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. 

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