Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6

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INTERVIEW: AC Missias by Robert Wilson

Q. There are many scientists in Japan who are also haiku poets. You too, are a scientist and a haiku poet. Is there a correlation between the two disciplines?

A. My instinct was to say "no," but thinking about it, I can imagine that both disciplines reward close observation, immersion in the immediate experience/data, and openness to the unexpected result. Also, a learned ability to separate the observed from the observer, a desire to try to root out what part of the apparent observation is instead a reflection of the expectations or biases of the person recording it. This can be helpful in both science and writing.

Q. What exactly is an "AHA" moment and how does such a moment influence the writing of a haiku?

A. This is very difficult to define (and a large part of why I took so long finishing this interview). I guess that an "aha" moment is one that stands out from otherwise ordinary experience, in that it suddenly strikes upon you with particular awareness—not just in the" oh, I've never seen that!" way, but rather in a way that makes you re-recognize something you might have seen many times before (either because of the way it seems to reflect an internal state, or because some other element brings new clarity to the perception) and is still with you later. You can't go looking for these kinds of moments, which is a problem with "ginkos" and other attempts to "get inspiration," but you can hone your attunement to the world around you, and your ability to crystallize what made the moment click, so that when they come along you are ready to do them service in writing.

Q. "Seasonal elements," you once wrote, "are considered critical in the writing of Japanese haiku. Why is this so vital? Can a haiku be a haiku without the use of a kigo (seasonal element) word?

A. Part of what keeps us "attuned" to the world is the subtle or dramatic changes from day to day. Suddenly, the dark garden has first shoots! Yesterday, it was sunny, but today it's rainy and gloomy! These things can affect our mood, or can seem to make us acutely aware of a preexisting mood that may derive from other sources. (Graduation! Sun! Or another argument. Smog, of course.) Haiku doesn't have to be about mood, but that same kind of coloring affects the things that we choose to juxtapose from a complex scene, the things that seem to characterize the essence of an experience.

Additionally, season words, specifically (not as codified, but as used in common speech) can be shorthand for much larger sets of feelings, associations, or expectations. "Autumn afternoon" may crystallize a background setting that otherwise would have to include the crispness of the temperature, the color of the foliage, a sense of renewed energy, possible expectations for a new season (of education, sports, etc.), transitional aspects, holidays... Haiku is such a brief genre that it needs all available shortcuts in its difficult goal of capturing a complicated (and often multifaceted) moment of experience. Few other tools do this as well as a seasonal signifier. Additionally, certain terms and phrases may become familiar, either from the history of haiku usage (think of "the old pond") or from other familiar sources ("a red wheelbarrow" or "by the chimney with care") in a way that allows the author to use them to evoke/invoke an additional set of associations that will color the rest of the poem. Even without an encyclopedia of such terms, one can get the benefits of additional depth that such a season or key word/phrase brings to the reader that recognizes it.

Q. As the editor of Acorn, What would you say is the most common mistake those new to writing haiku make?

A. Well, there are really two categories of "those new to writing haiku" that you encounter as an editor:

1) those who really know little or nothing about the genre: they may have heard of it when an elementary school teacher used the "form" to teach children about syllables, or they may have encountered short experimental poems by established authors under this title, or they may know of internet "news-ku" and other permutations. These people tend to make the mistake of thinking that haiku is about an external/formal definition -- something like "a very short, musing poem" or "anything in 17 syllables." To them I try to explain that the history of the tradition is one of learning an aesthetic approach, of conveying a moment of awareness, of concrete description and lightly evoked depths. Some are interested in this new idea but others are not.

2) those who know a few starting things about haiku as you or I think of it: they may envision a "nature poem" and be looking for further guidance or they may be steeped in the best of contemporary haiku and struggling to get their own poems to be similarly effective. Often their biggest difficulty (and one that continues to haunt more experienced writers) is in recognizing the right balance of the concrete and objective that make a good haiku. It is easy to learn to write good descriptions, but find that there is no depth that makes a reader have an echo of your "aha." Similarly, it can be difficult to get sufficient distance from your own "aha" to get out of the reader's way, letting the elements of the experience speak for themselves. The piece of advice that I share most often would be "show, don't tell," but that's much easier to recognize in somebody else's writing than in your own. (A plug for workshops and articles on craft! Every example helps.)

Q. What can a haiku poet learn from reading and studying the works of Basho, Issa, Buson, Shiki, Chiyo-ni, and other ancient haiku masters?

A. The outlines of the haiku tradition as it has come down to us. It is not a clean, rectangular box of poems that fit a single definition; Rather it is a multiarmed starfish, with a core of work at the center that most clearly reflects its essence, and "arms" that extend out of that to include more divergent work that can be traced back in recognizable ways to a wider base of forms of expression. It can be difficult to explain where those branches go, and why other types of work (between the arms) isn't generally accepted as haiku, but by reading a large body of the masters (or even of modern anthologies) one can begin to make out for oneself the shadowy outlines in a meaningful way. Plus, of course, the richness of the poems themselves, the sense of the universality of experience across times and cultures, and an appreciation of the aesthetic variation and consistency between poems and authors. Why do we read anything wonderful?

Q. What one haiku master has had the greatest influence on you as a poet?

A. I guess it would be close between Basho and Shiki. Certainly I admire the purity and subtlety of much of Basho's work, but I am with Shiki in thinking that sometimes even he was a bit too enamored of the use of his poems for flattery, displays of cleverness, etc. Most of Shiki's work is almost too far on the objective side for me, but he was fighting the tide that I think we have most strongly here in the West, of every poet as innovator, every poem a bit of venting.

Q. Haiku is:

A. [I am on record with a short definition written for Modern Haiku a year or two ago. I also elaborated on that definition, and a study of all the definitions, in an essay for Frogpond shortly thereafter. . . .I would be happy to send you these from home, but I don't have them here with me today. I guess that my earlier Perihelion article might serve as well. I find this not only a frustrating question, but really a fruitless one...]

[editor's note: Missias' Perihelion article was reprinted in volume 2 number 2 of Simply Haiku.]

Q. Do you have any final advice for our readers in regard to the writing of haiku?

A. Don't worry about producing transcendent poems right away, about rate of publishing, about recognition. Haiku is a genre of receptivity (although no less of craft), and it takes time both for moments to arrive and for writers to begin to master the difficult balance of writing in this tradition. Enjoy your poems as a record of moments of your life, keep even the ones that don't "work," but be patient with yourself in advancing toward publication or any real sense of mastery. It's a lifetime's calling!


A.C. Missias lives in Philadelphia. She edits academic articles in applied math for SIAM (www.siam.org), the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematic and has a PhD in neuroscience, but is no longer doing research.

She one of the editors of the Red Moon Anthology series.

She occasionally is seen sipping coffee, tasting wines and scotches, playing bridge and is known to have been walked on by cats.

Perhaps most important, in the last year she got engaged to her long-lost college sweetheart and bought a house.

She says that it's hard to imagine when she used to have free time.