open-hearted awareness . . . of being mindful of the ordinary moments of our lives"?

CSJ: Again, I have not read the books that you cite. Perhaps you will send them to me! The short answer is No, Yes and Yes—sort of. No, not the first part of Sakutaro's work which you have quoted because the very fact that I have been moved and choose to write a non-subjective haiku, does this not make the act of composition subjective? Shasei, for example, is a long accepted means of composition and the thinking behind it dictates that one has to accept the natural world and its phenomena as real. As a Western European with a Christian faith I do not hold with the concept of nothingness. I do, however, believe in denying the appetites of the flesh to feed the spirit. Buddhism teaches that suffering is not real. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that suffering is real and builds character and faith. The eventual freedom from the cycle of life and death is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, but I would argue that to desire nothingness one first has to have a concept of nothingness based on empirical knowledge and, therefore, the abstract becomes reified and can no longer be called nothingness. One could also argue that to desire nothingness is in itself a goal (a subjective something) which makes the pursuit invalid. Perhaps these discussions are best left for elsewhere. I do, however, agree that haiku enjoys the trivialities of daily life, but perhaps this is also a subjective decision on the part of the author. As for Donovan's point which you quote, I agree to a certain extent about being mindful of ordinary moments and being more aware, but I do not see this as some kind of mystical awakening. As I said in my interview with Curtis Dunlap on Tobacco Road:

Haiku makes me stop and think and actually take in what is around me. I find the concentration on image and the distillation of thought to be very beneficial to me.... I do not believe in the "haiku moment"; I think they are there all the time, one just has to notice them.

I try to look nowadays and not just see.

RW: When you write a haiku, what are you looking for and how do you know when the haiku is finished?

CSJ: I have a visual memory and when I am out and about I take mental notes of images that have struck me as being interesting or unusual. I then note the where and when and put the components of the haiku together in my mind. I do not look for clever juxtapositions—they usually present themselves. I am fascinated by opposites and the irony that this can sometimes produce when images are combined. If the haiku can be wry, good and well—if political or philosophical, better still. May I cite a few examples:

big issue vendor
the priest retreats
into the chapel          (The Big Issue is a magazine sold by homeless people)

catching your scent
in shade                    (the burnet-rose is a symbol of Scotland)

blue sky
before me
beyond me

All these examples were pure shasei but the deeper significance is apparent on closer reading.

The Scottish poet Edwin Morgan was once asked, when do you know when a poem is finished? He answered, 'When it is in a book.' I do not think this is true for my haiku anyway. My day-to-day life is pretty routine and many of my experiences are variations on a theme so I often jot down the same images viewed from a different perspective. I have also rewritten haiku many times and then filed them to my store of phrases just waiting for that perfect fragment. I live in Aberdeen which is famous for its granite and dour weather. As you can imagine, my haiku often feature greys and the ubiquitous rain. Maybe I am saying that a haiku is never finished. All work can always be improved on.

RW: How is haiku different from a three line free verse western poem, in specific, regarding its sense of meter, minimalism, and suggestion?

CSJ: All the things you mention are important to both types of poetry. Haiku, though, were primarily meant to be read aloud, whereas western poetry seems to be designed more for the page. Haiku are usually simple poems that are devoid of clever tricks and do not employ as many literary devices as the free verse poem. Haiku concentrates more on concrete imagery, while free verse poems deal with more abstract ideas. Paradoxically, though haiku do not specifically state the abstract, they utilise abstract ideas regarding composition such as ma, for example, which allows the poem to resonate in the spaces between words much in the same way as an artist would leave white space on a canvas to highlight the drama of the painted areas. Haiku may be short poems but they are far from sparse and, in my view, should make no suggestion to the reader other than to enter into dialogue with the poem and see where that leads.

RW: You have the rare ability to write from multiple frames of thought and philosophical theories when writing poetry as displayed in the following experimental piece, "Rules of Engagement," where you intermix Occidental poetic thought with Japanese non-subjective haiku immersed in the unsaid. How do you form a symbiotic piece with opposites?

Rules of Engagement

CSJ: In nature many different genera of plant and species of animal enter into symbiotic relationships in order to survive. Though perhaps not opposites, Occidental poetry and Japanese poetry are, nonetheless, different. Many of my haiku, the pure shasei ones anyway, usually write themselves. I wrestle more with my other poetry or prose. That is not to say that either comes easy. One part of me writes about what I see and the other about how I feel. Are they separate? Are they the same? For my writing to develop I feel I must use all the tools at my disposal, and like the flower and the bee neither survives in isolation. Seeing the seed of an idea germinate is what is all important for me.

RW: What do you think Matsuo Basho meant when he wrote "learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo"?

CSJ: Notes from the Gean, Issue 1, featured a cartoon on this very subject. I suppose the answer to that depends on your philosophy. Basho was a Buddhist monk, and his studies of Buddhism would inevitably inform his thought and writing. There is a sense of Zen to this quotation, and I have heard people say that Basho meant that in order to understand the pine we must first become one with the pine. I disagree with that theory. I do not believe the idea is to grasp the essence of "pineness". The answer is far simpler than that. I believe he is telling us to observe the world more closely but before we can do that we must look to ourselves. A pine can only be a pine, and a bamboo a bamboo. We can only be human. Basho hated imitators and likened them to melons. I think Basho is gently telling us to be ourselves and to know ourselves and then perhaps we can answer the bigger questions. Shakespeare's Hamlet says much the same: "This above all: to thine own self be true." Of course, Socrates said it much earlier when he said "Know thyself." Perhaps Occidental and Japanese thought has more in common than we realise.

RW: Before we end this interview, Colin, tell us about your new online publication, Notes From the Gean, a journal from Gean Tree Press specializing in haiku, tanka and haiga, and how will it be different from other online journals?

Gean = old word for wild cherry

CSJ: Firstly, we are not just a one-night-stand...we made it to issue two and plan on being around for a long while yet. Many online magazines fold after only one issue.

Secondly, we have a mission which is set out on our welcome page:

We seek to encourage excellence, experimentation and education within the haiku community. We believe this is best accomplished by example and not imitation. Our aim is for authenticity above all else. We therefore solicit your finest examples of Japanese short form poetry and hope to "hear" your voices speak.

It's all in the name, Robert! Gean, as you have noted, is an old word for the wild cherry tree, though it is still commonly used in Scotland. We are rawer and just that little bit wilder than the ornamental Japanese cherry tree.

Thirdly, and most importantly, we have assembled quite a team of editors to which we hope to add more in the future; I would like to see haibun featured in Notes from the Gean soon: Origa did a wonderful job of presenting the haiga in issue 1 but decided to leave us. However, we now have an up-and-coming star as haiga editor in Melinda Hipple. She also put together the new web site, which she is in the process of making more interactive. H. Gene Murtha, our tanka editor, needs no introduction to haiku circles; he was recently featured in New Resonance 6 and I believe along with a few other writers he will be instrumental in shaping American tanka for the future. Lorin Ford is the new voice of Australian haiku. Her first book, a wattle seedpod, recently won the Mildred Kanterman Memorial Merit Book Awards "Best First Book." If you take a look at the haiku pages you will see Lorin has attracted a lot of submissions from Australia and the USA. I am a little disappointed that there are not more submissions from the UK, but the British are probably waiting to see how we go. Grum Roberson, our photographic consultant, has a brilliant talent for black and white photography and has produced great work for both covers. Grum is a private man, but I am working on him and we have some exciting black and white haiga and other projects in the pipeline. Finally there is me...

Thank you Robert, for showcasing my work in the new "Pipeline" feature and for allowing me this opportunity to ramble on.

RW: Thank you, Colin, for taking time out from your busy schedule to participate in this interview.