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An Interview With Randy Brooks by Robert Wilson

Q. You once wrote in an article for Haijinx, "Every haiku has within it a confirmation of the human heart being fully alive." Would you elucidate on this?

A. Haiku come from an open receptivity to be alive and aware of each day's blessings. Haiku are not merely clever poetic constructions. The best haiku come from moments of saying YES to the feelings, the sensations, the perceptions and the insights that come from daily moments of living. We go through our days busy with schedules, lists of to-do items, and determined to accomplish various things. We are always going somewhere, trying to get something done, so busy thinking about where we aren't. Haiku come from just letting go of this preoccupation with our plans and agendas and letting life happen. Being in the world. Instead of ignoring all the perceptions, instead of filtering out all the data pouring in, instead of classifying and dismissing everything we see as OLD NEWS, haiku come from really noticing and feeling the significance of things we are living right now. So the human heart feels. It is most fully alive not when we're lost and confined in the plans of our heads and egos, but merely receptive to the importance and the insights available to us every day. There are so many miracles, so many amazing things we are feeling every day. Trust the human heart to guide you to significance of perceptions and you will be an amazing haiku writer.

Q. What kind of discipline is necessary in order to write quality haiku?

A. The first discipline is to find time to quiet down, to meditate, to empty your constant analysis, to find space in your life to just be. Then haiku find you. But haiku is a literary art, and the significance of really quality haiku comes only in part from the writer. The other half of every haiku comes from readers. Besides receptivity, the other discipline requires you to seek out responses and associations from readers. It is not a matter of controlling readers. It is a matter of leaving room, openings, for readers to enter into the space your haiku provides. The haiku is a starting point, and the discipline is to NOT SAY EVERYTHING but to provide enough images to get the reader's imagination started. The reader may not reach the same insights or same awareness of significance about the moment you felt, but if the haiku is successful it leaves room for the reader to contribute to its aesthetic catharsis. The reader gets to reach that point of remembering and feeling what it means to be alive, to say YES, I know how that feels.

Q. Why is it important to study the origins and history of haiku traditions?

A. All literary art builds on the conventions and exemplary models of the past. Every haiku echoes and extends and revisits earlier haiku. Studying the origins of haikai poetry traditions is very important, not just to literary critics but also to practicing literary creators, the haiku writers. Every haiku speaks out of immediate present perceptions of the local culture, but the language and techniques of the art speak from the traditions which now come from a variety of cultures. For example, the break in haiku and frequency of employing two images which is sometimes referred to as a montage or juxtaposition technique is related to the origins of haiku as the "hokku", the starting verse of linked poetry in Japan. All of the other links in the linked verse can assume that the next link will leap or move the reader's mind in new directions, but the starting verse had to start that leaping process within itself. So haiku's leaping technique of moving consciousness from one focus to another has its origins in the linking poetry traditions. Studying renku and haikai no renga can help a great deal with understanding how much has to happen at once inside the images of the stand-alone haiku.
In his wonderful book Traces of Dreams, Haruo Shirane explains the importance of both the horizontal and vertical axis of meaning in quality haiku. The horizontal axis is how the images complete a sense of what's happening in the immediate sensory perceptions. The vertical axis is how these images resonate with allusions to the past—to history, to previous liteary works, to cultural or collective consciousness. If we do not study the history of haiku traditions, we are missing out on opportunities to pay homage and to use language that comes from that vertical axis of shared associations and collective memories.
Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Q. What haiku poet has had the greatest influence on you as a poet and teacher?

A. Probably Raymond Roseliep was the greatest influence on me, especially in my earliest years with haiku. I would send most of my efforts to him for suggestions, and Ray taught me so much in his eloquent letters back with edits and alternative versions of my haiku. Among the many things we discussed by correspondence, here are a couple of his many important lessons: (1) write out of the richness of your own back yard and your own religious, historical and local awareness; (2) avoid plurals when they become generalizations; (3) have fun and play with language and your natural language abilities; and (4) don't try to control your readers (let them have fun imagining and finding their own significance in your words).
After Raymond's mentorship, I have learned a great from a collaborative approach to studies, readings and editing sessions with my good friend Lee Gurga. We edited the Midwest Haiku Anthology, which was published in 1992, and in that collection we asked haiku writers included to tell the story behind their haiku. We included short excerpts from their responses about where the particular haiku in the anthology came from, and why they write haiku in general. Getting at the motives and psychological moves behind the genesis of haiku was very revealing to us. We have continued to grow together, meeting once a month to share new haiku books and to edit our recent writing attempts.

Q. As a Publisher and University Professor, what to you constitutes a good haiku?

A. As a publisher, a good haiku is one that stimulates associations and feelings immediately on the very first reading. The haiku draws you in and makes you want to complete the whole scene. It leads you into memories and fresh views of things you've never thought about deeply. Most important of all, a good haiku continues to resonate and stimulate responses with repeated readings. It never grows old. It never loses that freshness of surprise. It becomes an old friend you gladly meet and want to spend some time with again.
As a university professor, especially as a teacher, a good haiku is one that catches the students off guard and breaks through their cynicism. They forget their awesome responsibility to be cool and just enjoy the feelings and associations rushing through their minds. They forget to be students and just want to share where the haiku takes them. They drop the ego and the paranoia about what others might think and begin to be receptive to the significance of the seasons and the things around themselves every day. And ultimately, as a professor, the good haiku makes the student want to write a haiku back. It does not invite endless analysis and discussion, just a good YES and a new haiku right back out of the stimulated mind of the reader. A good haiku begets another good haiku.

Q. Who started you down the haiku path?

A. I was already down the path of short poetry, loving Greek lyric poetry and the short witty Latin poetry of Martial. But when I found the haikai arts of Japan, I thought the Western poets never really trusted concise poetry enough to get the quality available in the Japanese traditions. At Purdue University, Professor Sanford Goldstein was one of the first professors to lead me down the path of haiku. He is a wonderful tanka poet and taught me about the modernist tanka poets such as Akiko Yosano and her beautiful psychological poetry. He also taught me a great deal about Zen and its connections to the haikai arts. Sandy never approved of my haiku in English, viewing it as mainly a Zen art which should be reserved for those few moments of satori. He always encouraged me to write tanka and rejected most of my haiku attempts. He had good reasons behind the failures of each haiku, which I guess had the intended result of making me try harder and with even more determination. He started me on the tanka path, but I wandered off into haiku. And then when I connected with Raymond Roseliep, I had a lark with the American haiku community and have continued to enjoy being a part of that community very much ever since.

Q. Any advice for those new to the writing of haiku?

A. Don't force it. Don't construct your haiku. Let them come to you as gifts of being alive. Learn to be receptive to the significance of everything you feel and notice around you. Have the discipline to find a quiet place and a time devoted to meditation. Make time to stop analyzing and to just enjoy the sensations around you. Remember to seek out the origins, the source, the significant trigger of your emotions. Don't tell. Don't explain. Don't show off. Don't puzzle. Don't try to control your readers. Expand. Extend. Connect. Feel. These are the worthy goals of haiku. Share those times and feelings that are worth remembering and re-feeling forever. Don't reveal, re-feel. Develop your technique by learning to give up words and to seek the significance beneath the words in the moment. Haiku are launching pads and stepping stones. . . . Let your readers enjoy taking them wherever they want to.

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Randy Brooks Biography


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