Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2005, vol 3 no 2

 

Interview ~ Andrew Riutta
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: Seemingly out of nowhere, Andrew, you are posting haiku and senryu on several Japanese short form poetry forums. Your poetry is top notch. The meter, excellent. And your style, classical, calling to mind the influence of the old Japanese haiku masters.

a quiet night---
moth wings
stir the fog

What poet or poets have influenced you the most and why?


AR: Thank you, Robert. The first poet to open my eyes was the American poet and novelist Jim Harrison. He was a regional poet who had gained some international acclaim for his novels and screenplays, Legends of the Fall being the biggest. A friend of mine had loaned me Harrison's New and Selected Poems. It was then that I entered into the realization that I had become desensitized to my own calling, my own quest to seize myself within the confines of my own mortality. Harrison's poems, which are consistently layered with self doubt and a mythical adoration of the natural world, moved me in a way I had not thought possible. If one had to label him, I suppose "zen nihilist" would suffice. For years he was my beacon; still is. Sometime in the nineties, he released a book of poems titled After Ikkyu, which consisted of his own suffocated approach to zen.

"Our minds buzz like bees but not the bees' minds. / It's just wings not heart they say, moving to another flower."
          —From After Ikkyu, by Jim Harrison, © 1996.
          [Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, www.shambhala.com]

The poems speak for themselves. They do not attempt to wear the cloak of attainment; rather, they rely on the questions much more than the answers. This was my introduction to an "Asian" approach to poetry. Shortly after I picked up a copy of the Penguin Book of Zen Poetry. The poems in that book immediately had an impact on me:

Come, / see real flowers / of this painful world
        —BASHO   [used by permission]

Year's end, / all corners/of this floating world, swept.
        —BASHO   [used by permission]

I had not thought it possible to say so much in a single breath. I was astounded by Basho's ability to be so logical about an existence so seemingly illogical. This element in Basho's poems, along with the brevity, would eventually influence my own writing greatly; because after years of studying and composing longer forms of poetry that attempted to dissect the world into its parts, I had begun to feel as if I were covered in a thick film of metaphor, which had apparently lost touch with what it was trying to represent. Then it dawned on me, that the more one says, the less they are actually saying. This is because words lock moments away into denotative capsules of understanding, which limits a moment's natural tendency to whirl about the world as it would. With haiku you have quite the opposite. That's why I still believe it's so important to have some sort of nature reference in a poem: it carries with it a whole backlog of associations, and those associations are what gives a poem its legs to stand on. Then there is Issa:

One bath / after another-- / how stupid
        —ISSA   [used by permission]

Issa's playfulness brought tears to my eyes on many occasions, literally. The whole idea that life could be so tragic and comical at the same time made much more sense to me than the usual Occidental manner of having to choose one over the other. The amazing thing that struck me about Issa's poems was that I didn't have to think about them in order to experience their relative truth.

From the bough / floating down river, / insect song.
        —ISSA   [used by permission]

This is truly a haiku moment; and yet it is a moment anyone can see, smell, hear and feel. This is the mastery of Issa, in my opinion: to sell everyone the world in which they are already living. In the following months I went as far back as the Tang period and became quite enthralled with Tu Fu. I found that while Tu Fu's poetry was quite simple and accessible, it seemed to have no boundaries, which made it rock on the edge of the ethereal. This is where I really began to understand the use of juxtaposition; to take something solid and place it next to a phantom. This, for me, defined the essence of the universe, and my own poems started to reflect this formula. Soon I came across contemporary Asian poets like the Korean Ko Un. As far as I'm concerned, this is as good as it gets:

A FRIEND
Hey! With the clay you dug out
I fashioned a Buddha.
It rained.
The Buddha turned back into clay.
Clear skies after rain are pointless.
          [Reprinted from Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems (1997) by Ko Un.
          Used with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org]

This is the sort of transcendental doubt that makes Buddhas out of all of us. It is also a skin that my own poems fit into quite comfortably. It's cutting edge, and yet it is as ancient as the wind. Ko Un has become one of my cornerstones. His poems defy anything that anyone can throw at them. Wherever I go you will find his book, Beyond Self, in my bag. Then, of course, there are a few contemporary haiku poets who move me greatly, though I try to avoid haiku that has been completely urbanized.

 

RW: What do you look for when composing a haiku?

AR: There is much to be said for immediacy, and I value the many writers who seek out what's in front of them, as I do the same. However, I also tend to believe that immediacy alone does not make a haiku moment. In my opinion, a haiku moment is comprised of many elements, one of the biggest being resonance. Resonance, for me, is the element that introduces a moment to its own expansiveness, the thing that keeps it from lingering too long within the deception of its own gravity. I enjoy haiku that develop a mood through imagery. In my own, I try to present the kigo as an inevitability, which it truly is if you think about it; and then from there I often use what might be called an emotive juxtaposition based off of this inevitability, and try to utilize the kigo to enhance a particular mood, often through conflict. I'm all right with conflict, so long as it is true to the nature of the moment.

 

RW: The haiku path is . . .

AR: The haiku path is the path that runs between the universe and the self. It is the path where one willingly steps into the natural affinity and the inherent complexity that is laid in front of us by existence itself. It is the path that will lead through all the bright pastures and dimly lit corridors of our world, and, if given the chance, eventually lead right back into ourselves.

 

RW: Tell me a little about yourself and how your past influences your now as a haiku poet.

AR: Being from the northern part of Michigan, I have almost always lived in a rural setting. Even before I started composing haiku this had a big influence on my writing. I practically lived on the shores of Lake Superior for the first fifteen years of my life. In 1999 I moved with my wife, Lori, to the beautiful state of Oregon; we lived there for a couple of years at an intentional community called Alpha Farm, which is located in the coastal mountains, about twenty miles from the Pacific. I think that perhaps my interest in haiku and my wanting to move to a more communal setting were both attempts at some badly needed simplicity. It was there in Oregon that I had really started to expand my writing into the Asian forms that I had grown to admire so much. In 2001 my daughter, Issabella, Issa for short, was born. Parenthood alone can really change the manner in which one perceives and approaches the world. Throw in the events that unfolded during 9/11 and you have another story altogether. No one was really quite sure what was going to happen; all we knew to do was to hold on to our loved ones a little closer, which is exactly how I spent much of that year. Other than writing, one of my hobbies has been sewing hand stitched bags out of canvas and leather. I love bags. I think perhaps it is the same feeling that both Snyder and Kerouac had when they would refer to the "rucksack revolution." Again, another gesture toward simplicity, I believe. I've also been quite the avid reader of non-poetic works. Many writers have influenced not only my writing, but my life as well, including Emerson, Joseph Campbell, and the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most brilliant minds that one can encounter. One of the quotes that has become one of my templates is by Emerson: "Step out of the house to see the moon and it is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey." One can begin to see how this idea is very much rudimentary in composing haiku.

 

RW: A poet who thinks he or she has arrived will end up a stagnant pond. Do you agree with this statement?

AR: Indeed. Life itself must continually unfold itself out of the forms it has already shaped itself into. I have so much to learn within this genre of writing, and I hope the day never comes where I feel I want to abort the path because I've become comfortable with where I am. Every day is a new day; therefore, I will always be a newcomer. And I think that it is not skill alone but skill developed by a mood that will continue to produce the best haiku in the world.

 

RW: Your goals?

AR: Since I am rather new to all of this, my goals still consist of attempting to give that which seems to have very little voice in our world, a voice: the bond and the distance between humanity and the world in which it lives. Ultimately we are all moving in the same direction, and yet so very few people you meet are willing to acknowledge this fact. I want to continue to notice and write about the little moments that depict this scenario. As for long term, I'd like to do what Richard Krawiec does, teach people how to develop their own voices. There's also a part of me that would love to help haiku appeal to those who may not be interested in it because they believe that it conveys that which is already obvious. I would like to help people recognize that each of us is participating in all these moments, and therefore, each of us has the depth to be able to perceive them in a manner that no one else can.

 

 

"Last week my wife and daughter flew down to Texas to welcome my wife's brother home from Iraq, where he has served for over a year. He's twenty-two, and he was in on much of the very heavy fighting. Often while my wife and daughter were gone, I thought of him, and how his life would be changed forever. Upon their return, my wife showed me some photographs she had taken of his unit's homecoming, I believe at Fort Hood. Looking over the pics, I noticed that it was early spring in Texas, and the trees were starting to bud, etc. I made a connection between the spring and her brother, because, in my mind, he's still in the spring of his life. But now here's the poem:

home from the war---
flattened grass begins to climb
the silence

"Home from the war" is straightforward enough. There's a lot going on in "flattened grass begins to climb the silence." Again, the spring connection to youth; the flattened grass. The flattened grass is the ground trod by combat boots. So now he's home, and the damage seems minimal on the surface (the grass lifting again), but then there's the silence: the silence is perhaps the silent anguish, or the silence of the dead that will be with him for the rest of his days. It's illusive and unavoidable, and deadly if not acknowledged and respected. So it's a victory song, and it isn't, depending on how he chooses to incorporate it into his life.

 

Andrew Riutta lives in northern Michigan, along with his wife, Lori, and their three year old daughter, Issabella. He grew up on the shores of Lake Superior, surrounded by freighters and agates; orchards and farms. He just recently finished the poems for a book he hopes to publish, 'sneaking up on waterfalls,' in which he speaks to his daughter about the hopes and doubts of a parent:

as we walked to your school
I tried to teach you that sometimes
there is bliss in not knowing

you said "I know"

When not writing or reading poetry, Andrew loves to sew hand-stitched bags out of canvas and leather. He also loves listening to wide band and shortwave radio. Mostly, he loves learning from his daughter about the world.


Click here to view a selection of Andrew Riutta's unpublished poems published in this issue of Simply Haiku.


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