Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Reflections on Writing, Editing and the Status of Haibun:
An Interview with Bob Lucky
Bob Lucky is a Co-Editor of Contemporary Haibun Online. He contributes regularly to haiku and tanka journals in the US, Europe, and Australia. His fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in numerous international journals including Flash, Rattle, Modern Haiku, KYSO Flash, The Prose-Poem Project, The Boston Literary Magazine, Haibun Today and Contemporary Haibun Online. His work has been widely anthologized. His recently published chapbook, Ethiopian Time, is a collection of haibun, tanka prose and prose poems related to his experiences in Ethiopia. He currently lives and works in Saudi Arabia.
Bob, your publications include haiku, tanka, haibun and its close cousin, tanka prose, and you've also had prose poetry, flash fiction and free verse published. Take us back to the starting point of your writing journey. What prompted you into haiku genres, particularly haibun and tanka prose? Did your interest in poetry start early in life or come later with your excursion into the haiku and other genres?
I wrote my first haiku in the 4th grade. That’s the first thing I remember writing, probably because my teacher and one of my grandmothers really liked haiku. As a teenager I kept journals and stuffed them full of poetry and the occasional story. For several years, in high school and in college, I kept haiku journals as well. Last summer, before moving from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia, I burned almost all of those early journals. They were too painful to read. Most of poems, in one way or another, were either about god or sex. A bit predictable. The burning was just last May and June, when the evenings were cooling off in Addis. It’s sad to think I spent a good part of my life schlepping boxes of that drivel from place to place.
Having done something similar, I can understand your impulse to destroy your early work. So after the book burning, when did you start what you’d call your serious writing in the haiku genres and what led to it? Were you at the same time doing serious writing in the other short form genres?
The serious writing, if you can call it that, was always there. The courage to send it out to publications, however, took awhile. I published a few poems in the college literary journal, as a student, and a few more here and there over the years. In the late 1980s, I did a few travel pieces for airline magazines. In the 1990s, I tried my hand at essays and short stories, and then in the latter half of the 1990s, I settled down to food writing. I published and edited and wrote most of a quarterly newsletter called The Asian Foodbookery. I’d finally found a use for my MA in cultural anthropology. It was about five years of book reviewing, recipe testing, and eating well. I met some interesting people and made some good friends, but the food world was changing fast and I got bored with celebrity. Not mine, I had none, but the whole chef celebrity aspect and cooking as a competition was depressing. I threw in the apron, so to speak, and my wife and I sold everything, took our nine-year-old son out of school and we traveled for a year and a half. That cleared my mind and our bank account.
I published a couple of haiku, at least one, in Brussels Sprout, while I was living in Seattle. I didn’t start to regularly publish haiku, tanka and haibun until about 2007, when I was living in Chiang Mai. I’m not sure what motivated me to start submitting poetry on a regular basis. It was probably what inspired me to write after that first haiku in 4th grade—someone said something nice, and pointed out ways I could improve. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone, but I’m indebted to Francine Porad, Ferris Gilli, and Jim Kacian for spending time with my early submissions, and Jeffrey Woodward for encouraging my foray into tanka prose. I regret I never met Francine Porad in person. We talked on the phone several times, from opposite shores of Lake Washington.
Your book, Ethiopian Time, is about your four years in Ethiopia. You’re now living in Saudi Arabia and you’ve lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand. You also travel extensively. And you have an MA in cultural anthropology. Knowing this, the depth of your observations about Ethiopia makes it one of the better books about traveling and living in a foreign country that I’ve read. How do you see your degree and travel in terms of its influence on your writing?
Even before I traveled I was obsessed with it. When I was twelve years old I got my hands on a globe and wrote an imaginary travel journal. I had no sense of geography or the limits of train and air travel so it reads like Superman on holiday—Kenyan safari in the morning, lunch in the shadow of the Taj Mahal. That sort of thing. I don’t think I burned that journal.
It’s good that I like travel because I fell into a job, international education, and a lifestyle that allows me to indulge myself. Some of it is work, but I even enjoy work-related travel. To be honest, the older I get the less I like the journey. Flying has become a chore. I’m sure I’ll see coin-operated toilets on airplanes in my lifetime, which, as I get older, may add considerably to the cost of a flight. However, I still get a thrill from being elsewhere, from being an other among Others. I suppose it’s the anthropologist in me, the professional stranger.
And did you find haibun and its closely related short forms to be particularly suited to expressing your experiences and cultural knowledge base?
I’ve read Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North many times over the years and I’m sure it’s the haibun’s function as travel journal that first drew me to the form. And because I’ve lived abroad so much of my adult life, I suppose a lot of my haibun read like ‘travel’ pieces although I was just writing about ‘home’ at the time. I’m not in anthropologist mode trying to explain another culture, I’m just a human grappling with different ways of being human. But in the end, I suppose they are travel essays of a sort. Not exactly a Peter Mayle's memoir of life abroad, but related.
I think I’ve skirted your basic question, so let me say that short forms – haibun, prose poems, flash fiction, etc.—are less suited to expressing my experiences than they are suited to the limits of my patience and attention span. I used to write voluminous, rambling journals when I traveled. Now I return home with a few pages of scraps, prose fragments, haiku, squiggled maps, and addresses of restaurants. I have to work with what I’ve got.
You’ve said your work in Ethiopian Time is related to Peter Mayle's A Year in Province, which suggests to me that you don’t see it quite as the same. I think that haibun and prose poetry offer something different than Mayle's type of travel writing. How do you see it? Is there a difference?
Well, I imagine more than a 100 people have read A Year in Provence. Mayles may have even made some money on his book. Memoirs of moving abroad are a sub-genre of travel writing. The old-stone-house dream (or olive orchard/vineyard) is a sub-sub genre. I love literary travel writing, but not so much the memoir branch. I’ve never finished a Mayle's book. The ones I can remember enjoying are Eric Newby’s A Small Place in Italy, Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House, and Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons.
There isn't a narrative thread in Ethiopian Time. In the parlance of Japanese short-form poets in English, it’s a string rather than a sequence. I did try to arrange the haibun, tanka prose, and prose poems in a seasonal order, but the pieces all cover a four-year residence in Addis.
I would hope the reader sees a bit of him or herself in Ethiopian Time. It’s a familiar story. The narrator has a wife, a child in university, a house, a car, a job, and a dog. But it’s got some twists. People eat raw beef and get parasites, traffic jams include flocks of sheep and donkey caravans, the electricity in the house is grounded through the water pipe, people steal your car mirror to sell it back to you, occasionally there are hyenas outside your gate (though I don’t think there’s a haibun about that in the book), and the trees in your yard are filled with chattering mousebirds. Same same, as they say in Thailand, but different.
After a decade of successful publication of your work, you’ve recently stepped into the role of editor of our oldest and one of the most important journals devoted to haibun, Contemporary Haibun Online. You and co-editor Lynne Rees have taken over from three highly regarded haibun poets, Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross and Ken Jones. Many writers hesitate to take a turn at editing because they know that it will take time away from their own writing. What motivated you at this point in your writing career to take on this responsibility?
I can’t remember when I said yes, but it was certainly before I got tangled up in the move from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia. Probably fall of 2013. I was playing in a band in Addis, The Urban Hyenas, and having fun writing songs. I’m one of those people who has to write or otherwise I get anxious and despondent, an unpleasant combination. Song writing was keeping me busy and I reached a point where I couldn’t produce enough quality material fast enough to keep up with the deadlines of the new crop of good haiku and tanka journals, so I stopped trying and it felt like I had a lot of free time.
I had been asked to join other journals before this but I was afraid of it taking away from writing and always declined the offers. Also, after editing "25 Tanka Prose" for M Kei at Atlas Poetica, I knew how hard it was. After that I swore I would never do any editing again. And then I got an email from Jim Kacian asking to have a Skype call. I just assumed it was about something at the Haiku Foundation, so he caught me off guard when he asked me if I would be interested in putting together a new editing team for CHO. Yes, that’s why I said yes. I was caught off guard.
I do consider it an honor to have been asked, and I feel I have a responsibility to keep CHO going. In the haibun world it’s an institution.
In the January issue of CHO, you wrote:
This editing business is not intuitive, and rejecting work is painful because, and I've been at the receiving end of more rejections than acceptances, I know that it's hard for a writer not to take it personally.
But now, at the editor-end of the process, I do see that rejection isn't personal. It may be fickle, unfathomable, confounding and depressing, but it isn't personal.
I have also come to believe, as an editor, that if there is a heaven, a special table near the fireplace is reserved for contributors who read the submission guidelines.
Now that you've been at it for several issues, how has the first part of the editing journey been for you? What are the ups and downs, so to speak? What would you add to what you've written above?
When I first started at CHO I had to assemble a team. I knew from the beginning that I wanted CHO to have a female editor. I wound up with two—Marjorie Buettner and Lynne Rees. Marjorie has since 'retired' to work on her personal projects. The time commitment is always a factor when one is volunteering. It has certainly been a little more time consuming than I thought it would be. Lynne Rees and I deal with content and we're in a routine, a pattern that works. It helps that we tend to agree on what a good haibun is. Occasionally she'll say yes to something I said no to, but I respect her judgment and the piece is accepted. And sometimes I'll take pieces she has rejected, but by and large, we pick the same ones in our partially blind selection system.
Since you began having your work published a decade ago, what changes, if any, do you see in the styles of writing and in the journals and editors.
It's an exciting time to be in the haibun world. The traditional definition of haibun is being stretched, which I think is a good thing. Fictional haibun has got a foot in the door and a little air is getting in. And the new journal KYSO Flash is publishing haibun and tanka prose and actually paying writers. This is a significant step up for haibun writers. In the best of all possible worlds, this will raise the bar across the entire haibun-writing community. Of course, I do worry that writers will save their best for the paying venue, but who wouldn't?
I think the biggest change in haibun, say in the last decade, has been in the prose. Writers have always experimented, with varying degrees of success, with swapping out the prose with free verse or form poetry, of mixing the haiku up, or replacing it with, tanka, free verse, etc. But it seems what was holding writers back was the prose. So about as purist as I get is haibun needs a haiku and tanka prose needs a tanka.
I began writing haibun with very narrative prose sections, often travel pieces. I was on Basho's trail going down that road. But it gets old and clichéd at times. Now we have fictional haibun that is following in the footsteps of flash fiction in that writers are attempting genre haibun. Science fiction springs to mind. Haibunists are ahead of the game in some ways. Rose Metal Press recently came out with a collection of novellas-in-flash. Haibun writers have been writing memoirs for sometime. My fellow editor Lynne Rees's forgiving the rain is an excellent example. It won't be long before someone writes a novella-in-haibun.
You now read many haibun submissions and must have formed some broad opinions concerning them as you consider them for possible acceptance. What stands out for you at this point?
This is no time to mince words. Approximately half of the submissions we receive are poorly crafted. Many read like first drafts. I suspect some were composed in the body of the email submission. Some contributors are unfamiliar with haiku in general, so the relationship between haiku and prose is often lost on them. Not everything we write will be good. Most of it will be mediocre at best. Most writers need to spend a little more time with their haibun before submitting. On the upside, one of my greatest pleasures is to read a submission that makes me want to stand up and shout YES. Many haibun writers know their craft. Some writers new to the form quickly make it their own. That's exciting.
In your work as editor, do you sometimes offer suggestions and invite resubmissions? If so, tell us about your experience with this process. How hands on should an editor be? How does one go about offering suggestions?
I'm obviously in debt to the former editors of CHO—Jim Kacian, Ken Jones, and Bruce Ross. And Jeffrey Woodward of Haibun Today has also been a big influence on me. I was fortunate to get feedback from Kacian when I first began submitting to CHO. Woodward invited me into the tanka prose world very early on and gave invaluable feedback. Lynne and I are emulating this in some respects. Almost every piece we accept at CHO now is a result of our commenting on and making suggestions for changes. Writers have been grateful for the most part. Every suggestion is given in the spirit of making the haibun better literature. Who doesn't want to publish a good piece? I doubt I'm alone in reading some of my published work and wondering why oh why did I ever submit that? Very few editors and journals have the time to make suggestions and give feedback. When one does, I pay attention. And I always learn something. Of course, as in a workshop, the advice you receive often isn't helpful, but it should make you think about your piece. Writers do occasionally reject our suggestions, and in most cases we defer to the author.
As an editor and reader, do you perceive any national or regional distinctions among writers of haibun? Compare or contrast, if you will, the haibun coming from the UK, North America, Australia or India, elsewhere.
Content, of course. Cultures vary. Australian and Indian haibun seem to be distinctive in this regard. Different flora and fauna. Distinct collocations and idioms.
Because of my academic background and my experiences in South Asia, I'm fond of varieties of South Asian Englishes, and I often get culture references that some European and North American readers might miss. However, there are some things that just won't fly by any editor. I recently wrote a colleague in India and asked what was going on in the grammatical world of Indian English. Some contributors have given up the period or full stop in favor of ellipses. Commas, apparently not up to the task, have been replaced by semi-colons. At the moment, hopefully a brief one, that is part of the South Asian style.
You've published in many of our haibun journals and of course sampled the writing in them. How do you see the present stage of haibun in English? Do we have enough journals, enough writers, enough variety in editors, enough variation in style and content? What do you see as the future of haibun in English?
I may have touched on this in answer to a previous question. I'm not sure there are currently enough haibun or tanka prose writers to sustain another journal dedicated to those forms. The question for me concerns if and when haibun as we know it becomes a more or less mainstream form of hybrid poetry. There are many examples of hybrid poems referred to as haibun but which we would not accept as haibun; prose plus a bit of short verse mixed in seems a bit vague, but it is a workable definition. Rose Metal Press is coming out with an anthology of hybrid forms; from what I've read, haibun is not among them. I'm no prognosticator, nor am I a gambler, but my guess is that haibun and haibun-like forms will make a greater showing in hybrid poetry venues and so-called traditional haibun will carry on much as it has but with greater variety in the prose component. It would be nice if poets felt comfortable and competent enough to write for and publish in both arenas. Why not? Poets can publish traditional sonnets and sonnets that send meter and rhyme for a hike.
What about definitions of the two cousins: haibun and tanka prose. Are they presently sufficiently defined so as to be able to differentiate them from each other beyond saying that 'one has one or more haiku, the other one or more tanka (and possibly haiku)? And are they sufficiently differentiated from other short forms: prose poetry and short fiction?
This is a question for Jeffrey Woodward. It's not hard to distinguish between a haibun and tanka prose, or between a haiku and a tanka. (It's not like you'll find a grey area as you do between haiku and senryu.) But the histories and the aesthetics are different. In the last year I've been writing many fewer tanka than haiku and many fewer tanka prose than haibun. I can't say why. I also write prose poetry and flash fiction. Many of the prose poems I write end up as haibun because I feel that a haiku adds something relevant to them. The last tanka prose piece I published was "Working with Ghosts" in Rattle 47, and I'm not sure that would have been accepted at the usual tanka prose venues. So, no, some of these distinctions aren't very clear to me at this point.
At this point, I'd like you to offer a haibun of your choice, published or not, from your book or not, and tell us about it. What prompted the piece? What significance does it hold for you in your body of work?
This is an almost impossible question for me to answer. I'm one of those writers who, once something is published, forgets it. I want to write something good, and I want to publish it. Once it's published, I move on to try to write something else good. I remember an interview with Jonathan Raban, in which he said he didn't have a copy of one of his books in his house. I'm not quite like that, but close.
I'll talk briefly about "Always the Last to Know" recently published in Haibun Today (March 2015). I don't think authors should explain what their pieces are about, but this piece is a jumping off point. It's about the end of a relationship that doesn't end. It's entirely fictional. The most important decision I had to make was POV. Early drafts were in third person and past tense, but in the end the haibunist in me was drawn to the first person. I managed to keep the past tense, but not before trying it out in present tense. (I love revising.). It's possible, depending on where I might have submitted it, that the prose block could have been published as a prose poem or as a flash fiction piece.
Always the Last to Know
Last night I woke up and my wife and I were in a plane obviously going nowhere anyone else wanted to go because it was so empty we had an entire aisle to ourselves. She had a window seat on one side and I had the aisle seat on the other side. Suddenly the plane veered off to the left and began a steep decline. At first we just looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders because god knows the sky is full of air pockets, but then the plane picked up speed and began to whine just like in those movies before someone bursts into the cockpit to level it out and save everyone, but no one came to the rescue and my wife and I looked at each other again and she rolled her eyes as if to say wouldn’t you know it would end like this. We reached out and were just able to touch fingers and I told her I loved her but she couldn’t hear me because I couldn’t even hear myself for all the screaming and the sound of twisting metal, and that’s when the plane went into a nose dive. I closed my eyes and when I opened them we were on the ground looking up at a plane falling from the sky, realizing at the same time that it was pointed straight at us, so we jumped on a tandem bicycle and began pedaling as fast as we could, looking up to see if we were going in the right direction, but that damn plane had eyes like the Mona Lisa, followed us everywhere. We came to a roundabout and went around it six times, cursing and shaking our fists at the sky because all the cars kept honking at us. Let’s go home, I said. Later we watched the plane crash into our house on the evening news.
every year forgetting
what happens next
I think I'll probably write more fictional haibun in the future, but it almost has to be a conscious decision to break away from the memoir/travelogue/nature writing of contemporary haibun.
Autobiographical writing has its limits. Every piece in Ethiopian Time is rooted in a specific experience. My wife read it and could pinpoint the genesis of just about every piece. "Always the Last to Know" started as a riff on a dream I had that was probably the result of reading the news about some spectacular plane crash. My wife read it and never once thought I was asking for a divorce.
I know that you have a very busy life with teaching, editing, writing and, yeah, being a musician/songster with your ukes. So I want to thank you for taking the time to tell us about your writing, editing and observations about haibun. And particularly for putting up your first haibun collection, Ethiopian Time, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I do hope that future collections will soon be forthcoming.
Thanks for putting up with me in this interview process, Ray. It has reminded me of Jacques Derrida's notion of différance and certain theories about culture going around when I was in graduate school studying anthropology. Briefly, culture was/is something constructed in conversations with an Other. I have to say that this interview has almost made me come up with an aesthetic for my writing. You made me articulate, sometimes inarticulately, what I think I'm doing. And in the process, you made me realize how I often don't have a clue what I'm doing. Thank you for that, I think!
Bob Lucky's Ethiopian Time: Haibun and Tanka Prose Poem Collection can be purchased at Red Bird Chapbooks.
On Bob Lucky's Ethiopian Time: A Review by Lynne Rees, Haibun Today, 9:2 June 2015.
"Ethiopian Time: A Review by Ray Rasmussen," A Hundred Gourds 4:2 March 2015.