01 September 2010

How I got started writing haiku

When I was about five years old I began having experiences of things that stuck in my mind. I would see something, encounter something, and I would freeze for a moment. When I think of it now, I realize this was "noticing" the whatever-it-was, but very intensely, compared to other things, for a moment.

I noticed the freshly washed sheets my grandmother had hung on the clothesline to dry, billowing in the breeze. I saw this from my vantage point sitting in the sandbox. It was memorable for some reason I did not consciously think about then.

I was never bored riding in the car on family trips because I was constantly entertained by noticing all the details of everything along the road, there were always things that raised interesting questions in my mind, drew out my curiosity, such as the light on the window in a shop in a strip mall, or the neon lights at night, the stars reflected in the window, the hum of the tires on the highway.

On one of my first trips to the beach, I ran down the big dune at Delaware Seashore towards the ocean, as I got closer to the water, I spotted something in the sand and came to an abrupt halt. It was a jellyfish half buried in the sand. For some reason this first encounter with death and fear of treading on it and being stung, stuck with me.

Over the years, I tried to write poems about my experiences or even make them into lyrics, but nothing ever worked out right. It never felt right. I always had to add something to the experience to make it a poem or song. In 2008, I was reintroduced to haiku by reading Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior while recovering from illness.

I was familiar with haiku from my school English classes, but never took it seriously. Even though I enjoyed haiku. I got the not so subtle message that haiku is a trivial form, not valued in Western poetry. For some reason, when I think of making something I feel the gaze or regard of this invisible audience.

For example. When get the urge to make a guitar because it would be rewarding in of itself without any external reward, I think immediately, yeah, by the time you build one, guitars will be going out of favor and no one will care, you'll be stuck building obsolete stuff no one cares about during a period of decline in respect and interest for the instrument (ironically, this did not happen, but the opposite happened in the last decade). I thought I would be throwing away any effort on a poetic form that was not even recognized as poetry (I have an irrational need for fame, not celebrity).

It didn't take long after reading Oku for me to realize that I'd been barking up the wrong tree all those years. I'd wasted twenty years trying to fit my experiences into forms that didn't fit. I started translating my experiences and unfinished poems into haiku similar to Basho's. It worked. The haiku was perfectly suited to capturing and conveying the kind of experiences I've had since childhood.

I said to myself at the time, I don't know if my haiku are haiku, or if they are really good haiku, but I was happy to have found a form for expressing my experiences in a satisfying way. This was more important than fame. It would have been wasteful for my experiences to have never seen the light of day, and they just kept bugging me to write them down.

I was given a book on haiku writing. This is when I first learned that what is central to haiku is not form, but experience. That my childhood experiences had a name, they are called "haiku moments" in the community of writers.

I always say I don't write haiku. I get asked sometimes by people to "write a haiku" and I can't. A haiku starts with an experience and if I don't have the experience (or can't borrow one), I have nothing to go on. So I don't get haiku contests or challenges. Art is an expression, its not a craft, although it may involve craft. I am sometimes inspired by other people's lives, so I steal their experiences for my haiku, when I've none of my own at the moment worth writing about. But to write a haiku to fit a description or theme provided by a contest seems to undermine what haiku is about, experience.

I've learned through this. I learned that I sometimes you have to wait for the right form to come along for your expression. Western poetry didn't cut it. I've learned that expression had to come from myself. I've learned that I can only do what I love and enjoy otherwise it will never amount to anything. I suppose the other thing is that there was some element of obsession and I had to recognize that, whatever it was there had to be some creative impulse that was driving me, even
perhaps against my will, to make these things.

I am always fascinated by Minnie Evans who began to draw after a voice said to her in a dream, "Why don't you draw or die?" I wish I could draw like Minnie Evans, but I am held back by my scientific nature. I could never see elephants dancing around the moon and if I did I would keep it secret lest people think I'm crazy. I find in writing haiku a way of expressing the mysterious nature of life in concrete terms, hiding the mysteries in juxtapositions, which must be unraveled in the mind of the reader.

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