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Interview with Matthew Gollub
by Robert Wilson

Q. What is it about Issa and his life that inspired you to write a book about this venerated haiku master?

A. Other Japanese haiku masters such as Basho and Buson perhaps had more success at divorcing their egos from their work (a Zen ideal). Issa, by comparison, threw his heart into his poems--and was criticized in his day for being too sentimental. Yet it's Issa's humanity that inspired me most. Materially, he was quite poor. He was a devout Buddhist, a vegetarian, and hardships seemed to only deepen his compassion for even the smallest of life forms. He wrote thousands of poems about frogs, flies, fleas, and the like, generally casting these humble creatures in a sympathetic light. I also appreciate his lack of pretense. He disliked formality and apparently had a casual way of interacting with pupils. He strikes me as the kind of guy with whom I'd like to take a long walk.

Q. How hard was it to translate Issa's haiku?

A. Issa was born in 1763, so naturally some of the language he used now seems archaic. Moreover, a haiku's brevity makes the form abstract. I translated around 150 poems before the illustrator Kazuko Stone and I made our final selections for the book. Sometimes, during discussions with the artist, I would realize that I'd completely misinterpreted a poem. Kazuko grew up in Japan and has been an avid fan of Issa's work since she was little, so I was lucky to be able to draw on her insights while choosing the final translation phrases. Compared to the straightforward commercial translations I used to do as a copywriter, Issa's haiku offered discoveries at every turn.

Meter was the other major issue in translation. In Japanese, of course, a haiku must contain seventeen syllables. But most Japanese words contain more syllables than English. For example, 'snail' in English contains just one syllable while the Japanese word, ka-ta-tsu-mu-ri, contains five. As a result, I found that most of Issa's poems required fewer beats in English. Rather than add extra syllables to make seventeen--and in effect put words in the master's mouth--I tried to interpret the haiku succinctly, and otherwise not complicate their simplicity and charm.

Q. What was your first introduction to haiku?

A. My first real exposure to haiku to was in college in a class on comparative literature. I was intrigued by the form's subtlety and the way it demands that the reader infer meaning. After living in Japan for several years and listening to the ways even modern Japanese speak, I gradually found myself more in tune with the economy and understated beauty of haiku.

Q. Your style of writing is refreshingly original. You approach Issa's biography from the vantage point of a storyteller, drawing readers into Issa's world. Could you expound on this?

A.The biography portion of the book, I think, is part of what makes this project so unique. When Kazuko and I thought of doing a book of Issa's child-friendly poems, we assumed that we would organize the poems by season. But we got rejection letters from publishers saying that the poetry by itself was too abstract for many people. The more I read about Issa's life, especially as presented in Japanese books, the more I wanted to give American readers that perspective. I figured if people read his poems in context, they would recognize his sentiments and identify with him as a person.

Having made the decision to include a biography, the main challenge I found was to find the right tone. My first few drafts sounded professorial, too academic for kids. Then one day I was talking to Kazuko by phone (she lives in New York, I live in California). I asked her, "What is the most important point that kids should know about where Issa grew up?" Kazuko had visited Issa's home, Kashiwabara, to research her drawings for this book. She paused for a moment and said, "Issa grew up in a village with a lot of snow." That was it! Natural elements. Using natural elements that a child could visualize became my thread to writing the narrative.

Q. How did the writing of this book broaden your understanding of haiku?

A. It's a big responsibility to translate a master's work. To prepare myself I read many haiku collections in English, starting with the work of Robert Blyth. I needed to see how others handled Japanese expressions used in haiku--words like "kana" and "yo" and "ya," which have no ready equivalents in English. I also learned more about "kigo" or seasonal words.

Q. How did you come up with the title, Cool Melons - Turn to Frogs!

A.The title is actually the first line of one of Issa's poems in the book. The full poem reads, "Cool melons-Turn to Frogs! If people should come near." In Issa's time, before refrigeration, people would chill watermelon by soaking it in a bucket of cold river water. Once when Issa saw beautiful melons soaking, it touched him to think that pretty soon someone would come by to whack them apart and eat them. So in his thoughts Issa instructed the fruit to transform. No one, in his culture, would want to eat frogs. That was an essential thing about Issa. His heart went out to the meekest of creatures, even in this case to helpless melons.

Q. You lived and worked in Japan, translating Japanese into English. How did this experience prepare you to write Cool Melons - Turn to Frogs?

A.The reason I first went to Japan was to study taiko drums. At age 19, I was living in a Shinto shrine with a troupe of Japanese drummers. One day a senior performer dropped into my room, kneeled on the tatami and cast a furtive look at my pile of clothes and books. He said, "Visitors will arrive this afternoon." Then, politely, he stood up and left. To me, that comment had haiku sensibility. He didn't say "Your room is a mess, you need to clean up before our visitors get here or else it won't reflect well on you." Instead he said just enough for me to figure that out.

Those sorts of interactions are common in Japan. As a foreigner, I often found it necessary to weigh what my friends and coworkers were saying to me in Japanese. The experience taught me to be patient and to keep a sense of humor.

Q. What pointers do you have for children in regard to the writing of haiku?

A. Children (and grown-ups) would do well to take time to observe nature through all five senses. Start with a couple of objective phrases about things you can hear, see, or feel etc. Try to use specific names for your subjects. For example, instead of "flowers," specify the type--"wildflowers," "marigolds," "violets," as appropriate. Same for insects, animals, trees. Then try getting "inside" of your subject to see the world from your subject's perspective.


Matthew Gollub is the award-winning author of various picture books, including The Jazz Fly and Gobble, Quack, Moon, both of which contain his musical narrations on audio CD.

Each year he gives lively author presentations at over 50 schools and conferences around the US and abroad.

For more information, please visit www.matthewgollub.com


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