Carmen Sterba recently asked Rod Willmot, Canadian haiku poet and former publisher of Burnt Lake Press, about how he came to haiku, his influences, his evolution as a poet, and the beginnings of haiku in Canada. What follows are his answers, sans questions, below.
What do you make of his possibly controversial comments about the differences between American and Canadian approaches to haiku?
Haiku as a Nexus of Narrative
I started writing poetry at 13, and tried my hand at many different verse forms. That was how I became aware of haiku, as a mere verse form. Around 16 I got interested in Zen, and found a crudely printed edition of R.H. Blyth’s “Zen in English Literature and Oriental Poetry” in the library. This was in the town of Ajax, just east of Toronto; we had an amazing library. That book and a bunch of others on eastern philosophies had been donated to the library by a philanthropist in California. I wrote to the philanthropist asking how I might obtain a copy, since it wasn’t a commercial publication. A few weeks later I received the gift of a brand new copy of the paperback edition.
At first, Blyth grabbed me for what he said about Zen, not his haiku translations. When I left school and hitchhiked across Canada, I carried his book in my backpack. During my travels I was unable to write, my experiences were so intense and unexpected. This became extremely painful because I really defined myself as a poet. In the fall of ’65 I arrived in the city of Quebec, welcomed with open arms by the local community of artists and bohemians. By this time I had exactly two new poems, each the result of an extraordinary moment in which, at last, intense perception of everything out there combined with who I was inside. The problem was I didn’t know if they worked, if they really conveyed what I had experienced. One of my new friends was a guy who had lost all his painter friends by being honest when they asked what he thought of their latest work. It took a long time to convince him that honest feedback was what I wanted, not compliments. Finally he said: “Get a pair of scissors, and with both of these poems, cut off everything except the last 3 lines.”
Illumination! I knew at once that I’d been blocked because the kinds of poetry I was used to reading and writing were irrelevant to what I’d been living. And I knew the solution was haiku. Let me emphasize that I never had any interest in things Japanese, that romantic enchantment that infects haiku circles across North America. Discovering haiku, for me, was like coming across an old tin can at a time of need. I need a drum—there’s my drum! I need a scoop—there’s my scoop! I need a knife, an amulet—there they are! I’ve got no need for an old tin can from Japan, to be preserved and worshipped and imitated. When I was starting out this was so obvious I had no need to think it; but I did think it when I began to meet other haiku poets.
I spent the winter of ’65 in the Conservatory of Music in Quebec, practising the flute 3-4 hours a day and spending the rest of my time reading, writing, walking around that stunning historic city and enjoying the conversation of hugely more experienced friends. When I was working on a haiku I wrote it out on a single page and taped it to the wall so I could see it in different lights, different moods. How to know if it worked? My friends knew nothing of English-language poetry. For all I knew, I was the only person in the world writing haiku in English—haiku rooted in our time, our place, our culture. Painters look at their work from different angles, up close, far away, out of the corner of their eye, upside down. That’s what I did—it’s like making yourself into different readers to see whether your lines work for them. Life is a lot easier when you have peers and good readers. On the other hand, when you can’t find any readers it might be because you’re doing something new.
The birth pangs of my first book are worth telling. In the summer of ’66 I was living with hippies in Quebec, making a little money with my flute. I put together a collection of my haiku to sell to tourists. I bought a score of small sketchbooks and copied my haiku into them using a nib pen and India ink. The sketchbooks had a front cover with a hard yellow surface that I tore off for a fuzzy effect. When I showed them around I discovered that educated people were completely blind to them; they knew too much about how to read, but not how to read haiku. People fresh off the bus, however, could respond immediately and intensely. Nowadays it’s different; haiku is accepted and a whole lot of people know how to read it, apparently. But what does that mean, “know how to read”? What about not knowing, yet being so innocent that direct experience can flood right into you? The best readers know how to let themselves fall apart as if they knew nothing.
When I returned to Toronto I showed my handmade book around and it started to circulate in the off-off community. Someone made copies, there was talk of publishing it, and an artist I didn’t even know made a set of stunning illustrations. When I met the guy and saw the illustrations, I was impressed and grateful . . . but had deep misgivings, because what he had done was extremely Japanesey. Yep, there’s old Issa, and there’s Rod’s sparrow. Shortly afterwards, my scissor-minded friend in Quebec came up with a serious plan to publish my book properly, but there wasn’t money for expensive illustrations. The next time I saw the artist, he had been turned down for a Canada Council grant and was drunk and resentful. He had just painted an amazing portrait of the other person there, an old French painter with a strangely familiar name, who had brought an enormous fish (to eat) that was lying in the sink with the tap running. My illustrator kept opening bottles of beer, drinking them halfway, then opening another with a dramatic flourish. A social worker arrived and said, “He’s always like this.” When I left he was threatening to destroy the illustrations. I thank the Canada Council for ensuring that my haiku would not enter the world looking Japanese.
When my book was published in Quebec I took it back to Toronto and shopped it around to all the bookstores. By this time I’d met Eric Amann, and sort of became his distributor. Whenever a new issue of Haiku and then Cicada came out, I took it around to the same bookstores. I’d bring back the money from sales and he’d tell me to keep it, clearly relieved to have somebody not him do the rounds. Eric was sort of a shepherd of haiku. He had a keen eye for quality, but at first there was precious little of it. His gift was in filling the rest of an issue with things that were close or on the right track, and gradually the quality improved. With Cicada the physical aesthetics improved as well. In the early decades of North American haiku, our production values were horrible; we came across like a pimply teenager who just couldn’t believe in himself. I was stunned when The Haiku Anthology came out: a professional production by a legitimate publisher. I was lucky with my publishers, particularly Black Moss, which produced fine-looking books. When I started up Burnt Lake my goal was to give other haiku poets a similar opportunity: to have a physical book that was worthy of the quality of their work. Others like Randy Brooks were also thinking that way, and soon the pimply teen was an impressive young adult.
Somewhere in here I’m supposed to talk about my influences. I can’t name any in haiku. Blyth’s translations were simply an encouragement to do what I would have done anyway, seek the bare essence in natural English. I did not get into the rest of Blyth—the four thick volumes of Japanese haiku. A little was plenty for me. I also read those quaint little collections that used to be all you could find – one each for the seasons. The translations were awkward, but the haiku shone through; there was a lack of pretence that made them good companions. My real influences were all the other poetry: all the Canadian poets I could find (in English and French), all British poetry up to Yeats but mostly the Romantics and Victorians, and American poetry from Whitman and Dickinson through Frost to Gary Snyder. For 10-20 years of my life I basically fed on poetry.
One “influence” leads to a useful topic. In my early teens I read books of verse by Robert Service, a Canadian who wrote about life in the Yukon during the Gold Rush. One of his books was called “Ballads of a Bohemian”. It was set in Paris, a sort of novel made of poems and prose interwoven. I’ve always wanted to do something similar, and almost did with “Ribs of Dragonfly”. This leads me to what I’ll call extension in haiku. Haiku takes the four dimensions (including time) and smashes them into a point; well, it may not always seem that way, but when it does, it can make you feel as if you’re trying to spend your life standing on one foot. This is when poets bust out of the box and start stringing haiku together, whether alone or with others, to create a kind of living-space. In the early days we didn’t need that, were incapable of it. We had to start by getting to the point. But gradually a need evolved that was not mere imitation of Japanese renga, but rather a sign of maturity: an insistence on taking the point and extending it, giving it context, connecting points and connecting poets. In this vein, I consider the haiku sequence to be an American invention, from the hand of Marlene Mountain.
The first time I met another haiku poet, apart from Eric Amann, was at the first Haiku Canada weekend at Betty Drevniok’s home in the woods, in what we’ll call, romantically, Northern Ontario. Leroy Gorman, Marco Fraticelli, André Duhaime, all new faces on that first evening. In subsequent years there were many more participants, including Americans like Cor van den Heuvel, and we all stayed in Betty’s cottages or nearby motels. Isolated from the world, surrounded by woods, there was a terrific intensity to those gatherings, of the most informal kind. One year as we were all about to leave, George Swede suggested I do an anthology of erotic haiku; I did, and it came out in 1983, another leap forward in physical aesthetics. Then the Haiku Canada weekend shifted to a monastery in Aylmer, Québec, hosted by Dorothy Howard and André Duhaime. The year I published Penny Harter’s book, she and Bill Higginson came, which reminds me: I met Higginson way back in the sixties when he was visiting Eric in Toronto.
After I started writing reviews in Cicada, I think I corresponded with everybody. All the various editors of Frogpond, especially Alexis Rotella, other editors I felt at ease with like Hal Roth of WindChimes, and many of the poets I reviewed, like Ruth Yarrow. Editing the erotic anthology led to a host of rich exchanges that continued afterwards, especially with Raymond Roseliep, whose death affected me deeply. Raymond, a priest, at first submitted some beautiful haiku for the anthology, but then withdrew permission to publish them. For the first time in my life I exercised a little delicacy, and after a couple of months of not pushing he said yes. It’s strange to think how rich our life was when we had to write letters on paper, pack them on a pony and wait. Hundreds and hundreds of letters written and received, connections with dozens of wonderful people. The only one I never corresponded with was Nick Virgilio – because he always called me on the phone! When Cor called, I had the impression he had just sat down with a glass of Scotch. When I heard Marlene Mountain’s voice it was like listening to a Georgia peach.
I went twice to the U.S. for reasons of haiku. The first time I visited Lilli Tanzer, an early Frogpond editor, and went on to visit Cor at someone’s cottage. The second time, Alexis Rotella arranged for me to give a talk to a meeting of the HSA in New York. Those were a rich few days, many people, many gatherings large and small. Hiroaki Sato took us to his favourite Japanese restaurant, where I discovered wasabi – the best and most violent wasabi I’ve ever had. With Cor we visited Anita Virgil, who told of receiving a visit from Erica Amann years earlier; she said she pushed him into a pond. That was Anita, to push someone into a pond, and that was Eric, to be pushed into a pond by someone like Anita.
That’s a good segue to the differences between Canadian and American approaches to haiku. Canadians have always had a more individualistic, experience-based approach to haiku. Americans have a tendency to be dogmatic, traditionalist, rule-oriented. I first saw this when Higginson came to Toronto in the late sixties, making himself out as an authority because he could read Japanese. Fast-forward to the bunk about season-words, and the proliferation of Japanese terminology in writing about haiku. I’m talking about the overall picture; the brightest lights in haiku have been American, but they are an infinitesimal minority, swamped and drowned out by the noisy religiosity of dead-tradition preachers. Unfortunately, the fog has drifted into Canada. The amount of publishing activity is incredible, but for quality and originality—will any of it be remembered?
You asked how my themes and style have changed since the seventies, and how I keep my haiku fresh and relevant. I’ll leapfrog this by saying that in the early 90s I decided to stop writing haiku, and stay stopped for as long as it took. For three reasons. First, I knew that if I continued I would start repeating myself, and I didn’t want to do that, either to me or to haiku. Second, I was feeling the call of different things that had to be written in different ways; even sequences weren’t enough. And third, I was disheartened by the rise of traditionalism in the U.S. When we were all discoverers with no pretensions, our only foe was the literary mainstream and its refusal to take haiku seriously. Now haiku’s greatest enemy was what once had been its own new heartland, America—grown stodgy and unathletic, draped in dogma and kimonos.
Stopping then was the best way I could be true to haiku. I believed that one day I would be able to write as if haiku had never been written before, with the utter freedom of having no defences. Today I have a less desperate point of view—or a more demanding one. My early haiku focused on the most immediate levels of my experience, and were simple and easy to grasp for that reason. As I grew, my experience acquired more dimensions, emotional awareness joined sensation, the simplest moments were redolent with the complexity of human relations. From “The Ribs of Dragonfly” (1984):
bar-smoke in the sweater
I pull from my head
If “Ribs” emphasized the psychological dimension, the next book, “Saying for the Invisible” (1988) emphasized the spiritual dimension. There is one haiku in it —one experience—that I have kept returning to because it captures something essential in how I see. It’s still unsettled, but let’s try this:
snatches a tulip bulb
and tears off down the street
This is my version of Blake’s “Tiger, tiger, burning bright”. It is the seething energy at the heart of existence, the source of everything, death as well as life. It’s the wild joy I live for. And looking over my work, I see something emerging in my haiku that gives me hope, what I think I’ll call a nexus of narrative. This is different from haiku as distillation, experience imploded to a point. A nexus of narrative is the intersecting shafts of multiple dimensions, not just the four of physical experience but our countless human dimensions and others besides. Narrative, because in each shaft you sense a “comes from”, a “goes to”, the possibility of an entire person, a story, a mystery. This gives me hope, knowing that where I am in life now, I can write haiku as a witness, seeing with all my eyes, attentive to haiku that do not implode, do not stand still, but extend in rich and unpredictable ways . . . the ways of this reality.
I’ll close with two of my most recent haiku, from an anthology coming out soon in Montreal. Nothing spectacular, just grenades.
a monstrous snowblower and a truck
are being led
by a woman on foot
the solo trumpet
home through slush
Outremont, Québec, 2010
Essences began as a column written by Carmen Sterba in the North American Post in Seattle, WA, a bilingual newspaper in Japanese and English. Its purpose is to go back to the roots of the “haiku movement” in North America: the major poets, the individual styles of haiku, the books, the journals and conferences as they evolved from the sixties and seventies onwards. This will be a short version, so feel free to add information and comments as we go along.