|Michael J. Rosen|
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
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.