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January 2016 vol 11 no 4

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Review of Journeys 2015: An Anthology of International Haibun, Angelee Deodhar (Editor)

Jonathan McKeown

Angelee Deodhar (Editor), Journeys 2015: An Anthology of International Haibun, Paperback (288 pages), $20 USD & Kindle $4.90 USD, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, September 21, 2015, English Language, 6 x 9 inches, ISBN-13: 978-1515359876. Available on Amazon.com

After receiving a copy of Journeys 2015: An Anthology of International Haibun (edited by Angelee Deodhar) in the mail and indulging those preliminary pleasures of a new book – the smell, the cover photograph and layout, the sound the pages make as I flipped through, the quality and texture of the paper – it wasn’t long before I found myself skimming down the contents page at the list of contributors: Peter Butler, Marjorie Buettner, Steven Carter, Margaret Chula, Tom Clausen, Ion Codrescu, Margaret Dornaus, Terri L. French, Stephen Henry Gill, Lee Gurga, Graham High, Noragh Jones, Doreen King, Chen-ou Liu, Miriam Sagan, Guy Simser, John Stevenson, Alan Summers, Sasa Vazic, Max Verhart, Diana Webb, Harriot West, Rich Youmans, Nobukuki Yuasa, John Zheng, plus some older names, Jack Cain, Vladimir Devide, William J. Higginson, (I have already mentioned Elizabeth Searle Lamb), Gary Snyder and Robert Spiess.

Almost all the names were familiar to me, some more than others. I recognised many well known writers from the print and online journals that regularly publish haibun, and among them some of my personal favourites. If that isn’t enough there is also a Preface by Angelee Deodhar, an Introduction by the consistently amusing Bob Lucky, an essay on English Language Haibun in historical perspective by Ray Rasmussen, and an Afterword by Glenn G. Coats.

If you feel some of your personal favourites are missing from the list it’s probably because they were included in Dr Deodhar’s first Journeys Anthology of International Haibun, published in 2014, or may well be in the line up (fingers crossed) for her next Journeys anthology (2016).

Having just finished reading Journeys 2015, I now feel ready to begin again, slowly this time. Haibun are moreish I find. It’s all too easy to gobble down a whole anthology in an evening or two. Its typical brevity makes haibun one of the least imposing forms of world literature. One doesn’t have to invest long hours or days of precious life (as one does with a novel say) on the chance that what an author has to say will be worth the outlay. Not that I wish to give the impression that haibun are the literary equivalent of junk food. The good ones really do call you back and make you savour their peculiar delicacy. Often one will stop me altogether, mid-sentence; suddenly I’ll realise that although I’m still staring at the words on the page my mind has taken leave. Some take a little time and effort to appreciate. Sometimes the key is hidden in a foreign word or unfamiliar phrase. But there is something catalytic about haibun. Reading them makes one more conducive to inspiration, to insight, to ideas and associations. They are generous like that, but they also connect us to ourselves, returning the reader to himself, to her own experience, to the stuff of life and the sources of inspiration, rather than seducing us away. They help us to sense ourselves and our world differently – through the senses and insights, the distilled experiences and perspectives of others. At least they do this more economically than any other form of literature I am acquainted with. But they are also a kind of doorway into the other, connecting us to others. Last night on our balcony I read Elizabeth Searle Lamb’s “Santarem, Brazil” triptych aloud to my wife. I wanted to share it with her, it was such a revelation to me. It was like taking her to a beautiful and exotic place I’d discovered, to show her and share it with her. I felt I had entered another place and time in and through the body of Lamb, so immediate is her subject and manner of writing.

As one relatively new to the haibun genre I can say that it is not easy to get a clear, definitive, or unambiguous idea of what haibun is. Rough ideas are fairly easy to come by. The first handle I was given was this: A short prose passage with loosely connected haiku. Sounds simple enough I thought and gave it a go. Anyone can write prose right? There are also a number of easily accessible web-sites and online journals that give definitions, that list some of the qualities and criteria, and that try to outline and exemplify some key features of what their editors consider good haibun (and I recommend these as they have certainly helped and guided me). But it seems to me there is no substitute for simply reading as many haibun by as great a range of writers as possible. The haibun form is more the expression of a sensibility than conformity to rules. The content of course comes from one’s own peculiar experience but the formal expression of this is learned, I believe, by a kind of osmosis, the way a child learns language with all its concomitant non-verbal subtleties of tone, posture, gesture, and facial expression. Such things are very hard to define. To understand them one has to be acquainted with them through intimate experience. And there is no better way to get acquainted with haibun than by reading collections of exemplary haibun such as those in Journeys 2015.

If I were preparing an anthology of haibun how would I approach the task? What would be my purpose in doing so? For such questions will surely determine my principles of selectivity. In her rather modest Preface, Dr Deodhar does not neglect to outline the purpose of her Anthological project: firstly, to redress what she perceives to be a “paucity of books, anthologies, … collections of haibun and … critical literature dealing with this genre”; secondly, to showcase “the personal selections of the published work of our most prominent current writers”; thirdly, to “inspire new poets”; and finally, to “promote a deeper understanding among the world’s diverse cultures through this fascinating genre.”

In accordance with this last objective her book is aptly subtitled: “An Anthology of International Haibun” and indeed she has included writers from diverse cultural backgrounds whose subject matter is often cross-cultural in flavour. As Ray Rasmussen points out in his brief introduction to the section on “Contemporary Writers of Haibun” that there are in fact 15 different countries represented, the majority of which are not primarily English speaking. Dr Deodhar has eschewed the self-imposing temptation to make this a collection of her personal favourites in favour of a more broadly representative selection. In this respect she has used a number of principles in her selection process. Firstly she has extended the invitation to contribute to 25 widely recognised and established haibun writers. As Rasmussen notes, these include, “journal editors, officers of haiku societies, award winners, and authors/ editors/ translators of important keystone haiku genre books” many of whom “have received awards for their work” and some of whom “teach poetry” or “write literary criticism”. Secondly, she has invited them to select and submit 10 of their own already published haibun. Thirdly, from each 10 submitted she has chosen 5 – again, not based on her personal taste but as Rasmussen says, those that would represent “a wide range of writing styles and cultural influences” in order to encourage writers to consider and explore “possibilities beyond their own borders.”

Certainly if we are to judge Dr Deodhar’s Journeys 2015 by her own objectives then we must applaud her success. But of course readers bring many and varied expectations to their reading of any new book, not all of which are conscious or clear. Leaving aside the obvious subjective factor of personal taste and aesthetic preference, readers are bound to bring to their reading of the haibun collected here, some notion of what haibun is and what it isn’t, and this will govern to a large extent the way they appreciate (or depreciate) the various contributions. Which brings us to what seems the inevitable question of definition.

I suspect that this question is really only problematic for newbies like myself who are trying to get their work published in the various online and print journals that accept haibun, but are experiencing rejection sometimes accompanied by well-meant (if hard to accept) suggestions. And it doesn’t always help that on the subject of English-language haibun, it has become commonplace for critics and commentators to point out that this genre is in a state of flux or development. Most consistent writers in “the form” are, I believe, quite comfortable with the state of the art in this respect. (Has anyone else wondered as I have if Basho wrote Narrow Road to the Deep North in the full awareness he was creating the exemplary model of what later generations would regard a new poetic form?) I expect that no amount of discussion or attempts to answer the question, How to define the haibun genre, will ever bring about anything but a loose consensus or set of guiding criteria or axioms, at least not while it is a vital, living form. This doesn’t mean that the question is asked (or answered) in vain, however. The fact that it is being asked – that it is being asked now – proves the haibun family exists, that it has current ramifications, and that it is a form of something which possesses both seminal and fecund potential evidenced by the children it continues to produce. In this sense I prefer the notion that those individual poems that go by the name “haibun” all share some family resemblance. Sometimes one person sees it – the unmistakable resemblance or trait – where another cannot.

Let me propose two analogies that may offer a more helpful way of contextualising the issue of defining the haibun genre: What if the body of classical exemplars, commentary, and attempted definitions of the form were regarded by practicing poets not so much as the mould or template or criteria but more like an anchorage? Depending on tides, prevailing wind, and currents, the vessel may drift, swing, turn, and pull at the anchor-points but it always does so with some sense of where these points lie even if they are hidden in the depths. Or for the more adventurous haibun practitioners out there who really want to pull up anchor and set sail, perhaps the analogy of ballast works better. But in whatever sense we think about it, what matters, I would argue, is an acquaintance – or familiarity – with the tradition, for it is the tradition that provides our anchor or ballast. In my opinion, Dr Deodhar’s Journeys 2015 anthology performs a valuable service for the contemporary international haibun community in this regard for the simple reason that it provides access to a living haibun tradition.

This tradition, like any tradition, will have many aspects of course, but fundamental are the “diachronic” (to see examples of a form over time, or in historical perspective) and the “synchronic” (to see instances of a form together in time, or in contemporaneous perspective). Dr Deodhar’s intention with her first Journeys 2014 anthology was to show “the personal selections of the published work of our most prominent current writers” (i.e., to give us a synchronic sample). With Journeys 2015 she again includes a good swathe of “prominent current writers” but enhances it by adding a diachronic dimension, by including a section profiling some “early adaptors” of the haibun form to the English language.

Marjorie Buettner, in her review of Journeys 2014, expressed her editorial preference that in order to “expand the range of contributors,” fewer haibun by each poet be included (typically 5 haibun per author were included in that volume). If there was an implicit suggestion in Buettner’s comment then, at first glance, it would seem that Dr Deodhar has chosen not to take it on board in respect of her second anthology, Journeys 2015. And in light of what would seem to be an on-going anthological project I think she has made the best decision.

As an avid haibun reader, one thing I do seek is a fuller sense of the poet-personality, the distinctive “voice” of the poet, the common denominator and progenitor of the various haibun expressions. Such an impression forms slowly as one allows oneself to be absorbed in a poet’s poems. But it’s not easy to gain such impressions from the various print journals or even the online journals which, for writers and readers alike, are at present the most accessible (and affordable) haibun publishing platforms. Yet perhaps Dr Deodhar has taken on board Buettner’s suggestion in a different respect. Journeys 2015 is, by virtue of its very existence, an expansion of the “range of contributors” (all good things to those who wait). Furthermore, it includes contributions from 31 poets from around the globe (Buettner herself being one of them), a more than 20% increase from Journeys 2014 which featured only 25 poets.

The additional 6 poet-places are included in Section 1 under the heading “Early Adaptors” which thoughtfully unearths a number of poems/poets that are no longer in print or easily accessible but which nevertheless have been influential in the early developmental stages of the English-language haibun form. In my estimation these pieces alone make the volume worthy of the trees sacrificed for its sake. This section of Journeys 2015, along with a very helpful and informative article by Ray Rasmussen, “English Language Haibun: A Brief History,” together add the diachronic dimension mentioned earlier, and give this latest issue the main point of difference from its predecessor. I enjoyed this section of Journeys which enabled me, as someone relatively new to the form, to put faces to names, as we say, and become a little better acquainted not only with their writings, but with the writers (as each poet is introduced with a biographical synopsis). I have already mentioned the work of Elizabeth Searle Lamb, but the haunting beauty of Vladimir Devidé‘s haibun, their almost mystical perception of the world will stay with me. His haibun make the reader feel the tantalising elusiveness of beauty (“Pine Dew” or “Nefertiti’s Neck”), or leave us wondering at the fate of an ingénue – an inadvertent and unrecognized casualty of war (in “Notebook”) – confronting us with evil and leaving us agonizing at the shameless violation of innocence, at one’s powerlessness to protect or redeem it, and aching over the strange and terrible beauty of human existence. Or the late William J. Higginson’s haibun. I was touched by “Hawk” which ends with a haiku (shot through/ the hawk falls like a sigh/ into rank weeds) that gives a final poignancy that enables the reader (and implicitly the protagonists) to re-enter the essential human occasion (the death of Higginson’s grandfather) that incidentally has brought about the hawk’s demise. The flawless “Santa Fe Shopping Carts” is an exemplary thematic haibun that resonates deeply with seasonal moods. And the extraordinary “Well-Bucket Nightfall, or New Day?”, written only 8 days before Bill Higginson died and evidently in full consciousness of this fact: “Is this, then, to be the journal of my own well-bucket nightfall, when my own life will be snuffed out in a few weeks’ time? Or the journal of a dark night to a bright new day?” These questions are answered unambiguously for those that have learnt to appreciate the lightness of touch – that lets carefully chosen images speak a thousand words – and that characterise so many of the best haibun. That he takes the traditional Japanese season word “well-bucket nightfall” as, what he calls, the “anti-theme” for his haibun gives us the initial clue which is resolved by the final haiku: “smell of bile …/ I waken to October/ afterglow”. To be invited into this most intimate inner experience of a man consciously facing the great mystery of one’s own imminent death is remarkable indeed and adds deep resonance to a masterful haibun that will linger in my mind like a crimson glow long after Bill Higginson’s sun has set.

These are just a few of the “mothers” and “mid-wives” (if I may use such terms) that have borne or assisted at the birth of haibun into English. In this spirit I wonder if the next issue of Journeys might not include another section with a selection of some classical haibun from Basho and his followers, or even look at some of the issues of translation in the broadest sense. I am glad nevertheless that the greatest part of Dr Deodhar’s anthology remains devoted to contemporary writers.

I for one feel the international haibun community owe Angelee Deodhar a considerable debt for spearheading this project. She is what in Australia we call a “quiet achiever,” finding a lack she does not complain about it but sees in it possibilities and projects and steadily gets about the business of bringing them to fruition. No doubt the love of haibun is her motive but it remains a labour of love. Her Journeys anthology series is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the genre.