Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

PIPELINE

An Interview With Scott Metz
by Robert D. Wilson


RW: Why are you in Japan?

SM: I'm in Japan as the ubiquitous English teacher. The company that originally hired me, promised a rural, countryside setting to teach in, and I promised them I'd wear a tie. I'm on my third and best job teaching English to children in a public school system.

The main reason I came to Japan, though, was because of my interest and passion for haiku. I wanted to write haiku in its birthplace. I wanted to travel to the places where the haiku masters, Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, Santoka, lived and wrote. To go to their houses and rebuilt huts, their gravestones and the modern museums dedicated to them. To learn, observe, and absorb as much as I could of ordinary, rural Japanese life in hopes of improving my haiku and finding a voice.

My anthropology studies at university instilled in me a deep respect and interest in all cultures and religions. My interests in Buddhism, Zen, Shintoism, and Japanese art and culture, also had an important influence on my decision to come here.

The idea of being able to satisfy all of these interests and curiosities, by coming to live and work in Japan, was overwhelming. I loved the idea of emerging myself in another culture. The opportunity to come here arose. The timing was right. I was also feeling a bit stuck in America, emotionally, spiritually and physically, so I decided to jump on a different ride and see where it would take me; what I could learn about myself and the world. It was a conscious decision to go on a search for many things. To get lost and hopefully find some things.

 

RW: Why haiku?

SM: I've found that haiku is the best way for me to express myself with words; the greatest and highest form of literature and writing there is. I would rather read a good haiku than anything else in the world. Haiku can express anything about anything. As short as a haiku is, I don't feel restricted by it. I enthusiastically agree that a haiku is whatever the poet makes it, not some set of rules or a definition. Haiku challenges me. I find that writing and reading haiku makes me live my life differently. Since finding haiku and its path, I'm more aware, observant, peripheral, open, watchful, both of the nature outside of me and the nature inside of me. Religion isn't a good enough word for haiku because haiku can be found in the heart of all religions, and the heart of all religions can be found in haiku. Haiku to me are spiritual. Any time in my life that something has moved me, has made me light up, I have been able to find each of those things in haiku.

 

RW: What is it about haiku that appeals to you?

SM: I think it's amazing that children can write good haiku. Haiku is almost like painting, music, or film, in the sense that they can express anything about anything, and be felt by anyone regardless of age. One must, of course, know the same language the haiku is written in, but even with the most basic knowledge, fundamentals, and vocabulary of English, one can pretty much understand and be affected by an English haiku. The universality of a haiku is up to the poet. One can write haiku like Kobayashi Issa or like Paul Muldoon. The amount of universalism a haiku can have, though, has always greatly impressed and attracted me to them. I have the utmost respect for the haiku of someone like Paul Muldoon. I would choose a collection of haiku by a child or children, or Issa, or Santoka, over his any day because I am drawn to the simplicity and universalism of haiku. That is what moves my soul.

Haiku also, I feel, awakens the child inside of me. Haiku can give us back the child that was once in all of us.

I also love how open and sketch-like haiku are. They have such an ability to allow the reader to enter them, to draw their own conclusions, to bring their own life experiences into them, to swim in the poem with their soul, memories and imagination. I love how I can read a good haiku by someone at different times and see and feel something different each time. I like what I can bring to a haiku and what someone can bring to a haiku I have written.

I'm deeply moved by how haiku makes use of the simple, basic, ordinary things around us; to "use the commonplace to avoid the commonplace," to quote Yosa Buson; to "sketch from life," according to Shiki. Because a haiku can be written about anything, it reminds me that every little thing in this world is sacred, has spirit and soul, and can be written about with love and sincerity. I love how something so simple (in words and form), which captures only a moment in time, can be so varied and rich with multiple emotions, images, subjects, colors, symbols, nature and life; and, again, with such universalism.

 

RW: You are married to a Japanese woman. Does this marriage between the two cultures affect your poetry? Why or why not?

SM: No. I will often show my wife haiku I'm working on, for her reaction and thoughts. For example, I'll occasionally, if I'm stuck, show her different versions of a haiku to see what resonates more for her, to see if I'm getting sloppy with words or if I'm unclear. I'm in a small haiku group, The Skipping Stones, with wonderful poets who help me with this, so I don't bug her as much anymore. I would share with her like this, though, if she was from America, Iceland, Ethiopia or anywhere else. Being married to such a unique, intelligent, sensitive, creative, caring person is what influences my poetry, not her nationality. I'm a happier writer and person than I've ever been, thanks to her. I've written many haiku about her; and I care deeply whether she likes what I write and whether she understands what I write. Both my wife and haiku have given me back a lot of my childhood. But I don't see that as having anything to do with her being Japanese.

 

RW: Who is your favorite haiku poet and why?

SM: My favorite haiku poet is John Martone. He is the first haiku poet who has changed the way I read and write haiku since I went from reading only translations of haiku by Japanese poets to modern English haiku in journals and magazines. I love the subjects and objects he writes about and the way he approaches them-the oddity of simple, everyday things, circumstances, juxtapositions, fleeting moments, and "sketches from life" he writes about. I can easily understand why some might be put off by his individualistic, stylistic nuances. I find those things and his non-traditional methods, to be unique and challenging. Some say he doesn't always write "haiku". I read, feel and see them as haiku. They are fresh to me, so awake, enthusiastic, and aware. He writes about things I don't find myself reading about in anyone else's haiku. And when he does write about things others have experienced and written about, he does it in a way that seems new to me; that gives me energy and inspiration. His haiku taste is spiritual to me; the ability to say so much, with emotional depth, and few words (even fewer than most haiku) is astounding. I adore the way he whittles his poems down to the core, to their heart, often by removing as many words as possible, but not so many that the reader can't understand. I feel it makes them stronger, more open and expansive, and vibrant, instead of the opposite for the reader. In his poetry's case, much less equals more. I taste Issa and Santoka in his work, but only as inspirations, never as imitation. He makes haiku his own. When I recently read his poems in NOON #1, they were without his name, and yet I was immediately drawn to them and felt that they came from his hand. I was tickled to see at the back of the journal that I was right.

Since I've come in contact with his work it takes a lot for me sometimes to try not to be that boring other half of the melon Basho warned us about. His poetry and style gets under my skin. I must consciously not imitate his style sometimes, but instead be inspired and only seek what he sought and seeks. I believe his poetry makes me a better writer and observer. He writes about the literal garden and the garden inside of us. Every time I read Dogwood & Honeysuckle, or one of his handmade, palm-sized collections, I feel my garden has been watered.

 

RW: Who was your greatest influence while growing up and why?

SM: My paternal grandmother, Violet Metz, my Grammy, was and still is my greatest influence. She was the first person to teach and show me how to appreciate simplicity, nature, drawing and cooking (edible art) through her own simplicity, attention, care, creativity, and love.

When I was growing up she'd take me for nature walks, through patches of woods and along streams near my grandparents' apartment. She has a great love for nature and beauty which she got from spending most of her childhood on the little mountain behind her family's row home. Growing up, she told me stories about her adventures. She still does; and I never get tired of them. My special relationship with her has given me the privilege of hearing her stories, her secrets, her dreams, her fears, even her possible hallucinations-all the special moments in her life. She is an extraordinarily sweet, simple woman, who touches everyone I've known, that comes in contact with her. She is the most spiritual person I have ever met. She is the person who made it possible for me to notice and appreciate haiku when I crossed its path. That has only increased through the years. She is not just my grandmother. She is my friend and spiritual adviser. Her simplistic, ordinary character is deceptive. She is like a haiku. We write to each other often, but I miss her terribly.

My grandfather, her husband, had a great, wacky sense of humor. His influence on me, his humor and attitude, were enormously important while growing up. The two of them were always involved in my life. They were always around for everything important that happened to me. I think I have always in some way or another tried to combine the best of their traits and graft them into my own personality. It wasn't until a dear friend of mine pointed it out to me though that I realized it.

 

RW: Any memories that affect you now? Your poetic outlook? And path?

SM: My maternal grandmother was a moon watcher and a drawer of lips and eyes. As a child, when I would stay overnight and she thought I'd finally fallen asleep, I'd watch her sitting, sometimes standing, out on the balcony, smoking a cigarette, watching the moon or the little mountain she grew up on. That watchfulness and reflection made an impression on me.

She often took a scrap of paper and made a beautiful eye or a set of lips lightly with a pencil using a few, simple strokes. I was always impressed, so in awe. I don't remember her ever completing the rest of the head or body, but I always thought they belonged to angels. I think the simplicity of those sketches affected my poetic outlook as well. Eventually, they made me fall in love with the sketchbooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Haiku, in many ways, are sketches. The reader completes them.

In a diner once, my grandfather ordered a cup of coffee. After the waitress left, he took out of his shirt pocket a spoon with the stirring end sawed-off and placed it in the cup. When the waitress came back, he lifted the spoon up from the coffee and said, "Gee, excuse me, Miss, but this is an awfully strong cup a coffee." I've since, of course, come to know he did this on more than one occasion. That element of slapstick and surprise, though, has always affected the way I try to write, think, and often act. His little routine was almost Zen-like in spirit. I feel surprise is another important note in haiku and in the poetry I like to read and write, and the path I wish to take.

 

RW: What is your goal as a poet?

SM: I write haiku because I must write haiku, not because I can or want to. I have no ulterior motives really. I want to write about what I'm inspired by with the best of my ability. I want to sketch, to write haiku, from my life, imagination and dreams, as naturally as I can, and to share them with others. I want to do this without being imitative or contrived. Like most writers, I guess, I sometimes struggle with writing a haiku; the form, the structure, the order, the word choice, the creation. My goal is to continue to grow, change, and make these occasional struggles more natural and smooth. Inspired by Basho's advice on composition, I want to write a haiku like I'm cutting a watermelon with a sharp knife, without having to alter or wanting to alter anything, afterwards; to feel it and write it, and to be able to let it be. The ability to make inspiration and words flow naturally and artistically can only come from experience, from being open, from practice. To write a good haiku, I write a lot of bad haiku. And I have. And I will. Hopefully, with practice, I'll write less but with more aim. Haiku has taught me a lot. I want to continue learning from it, to grow, change, share my poetry, and, hopefully, make a contribution to the world of haiku, poetry and literature.

To quote Devendra Banhart, one of my favorite musicians:

It's a sight to behold
when you've got small words to mold
& you can make 'em your own

 

Haiku

 

rice fields . . .
the moon paints a path
between them
 
   
  dog days . . .
the same long glass
   
chrysanthemums . . .
facing the ocean again
in gravestone vases
 
   
  first snowflakes . . .
counting the stars
with my fingers
 
firefly viewing . . .
a few women wearing
the same perfume
 
   
  night fishing-
squid ink in the lines
of my palms
 
turning around
I can tell he was watching
sparrows in the field
 
   
  wasps again
work themselves into
our conversation
 
the only fallen leaf
covered
with a dropping
 
   

Scott Metz was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, America, in 1976. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1999 with a BA in Engish. He became aware of haiku when he was 17 years old, upon reading J. D. Salinger's short story "Teddy" in his book Nine Stories. Afterward, he immediately began studying and practicing haiku. At the moment, he lives and teaches English in Tsuyama, Okayama, Japan, where he also met and fell in love with his wife. He has had haiku published in Frogpond and The Heron's Nest. He has haiku and senryu forthcoming in Frogpond, The Heron's Nest, TUNDRA, bottle rockets, and Modern Haiku.