Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2008, vol 6 no 4
 

An Interview with An Xiao
by Robert D. Wilson


Periodically, I come across a relatively unknown person in the international Japanese short form poetry community who possesses an authentic voice; the person's poetry: innovative, creative, and fresh. Such a person is An Xiao:

8th grade yearbook
i miss the child
who once
placed so much trust
in this floating world

 

RW: An, The majority of your tanka mirror the are of who you are, a complex, creative, sensitive spirit living in an urban setting who sees the world through a camera lens. A professional photographer and a poet, you've blended the two genres much like a marriage blends two entities into one family, without the two losing their own individuality.

Take for example the following tanka:

I often wonder
what the poets of Heian
would think —
the wind in the heater vents
the sun in my monitor's glare

You step beyond the impersonal that has become commonplace in today's English language Japanese short form poetry, choosing to do as many Japanese poets have done in earlier ages—baring personal emotion, risking vulnerability; your heart and words singing one song.

Tell us about your style of poetry: its roots, and how it resonates in your inner self.

AX: First of all, Robert, thank you so much for your kind words. I'm so honored to interview with you and share more about my own journey as an artist and writer. I can honestly say that Simply Haiku, along with the Haiku Society of America, have played a key role in my creative development, and I can't thank you enough for putting together such a quality publication and encouraging me as a poet.

As to your question: I can be a very emotive person at times, and I've always been very expressive in my writing, to a fault. I look back on my earliest attempts at poetry, especially in high school, and I clearly felt like I had a lot to say (and who didn't in high school!). However, these poems felt more like verbal explosions, lacking in depth and sophistication. It's almost embarrassing to read them to myself these days.
It wasn't until I began a correspondence with Dogo Barry Graham, a Zen priest now based in Phoenix, that I started to find greater sophistication in my writing. He taught me kado, or the way of poetry, and he really encouraged me to explore my voice in short Japanese verse. Through this practice, I found a more disciplined approach to writing and creative expression.

He also introduced me to the work of Yosano Akiko, whom I consider one of my main role models both in life and literature. Her voice enraptured me with its richness and honesty, and it spoke to me like that of a contemporary. I devoured her writings and subsequently spent a lot of time in the Japanese and Chinese poetry section in the basement of my university library. It was kind of a scary place, but I was keen on reading more! I soon discovered the poetry of other powerful women in Japanese literature, including Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, not to mention Ema Saiko, Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu.

Since I was there, I also started looking at classical Chinese poetry, which had a strong influence on Japanese literature. As I studied Chinese academically, I had the privilege of reading some of the five- and seven-character works of Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei in the original. Through the act of translation, I gained a deeper understanding of the word and sound play that East Asian languages allow, particularly those languages that utilize Chinese characters, and the origins of many Japanese aesthetic principles.

In the world outside East Asian poetry, I've studied both Latin poetry and English. I enjoyed the classical work of Catullus (whose edginess and frank sexuality bear some resemblance to Yosano Akiko's work, incidentally) and Virgil, and a good number of English classics like Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Edgar Allan Poe. Contemporaries who've influenced me include Naomi Shihab Nye, Louise Glück, Sam Hamill and Sandra Cisneros.

But back to the Japanese. Far and away, it's Japanese women's writing that's shaped the direction and aesthetic of my work. There's a deep honesty in their words, especially in Yosano Akiko's work, that just resonates so much with me personally. I originally began my poetic journey with haiku but soon found the greater flexibility of the tanka form to suit my personality better. I frequently experience strong emotions and have struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety. So in some sense, the discovery of this rich poetic tradition helped me understand my emotions and life experiences, and in another sense, they helped me experience those emotions more deeply without being swept up in them.

 

RW: You were raised and educated in the metropolitan cities of Manila, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington D.C., the antithesis of the natural settings one usually associates with Japanese short form poetry, yet you write haiku and tanka and have married it to your photography in a congested urban environment.

You state in your online bio: "In my work, I specifically seek to marry the haiku concepts of aware and yugen with [street photographer] Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment, to at once capture the inherent transience of city life and the moments of awe in which urban dwellers sometimes find themselves. Through this marriage of aesthetics, I seek to recognize life in the world's megacities as a life that, though far from idyllic hills and forests, is filled with countless haiku moments worthy of appreciation."

Please elucidate.

AX: I think you're right that most people associate short Japanese verse with nature. We normally think of falling leaves, soaring mountains, and ink dark moons when we think of haiku and tanka. And while I certainly connect with those images (I've hiked many a mountain trail in California), I spend most of my time in cities. For me, thick black coats and tall stiletto boots are more indicative of the season than rolling hills of snow.

The haiku aesthetics that I tend to express the most in my writing and art are aware, or impermanence, and yugen, or awe. When I think of aware, I think immediately of midtown Manhattan. On any given weekday, the place is a veritable jungle of office workers, fashionistas, hot dog vendors, delivery boys, couriers, taxis, bikes, rats and what have you. It's an utterly impermanent place, changing second by New York second before your eyes.

But I also think about the changing landscape of our cities. I think of the rapid gentrification we've witnessed over the past few years. In my childhood neighborhood of Silverlake, where I once listened to gang fights in my backyard, hipsters now stroll the streets and read LA Weekly in cute cafes. Talk about a fleeting world!

And then I think of yugen and those awe-inspiring moments when I see myself as one with the larger picture. Anyone who's looked up at the New York City skyline (or any other megacity's skyline) can relate to this sense of awe, which can be equally as enthralling as a mountain range in Colorado. But there are also the smaller moments, like the way snow falls at night, with city lights twinkling about, and the little pitter patter of silhouettes carefully crossing the street.

In all of these experiences, there comes a moment when it all makes sense. An "aha" moment. Rarely does this last more than a few seconds, and that's the decisive moment I want to capture. I constantly ask myself, whether writing a poem or taking a photograph, when the essence of aware is best experienced, when the essence of yugen is most palpable. If I can capture that moment just right, I consider the work successful.

 

RW: Although you were born in the USA and partly raised in Metro Manila, a polluted, densely populated urban center, your Chinese-Filipino heritage plays an important role in the shaping of your artistic consciousness. Your grandparents were born in a different era with conservative beliefs and a geographical biosphere far removed from today's Manila, where indigenous beliefs, folklore, and the influence of Spain (which occupied the Philippines for 300 years) played an important role.

high humidity
once again in New York --
how is it that
I smell the ripe mangos
plucked fresh from Lola's farm?

Tell us how your birthplace and family heritage contribute to your artistic voice, especially in the context of Japanese haiku and tanka.

AX: The particular tanka here is a bit of a microcosm of the way I see the world—with a foot in New York and, halfway around the world, the Philippines. I am at once a Filipina and at once a Los Angelena and at once a New Yorker, so it's difficult for me to peg the amount of influence my ethnic background has on my work. When I compose a tanka, I write about the emotions and images I'm experiencing at a given moment. If that experience draws from my ethnic background, I'll write about it, but I don't make a deliberate attempt to express that side of myself.

I do think, however, that the influence of my upbringing should not be ignored. For one reason or another, I've come to occupy multiple worlds, along race, class and geography: a low-income community near Hollywood, the dense urban centers of Metro Manila, the quiet suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, the wealthy neighborhood of Georgetown, and now the ethnic enclaves of Jersey City and the gritty glamour of Manhattan. I think it's this rich mixture of life experiences, rather than any solitary aspect of my past, that influences my artistic voice. I've seen the world through so many different lenses and angles, and I'm incredibly grateful for that.

 

RW: An, you are one of only a few English language poets to openly pen homoerotic tanka at this juncture in time. Bashō and other poets in the past have done so, and the gay lifestyle in the West is becoming more accepted, even to the point of legalizing gay marriages in some states

why should
i limit my bed to
just one gender?
lips are luscious lips
bodies are gorgeous bodies

This is a powerful, poignant poem; one in which you bravely expose yourself and your deepest feelings. I find it refreshing that you do not paint a false front, like some poets do today, who keep their readers at a distance, wanting to appear politically correct (whoever dictates that), their poetic voices lacking in depth.

In the past erotic poems penned by straight poets gained wider acceptance, which is unfair, because the acceptance of a person's poetic voice and output should not be determined by sexual, religious, or socio-political backgrounds. Fortunately this bias is changing. For the most part, in your birthplace, the Philippines, it's who you are inside that counts, not the outer shell. Do you see yourself as a pioneer in this regard?

AX: I think Yosano Akiko was a pioneer, especially in the sociopolitical climate of her time. I feel more like a follower! These days, one of the top talk show hosts in America is a lesbian, a prominent Senator is openly gay, and one of the latest pop songs to hit the charts was about an otherwise heterosexual woman kissing another woman (and liking it). In Los Angeles and New York, at least, the climate can be very open-minded, though I can't deny that homophobia is very much alive and well, unfortunately.

So no, I don't feel like a pioneer. Others before me have done that important work, and frankly, as most of my relationships are with men, I don't face many of the difficult decisions that openly homosexual couples must face. I just feel like I'm expressing a certain aspect of myself, namely, my openness to explore attraction, regardless of gender. But this openness is just one component of who I am, no more or less substantial than, say, my identity as a city dweller. For me, the fact that I express my sexuality in my poetry (and, lately, in my photography) is more a personal decision than a political one. Putting down verse helps me understand and express my romantic and sexual life, whether with men, or women.

I do think that it's unfortunate, as you expressed above, that heterosexual poetry receives greater prominence. I was delighted to find that Yosano Akiko herself had written verse about her own relationships with women (another reason I find her life so fascinating) but was disappointed it had been, and continues to be, given very little attention compared to her heteroerotic work. Here's something I wrote in response:

the day i discovered
yosano akiko loved both
women and men
i could not help but wonder
if she'd ever sleep with me

On the one hand, I understand that people enjoy reading about life experiences they can relate to, but on the other hand, I personally relish the opportunity to hear about journeys different from my own. If a writer of a different life background can connect with me through his or her work, I see that as a sign of a highly developed writer. I try to do the same, i.e., I try to connect with audiences who've had very different lives from mine. I try to put myself in their shoes, wondering what it's like for them to imagine themselves in my own shoes. It's a challenge that I enjoy, and one I'm constantly working on, both in my writing and my art.

 

RW: Your photographs are poems in themselves, the images stark, contrasting, and often surreal. They're hard to ignore. Your photographs, An, draw viewers into the realities each of them paint and, like tanka and haiku, invite readers to complete them with their individual interpretations. Tell us more about your photography; what you're looking for, your headspace at the time you're taking a photo, and "the way" you take (and interpret loosely as kado) in developing a symbiotic canvas that is both poetic and fine art.

AX: You know what's funny? The reason I think of my street photography as kado is that I think the mindset I take to my photography is almost identical with that which I take to my poetry. My primary aesthetics, as mentioned above, are still aware and yugen. I call my work "street haiku" because it's very much about "haiku moments," or moments that express the essence and aesthetic of a haiku poem. We see this in classical Chinese sanshui paintings and Japanese haiga—the marriage of verse and image come naturally in these traditions. So for me, there's very little subjective distinction in mindset, though I do wonder what an MRI would reveal about which parts of my brain are firing away.

But why photography? When I first moved to New York, I often found myself writing, writing, writing, because everything was so new. So much inspired me that I'd spit out short poems like no tomorrow. But pretty soon, I'd frequently come across images and situations that felt like haiku but didn't immediately bring words to mind. It in fact felt like words got in the way of the experience, or, perhaps more accurately, that the experience just didn't lend itself to verbal expression. Eventually frustrated with my inability to capture these moments with language, I bought a camera with some Christmas money, and I started snapping away. It's been quite a creative whirlwind since!

Incidentally, I think this is why I've struggled to develop strong photograph haiga, i.e., photographs and poems. For me, the photograph is a haiku. The beauty of haiga is that both the poem and the image complement each other, creating an aesthetic greater than its parts alone. But for me, most of my photos already speak as poems, and adding an actual poem would only muddy up the original aesthetic intent, as if adding a poem to a poem.

 

RW: You are a Zen Buddhist. How does this belief system affect your poetry and photography? Does it help you to find haiku moments in your surroundings, regardless of the locale, be it Coney Island, the Bowery, Grand Central Station in New York City, or the City Hall, 5th street and MacArthur Park in Los Angeles?

AX: I think of myself as a Zen Buddhist in the same way that one might think oneself a Kantian or an Aristotelian. For me, Zen is a philosophical system rather than a belief system. Of course, Zen does have a tradition of practice that many Western philosophical traditions lack, but I think it would be too complicated to explore that right now! In any case, I think this distinction will help clarify my own approach to art.

I think my practice of Zen has influenced my art in countless ways, but there are two in particular: developing sati, or mindfulness, and understanding anitya, or impermanence. My creative pursuits, whether poetry or photography, function as a form of moving meditation. Rather than being caught up in the tidal wave of the city, as I am wont to do, I take a moment to slow down, focus on my breath, and observe. When I am properly mindful, I find so many wonderful things to photograph and to write about. Otherwise, I am just rushing to the next big thing like every other New Yorker.

At the same time, Zen has opened my eyes to impermanence. I've come to see the impermanent as beautiful, but since I live in the city, I see it in images not traditionally associated with haiku. It's not a leaf caught in the wind; it's a trash bag. It's not a gentle stream of refreshing water; it's a roaring stream of various unidentifiable liquids. It's a squirrel poking at a ham sandwich. A child running through a fountain.

 

RW: You've said your art, be it photography or Japanese short form poetry, or a collaboration of the two, is done "in the tradition of the zenga, a style of Japanese calligraphy and painting, which is supposed to be painted spontaneously and without structured thought." I take it you do not find Japanese aesthetics arcane or irrelevant to your life as a 21st century artist living in metropolitan America?

AX: Not at all. I think some of the best contemporary art keeps a foot in both the contemporary and the timeless. Many contemporary artists choose to engage the aesthetics of classical forms. Kara Walker, for instance, uses 18th century cut-paper silhouettes to explore contemporary issues of race, while Suh Yong engages in a rich contemporary dialogue with Buddhist murals near the Central Asian town of Dunhuang. If anything, I find that a strong tether to the past has the potential to enrich an artist's work and to add multiple layers of meaning, as if she or he is collaborating with artists and forms long since gone. We see this in the world of short Japanese verse, wherein contemporary English writers use a poetic form that dates back to a culture and era that can seem as foreign to native Japanese as Chaucer does to English speakers.

If anything, 21st century life and technology almost demand a zenga-like approach to art. The cities I live in move so quickly, in a literal sense, and it's difficult if not impossible to sit and contemplate compositions and tones while people and cars rush by relentlessly. I can't ask them to slow down, or go backwards, or rearrange themselves. I barely have time to reposition myself or my camera. Moments come and go with astonishing brevity, and anyone who's taken a walk with me through the city has seen me run, literally run, to photograph a moment before it disappears. Photography, and digital photography in particular, lends itself to this approach.

 

RW: You mention earlier in this interview the strong influence the poetry of Yosano Akiko and how her poetry stimulated you to write tanka. What is it exactly that attracts you to her poetry? Her poetry had a strong influence on 20th century Japanese tanka poets and still does. Why do you think this is so? What is it about her style of tanka that influences your own tanka?

AX: Her work as a whole is deeply, deeply personal and emotive, both breaking new ground and grounding itself in traditions. Each poem reveals so little but contains a mountain of emotion and life experience. I can look at my own work and see this compact poem that was the culmination of nights of crying or weeks of happiness or what-have-you, and I wish I could peer behind the curtain of Yosano Akiko's poetry and see what led her to compose her pieces.

One of my favorites is this poem, translated by Kenneth Rexroth:

I can give myself to her
In her dreams
Whispering her own poems
In her ear as she sleeps beside me

There's so much in these few syllables: a nod to Heian imagery, but updated with Yosano's own sexual empowerment as a woman—one who is sleeping with another woman, no less. It's quite a daring poem by itself, especially for her time, but we know there's so much more. Who is this woman? What are the poems Yosano is reading? Did they have a long relationship, or was this an experimental phase? Were their husbands aware of this, or did they have to skulk around like modern-day Genjis? A historian could probably answer these questions, but I don't think the actual empirical facts would add to or take away from the power of the poem. Rather, the joy of the poem is found in the questions it raises, rather than the answers.

I think Yosano's enduring popularity and influence on the 20th century comes from her own daring to reexamine the form and make it her own. She turned upside down what seemed to be a dying tradition and gave it a fresh, exciting interpretation. Halfway around the world, Coco Chanel gave modern women the fashions their new lifestyles required; Yosano Akiko gave them a poetic voice. This is why her work remains so powerful—it speaks to women (and everyone) more than a century since Midaregami was published.

 

RW: Do you include some of your tanka with your gallery showings and exhibits, and if so, what is it about the two mediums that form a symbiosis between them for you?

AX: At the moment, the closest I've come to presenting both my tanka and my photography was a presentation to the Haiku Society of America in New York on my efforts to combine both in a haiga-like medium. My recent interview with Sarah Todd at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review also afforded me an opportunity to present both in a professional magazine. I also post both poems and photos to my blog.

However, I've not done so in a more formal gallery setting, and I'd like to at some point. I feel like, aesthetically, my poetry and photography are extensions of each other, but in my creative career, I've not found many opportunities to bring them together. I'll have poetry readings, and I'll have gallery shows, but never at the same time. I can imagine that an exhibition of my visual work combined with a reading of my poetry could be quite impactful, and moving for me personally. The visual qualities of my poetry and the poetic qualities of my photography would certainly complement each other.

 

RW: How important are Japanese aesthetics to you when composing a tanka?

AX: I think that, as someone who's studied Zen and someone who's so immersed herself in Chinese and Japanese poetry, maintaining Japanese aesthetics is almost habitual at this point. These aesthetic principles slip into everything I do, whether it be poems and photos, or the outfits I choose to wear and the way I decorate my room. I even have to check myself sometimes, because in my professional photo work, perfectionist clients don't always appreciate wabi sabi, which slips in unintentionally!

But there's something to be said for challenging and adding to the traditions. The tanka form is over a century old and yet it's alive and well in the original Japanese and many other languages around the world. I think its longevity can be directly attributed to its formal qualities—lacking strict requirements beyond basic structure, it lends itself to innovation and freshness, regardless of language and time period. This innovation can come via subject matter, of course, but I think there's room to experiment and to borrow from contemporary aesthetics. For instance, I try to bring dead pan humor into my work:

not a cliche —
the leaf falling
before me
falls
in the summer

annoyed by
so much brevity in all
these haiku,
i scribble out tanka
to appease my angst

And I might describe the following as an example of 21st century hubris, found in many pop and hip hop songs these days:



you'll see —
i'll walk into this room
knowing no one
and leave with ten
different business cards

So in short: yes, I think Japanese aesthetics are key to tanka. However, at the same time, I think the form allows for and might even demand a good deal of experimentation and innovation from each new practitioner, lest it go the way of the heroic couplet.

 


An Xiao An Xiao is a devoted poet and photographer grounding her urban photography in the aesthetics of short Japanese verse and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Her poetry has been published in Simply Haiku, M. Kei's Fire Pearls and Michael McClintock's upcoming Streetlights. She has read her work in numerous venues across New York City and presented her tanka and photography at a recent Haiku Society of America meeting in New York. Her work can be found online at http://www.anxiaophotography.com.