is Haibun: An Interview with Janice Bostok
Interviewer: Rosanna Licari
A world renown haijin and haiku judge, Janice M. Bostok has been writing haiku and its related forms for over 30 years. In this interview, discussion centres on the development of the haibun. Read on and find out about the Jack Kerouac connection!
RL: What is the origin of haibun?
JB: Haibun is a Japanese word meaning 'poetry prose'. And, I don't mean poetic prose as we know it in the west. It has developed from a diary form of writing which Matsuo Basho kept as he went on pilgrimage in Japan. His most famous one is known as 'The Narrow Road To The Far North'. where he travelled on foot with his faithful companion Soryu.
RL: What types are there?
JB: We are told that there are four types of haibun: the Imperial one, which, of course, can only be written by the Emperor; the diary of the traveller; the diary of the non-traveller; and one written while on pilgrimage. It is commonly considered that whether one is a traveller or a non-traveller, their haibun must move through some type of reasoning and come to a conclusion and a better understanding of a problem or of life in general. Therefore, the journey may be a physical one or an emotional one.
RL: How is the form structured traditionally?
JB: Traditionally, the haibun was a diary. After travelling all day, one would stop at an inn or monastery and record the events of the day. As Matsuo Basho was also a poet, he wrote poems about what he saw and experienced. The poems at that time were probably what we now call haiku or tanka. These poems would be interspersed at irregular intervals within the prose. It is usually accepted that the haibun should end with a poem. But there is no restriction on the number of poems within a haibun. There may be many, one, or even none! The one rule, which seems to have come down over the years, is that the poem should not qualify the prose. As with the linking of verses in renga, the haiku should 'leap' to a subject which might compliment the prose by juxtaposition.
The people who have studied this form, say that the haibun, or haiku prose, is so different from the average prose used, that they can tell that a piece of writing is a haibun even when there are no haiku included. This is because the prose is haiku-like; meaning clipped and sparse; only using the necessary words to convey what is to be said. There may not need to be complete English language sentences, as we expect in correct prose usage. This becomes acceptable if one remembers that a haibun began its life as diary notes.
RL: What developments, if any, has the haibun undergone?
JB: I think the main difference we see today, is that the haibun is a modern piece of creative writing. It is not an essay, it is not a short story, and it should not be a technical article. Because of its origins I see haibun developing into a personal journey through some experience, whether it be suffering or joy. There has been some criticism because of this emotional content. It has been stated that a number of haibun today have become heart wrenching. Well, life sometimes is heart wrenching. It may help others to know that they are not alone in some experiences, and if the haibun is successful, it may help others to accept their own problems and look for solutions. I don't believe haibun should remain a 'walk in the park' looking at the flowers and the birds. Such writing may be quite beautiful, but it must uplift us in some way. The old question of why anyone writes or reads can be asked of haibun, and needs to be answered.
As I previously mentioned the juxtapositioning of haiku and prose in haibun, I should also mention that there have been some experiments done where the haiku actually read on from the prose. I have written in this manner, and while the imagery isn't as sharp, I don't see it as a grave error. However, it doesn't seem to be as popular as the juxtaposition of images.
RL: Tell us about the Jack Kerouac fixation?
JB: Jack Kerouac, as most readers will know was a personality of the beat movement in the USA. He was influenced by Japanese writing and wrote quite a number of what he called haiku—and many of them were haiku. One of his which I particularly like is: 'missing a kick/at the icebox door/it closed anyway'. I imagine the spread and popularity of haiku in the early days in the US can be somewhat credited to him. Many of you will be familiar with his racy novels, in which he rushes across the States, accompanied by a carload of like-minded friends. These novels, in particular ones like Desolation Angels, On The Road and Dharma Bums are thought by many people to be haibun novels, though set in a very different age. The parallel drawn between him and Matsuo Basho, I imagine, is the one of pilgrimage and the searching and finding of beauty in the physical world. You may not find haiku at every turn in his novels, but his critics agree that his prose is distinctive.
RL: In your opinion, what is the future of haibun?
JB: I think haibun has a very bright future in the west. Haiku poets, and those who write the related Japanese forms have adopted and adapted it quite enthusiastically. As mentioned, I believe it to be creative writing in the purest sense. There have been a number of books and anthologies produced. I now see mainstream poets trying their hand at haibun. At one time it would have been only the haiku poets who were interested in writing it. I remember receiving some criticism for writing haibun and including free verse instead of haiku or tanka. So who knows where haibun will lead us? While all forms need some restrictions to retain form, I think the haibun has a number of areas in which it could develop. Only the writers of haibun will dictate its future. But I do predict that it will become a very popular form of expression for many writers.
RL: What schools of haibun are more progressive in your opinion?
JB: I believe the most progressive school of haibun is the one which takes us through an emotional journey. One which is an inner journey, which proposes a human dilemma and with logic and reasoning finds a solution to the problem. This type of journey is a journey within a journey. There are always connections to the physical world, the natural landscape and this environment may play a large part in the human's enlightenment and resolution of the situation.
RL: What haibun publications in the Northern and Southern hemisphere may interest readers?
JB: A number of markets for haibun are, of course, the haiku journals. Although it is considered that a haibun can be anywhere in length from one line, plus one haiku to novel length, most haiku magazines prefer shorter pieces. The competition based magazine Yellow Moon has a haibun section each issue, and publishes the winners, plus the commended. The Red Moon Press, in the USA (Jim Kacian) publishes an anthology of haibun each year. If you are looking for somewhere to have your haibun published, begin with haiku and related forms, markets.
A number of individuals have published books of haibun in the past few years. The first book of haibun in English was written by Robert Spiess: Five Caribbean Haibun, Madison, Wis. 1972. Since then a number have been produced. The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore by David Cobb in the UK. There is also one called shadow-patches, haibun from Janice Bostok, Catherine Mair and Bernard Gadd, Published by Hallard Press in Auckland. Some organisations such as the Haiku Society of America would probably be able to supply a list of books of haibun.
[added note: the online journals contemporary haibun online, modern haiku, and simply haiku all feature haibun writing.]
Reprinted with permission from Stylus Poetry Journal, 2002.