Te Atatu South, Auckland, New Zealand
Discoveries to Linger Over: An Interview with Steven Carter
Steven Carter is a retired emeritus professor of English, having taught for 38 years. A former Senior Fulbright Fellow at two Polish universities, he has published more than twenty books in the USA and abroad. His awards include the Schachterle Prize presented by the American Society for Literature and Science; UNESCO's Nuove Lettere International Poetry and Literature Prize (only two-time winner); the Eric Hoffer Foundation's Montaigne Medal; a 2nd Prize and a Commendation in England’s 2012 Presence International Haiku Competition and 1st Prize in the British Haiku Awards international competition (haibun section).
Steven, one of the first questions I’d like to ask has been stimulated by a recent reading of several of your books, including ripples, Snow Moon and The Hidden Berkeley. What interests me in these three books is the constant separation and dislocation of geography and the temporal shifts of narrative, and I’m wondering if these are central to your work?
First, Pat, I want to thank you for this opportunity to discuss my work.
I think of my past as many writers do, as a grab bag from which the poems (as opposed to me personally—my wants and needs) pick and choose. I don’t really feel I have control over which decade or locale or person will pop up in a haibun. Like unexpected guests they just show up, especially when I’ve had a glass or two of chardonnay. In my experience, and for what it’s worth, a good haibun is in control of you. A bad haibun—you’re in control of it.
How have your academic background and your overseas travel influenced your writing?
Academia: almost none. Overseas travel: almost everything. When I went to Poland on my Fullbright in 1991, the last thing on my mind was writing about it one day; even Auschwitz. After my visit there I was too numb to feel anything, much less write poetry. It took decades—really—for all my European experiences to evolve into haibun and haiku.
Your haibun contain many references to your personal experiences and are often autobiographical. To what extent is Steven Carter to be found in your work?
Everywhere and nowhere! No matter how accurate—and The Hidden Berkeley is the most factual of my books —the “truth” of autobiography always bumps up against the words. Obviously the “Steven Carter” of my books and the flesh-and-blood Steve Carter, the one my wife asks to take out the garbage, aren’t one and the same.
That said, I do try to be dead-on accurate when I wax autobiographical; depending on the needs of the haibun, however, I may take liberties with the details, gory or otherwise, of persons, places, or things I’ve known. In the end, writers of haibun should remember the fiction writer’s credo: “The truth is no excuse.”
Is there a corollary between the writing of your haibun and the intimacy of your personal life?
More so in the past: less so in the present. Just as I rounded the bend of my 7th decade, after lying dormant for years intimate memories of my young manhood, mainly when I lived in Berkeley, came flooding back, clamouring for attention. Suddenly I was there again, in the arms of this or that
girl—or not—re-living experiences from the inside out, down to words which were said and which I remember very clearly almost half a century later.
It’s always interesting to learn about the details of a poet’s life and their poetic experiences. I recently read The Hidden Berkeley which was published in 2012. Here are haibun which engage the reader’s sympathies as you move from childhood, to youth and to the present. Much of their power lies in the coherence of the characters and their relationships—they are very real. Some of the poems are full of surprises and require re-reading several times. Would you agree?
Absolutely; I’m always surprised by what’s dredged up from my checkered past. Robert Frost once said, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” The same could and should be said of surprise.
What is the moving force in creating your haibun? What kind of experiences inspire you to write haibun rather than a short story?
I really don’t know, except that, mysteriously, it has something to do with erotic desire—even more mysteriously, with the experience of witnessing death.
As for short stories—I’m a failed writer of fiction: odd, since one of my degrees is a Master of Fine Arts in fiction. My root inspiration for haibun, I think, occurred years and years before I knew what a haibun was. I mean the prose poems of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, especially Baudelaire. Those bad boys used to haunt my dreams all the time.
You have written in a number of different forms: haiku, tanka, haibun and prologues. Does your work in one form influence your work in another? Do you find you work with the same ideas in each form?
Sometimes I’m compelled to throttle back a tanka into a haiku, and on very rare occasions to expand a haiku into a tanka. I feel I’m a writer of haibun first, haiku second, and tanka third.
I don’t think in terms of idea with haiku and tanka; I do with haibun, but boy, you have to tread carefully there. Haibun aren’t disquisitions.
One of the things I find fascinating about haibun is the unpredictability of the haiku. In a good haibun we enjoy the unexpected? Do you agree?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes again.
In haibun, the space between prose and haiku invites readers to linger, whether for the challenge or emotional reverberations of the haiku. What is your response to this statement?
The “space” you’re referring to is what Jane Reichhold calls “hermeneutical” space—a cognitive and emotional distance (dissonance?) to be traversed by the reader, NOT the writer. I mean this quite literally. If the writer tries to dictate the particulars of what constitutes the distance between haibun and haiku, he’s headed for disaster. I trust I make myself obscure.
I’d add that, smack in the middle of a haibun about re-creating (with my brother) the famous San Francisco car chase sequence from Bullit, a Hollywood film, suddenly the ghost of Emperor Norton, that eccentric 19th century “ruler” of San Francisco, popped up: don’t ask me how or why. He demanded that I plop him down in a haiku in media res; so I did.
Attention to both prose and poem connects the reader to the poet when they are neither in the same physical or mental space. How does this apply to your haibun?
Pat, all I can say is, I hope it does. Otherwise I’d be better off selling aluminum siding.
The pattern of a haiku, one line burst or image or emotion at a time, is central to the success of a haibun. Do you “add” your haiku when the prose is finished, or does it come before the prose, or is it integral to the poem?
I almost never begin a haibun with a haiku; the haibun generates the haiku, or appears to. I do hope they’re integral, though the connection shouldn’t be obvious or up-front, at least in my view. Otherwise why have the haiku?
Why do you often mix the genres in your collections and how do you decide which poems should be published in a collection?
I think the more genres the merrier—they bounce off each other, taking the work in different directions—why not?
Years ago, I asked a writer friend of mine the same question: How do you decide which stories you want collected in one volume? He shrugged, “I just include what interests me.”
Yes, it’s intuitive, and sometimes I regret this or that decision. And, as always—thank Zeus—I depend on the cruel kindness of editors to rescue me from my own nonsense.
In your wonderful book Morning Twilight with its linkage of prologue and haiku, I wonder why you decided to name the prose parts “prologues” and not write them as haibun? And could you say something about the issues of life and death that are so prominent in this book?
That’s a very good question. To be honest, I really can’t say, except that the prologues wanted to serve as prologues, and I gave them free rein. Actually, the prologue to the Anne Frank house section really does double duty as a haibun—or so I think. And the Epilogue, a passage from Ambrose Bierce about the battle of Shiloh, is what Stanley Pelter would call a found haibun.
Since you start out from “a story that needs telling,” how much attention do you then pay to stylistic elements? In what ways do you work on syntax, phrasing, finding the right words to communicate your story?
This is where experience comes in. I’ve been writing for 50 years (like E. M. Forster I’m consumed with embarrassment and rage regarding my early stuff, especially fiction). I do what most writers do: let the work ferment or stew in its own juices—then dot the t’s and cross the i’s, as dear Yogi Bear would’ve said.
Unless you want your works to become alms for oblivion, never, never, never send anything hot off the griddle to an editor. (This principle also applies to love letters, by the bye; far too often I’ve broken my own rule and lived to bitterly regret it.)
And how do you go about revision? Do you spend a lot of time re-working as you write, or do you tend to write in a fairly swift manner and then re-work things over a longer period of time?
Both of the above; depends on the particular haibun.
Does research create a number of possibilities that you then think about and transform in different ways? I refer here to your specific works that contain prose: After Blossom Viewing: Zen Parables with Haiku, Morning Twilight: Linked Haiku, ripples and The Hidden Berkeley?
It does, although in After Blossom Viewing the “research” really consisted of occasional reading and/or talking to Zen practitioners and aficionados over the years. The expatriate poet and editor Cid Corman was a big help in this regard —40 years before ABV popped into my head!
Save for certain historical facts—see Morning Twilight—for the poet, research becomes just another muse whispering in his or her ear: “Crunch the facts all you want, Baby: THEN let’s go to bed.”
Is there a relationship between your books and particular materials or areas of interest? In other words, is there any particular book that you could say was exploring a specific territory? Or does a book tend to come out of a moment of being that you just happen to be in when you’re writing? I’m thinking, in particular, about the power of language in Morning Twilight.
Morning Twilight came through me like a dose of salts—I wrote it in two weeks. As I’ve indicated, visits to the various locales were percolating away for years, sometimes decades.
Is it important for you to receive feedback from other writers or editors?
Do you work closely with your editor when you are publishing a book?
God, yes! An editor’s job, as we know, is to make your work better without intruding too much; a number of haiku and haibun editors have done this for me. I’ll mention just two: Ray Rasmussen and Kim Richardson. And yes, I certainly work closely with editors. Hats off to all.
In my reading of your work, it has an air of “mystery”. That is, a haibun doesn’t always give up its meaning straightaway. In what way does “mystery” intersect with a direct approach in your poems?
Usually, for me, what the haibun is rooted in—a locale, a happening, even a conversation—comes first. The “mystery”—a good word—is the pearl produced by these grains of sand. But, as I’ve said before, it must come without conscious intervention by the writer. As Keats said of poetry in general, “Like leaves to a tree it had better come naturally or not at all.”
Part of what is remarkable about your haibun is that they make little distinction between the human psyche and the natural world. Do you think this is an influence from the Japanese forms of poetry you practice?
Yes and no. I think (hope) that this rapprochement comes naturally to me (see above). But I’m certainly taken with senryu, or “inner” haiku. Most though not all of my haiku may be classified as senryu; there’s the Japanese influence.
2012 has been a prolific year for publication of your books. What is the reason for publishing all these works in the same year?
All I can say here is that, in my late sixties, I’m more acutely aware than ever of Time’s Winged Chariot—that anti-Santa Claus making house calls on so many of my friends, including dozens of high school chums. And in the last couple of years, poems have come fast and furious, as if they, too, see Time’s Chariot quivering on the horizon.
Do you think there is enough encouragement and outlets for emerging haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose writers in America? Are there any areas you would like to see expanded?
From our little community, yes; but mirabile dictu—our community is international. Certainly haiku and haibun are appreciated more in Japan and in other places than in America; but thanks to folks like Jim Kacian and Carolyn Hall, a groundswell of understanding and appreciation seems to be building in the U.S.A. Of the three short-forms you’ve mentioned, I think tanka lags behind in my native country, I’m not sure why.
What are you currently working on?
Several things; a book of haibun and fables set in Paris; two long books (not chapbooks) of haibun: Interiors and Paper Doors. Interiors will be released by Alba Publishing in a few months; Paper Doors is under consideration by Violet Press in Virginia. May Day will be released by Kattywompus Press in Ohio later this year. As we speak Alba is preparing Volumes II and III of After Blossom Viewing. I’m hoping Jim Kacian will like Book of Dreams, a haibun collection which I’ve submitted to Red Moon Press (as you know, they published ripples earlier this year).
Again, thanks so much, Pat, for your time and interest. Thanks also to Jeffrey Woodward and to Haibun Today.
Thank you, Steven, for the interview and for all your entertaining work.
I’d like to end this interview, Steven, with one of your haibun published in Contemporary Haibun Online, Vol. 7, No. 2. It is one of my favourite of your haibun.
In Lieu of an Elegy
That summer Stacy had completed her sophomore year at the University of Montana; she was picking up money for next fall's tuition by serving cones at the ice cream parlor north of town. On the third occasion, I came in she gave me a double-scoop butter pecan waffle cone instead of the single I'd ordered.
"On the house," she said as I, and the cone, melted in her gaze. "Just don't put it in the newspaper."
Stacy was blonde, with hypnotic blue eyes. The pleasure of her company notwithstanding, she stirred gloomy thoughts–as only three or four females in my life have–of assignations that never happened: would-be loves that lived in the past, nipped in a crimson bud forever.
Three weeks after I saw her last, Stacy was en route back to Montana from Colorado with her family in their private Cessna. They were low on fuel, but her dad decided to make one more turn around the airport on the hill so that Stacy's mom could practice a landing. Four hundred feet off the tarmac the engine quit and the plane pancaked into the ground, the impact driving Stacy's contacts up into her skull. The only survivor of the family of five was Stacy's older brother John, paralyzed for life from the waist down.
Plangent voices in the dark winds of Purgatory: too late, too late.
early morning wind
Early Morning Wind: Haiku & Tanka, Cyberwit, 2012
Red Leaves: Tanka & Haiku, Cyberwit, 2012
What the Words Are: Haibun, Tanka & Haiku, Cyberwit, 2012
The Essences: Haiku with Tanka, Cyberwit, 2012
Morning Twilight: Linked Haiku, Cyberwit, 2012
Snow Moon, Alba Publishing, 2012
After Blossom Viewing: Zen Parables with Haiku, Alba Publishing, 2012
Forbidden Colors: Haiku & Tanka, Cyberwit, 2012
Ripples: Haibun, Red Moon Press, 2012
The Hidden Berkeley: Haibun, Cyberwit, 2012
Acanthas: Aphorisms, Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Napoli, 2012
Pillars of Fire: Haibun & Haiku, Alba Publishing, 2012
Paper Cuts: Haibun & Haiku, Kattywompus Press, 2012