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Terra Incognita: The World of Haibun and Tanka Prose, An Interview with Jeffrey Woodward
Interviewer: Ray Rasmussen, December, 2009.


Jeffrey Woodward is a well-published poet in the haiku, haibun, tanka and tanka prose genres. But you may not know him as essayist, reviewer, and editor of the online journal Haibun Today, launched in November 2007, nor as editor of the new journal Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose, which published its first issue in summer 2009. Here’s what Jeffrey had to say in his opening statement on the launching of Haibun Today: “Haibun is terra incognita – vast and only marginally explored.” The purpose of this interview is to find out why Jeffrey thinks so and to provide food for thought for writers as well as editors.


Ray Rasmussen: Jeffrey, you came to haiku genre poetry from a literary and classical poetry background. In making a transition from other forms of poetry to the haiku genres, what difficulties did you face as a writer? What practices did you carry with you?

Jeffrey Woodward: I wrote my first poems as an assignment in my high school sophomore English class—sonnet, heroic couplet, haiku. Great emphasis was laid upon meeting a formal expectation, so I came to know that a haiku consisted of 17 syllables—neither one more nor one less. Do not laugh. These exercises, along with the poems in the curriculum, were stimulating and inspired me to continue writing, though my ambitions were not set upon Japanese models nor upon formal Western ones. Instead, I composed and published free verse—Pound, Williams, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens being my favorite poets—until my mid-twenties. Then, in a crisis of conscience, I quit publishing completely and turned my attention to mastering what with youthful enthusiasm I’d cavalierly dismissed—iambic meter as well as accentual and syllabic prosodies. Most of this work remained in my private files, having no reader other than its author, until the 1980s when I began actively to publish the same.

I read haiku, tanka and other Japanese literature in translation for many years and also read contemporary English versions in The Haiku Anthology and elsewhere. When I did begin to write haiku seriously, in the 1990s, I did so under the influence of various translations of Bashô that I’d hoarded—Cid Corman’s Back Roads to Far Towns chief among them—and of R.H. Blyth’s Haiku and A History of Haiku. I viewed my haiku as exercises or preparatory studies, if you will, for the writing of haibun. I did not seek to publish them, therefore, until I began to write and publish haibun.

Everything I’ve said above has been a lengthy digression from your inquiry into the special difficulties that a transition from Western poetry to haiku presented to me. However, the nature of how I’ve gone about writing poetry—shifting from free verse to formal poetry, then freely from sonnet to blank verse, from iambic to dactylic meters, from syllabic to accentual prosodies—may explain why I did not view a turn to haiku as a radical departure. Every form has its own tradition, its own set of conventions, and with application, a form and attendant conventions can be learned. Besides, I was not new to the reading or study of haiku literature but only to its practice.

Ray: Some writers, Ken Jones for example, have suggested that there’s a need for more “literary” haibun. This suggests that the haibun being currently published could be categorized as literary and non-literary (or storytelling?). Do you also see different types of haibun?

Jeffrey: Narrative and lyric are closer to what I see as the two big boxes into which much of what goes under the name of haibun might be sorted. Consider, however, everything that must be subsumed under the broad class of “narrative”—anecdote, short story, memoir, travel account, diary—and the utility of the category is quickly called into question. Lyric, too, is a somewhat inaccurate and inadequate term, as it should really be reserved for song, but if we employ it here as a catch-all for poetic properties, then perhaps it is permissible. I offer narrative and lyric, then, only as two common tendencies in haibun—the poet’s focus, on the one hand, upon an event or action and the poet’s interest, on the other hand, in the aesthetic properties of the language proper.

From my own work, “California Trail” (Contemporary Haibun Online 4:4, Dec. 2008) stitches together some threads of the history of the Donner Party while recounting that tragedy in lyrical form, whereas “Sharecropper” (Simply Haiku 6:4, Nov. 2008), through the medium of a visitor “just outside the screen door,” revisits another American tragedy, the poverty and displacement of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. These haibun exhibit the bare skeleton of a narrative only while lavishing attention upon prose cadence and disguised rhymes, upon repetition, assonance, consonance, alliteration and other efficient features that determine verbal rhythm and harmony. I offer them as representative of my own approach and concerns. Emphasis on narrative or poetic qualities will differ from poet to poet or even, within one poet’s oeuvre, from haibun to haibun. Pure narrative and pure lyric, I think, are in equal measure unlikely to exist.

Ray: In various essays, you’ve mentioned the need for additional venues for publishing haibun. We already had online venues such as Contemporary Haibun Online, Simply Haiku, and Lynx, and print venues such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Bottle Rockets and Blithe Spirit. Why Haibun Today?

Jeffrey: Part of the answer, Ray, lies in the very list of well-edited journals that you present. Contemporary Haibun Online was the only publication devoted solely to haibun prior to the advent of Haibun Today. Due to space limitations or the particular editor’s interest, the haiku journals you’ve named publish, on average, between a dozen and twenty haibun per issue. This, in combination with the inevitable aesthetic biases of any editor, meant few opportunities for the serious practitioner of haibun. A related problem is that haibun in haiku journals are often viewed as a mere adjunct or appendage of haiku, something that custom requires one to tolerate but scarcely to cultivate. Hence, articles about haibun or reviews of haibun collections in such venues are a rarity. An editor’s devotion to haiku and marginal interest in haibun lends itself to the view, also, that the prose in haibun is present only to support the haiku—that a good haiku, in other words, can justify a paragraph of stumbling and pedestrian prose. These deficiencies, in my opinion, were a sufficient motive for creating Haibun Today. There were numerous journals, at all events, organized solely for the promotion of haiku. Why shouldn’t similar publications exist for haibun?

Ray: As editor of Haibun Today, you’ve done a marvelous job of attracting many of the prominent writers in the genre. Tell us about the startup period and first year. How did you attract such a quality stable of writers and so much work? What frustrations did you experience?

Jeffrey: I solicited work directly from writers familiar to me and whose talents I respected. That is how I began. I wrote, in other words, not a few begging letters to ask poets to entrust their work to the obscure editor of an obscure literary blog. I also had the good fortune, early on, of recruiting Patricia Prime as a contributing and later assistant editor. Pat is one of the rare figures reviewing haibun books with any regularity and, along with her reviewing skills, she brought to Haibun Today an acquaintance with various haibun writers in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, a circumstance that greatly added to Haibun Today’s international flavor.

Two circumstances insured my success in attracting contributors. Various haibuneers, first, shared my opinion that the existing venues for haibun were insufficient and accepted Haibun Today as a vehicle to fill the vacuum. The second factor was likely my persistence. If I appreciated a poet’s work and could secure his or her address, one, two or more letters would follow. Some writers, no doubt, forwarded their haibun in a bid to stop my repeated requests. Six months or so into this labor-intensive campaign, unsolicited submissions of haibun finally began to arrive on a fairly steady basis.

Ray: One of your aims has been to produce a body of critical work about haibun – essays, reviews and interviews of practitioners. By my count, in Haibun Today’s first two years you’ve published numerous essays, reviews and interviews by a variety of writers including Patricia Prime, Matthew Paul, Lynne Rees and others, including me, who you indeed pestered in a good-natured way until the review was written. Given the dearth of this type of explorative and critical writing on haibun, I’d say that through Haibun Today you’ve already made a significant contribution. But what would you say? Are you satisfied with these results? And satisfied or not, what’s next? More of the same? Do other editors need to encourage more critical writing on haibun?

Jeffrey: I’m gratified that some critical work has been accomplished, yes, but far from satisfied that we’ve assayed all that can or should be done. The essays, interviews and reviews at Haibun Today have been largely produced “in house” by Patricia Prime and me or have been directly solicited. I would like to see some independent initiative, Ray, something consistent with the broader concerns I addressed in an early editorial, “Haibun Tomorrow? Maybe, Maybe Not” (Haibun Today, Mar. 12, 2008). Do I believe that other editors and journals in the haikai community should be engaged in the critical side of the “haibun project”? Most certainly. Haibun is one core feature of haikai literature and tradition. How can a haiku editor call upon the authority of Bashô’s example while neglecting the art of haibun?

Ray: You opened Haibun Today with the provocative statement that “Haibun as a genre is fluid and ill-defined, volatile and subject daily to change, invisible to the public-at-large and widely misapprehended by haiku editors and commentators. Haibun is richly varied, by its foremost practitioners, in matter and technique but paradoxically Lilliputian in character when this achievement is measured against what appears to be its inexhaustible promise.” I had thought that there was a fairly good working consensus as to what constitutes haibun prose and in fact you published an essay of mine, "Characteristics of Contemporary English Language Haibun" (Haibun Today, Dec. 9, 2007), on the subject. Tell us why you feel there isn’t.

Jeffrey: Consensus may exist at the base level of simple definition. I’ve stated on various occasions that haibun combines the two modes of writing, prose and verse, and that haibun can be distinguished from other prose-plus-verse hybrids based upon its predilection for employing haiku as its verse element. I wrote about this, in some detail, in “Tanka Prose and Haibun Today” (Haibun Today, Sept. 25, 2008). Perhaps few objections will be offered then to the proposition that haibun equals prose plus haiku.

However, there are anomalies and enough of them to make the cautious reader hesitate. Haibun without haiku exist. See Charles Hansmann’s “Postcard” (Haibun Today, Nov. 26, 2007), Janice Bostok’s “Stockyards” (Haibun Today, Dec. 13, 2007) or my own “Dead Letter Office” (Haibun Today, Oct. 28, 2008) for representative examples. Not only do we find haibun minus haiku, but also haibun where prose is absent. Stanley Pelter’s “Thunderguy—Isle of Arran” (Haibun Today, Feb. 1, 2009) and Michael McClintock’s “Courage in November” (Contemporary Haibun Online 5:1, Mar. 2009) come to mind among recent examples. It does not further understanding to dismiss these anomalies, to disqualify them as haibun or to seek to classify them as prose poems or free verse.

What do these exceptions have in common? Where haiku is absent, some other technique or feature is substituted to compensate for the loss of juxtaposition of prose and verse elements. In Hansmann’s case, lineation—the introduction of line-breaks in the prose itself—stands in for the missing haiku (see Charles Hansmann, “Haibun Poem: A Definition,” Haibun Today, Nov. 17, 2007). In other circumstances, a turn in mood or thought—similar to the turn that separates a sonnet’s octave from its sestet, for example—meets the formal expectation that a concluding haiku would otherwise provide; this is true of the haibun by Bostok and myself cited above. Haibun sans prose, on the other hand, join their haiku to another verse form. Pelter’s “Thunderguy—Isle of Arran” employs free verse that here and there approaches native strong-stress English meter, while McClintock’s “Courage in November,” in its verse form, dances nimbly between loose iambics and free verse in delivering its epigrammatic point.

Even where the requisite prose and haiku wed, what consensus exists as to the nature of how these two elements relate? Some haiku extend the prose by shifting obliquely away from it. Other haiku pick up a theme from the prose and crystallize or restate the same. Some commentators prescribe that the haiku should be capable of standing alone, should be an autonomous literary work, while others reject this concept of autonomy and argue instead for recognizing prose and haiku as subordinate parts of the total composition. Questions of what elements are required (prose and haiku) and of how these elements relate to each other are fundamental. But when we are confronted with unexplained compositional anomalies, such as those discussed above, or when the relationship of haibun’s basic elements is still a matter for dispute, talk of consensus is premature.

Ray: In the history of English-language haiku, one sees that there was a long period of an early orthodoxy, namely the 5-7-5 poem with a season reference. It’s only in the last few decades that haiku has escaped from that orthodoxy and we’ve seen a good deal of variation appearing in our quality venues. Is there a similar emergent orthodoxy in haibun?

Jeffrey: Some principles or rules of composition have been offered that verge upon orthodoxy in a negative sense; they, with or without their proponents’ knowledge, have become prescriptive and exclusionary. Examples are the common pronouncements one may read about the proper relation of haiku to prose (oblique) or about the proper status of haiku within prose (autonomous). These notions are widespread and, in my view, are little more than received opinion; they have found broad acceptance in the absence of any critical examination. Some haiku may be oblique and autonomous but why must all haiku be so? Don’t some haiku, like some segments of the haibun’s prose, serve only a functional or transitional purpose in the larger design?

Haibun’s simplest and omnipresent form is one paragraph of prose with one concluding haiku. The form is valid and quite often the material assayed by the poet may be adequately canvassed by employing it. Not infrequently, however, we read haibun that fail because a second haiku or paragraph is wanting just as, in longer compositions, we often find haibun that run on through four or five dense paragraphs of prose that dwarf that one lonely and light haiku. The position and number of haiku in relation to the prose are crucial factors that contribute to determining a haibun’s failure or success. With respect to subject matter, so many haibun are what we might call narrowly domestic, concerned predominately with the poet’s backyard and housekeeping, and their prose is too pedestrian. Haibun, after all, is a form of poetry, not of journalism.

Ray: This year you launched the new journal Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose. The title is provocative in that it suggests that haibun and tanka prose differ by more than the fact that one includes haiku and the other tanka poems. Tell us about the need for this new journal and why we need a new genre, tanka prose. Why not just publish prose with tanka in the mainstream haibun and haiku journals?

Jeffrey: Tanka prose, first, is nothing new. It appears as early as the Manyôshû, the first major anthology of Japanese poetry (c. 780), and gains further popularity in the flourishing of memoirs and private poetry collections among Japanese court poets over the succeeding centuries. Haibun, by way of contrast, does not arrive until nearly one thousand years later with Bashô in the 17th century. Haibun does precede tanka prose in English, as I’ve been at pains to point out elsewhere, but even so, tanka prose has been written and published in English for 25 years at least and can scarcely be described as novel (see “The Elements of Tanka Prose,” Modern English Tanka 2:4, Summer 2008).

You asked why tanka prose is not published in mainstream haiku journals. One reason certainly involves the resistance that some editors have displayed toward accepting tanka in a journal whose focus is haiku. Be that as it may, no examples of tanka prose, so far as I know, have made their way into the pages of Modern Haiku or Frogpond. Simply Haiku, by my last count, has made room for one solitary tanka prose work since the tanka prose movement took off in late 2007. Contemporary Haibun Online has proven more receptive and has published more than a dozen. Had writers of tanka prose been compelled to rely upon the good graces of haiku journals, it is fair to say, I think, that little of this creative ferment of the past two years would have seen the light of day.

Creating a venue for the dissemination of tanka prose, however, is not the sole or even primary purpose of Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose. That work has been carried on admirably by some tanka journals, such as Modern English Tanka and Atlas Poetica, as well as by Lynx and Haibun Today. I wanted, instead, a print and digital periodical that might further promote haibun and haibun criticism; nor is it idle, in my opinion, to speculate upon how haibun and tanka prose, if placed side by side, can beneficially influence each other.

Ray: You're using the term tanka prose as if it is something other than prose plus one or more tanka poems. So I'm wondering whether you perceive the prose employed in what you call tanka prose as substantively different than the prose employed in a haibun. Or are you just saying that one has one or more tanka poems and the other has one or more haiku? Can you provide examples?

Jeffrey: The grammar of prose does not vary from haibun to tanka prose nor, for that matter, from haibun to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Nabokov’s Lolita or a fashion article in Vogue. The phonological, morphological and syntactical features are consistent for prose poetry, historiography, novel and journalism.

Can we, however, discern qualitative differences in prose as employed in these various genres—differences in the types of rhetorical devices and constructional schemas, the level of diction, the frequency of tropes—despite the shared linguistic substratum? I suspect that we can. To do so, however, we need to focus our attention not upon individual authors and works but instead upon identification of those traits and tendencies that arise from the tradition and conventions of the genre itself.

Examine and compare not only haibun and tanka prose but also examples of other mixed prose-plus-verse writings, such as Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524), Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (c. 1230), Dante’s La Vita Nuova (c. 1295), or such anonymous medieval Irish texts as The Voyage of Bran (c. 800) and Sweeney’s Frenzy (c. 1300). In doing so, perhaps you will come to the conclusion that one verse-type may not be freely exchanged for another, that the presence of distinctive verse-types is not without power to shape, to some degree, the prose accompaniment. Can it be otherwise? Every established verse form brings with it certain conventions. Consider, for example, the Italian sonnet with its octave and sestet and how, beyond the meter and rhyme scheme, the octave is traditionally reserved for the proposition or problem posed while, with the opening of the sestet, a volta or turn in the argument confirms and leads to the sestet’s raison d’etre, the resolution. Dante’s La Vita Nuova employs many sonnets and canzoni; his prose is written to harmonize with these intricate forms and would ill-suit the substitution of haiku or tanka for his native Italian verses.

Ray: What of tanka’s origins and traditions? How are they reflected in contemporary tanka prose?

Jeffrey: Tanka, from ancient times, were exchanged and courtly conduct (miyabi) required that the recipient of a tanka reply in kind. The response poem commonly repeated language and imagery from the original gift, thus drawing the two tanka into intimate association. These tanka pairings, documented in the Manyôshû and later poetry anthologies, demonstrate the tendency of tanka to integrate into sequences of two or more poems. Here is a simple example from an exchange between Prince Yuge and Princess Nukata (see Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup, Stanford University Press, 1993, p. 492):

Could it be a bird / That yearns for the days gone by? / Over the royal pool / Of Yuzuruha it flies, / Making its cry as it goes.

inishie ni / kouru tori ka mo / yuzuruha no / mii no ue yori / nakiwatariyuku

If there was a bird / That seemed to yearn for days gone by, / It was the cuckoo: / I am sure it must have cried / From a longing such as mine.

inishie ni / kouramu tori wa / hototogisu / kedashi ya nakishi / a ga kouru goto

Also central to any discussion of tanka’s traditions as they influence tanka prose is the Japanese chôka, the long poem of the Manyôshû period. The chôka is composed of alternating lines of five and seven syllables but, from the time of Hitomaro forward, the chôka was completed by a hanka, that is, one or two, or often several, tanka, “somewhat in the manner of an ‘envoy,’ summarizing, or supplementing, or elaborating on, the contents of the main poem. The word hanka meaning ‘verse that repeats,’ was derived from Chinese classical poetry, in which the term is applied to a similar auxiliary verse” (see 1000 Poems from the Manyôshû: The Complete Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation, Dover Publications, 2005, p. xx).

Contemporary tanka prose, unlike haibun, shares this propensity for employing verses in sequence, sometimes as a formal envoy with repeated elements (see Michael McClintock’s “Before Croissants and Coffee,” Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 1:1, Summer 2009, p. 129), sometimes at the opening or in the middle of the compositional design where, with or without reiteration, the tanka sequence often assumes functions more commonly reserved for the prose—detailed description, elements of narration, structural transitions. When the verse component shoulders such burdens, this in turn grants the prose greater latitude to adopt those poetic qualities popularly associated with the verse side of the equation (see Jeffrey Woodward, “Green Apples, 1873,” Modern English Tanka 3:1, Autumn 2008, pp. 208-209).

Ray: You have mentioned that you have a concern with the preservation of haibun as a genre. Tell us why?

Jeffrey: Poets and their poems do not have a special sanction or protective deity that guarantees their survival. It would be ill-advised to show complacency and presume that what is here this morning, if left unattended, will not prove itself as temporary and insubstantial as the dew.

What do I mean by preservation? There are few haibun anthologies and not one, to my knowledge, that even approaches a fair representation of the good work that has been done in the past dozen years or more. This deficiency is debilitating for young writers who wish to learn the genre and discouraging for accomplished writers who see little recognition for their efforts.

A comprehensive anthology of haibun’s best, therefore, would be one of many needed steps in preserving the genre. General articles and critical essays—publicity and education, if you will—are also essential, particularly in venues like Modern Haiku or Frogpond that appeal to the broader haikai community.


Jeffrey Woodward's haibun published in Contemporary Haibun Online:
button Time with the Heron
button Before the Monarchs
button Day of the Dead
button Garden Party
button In Arcadia
button California Trail
button The Widow's Place
button Questions for the Flowers
button Following the Brush
button Shorty
button Legion
button The Other

button Big Sandy
button Picnic in the Grass
button Goat's Beard
button With a Sash Untied