The Lives of Poets, No. 1: Peter Newton

A while back I conceived this idea to harass all my favorite poets by sending them an interminable list of questions and whining until they answered them all so I could post the answers here. I immediately sat down and drew up the list of questions and saved it as a Word doc entitled “Questions to Annoy Poets With.” But then I wasn’t brave enough to actually do anything about it for a while. Because, you know, I might annoy someone.

Then over the summer I met Peter Newton, whose poetry I’ve admired for a long time, at the Haiku Circle in Northfield, Massachusetts. He was friendly and kind and since we’ve exchanged cordial email messages off and on for a while, it occurred to me that he probably wouldn’t actually bite if I sent him this long list of troublesome questions and audaciously invited him to lay bare his poet’s heart. Plus, with school starting again today, I needed to come up with some way of formulating interesting blog posts without actually writing them myself. The idea of making other people write them was getting more attractive all the time.

And to my delight, Peter not only responded to my request but did so at great and thoughtful and illuminating length. I’m so pleased to present his words to you and hope I’ll have the opportunity to do the same with many more poets in the future. But for now I’ll just get out of the way and let Peter speak.

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Peter Newton

Peter Newton: The Interview

The Basics

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Name/pen name:

Peter Newton

Day job/occupation:

Stained glass artist.

Website/blog/Twitter feed (if any):

Generally, I’m a low-tech person. I work with my hands all day. I’ve never owned a cell phone and I use my laptop as a typewriter that remembers everything. However, the idea of the Twitter stream interested me a few years ago. I think I’m up to a whopping 300 or so tweets, mostly poems of mine and poetry related information. Twitter.com: @ThePeterNewton

Family, pets, non-poetry hobbies, etc.:

Partner of 27 years is Mark Pietrzak. No kids. A dog named Possum. Since I’m self-employed and work at home, my hobbies include working on my old house (1883) and dabbling in yardwork (cutting the lawn).  I’m pretty active in my small town of Winchendon, Massachusetts (aka “Toy Town”). I belong to the Historical Society, community volunteer groups, etc. One of the great things about living in a small, remote place is that one person can make a difference.

Love to plant things, just as long as they can take care of themselves after awhile. I spend two months a year up in Vermont where I work at The Bread Loaf School of English and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Something I’ve done for two dozen summers. Not much of my free time is non-poetry related, I must admit. Though I went to college and got my M.A. to become an English teacher I now spend most of my days in a small glass workshop making fun, funky, 3-D creations for the mass gift market. And I feel like I’m right where I need to be. What’s that zen saying: “No snowflake falls in the wrong place.”

How long you’ve been writing haiku and what gave you the idea to do such a crazy thing in the first place:

I started writing haiku in the early 90s while I was living in Atlanta. I was struck by a reading William Matthews gave up at Bread Loaf around that time. He opened his reading with a dozen or so one-line poems (with titles, which I always thought was kind of cheating) and they were great. I was impressed with how much could be conveyed in a handful of words. They were funny and serious but all were almost philosophical. And surprising.

Matthews got me thinking about words in a new way. If they were the right words in the right order, they were like seeds in the reader’s mind that could grow and grow. I think that was my first interest in really exploring short form poems of my own. Then of course came the long and tedious tutelage of Robert Spiess at Modern Haiku. I say tedious because as many out there know his criticisms were even shorter than the poems he wrote. And I say tutelage because he was very patient and kind toward me and my early efforts at haiku and senryu. I spent years re-teaching myself how to write. Re-thinking how I look at the world. Learning to pay attention. Still at it.

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The Nitty-Gritty

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Do you have a personal philosophy of haiku or a particular vision of haiku poetics? What do you think haiku are, or should look like, or should be, in English? What do you think their purpose is?

A haiku is a poem and far more than a poem. It’s the road and the destination at the same time. I know that sounds a bit vague and Zen-ny but the point is that haiku have allowed me to see the world with “fresh eyes,” as Basho said. A world that I had spent many years observing closely as a poet but in some ways never really lived in. Some sort of barrier was removed between me and the rest of the world when I started reading, writing and studying haiku seriously. Through my awareness of ordinary things and occurrences I feel like I am able to appreciate my place in the world. The haiku poet learns to look at life very democratically. A blade of grass can equal many things. Birdsong becomes the soundtrack for your life. Along with the wind, the swell of tides, a person’s voice. You get the idea. Haiku means going green. Not just back to nature, but back to your roots as a human being. Fresh eyes. Picasso had a saying: “It takes a long time to become young.” Makes sense to me.

Haiku has been a kind of reincarnation in my poetic life. I had given up on the whole mainstream poetry publishing game. Haiku allowed me to see poetry as something new and exciting. To see poetry for what it is and always has been, for me anyway, a small song about the world I live in. A glimpse. An elevation of the pedestrian detail—the dog asleep in her strip of sunlight, the cardinal’s red, the sunflower’s bow. Haiku are the way I make my real life imaginary. And my imaginary life real.

If I have any haiku philosophy it is: say it from the start. Don’t hold back. No one else can say whatever it is you have to say. Even if they wanted to. If you don’t say it, no one else will. As Emerson said “writing means hurling yourself at the mark when all your arrows are spent.” My approach to haiku is my approach to life, which is also short.

Rediscovering haiku has been like finding a homeland I didn’t know I had. Each day is another adventure on Haiku Island, to borrow Jim Kacian’s analogy. Here on the island, I am free to wander like a curious kid who’s old enough to know there’s always more to learn. Haiku are the lessons you teach yourself. Bookmarks in the good parts of your life you might want to come back to, or share with someone else. A chronicle of perfect moments, I’ve said before. And that remains true.

What should haiku look like? Not for me to say. Whatever can be imagined. They probably should fit on a bumper sticker though. A t-shirt, maybe. I do believe in the underlying principles of Japanese haiku construction: our relationship with nature, collaboration with the reader, a wabi-sabi appreciation. A less is more approach. Less intellect and more sense. And that haiku be the poetry of the people. Inclusive, not exclusive.

I like to tell the story I either heard or made up at this point but the one about the famous old poet being interviewed by a reporter. The reporter asks: “So, what made you start writing poetry in the first place?” And the famous old poet answers: “The question is not what made me start writing poetry. It’s what made everyone else stop?”

The Haiku Society of America has an Education Committee but really it includes each of us reading and writing haiku today. We need to help spread the word about the risks of confusing haiku with the limerick, for example and the rewards of noticing something in your own back yard, for the first time, and setting it to words.

As far as the purpose of haiku? Discipline, restraint, gratitude. These are not bad life lessons just in case we didn’t get enough growing up. Basho set out on his 1,500-mile field trip for a lot of reasons, many of which we’ll never know. But one thing is clear to me. Basho sought a greater awareness and enjoyment of the fact that we, as people, are more alike than we are different. Certainly, all poetry tells us this.

So I say haiku is a way of life and people sometimes ask: what do you mean by that? Like some kind of poetry cult? Not exactly. It’s just that no matter how many times I hear the red-winged blackbird skip its stone song across the pond. I stop. Keep quiet. It’s the only proper way I know how to answer. That’s the haiku way of life.

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What does your haiku writing practice look like? Do you write daily or regularly? Do you have special times or places you like to write? Do you write longhand or on a computer? Do you revise extensively? Is there anything in particular you do to put yourself in “haiku mode?”

Again, working backward toward the truth. I have to start from now, just like in haiku. It’s more a matter of what I don’t do in order to get into the haiku mode. I try to back away from the fray. I’m a bit of an ostrich in that I stick my head in the sand when it comes to the goings-on of the world at large. That reminds me, I really do need to cancel my satellite dish service. The world will go on with or without me. Better for me to focus on the tasks at hand. This poem. This breath. Okay, that yard full of leaves. That woodpile to be stacked. “Haiku mode” is synonymous for living well. Life is full enough without being plugged-in 24/7. Am I sounding like a Luddite yet?

Writing haiku is a daily practice for me, in the early mornings, usually, sitting in the same spot with a cup of coffee and the same view that only changes with the seasons. I have stared out that east window toward the cupola of our old barn for so many years I feel part swallow, part squirrel – the one we never seem to be able to get rid of. I give up. And discover that the state of surrender is a pretty cool place to live. I continue to strive toward that home anyway. The next haiku I write starts out as an invitation to sit awhile. Be quiet. I am a witness to generations of yard fowl. I watch the hemlocks grow into themselves.

I write on my laptop from notes I scribble on pieces of paper that I carry around in my pockets. I’m not obsessed but more automatic when it comes to carrying a pen and paper. I learned early on that the role of the writer is to write what you know. So, it’s a good idea to take notes along the way. Life’s distracting. I’m sure there are many wonderful poems out there that got forgotten by me and many others. We should arm ourselves with writing utensils. At the ready.

Haiku revision? Absolutely. Only after days or weeks or longer of repeating words, committing some to memory do the real words emerge. Imposters fall away. They can’t hold on long enough. True haiku stay with you. Kerouac said “Haiku should be plain as porridge.” Maybe he also meant that the good ones fill you up, stick to your ribs.

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What does your haiku reading practice look like? Are there poets you particularly appreciate? Journals you find especially inspiring? Do you read haiku daily? Do you read mostly English-language haiku or do you read a great deal of Japanese haiku (in translation or not) or haiku in other languages? Are there books you would recommend, either of haiku or about haiku?

Read people you love. And, of course, I mean that figuratively. Read people whose poems you love. I keep certain books close by at all times. And a pile by the bed, a few on the shelf, some in the car. It’s silly almost. Books are scattered throughout my life. No one would ever guess that I actually know where and how they are “filed.” How I look at Peggy Willis Lyles’ haiku as a kind of touchstone. At Stan Forrester’s as the perfect gift. John Stevenson as a friend I never met. And many others. I have relationships with books and look at libraries with a reverence some reserve for church.

So, I read haiku everyday. A few, dozens or maybe a hundred. By all different poets. All in English. None in translation unless they are published in the handful of journals I check in on regularly: Acorn, Chrysanthemum, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, The Heron’s Nest, Notes from the Gean, Roadrunner. And a few blogs and websites I admire aside from this one include: Curtis Dunlap’s Blogging Along Tobacco Road, Kuniharu Shimizu’s haiga site See Haiku Here, Don Wentworth’s Issa’s Untidy Hut, The Haiku Foundation’s various forums, Cornell’s Mann Library’s Daily Haiku, Tinywords, and occasionally Twitter, which streams a surprising number of true talents if you don’t mind wading through a little drivel, some of it, no doubt, my own.

One thing’s for sure. I could spend my life reading the work of all the haiku poets out there. And I think that number is growing. Hope it is.

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Is there anything else you’d like to say about writing haiku? Or about how annoying these questions are?

Just a reminder to myself to always be open to new voices—my own and those of others just arriving on Haiku Island.

Rumi said: “You become what you love.” And I believe him. I like to think that I’m part haiku by now . . . open, unfinished, imperfect.

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Which of your haiku would you like to share with my readers?

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over my thoughts the hush of pines

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in the cat’s mouth
a handful of feathers
& how many songs

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mid-argument
wind chimes
we gave each other

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whatever I was thinking the cardinal’s red

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– Peter Newton

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