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Jim Kacian Interview
by Patricia Prime,
Jim Kacian lives in Winchester, Virginia and is co-founder of the World Haiku Association and owner of Red Moon Press. He has travelled round the world three times in the name of haiku and his work has been translated into more than 50 languages. Jim edits Contemporary Haibun Online and regularly publishes selections of haibun from the magazine in book form. Red Moon Press also publishes anthologies containing haiku, haibun, haiga and essays.
PP: Can you remember your first haibun and what inspired you to write it?
JK: I do, and it was so modest an accomplishment that you’ll be spared the reading of it here. Yet it was an accomplishment in the sense that it achieved what it set out to do, which was to add additional resonance to a poem that needed a bit more context. Like most writers of haikai (I expect), I believe that less is more and least is best, but there are times when, in order to help the reader find the exact place one has in mind, a few more words may be useful.
PP: Why did you decide to publish a journal, Contemporary Haibun Online, devoted to haibun?
JK: I had already been producing the serial book Contemporary Haibun (which began life as American Haibun & Haiga (AHH) and ran 3 volumes as such) before I came to the online version. What motivated me to create the print series was the obvious: haibun interested me, but there was no public forum where I and my fellow haibun enthusiasts might share our work and learn from one another. I decided, as a result, that the first volume should serve as a bit of a history lesson by including some of the very earliest haibun written in English. I had hoped these volumes would spur greater interest in and production of haibun in English, and I have to say that my hopes have been more than realized. Prior to the creation of AHH one might encounter a couple dozen haibun per year—a few in Frogpond, a few more in Modern Haiku, the odd thing here and there. With the publication of AHH, however, one could find nearly a hundred such pieces culled from the best written that year, so the quality was as high as we could make it.
AHH morphed into Contemporary Haibun (this change in title was intended to indicate that we had grown beyond our original target audience—in fact, more than a third of our submissions were by that point originating outside the United States). Soon after this change, however, it became apparent that enough quality work was being produced to fill more than a single volume per year—in other words, it was time for a journal. As a means of comparison, the first volume of AHH received perhaps a hundred submissions. Today, we see ten times that number. We could no longer publish everything we would have liked to publish. At the same time, there weren’t thousands of people engaged in this enterprise: more like a few score. A print journal would have faced economic and distribution difficulties almost immediately. An online journal seemed the most useful solution.
I have had the good fortune to work with excellent and knowledgeable colleagues throughout this process. I asked Bruce Ross to join AHH for the initial volume, up against the window, and he has been with it ever since. As you know, Bruce has published the best study of English-language haibun we have, Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun (Tuttle 1998). He brings a strong empathetic vein to his appreciation of the genre, and is a cogent voice for the emotive, heart-filled aspect of the genre.
Ken Jones, the most proficient, knowledgeable and well-known champion of haibun in the United Kingdom, joined us for the third volume, summer dreams. He has published the best-selling (by haiku standards, at least) The Parsley Bed: Haiku Stories, and, with James Norton and Seán O’Connor, Pilgrim Foxes: Haiku & Haiku Prose, as well as having contributed many theoretical pieces on the genre to various journals, especially Blithe Spirit. Ken’s particular interests in haibun reside more in the realm of literary accomplishment, and he makes an excellent foil to Bruce.
This team really gels, however, because of the excellent design work of Ray Rasmussen, our Managing Editor. Ray is responsible for the way the journal appears online, and for its timeliness and orderliness. Much of the enjoyment of the reading experience which CHO offers is due to Ray’s efforts.
PP: How would you define those elements common to or required of all haibun?
JK: Ah, well, definitions . . . that’s always a sticking point. I suppose I’d be willing to say that haibun must have some kind of poem embedded in some kind of matrix, and the most usual of these is haiku and “poetic” prose. But we’ve seen (and published) work that employs other kinds of poetry, as the “haiku” and as the “prose,” and prose that would never qualify as “poetic”. So I don’t want to get too dogmatic here. It’s useful to recall that one of Issa’s haibun consists of a date and a haiku. One of Kerouac’s haibun consists of 40 pages of dense prose and a haiku.
PP: What consensus is there, in your view, as to the qualities present in a proper haibun?
JK: I don’t know about a consensus, and not much about proper, either. I would say this: there is a long history of poetry-studded prose, in any literary culture you might consider, but only a tiny proportion of it is haibun. It’s worth asking what creates the distinction. For the most part, prose pieces have employed poetry to illustrate the point the prose was making. The poetry was not an equal partner in the collaboration, but rather a means of displaying the author’s erudition, or the quality of his copy of Bartlett’s Quotations. The idea was to have the poetry line up with the prose, to reinforce it.
Haibun, it seems to me, is not better than this literary device if it attempts to achieve the same ends.
What makes haibun special, at its best, is how it differs from this other collaboration between prose and poetry. There are two critical ways I believe it must be different.
First, the very best haibun create a balance between the poetry and the prose. The one does not overpower the other, the other does not outshine the one. This control of balance is critical to its literary success.
And second, the way the poetry is employed is not in the direct way found in most literature, but rather in a suggestive, oblique fashion. It may seem the poem is about some other subject altogether, but in the hands of the very best practitioners, the reader will discover not only the thread that connects the two parts, but that it is an essential thread, connecting in both directions, providing meaning to both elements. This subtle linking is critical to the work’s success within the genre; that is, as haibun.
PP: What is the relation, if any, of contemporary haibun in Western languages to the haibun of Basho or Issa?
JK: Well, those are the models we have grown up with, and they are important in an historical sense. It’s always important, if one takes one’s art seriously, to know where it has been and what it has done before you. But just as Basho and Issa wrote to their own times and concerns, so do we, and similarly we should employ the modes and techniques that permit us to realize these goals. It would be pointless to ask anyone to write like Basho, though it might well be worth suggesting that one write with his sense of commitment, command and understanding. But there’s never a reason to say this to people who are serious about their work—they already know it.
PP: What difference do you perceive between haibun that is composed by haiku poets and haibun that is composed by authors who come from other backgrounds?
JK: This is an interesting question to me, since I do see some differences.
Haiku poets, for whatever reasons, are not generally great prose writers. This is no great criticism—most humans are not great prose writers, and haiku poets are focused on another form that works in some quite different ways. But a presumption that if one can write the one s/he can write the other is simply incorrect, borne out by thousands of examples.
In my experience writers who have primarily worked in prose and are now coming to haibun generally have a greater command over their prose than their haiku. Despite this seeming strength, nearly all their early efforts founder, and are rejected, because reading and understanding haiku is still a special skill, one which requires experience and tenacity in a way that reading and understanding most prose does not. So for these writers, it is most often the haiku which is found to be lacking.
On the other hand, the work of haiku poets who attempt haibun fail far more often because of the quality of the prose. They often have acquired the special skills of haiku but not necessarily anything more than rudimentary prose skills—that is, often the prose is so undistinguished that the work doesn’t rise to the level of art.
All of which is why there are so few really excellent haibun writers. One needs to master two skills, and they are not all that close in technique or sensibility.
PP: What do you see as the relation of prose to verse in haibun? Should they be closely related or distantly related? Are the two modes of composition equal partners or do you view one of the modes, prose or verse, as more crucial to the success of the haibun?
JK: Though I answered this above, it’s worth reiterating: if haibun is special, it is because it succeeds in finding a balance between its elements, and because the relationship between its elements is not simply corroborative, but suggestive and enlarging.
PP: What is your opinion of the place of tanka or other forms of poetry in haibun?
JK: Any poetry that can stand in equal partnership, and that is not essentially rhetorical or confessional, seems to me to have a chance to perform one of the tasks of haibun, though of course examples are rare. But to give one: I once wrote a haibun which consisted of three distinct elements: the lyrics of a song by Bob Dylan, interspersed with prose commentary, capped with a haiku. (This piece is appended to the end of this interview should anyone care to examine it.) Certainly there are different modes of poetry being employed here, but each aspect is, I believe, an equal contributor to the ensemble effect. So long as this happens, the piece has a chance to cohere and fulfil its aims.
Tanka, because of its somewhat more closed, emotive nature, is more difficult to employ, but I have seen successful examples.
PP: Is a short haibun (i.e. one paragraph, one haiku) more acceptable to you (and other editors) than a longer poem?
JK: In every work of art, the artist makes choices. It makes no difference to me if a haibun is 6 words or 600 pages if the choices the artist has made are compelling. Of course, the longer the work, the more difficult it is to sustain the level of excellence, and at the same time, the more forgiving the reader will be of a dull stretch or two. But it all comes back to the success of the artist’s choices, and the way I judge this success belies the question: when a haibun really has me, I don’t really know how long it is. I’m simply within its power for its duration.
As a matter of taste, I find that I prefer to write short haibun. In fact, I invented a form I call one-bun. The premise is simple: the “prose” (which precedes a single “poem”) can be no more than one sentence long. Of course, that sentence can be a Hemingwayian grunt or a Jamesian excursis, so it’s not really all that limiting. One such example is also appended below.
PP: With your interest in Eastern European haiku, I wonder are you seeing an increase in submissions of haibun from Eastern European countries?
JK: Not so many as amongst the other English-speaking countries. The Aussies and the Welsh in particular seem to have warmed to haibun, to judge by our submissions.
PP: In up against the window (American Haibun & Haiga, Vol. 1, 1999), it was stated that the first formal haibun to be published in USA was Jack Cain’s “Paris” in 1964. Do you know how this came to be written and can you say why you chose to publish it?
JK: Jack Cain’s piece appeared in The Paris Review in 1964, and I believe it has held up quite well. I chose to run it because, as mentioned earlier, I viewed the first issue of AHH as a way to take stock of where we were in the art of haibun in English, and “Paris” is definitely one of the places where it began. Of course we could have also published that long outtake from Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, or another from The Dharma Bums. Any study of the genre that intends to be comprehensive will need to include these as well.
PP: In your opinion, do you think more men than women dominate the genre?
JK: I wouldn’t want to speak of domination in a genre that is so wide open to innovation, and which awaits its avatar. I can speak to my perception of who is writing and in what balance: I would estimate we receive more submissions from women than men, perhaps a 55/45 split. Your question prompted me to look at the breakdown of whom we published in Contemporary Haibun volumes 8 and 9. In Volume 8 there are 25 men and 20 women included; in Volume 9 it’s 24 men and 23 women. This balance feels right to me, and certainly suggests that there is no domination going on.
It’s fair to say that we see more first submissions from women who are coming from prose than the other way round, and most of these are not very successful for the reasons suggested above. Very few first-timers without some experience of haiku have much success writing haibun that I consider to be very accomplished, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise.
PP: Could you give your opinion as to how haibun by men and women differ, if at all?
JK: Once in a while I suppose I might identify a certain kind of content with men or women, but one needs to be careful: it would be no surprise to me to find that William Ramsey had written about childbirth (in the first person) or Hortensia Anderson about the mechanics of steel construction, topics that might at one time have been considered to belong to one domain or the other. The same can be said of style, with the same proviso.
PP: What haibun activities, other than print or digital publication, are you aware of in the USA? Workshops? Readings? University courses?
JK: Not so much activity as for haiku, which makes sense, as that is a much more established and accepted genre. I don’t know of any university courses, nor even of parts of courses, where haibun is part of the curriculum (though of course the fact that I haven’t heard means nothing). I do know that certain enterprising teachers in high school have introduced their students to it, and I would presume a handful of University Professors have done likewise, without making anything official of it. I myself have offered workshops at two Haiku Society of America meetings, and I know of one other such workshop. I presume there have been more. As to readings, Roberta Beary and I will do a reading/performance at the upcoming International Haiku Conference and Festival 2008 in August in Plattsburgh, New York, and I will read my extended piece, “Around the World as Briefly as Possible” as the HSA National Meeting in New York City in September. And of course I’ve read haibun as part of many, many readings over the years, as have many other haiku poets. And online, beside CHO there is now your own online webzine given over to haibun. But I take the point of the question to be: is there a groundswell of interest and activity in haibun. My general response is that there are a few hundred people around the planet who are interested in the genre, but not enough quite yet to reach a critical mass. That may happen in the next few years, and if it does, I expect then we’ll see conferences and books and other such trappings of mainstream success, but not until then.
PP: What do you think about the use of ‘cartoon’ haibun, ‘concrete’ haibun and haibun with haiga?
JK: Every choice an artist makes has an impact on the reception of the work, and if the artist feels these techniques maximize the effectiveness of his or her work, then I’m all for them. A drawback to these particular techniques, however, is that they draw so much attention to themselves that this immediate reaction may overwhelm the effectiveness of the haibun itself. And my experience is that it is very rare to find the elements in such work in balance. But in theory, I don’t have any problem with them.
PP: Do you think there is a place in today’s society of computer technology, cell phones and text-messaging for book-length haibun?
JK: That’s a very loaded question. Is there? Sure. Will there be a market for it? Depends on how good the writer is, I suppose. And I think it’s also worth asking: in this society of computer technology, cell phones and text-messaging, how would it possible to survive were it not for haiku, and it’s easy-context cousin, haibun? I can’t think of a time we’ve needed what these things have to offer more.
PP: You recently published a book-length haibun, Border Lands. Can you say why you chose this form for your book?
JK: Perhaps most importantly, it’s what the material suggested to me. I would say the “story” was more capacious than a short story could afford, and yet less than a novel. So my options were a novella, a long poem, or some kind of episodic serialization. I opted for the last, and as I wanted each “chapter” to resonate beyond its material, building around and toward a haiku and thereby making a haibun of each seemed a justifiable and obvious choice.
Then there’s the matter of audience—I was writing this about and for haiku people. While it isn’t simply a given that haiku must be used in such a case, it seemed appropriate here, especially as much of the trip’s “journaling” was in haiku for me. The translation from notebook to page was the easier for this. This is probably a decision that ensures economic suicide in the larger literary world, but as this was personal and not commercial, I felt I should use the intimacy which haibun affords both me and my readers.
PP: What are the indications for where haibun is heading in the future?
JK: In the short term we will have the same sort of style cycles that haiku and every art endures. For a while it’s a block of prose, one poem. Then maybe somebody writes something studded with poems and that catches the imagination for a while. Then maybe it’s aerated prose for a while. These are all passing fads—what really matters is that the genre remain flexible enough for poets to use it to realize their needs.
As far as long-term trends that matter, I don’t really know other than to say that more people are coming to haibun all the time. This suggests that as poets discover the genre, they are finding something in it useful to their expression, and so long as this is true haibun will continue to grow. I suppose I could predict that other cultures and languages will discover the genre as well, and we’ll see more offerings from Europe in the near future. But what I most look forward to is the time when contemporary Japanese poets rediscover the power of this combination. That will suggest a sea-change in poetic sensibility there, and will constitute a true gift from English-language haikai aficionados back to the country of its origin. In recent years English-language haiku has found some resonance there, but there is a basis of understanding for this. Reclaiming haibun for Japanese purposes will be a milestone in Japanese literature, I believe, and I think we’ll see it in our lifetimes.
PP: Some writers have stated that haibun is neither haiku nor short story but a separate genre with its own laws and expectations. It follows, then, that the haibun writer is neither a haikuist nor fiction writer per se, but something other. Do you share in this view and, if so, do you see a need or likelihood of a World Haibun Society in the near future?
JK: I do share this, but not in an exclusionist, but rather an inclusionist, sense. As mentioned, haibun requires two distinct skills, and it remains uncommon to discover them in the same writer. If we agree that this amalgamation of two skills is itself a new skill, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that those special few who possess it will want a society of their own. But I think we will need to number ten times what we number now for it to happen. Will this occur in our lifetimes? Possibly, but we should always remember—time spent organizing writing societies is time away from writing. I think the priorities for most poets are clear enough to make this a remote possibility for the time being.
Thanks for asking me to do this, and for your time and care in reading.
reprinted with permission from Haibun Today, Friday, March 7, 2008.