Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Michael J. Rosen for Poetry Month, Part 2

Last week The Open Book featured Part 1 of a special post by guest blogger Gigi Amateau.  She interviewed poet Michael J. Rosen in honor of Poetry Month.  The interview continues below--Lucinda Whitehurst.

Gigi Amateau
GA:  One time a haiku guy told me that to write haiku, you must empty your heart and let it fill back up. I kinda like that…sort of tender and holy and real all at once.

MJR:  I’d never heard that and the idea is appealing. I appreciate that we don’t have to take it literally, so it’s like when the yoga teacher tells you, “Send your breath down your body into the rootedness of your feet,” or “Breathe into the tightness of your hips.” Sure, the lungs don’t exactly function that way, but the idea of concentrating attention, of training your wandering, gathering thoughts into a pure channel—that, I get.
Michael J. Rosen

It’s easy to accidentally sound pretentious when talking about haiku since there’s an almost an obligatory defensiveness.

GA:  What does that mean “to get pretentious about haiku”? To suggest that some people have access to the form and others don’t?

MJR:  Oh, you know, in order to “redeem” haiku from its identity as just a little form taught to kids in school that can’t be so hard…. To say you write haiku, seriously, almost sounds like an oxymoron.   
Anyway. There are many more rules and underlying concepts as the form was originally practiced that many of us overlook. But let’s be frank: The original practitioners devoted their lives to this art, this art was their life, and everything else fell somewhere in between. So it does sound a little precious or dilettantish to see this art as cordoned off from the rest of a hectic life. It does sound as if it goes against the very nature of this art to “bring it out” for the special occasion of sitting down to write or stopping to reflect.

Still, we live in a world where we have to support ourselves, yield to many more demands than the devout calling.

So, to me, the notion of haiku as a practice can strike a balance  between the burden of academic heavy-handedness and the dismissible lightness of child’s play.

GA:  I think maybe what I was fiddling with was a thought about using haiku in daily life—regular people keeping a regular practice of intentionally connecting to themselves, the world, other people through the keeping of, say, a haiku notebook. I realized through our discussion here that twice in my life—when my grammy passed away in 2007 and when my best old dog passed away two years later—I wrote haiku every day for no reason other than my heart just hurt so badly that I needed some way to notice something other than my own grief. So, even though I was writing haiku about the river or catbirds or bufflehead they were full of everything that was in me at that time including just horrendous sorrow and longing for my grammy and then my dog, Blackberry.

MJR:  Beautiful. Heartrending. And, coincidentally (or not), I began writing haiku right after my father died. Almost immediately. Out of the blue. I started devouring books on the subject. Reading too quickly, then going back to read one or two a day. Haiku seemed to be the only vessel sized for the concentration I could muster.

GA:  Oh, Michael. So, during that time haiku held you afloat?

MJR:  Or anchored. Yes. What are we told to do at the start of a yoga class? Leave everything else at the door. Clear the mind and focus simply on the linking of breath and movement. Fixity of attention—that’s what it’s about. When we offer that to another person, it’s love. When we offer it to ourselves…it can be a held position, a kinesthetic image of our body in space. It can be a haiku, a calmness…so that the choppy water of time becomes still, mirror-like, allowing us to see something clearly.

GA:  When I read The Cuckoo’s Haiku, I also get a similar sort of feeling—that what I’m reading is a full, heartfelt, complex, and intimate encounter with some of my favorite birds: the Barred Owl, the Cedar Waxwing, the Pileated Woodpecker, and my BFF, the American Crow.

MJR:  I appreciate that very much, although I don’t want to overplay my accomplishments or overinflate the idea of apt observation as a beauty in and of itself. It’s the entire enterprise of writing the haiku that affords me that greater awareness. All the haiku about birds as a book, at least to me, creates a vital sense of participating as an animal among other animals—birds, in particular, in this case.

GA:  I like that idea, too, of “participating as an animal among other animals.” I am a big fan of crows. Once my sister and I were about to walk into a pretty rough bar and a crow swooped down and made that “uh-uh” call. Long story as to WHY we were headed in there, but the short version is the crow’s call was a nice little warning and we got out of there without any trouble. Plus, I always have the feeling that the crows in my neighborhood know everybody and look out for us.

MJR:  Splendid idea for a book, that notion of the crows knowing you all. And I, too, love to flirt with the idea of the pathetic fallacy, that idea that nature does present things to reflect and echo our feelings. The notion of the crow offering you that “uh oh,” sound, suggests that you needed to hear that. You were predisposed to hear it as that expression rather than “ha ha,” or “grek crek,” or any other words or phonemes you might have assigned it.

GA:  So, now, tell me what inspired you to consider hound dogs using haiku? BTW – we have a Redbone Coonhound, Biscuit, such a great dog. Tell me about the hounds in your life.

MJR:  You need a second coonhound, so you can have Biscuit and Gravy! I’ve never spent time with that breed, but what beautiful creatures.  

I’ve written about dogs in prose and verse, for adults and kids, for many years. I’ve shared my life with dogs. I can’t imagine my life without dogs. As Kundera wrote, “They wind the clock of our days.” And as I’ve written haiku, partly because one or another dog is always outside wherever I am working or hiking, that canine presence is part of the watching. Moreover, I am always trying to appreciate what’s being perceived from the dog’s vantage as well: the smells or sounds that I’m missing.

So when I had the chance to create a book for Candlewick on dogs, we followed in The Cuckoo’s Haiku’s precedent and chose different dog breeds and provided “field notes” about them.

GA:  I really love the field notes in both books!

MJR:  Thank you, thank you. For me, it’s the perfect blend: art plus nature, inspiration plus rootedness. My zoology degree and my poetry degree.  

Indeed, I could have done the book about dogs in general, without selecting breeds. But that’s what I did: I wrote or rewrote poems that would be most apt for a given breed. For instance, while many breeds dig, it made sense to let the Parson Russell Terrier be featured in the haiku about digging holes.

As for my own hounded-ness? I grew up with two bassets and a beagle. And, for a third of my life, I had one hound-mix—Treeing Walker Hound/terrier?—that shared my bed, the space under my desk, the passenger’s seat of the car. Eighteen years and three months. A blessed life. And I mean both of ours.

GA:  Oh goodness, there is nothing like writing with a dog beneath your desk. Blackberry had her spot there and she would let me tuck my toes into her coat. Biscuit is just three years old, but now she’s coming around to liking to hang out in my office—definitely, as you say, a blessed life.  Speaking of blessings: Michael, thank you, again, for sharing your time and ideas about haiku with me.

MJR:  Honestly, it’s a great pleasure to share the passion for writing, for haiku, in particular. Especially with a kindred spirit! Our exchange reminds me how poetry, any kind, is practiced as a special pastime or journal or place for emotions for many, many people…who never dream of sharing it. Or reading others’! Why isn’t there the interest, the small investment in reaching across the not-so-great distance, to empathize with or appreciate another’s crafted words.

GA:  One last question before we part: What’s next for Michael J. Rosen? Do you have a new book coming out soon?

MJR:  Yes, this month, Running with Trains, A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices comes out. It’s a sustained set of poems spoken by two boys in 1969 and 1970. One, Steve, is on a farm, shuttling his herd of cows back and forth between barn and pastures, watching the train that cuts across his property; he longs to travel. The other, Perry, is aboard that train, shuttling twice a week between the two places he knows as home; he longs to be settled. Their lives intersect for a brief moment, and each comes away with different perceptions about the other’s “ideal” life.

And I set the story in that particularly tumultuous year of change and unrest. The year, not coincidentally by any means, that I was the age of the middle-school readers for whom the book is geared.

GA:  Running with Trains sounds like another amazing Michael J. Rosen book! I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this interview. I think I’ll go do some yoga and then head down to the river to practice haiku.

MJR:  By way of thanks—a tribute to Blackberry and Ticker and, of course, all the others before…and to come. Another work in progress. Four possible endings to suggest what I’m trying to find…

spring’s dew-heavy grass
prints climb the stairs, each fainter
already, they’re ghosts / ghost dogs haunt the house / already, we’re haunted / just so, the years haunt

GA:  Beautiful, thank you. May I pick this ending?

ghost dogs haunt the house
It makes me think of Ticker and Blackberry and all the other good, old, best dogs out hunting.

MJR:  Done! Thank you. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Michael J. Rosen for Poetry Month, Part 1

Michael J. Rosen
April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate we have a wonderful guest blogger!  Gigi Amateau is the author of Claiming Georgia Tate, Chancey of the Maury River, A Certain Strain of Peculiar, and the upcoming Come August, Come Freedom:  The Bellows, The Gallows, and The Black General Gabriel.

Gigi kindly agreed to interview poet Michael J. Rosen for this special edition of The Open Book.  Part 1 of the interview appears today; look for Part 2 early next week.  Happy Poetry Month, everyone!--Lucinda Whitehurst

GA:  Thanks so much for talking about haiku with me for Poetry Month! I
love haiku so much. Two of your books – The Cuckoo’s Haiku and The Hound Dog’s Haiku – are proudly on display in our family library right now.  Not only on display, but actively in use.  Ours is a household of birders and haiku- and hound-dog lovers, so what a treat to have the
Gigi Amateau
chance to ask you a few questions about your work and the craft.

MJR:  Please invite me over…. <grin> I mean, do you know how impossible it is to imagine my work actually in any place other than a bookstore or my mother’s coffee table? I don’t know if other authors feel this way…but the “reader” is such an abstract concept—at least, humility seems to be a requisite for me: a means of imagining the isolation needed to just work without anyone looking on.

GA:  I read a wonderful interview in Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast wherein you described the meditative nature of composing haiku. Could you say more about that and how a devotion to writing or reading haiku—a haiku practice, maybe?—might help people in today’s crazy-busy world?

MJR:  I suppose the first thing to get out of the way is the dismissive perception that haiku is “a little poem that goes 5, 7, 5.” That’s like saying choreography goes right, left, up, or down. Or that painting just combines red, blue, and yellow.

GA:  Awesome! Be gone, dismissive perception.

MJR:  Granted, a haiku is a small poem. Granted, the widely practiced adaptation (some would say, corruption) of this Japanese form into English establishes a particular syllable count for each of three lines.
So that’s the shape of the vessel—think of it as a blown-glass orb—that contains not just air, but the breath of the creator. So…poet as glassblower.

This metaphor of a small glass orb really works for me, now that I’ve stumbled on it. A glassblower usually creates that bubble in the molten bead of glass with one steady breath. A haiku, too, is often thought of as one gesture, one sustained expression.

GA:  I like that a lot: “one steady breath.” It deemphasizes the rigidity of a syllable count and makes a haiku seem more like capturing a specific moment. One full breath.

MJR:  Capturing, as you say, but also releasing, relinquishing the poem into the reader’s mind.

GA:  Yes, of course, that makes perfect sense. Again like a breath – capturing and releasing, the inhale and exhale.

MJR:  More about that later.

Agreed: Syllable count is just the opponent to keep you on your game. It doesn’t offer anything intrinsically. At least to me. It simply creates a volume wherein the pressure is increased. So the syllables suggest a movement that is captured in three dependent but self-sufficient lines.

It’s a form that presents something you’ve “gathered”— think of wildflowers—to the reader, but in a bouquet. Not a fussy arrangement, but presented…all the stems beneath the fist, all the dead flowers pinched off, the leaves trimmed back…whatever’s needed to best reveal what is present.

But back to the glass orb. It suggests fragility. And, if I can overextend that metaphor even further, let’s say that orb is translucent, refractive, reflective, so that an image of the outer, outside world, in a certain light, if held just so, is reflected on its surface. In other words, the viewer of the orb (the reader) sees his or her own reflection surrounded with whatever surrounding seasonal elements…at the instant this orb/poem is passed into his or her hand.

GA:  Michael, with that you’ve brought some clarity to haiku for me. Now that you articulate the role of the viewer or reader, I get it a little better, and this really resonates with me as a reader of haiku. For example, one of my favorites is this, translated from Issa: Don’t worry spider, I keep house casually. He wrote it in 1821, but nearly 200 years later, this small poem is pretty much our family mantra. We literally recite it to our spider-friends when we happen to catch a glimpse of them indoors.

MJR:  Lucky spiders!
Yes, to try to clarify this again: I’m trying to suggest that the words of a haiku create a surface in which the reader’s perspective or presence is an essential part. A completion.

That out of the way—or in it!—onto your question. It sounds as if your use of the phrase “haiku practice” echoes the idea of a yoga practice, with the sense that some of the same desired outcomes might be realized in both.

GA:  Yes, that’s what I was thinking of exactly! With a daily yoga practice, I might show up to the mat one day wanting to open my hips, the next hoping to release the tension in my shoulders, or some days I may come into the practice just to keep the habit of being present and aware but not really desirous of a specific physical outcome.  Hmm…maybe I’ll add a haiku component to my yoga practice just for the fun of it; I think there are some parallels there that would be fun to explore.

MJR:  We’re in cahoots here. Yes, each discipline provides a calmed, focused, regular chance for awareness of self and surround in a “crazy-busy world.” I practice both, but never really thought of them as so resonant, so…linked. That said, when I first started my yoga practice, the instructor’s words, advice, corrections always stuck me as philosophical principles that I’d heard from art teachers…or that I hear choreographers say…or that I’ve urged upon my writing students. In other words, so many of the same core ideas apply aross so many disciplines. Maybe all?
Set your intentions and focus in the moment.
Find that point beyond comfort but before discomfort where you feel the sensation of being present.
The only thing that matters is what is happening right now on your—mat, canvas, page—no one else’s.
Bring a lightness to your seriousness.

GA:  I love it! What a fun little yoga-tangent that was.

MJR:  What was that question of yours! So, yes, writing haiku can be a method of stepping outside the current—more like the undertow—of current events. Perhaps journal writing offers the same thing for some
people, but haiku is less a record of a personal journey or experience. It’s almost a stripping away of one’s individual presence in favor of finding that universal vantage point—that purely observational stance. I don’t think the ego is or should be entirely stripped away, but there is an additional serenity in focusing outward. (Of course, it’s all that’s “inward” that selects and appreciates and reveals what’s outward.)

Likewise, it’s the puzzling and piecing of the haiku that, for me, is especially satisfying. And maybe there is, again, an equivalent in yoga, how a pose comes together finally—balance, strength, flexibility, breathing, stillness—with the continued, steady attempts. Okay, yoga aside, I am urging students to recognize that words are the mother and not the nanny of thought. They have to give birth to the idea/image/poem rather than simply dress them in clean diapers (i.e., 17 syllables and 3 lines).

Many days I carry around a tentative image or start of a haiku, and tumble it around in my head. (Seventeen syllables is just about all I can retain these days!) Like a Rubik’s Cube, I keep twisting and shifting the elements throughout the day. I try the first line as the last line. I shift tenses. As in a Scrabble game, I have to fit a word into a “tight space,” and, yes, I’m always going for a “double word” score—I mean, something with a additional meanings or nuances that enlarge beyond a simple definition.

GA:  How about an example?

MJR:  Long overdue! One of my cats sleeps beneath a hanging begonia. Long leaves dangle a foot or so above her head. She watches me work (aka, sleeps). Sure, the plant has grown larger, but there’s nothing that has grabbed the cat’s attention. Two years or so, she’s been a mackerel swirl of fur below the shiny heart-shaped leaves. She could be the plant’s shadow if the sun were angled correctly.

One day, she walks into the room, lifts both paws, and grabs the lower leaves. Rip. Shred. Done. I startle her, she circles once, and then returns to her usual napping position.

So I wanted to capture that, that thing cats do, that unpredicted whim that’s almost as if another cat took possession of the body for an instant…because there’s always that moment afterwards when the cat seems to have no knowledge of what just transpired.

Here’s the working idea:

shredded like green news
halved hearts cover the shadow
where the cat had slept

Does the idea of the plant come through? Does “green news” work?  I’d had “leafy hearts” but then thought that “halved” played up the shredded leaves and hinted at the idea of breakage…but then there was no reference to plants, green, etc.

GA:  Yes, as I read these lines I had an emotional response at ‘halved hearts’ precisely because of the half hearts were broken.

MJR:  I have versions of the last line in past, present and future tense. Do I want “halved leaf hearts are the shadow”—so now the clutter of leaves creates a shadow, as if the cat walked off and left it behind?

So this poem is in flux. It’s semi-permeable. It’s malleable. And since tinkering with this poem while we’ve passing this conversation back and forth, I realize that I ought to give up some of the original image, or to acknowledge elements that were scaffolds that can now be removed. For instance, “begonia” is three syllables—a lot of “real estate” in a line that’s only five syllables. So, I looked for other heart-shaped house plants.

Likewise, I still felt I was missing that “why now?” aspect, that instant of the poem’s occasion. So here are two more avatars. As you can tell, I’m still not sure the words have created the prism that lets this moment shine forth.

why today the cat
beneath peace lily arches
halved the leafy hearts?

where the cat had slept
beneath peace lily arches
shadow of halved hearts

Some months I do try to write a haiku every day. I don’t think about the merit of each one but, rather, the merit of the process itself. The practice that doesn’t need to make perfect.

GA:  Is it as simple as haiku calls us to nature and to ourselves, and we benefit from those kinds of pauses?

MJR:  The answer to that kind of question is always yes, of course. And also, much more. Each person, let alone, each writer, tries to identify those habits and attitudes and schedules that bring out efficiency, happiness, a sense of well being, and productivity. Concomitantly, the goal is to find out what to limit or avoid that tends to decrease those desired qualities. So, for some—for me—the writing of haiku, the being in and among nature, does provide some sense of perspective, humility, awe, calm.

Look for Part 2 of the Amateau/Rosen interview next week.