Monkey Mind

This guy keeps texting me pictures of himself with the Dalai Lama. For years he’s been making the arrangements for the Dalai Lama’s visits to our city, and at this point he has the logistics down cold. Or pretty cold. It can be complicated. You have to have a big enough van, first of all, to pick up the Dalai Lama’s entourage and all their luggage from the airport. You have to arrange for the limos and the police escort to take the Dalai Lama swiftly through the city streets to his speaking engagement. The Dalai Lama has a security detail, of course; well, he’s a world leader, more or less. You have to go through a background check, State Department, heavy-duty, to get the clearance to take care of things for the Dalai Lama this way. Having this responsibility is exciting, yes, but not exactly a party. If you don’t get all these details right it could be very embarrassing, maybe even dangerous — for both the Dalai Lama and everyone around him — so for a couple of weeks, before and during the Dalai Lama’s visit, this guy doesn’t get much sleep. There are so many things to arrange and so many things to worry about. The guy doesn’t really have time to talk or hang out. Just text, apparently.

my ego in spite of the rain

The Dalai Lama, you’ll be interested to know, is exactly the same close up as he seems from a distance. This is what the guy tells me, anyway. I try to think of how the Dalai Lama seems from a distance. Orange and smiling, mostly. And yes, the guy’s right: that’s how the Dalai Lama looks in the closeup photos the guy texts me. Keeps texting me. “He’s very genuine and compassionate. You know. Just like you imagine,” the guy said to me, the first time we met. I didn’t tell him that I’d never imagined the Dalai Lama. I’m not sure the guy would believe me.

apropos of nothing its wings

I did think vaguely of becoming a Buddhist at one point. I read some books, did some meditating. I looked up Buddhist groups in our city to see when they held meetings, but I never actually went to any of the meetings. This Japanese poetry I write, a lot of the other people who write it are Buddhists, or at least think about Buddhism a lot. I’m constitutionally irreligious but Buddhism seems pretty irreligious, for a religion. I thought it might be a sort of compromise between the fundamentalist Christianity I was raised with and the nothing I currently practice. In the end I guess I was defeated, as I so often am, by the fact that it’s almost impossible for me to believe in invisible things. I think I consider this more a flaw in myself than a flaw in religion but I’ve gradually learned that to be true to myself I have to accept even my flaws. I think I might have read that in one of the Buddhist books.

just barely a path regretting it

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Haiku North America, Day 3

Long day. Long post. I’ll see what I can do but my usual sparkling repartee may be a little off. Feel free to insert wisecracks and trenchant observations of your own wherever you feel they’re appropriate.

Okay. (Deep breath.) Got up all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on Friday morning and ran off to a presentation by Wanda Cook on Erotic Haiku. (Actually, Wanda prefers to call them “sensual.”) In case you were wondering how many haiku poets actually write erotic/sensual haiku, Wanda’s unscientific survey of 30 haiku poets revealed that 28 of them do and the other 2 were offended by the very suggestion that they would do such a thing. Also, about the same percentages of men and women publish erotic haiku as publish haiku in general. (55% men, 45% women, more or less.) Here she is telling us all these things.

Wanda Cook

Wanda herself has been writing sensual haiku for a while (but her grown son doesn’t want to know about it, so shhh) and has collaborated quite a bit with Larry Kimmel on erotic haiku sequences.

frosted windows
holding him
deep inside

— Wanda Cook

She broke us up into small groups and gave us some sensual haiku to look at and try to decide whether it was written by a man or a woman and, I don’t know, how sensual it was exactly. Our group had a lively discussion about a haiku involving blackberries and lips (as Billie Dee asked, “Which lips?”). We mostly all thought it was written by a woman. It turned out to have been written by Michael Dylan Welch. So we were wrong.

Here are my fellow group members (Billie Dee, Garry Gay, Penny Harter) pondering it.

Billie DeeGarry Gay

Penny Harter

And below are a few of the other attendees at the presentation, doing likewise with their own assigned poems. (Dejah Leger, Johnny Baranski, Lidia Rozmus, Carolyn Hall, Charlie Trumbull, Tina Grabenhorst)

Dejah Leger, Johnny BaranskiLidia Rozmus, Carolyn Hall, Charlie TrumbullTina Grabenhorst

The mood turned a little more somber in the next hour as Marjorie Buettner presented a tribute to all the haiku poets that had died in the two years since the last HNA. It was meticulously researched and prepared and extremely moving.

Marjorie Buettner presentation

Then we were herded like cats by Michael Dylan Welch down a flight of steps to have our group picture taken. I took a picture of the photographers, because I always feel that zoo animals should be given cameras to record our crazy antics.

Photographers

Set free, I went to eat Indian food for lunch with Don Wentworth and Susan Diridoni. We ate too much and talked nonstop about poetry. Here is a dark and mysterious picture of Don.

Don Wentworth

Don has a great new chapbook out called Past All Traps which you should buy and read.

mistake after mistake
after mistake, adding up
to just the right thing
— Don Wentworth

(This is my new motto for life.)

Past All Traps

We rushed back after lunch so as not to miss Carlos Colon‘s presentation on concrete poetry. (Do a Google search for “concrete poetry” and click on “images.” Your mind will be blown.) It was a blast. Here are some examples from Carlos’s handout.

Concrete poetry

Then moving right along, to a great lecture by David Lanoue on the portrayal of frogs in the poetry of Issa – specifically, the way Issa attributes human qualities to frogs (and sometimes vice versa), which David attributes to Issa’s Pureland Buddhist beliefs about the essential equality of the souls of all creatures.

karisome no yomeri tsuki yo ya naku kawazu

a fleeting moonlit
wedding night…
frogs singing

— Issa, translated by David Lanoue

Here’s David, being thoughtful.

David Lanoue
… And zooming over to another room, for an open mic “Poetry Continuum” reading of the longer poetry of us haiku poets. I couldn’t believe the percentage of haiku poets who write non-haiku poetry. There was some great, great stuff. It was unanimously agreed that this should be a feature of all future incarnations of Haiku North America.

Here’s an assortment of poets who have taken off their haiku hats for the evening. (Cherie Hunter Day, Tracy Koretsky, Johnny Baranski, Ernesto Epistola, Margaret Chula, Kathy Munro, Terry Ann Carter, Tanya McDonald [waving the edition of A New Resonance her poetry appears in), and Ruth Yarrow)

Cherie Hunter DayTracy KoretskyJohnny BaranskiErnesto EpistolaMargaret ChulaKathy (kj) Munro

Tracy Ann CarterTanya McDonaldRuth Yarrow

After a lively dinner with Susan Diridoni, Tracy Koretsky, and Kathy Munro (can you imagine, there was more conversation about poetry), we headed back to hear yet another open mic, this one by poets who had recently published books (including Don). Didn’t get any pictures, sorry, I was too busy listening and admiring…

Then it was time for Richard Gilbert to give the William Higginson Memorial Lecture (this is the first time that one has been given). His topic was “Social Consciousness and the Poet’s Stance in 21st Century Haiku: From Kaneko Tohta to the Present.”

Richard Gilbert

Richard lives in Japan, is one of the world’s experts on gendai haiku, and is both extremely erudite and extremely passionate about his subject. He presented us with some dense, abstruse, but thought-provoking scholarship on modernist and post-modernist literature, including this passage from Charles Bernstein’s essay “Revenge of the Poet-Critic” which I may have to hang over my desk:

Words so often fail us. They do so little and they are so disappointing, leading us down blind alleys and up in smoke. But they are what we have, what we are given, and we can make them do what we want. Every poem is a model of some other world, a practice of some other reality; but it always leads back to this one, for if words give a way to envision possible worlds they don’t provide the way to inhabit them. …There is no place words cannot take us if we don’t take them as authorities, with fixed codes hardwired into the language, but as springs to jump with, or as trampolines to hurl ourselves, inward and outward, upward and downward, aslant and agog, round and unrounded.

— Charles Bernstein, from “Revenge of the Poet-Critic” in My Way

Then, in support of his contention that literature and in particular haiku should move away from strict realism towards more challenging and inventive uses of language, he presented us with numerous examples of avant-garde haiku from the most recent (February) issue of Roadrunner. A, shall we say, lively discussion ensued. Traditionalists muttered while gendai enthusiasts raved. The lecture went far past its scheduled expiration date and the discussion ended up moving to a pub where twenty or so of us stayed until closing time, ranting about poetry (just so you know, I mean this in the very nicest way) and causing endless trouble for the extremely patient waitstaff.

Pub crowd 1Richard Gilbert, Eve Luckring, Fay AoyagiCor van den Heuvel et al.Kaz, Sue Antolin, Susan Diridoni

I wish I’d gotten a picture of Richard Gilbert and Cor van den Heuvel leaning intently over the table toward each other, each nursing a scotch and cordially discussing their very different points of view on poetry (and their opinions on scotch). The theme of this year’s HNA is “Fifty Years of Haiku,” and it was amazing to see Cor, who’s been writing haiku for all of those fifty years and more, exchanging ideas with Richard, whose ideas may be pointing the way toward what much haiku will look like in another fifty years. It’s not too often you feel like you can see as far back into the past as you can see forward into the future. It was a privilege.

Oh yeah! My books!

I forgot to show you the haiku books I bought at Foundry Books over the weekend. I’m very excited about them…

Issa: Cup of Tea Poems

by Issa, translated by David Lanoue

The fascinating preface of this book begins, “…Issa … is at once the most profoundly devout and down-in-the-mud silly of all the great masters of Japanese haiku. … [He] approaches the natural miracles of this world evenly, showing the same reverent awe and artistic excitement for plum trees in full bloom and dog crap covered by a light snow.” True that…that’s what I love about Issa.

Lanoue goes on to discuss Issa’s “liberating, iconoclastic, democratic” vision and thoroughly dissects what he sees as the critical influence of Issa’s Pure Land Buddhist beliefs on his poetry.

These are quite literal translations, written in one vertical line, one word to a line, reflecting, of course, the original format of the haiku in Japanese. Lanoue’s rationale for this format is that this allows the reader to follow the revelation of images in the haiku in the same order as the original poem. Issa’s haiku are often set up to have punch lines or surprises at the end, and less literal translations can ruin this effect. An example:

snow

melting

village

brimming

over

kids

I am having so much fun reading this. I highly recommend it if you don’t read Japanese but want to get some sense of how haiku might read in the original. Or if you just love Issa and can’t get enough of him, like me.

The Master Haiku Poet: Matsuo Basho

by Makoto Ueda

I haven’t read this yet, but I’m very excited to because Basho is the seminal haiku poet (as well as a great renku poet) and I don’t know nearly enough about him.

This is a 1970 biography and critical appraisal by a Stanford professor which contains tons of the haiku and excerpts from the renku. Here’s one of my favorites that I just came across while browsing:

Will you start a fire?

I’ll show you something nice —

A huge snowball.

The book looks information-packed but very readable. Thre’s even a map at the beginning (love maps!) of Basho’s various journeys, which he famously wrote about at length.

When I actually get around to reading this (I hope soon) I will give you a more thorough rundown.

The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan

by Abigail Freedman

Another one I’m really excited to read. It’s the memoir of an American diplomat in Japan who joins a haiku group and gets a thoroughly Japanese grounding in the writing of haiku and, in the process, learns quite a bit about Japanese culture.

Just paging through, I see lots and lots of really wonderful haiku (given in both English and Japanese) — some classical and some contemporary. Here’s a great one (by an elderly man being tested for cancer):

into my kidney

a tube pierces

ah, the summer heat!

I’m really looking forward to finding out more about the haiku scene in Japan — even though we are developing our own strong traditions, I think we English-language haiku poets have a lot to learn from the Japanese still. So many of their haiku seem so much fresher and more imaginative than most English-language haiku.

Again, I will give you a more thorough report on this book once I’ve actually read it. It’s on the top of the pile on my nightstand, so with any luck you won’t have long to wait.