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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
did you come up with the title, Cool Melons - Turn to Frogs!
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.
lived and worked in Japan, translating Japanese into English. How did this experience
prepare you to write Cool Melons - Turn to Frogs?
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.
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?
(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
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