Detroit, Michigan, USA
Until One Day I Said Enough:
Harriot West on Haibun
Harriot West was born in Boston. She grew up on both coasts, spending her summers in New England and the remainder of the year in California's San Joaquin Valley. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966 and later settled in Oregon where she earned a Masters Degree in linguistics from the University of Oregon. Harriot West's haibun and haiku have been widely published in various journals and anthologies including Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Contemporary Haibun and The Norton Anthology of Haiku in English. In addition, she has received numerous awards for her writing, including the Modern Haiku Award and the Museum of Haiku Literature Award.
While the occasion for this interview is the release of Into the Light, your first haibun collection, I'd like to delay questions about your book, Harriot, and first establish some background for our readers. When and how were you first inspired to write? And what forms or genres did your earliest writings adopt?
I wrote my share of angst-ridden poems in high school but didn't seriously begin writing until I left my job at the university in 2000. Initially I experimented with a range of forms—flash fiction, the lyric essay, children's literature—although I kept returning to poetry, usually very short imagistic poetry. The fact I never made time for writing until relatively late in life has always made me wonder if I really am a writer. Writers write and I was content mucking about in the dance studio until it occurred to me that ultimately writing would be kinder on my joints and provide the creative outlet I value.
You've told us something of your earlier writing. Can you perhaps enlarge upon those comments and tell us how you first came to compose haiku and haibun?
I was lucky to find some wonderful workshops online. I credit both Allegra Wong and Miriam Sagan for reintroducing me to haiku and introducing me to haibun. I was drawn to haiku for its deceptive simplicity and compressed emotion but realized I needed to spend a lot more time reading and studying haiku before jumping into haibun.
What about writing habits? Do you compose on a keyboard or with pen and paper? Do you prefer certain settings or a certain time of day?
One of my first writing instructors said a poem should look good on the page and she always encouraged us to compose on a computer. When writing free verse, I find it helps me visualize what impact, if any, a line break might have. Additionally I am addicted to my online thesaurus. I'm fairly undisciplined about a writing schedule but I like the notion of writing in a certain place. My study is a room filled with light and books and the process of going to my desk helps focus me.
You've remarked elsewhere that writing is a solitary activity. Shortly after your work first caught my attention in haikai journals, I became acquainted with you at Ray Rasmussen's writing workshop. That must have been 2007. But let us accept that solitude is a prerequisite for composition. Tell me, however, what role writing groups and personal relationships with other authors have played in your artistic development.
Primarily an encouragement to take more risks with my work. I was writing haiku almost exclusively when I joined Ray's group. I didn't have much confidence in my ability to write prose and worried about holding a reader's attention beyond the span of three lines. So it was inspiring to see what others were doing with haibun. I remember Roger Jones remarking that one of my haiku might well be expanded into a haibun—and that was really the moment I began seriously exploring the form.
Because there are relatively few people writing haibun, an online forum like Ray's writing workshop offered a wonderful opportunity to meet people from all over the world who share the same interest.
Additionally I love spending time with people who care about the minutia of craft—discussing whether a direct or indirect article works best or what purpose an ampersand serves. As I tend to focus on the micro, the exposure to other styles and points of view is invaluable.
If I may follow up on the last question, Harriot, how does whatever influence you've felt from these personal interactions differ from the influence you may have felt at a distance, if you will, as a reader of the poetry of others?
Long ago I fell in love with the clarity of William Carlos Williams but these days I find myself more interested in contemporary writers—Nin Andrews, Lydia Davis, James Tate to name a few. Every morning I click through various online poetry sites for immersion, however brief, in the world of other poets. But actually, Jeffrey, your question makes me realize I find myself equally affected by many contemporary novelists.
My tastes are eclectic and constantly changing so I dread questions about influence. Very often it is the book I'm currently reading which right now is Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. One idea I am experimenting with these days is arranging prose fragments within a larger narrative frame—which is essentially what Offill has done in her book.
If you want specifics, two passages come to mind that never fail to move me for the way the theme is tightly embedded in the structure of the prose and for the unobtrusive elegance of the language: the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and the closing lines of A Child's Christmas in Wales. But choosing favorites is a dangerous game because now I want to add Eliot's Portrait of a Lady and so it continues. Basically I love to read. More than I love to write.
You recently confessed to me privately that "in some perverse way my experience in academia has also influenced my style." I've violated your confidence now rather shamelessly. Please share with our readers the salient aspects of your academic career and address their affect, positive or negative, upon your writing.
I'm often described as a minimalist so I find it ironic that my sixth grade teacher remarked on my report card that I was good at writing précis. In graduate school, much of the academic literature seemed unnecessarily convoluted. So yes, I think in part, my desire to write accessible prose and poetry comes from the exasperation I felt wading through so many nearly inscrutable articles.
Do you find inspiration more often in the sensory phenomena immediately before you or do you tend to rely upon memory and the past?
I'd say memory although I include memory of sensory phenomena as well. I also find inspiration in the poems I read daily—very often it's a formal device although it may be a more visceral reaction to content.
You've also expressed, Harriot, your dreadful sense that introducing your haibun to people unfamiliar with the form often requires a "mini-lecture." If I may quote directly from your correspondence, you wrote, "There is something quite jarring about the haiku to those who aren't used to reading haibun and I find myself sometimes justifying what strikes some people as odd." I've encountered the same problem. Expand upon this gulf, if you will, that separates haibun from the common or, dare I say, lay reader.
Oh, I'd hate to say common or lay reader. But what some people find off-putting is precisely what I love so about haibun—the unexpected leap between the prose and haiku. I do my best to proselytize and have made converts along the way but I imagine there will always be those who remain unconvinced or unmoved by the juxtaposition of haiku and prose.
So Mountains and Rivers Press has released Into the Light, your first collection. I'm personally encouraged as I've long admired your style. A book from your hand was overdue. Can you describe the genesis of this project?
Envy—of my friends who had written books. And I was tired of my friends (especially those who aren't writers) asking if I had written a book. Actually I was tired of saying no to their question. But I was slow to begin the process of assembling a manuscript—mainly because I wanted to unify the collection with a narrative thread and that seemed such a gigantic task that I kept putting it off until one day I said enough, printed out most of my previously published and unpublished haibun, and began arranging them in stacks around the dining room table. Over time, as I sifted through the piles, a narrative of sorts appeared. To my surprise, everything I had dreaded about assembling a book, selecting and ordering the pieces, was ultimately very satisfying—even enjoyable.
Ce Rosenow, your publisher, was kind enough to forward a production copy of Into the Light prior to its release. I was pleased to recognize various haibun therein that I knew from their earlier incarnations in journals or anthologies. I'm always interested in architectonics, in how specifically a poet chooses to select and structure the contents of a book. You open with 17 haibun, introduce a modest selection of haiku thereafter and then close with a dozen more haibun. The section titles ("Sepia Shadows," "Foreshadowing" and "The Pinwheel's Colors" respectively) are suggestive. What can be said then, Harriot, of this tripartite arrangement of your book?
The decision to include haiku was inspired by what I've seen in other collections (including your Evening in the Plaza) as well as a desire to provide a bit of breathing space between the opening and closing sections. As for the section titles—my hope was that "Foreshadowing" would create a link between "Sepia Shadows" and "The Pinwheel's Colors" so that read together, the section titles would hint at the thematic content of the collection.
Ray Rasmussen, in Haibun Today 8:4, addressed the minimalist character of your haibun. Now minimalism can be a matter of simple quantity (word-count) or of scope. It's fair to say that your works consistently achieve brevity yet there's considerable variety of subject and treatment in evidence within those constraints that you've adopted. I'm interested in your take on this assessment of you as a minimalist. Do you value longer haibun, despite the opposing current of your praxis, or do you feel that abbreviation is an essential property of haibun itself?
These days there is such variety in haibun that defining essential properties becomes more and more difficult. However I would never say abbreviation is an essential property. Brevity suits my voice and style but I am quite envious of those who manage longer works. I rarely attempt it because aside from my worry about holding a reader's attention, it's much easier for me to obsessively craft a shorter piece.
I believe that you wrote or published your first haibun in 2005. How might you compare the haibun scene of today, Harriot, with the one that you first encountered a decade ago? There are indisputably more writers and more venues active in the genre now. Would you judge haibun's prospects as favorable? Or is it conceivable that our writing community has taken one step forward only to take two steps back?
I have no statistical evidence to back this up (perhaps you do?) but it strikes me there is a wider range of styles in the haibun being published today and less insistence on haikai or haiku-style prose. And certainly there is a wider audience judging by the inclusion of haibun in more mainstream poetry journals although I am sometimes disappointed by what passes for haiku in those journals.
I've tempted you previously to speak in broad terms about your book and about your approach to haibun. Can we shift our focus briefly, Harriot, and examine some haibun from Into the Light? I have in mind, first, "Bloody Sundays":
I listened to stories of a man-eating whale, toads falling from the sky, a baby abandoned among bulrushes and a man nailed to a cross. I suppose at one point, someone mentioned the angels.
take this in remembrance
a hailstone on my tongue
The title sets an ironic tone and this is complemented by the striking image of your haiku where a hailstone plays stand-in for sacramental bread. Between title and haiku we have a terse catalogue of miraculous personages and events culled from the Old and New Testaments. The closing allusion, though, is to communion and it strikes me that what lies unsaid here, the real subject of your argument, is a somewhat jaundiced view of communion. Your target might be the sacramental act itself or it might be the larger secular community. Without asking you to offer an explication, might you divulge what you recall of the immediate context of this haibun and of how you came to write it?
For whatever reasons certain images linger in memory and I feel compelled to write about them. In this case the category of events came from a book I had as a child—illustrated bible stories—which I remember as a rather gruesome collection. That combined with the fact that the church where my brother and I were dropped on Sunday mornings was very cold and very gray. Thank you by the way, for your reading of the haiku. It is exactly what I hoped a reader might take away.
Now, by way of contrast, let me quote "A Brief Analysis of Contemporary Society as Seen Through My Eyes":
Tolstoy wept while listening to the andante cantabile of Tchaikovsky's first string quartet. I, on the other hand, wondered what kind of hair gel the viola player used, considered where I might find shoes like those worn by the cellist, speculated about the gold band on the right hand of the fair-haired violinist, and worried I'd blushed when I ran into an old boyfriend during intermission.
rustle of silk
what I remember of
War and Peace
There's more humor in this satirical portrait than in the implied somber scene of "Bloody Sundays." The two haibun might be said, though, to share a certain detachment born of a common irony. Your quasi-academic title, "A Brief Analysis of Contemporary Society . . .," signals to the alert reader that a social critique, whether good natured or loathing, will follow. Again, will you indulge me, Harriot, and enlarge upon the background of this particular composition?
The cynic in me wondered, as I read the program notes at a concert, if the description of Tolstoy weeping wasn't a bit overwrought but as I glanced around the hall, I noticed how many people were checking messages on their phones and thought how offended Tolstoy might be by our seeming indifference to greatness.
One side note—each time I read this haibun to a group, I use it as a chance to express my belief in the separation of poet and narrator. Although I am reasonably fond of this speaker, I'd rather not be mistaken for her—even though my thoughts do sometimes stray from the music at concerts and even though the viola player in question had lovely spiky hair.
Seriously though and drifting even further away from your question, it is interesting that there is a tendency to conflate narrator and poet in both haibun and haiku. This tendency is understandable, perhaps, given haibun's origins as travel narrative but ever since I learned Buson's wife was very much alive and perhaps annoying him by her habit of leaving hair accessories on the bedroom floor, I have never bothered much about reality in my haiku or haibun.
In private correspondence you were a bit more eloquent so let me use this opportunity, if I may, to quote you. "Even in circumstances where the 'I' represents the author and we are dealing with memoir, an artist still must select those events she presents and those that she omits; she may take liberties with chronological order likewise, and she will probably, if she is a good artist, enlarge upon 'real' episodes and invent yet others. A memoir is a mixture of fact and fiction, isn't it, for an artist's goal isn't fidelity to the spirit of reportage but to that of art." To that Jeffrey, I reply, "my sentiments exactly."
Can we investigate this question in greater detail and perhaps from a slightly different angle? Some writers of haiku and haibun posit a dichotomy between the experiential and fictional. That tendency seems most prominent among advocates of autobiographical and sensory-based subject matter. This concept of rival poles seems flawed, from my point of view, and I'm tempted to argue that their existence is illusory. But what would you say, Harriot? Don't fact and invention (or reportage and fiction) have a more nuanced relation than this?
I agree but I'm inclined to define "experiential" rather broadly. And although it's not a term I especially care for, emotional truths are far more important to me than reportage.
I was interested to read, on the "About the Author" page of Into the Light, that you are at work on a second book, a collection of prose poems. I invite you to quote one of these poems or, if you are unwilling to provide an excerpt of a work-in-progress, to discuss your artistic motive for such a shift in medium. Various commentators have described haibun, rather casually, as a prose poem that incorporates haiku. The prose poem is neither blessed nor encumbered by haiku and this very absence of verse must be telling. Do you find that the style and tone of your prose differ from haibun to prose poem?
I don't really have a satisfactory answer to this question. Just a rather vague "some prose poems are quite different in style and tone but others are not." For example, the middle section of my haibun "Suppositions" (from Into the Light) might be called a prose poem but the tone does not seem overly different from the rest of the piece. There's no haiku because I didn't want another image from a haiku competing with the closing image of the prose. Or perhaps more honestly because I couldn't successfully convert the image of the last line into a haiku.
Venturing off topic here, these days I favor prose poems over free verse and find myself converting some of my free verse into prose poems because I've noticed that at readings most poets (especially those who write narrative poems) tend to read through their carefully crafted line breaks.
Of course, much can be said about the purpose of line breaks. Charles Hansmann's discussion of line breaks that appeared in Haibun Today (November 17, 2007) makes the case for them very eloquently: "Among other things, the line break may suggest a shift in meaning, introduce a juxtaposition, pause before an insight, link to something unexpected or alter a perspective."
I appreciate what he says and enjoy the challenge of free verse but for now I prefer a more direct relationship with the reader—laying out a reasonably clear path rather than changing direction on the page for what in my writing at times feels contrived. Or to use a word that has become so damning in some haiku circles—clever.
Before asking you to field a last question, Harriot, let me thank you for the pleasure of this interview. Now haibun has its origin in haiku and you are a well-known writer of haiku. Would you quote a personal favorite from your corpus and offer some explanation of its special import for you?
I admit I was apprehensive when you proposed this interview but it has been a great pleasure and I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to exchange ideas with you. Thank you so much, Jeffrey.
One thing I love about haiku is the space it leaves for readers to create their own narrative so I'll simply leave you with this haiku based on a story my aunt told me when I was very young and thank you again.
the girl we didn't like
with fireflies in her hair
Into the Light can be ordered through Mountain and Rivers Press.