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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

An Interview with Beverley George
By Patricia Prime


Beverley George has been writing since 1995. She lives on the east coast of Australia. Formerly a technical writer and editor, she has published mainstream poetry, short stories, articles and stories and poetry for children. She came to the Japanese short forms of poetry: haiku, tanka and haibun in 1997 and these forms have enriched her life and her work. Her haiku, tanka and haibun have been published (and won prizes) in the UK, USA, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, and Croatia. In 2005, Beverley won the W B Yeats Poetry Prize and also the Vera Newsom Poetry Prize for her mainstream poetry. Beverley produces and edits Yellow Moon magazine (www.yellowmoon.info)

I chose to interview Beverley George for Simply Haiku as she is the foremost champion of haiku, tanka and haibun in Australia and New Zealand. Her magazine, Yellow Moon, which enjoys international status and backing, specializes not only in contests for traditional forms of poetry such as the sonnet, ode and sestina and short forms such as cinquain and tetractys, but also runs contests for haibun, haiku, tanka, and haiku sequences. The magazine also publishes articles from well-respected haijin on a variety of topics, including pen-portraits of the Japanese Masters, discussions about haiku and tanka, and haiku lessons.

 

PP: To begin with, I'm interested in whether your approach to composition is spontaneous or whether you're more interested in applying particular procedures to materials that either you've previously written or that come from a fresh perspective.

BG: Usually it's spontaneous - a reaction to something experienced or seen. I like to get my thoughts down quickly and re-order them later.

 

PP: What's the role of revision in your work? Do you spend a lot of time working on a poem before it's finished or is it quite a swift process and then you rework things over a longer period of time?

BG: Revision is an extensive component in my writing. Occasionally a poem arrives almost complete in my mind and these can be the better ones. With other poems I am like a terrier, working, re-working, trying to pull them into shape. It tends to be quite a swift but intense process.

 

PP: You've won prizes for many different Japanese short forms of poetry including haiku, tanka and haibun. I was wondering whether you identify with one of these modes more than the others?

BG: Yes, interesting question. My first love was haiku. When I rediscovered this genre in 1997 I immediately remembered two haiku I'd read when I was about fourteen. They were embedded in a novel titled The Time of the Dragons by Alice Ekert-Rotholz but I was able to find them. The impact of these two brief poems was just as strong all these years later. These days, I prefer writing tanka but I am glad I came to this far older form after first experiencing the discipline of haiku. I believe this path is preferable to any perceived association between Japanese tanka and English free verse.

 

PP: You have had great success with your haiku over the years. Can you tell us what drew you to writing Japanese forms?

BG: Chance, I guess. I had been writing short stories and mainly traditional poetry for two years when Pat Kelsall started producing Yellow Moon. I entered the very first competition Pat conducted and was instantly mesmerised by the possibilities of the forms. This is how I was introduced to Janice Bostok and her work, which has profoundly influenced my understanding of these genres.

 

PP: Below are two of your award-winning haiku. How many haiku would you write in a week? How many discard?

BG: Pat, I'm not prolific. I don't have time to be, but certainly when I wrote haiku rather than tanka I wrote far more of them than I do the latter. It's because they are poems of observation so they become almost habitual. As you look around you, you record what you see almost on a daily basis. Like the pursuit of photography or painting, haiku teaches you to look harder, absorb more of what lies around you. Because my own writing output fluctuates widely in relation to editing and related demands I can't really give an average figure, but if I go through a productive phase I would discard at least one third I guess.

Regarding the two haiku below, the first is a poem of observation. I simply recorded what I saw and can still picture clearly in my mind. I hope the white space in the last line helps the reader see it too. A bee-humming kind of day and the old man in white overalls and veiled hat at the white apiary boxes tapping the swarm loose. The second relates to an often repeated experience, when you go outdoors on a sultry evening and there is a smell of decadence and decay. It's very sensual, and very Australian summer. I was pleased it was understood in England too.

summer haze -
a beekeeper taps the swarm
loose

- Grand Prix, The Third Ashiya International Haiku Festa, 2004

sultry night -
the smell of jasmine
and old oranges

- Highly Commended Haiku Presence Award, 2003

 

PP: Do you plan a sequence of haiku, or does it find its own form and you think OK, I want to present these haiku together?

BG: Haiku sequences are planned. I move from the general idea to a jotting of fragmented ideas in some more or less logical order. Of course, one particular haiku can suggest a sequence, but the planning process would come next.

 

PP: Traditionally, Japanese poets either write haiku or tanka. Do you feel that you are taking a risk by composing in a variety of different Japanese forms? Is it important for you to feel that you take risks as a writer?

BG: Absolutely, Pat. I believe that if you are a writer, you should experiment widely. I have written short stories, technical articles, press releases, Japanese poetry, general interest articles, traditional and free verse. I have a humorous book for 8 year old children due for publication in February 2006 by Blake Publishing. It doesn't mean that you write all genres equally well. If you have become established as a successful writer of a particular genre you might have to start in another genre as a very small fish at the bottom of an extremely large pond. However, I believe there is a lot to be learned from experimenting with different genres. One example, widely quoted, is that writing haiku brings a concision of language and a directness that can greatly benefit the way in which we write everything else. I think the danger inherent in not experimenting beyond one particular genre, is that we can become too prolific, too self-obsessed and eventually, perhaps, a little stale. This is not, of course, true of everyone.

 

PP: Is there any relation between a project and a particular form you have in mind? In other words, is there any sense you could say this idea is suited for a haibun, this one for a tanka, a haiku, a tanka sequence or a haiku sequence?

BG: Yes, definitely. I see quite marked differences between topics suitable for haiku and those that would make a good tanka. I don't subscribe to the current theory that haibun can only be short - almost like a haiku with a prose headnote. Haibun allow development of an idea and usually reach some resolution but I believe they can be of varying word counts. The topic dictates the length required. I also think that although many good haibun have been written about sad subjects they can also be joyous and celebratory. On the backburner is a long historical narrative verse for which I have already conducted a fair bit of research. One day I'll lock myself up somewhere for 2 months and write it!

 

PP: Following are some of your tanka. Could you explain to readers your fondness for this form?

BG: I love the coiled emotion, the succinctness of the genre. They can be very powerful little poems. I particularly love the waka of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu of the Heian Period translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani in The Ink Dark Moon. I think that this book offers one of the best introductions possible to appreciating tanka.

The tanka of mine you have selected are all ones I found satisfying to write.

why is your voice
impossible to recall?
the apricot tree
you planted in our youth
still fruits every year

- red lights 1, 2005
 
  broken planks
of the old fishing jetty
just like us
piers out of sight
but holding

- red lights 1, 2005
widening each day
the winter river rushes
over hidden rocks
if you asked me to return
I could no longer cross it

- Moonset 2, 2005
 
  wattle is in bloom
for the second time
since you left -
each night I am awakened
by the coldness of our bed

- paper wasp, 2005
rip-tide -
slowly I return
an occupied shell
to the surging sea
between us

- Second Prize, Ribbons, 2005
 

 

PP: In the collaborative haiku sequences you have written with John Bird (Australian poet), I wonder if you could tell readers how that came about and how it was organised?

BG: It was a process that evolved over a relatively brief period and which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Our first sequence was the only one unpublished. It is too long and we wrote turn about, owning our own poems. Long before we finished that first sequence we discovered that the work would be much better served if we weren't concerned about the haiku appearing turn about but put them in the best order for the sequence. Next we wrote a parallel sequence about Anzac Day. John wrote the left hand column about the Dawn Service and I wrote the right hand column from the viewpoint of a mother whose son had enlisted. We were still writing individually and workshopping each others' as required. Our big breakthrough came when we wrote the collaborative haiku sequence Walking into Autumn. After we had plotted the story line and jotted down possible inclusions, we worked together on every haiku. Although there are a male and a female character in the sequence, the writing was truly collaborative and neither of us would be able to claim any particular poem as our own.

After that, we wrote several other sequences collaboratively, some of which have won prizes in open poetry competitions, and all of which have been published, either in mainstream anthologies or in haiku journals. Some of them are available on the Yellow Moon web-site, which John produces. As John and I do not live near each other most of our writing was done by email exchanges. We would set aside time to both be on-line at the same time so the exchanges could be spontaneous.

 

PP: I enjoy collaborating with other poets as I feel that a poem takes a different twist when it's a collaboration of ideas between one or more poets. But I don't think you've written many collaborative pieces. Do you envision writing more collaborative poetry?

BG: Well, I've written renga with several people including Janice Bostok, but mainly as a learning experience before we introduced the category to Yellow Moon for a while. But collaborative writing, as I now define it, is difficult to achieve with many people I think. John and I wrote a collaborative free verse which was published in five bells (the NSW Poets Union magazine) but we both found the experience challenging and not one we plan to repeat, although we would like to write further collaborative haiku sequences when time permits. As for writing with other partners, I'd be more likely to write turn-about as in renga, than collaboratively. But who knows?

 

PP: I'd like you to share with readers your wonderful award winning haibun, and perhaps explain to readers the impetus of your poem.

BG: I would not have thought I would ever write about such an intensely personal subject. First I wrote the haiku as a one-column personal poem to pin down my own emotions.

gathering coke along the railway track my father's ashes

I didn't think anyone else would relate to it, but it seemed to satisfy something within me. However, eventually I showed the haiku to Janice Bostok and she seemed to understand it. Next I wrote a very brief, very structured half page haibun incorporating this haiku. I edited and edited and it grew more unsatisfactory. Eventually I tore it up into tiny pieces and put it in the bin, where it deserved to be. I waited a week or so then wrote the version you see below, just letting it evolve gently, and hardly editing a word. I have been touched by the response of many people to this haibun.

Winner World Haiku Club R H Blyth Award 2004
published on World Haiku Review
also published in Presence #26 2005 (UK) and voted best-of-issue by readers

 

Gathering Coke

 

The waiting is unendurable. This meeting a mistake. I should not have tried to find our half-brother, Peter, whom we have never known. Not now. Not at this late stage of our lives.

My brother, Fraser, has flown in from Hong Kong; Peter from Perth. We are to meet in Sydney at the Chinese Gardens, symbol of peace and the natural order of things. Fraser and I are already there anxiously scanning the crowd. The photograph Peter has sent of himself possesses our minds.

One moment just a haze of faces. Then there he is coming diffidently towards us. He's many years younger than us. Does he look familiar? No, not familiar, but our father's voice.

No tears.

We shake hands, the three of us desperately trying to put the others at ease. The fuss with tickets to enter the Gardens shows us what we are. Polite strangers.

We walk the paths heedless of ponds and bamboo; the eccentric shapes of rocks. We could be anywhere.

Near a clump of black bamboo, I pull out my camera. For the first time I feel my unknown brother's arm around my shoulders. Feel him tremble.

Time re-adjusts itself to easy pace. Our voices become natural. As Peter tells of his childhood with our father, we rediscover our own young family days. The love of steam trains and pets and film-making. A Christmas Carol read aloud each December. The music of Delius and Grieg.

waterfall
our faces ripple closer
in the pond

"Dad named me after his favourite dog," says Peter, and Fraser and I recall the small Australian terrier we both loved.

"Just as well he didn't name you for his favourite cat," I say. "Sooty's a pretty funny name for a bloke."

"I was nine when Dad died of leukemia," Peter says, and I remember the bio box at the old theatre and the huge projectors. We did not know of ozone emissions then. The worst fear was of fire in which the old-style film would leap in flaming spirals.

"That's the same age as Fraser was when we last saw Dad," I say gently. "I was fourteen."

"Mum must have been only six years older than you." Peter says to me, and I can hear anxiety for her in his voice.

But long before this meeting the ground rules are in place, by all of us, for all of us. No blame, no regrets; just the three of us going forward.

We know it's going to be all right. Four days together on Fraser's farm in the Southern Highlands to forge first ties. And after that, the rest of our lives.

Peter says, "When Dad was dying he asked for his ashes to be scattered on a particular stretch of railway track, back in Adelaide, where you two grew up. Not that he'd ever lived there again. Somewhere in the hills, I think."

With his words, our newly met brother has returned our father to us.

Fraser and I know exactly where this place must be. A sharp bend of track on the edge of the National Park where coke spilled freely from the tenders of the steam trains. On Sunday drives we'd gather up the coke, thrusting it into hessian bags for winter fires. Picnic nearby.

In his final days, our father has not denied us. Now we weep; begin to heal.

gathering coke
   along the railway track -
our father's ashes

 

PP: Do you use any forms of research to stimulate your poetry, in the sense that it creates a number of possibilities that you then think about transforming in certain ways? I'm thinking, for example, of your trips to Japan, reading, studying works of art, or listening to music.

BG: Another interesting question, I'll enjoy answering. Yes, mainly scientific articles, particularly about the natural world, as a stimulus. Like species of spider or bird might inspire a poem. I would make notes from the factual article but then submerge the facts into my consciousness in order to write the poem. I wouldn't want it to read like an article! Art is a marvellous stimulus too, although I haven't yet explored it as much as I would like to. But yes, I often find myself delving into the encyclopaedia or a reference book when I write a poem. Recently I wrote an amusing one titled "Ballooning at Versailles." Great fun to write but the facts were there.

 

PP: You are an experienced Australian poetry editor. Could you tell us a little about your editing role in Yellow Moon?

BG: One of the main elements is planning. I have to know what competitions I'll convene and what articles about writing I'll publish for a year ahead. It's essential to be responsive to participant reaction and also to offer some new writing challenges.

Integral to Yellow Moon is the provision of guidelines and in-depth information about the various genres. For example, I've had self-labelled 'non-poets' begin trying to write poetry with cinquain and tetractys who have ended up writing everything from haiku to Petrarchan sonnets. Haiku Sequences, which we have already mentioned, were intended to build bridges between mainstream and haiku poets, but it's a two-way conduit. Recently a poet who felt her free verse needed a boost decided to write haiku sequences as a springboard back to free verse.

Editing Yellow Moon has made my life more encompassing. I don't know whether other editors feel like this but sometimes I feel like a hub-based spider with many networks travelling out and back. Their complexities are intriguing and afford me a view of 'things beyond my ken'.

The down-side is a truly heavy administration workload. Physical too. The mail-outs are an incredible endeavour. You wouldn't want to be here!

 

PP: Given that you have spent so much time on Yellow Moon reading other people's poetry, do you think this has inhibited your own writing in any way?

BG: Only in terms of time. On the positive side it has kept my interest in poetry diversified. For example, I love the nature poems in Yellow Moon. Of the various challenges to mainstream poets in recent times, both elegy and Chaucerian elicited some marvellous responses. I am a great admirer of many poets, some unsung.

 

PP: How would you link the various aspects of your work as editor, writer and teacher?

BG: I guess it's more to do with separate out, than link. Some years ago in one of my frantic periods, a dear friend told me about the Edward de Bono hats. This is a mental exercise rather than physical, but when I am editing, deciding, administrating I wear the white analytical hat. When I am writing, the green hat is clamped down over my ears. When I am teaching I wear a white hat with green stars! You have to be organised when teaching, know where you are going (white) but you have to inspire others with your passion for poetry (green) Thinking about which hat I'm wearing helps me address these three separate tasks.

 

PP: What is your writing routine?

BG: January.

 

PP: Do you keep a notebook, journal, or diary? How often do you sit down to write in them?

BG: I keep notebooks. A nest of them. I record thoughts, embryonic poems, recipes, books people say I should read, meeting notes, lists of what I should be doing, train timetables and grandkids' drawings. I'm smiling about 'sit down'. These notebooks travel with me on the train, in the car. They go to concerts. These are places in which I sit down. The only place I don't use the notebooks often is at home.

 

PP: What kind of note taking do you make?

BG: Erratic, illegible, impulsive, but copious. I love to pour over old notebooks and say oh yes, this scrawl became that poem.

 

PP: Considering the vast amount of work you do, you must have a comprehensive reference system. Which kind of reference system do you prefer?

BG: Cards and paper files, archives. Oh, with computers and memory sticks to back them up, of course.

 

PP: Your poem "Night Train   Australia   1940s," which I'd like you to share with readers, won the W B Yeats Poetry Prize for Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps you could tell us how you came to write the poem?

BG: I actually think there is something eerie about me and trains. So many life events are centred around them, including contemporary ones. Mixed blessings! You are intuitive with your questions, Pat. I think Night Train - a childhood memory of Murray Bridge railway station at some ungodly hour may have been a natural sequitur to "Gathering Coke." I hadn't thought of that until now. But it's all bound up with a love of trains in my early childhood. As a small kid, I could identify engine parts and even types of engine - on the move. Trains spelled dependability and power, and the chance to look at something different.

Night Train   Australia   1940s

 

The train lies stretched
within a sleeping town.
On the puddled platform
incandescent light yellows the mist;
blackness pools about
the dull gleam of dented milk cans.

The engine pants;
water slides around its seams,
glistens on each rounded stud;
white steam
gusts from the piston cylinder,
slicks the boiler's underbelly.

A shovel bites through coal
clangs against the firebox door.
The stoker pushes back his cap;
his forehead banded white
above a grimed and sweat-streaked face,
as he swigs from a canvas water-bag.

The porter's trolley trundles past -
cardboard cases and hat boxes,
their hand-lettered labels
tied with twine.

In the refreshment room -
travellers bang down
logoed teacups
rimmed with tannin;
wrap their trench coats closer,
rush with vapoured breath
to wrench down the single handle
of narrow compartment doors.

The station master
readies his whistle
in clamped lips,
swings a low arc
of lantern light.

Wooden windows
clatter down through ratchets.
The engine gathers power,
tautens the couplings,
finds the first slow rhythm
of wheel on track and ballast.
The train moves into night.

©December 2004 Beverley George First Prize WB Yeats Poetry Prize for Australia and New Zealand 2005
published on the internet at the WB Yeats site www.benbulben.net Published The School Magazine [NSW] February 2006.

 

PP: You have also won the Vera Newsom Prize for your poem "Presence". Would you like to say something about the way haiku influences your mainstream poetry?

BG: I'd love to. The primary comments made by the judges of both of the major poetry competitions I won this year (the WB Yeats and the Vera Newsom Prizes) were on the strong imagery and uncluttered language of the poems. I think writing haiku has helped everything I write, but it has particularly helped my free verse.

 

PP: Do you have any thoughts about how you anticipate the future of your work, and also what's happening today in Japanese short forms, what will happen, what should happen?

BG: Personally, I hope for more writing time (don't we all?), but that is always going to be limited, especially while ever I produce Yellow Moon. In the short term, I would like to concentrate on developing my tanka and free verse.

Where Japanese short forms are concerned, I would like to see haibun written in a variety of styles and lengths and I would like to read more that are joyous and celebratory of life than seems to be the current trend. Concerning haiku, I would love to see a broader public understanding of this genre as it might best be written in English. There are so many misconceptions out there. However, those who care to look will find haiku is in safe hands in various prestigious haiku magazines published around the world.

I guess my deepest interest lies in what happens next with tanka. I think this short form has so much potential in English. Yellow Moon has been publishing tanka since 1997 and the standard has continued to grow throughout that period. My hope for tanka is to see many more Australian and New Zealand writers experiment - thoughtfully - with this genre.

 


Beverley George has worked as a librarian, a photographer and as a technical writer and editor. She is a Writing Fellow of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (NSW) and a member of the Australian Haiku Society, the British Haiku Society, the Haiku Society of America, the World Haiku Club, the Poets Union (NSW), the Poetry Australia Foundation, Headland Writers, a Children's Literature Group and of the Society of Women Writers (NSW), for whom she edits a newsletter.

She produces and edits Yellow Moon, a print poetry magazine which enjoys international reputation and support. More information is available from www.yellowmoon.info.

Her haiku and tanka have been published in UK, Japan, US, NZ, Russia, Canada, Croatia as well as in Australia, in 27 journal titles. Her work has twice received the best-of-issue reader vote in Presence (UK). In 2004 she won first place in four major international haiku competitions: the Third Ashiya International Festa [Japan] (held every two years); the British Haiku Society JW Hackett Award; the World Haiku Club Fourth New Year's Eve and New Year's Day Double Kukai 2003/2004 and the World Haiku Club R H Blyth Award 2004 for Haibun. She has also earned an Inspirational Award of Judges in the Second Ashiya International Haiku Festa 2002, a Haiku Honourable Mention Award in the Fifth Suruga Baika Literary Festival 2003 and in the Seventh Suruga Baika Literary Festival 2005. In 2005 she placed second in the Tanka Society of American annual international competition.

She recently won the Tanka Society of America's International Contest 2006 for her tanka

a lightning strike
splits our old apple tree -
I never dreamed
the death that parted us
would not be one of ours

Beverley has also had an article that she first wrote for five bells: Australian Poetry 13 (1) 2006 pp.10-15, published in Tomodachi: The Newsletter of the Australia-Japan Society of New South Wales (Inc), May 2006, which goes out to consulates and Australia-Japan Societies across Australia and also in some parts of Japan. The article can also be found on the Yellow Moon website under articles: www.yellowmoon.info.

She is President of the Australian Haiku Society (www.haikuoz.org) and has been invited to give a paper at the 3rd Pacific Rim Haiku Conference at Matsuyama in April 2007. Recently she founded Eucalypt: a tanka journal, Australia's first literary magazine devoted entirely to tanka (www.eucalypt.info)