Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2005, vol 3 no 2


Interview ~ Sasa Vazic
by Robert D. Wilson

RW:You live in a part of the world that has been ravaged by war and poverty. How has this influenced your haiku?

SV: I've never thought of my part of the world as having been ravaged by war and poverty. But if anyone is sure that any part of the planet Earth’s world has been ravaged and poor, then he/she must admit that the whole world has been too, as there is no my or whoever’s part of the world. It’s shameful to confess what we all have done to the only planet we inhabit, to nature, to one another, to our own selves. To nature which we feverishly take hold of and at the same time destroy so mercilessly. Poor hypocrisy, poor farce . . . as if man is not part of it. Why do we disassociate from it, why do we stray from it, all the while referring to it? I have always considered that nature is the universe and that our small good-hearted planet as a part of it encompasses all that exists on and inside it, rivers and mountains . . . plants and animals, roots and ore . . . and human beings, and that there are not only three "worlds": of flora, fauna and human beings.

Man is responsible, as he was given the reason he, unfortunately, uses and misuses to destroy, all the way believing he creates and that evil has been constantly returning to him. Nature, which he considers to be beyond him, deserves to be beyond him, and whatever he may think, he won’t conquer it; he will be defeated hard and he has already been defeated, as he is unable to protect that which he loves, he boasts and portrays in his beautiful creative work. At one time I wrote an article on what I am speaking here about for our haiku magazine, Haiku Moment ("An Ugly Aspect of Reality," Spring-Summer 2001/2002, nos. 5-6, pp. 24-27), induced by my own and constant thinking and happy to come upon an essay by an American writer (Dee Evetts, "The Conscious Eye: On Human Folly," in The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 1999: The Thin Curve, pp. 135-138). There are few haiku which "confess" what we have done to the world beyond us and what we are able to do to stop it. I’d like it to be our contribution to the planet; everything else is but beautiful words and beautiful images, mere love with no real cover.

A good friend of mine had a dream: an old white-bearded man appeared, cast his glance at the sky and said: "Look, man has given names to the stars, but how is that he does not know that perhaps they already have their names?" Or mountains, animals, plants . . .? Who is it who could prevent wind from blowing from "your" world to "mine"? Who can stop our thoughts from flowing and crossing man-made borders? There's no "my" world, save for the one within myself; but I better like to call it serpentines, labyrinths, or even a soul. It’s not easy to speak about that world of mine, and I am not sure anybody would believe me.

Well, where I live there are but two floors, several rooms I roam (and keep clean), halls with high ceilings, a kitchen (I hate to enter when it comes to cooking), and the usual. Neighbors, voices, some hundred meters to the nearest grocery . . . Yes, even my country was exposed to the war, but wars rage all around the globe—a natural phenomenon, very unpleasant. When my country was first exposed to the UN sanctions in 1992, I lost my permanent job. It was worse and worse with all those fights, battles (armed), quarrels about the territories and . . . deaths. And then the NATO attack in 1999 (many still reject facing it, that it really took place. No one speaks about it; it was like a bad dream . . .).

Poetry and haiku have nothing to do with technical advancement or regression. Poetry persistently repeats to us that our world is a place where we have still to open our eyes. There’s no reserved way, a shortcut to inspiration for some who believe they live in a different world. There are people in "your" and in "my" world who think with their brains. They discuss, they endlessly and only discuss and it could be said they don’t know what to do with our one and only world. A poet feels the world. His world is much greater. His world can be poor, but never ravaged. Emptiness is in heads, not in hearts. It’s quite a different matter that some have switched off their hearts from their lives, still trying to tell us something about love. To speak about love with no love in your heart? It’s terrific, but let them carry their burden.

Our world is marvelous; we are only at its threshold. I am deeply sorry for those who do not understand it. What is the power of such people? To uproot irises? OK. Let’s see. And look, a miracle! Iris is more resistant than any infrastructure; iris has nothing to do with pockets, be they full or empty. My friend who moved from the city to a distant village had been asking himself what he had done, what he had changed in his life . . . , and one day he dipped his fingers into the ground. The next day he saw a dandelion in that place. But when he turned around, he saw many, many dandelions all about. So god, or I don’t know whom or what, has inspired some of us to create just like a dandelion or an iris does.

I believe that the world is even more inclined to those who are poor; they somehow bring out beauty from their bosoms more easily. It is well known that one thinks more lucidly through pain. The world seems to have turned its back to human pragmatic stupidities long ago, so stupidities have been dying out; but man, unfortunately, has not thought of that. In Serbian "poverty" lies that which can be creativity, quality; the life of a poor man is more thought-out since the world is his.

Interestingly, everything can be taken away from us, save for what we keep in our hearts, that mystical and eternal core that cannot be conquered and taken away. So, I hope I have given the answer to this question. My haiku have been influenced, I think and would say, spontaneously and unconsciously. More sorrow, more pain . . . and sparkles of "small" things that exist . . . no matter . . . , and won't disappear.

RW: You are a strong woman, your own self. How does this affect you as a poet and as a member of the poetic community dominated primarily by males?

SV: Never thought about males . . . in this sense. Fights were not easy. To win freedom, you must win your own self, give up many things. But they are material by their nature, more or less, and I am used not to care about them so much that I would feel helpless. And—not free.

I don't consider myself a poet. I only wanted to be free to do whatever I feel like doing, in a positive sense toward others and toward myself. I write something from time to time . . . scribble. Never noticed the fact that this poetic community is dominated by males. Why haven't I noticed? Maybe because I don't view myself as any sexually-oriented human being. Maybe of neuter gender. But most probably because I don’t really think it is dominated by either males or females. I notice only words—good, medium, bad, excellent—and the way my senses react to them. Anyway, I am glad if I am a woman and among so many males. I feel pretty good.

RW: You were a member of the editorial staff of a local magazine for six years, contributed to fifteen domestic and foreign publications, and have had approximately one thousand articles published on a variety of topics. What inspired you to become a writer?

SV: In fact I am more a journalist than a writer (though I have been writing a few novels). It happened all by chance and when you feel free, it is the usual consequence (I mean chances). When I lost my permanent job in 1992 (as I said, and it happened to be a lucky moment, in a way), I simply had to do something with my brain, for my soul and living, in the end, so it was actually astrology I chose to study in depth. And I had all my time left for myself and for many problems I encountered after the divorce.Yes, journalism came by chance, as it was all the same for me whether to write for a newspaper or for no one in particular. I like to write. I have never stopped writing since my early childhood. So from writing diaries, rewriting songs, great thoughts, scribbling this or that, I just shifted to more serious writings for various journals, magazines, newspapers. Once you start, it's not that hard. And as I'm very curious. I’ve never made up my mind about anything in particular. I like criminal cases the best. Not surprisingly, for a Scorpio.

RW: You are the editor of an online Eastern European poetry magazine. How did this come to be? What is your vision for this magazine, and for the poets in your country?

SV: In fact it's not an Eastern European poetry magazine. It's my own "invention," intended for all the world. It came to be again by chance. It just occurred to me that, influenced by marvelous articles of Anita Virgil and a few other authors, I got an idea to put great words of others online and so share them with the world. It was hard, as I knew nothing about web design. My daughter did her best to learn and to help me and thus made me feel less burdened. What's most important is that responses from many haiku poets and editors were positive. What a burden, I thought, and hurried on to produce another issue (together with some mistakes of technical nature for which I do apologize) and stopped for a while. I am pressed by my own deadlines. And I need more good articles on haiku to emphasize its true essence and value, to confront various thoughts, to help in an attempt to find the right one (if there is such); to clarify things, to break some of our illusions. And to enjoy. I haven’t invented anything new (good haiku and haiga, book reviews . . . many editors tend to include in their online or offline publications), save that I have been searching for what I believe to be really good articles and poems of significance. The problem is that I myself am not that established in the haiku world, not "a name", so I don’t get what I expect. I must try harder. As for Serbian and Montenegrin, as well as haiku poets from the Serb Republic, it’s a pity most of them do not possess computers and Internet and also the habit of communicating via this medium. Maybe some other reasons as well.

RW: A follow-up question. What is the state of haiku in your country. Is it a popular medium with a large following?

SV: It is a widespread opinion and it is the fact that it is unduly neglected by the general (especially literary) public and very popular among its lovers. The fact is also that haiku poets from the Balkans are known, according to some sources, to be among the best in the world, in third place (after Japanese and Americans) regarding the global quality of their poems and the number of prizes, commendations and other recognitions. Serbia and Montenegro have but some 10 million inhabitants and, according to one of our critics, "as many haiku poets as there are the Chinese." This doesn’t say much without a good background and analysis.

The history of haiku in our regions (formerly Yugoslavia) began almost 80 years ago but was not continuous, so that it can be said that this poetic genre is but some 35 years young. It came into our literature with a small delay in comparison to its introduction into international literature. This happened in 1925, thanks to the translation-poetic rendition undertaking of Milos Crnjanski entitled Pesme starog Japana (Poems of Ancient Japan; including some data on the history of haiku and haiku poems he translated from English and French: ". . . haiku, a comic verse, of fine and tender expression, tiny pictures, short stories . . .", ". . . an endless Buddhist love and a mix of one’s self with nature . . .", ". . . expressed in but 17 syllables, one continuous sentence, in fact as short as a breath . . .". "Haiku poets are painters, those who paint with words. A haikai poet loves every move of plants, animals. In his endless love and compassion, he is considered to be close to an insect, trees, everything that blossoms and withers, all that comes to pass."), published in our literary journal Srpski knjievni glasnik. However, the influence of this genre on our poets was not noticeable until some 30 years later, beginning with a pioneer work of Serbian haiku’s only forerunner, Milan Tokin (1909 -1962), who left behind him a collection of haiku poems entitled "Godisnja doba" ("Seasons"; not published to date).

At that time our haiku scene was enriched by work of one of the most educated haiku poets, Vladimir Devidé, mathematician, academician, ideologist of theYugoslav "haiku movement". Despite different opinions regarding his views, his contribution to the haiku development in our regions is undisputable. Vladimir Devidé has published over 150 essays on haiku poetry in some 20 national and international literary reviews and journals and has given over 220 public speeches on poetry, and the literary and cultural history of Japan. His first book of haiku poetry was published in 1970 under the title Japanska poezija i njen kulturno-prosvjetni okvir (Japanese Poetry and its Cultural and Historical Framework). It contains some 500 haiku poems by 100 Japanese poets in his translation from originals into Serbo-Croatian. This book, which still serves as a haiku primer, a haiku textbook, introduces us to Japanese culture and spiritual life, the history of haiku, features of the genre.

In 1975 Aleksandar Nejgebauer (1930–1989), translator, literary critic, professor of English and American literature, published the first Serbian (then Yugoslav) book of haiku poetry (Haiku) and the first essay, "Metaphor in Haiku", to be republished outside our borders (Frogpond of the HSA, May 1980). The first haiku magazine to gather haiku poets from ex Yugoslavia was Haiku, published in Varazdin (1977–1981). It is known to be the second main breakthrough of haiku into our literature after the pioneer work of Milos Crnjanski. In the meantime, and it is worth mentioning, in 1979 two important articles on traditional Japanese poetry were published by a Japanese scholar, Dr. Dejan Razic´ (on The development of haikai poetry from its beginning to Bashô and the climax of haikai poetry - Matcuo Bashô).

The first Serbian haiku magazine is Paun, which was launched in Pozega in 1988 (still edited by Milijan Despotovic´). Haiku has been experiencing greater and greater popularity with the foundation of haiku clubs and their magazines (the first being Masaoka Shiki in Nis in 1992–1993, with its magazine Haiku novine /from 1993 on; the first editor was Dimitar Anakiev, and from 1996 on, Dragan J. Ristic´). Then Shiki in Belgrade /from 1992 on/ with Serbia's most famous poetess Desanka Maksimovic´, as its honorary president, Aleksandar Nejgebauer in Novi Sad /from 1993 on/ with its magazines Listak /from 1993 on/, Haiku Informator (1997–2002), Haiku ogledalo (2000-2002/)... as well as other privately owned haiku journals (Haiku pismo edited by Nebojsa Simin; Novi Sad /1995- 2001/, Haiku moment edited by Zoran Doderovic´, Novi Sad /from 1998 on/, Haiku Moment Info by the same editor /from 2002 on/, Lotos edited by Dejan Bogojevic´; Rajkovic /from 1998 on/, The Rainbow Petal, an on-line haiku journal edited by Vid Vukasovic´, Belgrade /1997-1999/, Haiku Reality edited by Sasa Vazic; Batajnica, 2003–, and several others of minor duration—all in all 19 publications.

National haiku association was established later: The Haiku Association of Yugoslavia (later renamed to “of Serbia and Montenegro”), Belgrade, (from 1999 on) with its magazine Osvit (from 2001 on). Renewal of the interest for haiku occurred and the third breakthrough took place in 1986 when the first (exclusively haiku) publishing library entitled Matcuo Bashô was established in Odzaci. National and international haiku contests have been organized in the same town since 1987. The next year a new haiku library was founded with the same name to later (1993) be moved to another town (Kula).

According to the latest data there are about 600 authors in our present and ex country, who have published over 500 titles in the region of Serbia and Montenegro. There are also some 40 collections pertaining to haiku contests held in 7 cities and towns of Serbia and Montenegro (Yugoslav Haiku Festival and later also International Haiku Contest, Odzaci (from 1989 on); Knjizevna kelija "Sveti Sava" Competition, Parac´in (1994–1998); International Haiku and Haibun Contest organized by the Haiku Club Aleksandar Nejgebauer, Novi Sad /from 1998 on/, International Haiku and Senryu Contest of the Haiku Magazine Lotos, Valjevo /from 1999 on/, etc.

There are excellent examples of really good accomplishments in compiling and publishing collections and anthologies as well as practical books on the history of haiku, its Japanese masters and the essence and meaning of haiku. Some of them are: Pesme starog Japana by Milos Crnjanski (1928); Ne pali jos svetiljku (an anthology of classical Japanese poetry; translations and renditions from several European languages) by Dragoslav Andric´ (1981); Vetar s Fudzijame Macuo Basoa (a selection of Basho's travel journals written in haiku form; translations from several European languages) by Petar Vujicic´ (1989); Haiku antologija japanske poezija od XIV do XIX veka (Haiku Anthology of Japanese Poetry from 14th through 19th Century) by Petar Vujicic´ (1990); Leptir na caju (the first Yugoslav haiku anthology), compiled and edited by Milijan Despotovic´ (1991); Grana koja mase (a collection of Yugoslav haiku poetry representing works of around 400 authors) complied and edited by the same author (1991); Cetiri godisnja doba: an anthology of contemporary Japanese poetry (translations from originals) edited by a Japanese professor at the Belgrade University, Kayoko Yamasaki Vukelic´ (1994); Uska staza u zabrdje (translations of Basho's haibun) by Dejan Razic´ (1994); Gost sa Istoksv: ogledi o haiku poeziji (A Guest from the East) by Zivan Zivkovic´ (1996); Stari ribnjak (An Old Pond, translations of Basho’s poems from originals) edited by Hiroshi Yamasaki Vukelic´ (1996); KNOTS (an anthology of southeastern European haiku poetry), edited by Dimitar Anakiev and Jim Kacian (1999); A Piece of the Sky (Haiku from the Shelter), by Dimitar Anakiev (1999); Trec´a obala reke (The Third Bank of the River, about the Novi Sad broken bridges, translated into English, French and German) by Nebojsa Simin (2000), Haiku nestasna pesma (Haiku a Playful Poem), by Nebojsa Simin (2000); Iznad praznine (a collection of Yugoslav haiku poetry), by Dejan Bogojevic´ (2002).

Special attention should be paid to the most complex publication of Tresnjev cvet, published in 2002 by the East Asia Center based in the Belgrade Philological Faculty and edited by Ph. Dr. Ljiljana Markovic´, professor of English at the Belgrade University, Milijan Despotovic´ and Dr. Aleksandra Vranes. This edition consists of six volumes representing Yugoslav haiku poetry in the most representative way up to now (essays on haiku, Japanese and Yugoslav authors’ bibliographical data, classic Japanese haiku poems in Serbian translations, around 700 haiku of our authors, a volume entitled Pahulje maslacka, translations and renditions into Russian done by Prof. Aleksandar Sevo, the most voluminous of this kind up to now). Balkan haiku experienced its international promotion with the KNOTS anthology and the Internet websites HASEE (Haiku Association of Southeastern Europe), to be replaced by Aozora in 2002.

As can be seen from the above, haiku was accepted in a relatively short period of time and gained followers among people of various ages, education, affiliations and occupations (also among professional poets of formerly poetry reputation: Desanka Maksimovic´, Dobrica Eric´, Momcilo Tesic´, Miroljub Todorovic´, Slobodan Pavic´evic´, Mirjana Bozin), more than any other literary form that arrived into our literature from the outside.

Serbian haiku poets win an average amount of 40 awards and commendations at national and international haiku contests, but mostly not at really competent, not at literary ones; that makes the picture rather crooked. This crooked picture is in a danger to fall down, considering the fact that our editors of haiku journals have established different criteria and have different tastes, sometimes even bad ones resulting in their publishing bad along with good haiku, and even pieces that have nothing to do with haiku. Their aim seems to be to fill their journals (in some cases not published on a regular basis and some published no more than once, which is another question) with "quantity" rather than with "quality." The worst is a double image—one formed in the poet’s mind that his/her work is representative and appreciated; and another—presented by competent and well-informed authorities on haiku who state the opposite—even that a good number of our haiku poets have no notion of what haiku really is. So, as a result and owing also to poor financial situation, but to Serbian temper as well, many publish books at their own expense, not obtaining a catalog number, which are then exchanged among haiku poets, given as a gift, not offered to bookshops.

A special problem, and a question that needs to be resolved, is translation of these poems, mainly into English. These translations, often full of grammatical errors, literal, almost never literary, are published in magazines and books and sent to competitions. The problem is enlarged as many non-English speaking editors who publish such poems or judges at competitions who select and award them "agree" with them as such. And thus help the bad image of haiku spread and encourage others to follow the wrong path. Instead of attempting to learn more by reading and exploring in depth every kind of national and international (prose and poetry) literature, exemplary articles on haiku and poems of great classic and contemporary poets and masters, to become literate in both Serbian and English languages, to broaden their experience and knowledge, and afterwards try to apply all this it to their work until (nearly) perfect, there are a good number of those who too quickly decide to launch them into space. There are even those who know nothing more about haiku than that it consists of 17 syllables written in three lines (5:7:5).

On the other hand, there is also a good number of those who have risen high, having a good background to successfully try their hands at haiku and produce significant poems and books. There are surely and also poets who show enthusiasm and make efforts to learn more and be constantly informed about the way of haiku and its development. The fact is that, apart from bad financial resources, most of them lack competent literary resources written in our language (a small number of books - translations from original classic Japanese haiku poetry) or at least in a foreign one, most often English (in which case many lack knowledge of the language).

Also, there is no practice of official and constant workshops, and it’s true that our haiku poets are most often deprived of critical words; but what lacks most is self-criticism, self-discipline of spirit, the gift of eastern Zen masters, poets and wise men. Back to competent literary criticism—a missing link – that could help this crooked picture be fixed . . . I would cite two extracts from Zivan Zivkovic´’s Gost sa Istoksv:

"... However, many such poems are unable to establish communication with a broader readership, particularly with literary criticism so that they are ‘condemned’ to a ‘narrower’ literary space and smaller number of readers, and their authors to anonymity in a world of literary critics who are mainly indifferent toward haiku poetry; some ignore it, some simply haven’t had an opportunity to get to know it—at least in our language—to investigate and value it."

"... why has national haiku poetry been rarely and little written about, or not at all, that is why literary critics—today and here—are indifferent toward this lyric genre enjoying great popularity among both its readers and poets? . . . according to a spontaneous assertion of a renowned and authoritative critic, haiku poetry is a sort of neofolklore that, like anything that is fashionable, borders with trash, in the same way as do newly composed folk songs. He mentions, by the way, that he does not regard haiku as a form that is serious enough to hold the attention of critical spirit."

To this observation it can be added that many haiku poets are unduly praised by most often incompetent book reviewers, belonging to the same haiku circle to which "reviewed" poets belong or by renowned literary "names" who ask for compensation in specific amount of money for their praises.

This closed circle is sometimes broken by those who manage to obtain support, financial or human, from aside. Or by those who are energetic and courageous enough. There are also (visible or invisible) "clans" whose aim is to gather like-minded poets with the aim of promoting their common views and gathering more followers, some of whom are often considered to work while others contribute little and enjoy. And to make profit by publishing poor or worthless books. This seems to be a kind of a sect – you give it to me, I’ll give it back to you.

Taking into consideration all stated above, I am of the opinion that such or similar tendencies have always been recorded in any field of human activity that has been trying to make its way and come to a clear path. I also believe that there is no danger that they will disturb the reputation of such an influential poetry and its real values. As usual, true values are those which are appreciated by competent minds of both critics and poets, and they are what will remain. Those who are conscious and able to follow the only and right path and those new ones who appear and enlarge the world’s haiku scene are proof that haiku will live on and be preserved in its purity for future generations.

RW: How is the haiku in your country different from haiku in other countries?

SV: As different as are our people, their background, social, historical, cultural, literary, their sensibility, their spirit, their surroundings, their problems (both outer and inner), their life . . . And of course – the tool employed – the language, its rules, its principles, its rhythm. Specific to our country is a very long and distinctive history, a mix of various nations and national minorities with their own backgrounds and sensibilities reflected within a relatively small region. Then the Orthodox religion as a separate significant item, and past and current unhappy events and their results on our reality: disintegration of the SFRY and ensuing wars, a wave of refugees and their destinies, material poverty and other social and life problems. Interestingly and seemingly controversially, when in the 90s in the region of ex-Yugoslavia many aspects of national and private lives (economy, politics, relations, etc) experienced downfall, nothing more than the producing of haiku kept an upward course. This fact could be well illustrated by many examples.

The spirit of haiku poets was lifted when faced with war, empty stomachs, refugees, shadows of our past and uncertainties for our today and future, crumbs for future generations . . . It was October 5, 2000, when I wrote:

Winning of Freedom

And when all the songs become quiet
Silence conquers the spaces
Sadness and joy of freedom
New uncertainties
Unsure flickers of hope
Since love has not won
Shadows on the roofs
of the robbed city
For a moment – foolish smiles
On faces of desperate people
Before the leaders
Small sparkles of past times change
Into present time's uncatchable instant
For the future
And when all the songs become quiet
Since love has not won
Crowded due to cold weather
Wishes, anxieties
No one speaks:
We are small invisible reflections
Of cosmic dusts' tiny grains
Unessential for eternity, for infinity
Since love has not won

But before that and during NATO attacks on Yugoslavia (beginning March 24, 1999), Dimitar Anakiev had collected haiku of our and foreign poets sent to him via e-mails and the Internet under difficult circumstances. This action of building electronic bridges between Yugoslavia and the world preceded his editing and publishing the book A Piece of the Sky (Haiku from an air-raid shelter), which is a testimony of these sad "events", sad to the world, not only to our people. In his forward to the book, "Fragments of Reality," Dimitar Anakiev says: ". . . haiku is poetry of consciousness and in war times, as we know, our consciousness is narrowed, deformed by emotions, and very often overloaded by ideology. On the other hand, only excellent poems could achieve, under the circumstances, such a great success. Even more important, only a genuine and deeply-felt haiku can survive the present moment and endure as a future artistic bridge between peoples and nations, the only bridge that no one can destroy." And he goes on to say: "During the greatest suffering of our nation its (haiku) poetry, born out of an existential abyss, has become very popular in the world’s haiku literature. This rare distinction – to become a visible part of world literature – can be achieved by small nations only if they pay the highest price. Perhaps in the book A Piece of the Sky our poetry is one of the good aspects of tragedy."

As we are known as open-hearted and open-minded, straightforward, very sensitive, passionate, temperamental people from the Balkans, so are our haiku for the most part. We don't "have" any other nature; our differences are negligible. We may not be so lucky to come upon dolphins or whales, as, say, American do, or temples and statues of Buddha as Japanese do, but others would not be lucky to remember their farm life with so much nostalgia, to approach in a dream or reality to their ancestors’ dreamlike old huts and cottages, to taste and smell delicious sarmas (stuffed sauerkrauts), to have a cup of "gossip" coffee and homemade cakes with a next door neighbor . . . long and slow and good-hearted. Or about regular mud on your shoes from dirty roads. Who knows how much of Turkish blood still flows through our veins, as they say here. All these and many other themes and motifs reflecting Serbian customs, a wide fan of Serbian sensibilities, emotions, psychology, culture, history . . . employed also in their haiku are to be included in a haiku calendar, a project undertaken by Dimitar Anakiev several years ago.

We all know enough about the differences between Japanese and Western poetry (ours included): that the Japanese form is characterized by formal rigidity (most of Japanese poetry consists of 5 and 7 syllables; it isn’t a special feature of haiku, but a characteristic of the Japanese language) and grammatical freedom, whereas Western poetry is characterized by rigid grammatical definitions and formal freedom. Free form conforms to the spirit of Western haiku. Formal features of Western haiku, including ours, are: brevity, conciseness and a pause (cutting word/kireji in most English-language haiku and punctuation marks in most of ours). The main content of haiku is a haiku moment, that sudden flash of consciousness that connects the physical and transient with the cosmic and eternal. That visible, but at the same time intuitive or transcendental, spiritual world is expressed by the language of the visible, material world. How successfully that main content of haiku will be expressed depends on spiritual and expressive capabilities of an author.

The Serbian language is receptive to 5-7-5 syllabication in contrast to the English language, as I was led to believe when reading many articles on this topic in English, including R. H. Blyth’s, who proposed 2/3/2 rhythm for haiku in English addressing stressed syllables. Then I was led to believe that it was not quite so when I read Prof. James Kirkup's opinion (criticizing William Higginson's observation on onji and that Japanese poets do not count syllables at all) supporting his view that haiku must stick to the traditional tight form, seasonal references and a cutting word, but with a possibility of transgressing the rules when we are led by circumstances and imagination. We all also know that there is still pretty much disagreement on the definition of haiku regarding its form, its content and poetic devices that may or may not be employed, leading to a vast variety of the way of the writing of haiku and poets’ expressions. While in America there were a lot of discussions and efforts to make a definition of haiku for the West, it was not the case in our country.

To make things simple, many haiku poets, not only ours, have taken the line of least resistance by accepting that haiku is a 17 syllable lyric poem arranged in three lines. Our haiku poets seem to have decided to transgress some of the essential rules whenever possible striving for freedom of expression and upholding to the generally known posture that the rhythm (complied with the language rules) of this brief poem is what determines its effect, not the number of syllables. And of course, Serbian haiku are (without exception, as far as I know) written in three lines (in contrast to many English-language haiku that are cast in any number of lines), without any graphic design (that could be found in English-language haiku) and often without the cutting word or kireji.

In contrast to the rule pointed out by Lee Gurga (Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku, 2002) that "when one sees a haiku or pseudo-haiku that begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, one can be fairly certain that the writer has missed this important point" (re: elements of haiku technique), our poets often opt for both capital letter and period, but also for other punctuation marks. And in contrast to English-language haiku written in the present, our poets often opt for the past. The internal comparison that results from the juxtaposition of two or more images is also crucial to haiku in English, but rarely taken care of in Serbian haiku. As for seasonal references, they are employed in a considerable measure, but there are many examples, especially with novice poets, that they cannot get rid of Japanese kigo, such as cherry petals, frogs, lotuses, crickets . . . even statues of Buddha, temples and Mount Fuji.

And even worse - many poets have still not learned that haiku does not serve as a medium for self-expression, for displaying wit or an intellective statement, but that haiku must be detached from the poet’s ego, his private memories and associations, that it should describe the world as it is in an honest and the simplest way. In our poetical tradition on the whole, nature is not the most important poetic expression; it is often historical (epic) experience. So, it happens that our poets sometimes stray from the canons of classic Japanese genre (seasons, animal and vegetable worlds, immediate experience of the outer world, interrelationship between the micro and macro world) or express inner worlds of their souls, their urban environments, often presenting an image rather than getting deeper to the hearth of existence and to the world of animals and plants.

Instead of juxtaposition and other common haiku techniques, many overuse poetic devices such as metaphor and simile, which is noticeable even in haiku of our renamed professional poets. There are also a great many examples where our haiku poets convey their personal vision through imagery and the fantastic that are in no way the way of haiku and that lead to detachment from reality.

The above explanations have taken into account the not so perfect aspects of Serbian haiku along with those which are an inevitable and natural part of our own cultural, historical and social background and those facts that make it different from haiku in other countries west of Japan. It goes without saying that there are a good number of authentic and competent haiku poets in Serbia as there are in any other nation. Among so broad a mass of poets here or anywhere in the world, there are always those who have succeeded in rising from the "sketches of life" to "selective realism" or even to "poetic truth" as Shiki suggested in his developmental approach of the haiku poet.

RW: A book of your haiku is coming out soon. I have read excerpts. It is poignant, some of the poems, lingering in mind, refusing to let go. How did this book come to be?

SV: The book came about in an unusual way. Anita Virgil, a great woman I was lucky to "discover" through various channels three years ago when I was asking for permission to publish my translation of her essay on Issa, began a long exchange with me as a result. She became a virtual friend, though we have not yet met. During more than a year and a half as I worked on translating her poems and essays for various magazines in the Balkans, she knew nothing of my own poems. I think it was one day in January of 2003 that she asked me if I wrote haiku myself. (She had told me I seemed so sensitive to her work it made her wonder how that was possible unless I, too, wrote haiku!) I sent her about 13 poems. She immediately asked to see more poems if I had any. I sent her over 130. She said she was surprised (and I even more so) to discover so many good ones among them, and it was then she first proposed I publish a book.

There already were some friends and colleagues of mine who believed it was time for me to do a book. Much of my work had been published in Europe, Canada and the USA, had been included in several collections and anthologies, and had received awards in Europe and Japan. I was grateful and proud for their encouragement, but really not interested. I am not that much preoccupied by my own haiku. There are many other things I have or must do. Haiku is a natural phenomenon. Nothing that you must do. And I don’t really think every poet must have a book of his own.Yes, if you have to offer something unique, something "unseen", a discovery that would enrich the world or just the haiku world.

What have I discovered? My poems are written in my inner body, and my inner body is not satisfied. They are written for no one in particular, not even for myself. I just wanted to let go. At a moment. I kept bothering Anita that I did not think my haiku are good enough and that I did not want to publish them. But she felt otherwise. Then ensued a long correspondence and hard work over several months, usual in a process of editing...Together we got the poems just so, and Anita will be putting the book out before the end of this year. The title, which comes from two of my poems, is muddy shoes candy heart.

RW: Common threads woven into your haiku are sadness, passion, and a deep seeded hunger to make the world around you better. How do you view the world around you? Is poetry a way for you to express your inner feelings and to, perhaps, make a difference in the world?

SV: Yes, it must be that I am a selfish person as my inner feelings dominate my poems. I may be dishonest to nature, but I hope it understands that I do not reject it but that my weak inner body declines to accept the world I see with my eyes, feel with other senses . . . this world and the one that has vanished in reality and which I like and for which I feel sorry. For man so weak in his weakness, so much so that he has become so alienated, lonely, sad, lost to himself and others of his species. And so I must be also. I don't think I am able to make any difference even in my neighborhood, let alone in the world. I can try, I have been trying, I am doing what I can; but just today I happened to hear from my daughter that even my next door neighbor, a woman, apologized that she is still not able to accept my last year's invitation to come for a cup of coffee.

RW: What is haiku to you, and why have you chosen it to express your soul?

SV: I must say that I've been spending very much of my time reading and writing about haiku, writing my own haiku, translating other poets' haiku and a whole lot of haiku for their books as well as articles on haiku for Serbian and some other Balkan haiku journals, and that I still don't feel it as an integral part of myself. Actually, it may not be a part of myself, but of nature, and should remain there. You take by glance, leave and go, but it is still there where it has always been, where it is and I hope will be. So, it seems that I have not chosen haiku but that I’ve been chosen by it. Or is it not by God or just by my parents and theirs . . .?

It appears easy to write . . . just three lines, two or one . . . that number of syllables or not . . . and difficult to express that what is essential, to hide yourself behind words, to show the meaning of every single particle within the universe of which it is a part, of which the universe is a part. A light breeze coming from the universe which stirs a curtain behind which a man is sitting contemplating in his solitude, in seeming emptiness, which makes him cast his glance in its direction . . . We are not alone. Every single thing and every single man is with us every moment. And we are with every single thing and every single being.

RW: What one poet has had the greatest influence on you as a haiku poet, and why?

SV: One poet? I may search for information and beauty, and I do enjoy reading and writing, hoping to learn and practice more. If I am expected to say Basho, as most would, I won't admit his influence on my conscious mind, but maybe . . . I'll try to explain . . . I first became acquainted with haiku («never heard» then) in 1997 as a program organizer for a Belgrade club. I happened to know a man called Ilija Bratic, a retired professor of philosophy, prose and poetry writer, including haiku, whom I interviewed on some other topics for a local magazine. In that interview he mentioned haiku he had written and afterwards I talked to the club people to invite Belgrade poets from their haiku club, Shiki, for a gathering and presentation of their work.

I can’t admit that I even listened carefully to their haiku, let alone understood what they were all about. When it was over, Ilija told me that I myself should start writing haiku. I refused. I didn't have that feeling for such a short, tender, «meaningless» form. Out of spite (yes, these are the right words), I just tried to find out what it was all about, and having spent hours and hours over typed pieces of a girl (14) who named them haiku (I saved a manuscript she gave me when I interviewed her regarding her first novel), trying to make out what that famous 5-7-5 was and . . . finally found out!

Then I started writing like mad. In a day I produced some 20 pages of what I thought were haiku. What I had written were but very good pieces of something else, Ilija told me, and started showing me haiku by various authors. I was still against it and ready to leave. Then he took down a book from a shelf, a small, bright-covered The Old Pond, and I stopped to take the last glance at what he «intended» to make from me. I stopped, looked, listened (thank you David Lanoue) . . . and felt ashamed:

                               Oh, Matcushima
                               Oh, Matcushima

(This poem was not among Basho's hokku and haiku in that book).

As I said, I don't feel myself to be a poet and rarely read poetry books. Only particular poems, which I then read and reread until I get to know them by heart. Edgar Allan Poe's "Raven," Lord Byron's "Incantation" . . . and of course and first of all those written by Serbian marvelous lyric masters: Vladislav Petkovic´ Dis, Vojislav Ilic´, Jovan Ducic´, Djura Jaksic´, Aleksa Santic´. . . . It's a pity their words cannot be translated into any language and save the feeling they are able to evoke. There is always a danger I would leave out some of many world-class authors, but I must mention our Nobel Prize winner, Ivo Andric´, who wrote «as if he does not touch a paper» as another Serbian writer, Jara Ribnikar, said to me in an interview I had with her. Then my favorite and beloved "The Little Prince." In fact we all learn from everybody, from every single being, no matter whether he/she is a writer or not; from every single plant or animal . . . everything and everybody.

RW: You told me once in a letter that you tutor a young girl. Does her way of viewing the world creep into your poetry?

SV: Unfortunately, not, or I am not conscious of it. I am most happy when I have to go to her and be with her. She is a rare, really happy human being I know today in my country and abroad. It is all I feel when I am with her. Perhaps it is because I am not that happy? Or not at all? It's hard for me to express any happiness in my haiku or other writings. But I am happy in those moments I feel other people's happiness, which is but a moment, but it lasts.

There are things I owe my own children and the world. How could I be happy? With so many unhappy events and people suffering . . . a hard burden to carry. Honestly, this is the first question I am answering. It has nothing to do with haiku, but you will find me in them. Maybe even some particles of my own happiness.

Sasa Vazic (pictured, right, with her daughter) is a free-lance journalist, astrologer, translator, writer of prose and poetry attempts, curious and interested in all forms of everything that exists, moves or seemingly keeps still, within and without.

Regarding haiku poetry, she most readily helps the "voice" of its best products be heard the furthest and widest, and in that attempt she tries to listen to and feel the nerve and to follow it.

She is a member of the World Haiku Club. In 2003 she launched her own web site, Haiku stvarnost/Haiku Reality [] with the aim of gathering the world's best haiku authors and theoreticians. [English pages:].

No book of hers has been published as yet, either of haiku poetry (one is actually in the process) or of any other field of her interests (two have been writing themselves), but over 1000 of her articles on various topics have appeared in numerous journals, magazines and newspapers.

She is a recipient of several awards and commendations at haiku contests held in the country (ex Yugoslavia, present Serbia and Montenegro) and abroad and her poems have been published in a number of domestic and foreign haiku magazines.

Click here to view a selection of Sasa Vazic's haiku published in this issue of Simply Haiku.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku