Presenting (One Present, and Lots of New Year’s Greetings)

Akemashite Omedetou ("Happy New Year" in Japanese)

“Happy New Year” in Japanese, as illustrated by a couple of lovely women at the folk-traditions festival I just spent several days at. Those books it’s sitting on are all the haiku- and Japanese-literature-related books I am currently reading. I highly recommend all of them.

So a couple of weeks ago I offered to give one of you a present. And all you had to do in return was cut off the pinky finger on your right hand and mail it to me … wait, was that not your understanding of the deal? Oh, okay, all you really had to do was comment on the blog sometime between then and yesterday, and then hope you got lucky in the present lottery.

This is how the present lottery worked: I made a list of everyone who commented in the appropriate time period, numbered them in the order they commented, and then went to look for the teenager. I found him in his mad-scientist lab in the basement, crouched over a computer hooked up to a number of unidentifiable electronic parts, typing gobbledygook into a little window. (He does this kind of thing a lot. I’m always a little afraid that someday the Interwebs will explode and I’ll find out it was his fault.)

I said to him, “Hey, quit typing your gobbledygook and make me a random-number generator to pick a random number between 1 and 18. Because that’s how many people commented on my blog and I have to give one of them a present and I want this to be a completely scientific, unbiased process.”

He gave me a strange look, but obediently (he is a good boy, really, despite the exploding Interwebs), he opened another little window, typed some different gobbledygook, Googled some stuff real quick, typed more gobbledygook, and then said, “Four.” I am trusting that he did actually create a random number generator and didn’t just pick a number out of his head to make me go away. But whatever, four it is.

And the winner is … Alegria Imperial, whose wonderful blog jornales you must all go take a look at right now. Her New Year haiku there is great — it features a rabbit stole, which I love because I have never read another haiku about a rabbit stole. Also it is a refreshing variation on all the other New Year rabbit haiku floating around out there right now. (2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, in case you had somehow managed not to find this out despite the fact that every single haiku poet in the universe has written a New Year’s haiku with a rabbit reference in it in the last week. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. You can never have too many haiku about rabbits, as far as I’m concerned. I’m just jealous because I haven’t been able to write a good one yet myself.)

So the present, as I mentioned in my original post, is a copy of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, which I completely-on-purpose-but-utterly-foolishly purchased a copy of at a used bookstore even though I already own one. The really great thing is that, as she mentioned in her comment, Alegria already owns one too! But it’s one of her favorite books and it’s beginning to get a little decrepit, and she was wanting another copy. So off it goes to sit on the shelf next to its brother. (Email me your snail mail address, Alegria!)

By an amazing coincidence, on Christmas Day Kuniharu Shimizu, at his fantastic haiga site see haiku here, wrote a post featuring a haiga inspired by Snow Country, along with a brief commentary. (I really recommend you visit his site to see the wonderful photo that accompanies the haiku.)

traveling alone
the other end of the tunnel
is a snow country

“I can almost hear someone in the car yelling, ” Hey, close the window, shut the cold wind out”.
This photo reminded me of Kawabata, Yasunari’s “Snow Country”. The haiku got a hint from the first sentence of the novel.

When I had chance to visit the same snow country, which is in Niigata, I took Jyoetsu Shinkan-sen train. It is the super express train with fixed window so nobody cannot open it. When a long tunnel ended, snow covered fields and mountains of Echigo-Yuzawa sprawled before my eyes. It was so nice to view such a pristine landscape from the warm and comfortable seat of the train.

— Kuniharu Shimizu

And it’s been so nice over the last eight months to view the landscape of the haiku world from the warm and comfortable seat of this blog, surrounded by so many wonderful traveling companions. I wish I could send you all presents. But I’ll give you what I can: My deepest gratitude to all of you for reading, writing back, and sharing your lives and thoughts and writing with me. I wish you all the happiest of New Years.

Present Yourself

I feel like giving you a present. Well, not all of you. I mean, yes, I do feel like giving you all presents, but I only have enough presents for one of you. Does that sound mean? Let me explain further.

This must be a thing left over from when I used to read a lot of craft blogs (I like to sew). Crafters are always making things and they always have spare bits and bobs and squares of fabric and darling little things they have whipped up in the middle of sleepless nights, and they are always giving them away to each other. They say on their blogs, “I happen to have this pile of darling fabric scraps and a pencil cozy I knitted last night, and I am going to give it all away to a random person who comments on this post.” It created a lot of camaraderie, plus, I imagine, it kept people coming back to read the blog in the hopes that next time they would be the one to win the pencil cozy.

Don’t worry, I don’t have any pencil cozies. What I do have is yet another book I picked up during my epic used-bookstore visit a couple of weeks ago. The thing is that I already own this book, a fact of which I was completely aware when I purchased it. This is a weird habit of mine. When I find nice used copies of books I really love, even if I already own a perfectly nice copy, even if they’re not rare, I often feel compelled to buy them anyway. Then I bring them home and stare at my bookshelves, which occupy pretty much all the spare floor space in my house and are so full I have begun stacking books horizontally on top of the vertical ones, and despair yet again of my sanity.

In this case, however, I conceived of a win-win solution to this problem: I would give away this book, which it just so happens I have written about at length on this very blog, to one of my readers. Not just because I need to get rid of a book. Not just because I like you. Not just because it’s the time of year when people traditionally give gifts to people they like.

But also because I like wrapping up books and tucking them in those cute little padded envelopes and trotting them down to the pharmacy-cum-post office on the corner and saying, “I would like to mail this, please,” which I always say even though what else would I be doing handing the people at the post office an addressed envelope? Don’t ask me why I like doing this, I just do. So you’re doing me a favor, really.

This copy of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (in case you were too lazy to click through to the link above) is a nice little rack-sized paperback that looks as if it’s never been read. It was printed in Japan as part of the “Unesco Series of Contemporary Works,” but it’s entirely in English and includes the enlightening introduction by the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker.

So here’s the rundown: Comment on my blog. I know, you were going to do that anyway, weren’t you? Weren’t you? I will make a list of everyone who comments between now and December 31st (your name only gets to go on the list once, sorry, even if you comment every day, which I would be thrilled if you did).

Then I’ll put all the names in a hat, or something, and pull one out, and mail that person the book sometime after the New Year. It’s pretty simple, really.

(I may also include a special haiku I write just for you. You never know. Haiku don’t take up very much space in envelopes.)

365 Poems

Because we are big geeks in our family, this is what my son got for his sixteenth birthday*:

Basically what it is, is an empty box. That I ineptly decoupaged with a bunch of random scraps of paper I had left over from various other inept craft projects that I have unwisely attempted over the years. I know! I’m the world’s best mother, right?

The thing is — because, as I mentioned, we’re all geeks here — once I explained the purpose of this box, my son, instead of giving me a look like, “Now I have plenty of material for the therapy sessions I will require in ten years or so,” said, “Oh! Cool!” And from the way his eyes lit up I could tell he was not just indulging his insane mother while making a mental note to go to college as far away from home as possible.

The purpose of the box, you see, is to accumulate poems. One a day for a year. Not my poems, God forbid — if he’s really dying to read those he can check out the blog, which I have reason to believe he does occasionally when he has nothing better to do, which is hardly ever. No, these are, you know, real poems. By real poets. I’ve been photocopying up a storm from my small but select collection of poetry books, as well as printing things off the Interwebs, and late at night the Poetry Fairy comes and … okay, I don’t really make an attempt to perpetuate that fiction with a sixteen-year-old. I have my limits. But I do put a poem in the box every day (unless I go to a haiku festival and forget, in which case I put three in the day I remember).

The main criteria I have for these poems is that they be: a) not crap; b) poems I enjoy; c) poems I sincerely believe my son will enjoy. I’m not attempting to provide him with the Greatest Hits of English Poetry. (Though I do try to cover a range of eras and types of poetry, just because you never know what will click with someone.) The purpose here is not really educational, except in the sense that everything is educational. (Ask me about my educational philosophy some time if you really want me to blather on interminably.) The purpose is more — to foster joy. Joy in the possibilities of language, the possibilities of imagination, the possibilities of human thought.

This is a kid who has been performing in uncut productions of Shakespeare’s plays a couple of times a year since he was nine, so he knows from great poetry, and he appreciates wonderful language. But I’ve been thinking for a while that he would enjoy a lot of other types of poetry, while being confounded about how, exactly, to sneak in a course of poetry appreciation amid all his other myriad activities. (Oh — he doesn’t go to school, did I mention? Who has time for that, anyway?) Then I thought, “One poem a day. That’s how to do it.” And the box was born.

So the reason I’m bringing this up now — I can hear you sighing in relief as I get to the bloody point already — is that what went in the box today was a couple of Japanese haiku, each in two different translations. Because reading different translations of Japanese haiku is one of my favorite things to do, and I thought my son would enjoy it too. And then I thought that you might enjoy it, too. So here they are.

I hope you can actually read them. They’re by Basho and Moritake. I’m not sure who the translators are because the poetry textbook I took them from didn’t say (bad poetry textbook!).

If you are interested in comparative haiku translation there are lots of great books and websites that feature competing translations — sometimes 30 or more translations of the same ku, such as this page which offers up translations of perhaps the most famous classical Japanese ku, Basho’s furuike ya or frogpond haiku. (There’s a link to it on my sidebar as well.)

Here are two different versions from that page, just to give you some sense of how widely translations can vary:

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.

— Lafcadio Hearn

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

— Curtis Hidden Page

Does that blow your mind or what? I think it’s pretty safe to say that the second version takes some, um, considerable liberties with Basho’s verse. The first is pretty literal, which is much more the trend these days (though Hearn was writing in the nineteenth century). Even closely literal translations, though, can vary quite a bit, just because of the effort of cramming Japanese syntax into something readable by English speakers.

Okay, thus endeth the lesson for the day. You can all return to your regularly scheduled lives now, and think fondly about your own mothers, who would never have dreamed of pulling such a stunt on you.

______________________

*That wasn’t all he got for his birthday, in case you are thinking of reporting me to Child Welfare or something. He also got some cool running shoes and new shifters for his bike. And with his birthday money from relatives he bought himself an iPhone 4. We don’t live entirely in the past around here. Though sometimes we think it would be nice to try.