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An Interview With Jeanne Emrich by Robert Wilson

Q. You are a teacher of haiku. What is and isn't haiku?

A. A haiku is a short, unrhymed poem that describes a special moment in nature pertaining in some way to the human experience. It's quite literally a poetry of the senses, and in composing haiku you become a kind of secretary to your senses, writing down what you have seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled. Haiku is about discovery and realization, rather than invention, and the magic of it begins right at the very moment of perception, when you intuit that there's something meaningful there in all these sense perceptions, these images that come flooding in and which you write down on the spot in a little notebook. Later, when you start combining these images in verse, the magic continues when you find that some of the images in juxtaposition resonate with meaning, sometimes quite subtly. In Japan, where the form originated and is still hugely popular today, haiku is most often written in a single vertical column of seventeen onji or sound-symbols. Here in the West, we commonly write it in three lines, though some poets prefer a single horizontal line or two lines or even four lines. A small percentage of poets continue to write their verses in lines of 5-7-5 English syllables as was taught in the schools for many years. But now we recognize that the syllable is longer than the onji and results in a considerably longer verse than the Japanese haiku. Consequently, most Western poets are writing haiku in 11-14 syllables and in a freer form, approximating a verse of short-long-short lines. The best approach for beginners is to experiment with both styles to see which they most would like to employ in their own writing.

Regarding what haiku is not, it's certainly not the spam haiku or pseudo haiku we so often see on the Internet and in magazines or newspaper--the little jokes and silly sayings meant to evoke a chuckle. Haiku certainly can be humorous, but the humor comes from describing observed behavior, as in my:
computer power-up . . . the cat sits on the mouse

Beyond that consideration, and this is sometimes the hardest nut to crack about the haiku aesthetic, haiku is not simply Western poetry or even Western prose written in three short lines. To beginners wishing to get a sense of the haiku aesthetic, I would recommend they immerse themselves in haiku literature and interpretation for 1-6 months. They might also wish to join the Haiku Society of America which publishes the journal Frogpond and also subscribe to the premier magazine of haiku in the United States, Modern Haiku, to get a sense of the best of English language haiku being published today.

Q. You stated once that "the haiku way is just to say it--simply." Please explain.

A. Imagine you are lying out on the grass one summer evening. A firefly comes winging over your head and, for just a second, you see it set against the constellation Cassiopeia. In this one brief moment, the firefly has aligned you, the earth, and the universe, and you are reminded that all things are interrelated.
How would you describe such an experience in a poem? The haiku way is to present it in the simplest possible way. In a very direct manner, haiku tell the who, what, where, and when of the moment as the author perceived it through his or her senses. The result of such a concrete description is that the reader feels as if he or she also is having the experience. And because commentary and literary adornments are kept to a minimum, the reader is free to come to his or her own conclusions about what the experience means: "Ah yes, all things are interrelated."

star gazing . . .
a firefly joins

Q. How should a person new to haiku prepare to write haiku?

A. At the heart of the whole haiku experience--both in having haiku moments and later, when writing them down--is the intuitive mind. There's a door you have to walk through to reach that inner state; the question is how do you do it. First, you have to be able to drop your everyday preoccupations and switch out of your administrative and analytical ways of thinking. If you can still your mind and open your awareness to all around you, it's amazing how the images come streaming in, and your perception of them is fine-tuned and vivid, and the connections between them come like gifts!

You also have to be prepared to write from original experience and that requires direct observation. When Matsuo Basho said: "Learn of the pine from the pine, learn of the bamboo from the bamboo," that was an invitation to strive to see and express life just as it is, to write exactly what you observe so that the truth of the poem is the truth of the experience. To achieve that, I tell beginners to practice focusing totally on the moment at hand. Lose yourself to the moment, much as you did when you were a child. Try to step out of yourself and in particular your ego for a time and allow nothing to come between yourself and the present experience. One way to do this is to check your senses one by one. Use the fingers of one hand to tick off your senses as you check them--one finger per sense. Right away you start noticing things you might have overlooked--a cool breeze passing across your cheeks, the scent of a spicy fern somewhere off in the bush, the clicking flutter of grasshopper wings. There also are techniques you can use to harvest what you perceive through each of your senses. For example, to see better, you can imagine looking through a camera lens, starting with a wide-angle view of the scene before you and then gradually zoom in on details until you are looking at extreme close-ups. For your senses of sound and touch, it can be as simple as closing your eyes. What is the closest sound to you? The most distant? How do they blend together? If you are touching something with your fingers, pay attention to the four sensations of touch: hot, cold, pain, and pressure. These techniques can bring new awareness and revelations to moments you might otherwise overlook due to habitual ways of perceiving or just plain distraction.

Q. You advise your students to avoid using Western-style literary metaphors or similes, such as "my love is like a red, red rose." Why?

A. R.H. Blyth, the British orientalist, said that haiku is like a finger pointing at the moon. If the finger is bejewelled, we see the finger and not the moon. Metaphors are the jewels that your creative imagination and intellect devise and usually should be saved for your efforts in other forms, because in haiku they get in the way of describing your direct experience of real life. In haiku, the creativity and originality come from fresh perceptions of common, everyday life. Freshness of perspective, delicacy, tenderness of feeling, and sensitivity with respect to detail and nuance are what we prize in haiku.

Q. You also advise your students to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Could you elucidate?

A. Adjectives and adverbs describe a noun or verb or another adjective respectively. The trouble comes when they become more a description of the observer's state of mind rather than of the thing observed. In essence, they are another form of commentary and the haiku aesthetic calls for "showing" images rather than "telling" or commenting about them. So, in haiku, adjectives are confined to basic descriptions regarding such elements as color (i.e. a red hat) and temperature (i.e. a cool breeze), and adverbs are used mostly to describe an adjective (i.e. newly painted shed).

Q. How important is the use of a kigo word in the writing of haiku?

A. Haiku traditionally follow the seasons and include a kigo or season word, usually one per verse. Without kigo, haiku would lose not only a good part of its distinctiveness as a form, but also it would deprive us of a very direct and elemental way of showing our interrelatedness with nature. And this we certainly need to be reminded of frequently as technology and city living increasingly draw us away from our ties with mother earth!
The question also arises: why would any poet want to do without such a marvelous backdrop of ever changing seasonal images to juxtapose with those of our human experience? Each acts as a sort of shorthand to place the poem in time and even circumstance. And, while knowing season words will help you to see the many possible subjects for haiku throughout the year, it is your day-to-day awareness of each season and your sensitivity to and feeling for how life responds to it that gives your poems what has been called "felt depth." For this reason, it's a good idea for beginning haiku poets to start right way developing seasonal awareness.
Keep in mind, too, that it's not just that each season has a different feeling to it, such as spring is a time of renewal and hope while winter is a time of withdrawing and waiting or even death and struggle; but, also, that each day, each moment within the season has its particular feel and to which all life, including ourselves, is responding differently (however slightly) than just the day before. Experiencing the seasonal moment is a matter of "sinking into things," as R. H. Blyth describes it, of giving yourself (and your time) to long periods of sensing and intuiting life around you. In Japan, by the way, they have over 6,000 season words recorded in their saijiki or season word reference books. Here in the West, we are very fortunate to have an English language saijiki--Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 1996), written by William Higginson. Like poets in Japan with their own reference books, I often carry this book with me on my haiku walks or at least bring it with me in the car.

Q. Many poets new to haiku are puzzled as to when or when not to use a pause at the end of a line and what symbols to use to signify that pause. What advice can you offer?

A. A rule of thumb is to have a grammatical break or pause at the end of the first line or the second, but not at both (which would make the poem read more like a list!). In Japanese haiku, "cutting words" are used to make this break or to add emphasis to the words. In English, we may or may not use punctuation to indicate a break. When we do, it's important to know the function of the various symbols, a study well worth undertaking.
Lee Gurga, in his latest book, Haiku: A Poet's Guide (Modern Haiku Press, 2003), for example, describes how the em-dash (--) is the most commonly used form of punctuation in haiku. Its function, he says, is "to show a sharp break in focus or an unexpected contrast." Similarly, the colon, semi-colon, comma and period also have specific functions that the beginner should become familiar with and use when it contributes to the effectiveness of a particular verse.

I might add that it's also a good idea to experiment with using no punctuation at all. Often the absence of punctuation can create a deliberate ambiguity that activates the reader's imagination, prompting him or her to explore the many possible layers of meaning within the poem.
For example, in the following version of one of my poems, the ellipsis makes it fairly clear that two separate things are being described:

coming home . . .
over dark waters
hunter's moon

Someone, in other words, is coming home by whatever means and over a dark lake is the hunter's moon.
But if you leave out the ellipsis, as in

coming home
over dark waters
hunter's moon

you might read it the same way as above, or you might imagine that the poet or even the hunter's moon itself is "coming home over dark waters." The middle line, in effect, becomes a pivot line which can refer either to the first or third line, resulting in two possible meanings. In this poem, the ambiguity created by having no punctuation sets up not only a suggestiveness but invites whimsy into play without overt metaphor.

Q. Who is your favorite haiku master, and why?

A. I like them all: Basho, the mystic; Buson, the painter/poet and lover of visual beauty; Issa, the humanist and lover of the small; and Shiki, who revived the form at the turn of the 20th century. It all depends on my mood when I sit down to read. I also very much like "haiku appreciation" books such as R.H. Blyth's four volume Haiku (The Hokuseido Press: Tokyo, 1992) on poetry of the haiku masters and also H. F. Noyes' Favorite Haiku (Red Moon Press, Pond Frog Editions, 2001) in five short volumes with their concise and very insightful essays on contemporary poems.

Q. Is there anything else you'd like to say to those new to writing haiku?

A. Editing your verses is at least as important as writing them in the first place. This is the time when your analytical mind comes into play. But don't leave out of the picture that wonderful intuitive way of thinking that gave birth to your verses initially! Experiment with all the different ways you might present the images and structure the poem. Be open to new possibilities that never occurred to you at the time you had the experience. Write several drafts in your notebook. And then let those drafts rest for a time. In days, weeks, or even months or years you'll come back to them with a fresh mind and something will click for you and bing! you will know just the right word or word arrangement that will bring a verse to life! And when that happens, editing becomes an adventure and a joy, along with the entire haiku experience.

Jeanne Emrich has taught haiku, tanka, and haiga at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Also, she is the author of The Haiku Habit Workshop Manual (Lone Egret Press, Minneapolis, 1998), which is included in an educational packet sent upon request to teachers by the Haiku Society of America. Jeanne is also the editor of the new hardcopy journal Reeds: Contemporary Haiga. She has a web site, The Haiku Habit, in which she explains how to turn your special moments in nature into haiku.

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