Obey the Muse
Interview with Jim Kacian by Dietmar Tauchner
Dietmar Tauchner: Jim, could you give a definition of what a haiku is, please.
Jim Kacian: I wish I could, but I believe haiku is a continuously evolving genre which may be described, but cannot be defined, at least not in its entirety. I think it is possible to suggest what makes a poem a haiku in 99% of the cases, but there is always something just outside the norm that works as a haiku, and so expands the genre. I think this is the best indication that haiku is indeed a vital, viable kind of poetry, and not something so unchanging that it is possible to define its every nuance. Some of these characteristics which seem to occur in virtually all instances include brevity (variable, but not unusually so: i can think of no English poem of more than 20 syllables which its author argues is haiku), a sense of circumstantiality (that is, some perception of the "real" world, be it natural, psychological or some combination of these, and as opposed to wholly imaginative or intentionally "unreal"), and an awareness of the shifting of the understanding through the experience articulated in the poem (hence, the "haiku moment" or "satori", but also less grandly, "insight" or just perception).
Dietmar Tauchner: What makes a haiku unique?
Jim Kacian: Unique? the combination of these things. Great? the exactitude with which such an experience is articulated without waste, coupled with the significance of the insight so contained. It is hard to be much moved, no matter how accurate the writing, by a simple recording of the way things are, as in a nature sketch; at the same time, when that same sketch opens to suggest something which is true or beautiful and perhaps not obvious, it can matter a great deal more to us.
Dietmar Tauchner: What kind of techniques are necessarily required for a haiku? Does a haiku need a fixed form?
Jim Kacian: Well, I believe I answered much of this above, but it's worth emphasizing a couple points: a poet's allegiance is never to a form, but to his or her poetic material, and to its exact expression. So it doesn't much matter to me if haiku needs a fixed form, so much as whether a poet finds haiku to be the exact best way to express what needs to be expressed. As to techniques, there are dozens, though the vast majority of those which have been codified as "classic" fall are few: juxtaposition, or inner comparison; allusion; synaesthesia. A handful of commonly used techniques considered unfit for haiku but nonetheless frequently encountered include simile; metaphor, and personification. So to answer the question, there is no technique "required" for haiku, but the poet will choose the technique which is
most effective at achieving the effect he's after.
Dietmar Tauchner: What are the issues of a haiku? Are there any issues not approbiate to the genre?
Jim Kacian: In my opinion, haiku has no issues. This is not to say that issues cannot be discussed through the filter of haiku, but that is not quite the same thing. An example: one can feel one way or another about the efficacy of world haiku, whether or not haiku is a local or a global genre, but this is extraneous to haiku per se, though it might be fun to indulge in such a conversation. The task of the poet is not to please the localists or the globalists, but to write the exact truth of his poem. Others may argue their causes after the fact.
Further, if by issues you mean what kinds of content may haiku include, this is a simple matter to me: it may include anything that holds energy and interest. The only thing that haiku should not contain is dull, unenergetic writing.
Dietmar Tauchner: How important are the rules given by the old japanese masters, especially Basho and Shiki, nowadays?
Jim Kacian: They are essential, if we have any hope of understanding what haiku was to these poets, what they were attempting to accomplish, what they in fact attained. We cannot hope to understand "classical" Japanese haiku if we don't have a thorough grounding in kigo, kireji and other trappings of the genre. We are doomed to read nothing but the surface of such poems, and so miss much of the art and even meaning of such work. And, in so far as we are writing within the tradition we call haiku, understanding where we have come from is essential to knowing what we are doing, where we are in history and even possibly where we are going. All art is created within the context of itself: a poem outside the tradition of poetry is not only meaningless, it is unthinkable.
Having said that, this does not mean that the rules which governed Basho's composition have any bearing on our own. Just as Basho found his means of expression in his own time, so too must we find what gives us relevance and incites us to write in our own era. This is not simply a matter of content, but also of technique, context and understanding. Those who seek to write poems that Basho would approve have neglected 400 years of human movement, including space walks, automobiles, electricity, world wars, globalisation, and so on. If Basho were alive today, he would not be writing about fulling blocks except in an ironic way.
Dietmar Tauchner: How important is the traditional background for haiku-writing, and how important is the requirement of "atarashimi"?
Jim Kacian: I believe I answered this earlier, but it is perhaps worth restating that our greater understanding can only help us see our work and the work of our contemporaries that much more clearly in context, which has to be seen as some sort of advantage.
If you take "atarashimi" to mean "newness", then I cannot think of a more important tenet. Not in the sense that we require novelties in haiku, but rather that we require new eyes to see the old world to make it new. Haiku which is simply reportage, which doesn't make us see the world anew, is merely reportage, not art at all.
Dietmar Tauchner: About the future of haiku. What should be avoided, what should be revealed?
Jim Kacian: Harold G. Henderson wrote in 1967, "What kind of poems [haiku] will eventually turn out to be will depend on the poets who write them." Nothing has changed to alter that sentiment. So the question is, what kinds of poems will poets write as haiku in the future? Already we can discern some directional shift, though whether these will be permanent shifts of direction or only momentary fashion, we can only guess. For instance, in terms of content I'm noting of late a great deal more emphasis on what we once would have called the psychological haiku, not so much poems about the self as about the action of mind. I also see much more daring in the realm of technique than the previous couple decades, though not more than was evident in the 1970s. And in terms of form, I am pleased to see the arbitrary western default of three lines being seriously eroded, with many more one-line poems, but also two- and four-liners, and many organically arranged poems as well. I certainly wouldn't want to suggest to a poet that she avoid anything, if it was what she needed to express her voice clearly and without waste. I think only by selecting exactly what is necessary and saying it as clearly as possible does language capture and hold its attendant energy, which is the goal of any poem. The best poems hold their energy for a very long time. If anything will be revealed, it is just this energy.
Dietmar Tauchner: What's about the acceptance of the genre in the USA nowadays?
Jim Kacian: We need to make some distinctions to answer this question.
1) The word "haiku" is now part of our cultural mainstream. It is a buzzword to which has been assigned quite a number of cultural signifiers: exotic, intriguing, fresh, "cool", deep, at the same time simple, and so on. The word therefore has some cachet with those who would manipulate the cultural mainstream: advertisers, manufacturers, and so on. So you will discover the word haiku usurped by the cosmetics industry as the name of a perfume, the recreation industry as a kind of backpack, the electronics industry as a kind of notebook computer, and so on. "Haiku" is part of the everyday world here now.
2) The larger general term "haiku", as used by the majority of literate people in the US, would signify a kind of poem with a structure of 5-7-5 syllables, arranged in three lines. Anything which can be expressed in 17 syllables, then, is a haiku. We have major newspapers which offer capsule biographies in "haiku" form (The Washington Post) and others which host "haiku" contests (The Christian Science Monitor), major talk-radio shows which accept commentary in this format (The Jim Rome Show, to name one), and of course the ubiquitous internet Big Blue and other spam haiku, primarily about corporate culture and politics. Besides this, there are "literary" offerings of such poems, ranging from corporate haiku to Haikus for Jews to cat haiku and beyond. This simple-minded notion of what a haiku might be is its most prevalent manifestation in the US, and is, in fact, the primary way in which haiku is taught in US grade schools.
3) The literary term "haiku" is known only to a few thousand people, comprising mainly the haiku community and some others of the literary world, though not all. (Some "mainstream" poets would recognize the second meaning rather than this one.) This usage, which is not restrictive in terms of syllables, lines, or content, is at once the broadest and the narrowest of these three definitions, and the least recognized generally in the country.
So, to answer your question, haiku as a literary term in the way we understand it is not very accepted in the US, though alternative understandings are rampant. As these alternatives are driven by economics or popular understanding, they look to remain the dominant versions for some time to come. At the same time, they are not serious considerations, and so have no real value to those who have studied the matter further.
Dietmar Tauchner: Will Haiku be ever accepted as an independed literary genre in western countries? If yes, what's important to get that acceptance?
Jim Kacian: It already is, as mentioned above, in a populist and general way. As a serious literary genre it requires the cultural acts which authenticate any such enterprises in the west: funding and critical acceptance. If haiku begins to appear in major anthologies, published by major presses, is critiqued by cultural arbiters and scholars, can be purchased in the mall bookstore, appears in films and on television in something other than its parody self, it will be granted this authenticity. While it remains an amateur pursuit, however, it will remain a literary backwater.
Dietmar Tauchner: You are quite active in the worldwide haiku community, and familar with various haiku developments in different countries. What are the most important arguments for the so called "World Haiku? And what are its difficulties?
Jim Kacian: Whether or not haiku in its most specific guise can cross cultural barriers remains to be seen, but it is well worth the exploration, in my opinion. At its lowest level, there's simply the gratification of connecting with a poet from somewhere else in the world, the joy of saying "See, we're the same, world-round." At its grandest evocation, there's the possibility that the goodwill of haiku (which is, after all, a considerable portion of its charm and value) might be a metaphor for harmony and reconciliation on a larger scale. We are all defeated by the inability of politics and diplomacy to exact peace in the world. We can do worse than to think that haiku has something to offer in this realm.
The difficulties, however, are real and considerable. The most obvious and greatest problem is that of language. This cuts two ways: first of all, the lack of good translation (not even remarking on how difficult translation in general, and of poetry in particular, remains), coupled with the lack of funding for good translation (the bulk of translation is done by a handful of well-meaning volunteers) makes for a nearly impossible situation. The second is even more difficult: it is extremely useful to have a "base" language, a single language which is used for all meta-conversation about haiku, and in which all the haiku appear. The fact that this language today is English is fraught with difficulty: English is identified with imperium, and with the United States, and it is needless to say that US foreign policy over the past century or so has not endeared us to everyone. English as the bespoken language thus becomes a political issue, and more potentially divisive than unifying. On the other hand, there is really no good alternative. So by itself there is an impasse which requires great restraint and trust to overcome.
Beyond the language issue, there is also the issue of organization. The current means of access to haiku community are through regional, national and international associations, and the farther up the scale you go, the fewer there are to choose from. In fact, there are only two associations which purport to be "world" in scope, though neither, in truth, seems committed to that ideal so much as to personal aggrandizement. If the leadership of these organizations is not committed in an objective way to the growth of world haiku, then there is little recourse for most poets to dwell there. Poets are not usually the best suited people for organizational thinking in any case. It is likely that we have yet to find the best means for the majority of poets to explore the rest of the world they hold in common with other haiku poets.
In brief, I think the world haiku enterprise worth doing, but I doubt we have yet arrived at the best means to accomplish this.
Dietmar Tauchner: Why are you writing haiku? What is the purpose of your own writing?
Jim Kacian: I no longer write haiku--that suggests that I have some control over the event. Rather, haiku writes me. In fact, I am now the slave of haiku, or of the Muse, if you prefer. And, being a writer, I know it is unwise to offend or deny the Muse, so I continue as she wills.
The purpose of my writing (other than money, fame and power, of course) is that it is part of what I am called to do. I am reminded again and again of the power of connecting with readers through writing: how many times have we all been inspired by a book, a chapter, a poem, sometimes a single sentence or phrase, which has meant enough to us to change how we proceed in life? My goal is to try to articulate, as accurately and clearly as I can and in the best style I am capable of, the matters which seem most significant to me (which often are tiny things indeed). If in following this pursuit I touch the minds and lives of others, so much the better. What purpose these others make of my work I can't begin to imagine, but this is the way culture grows, and I am willing and pleased to play my part.
Dietmar Tauchner: What one haiku poet has had the most influence on you as a poet, and why?
Jim Kacian: This can be answered in many ways, and I'll choose just a couple. The poet who most influenced my earlies days in haiku would have to be Basho. Or more properly, I suppose, R. H. Blyth, though it is was through Blyth's versions of Basho that we had the most contact. The reason is simply because this is where I first learned of the genre, and Basho was the dominant poet in the "text" of that learning.
The first poem in English that made me wish I had written it was Ruth Yarrow's:
warm rain before dawn:
my milk flows into her
For obvious reasons I could not have written that poem, but still I coveted it.
Anita Virgil's "objectivist" haiku like:
red flipped out
in a cold white sink
made me appreciate that more dynamism was available to haiku than was usually encountered in the journals.
Marlene Mountain's commitment and iconoclasm:
old pond a frog rises belly up
helped me to recognize that haiku as a "way" didn't have to involve japanoiserie or false aesthetics
leaves blowing into a sentence
made the reflexive entirely appropriate in haiku context, and Robert Grenier
except the swing bumped by the dog in passing
did away with context without doing away with the haiku.There is more, much more, but you can see that we all have something to add to this expansion. I hope I might make somebody's list some day.
Dietmar Tauchner: Do you have any advices for german-language haiku-poets?
Jim Kacian: Sure. Obey the Muse. Learn the tradition. Practice all the time. Trust yourself. Be truthful. Don't settle for less than you think you deserve.But I don't expect you to take my advice. We all come to things when we're ready for them. When you're ready for these things, you won't need me to tell them to you. Good luck.
Dietmar Tauchner: Finally, could you give some examples of your poetry?
Jim Kacian: As to examples of my poetry, you better than most know my work, having spent time translating it into German, for which I am ever grateful. I wonder if the poems which work best in English also work best in German, or any other language? In other words, I wonder if it is not better that you choose from amongst my poems, since you are more likely to see what carries meaning in German, regardless of what my English originals might have meant. I have done a fair amount of translation work myself, and I wonder often if it is not accidents of correspondence or emphasis that do not drive cross-cultural interest. If this is true, then it will not be the likenesses of behavior and thought which make world haiku a success, but the odd cachements of language, with their hidden reservoirs of allusion, secondary meaning and aural tectonics which sparks the connection. I like this thought better, actually, than any belief that we are at heart all the same. It has never struck me that I am the same as any of my countrymen in any deep way: why would I expect people in Germany and Zimbabwe to be more like me?
So, please select from the poems I attach as you see fit, and I welcome all feedback.
the spring squalls change
a little piece of hell
in the woodstove
Polaroid of her lover
leaving the movie
believing this world
is the real one
passing the jug
of many hands
the river makes
of the moon
up to my ankles
the violin soloist
and his shadows
without islands in the dead center loneliness
situating the church the many gods that have to go
starry night some noise of the Big Bang still left
night clouds gone the supply of infinity
a long view to Sirius even the past isn't past
Jim Kacian is the author of 10 books of haiku and other poetry, owner of Red Moon Press, founder of the World Haiku Association (with Dimitar Anakiev and Ban'ya Natsuishi), and erstwhile editor of Frogpond, the international journal of the Haiku Society of America. He is currently working on an anthology of alternative haiku in English, and a permanent physical location that honors haiku in the West.