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I’ve never recounted how my first book came to be. The publisher was a Québécois named Claude Gaudreau, who became one of my best friends after I arrived in Quebec City at age 17 – in the fall of 1966. I’d spent 3-4 months hitchhiking around Canada, increasingly experiencing intense moments of sheer perception that I didn’t know how to write down. I’d been serious about poetry since age 14, but on most of that trip I’d had a serious case of writer’s block. Just twice, words had come. Unlike everything else I’d written, with these two poems what mattered wasn’t how well they worked on the page, but whether they awoke a fresh, immediate experience in the reader. So arriving in Québec, and meeting Claude, who had just lost all his artist friends by telling them what he thought of their work, I asked him to read the poems – and give me feedback. After much persuasion, he consented: get a pair of scissors, he said, and cut off everything but the last three lines. I knew at once that the block was broken. Haiku would be my voice for the next twenty years.
I spent that winter in Québec as a music student, dutifully practicing the flute for 3-4 hours a day, spending the rest of the time enjoying the friendship of assorted bohemians, and exploring how to write haiku in English. I bought paper, ink, an artist’s pen and a bunch of nibs, and each new haiku would be taped to the wall in my room in the Latin Quarter, so I could look at it in different lights, different moods, sometimes just glancing at it in hopes of seeing it like an unsuspecting reader – to see if it really worked.
Every summer in Quebec City, there’s a street called Rue du Trésor where artists and art students sell their work to tourists. It’s very touristy stuff, but it’s a way for the artists to make it through the winter as they focus on their real work. Claude’s wife Randi (an American) was one of those art students, and several times I stood in for her at her stall. I got the idea of selling a booklet of my haiku. I bought some 5×8 artist’s sketchbooks, and using pen and ink, filled them with my winter’s worth of haiku. This experience taught me something important: back then, people with a literary education, who’d spent a lot of time studying poetry in university, were utterly impervious to haiku. They could only read artifice, expected artifice and exclusively respected artifice, but were incapable of reading experience. The contrary was true of tourists fresh off the bus, so to speak. People who couldn’t read poetry could instantly read haiku – really read it, be genuinely affected by it.
I left Québec for a while, and in my absence Claude decided he wanted to publish my book; he turned himself into a publisher, as I did later with Burnt Lake Press, to publish other poets. Like me, he had no money. Unlike me, his solution was to use the cheapest possible paper and avoid the expense of typesetting by having me hand-write the originals. On my next trip to Québec he went out with me to find exactly the type of pen and nibs I’d used before, and for the next two-three days I was banished to a freezing room, tasked with writing out the poems on 2-inch by 5-inch strips of paper. I was born to have horrendous penmanship, and never done anything against my nature, so it was very tough work, and I left with a hellish cold. Then, months later, on my next trip to Québec, presto the book was there!
Without consulting me, they’d used my full name, Rodney Wilson Willmot, thinking it sounded more impressive. The script was the best my hand could do, a bit more legible than what I taped to my wall in that winter of discovering haiku. The cover was by Randi Gaudreau. Claude and Randi went on to run a successful commercial design company called Couthuran Design that was active in the 70s and 80s. They produced amazing posters for arts events and even political campaigns. I don’t even know if they’re alive now, but I found an article on their work (in French) by an archivist at the Bibliothèque Nationale (national library of Québec). They had a huge influence on the course of my life.
You can find Haiku in The Haiku Foundation’s Digital Library.
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