Bruce Ross on Haibun
Interviewed by Jeffrey Woodward
Bruce Ross, a past president of the Haiku Society of America, edited Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku (1993) and Journey to the Interior, American Versions of Haibun (1998). He is the author of the popular manual How to Haiku, A Writer's Guide to Haiku and Related Forms (2001) and has published four collections of original haiku: thousands of wet stones (1988), among floating duckweed (1994), Silence: Collected Haiku (1997) and summer drizzles: haiku and haibun (2005).
JW: Most writers of haibun come to the discipline from other creative writing backgrounds – free verse, short story, what have you. You are well-known for your haiku, of course, but did you practice other literary forms before adopting the way of haiku and haibun?
BR: My father, born on Cape Breton Island, recited Longfellow and other poets to me and gave me anthologies of world poetry and a volume of Whitman when I was in public school. Later in this period I spontaneously wrote nature lyrics. Usually I carried one or another volume of poetry with me, also. I was attracted to the Romantic poets and later the Beats and the poetry they were reading and writing, including haiku. Paul Reps’s poetry with drawing and the writings of Hakuin made strong early impressions. In high school I was placed in a college-level creative writing course where I submitted what I now understand as a haiga. I was criticized for including a drawing with my poem. More or less I have been writing poetry and drawing consistently from that early period.
JW: Tell me, if you will, what first led to your interest and involvement in haibun. And, on that score, do you recall your first effort in the genre and the circumstances surrounding the writing of it?
BR: I knew of haibun during my college years from Earl Miner’s Japanese Poetic Diaries but was attracted to the spirit of the form through travel fiction and films in that vein. My first published haibun (and perhaps my first serious attempt at haibun) was “Aglow,” published in Modern Haiku in 1994. I vaguely remember desiring to place haiku in a prose narrative to best describe the heightened experience I had had.
JW: Do you find certain settings or a specific time of day conducive to your writing of haibun? If you have a standard working method, might you be so kind as to share it with our readers?
BR: Not really. Again, I am especially attracted to travel, and many of my haibun result from such activity. I normally collect my haiku in journals. In certain circumstances I know my haiku will be part of a haibun. In fact I often earmark certain haiku as potential haibun and include notes and drawings composed during or soon after the given experience. I do find myself more and more over the last years forcing myself to sit down and compose the proposed haibun.
JW: What, in your view, is the ideal relation of prose to verse in haibun – closely or distantly related? Do you conceive of these two modes of composition as equal partners or do you view either mode, prose or verse, as more crucial to haibun’s success?
BR: It depends on the given haibun. There is no hard and fast rule. Haibun have different moods and the kind of aesthetic linking of prose and poetry is dependant on that mood, what I call “flow of sensibility.” Aside from that “flow” I value “privileging the link,” the subtlety of the link, in haibun. So the value of haibun for me is “flow of sensibility” and “privileging the link.” This would preclude one or the other from being more important, though from haibun to haibun one often takes precedence.
JW: Because mastery of this genre requires of a writer the skill to compose accomplished prose and verse, haibun raises the bar considerably for would-be practitioners. Many excellent haiku poets do not write acceptable prose and many excellent prose writers have little ability in the writing of haiku. Your practical experience over many years as an educator, editor and writer of haiku and haibun places you in a unique position to offer practical advice to the young writer who wishes to adopt the medium. How can the novice acquire proficiency in both modes and what is the most direct route, in your opinion, to learning how to delicately balance prose and verse?
BR: Read the best haiku and haibun, including the Japanese masters, would be first. Cultivate your sensibility would be next. Look to experiencing/writing haiku epiphanies and haibun narratives of epiphanies. Why not aim high! My How to Haiku might also help.
JW: Your book, Journey to the Interior (1998), remains to this day the most readily available anthology in the genre. That is a testimony to your editorial abilities, certainly, and yet so much has happened in haibun in the past ten years. One might almost say: everything has happened…. Were you to edit today a second and updated anthology, how do you imagine such a compilation might differ in form and emphasis from Journey?
BR: Probably I’d include more selections from fewer, but outstanding practitioners of the form.
JW: Haibun is an international phenomenon, though reportedly rarely, if ever, practiced in its native land. Do you have an insight into what has led to the form’s proliferation in so many languages and varied cultural settings? And can you fix upon a specific time or event that may have triggered its rapid growth outside of Japan?
BR: I think that there are few examples in world literature to link prose and poetry as haibun does. The example of Basho’s Journey to the Interior was an available classic of world literature. For many writers prose feeling and poetry feeling is an enticing combination. John Ashbery published the volume Haibun in 1990. Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels appeared in 1965. So an impulse from the Beats and later more avant-garde poetry had flirted with the form. In the early 2000’s I led an online haibun workshop and double kukai for the World Haiku Club. There were entries from around the world, including Japan. More than that, I’d attribute the increasing global interest in haibun to the internet and the incrementally increasing attraction, good or bad, to wordsmithing.
JW: The spread of haibun across the globe has also proven how elastic the genre is. In your essay, “Narratives of the Heart” (The World Haiku Review, 2002), you cited various examples of form that the genre has assumed, from diary to fiction, and you remarked, “Haibun is now obviously an open form.” Beyond our general recognition that haibun usually weds prose and verse, are there some minimum guidelines or parameters, in your view, that demarcate haibun from other literary genres?
BR: At this point I haven’t thought beyond “flow of sensibility” and “privileging the link.” As a product of Japanese literature and, specifically, congealing in forms around haikai style, I think what goes for haiku sensibility, goes for haibun sensibility. On the highest rung, this entails a narrative of an epiphany. There is really no easy graft of other writing genres onto true (whatever that means) haibun. At least, this is the way I see it now.
JW: In How to Haiku (2002), you observed that “a short paragraph followed by one haiku is in fact the most common form of haibun written in English.” This can be readily verified by a cursory reading of the online and print journals that publish haibun in any given quarter. The one paragraph, one haiku format may be the closest thing we have to a consensual model for writing in the genre. This abbreviated form, too, is most welcome by haiku editors who often have to deal with severe space restrictions in their journals. Should we be concerned, perhaps, that “a short paragraph followed by one haiku” might eventually become enshrined as the normative model with the result that other more expansive forms are gradually suppressed?
BR: Never be concerned, it’s not healthy. But, editorial necessities aside, it would be unfortunate that the magnificent examples of Japanese prose diaries, like Basho’s Journey to the Interior, would not be available as legitimate literarily valid modes of proceeding to contemporary voices.
JW: Again, in How to Haiku, you wrote, “A haibun is a prose narrative that is autobiographical – that is, in haibun you are telling a story about something you did or saw.” I understand that in a how-to manual directed toward the novice, simplification has some heuristic value. Is it your view that haibun must be strictly autobiographical? Or do you admit alternative approaches, such as the expository or fictional prose account?
BR: We have both expository and fictional prose haibun in Japanese literature. It already exists. But in Japan the genre we would call haibun is classified as separate genre, such as “diary of the road.” Soseki provides the affect of haibun in fiction. As with haiku, though, I prefer, for haibun, the autobiographical experiential mode.
JW: In your introduction to Journey to the Interior, you offered the following definition: “…haibun is a narrative of an epiphany. Haiku, on the other hand, offers us an epiphany, a revelation.” While I understand that you are speaking of the best the genre might offer, “revelation” is a heady term and rare enough in our daily lives to lend to your formulation the character of hyperbole. Do you still conceive of haibun in these terms or has your view altered?
BR: My view has not altered. That is, my “sensibility” has not altered. It is a matter of perspective, really. I have studied, practiced, and taught internal energy states for many years. I still do. Degustabus non disputandum est (There is no disputing taste). A Zen saying: Before I studied enlightenment trees are trees and rivers are rivers. While studying enlightenment trees are no longer trees and rivers are no longer rivers. After achieving enlightenment trees are trees and rivers are rivers. It is a matter of perspective really. What matters about haiku and haibun is the insight of whatever valance you choose concerning our natures and the world’s nature. Art, poetry, human love, etc. can provide these experiences, to borrow from poor Shakespeare. Despite the postmodern processing of our lives, these connections are still available to us.
JW: One curse of being an influential anthologist and educator is that you must find yourself confronted often with impositions like this interview where questions focus on every subject but your own personal writing. You were a writer before you accepted the other titles, however, and so perhaps I will not be amiss in asking you some specifics about your own writing. In your collection, summer drizzles… (2005), your haibun “Winter Desert” holds a particular interest for me. I know the landscape that you describe therein well and I’m particularly impressed by the understated means that you employ to convey how that terrain gradually overpowers and possesses the person passing through. You speak there of one’s consciousness being absorbed and of the winter rain driving you deeper into your own person. Would you share with our readers the events that inspired this haibun, the story beneath the story as it were?
BR: No impositions. And no titles. I have a Taoist or is it Quaker disinclination for them. Glad you liked “Winter Desert.” My wife and I were visiting that part of Arizona around Tucson. We wanted to see Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and had to pass through the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation to do so. The haibun’s “flow of sensibility” is the resulting consciousness/connection to the landscape and its inhabitants. The haiku links are based on that consciousness/connection. Otherwise, the haibun speaks for itself.
JW: Another noteworthy and powerful haibun in summer drizzles… is “Gone in Sleep.” What I found of immediate interest, when I first read this piece a year or so ago, is the marked juxtaposition in the prose between the breezy travelogue-like opening sentences about modern Chicago and the intimate and warmer tone adopted in the concluding sentences about the beggar. The haibun will lend itself to various interpretations and I wouldn’t ask you to offer your own. I would be interested, however, in hearing you speak of how much of this material is strictly factual and where, if at all, you have claimed poetic license in order to arrive at a more satisfactory literary result.
BR: Like most, if not all of my writing, this haibun is experiential. Those “as ifs” were the affective result of my encounter with the beggar. Despite my reaction (or lack of action) I’m hoping some issue of compassion resonates here.
JW: I want to ask one final question, but let me, first, thank you for your patience and generosity in participating in this interview. Our readers will certainly be interested to know about your current or future publication plans. Do you have any new haiku or haibun books in progress? Or any planned anthologies or other work in the haikai field?
BR: You’re welcome and thank you for approaching me with this interview. Well, I have a planned volume of my haiku, possibly including haibun, haiga, and collaborative renku, for fall 2008. Also for fall 2008 Venturing upon Dizzy Heights: Lectures and Essays in Philosophy, Literature, and the Arts, which includes previously published articles on haiku, haibun, and tanka. Perhaps of additional interest is the lecture on the Japanese influence upon Van Gogh’s practice of still life painting. I have in mind another anthology in haiku but this is in a formative stage right now. Possibly, also, a small volume based on the haiku and haibun written while literally following a part of Basho’s Journey to the Interior.
The Next World
The guide joked that the island far below but not far from shore, the one where Cortez landed, was nicknamed the island of gull poop, perhaps some poetic justice for the Mexicans. We were visiting the ancient gravestones of the local Totanaca. In front of one thousand-year-old tomb a fresh palm leaf offering. An occupant’s moral health was displayed in the miniature steps in front of the stone. The more steps, the more sins to overcome. And the soul’s escape from the body was provided for, not unlike that of Tibetan ritual. I would later notice them in the stones displayed in the pristine setting of the local museum.
out of the soul hole
a tiny gecko
by Bruce Ross
Reprinted with permission from Haibun Today, Friday, February 8, 2008