Interview with “Haibun Today” editor Jeffrey Woodward

JW: Perhaps an inquiry into the when and why of your first haibun is the proper place to begin. Did you practice other forms of composition before turning to haiku and haibun? Do you recall a specific turning point when haibun became a viable option for you, that is, when the genre held sufficient interest in its own right and when you acquired confidence in its pursuit?

KJ: As with many other British haiku poets it was The Haiku Hundred (1992) that got me going, and by the later 1990s I had graduated from haiku sequences to being an enthusiastic haibunist. The earliest that I can trace is entitled “Defusing an Ancient Curse: Climbing the Hill of the Hag” (May 1997) and the opening line sets the tone of much that was to follow: “Among the glens, bogs and lochans of the Western Highlands of Scotland the line between the natural and the supernatural is thin indeed”. It’s still a gripping read and already much in the style of Stallion’s Crag (2003). However, in terms of my total output of some two hundred haibun (almost all published in haiku journals) it would be unfair to categorise me as a misty, impenetrable Celtic folklorist not for export. My latest collection, The Parsley Bed, (2006) has perhaps helped to dispel that impression on your side of the Atlantic.

For inspiration, support and ideas I owe much to David Cobb, Jim Norton and George Marsh over here, and to William Ramsey, Michael McClintock and Jim Kacian over there. All should feature prominently in the anthology of “classic” haibun which surely by now deserves publication.

The other major influence is Zen Buddhism, which I have been practising, writing about, and latterly teaching, for over thirty years. Essentially I write haiku and haibun as a do or Way of spiritual practice, and – despite the protestations of friends –don’t really see myself as a literary gent or even “a proper poet”. I owe much to the classic Japanese haiku, with Nagata Koi as my favourite modern. It is an ingrained Zen sensibility which makes my haibun an exploration of the elusive, paradoxical and shape-shifting nature of what passes as “reality”. I have not been alone in this spiritual orientation. In 1997 a small group of English, Irish and Welsh haiku and haibun writers met up for a literary retreat on Pumlumon, the sacred mountain of Wales. We founded the still flourishing Red Thread Haiku Sangha, dedicated to the spiritual and existential development of the genre.

JW: At the close of your introduction to Arrow of Stones (2002), you alluded favorably to Haruo Shirane’s view of a “vertical axis” of myth, history and literature – what might be termed our common cultural heritage – as a preferred backdrop or foundation for the “horizontal axis” of a contemporary scene enlivened by sharp sensory perception. Shirane’s Traces of Dreams devotes a fair amount of space to debunking such Western concepts as the “haiku moment” or, at a minimum, of pointing to the poverty of such beliefs. If I may safely assume that you still share Shirane’s view, what improvements, if any, have you noted in haibun in this regard since you published your introduction?

KJ: David Cobb’s Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore (1997) was arguably the first extended exemplar of Shirane’s “vertical axis” (and inspired my Welsh equivalent, Stallion’s Crag, six years later.) However, although there has been a strong development of the haibun as a literary genre over the past ten years the emphasis has largely remained on “sharp, sensory perception” which is presumably – and mistakenly – seen as opposed to the imaginative use of myth, history and literature. Attempts to promote a homogenized, globalised, and readily exportable haiku have not helped.

JW: On a related point, in the same writing, you characterized much Western haibun as “colourless and banal prose” without a discernible theme or purpose. You proceeded to make an argument for a “literary haibun” in these terms: “Consider the distinction between ‘a walk’ and ‘a pilgrimage’. The former rambles from here to there, this and that may be observed, but, so what? The latter is imbued with purpose, aspiration and self-discovery …. Poetic truth should be set above factual narrative, but always on a bedrock of authentic experience.” Do you see more or fewer “literary haibun” today and what is the prospect, in your opinion, for its further growth?

KJ: Over here, at the start of the new century, with David Cobb, Jim Norton, George Marsh and other friends I initiated what we loosely termed “the haibun project”. Our goal was to encourage the development of haibun as an authentic literary genre, replacing the predominant but banal “literal” haibun which William Ramsey characterized as consisting of jewels (the haiku) set in mud banks (the prose). Our opening shot was a special issue of Blithe Spirit, journal of the British Haiku Society, which aimed to highlight the work of British and Irish literary haibunists and which was introduced with a manifesto by David Cobb ominously entitled “A Few Timely Heresies about English Haibun”. Meanwhile, over in Dublin, Jim Norton’s Haiku Spirit had been pioneering “the new haibun” since 1995. And George Marsh initiated an e-group, the Haikuprose Group as a forum for mutual discussion and critique. It is still going strong, and virtually every one of my own haibun has benefited by being passed through it in draft. In 2006 I helped launch the BHS annual Haibun Anthology project. This replaced an annual competition. The aim is an educational one of showcasing a diversity of selected haibun submissions of high literary standard, including assessments by each of the two adjudicators who make the selection. The selected haibun are deliberately not placed in any order of merit so as to emphasise the equal acceptability of a wide range of literary styles. There are no prizes; to be published in the Anthology is considered in itself a sufficient recognition. Finally, the annual anthology Contemporary Haibun, initiated by Jim Kacian in 2000, and joined later by an online quarterly version, is now surely the major contemporary benchmarker for haibun of literary standard.

In my view, on both sides of the Atlantic, there has been a distinct progression from literal haibun to literary haibun; the “haibun project” has come of age – from expository writing towards creative writing; from reportage to literature; from pieces that are no more than interesting or entertaining to haibun which engage our feelings, stir our imagination, enrich our sensibilities, profoundly enhance our experience of social cultures, and which – unless they are very short – have some underlying theme which gives them a metaphoric resonance. What is particularly interesting is the wide range of styles – surreal, stream of consciousness or whatever – in which literary haibun are being written but which nonetheless are all “in the spirit of haiku” which Basho himself recommended for the prose – concrete, direct, imagistic, showing rather than telling and hopefully also playful, elliptical and leaving space for their readers’ imagination. As William Ramsey has put it, “for the committed haiku writer there will be pressure to employ haibun prose that will be consistent in voice and esthetic order with haiku’s lyrically imaginative and esthetic mode.” Jamie Edgecombe has characterised this “haibunic prose” as including “the fragmenting of sentences, the exaggerated … use of noun-phrasing or word-block associations, literary allusion and so on. All of which help to disrupt the usual lineation of our language, thus averting the prose’s slip into standard narrative “(Blithe Spirit 16/1, 46).

JW: Various writers – including you, I believe – have asserted that the haiku within haibun must be able to stand alone as works in their own right. The demand that haiku have such autonomy, in fact, may be one of the more commonly accepted qualities that commentators note in haibun. I’m sorry to return to the introductory remarks of Arrow of Stones again but therein you write: “With haibun of, say, over a thousand words, haiku prose … may run too rich, become wearisome, and need to be orchestrated with more bland passages, anecdotes, conversations and the like.” Now, this argument, where the part is subordinate to the whole, is common parlance when discussing literary works of any size, from the sonnet to the novel. My question, however, is this: If we recognize that an overtly poetic prose may require “bland passages” in its orchestration, must we not recognize, also, that the haiku, when present, may not claim full autonomy but must often give way to the prose? Is it not possible – even necessary – that certain of the haiku, with the support of their immediate prose environment, might fall short of those qualities we expect of so-called “stand-alone haiku”?

KJ: The prose context enables haiku to be written which would not otherwise be possible unless they were much longer than the traditional 17-syllable “length of a breath”. The scene can be set in the prose. I see no reason why this should in any way necessarily diminish the quality of the haiku.

A more serious problem is the ability of the haiku to interact effectively in some way with the prose when the latter is being written “in the spirit of haiku”, and hence closely resembles haiku. There are various ways of resolving that problem, some of which I have discussed in “Ken’s Corner” #4 on the Contemporary Haibun Online site. As a rule of thumb, if a haiku reads just as well when folded back into the prose then it should be left there; better strong prose than a haiku which is no more than three chopped up bits of prose. Contrariwise, if the haiku doesn’t sit easily in the prose when folded back there and stands out somehow differently from the prose, then it is better left to do its job as a haiku. What that job may be – and there are several possibilities – can be elucidated in each particular case.

JW: I would like to discuss Stallion’s Crag (2003), your longest and perhaps most ambitious haibun. The work concerns your hermit-like retreat to the mountain of Plynlimon or Pumlumon and makes this the occasion as well for much reflection on local and national Welsh culture and history. Something of Shirane’s horizontal and vertical axes might be seen in this. Welsh terms are sprinkled throughout Stallion’s Crag. One that interests me, in particular, is disgwylfa which you define as “a place of watching and watchfulness” or disgwylgar, a derivative, which you describe as “bare attention.” What role does this mental state play in the writing of your haibun?

KJ: “Bare attention” is a standard Buddhist meditation practice, and my solitary retreats seem to provide the best conditions for producing a rich crop of haiku. Without reading matter or any other diversion (including day dreams and similar entertainments in the skull cinema) there’s no alternative but to “be here now”. Keep at it and it’s not difficult to work through the boredom and come out the other side. In these circumstances, and immersed for years in the landscape, history and folklore of the Pumlumon range, a long haibun was inevitable. And David Cobb had already demonstrated the possibilities in his Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore. In the longer work the style can be – and needs to be – more varied, without the intensity of a shorter piece.

JW: I note also that you refer to Dafydd ap Gwilym, perhaps greatest of Welsh poets, and to the “official twenty-four metres,” such as englyn and cywydd, of classical and medieval Welsh poetry. Has Welsh traditional poetry, either in the original or in the modern English translations of Joseph Clancy or Tony Conran, played any significant role in your own writing?

KJ: If anything, I owe more to the tradition of Dylan Thomas than to traditional Welsh language poetry, and to Welsh landscape and history. Also, there is a certain Welsh sensibility which defies definition and is well exemplified in “The Skinner Street Salon”.

JW: In your essay, “Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories,” you return to a distinction that I believe you made earlier, in your introductory remarks to Arrow of Stones, between “mere reportage of experience” and crafted writing – between, in other words, the narrowly experiential “haiku moment” and haibun as literature. Your reason for doing so in the more recent essay is to advocate for the development of “haibun as short story.” Why, precisely, propose the short story? If the aim is to achieve the scaffolding, say, of a beginning, middle and end, why, for example, would the expository essay, with its introduction, body and conclusion, not suffice? What specific advantages do you discern in the conventions of the story for the crafting of haibun?

KJ: I doubt if the rhetoric of “the expository essay” would provide an appropriate model for haibun, although I have come across two or three quite successful pieces which echo the classic essay. As to the haibun as short story, I am concerned simply to argue it as a worthwhile possibility, rather than an ideal goal. There is a kind of continuum at work here. First, haibun writers have to be persuaded not to include incidents in their reportage which are not relevant to the underlying purpose or theme of the piece (that is, to say “What are they really up to ?”). The underlying theme is what emotionally engages the reader, and makes the haibun more than a mildly interesting account of someone else’s doings. (Most submissions I receive as a Contemporary Haibun editor are no more than reportage, and the raw material for a haibun, not the finished product). The next stage is to include imaginary material in order to craft what is now becoming a literary artifact. Unless the piece is very short, there is next the possibility of evolving the theme, and the resemblance to an autobiographical short story begins to appear, with a beginning, middle and end. Even in my historical haibun the convention of a first person narrator is retained, if only to recount scenes which are imaginary – “pure fiction.” However, at least one of my own haibun, “Worrying the Carcase of an Old Song” doesn’t have a narrator. It’s very difficult to induce even talented haibun writers to let go and give their imagination free rein. Readers are always asking me if my stories are “true”. But if fiction is necessarily no more than recycled experience, then how “true” is that? Finally, a very few writers, most notably Bill Ramsey, have ventured even further, into the realms of fantasy.

JW: You point to Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Derrida as leading to the contemporary Western understanding that language is not “a representation of reality.” You cite Nagarjuna and Dogen, great Buddhist thinkers, as anticipating this current trend in philosophical and linguistic circles. Can you enlarge, at all, upon what Nagarjuna and Dogen say in this regard?

KJ: I was rather rash to introduce Nagarjuna and Dogen! I don’t want to expound the relationship of Mahayana Buddhism to haibun here, and would refer readers to the pioneering enquiry of Jeff Humphries in his Reading Emptiness: Buddhism and Literature (State University of New York Press, 1999). The Japanese scholar-monk Eihei Dogen (1200-53) – “the Thomas Aquinas of Buddhism” – has, however, been a particular inspiration. Dogen maintained that our characteristic struggle to sustain a secure sense of identity dulls and deadens our experience of what’s out there. To the extent that we are able to drop our self concern and open ourselves to the world, to that extent sticks and stones, posts and poetry, appear to spring into a life of their own. My haibun “Posts” is thus an illustration of Dogen’s dictum “When the self advances, the ten thousand things retire; but when the self withdraws, the ten thousand things advance.”

JW: One other point drawn from “Writing Reality,” if you do not mind. You state there that the plot, characters and other conventions of the short story adhere to the “customary mode of experience” whereas the conventions of haibun – understatement, ambiguity, suggestion, paradox, silence – allow for liberty to vary from normative experience. You refer to this “new reality” of haibun as being derived from these factors that lie outside of narrative convention – the unsaid, that is – and you posit some masters of the short story, such as Chekhov, Joyce and Beckett, who achieve similar results. You ascribe the effect such writings have to the “anti-story” elements, that is, to what “lies beyond the externalities of the story.” Is it only through the absence of haiku, in your opinion, that a Chekhov or Beckett falls short of writing haibun? Or are other elements involved?

KJ: I don’t doubt that at least some stories by the likes of Chekhov and Beckett could be turned into haibun either by the insertion of haiku or maybe even by folding out key phrases into three liners. However, I would resist the acceptance for Contemporary Haibun of would-be haibun written in “haibun prose” and with all the other attributes of literary haibun, yet without haiku. If it were outside the haiku family the genre would not only be lacking in distinctiveness; more important, it would lose that “haiku spirit” which amounts to very much more than simply including haiku in prose. For the same reason I am unhappy with lengthy haibun which have only a single capping haiku.

Writing “in the spirit of haiku” requires observance of the haiku dictum “SHOW, don’t TELL!” So in place of explicit and explicatory narrative the haibunist (where dialogue is not appropriate) must resort to open metaphor and (very light) symbolism to assist the reader’s imagination as to what the characters are feeling. An early haibun of mine, “The Samurai Paper Knife” illustrates this.

JW: With your permission, I would like to discuss one of your haibun in greater detail. I’ve singled out “Marsh’s Pool” for two reasons: first, and foremost, it is at once an exceptional haibun and one you’ve cited as illustrative of the haibun story; second, this particular work is easily available on the internet for our readers’ reference. Your narrator’s obsession with the wood engraving in his possession inspires dreams that eventually grant him “peace of mind” and sufficient detachment to “give the picture away to a deeply disturbed person” in the hope that she, too, will find peace. With the narrator’s return to his home in Wales, however, the scene of the engraving proper is found and, of course, our narrator situates himself within it. This is neatly circular upon first glance, and yet, studying the matter closely, the resolution is enigmatic, is it not?

KJ: In “Marsh’s Pool” the actual narrative rests precariously upon an elusive “reality” and is quite overshadowed by it. The engraving pictures a reality which can (until the end) be entered only in dreams, when the dreamer himself or herself becomes the healing “dream that place dreams”. As you observe, the ending appears to effect a closure as the narrator becomes the figure in the engraving. The enigma is ultimately that of any graphic illustration of some object “out there”. The illustration has a power and life of its own (and very much so in “Marsh’s Pool”) and yet it also attempts to portray and “bring to life” something outside itself. The capping haiku attempts to distil that paradox – “printed on water”. Earlier I had played less ambitiously with this paradox in a short haibun entitled “Moonrise by the Sea”.

JW: You have been very generous with your time. I would like to close the interview, if possible, with two brief but related questions. Neither an ability to write a good story nor to write a good haiku in-and-of-itself is sufficient to master haibun. What, in your view, distinguishes the author of haibun from the haiku poet? Given the degree of specialization in every arena of modern endeavor, do you foresee the possibility or likelihood of haibun and haiku developing into distinct disciplines?

KJ: The writer of haibun must not only be a master of publishable haiku, but also of a lively prose style of the kind discussed earlier, which maintains its distinctiveness from the haiku with which it dances. I recall Bill Ramsey lamenting in an e-mail to me that so very many would-be haibun writers needed to take themselves off to a course in creative writing at their local university. The four parts of “Ken’s Corner” in Contemporary Haibun Online were written as an attempt to coach writers contemplating submissions into producing more acceptable work.

As to your final question, I believe it essential that haibun remain within the haiku community. It is the many manifestations of “the spirit of haiku” which I have discussed here which animate haibun as an authentic literary genre. The literary haibun is now supplanting the literal haibun. But to achieve its full potential, my hope is now for haibun writers to free up their creative imagination.

Reproduced with grateful acknowledgement from “Haibun Today” 8 February 2008.