Detroit, Michigan, USA
The Hungry Writer: An Interview with Lynne Rees
Lynne Rees started working with haiku forms in 2006, was haibun editor at Simply Haiku in 2008 and 2009, and co-editor, with Jo Pacsoo, of the British Haiku Society's Haibun Anthology, The Unseen Wind (2010). In 2011, she jointly edited, along with Nigel Jenkins and Ken Jones, another country, haiku poetry from Wales. Lynne has also published Learning How to Fall (poetry, 2005), The Oven House (novel, 2008), Messages (flash fiction collaboration with Sarah Salway, 2008), forgiving the rain (haibun, 2012) and Real Port Talbot (travel guide, local history & memoir, 2013).
Let me ask first, with your permission, about your personal background. You come from Wales and I wonder what influence, if any, this circumstance had on your literary development and interests. The population of Wales is small when measured on the world's scale and Welsh history and culture are unique. Was a Welsh sensibility or identity formative for you or did you mature at a distance or with indifference to the same?
I suppose on an international level Wales's most famous literary export is Dylan Thomas who was born a matter of miles away from the town where I was born and grew up. But I wasn't introduced to his work while I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s where the emphasis was on the traditional (English) literary canon of Shakespeare and a clutch of usual suspects like Dickens, Austen and Wordsworth. If he had been included on the syllabus it's possible I'd have been as indifferent to his work as I was to literature studies in general: probably a combination of uninspiring teaching and a personal dissatisfaction with school in general.
I didn't actually start to write until around 1988, 10 years after moving away from Wales, and at the time I was completely unaware of any Welsh literary influence on my work.
Between 1994 and 1996 I studied for a Master's degree at the University of Glamorgan in South Wales, working with the Welsh poet, Gillian Clarke, and this was the first time I became aware of "voice": what a poet writes about and how they express it. A lot of Gillian's work has its origins in Welsh landscape and life, but maybe that's to be expected from a writer who lives there. My own voice didn't seem anchored by my birthplace or my history and my early poems avoided, as far as I can remember, any explicit reference to Wales, or my family and personal history. Although "avoided" suggests a conscious rejection and that wasn't the case: I suppose I was more interested in the universal human emotional experience rather than one framed by geography or personal experience.
In more recent years I have written explicitly about Wales, about family and ancestors, about the history of the town where I grew up. In fact, that first began when I started to research and write haiku and haibun. Here were genres that encouraged me to be more plainly spoken and dilute the poetic fireworks that were in danger of becoming an unconscious habit in my poetry. I was overly fond of an extended metaphor! Moving to the South of France in 2007 led me to explore even further the events and ideas of my Welsh childhood in my hungry writer blog; perhaps a case of when I was a way from Wales I could write about Wales, to misquote Hemingway and his "Paris."
But apart from the rhythm of my language choices, that draw on the patterns of my everyday speech—the inflections and intonations, the musical peaks and dips that people tend to identify when they hear Welsh people speak—and these days, the often explicit Welsh subject matter I explore, as a writer I remain more interested in my audience's potential interest and appreciation than in preserving any personal national or cultural identity.
Your literary pursuits are many and diverse. You've published fiction, poetry and non-fiction. You've served as an editor of periodicals and anthologies. I want to survey your career in all of its variety but perhaps an inquiry upon the subject of editing offers a reasonable place to begin. I presume you read for pleasure and know you read as an editor tasked to judge haibun. Can you compare your experience in those two roles?
Reading for pleasure does tend to take a hard knock when we become serious about our own writing. The critical eye we need to develop to improve our own work initially infects all of our reading and can spoil our enjoyment as we snag unconscious repetitions or possible redundancies in a text. I think the trick might be to read work that we aspire too, or a genre that we feel is beyond us. I do like well written crime and detective fiction: stories threaded with tension and well-developed characters. I'm also a fan of writing that reflects economy and precision, although both those qualities can be found in longer works not just in flash fiction, short haibun or poetry. I keep up-to-date with haiku magazines in the UK and the US but I do find it difficult to quiet my Contemporary Haibun Online editorial voice when I read the published haibun. But having said that it's a delight to come across a haibun that shines with originality and skill in another journal's pages. That delight can also be balanced with relief when I'm reading submissions for Contemporary Haibun Online! But that's just par for the course for an editor: there'll always be more rejections than acceptances.
You teach writing, you edit—how do these pursuits affect your own writing? Do you find these related activities a stimulus or an obstacle to your own creativity?
Editing other people's writing definitely makes me a better editor of my own work. It's the practice of separating the writer from the writing that helps develop a critical eye. Before I started teaching, around 2000, I thought, 1) I wouldn't have the patience, and 2) it might keep me away from my own writing. I was wrong on both counts. Because I was passionate about my own (mostly) self-taught writing journey and really wanted to share my discoveries I was a better teacher than I thought I'd be. And because I'm also a very hands-on tutor, writing with students in every group I lead, I often find inspiration alongside them. That and the research involved with preparing seminars: teaching anything requires us to understand our subject matter and the deeper I looked into the practice of other writers, developed exercises to illustrate particular aspects of craft, and located texts I might use as models, the more ideas I had for my own work.
You read many haibun submissions and must have formed some broad generalizations concerning them. What, positive and negative, stands out when you review and consider work for possible acceptance and publication?
I want to be hooked right from the beginning. That might be with a title, or an opening haiku, or the first sentence or two of prose. If the opening of a haibun feels lazy, unconsidered, predictable, or grammatically weak it requires an effort of will for me to read on. And asking an editor to work too hard too soon just irritates her! I also find that too many haibun are straightforward accounts of something that happened, or a detailed description of a scene, with no attention as to what this might mean for a reader. Good writing always means something; it's up to the writer to identify his or her theme and imbue their words with meaning. There's an essay of mine in the April 2015 issue of Contemporary Haibun Online exploring this very topic.
On the positive side I love a creative and effective link between haiku and prose. And just "feeling" that the work is good as I'm reading it: being moved by it, being made to think. After all, as readers we don't need to know why a piece of writing works, we just want to "feel" that it does. It's when we're "reading to write" that we pick apart a text and analyse it. But it's best to keep those two processes entirely separate.
Permit me to quote, from Learning How to Fall, that poem from which your volume takes its title:
She's learning how to fall
off chairs, down flights of stairs
tripping off kerbs
into gutters or tumbling over
first floor windowsills
onto roads, pavements
slithering through tarmac
hardcore, wet clay.
She drops off cliffs
through ivy, fern
glancing off rock
to the glint of the river's skin
clatter of stones, silt.
At night she slips
into dreams—the mouth of a well
a roof's pitch, plunges
from room to room. Now
she only has to master
the sky, fall up
into the spiky overlap of leaves
through three layers of birdsong
over the horseshoe ridge of trees:
leaf, wingless thing
wiped clean by air, the spaces
What interests me here is the somewhat staccato rhythm that is created in part by the omission of conjunctions and punctuation, in part by the lineation that wavers between two contradictory impulses—full stop and enjambment. The poem achieves to a degree what some have called for in haibun—a trim style that pares away conjunctions and other superfluous words, that creates a disjunction that requires a leap between adjacent clauses and sentences analogous to that leap commonly acknowledged between prose and haiku. That being said, these techniques, so far as I can discern, are ones that you've not carried over from your verse to the haibun of forgiving the rain or, for that matter, the prose of Real Port Talbot. Your prose, in fact, is lucid, often light and smooth in its rhythms. But how would you compare this particular poem to the prose style employed in your other books?
I'm interested that you say "staccato" rhythm because, for me, the poem falls quite fluidly down the page. In free verse I often dispense with end of line punctuation and consciously use enjambment to lead the reader on to the next line with no significant pause, apart from natural speech pauses. I am also constantly aware that "the line" is the principal structuring tool of a poem and so confining an image to a line, or stretching one over two or more lines, for clarity or emphasis, or to create tension, hesitation, even ambiguity (to name but a few choices) have all fed into this poem's structure.
I think you're right to recognize that this pared-down, concentrated style doesn't feature greatly in the haibun in forgiving the rain but that's because, I feel, those haibun are mostly narrative based rather than image driven and require the natural expansion of story-telling. I suppose a lot of the haiku I've written, stand alones and those accompanying my haibun, might be closer to the style of this poem, i.e., relying on image to communicate an idea, an emotion. I have written a few haibun closer in style to this poem: "Death, life, life, life, life" in a recent Modern Haiku (46.1, Spring 2015) comes to mind. And now that I feel I have exorcised any over-powering free verse tendencies I imagine there will be a few more. But this is all to do with the relationship between content and form, of course. Each haibun asks me to consider its structure and style in light of what it's about.
Real Port Talbot is a very different animal. It's a one pot dish that blends historical research, contemporary journalistic commentary, memoir and poetry. My principal aim for the book was that it should be an entertaining and informative read (I'm borrowing here from Walt Disney's "Edutainment") so the prose style had to be relaxed, informal and upbeat. I don't think anyone (including my editor) would have been happy with pared-down disjunction over the course of over 200 pages!
I framed "Falling" within the context of haibun aesthetics in my previous question. Good verse, in fairness, does not require prose for context and resists paraphrase. Let me cite a last poem from Learning How to Fall:
They rise from the shore,
a litter of birds blowing left and right
and settle again as we walk by—
gulls, sandpipers, terns, all facing south,
some with heads bent against their wings,
others staring straight at the sun.
And it's the same when we return—
the outfielders' warning,
a cloak of feather and cry above our heads
and the airborne confusion over
so quick, it seems their past
is un-travelled, the future eclipsed.
The undefined "we" of this poem are intimates—friends or lovers—and the narrator sees in the birds that they pass some image of this couple and what they experience. The poem alludes to past or future travels but the skillful ambiguity allows the reader to interpret this movement as belonging to the couple or the birds. I won't ask you to provide a dry exegesis but I'd be interested in your observations about the genesis and significance of "Facing South."
The notes to "Facing South" were written during a holiday on South Florida's Atlantic coast. On daily walks I was struck by the birds' position and, what I interpreted as, attention and their ability to respond to the moment, rather than events of the past, or an imagined future. It's a quality I try (with greater and less success) to aspire too—living in the moment—and I'm sure it's one that other people can relate to as well. I was with my husband so the "we" is literal, but I also wanted it to suggest a universal "we"—me in company of readers and the wider world.
Let us shift our focus briefly and discuss Real Port Talbot, a lively blend of local history, travel guide and memoir. Much of the writing is strictly expository as in this example from your description of the town's imposing steelworks:
There are unavoidable noise and pollution problems with an industry that covers 20 square kilometres working 24/7. It's true that the works produces half the CO2 it used to, but the general problem that has bugged people living around here is kish, small black particles released into the air from the iron making process. Imagine ground up graphite smeared across your clean laundry and you'll get the idea.
And this is what we'd expect of a handbook of this kind. However, something else happens in Real Port Talbot. To discuss it requires another excerpt:
The Treachery of Fields
That summer we turned eleven,
the shadow of school behind us,
we caught the bus to the last stop,
walked up through the new estate
past the unfinished houses to picnic
in a field at the top of the hill. We felt
the heat rise and stretch into the day.
Then the boys came crashing through
a low hedge and cornered us like dogs
chasing sheep. Trespassers, they said,
herding us into the farmer's yard.
One boy laughed and wiped his mouth.
The farmer's hands buckled in his pockets.
Shall I put them in with the bull then?
The boys cheered and we cried until
he let us go, still crying as we ran,
our feet pummelling splintered shadows
on the lane, not daring to look back.
I didn't realise this was the place until I got out of the car and recognised the stone barn and the gate leading into a farmyard. I'm a little surprised at the clarity of the memory after 43 years and I still don't understand why a grown man would choose to frighten three little girls like that.
This is Blaen Baglan Farm on the Bwlch Road just outside Baglan on the way to Cwmafan. The house is tucked behind the barns, out of sight from the road, but there's a public footpath through a latched metal gate that takes you right past it and up to the top of Mynydd Dinas. But you will stop here. You won't be able to help yourself.
There is beauty in certain types of brokenness. It's what Japanese poets call wabi-sabi: the kind of beauty that seems to be on the edge of defeat. Blaen Baglan has been on the edge of defeat for so long you feel like whispering, fearful that a raised voice might result in the whole structure—stone, slate and the remaining roof trusses—collapsing into a pile of dust. If it wasn't Grade II listed it's likely that bulldozers would have achieved that long ago.
That's a long extract and a long preface to my question. I wanted to provide the reader unacquainted with the book further evidence, however, of its varying spirit, to contrast this vivid childhood memory of a pastoral setting with the direct exposition on the industrial site sampled above. Here, and elsewhere in your book, verses are introduced. Sometimes we find free verse, as in this instance, joined to the prose and elsewhere we find haiku. What inspired you to insert verses in Real Port Talbot? And how, in your view, does the introduction of verses in a travel guide compare, say, to the mixture of prose and haiku in your haibun?
Ah, this is the easiest question to answer! It was all part of the publisher's brief and the expectations for the Real series of books that cover principal towns and cities in Wales. The Real books are all commissioned from novelists and poets, rather than historians and academics, and I was expected to write "an upbeat and offbeat" account of the town and its surrounding areas and to include my own memories as well as any appropriate poems or prose. Elsewhere in the book there's an excerpt from "Family Interrupted," a haibun that appears in forgiving the rain. I suppose that the overall effect of the book is haibunesque in that it draws on a collage of genres (plus the photographic images I provided) to create a rather more comprehensive and unique product than a run-of-the-mill guide book. And while in the first couple of months of research I felt quite overwhelmed by the project, its length (70,000 words) and its eclectic reach, over the ensuing year I found it liberating and exciting; here was an opportunity to consolidate all of my writing experience into a single manuscript.
How do we define haiku prose? And does the mere presence of haiku in a prose setting qualify the whole as haibun? These questions arise often in discussions of haibun. I might point, for example, to my little essay, "Thinking It Through or A Few Innocent Questions," or to the recent argument of Rich Youmans in "Can a Haibun Live Without Its Haiku?" With those points in mind, what would you say of your prose here? Does it differ from that of your haibun? And where, in Real Port Talbot, verse and prose wed, do you consider that haibun?
While I mentioned "haibunesque" above I feel that Real Port Talbot, as a whole, is generally too information-heavy to be considered as one long haibun. There are parts of it that go some way to meeting my expectations of haibun, e.g., there's a haiku set into the prose description of a redundant reservoir on Forestry land, how the landscape holds memories of its industrial past with a cycle path built along an old railway, and how names of manmade environments echo the natural world, but this, and other small sections, don't stand alone as haibun for me. They require the information that has gone before for their meaning to be fully appreciated. And as I mentioned earlier, haibun prose needs to be imbued with its own meaning. But as I'm writing this I'm beginning to doubt myself! Perhaps Real Port Talbot is one long haibun "Jim, but not as we know it!"
You (or was it your publisher?) described Real Port Talbot as a psychogeography. That designation invokes Lettrism and the Situationist International, Ivan Chtcheglov's "Formulary for a New Urbanism" (1953) and Guy Debord's "Theory of the Dérive" (1958). While there is some "drift," a la Debord, in your rambles about Port Talbot, there's little evidence in your work of the political dimensions and anarchist tendencies of the Lettrists and Situationists. How would you define your psychogeography then? Does it entail a certain outlook and working method, social or aesthetic?
Psychogeography is the publisher's shout for the Real series. I agree that there's no real comparison between Real Port Talbot with the "flaneur-ism" we expect from French psychogeographers, or even from the Welsh born writer, Iain Sinclair, whose psychogeographical writing is far more literary than any of the Real books I've read. But the Real books are psycho-geographical in that they represent a particular place experienced through the eyes, intellect and memory of a particular writer. I've often said in talks that Real Port Talbot could be a very different book in the hands of another writer from the town: their preoccupations, priorities and interests could be very different to mine. I also walked along and over every street, road, field, mountain and slab of waste-ground described in the book and tried, for the most part, to let the landscape dictate what I would write. The activities of walking, discovery and reflection preceded any research. This way of working was a sharp learning curve for me. I'm not a natural extrovert or adventurer: I tend to keep to myself and play by the rules. So time and again I had to give myself a good talking to—"go and speak to that person," "yes, it is worth clambering up those derelict steps to see what's at the top"—and, most importantly, remind myself to question everything I thought I believed and knew about the town. It was a journey of illumination on both public and personal levels. So I am happy to call it psychogeography.
In forgiving the rain, you include some longer haibun whose discrete sections are joined mainly by techniques of association. "Three Houses" and the excerpt from your "Antibes Journal" are ambitious examples. Some years back, in private correspondence with you, I speculated that "Antibes Journal" bore some resemblance to the genre of zuihitsu, to Sei Shōnagon's Pillow Book in particular, and you seemed to acknowledge that possible influence. There's nothing derivative in these two haibun, however, so questions of influence, while interesting, are of marginal import. Tell me something, if you will, of the genesis of these haibun and of how you perceive their structure.
"Three Houses" is made up of three sections of prose framed by an opening and closing haiku, each section an account of a house where my maternal grandmother lived during her life. I wanted to write about her honestly but I really knew very little about her life. Writing about the houses was a way for me to illustrate her life without being presumptuous. I suppose it's a show-not-tell approach but aiming for the concrete detail to suggest much more than itself.
I would have liked "Antibes Journal" to have been much longer than it ended up being. I was living in France, renovating a four story house built around the beginning of the 20th century. It was an astonishingly challenging and illuminating time for cultural and practical reasons and I wrote down my thoughts and insights as and when I remembered to . . . . If I'd managed to do it for the whole of the four years I was there I'd probably have a novel-length journal! The collage structure of "Antibes Journal" seems to honestly reflect life at the time—glimpses, thoughts, memories, list-making, practical tasks. I don't think it could have been any different.
With your permission, let me quote "Wavelengths" from forgiving the rain:
I hear his voice, my name, in the lane through the open kitchen window, asking a neighbour which house is mine. "She used to have the bookshop in West Malling," he's saying. When I open the door he looks more or less the same as he did seven years ago: not so many teeth but the same beard and tweed hat, the same waterproof jacket with a reflective stripe, his trouser pockets bulging like panniers with all the strange bits and pieces he collects on his wanderings, and the usual two Tesco carrier bags so he constantly looks as if he's heading to, or returning from, the supermarket. He has a belated Christmas card for me, he says, has been waiting until he was in these parts. Today's the first of August. I wish I could remember his name.
He tells me how nice it is to see me again, how people still miss my bookshop. He reminds me I had four rooms filled with books, well, four if he includes the room where the staff took their break. And did I ever buy a John Bull printing set? "Well, goodbye," he says abruptly, raising an arm almost in salute.
With very best Wishes, from, Clive Hill. CHRISTMASTIME: 2006. OFFHAM, KENT, he's written, with obsessive attention to punctuation, on one side of the card. On the opposite side there's an account of CB Radio: 25th ANNIVERSARY, 2nd Nov. 1981 – 2006, the UK and European bands, the number of channels, the wattage.
Early that evening, I'm driving home through the narrow lanes and see him ahead of me at a bend, still clutching his carrier bags. He steps back onto the verge, looks to his left for approaching traffic then energetically waves me on. I wave back and smile but he stares at me as if he has never seen me before.
the hedge full of ripe
and unripe blackberries
I've long admired this haibun. It's fairly representative of your style and of the autobiographical subject matter you often pursue. Your narrator cannot recall the name of her eccentric guest and later, upon crossing paths with him again, the guest does not recognize the narrator. Tell me something more about these odd encounters, these static-disrupted conversations.
In my early prose and poetry writing, before I published my first book in 2004, I often found myself writing about characters who had difficulty expressing themselves, what they felt and thought. There's a short story of mine—"Open or Wrapped" on East of the Web—that'll illustrate what I mean. Maybe these early explorations were about my own challenges with personal expression; after all I came to writing quite late in life.
I'm pleased to hear you like this haibun; it's probably one of my most unresolved ones. It doesn't offer any answers. But life is like that, probably more than it makes any logical sense. Was it Arthur Koestler who said something like, "True understanding comes from transcending the barrier of paradox?" This haibun feels like an attempt to do that.
Can I invite you now to quote a haibun of your choice from forgiving the rain and to offer your explanation of the significance this work has for you?
I'm going to choose "Drawing" for a couple of reasons. It's the penultimate haibun in the book and in both my poetry collections I've always worked towards an ordering that suggests possible future directions.
18˝ by 16˝, felt-tip pen on coloured paper, by Ffion Richards, age 4
There is a red house with orange windows and a pink door. There is a black cat whose feet have slipped off the bottom of the page. There is a tree sprouting flowers, petals pushing against the paper's edge, a lavender sky with a sun and a crescent moon. And floating above the roof of the house, two stick people, holding hands, unwilling to come down to earth and decide whether the sun is about to set, or if the moon will make way for dawn, or whether the cat is trying to escape or climb into the picture and run towards a door that could be closed, or might be on the point of opening.
all the times
I have been wrong
"Drawing" relies on the power of the concrete image to suggest and imply and has no overt narrative—and I like the challenge of that. The minimalism. How to make readers feel and think without exposition or scene setting. And I'm particularly fond of the haiku because a young writer in Wales, who's also a Burlesque performer, has it tattooed on her bicep. She said it spoke loudly to her and she wanted to keep it with her. I think that has to be one of the greatest compliments a writer can have!
Also, I have an affinity with children between the ages of about 3 and 10—so this feels like a celebration of a shared existence, a shared understanding.
There are many venues, online and in-print, that support writers of haiku and tanka but there are only two periodicals, Haibun Today and Contemporary Haibun Online, dedicated solely to haibun. That's been the case for nearly a decade with the solitary exception of my short-lived venture Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose in 2009. I'm tempted at times to see the lack of initiative from other quarters, the lack of start-ups on the haibun scene, as symptomatic of the genre's stagnation. At the same time, over ten years, I've witnessed growth in the number of practitioners of haibun. But what would you say about haibun today and about its prospects for tomorrow?
There seems to be more of a critical debate about haibun going on in the US than in the UK. Or maybe it's just that there's more because there are more people talking about it and writing it. That critical debate is necessary for haibun to be considered seriously as a genre in the wider literary world and both Haibun Today and Contemporary Haibun Online are promoting that debate. But are more specialist haibun journals the way forward? I'm not sure. Would it be better for haibun to be published in general literary journals alongside other poetic works and memoir? Is the genre less important than an appreciation by readers and literary critics? Perhaps it's up to haibun practitioners to make that happen.
Every party comes to an end. Before we close the door, let me thank you for this insightful dialogue and let me venture one final question. You stay busy and productive. Please share with our readers your future publishing plans and, if possible, situate these projects within the context of your varied writing interests.
I'm continuing as co-editor of Contemporary Haibun Online. Bob Lucky and Ray Rasmussen are delightful editorial companions. And now that the publicity trail following Real Port Talbot has quietened I'm getting back to writing more haibun and penning a few critical pieces on haiku writing too.
On the book front The Hungry Writer: Eat, Live, Write will be published in October 2015 by Cultured Llama, a dynamic indie publisher in the South East of England. It's a simmered reduction of the hungry writer blog where food, life and words have been colliding for nearly five years. It's aimed at apprentice and practicing writers and will include stories, reflections and poems and 365 spontaneous writing prompts. While food has been the umbrella theme for my weekly blogposts the writing prompts are open enough to allow for the opening of a myriad other doors into life-writing. I'll also be including some advice on running self-tutored writing groups and workshops. And as I'm in the middle of MSS preparation I'm currently toying on some full page images accompanied by food or drink haiku. We'll see.
But the project I am keen to get on with takes me back to the enjoyment I experienced in researching and writing Real Port Talbot and, hopefully, will result in another "collage." This time the genres will be principally history, biography and fiction (although I can see a few haiku sneaking their way in as well) as I plot the lives (real and imagined) and times of my Welsh great-grandmothers between 1750 and 1950. I'm reluctant to say too much more as it's still very embryonic and amorphous in my head and I don't want to dilute the quiet energy it possesses. It's a long term project, years in the making I imagine. And I wouldn't be attempting it if not for the hungry writer blog where I discovered the voice I needed to write about family. And it was the blog posts from the first year that gave me most of the haibun that appeared in forgiving the rain. Which, in turn contributed to the confidence to write Real Port Talbot where I learned to trust in my ability to disseminate and communicate the past. My writing life is full of links and shifts it seems. Just like a haibun.