with Christopher Herold
. . .
Excerpted from Herold's book, A Path in the Garden.
Q. This is an exceptional haiku. What did you have in mind when you composed it?
A. Nothing . . . in particular. I was sitting on a bench in a Japanese garden. There were a lot of dragonflies around and my “monkey mind” was every bit as busy as they were. All of a sudden, one big dragonfly whizzed past my right ear, stopped, turned around, and then hovered no more than three or four inches from my nose, staring straight into me. It was so startling that my thoughts stopped abruptly; my attention was entirely focused on the dragonfly. It didn’t occur to me that I’d stopped daydreaming until a moment later when the dragonfly zipped over to the stone buddha and alighted on his shoulder. It was then that I realized that my thoughts were no longer wandering. And it was then, at that very moment of recognition, I began to think again. In the timeless moment just before, however, the dragonfly was more than a dragonfly. I saw it for what it had been all along: Buddha. And at that same instant, so was I. I don’t think this would have been so utterly obvious had the dragonfly landed on something else, a stone lantern say, or a lily pad. That insect became my teacher. It whacked me with an imaginary kyosaku (the stick used in Zen monasteries to wake up students who are either falling asleep or who have lost their intensity of focus). That dragonfly woke me up and drew my attention to an infinitely bigger view.
Q. What kind of mindset do you like to be in when composing haiku?
A. In my early days I wouldn’t venture out of the house without a pad and pen. I was preoccupied with the hope of finding and recording haiku. To say that I was obsessed wouldn’t be far from the truth. That practice wasn’t a mistake really; it was simply a phase of development. In time, I stopped big-game hunting for haiku. Instead, I began to stretch out those moments of heightened awareness, of recognition. It has become increasingly less important for me to produce poems. I’m more interested in waking up. Pure and simple. Yeah, I know. So far this response hasn’t dealt directly with your question. It was more of a setup. The truth is that, from time to time, I do feel compelled to write a haiku. What is my mindset when that happens? Actually, I’d prefer to be free of any mindset. It’s important to me to be aware of and to resist preconditioned responses so that they don’t interfere with my recognizing the essence of an experience. In other words, I want to get out of the way so that the experience can materialize in words with as little manipulation as possible. The best way I’ve found to facilitate this is to clear my mind of “rules” and focus as fully as I can on conjuring up the moment that inspired me. Then I wait patiently. More often than not, words eventually surface of themselves.
Q. You were once a student of Shunryu Suzuki, one of the leading Zen masters of our time. How has the influence of Suzuki affected your concept of nature and the writing of haiku?
A. Roshi (that’s how we all addressed him) was an avid gardener. In the last year or two of his life, when his health was failing, he could still be found pruning, or weeding, or even wrestling a large stone into position. Roshi loved gardens and he loved nature. His teisho (talks during training periods) were often punctuated with references to nature. When in training at Tassajara, I was assigned the task of removing stones from a large plot of ground that was to become the monastery vegetable garden. It was hard work, requiring little skill. Suzuki would occasionally walk past while I was sweating away with a pick or shovel. He’d smile and nod. As brief as his small gestures of appreciation were, he was completely present in them, and I felt immediately envigorated. I remember once being so grateful for one of his spirit-boosting smiles that I wanted to give him something, anything. I looked down and saw a shiny green acorn, still in its brown cap. There were zillions of acorns lying around but I picked that one up, ran over to Suzuki, bowed, and handed it over. He looked at it very closely for what seemed to me a couple of minutes, although ten seconds was probably more like it. We both gazed at that acorn. What at first seemed just a nicely shaped nut suddenly took on a distinct personality. Every detail stood out as if under a magnifying glass--the little striations in the smooth green section, the rough, scaly pattern of the cap. Suzuki smiled broadly, and carefully put the acorn into the pocket inside his robe. He then bowed and walked away. No words were spoken but a dialogue took place nonetheless, and what was communicated is still with me to this day. I was just one monk at Tassajara, an acorn among acorns, and yet . . . Yes, haiku truly are at their best when they point to the extraordinary nature of seemingly ordinary things. I wrote my first haiku at Tassajara, by the way. It came to me during the initiatory period called Tangaryo that all new students must undergo in order to prove that they are truly serious about practice in a monastic environment. That period of Tangaryo was a five-day stretch in which we sat facing a wall from 4:30 each morning to 9:30 each night. The only breaks were a half hour after meals (eaten while still sitting on our cushions), or to go to the bathroom. But that’s another story. I’ve written a haibun about it called Voices of Stone which became a small chapbook. It’s now in its fifth printing.
Q. You have edited many literary publications having to do with short-form Japanese poetry. What do you look for when selecting haiku for a publication?
A. That depends upon the publication, and whether I’m working solo or with others. If a publication is the mouthpiece of an organization, the preferences of its membership should serve as guidelines. The Heron’s Nest is an independent journal that I co-created with Alex Benedict. I was the sole editor for the first year. Now there are four of us, yet the philosophy is essentially the same now as it was at the beginning. We think of The Heron’s Nest as a place “Where tradition and innovation meet and compliment each other." We feel that there is common ground between the spirit of experimentation and the honoring of traditional values. We don’t intend this common ground to manifest as a balance of avant-gard poems and traditional poems, rather that the common ground be found within each individual poem. Put another way, we encourage poets to breathe new life into traditional values . . . without blowing them away. For The Heron’s Nest, we seek poems that are outwardly unpretentious yet possess a fresh perspective, often just beneath the surface. The syntax employed ought not to call our attention to a poet’s skill, or otherwise distract us from going directly to the moment of inspiration. Ideally, such haiku are doors that open effortlessly. Immediately captivated by what is inside, we forget the door, at least temporarily, although we may return to admire it once the experience itself has been fully enjoyed.
Q. Modern haiku versus traditional haiku. How do they differ?
A. I think it would be best to rid ourselves of the word “versus.” I see a continuum--tradition at one end, innovation at the other. For whatever reasons, we each lean one way or the other, some more ardently than others. This is well and good. We cheat ourselves only when we cannot appreciate contrasting perspectives. Both Japanese and English haiku are rooted in traditions from which they continuously evolve. The wish of all haiku poets, whether they are modern or traditional, is to express their experiences with maximum effect. By and large, modern haiku poets are not content to abide by traditional “rules.” They gravitate toward unexplored territory, seeking novel syntax. Traditional haiku poets choose to employ techniques that are tried and proven. Conservatives and innovators alike seek to evoke moods and emotions that are common to all of us. Both approaches are essential to the health of haiku. However, when either is disdained or ignored the result is a loss of interest from readers who are more comfortable toward the other end of the continuum. Although communication is often purposefully directed to a particular audience, I believe that, ultimately, we wish to communicate our moments of inspiration to everyone, at least to anyone willing to listen. It seems to me that the most effective way to share our experiences is to strive for a dynamic balance between traditional and innovative values. The pitfall, of course, is loss of interest from both camps--offending traditionalists and boring innovators. Therefore I stress “dynamic balance.” Poems that embody this ideal, however, are not guaranteed to get a thumb-up from either camp. To appreciate a hybrid approach that embraces tradition and innovation will take some effort on the part haiku enthusiasts. It is an acquired taste. If haiku is to flourish, we must preserve tradition, but not by extinguishing the vitality of experimentation.
Q. What is and isn't a haiku?
A. This question cannot be adequately answered for an audience larger than oneself. In considering particular qualities that are generally considered to be essential to haiku, or those qualities thought to be taboo, I keep the word “usually” front and center. Furthermore, I feel that a concise, universal definition of haiku would do it irreparable harm, if it didn’t prove fatal to the genre. In truth, I think such a definition impossible. That said, I’ll continue by sharing several ways R. H. Blyth described haiku in general (as opposed to defining it by specific characteristics): “[Haiku is] a way to say in words what cannot be said with words.” “[A haiku is] a hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean.” “[Haiku is] a process of discovery rather than creation, using words as a means not an end, as a chisel removes the rock hiding the statue.” I have a friend, Peggy Smith-Venturi, who is an excellent sculptor. Her work is currently being displayed at a local gallery. Next to Peggy’s exhibit, the curators have posted her artist’s statement, part of which I’ll quote here since I think it pinpoints equally well the attitude necessary for writing good haiku. “I work with infinite care, denying personal marks, attempting always to allow rather than impose.”
Q. You are also a percussionist who has played with such luminaries as Jerry Garcia, John Lee Hooker, and T-Bone Walker. Does your musical background come into play when composing haiku?
A. Yes. Actually, I think the same factors that propelled me into music come into play with everything else I do, from physical activities to more cerebral endeavors, such as writing. I was born into a family made up almost entirely of creative artists, all of whom managed to make their marks in the world. Raised in an environment that revered the arts, I’ve always been made to feel comfortable with my own creative impulses and encouraged to follow them. Back in my youth, I was in short supply of self-discipline. Fortunately I made up for it in exuberance, and I am blessed with a natural sense of rhythm. I’m sure those are the qualities that led me into the company of many very fine musicians. Music does have a big influence on the way I approach writing. Rhythm and lilt have important roles in conveying verbal information. Haiku, for which the musical qualities have been well-considered, are more likely to gain the immediate trust of readers. First of all, good word music is a pleasure to read. Beyond this, syntax that flows effortlessly allows readers to relax and more readily gain entry to what the words convey. Of course, this doesn’t insure that what is found in the words will be satisfying, only that the path to meaning has been cleared of obstacles. Beyond the pure joy of sound quality, such is the value of music when applied to wordcraft.
Q. What haiku poet has had the greatest influence on your writing and why?
A. There are two poets whom I consider to have been my most influential mentors. Both David LeCount and James Hackett were neighbors in the small town of La Honda, in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Both were gardening clients of mine as well as good friends and, of course, we still have the love of haiku in common. Jim encouraged me to focus intently on the essential experience, the moment of inspiration, and to not be distracted by current fads. David helped me to hone my writing skills. I learned a great deal from him about simplification, and how to juxtapose images in ways that will most effectively invite readers to participate in a given experience. Jim and I share very similar philosophies about haiku. We had many long conversations about attitude and intent. In contrast, David would listen to me read my poems and ask probing questions designed to prod me into digging deeper into my experiences and the words I chose to express them. I am profoundly grateful to both Jim and David for their support, encouragement, and friendship.
Q. Do you have any advice for those new to the writing of haiku?
A. I do. Study the historical roots of haiku. They are important to developing a solid foundation for one’s own work. I highly recommend reading books by R. H. Blyth, Harold Henderson, and Haruo Shirane. New writers would also do well to read the major anthologies, especially Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology, Bruce Ross’s Haiku Moment, and William Higginson’s Haiku World and The Haiku Seasons. Such readings provide new poets with eye-opening examples of experiments with haiku form that have taken place over the years. These, and other anthologies, are also valuable introductions to poets whose contrasting styles have had substantial impact on the world haiku community. I also recommend subscribing to the most respected haiku periodicals. In them, veteran poets and newcomers alike are exploring the frontiers of haiku craft. In magazines such as Modern Haiku and Frogpond, there are often excellent essays on topics directly or indirectly related to haiku and other genres of haikai. Oh yes, and Lee Gurga’s book, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide is a must read for anyone seriously interested in writing haiku. Most of the qualities we ought to be aware of when reading or writing haiku, both positive and negative, are touched upon in this excellent volume. Haiku practice is a wonderful way to wake up to ourselves and to the amazing world of which we are interdependent parts. It is my belief that our struggles to express moments of illumination in words are more important than the poems that result from those struggles. This in mind, I’d like to encourage you to slow down. Take the time to thoroughly assimilate your experiences and, when you are ready to pick up a pad and pen, do not put them down too soon. Dig deeper!
Wishing you all boundless inspiration!
Christopher Herold writes:
Born in Suffern, New York in 1948, I lived in the San Francisco area from 1956 until the end of 1998. My wife and I moved into our new home in Port Townsend, Washington during a raging gale on New Year's Eve.
I was a student of the late Shunryu Suzuki, Roshi, one of the most influential Zen teachers of our time. I wrote my first haiku during a training session at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 1968. As a lay monk in the Soto tradition, I continue to deepen my commitment, expanding Zen practice into all aspects of my life.
In the '70s and 80's I pursued a career as a drummer and percussionist, performing and recording with a number of blues, rock, and jazz bands. Incredibly, one of these bands, Kingfish, was the top-selling new band in the US during 1976.
Haiku has been my main passion since about 1980. I write in most of the various genres of haikai but focus mainly on haiku. Renku and haibun are dear to my heart, however, and I hope to have more time for them again in the future.
Over the past twenty years or so, I've been published in many of the journals and magazines in the haiku community and have twice been a winner of HSA's Museum of Haiku literature award. I've also enjoyed judging a number of haiku contests, including the World Haiku Contest, sponsored by Japan Airlines.
I've done a stint as president of the Haiku Poets of Northern California, and have been a co-editor of their (then) quarterly journal, Woodnotes. I've also been an editor of HPNC anthologies produced by Two Autumns Press and was the soliciting editor of a series of essays entitled The Art of Haiku, for the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society's journal, Geppo.
One of my great pleasures is teaching haiku, especially to beginners. I've taught at every grade level and have presented numerous adult haiku workshops, including several for the Zen Arts program of the Olympia Zen Center.
My first two books, In Other Words (Jarus Books), and Coincidence (Kanshiketsu Press), are now out of print. A third chapbook, a medium length haibun, is entitled Voices of Stone (Kanshiketsu Press) and is now in its fifth printing. My most recent collections are In the Margins of the Sea (Snapshot Press), and A Path in the Garden (Katsura Press). The former is available from the publisher. The latter won a merit book award from the Haiku Society of America. (I have copies if you're interested.)
At present my passion is managing and editing The Heron's Nest, a highly selective journal of international haiku written in English. It's the first, and still the only journal to appear on a monthly basis, simultaneously on the World Wide Web and in a paper edition.
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