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April 2015, vol 11 no 1

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Writer at Work: In Conversation with Ray Rasmussen

An Interview by Lynne Rees

CHO: How long have you been writing and when did you write and publish your first haibun?

Ray: My interest in haiku and haibun started about 15 years ago, after visiting the Kurimoto Japanese Garden near my home, in Edmonton, Canada. I'd created a website featuring my images of the garden and, on an impulse, I searched the Internet for Asian poetry to go with some of the images. I hadn't realized at the time that I was creating a kind of haiga website as a result. Thus inspired, I initially focused on creating haiga compositions and those were my first published works. I next joined the World Haiku Club where I began participating in the forums, and I was most attracted to haibun for reasons discussed below. My first few haibun, haiga and haiku were published early in 2000 in the World Haiku Review and Simply Haiku, both new journals at the time.

CHO: Can you describe an average writing day or session, including any habits or disciplines you adopt?

Ray: I do most of my writing in the morning, between 7 a.m. and noon. But only part of that time is focused on composing or redrafting haibun. When I burn out of the writing, I shift for a time to other interests, such as editing haibun submissions for Haibun Today, photography, haiga, webpage photo presentations of wilderness trips, and correspondence with family and other writers. More recently, I've been writing essays on haibun and putting together collections of my work. So those five morning hours can be quite a mix. Some mornings, and even some weeks, I won't work on haibun at all.

CHO: Where does your inspiration for writing haibun come from?

Ray: Writing haibun means learning to pay attention. Something demands my attention. It might be a conversation, a scene on a nature walk, an item on the news, a passage from a book or magazine, an event downtown, a poem. Often there's a strong associated feeling (happy, sad, elated, irritated, skeptical, amazed, intrigued). It's that strong feeling that tells me that there could be a worthy haibun about the something. As an aside, I recently read Barbara Kingsolver's desription about how she 'finds' poetry and think it's worth sharing. (Kingsolver, Stealing Apples)

CHO: What comes first: prose or haiku?

Ray: The storyline is usually my initial focus. Whatever the stimulus, I find myself mentally composing ways of describing the scene. It's always hard to start, but at some point I force myself to settle in and pen a first draft that I'm almost always disappointed in. I do create haiku-like phrases as they come to mind, but don't get serious about composing a full haiku until well into a second or third draft of the prose. As for the haiku, I only worry about whether they work well with the prose, that the two add up to more than the sum of the parts, and not whether the haiku will stand alone.

CHO: Do you write in other forms and genres?

Ray: Prior to haibun, I wrote didactic essays about things that interested me: history, politics, protest movements, teaching, to name a few. I still do that to some extent in my correspondences with friends, writing colleagues and fellow editors. In short, I'm a serious letter writer in the old sense of the word, but I use email instead of pen, paper and stamp. In addition, I compose haiga and periodically have my compositions published in the usual places: Haigaonline, Daily Haiga, and various haiku-genre journals. In the last two years I've begun writing commentaries and articles and doing interviews, thus contributing to the critical literature related to haibun, which is needed to keep the form alive and growing. I guess it will be surprising to add that I have almost never composed or submitted a haiku except as part of a haibun or haiga composition.

CHO: Why might you choose haibun over another form? e.g. haiku, free-verse, prose memoir or imaginative/fictional prose.

Ray: I was first attracted to haibun because of its focus on personal experiences and memoirs. So it's a useful form for sharing one's life with friends and family, which I like to do. I mostly read history and historical fiction and don't much enjoy popular fiction, so I don't often write fictional haibun, except to say that I embellish my work to an extent in order to make it work for readers. I read, but don't attempt to write, free-verse poetry. Some free verse strikes me as coming close to the poet's truth, and those pieces are like haibun in that sense. I don't try writing free verse because it's a very different discipline and would demand as much time as haibun. I also don't try to ornament my prose with free verse's poetic devices because I can sense the skill it takes to use those devices effectively. As for prose memoirs, I think that many of the haibun I've written could fall into that category. But I prefer haibun's mix of prose and haiku, in part, because a haiku is a good way to close a story and in part, if done well, the haiku can enhance the overall feel of the haibun.

CHO: What do you believe haibun can achieve that other forms can't?

Ray: The personal and candid aspect of haibun is a powerful way of sharing our life journeys, of understanding that we're not alone. In a fictional work, the characters are made to wrestle with real problems and that too is a way of sharing, but it all too often feels unrealistic to me or, worse, it's done so well that I end up caring about characters that aren't real. I simply don't have sufficient emotional space for the problems of made-up characters. I think that haibun are therapeutic, that is, there's a healing process through the writing itself and it's useful for others to have people sharing what's real as opposed to what's made up. When teaching helping skills to AA counselors, I was invited to observe several of their meetings, and think the same principle applies. That is, when someone stands and shares his or her story, others are helped to acknowledge their own personal stories. There's a very powerful moment when someone stands and says, "My name is Sam, and I'm an alcoholic." I don't mean to imply that the therapeutic aspect of haibun is only related to life's problems. When someone shares an intense moment in nature, it helps me focus more and to experience my own intense moments. When someone writes openly and truthfully about relationships, I am taken into my own relationships.

CHO: Is there any material or subject matter that you wouldn't or couldn't use for haibun?

Ray: Related to what I said above, some of my haibun are in what might be called a 'confessional' mode. They reveal aspects of my behaviour and life that people don't usually share even with close friends and family, much less strangers. And so from time to time, friends and other writers have said to me, "Do you really want to share that?" While I feel vulnerable when sharing on this level, my answer is usually "yes." To be clear, I don't share 'truths' or confidences about others, just my own stuff. I reach for revealing truths about myself because I think it's therapeutic for both me and for whomever might read my work. That is, by being candid about who we are, we become more fully human to others, and that may help readers to be more candid about their own humanness, the warts and the beauty of the human psyche. I was influenced in this, in part, by Krishnamurti who said: (paraphrasing) the path to non-violence is to allow yourself to experience your violent self. Only then can you take a step beyond. This is a bit of an expansion of the old Greek aphorism, "Know thyself." I'd add "Share thyself."

CHO: Can you tell us something about your editing processes?

Ray: Before submitting my work, I redraft it many times, sometimes giving it a major overhaul, sometimes tinkering a bit with words. That's a lot of redrafting for a 300-word haibun. I believe that every piece of writing, including this set of responses, can be improved and not lose that spontaneous quality that some feel will be lost if they redraft their work. So far as I know, most good writers redraft their work many times. I also seek out and value the feedback I receive from friends and editors. I've already asked several friends to have a look at these answers, and have benefited from their comments.

CHO: When and how do you know a haibun is finished?

Ray: I never feel finished with a haibun. However, somewhere about 3-4 drafts in, I begin to feel better about a piece and that it might be good enough to attract an editor's attention for publication. Then, after a few more drafts, I start losing contact with it and can no longer see problems, sometimes not even obvious typos. Finally, I give up, yielding to the idea that I can't make it any better, and I submit the piece. If an editor likes it, I'm happy, but often still not satisfied with it. And now that I'm putting together collections of my own published work, I even redraft those pieces. Of course, as I've gotten better at writing, I'm more critical of my work that was published early on and can view that work with fresh eyes and better writing skills.

CHO: Do you have a favourite haibun from the ones you've written and why?

Ray: It's difficult to pick a favourite, but here's one I had published in 2005. Like the bathrobe in this haibun, I'm getting a bit long in tooth. So a good number of haibun I write have to do with aging and transience, and that subject can be rather dismal to write or read. So I like to find ways to be silly. Also my favourite of the Masters is Issa who spoke to the creatures of the earth as if they were companions. The haiku is modeled on his style in that I've animated the moon, a no-no in haiku orthodoxy.

The Bathrobe

In the dream, I'm in a second hand-clothing store, wandering among endless racks of shirts, ties and suits. Dust motes float in the dim light.

I notice a small room lit by a single overhead lamp. It contains but a single rack of elegant robes, each in vivid colors with fancy lapels, threads that James Bond might wear while seducing one of his many women. I reach for a plaid robe with bright red lapels and, suddenly, I'm awake, anxious, in my moonlit bedroom.

I know exactly what the dream portends. I glance at the hook on which my old robe hangs. Relief! Still there. If robe years are like dog years, it's older than me.

I can see the large patches where I've had a tailor salvage it after it grew some very large holes in the wrong places.

"Do you want exactly the same kind and color of cloth," I remember the tailor asking in an incredulous voice.

"No," I had said, "it's just a robe. Do your best."

Having had it patched doesn't relieve my present anxiety that it may one day disappear. When my wife looks at it, I see the rag basket in her eyes. When it falls to the floor, my dog sleeps on it.

Men reading this know that the robe and I won't soon be parted. It's comfortable and unpretentious. Besides, my life isn't a Bond film. No one, besides my wife, cares whether a few threads or a bit of flesh are hanging out here and there.

I pull the comforter over my head and drift back to sleep.

lucky moon –
even when waning no one
threatens to replace you

Revision of a haibun published in Contemporary Haibun Online 1:3, December, 2005.