Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2005, vol 3 no 4


An Interview With Hortensia Anderson
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: You've written more than one book of occidental poetry and have an international following. Your poetry is poignant, with the rare ability to reach inside a person's psyche, causing that person to react and think.

Take this example from your book, Trust (Fly By Night Press):

"Like an undercooked egg"
the surgeon said the boy
was ready to rupture right
on the table.

They had me in stitches
to keep me from bursting,
scar crossed forever
front and

Back on dialysis and dilaudid.

The nurse brings out
my demons. Christ
kills me. She says she's

Born again.
As if once weren't enough.

What led you to write haiku? And why haiku?

HA: My first exposure to poetry as a child was rhyming poetry. At 10, I discovered non-rhyming or "free" poetry. My first writing experiences in poetry coincided with my reading. I continue to read and write so- called Occidental poetry, with another book in my editor's hands as I type!

In 1977, I got into Zen Buddhism which I practice. At some point, I had procured the four volume Blyth anthology on Japanese haiku and was hooked. However, I didn't really understand haiku despite my Zen and Western poetry backgrounds. I'd written a Master's thesis on haiku and the literature of psychological representation at New York University, yet it took years until I began to get a handle on haiku.


RW: You mention a current book. Tell us about it.

HA: The latest book is another collection of "free" poetry. It will be very similar to the first - edgy and with twists and turns.


RW: Haiku and Occidental free verse poetry are on opposite poles from one another. Do you find yourself switching mindsets when going from one genre to the other?

HA: I prefer to think in terms of "form" versus "free" poetry. The Eastern forms such as haibun, sijo, tanka and sedoka have increased my appreciation for Western forms such as triolet and cinquain. I don't write very much "free" poetry lately so it was strange reading my own manuscript.

If you really want an experiment in switching mindsets, get into collaborations! There is another set of opposites - your own verse and having to accommodate your aesthetic to those of other poets.


RW: Tell me about yourself: Your education, your youth, the are of who you are.

HA: I was born and raised in New York City, New York with the exception of a 4 year stint in Los Angeles, California and 6 months in Key West, Florida. I spent weekends and vacations on a bizarre estate on the Orient Point of Long Island and also in a year 'round rustic suite on the Montauk Point of Long Island.

My father was an attorney and a petrochemical engineer and from him I learned to love nature - astronomy, geology, physics, biology, chemistry and through my mother, the expression of such love through craft - poetry, watercolor, tart jams from grapes, bayberry candles by poured wax into sand, wind chimes from seashells strung with fishing line, embroidered blooms on blue jeans...There was no science "better than" another and no "art" better than another. These impressions of my world were my beginnings as a poet.

My education consists of:

BA double in English and Film Studies/Semiotics - Pitzer College
MA in Teaching English as a Second Language - Hunter College
MA in English (Poetics) - NYU
Doctoral coursework in Linguistics - City University NY Graduate Center
Clinical Fellowship (4 year) from Gestalt Associates in Psychotherapy.


RW: An interesting mix of education, Hortensia. English, psychotherapy, and film studies. Has this diversity helped you as a Japanese short form poet?

HA: No. Meditation has. In fact, I often think of haiku as zazen in words. Zazen means "sitting zen" - literally, you sit on a cushion and by simply sitting, cultivate awareness and attention - a no-thingness. Completely opposite from every-thing else in my life! I strive to keep the openness of zazen in other areas of my life.


RW: Your definition of a haiku?

HA: I use the definition set forth by the Haiku Society of America.

"A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."

Well, for every "rule" in haiku: no metaphor or simile, must have two images in juxtaposition, must not be a single line, must have 17 syllables or three lines; I kept finding haiku that violated these "rules." And they weren't just "exceptions" because there were lots of them.

What they all had in common conformed to the HSA definition.


RW: What do you look for in writing a haiku? And how do you know when the haiku is a finished work?

HA: An "aha" like the "getting" a zen koan or "getting" the other image in a gestalt picture or "getting" the laugh in a joke!

I want no extraneous words, I prefer juxtaposition (but not in a formulaic way) and the haiku is finished because it feels finished. That "finished feeling" comes with craft . . . not because some muse bungee-jumped onto your shoulder.

Haiku as a practice is the cultivation of awareness. A good haiku should make me aware of life in a different way - and the simpler, the better. The response of "oh, I never thought of it that way!" Or "oh, I have always thought of it this way but never realized it" makes for a good haiku.


RW: Who have been your greatest influences as a haiku poet and as a non-haiku poet and why?

HA: The four volume series by Blyth because there was a dearth of haiku material in English. Blyth taught me that there was a perfect vehicle for my love of nature. Cor van den Heuvel showed me through his anthology that the rules can be broken with the "getting" remaining intact. William Higginson taught me that rules can be broken but not without learning craft inside-out first.

Others have been disturbed, I suspect, by my unwavering advocacy of learning craft and not believing in the "relative value" of poetry. I believe that everyone believes in "good haiku" and "bad haiku." The best evidence for this is the monthly kukai in which there will be one haiku that gets almost all the votes. It is so often a "good haiku" that it gets published by editors of ezines and print 'zines who are also of the apparent opinion that "good haiku" exist. If you have "good," you have to have "bad." We've all read them - and written them too. I've noticed that the most vociferous believers in "art is relative" become magically quiet when their haiku win the kukai.

The direction I have been heading towards is collaborative poetry - renku and the more experimental linked forms started by ai li and alexis rotella. It has taught me new ways of looking at poetry and of looking at different people and their cultures.

It also shoots the muse and the myth of the muse - if you are doing a 36 stanza renku with 7 other partners and they are waiting because it is your turn to submit a 3-line stanza #9 with an early autumn kigo that links yet shifts from stanza #8 but doesn't backlink to stanzas #3-7, you might try telling them that your muse took off for the Yucatan but don't be surprised if that is your last collaborative piece.

I have a lot of muses and they are the wonderful poets and artists I have been blessed to collaborate with!


Hortensia Anderson lives precariously on dialysis in the East Village in New York City with her Bengal leopard cat, Camellia.

Click here to read Hortensia Anderson's poems in this issue of Simply Haiku.