Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

 

Interview ~ Edward Tick by Robert Wilson

RW: Since 1979, you have worked as a psychotherapist with combat and non-combat veterans. Many of the combat veterans served in Vietnam. In 1984, you wrote a chapbook published by Brooks Books entitled On Sacred Mountain. It is a small collection of haiku that gives readers a glimpse of the war and how it affected the soldiers who fought in it. Why did you write this chapbook? And why the use of haiku?

ET: First I want to thank you for the honor of appearing in Simply Haiku and for your own service to veterans and all of us in your own writing about Viet Nam and in offering this interview.

On Sacred Mountain was my second chapbook with Brooks Books, following The Dawn That Bleeds in 1980. It was published five years after I began working with Viet Nam veterans.

I began veteran psychotherapy work in 1979, before Post-traumatic Stress Disorder was even recognized as a psychological diagnostic category. That first five years of doing psychotherapy with veterans was my own initiation into the hell that is war. Even though I wasn’t under fire and my life wasn’t threatened, the imagery of war is so painful, arresting, disturbing, violent and volatile that is takes on a life of its own. It becomes “like a black crab feeding,” vet Gustav Hasford wrote in his war novel The Short Timers, eating its way into the heart and soul, infecting the mind. The concept of “secondary trauma” due to overexposure of family, friends and caregivers is now recognized in the mental health field.

I wrote On Sacred Mountain, my first little collection of war haiku, as a way to help cleanse myself of the war imagery that was accumulating in my own psyche and causing me, as well as my veteran clients, so much pain. Equally important, I wrote it as a form of witness. James Hillman recently wrote in A Terrible Love of War, “because the dead are speechless and the veterans don’t talk . . . ” Through my work with veterans, I was initiated into the true nature of war. Like poets of old who accompanied warriors but did not fight themselves, it became my obligation, calling and duty to witness the truth of war, to speak for the dead and the veterans who could not, to bring the truth about war and its effects back to the civilian world.

Why haiku? There are many reasons that you employ in your fine book Vietnam Ruminations. As a poetic form, it is uncanny that haiku appears in key ways to be similar to the experience of war itself. Both the haiku and the war experience present as spontaneous, fragmentary, non-conceptual, imagistic and immediate. Both cut into the psyche through the impact of their imagery. Neither gives us time to breathe or recover. We are hit or not.

RW: As a follow-up question, Professor Ikuyo Yoshimura of Japan once stated, "Haiku is fundamentally nature poetry and war is fundamentally the destruction of nature." War and haiku are polar opposites. Why then a book of haiku about a war that took thousands of lives and ravaged a country?

ET: War poetry has been written since archaic times. Sometimes it celebrated the warrior spirit, but often it recorded history and helped survivors and the culture witness and heal. Further, the Japanese tradition that gave us haiku also gave us samurai warriors who were required to master an art form such as poetry or painting. Some samurais were haiku masters. Haiku helped provide warriors with balance, grounding, discipline, beauty and the restoration of form.

If haiku is a form of nature poetry, we must include human nature as part of nature. More specifically, since haiku explores the human encounter with raw nature, war haiku explores the destructive dimensions of this encounter in several simultaneous ways. It exposes the darkest dimensions of our human nature. It offers painful examples of what we do to nature. And it poetically replicates a war-like experience for the reader.

Haiku is a small, beautiful, and highly organized form (even in its free styles) that helps us reconstitute the world and aids us in organizing and preserving experience. War does the opposite. So I created haiku from some of the most painful stories I heard. For example:

Fire leaps from a tree
the only safe place to hide
behind a body

This helped contain and organize an experience that, by its nature, destroys containment and organization. Robert Cagle was a combat infantryman who has twice traveled back to Viet Nam with me. He says that “writing poetry provides a place for me to begin stitching my Soul back together. Each poem is a piece of my Soul.” After our last journey to Viet Nam, Bob wrote:

Ox hooves on the street --
VC mortars in the night –
thudding then, thudding now

Like all poetry and like nature itself, haiku is ultimately creative and life affirming. That is another reason haiku can be an effective vehicle for expressing war’s lessons. In our devotion to healing, haiku can help us to psychically and imagistically reconstitute those fragments of world, mind, and soul that were severed by war and violence. In Bob’s haiku, the peaceful sound of ox hooves makes him spontaneously recall the terrifying sound of Viet Cong patrols transporting their mortars by ox cart through the jungle at night. In his poetic resolution he realizes the similarity but does not return to a combat consciousness. He is reconstituting a world that was shattered. During war, mortars destroyed oxen and men. Now the ox now surrounds and contains the mortars. Life over death. Thus, by writing haiku, we can literally reorganize our war-fragmented minds.

RW: As a non-veteran, what do you use as your source material when writing haiku? Usually people write from their own experience. You are writing haiku about the experiences of others. Are you breaking new ground?

ET: By faithfully writing about veterans’ experiences from within, I am practicing Basho’s teachings. His principles are worth careful study both for the writing of poetry and the practice of the healing arts. The master of haiku taught, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.” I go to veterans and other war survivors to learn of war from those who experienced it.

Basho taught, “. . . you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.” As both therapist and poet, I strive to see and feel the sufferer’s experience from within. I strive not to impose any psychological or intellectual constructs on it first, which most of us do when confronting war and violence in order to protect ourselves from overwhelming pain.

Basho again: “Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the subject have become one…” I use maximum respect, compassion, intuition, imagination, nonjudgmental listening. I believe the dictum of the Roman playwright Terence: “ nothing human alien to me.” God knows what any of us would do in response to the horror of modern combat! Rather than judge, conceptualize or distance, I seek oneness with the inner world of my therapy patients. When I relate war stories, the raw material is sometimes the experiences of my patients. But only after I have internalized, identified and relived these experiences, albeit in physical safety, until I reach their inner luminosity, as Basho might say, and they in some sense become my own.

We cannot understand the horror and pain of war unless we have, in some sense, lived it in this deep way. I feel honored that many veterans have said that I am a rare civilian who “gets it.” One combat medic said that this was his only proof that a bridge between the veteran and civilian worlds was possible. Without that bridge, no homecoming, no healing, no haiku.

Is this breaking new ground? The ultimate question I ask is whether the haiku or healing is truthful, beautiful and an act of peacemaking -- principles Basho, Issa, and others who combined the poet-priest roles, would advise.

Poetry therapy is a recognized field, so encouraging people to write for their healing is an established practice. Writing poetry from others’ experiences in order to help them reorganize what was fragmented in them may be novel. And only a very few of us write war haiku and it is even debated whether war is a fit haiku subject. Practicing psychotherapy, poetry-writing and traveling to the country of war service as a holistic and integrated healing and peace-making effort is certainly extremely rare but wonderfully effective and has brought great healing to people on both sides of the ocean.

Further, I do not only write about our veterans’ war experiences, but also about the experiences of the Vietnamese people both during and since the war, and about their culture and mythology. For example, here is a haiku from my forthcoming collection The Golden Tortoise, to be published by Red Hen Press next April, on the 30th anniversary of the end of the war, about the wartime experience of a Viet Cong woman:

Swinging in her hammock
between banana trees
cradling her AK

I make even grander excursions into new poetic territory when I write in haiku, series, waka, haibun, free verse and English language forms about Vietnamese mythology, culture and spiritual practices. All these, including sonnets and epic verse, are represented in Golden Tortoise. To the degree that we can, through pilgrimage and poetry, achieve interpenetration of our cultures, we can achieve a “marriage” of former enemies that promotes both individual and world healing.

RW: In your newest collection of haiku, some of which are included in this issue, you deal with healing and a better tomorrow.

Where rifles clicked
chameleons sing
in new green trees.

Could you expound on this?

ET: Too often, in the mind of a war-traumatized veteran or civilian, the rifles still click. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a consciousness frozen in war. Further, the Viet Nam War (which the Vietnamese call the American War), was so overwhelmingly destructive that plant and animal life were destroyed throughout much of the country. In this haiku, every line shows the possibility of transformation and regeneration – rifles no longer click either in the jungle or the mind and animal and plant life are both returning. Chameleons click when they sing. It is wonderful to sit with veterans and Vietnamese friends on the banks of the Mekong River or in a Central Highlands minority village listening to the jungle sounds and laughing together that those clicks are only lizards and we need fear no longer. Such experiences and images can replace those frozen into that war consciousness we call PTSD. With such experiences we literally re-imagine and reconstruct our own minds that were wounded from war and violence. We see Viet Nam differently. We know that Viet Nam is no longer at war, that it is healing and forgiving and regenerating. Then we can too! I pray that these images in haiku form can achieve similar results for suffering survivors as the actual visits do.

RW: How did your visit to Vietnam this year influence and affect your haiku?

ET: In several ways. Viet Nam is a Buddhist country and its people and their practices, values, and daily lifestyles are all genuinely and profoundly spiritual, infused with acceptance, compassion and forgiveness. The Vietnamese have accepted their losses and suffering from the war. Even more, they accept and forgive us. They do not blame American GIs or civilians. They do not have the rage or mistrust or vengefulness that so many Americans have and that often characterizes PTSD. So Viet Nam’s most significant influence is spiritual. Through sincere spiritual work, belief, and practices, we really do have the possibility of healing individuals, cultures, and the planet.

Additionally, every journey I make to Viet Nam provides more new imagery and experience. I always meet new people and see new places as well as return to old ones. The poem in this issue, “Long-Haired Warrior,” tells the story of Mrs. Thien, whom I met for the first time on this recent journey. In traveling, healing and writing, the deeper we penetrate and immerse in other people and cultures, the deeper the possibilities for healing. In this sense, each journey deepens and no experience is repeated. And, I hope, the haiku that result have an increasingly deeper level of spiritual resonance. I am asking deeper questions about the possibilities of healing through spirituality. Perhaps I am receiving deeper answers and Viet Nam is helping point the way. To illustrate this possibility, I offer this waka from my most recent trip. I wrote it after leading a veterans’ healing circle in the Thien Mu Pagoda outside Hue, the home pagoda of both Thich Quang Duc whom we remember for burning himself in protest, and the great peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.

“ Please, Golden Buddha,
tell me how you smile and laugh
while your children fry?”

“ My children at play greet you.
Warblers in my Bo tree sing.”

RW: Do you share your haiku about Vietnam with the patients you treat?

ET: Yes, I share them with both veterans who travel with me and vets at home. Of course, veterans have to be ready to receive them and I make sure of that first. I never impose haiku or any other strategy on someone in a healing process. Some veterans are still too angry or alienated to form a new relationship to a former enemy or their own past. But many veterans are anxious to know that Viet Nam is healing and does not now look like it did when they left the combat zone. Haiku helps paint this new picture and replace imagery.

Some veterans who work with me take up the writing of haiku themselves as an act of healing. For example, Robert Cagle says, “The writing of poetry has enabled me to look at situations that existed, especially during the war, and remember them, and put them into perspective. The ghosts that haunted me for 36 years have become a better part of me, not rulers of me…. I write to heal myself, to remember moments, smells, feelings, pictures in my mind that must be laid out and stitched together into the fabric of what is my Soul. This healing becomes tangible because it is on a piece of paper . . .”

Another veteran, Beth Marie Murphy, was a nurse on a hospital ship who spent every day of her tour of duty tending our soldiers and Vietnamese children all suffering from the worst wounds modern technology can create. She also traveled back to Viet Nam with me twice and now goes herself as well. Beth Marie says, “I find writing haiku helpful to my healing because it assists me in coming to the essence of the issue and using images that expand what I am trying to say. When I write prose I can write and write but never really address the key issue. The format of haiku forces me to distill these elements down to their central meaning and importance. And in doing this I often see things I have not seen before such as a deeper meaning of an experience.” Regarding the ongoing tragedy of Agent Orange, Beth Marie wrote:

Fields of lush green growth
carpet the brown-scarred earth
and twisted children

And regarding the Vietnamese practice of building empty tombs for their loved ones missing in action, she wrote:

Windy tombs fill the land,
windy souls float through the countryside
dream-like spirits seeking home

The experiences of both Bob and Beth Marie with the healing powers in haiku confirm Basho’s statement that “The real capacity of haikai resides in its capacity to correct and refine the commonplace.” The correction and refinement is to the psyche and how it carries and processes its traumatic experiences.

RW: How long have you been writing haiku and what poet or poets have had the most influence on your poetry?

ET: I have always loved the great haiku masters. I began reading them as a child. I broadened my study through my young adulthood to include modern Asian and English language haiku forms and experiments. I began writing haiku and other poetic forms in my early teens and by age 15 took a vow that no matter what else I did with my life, I would always write. So by my mid-teens I sensed that haiku was a spiritual practice, one manifestation of a wonderful spiritual path that could support and guide us through the life cycle.

In terms of influence, I must bow before the masters Basho and Issa and the earlier poet-priest Saigyo. From Basho I learn elegance, selflessness, the loss of ego and full identification with the other, the careful and conscious use of “high” and “low” language and subject matter. And of course he was a master of haibun travel writing. I reread all his travel sketches at least annually. My new collection The Golden Tortoise is haibun broadened to include other verse forms and practiced in the modern world and in service to healing and peacemaking.

From Issa I learned to include myself and the all-too-human, to love all creatures as my equals, to find joy and affirmation in the tiniest matters, as you do in Vietnam Ruminations to invite the lizard into my home as a welcome guest. The Buddhist otherness, serenity, elegance and formality of Basho along with the loving embrace of self and world of Issa combines, for me, into one great spiritual effort of loving and compassionate encounter with our troubled and beautiful world in order to endure and transform suffering, to restore community, and to help us pierce our veils of illusion to seek moments of enlightenment and truth.

 


To travel, to write, to heal and make peace–these combine into one integrated and essential activity of the soul for Edward Tick.

Born in the Bronx in 1951, Ed makes his home in Albany, N.Y., near mountains he and his wife Kate Dahlstedt love. Ed and Kate have 3 children. All 5 practice poetry and other arts.

As psychotherapist, holistic healer, poet, writer, educator and journey guide, Ed directs Sanctuary: A Center for Mentoring the Soul, in Albany, N.Y. He also co-directs the Center on Violence and Healing at Sage College. Every year he leads journeys to both Greece and Viet Nam.

His first complete haibun collection, The Golden Tortoise: Viet Nam Journeys, will be published by Red Hen Press in April, 2005, on the 30th anniversary of the end of the Viet Nam War. Ed has spent 25 years studying the war and helping veterans heal and come home. Tortoise combines haiku and other poetic forms with travel narrative to present the healing and reconciliation journeys Ed leads in Viet Nam.

Ed is also the author of The Practice Of Dream Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek Mysteries Into Modern Medicine (2001) and Sacred Mountain: Encounters With the Viet Nam Beast (1989). His next book,War and the Soul, will be published in Fall, 2005.