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Then and Now, An Interview with Ferris Gilli

by John McManus

JM: Hello Ferris, and welcome to A Hundred Gourds.

FG: Hello, John. Thank you so much for having me here. Congratulations to all of you at A Hundred Gourds for launching this lovely journal.

JM: Thank you Ferris, that's very kind of you to say. Could you tell us when and why you started your haikai journey?

FG: In the late seventies I very briefly tried my hand at haiku after reading some non-contemporary translations in a coffee-table book. I was out of the country with no easy access to writing materials, books and magazines in English, telephones, or the postal service. Unable to share my discovery with anyone or seek enlightenment on the subject, I soon set it aside. Clearly though, the attraction to haiku remained in my subconscious, waiting to be reawakened. It wasn't until 1996, stateside, that my interest was piqued again, and I determinedly jumped into the pond with both feet. Yet I'm certain that if my husband, Harry, had not been encouraging me to become familiar with the Internet on his desktop computer, I would have completely missed that window.

At the time, having already written two novels that had no takers, I was working on my third and fourth. It was hard work, and receiving shoeboxes full of impersonal rejection slips was taking the zip out of me. In a devil-may-care moment, I let Harry put a mouse in my hand and throw me into cyberspace, in the manner of a champion swimmer throwing a friend into the river and expecting her to at least know how to dog paddle. Fortunately, after I tamed the mouse I was ready to travel. It was then that Haiku, having bided its time for two decades, flashed into my head. I had not read any haiku or even heard of the genre for twenty years, and yet there it was, suddenly in the forefront of my mind, demanding to be explored. Having no idea what to expect, I started looking. Within a few hours, I was exposed to contemporary English-language haiku, joined an on-line haiku mailing list, found haiku poets who were glad to share their time and knowledge, and decided to take a hiatus from novel writing.

Why did I start my journey in the world of haiku? I don't believe I really had a choice. Some things are just meant to be. I was captivated by its brevity and capacity. That nature is an element of haiku immediately drew me in, speaking to my very roots. I grew up in the rural South on and around farms, where our playgrounds were rivers and ponds, pastureland, barn lofts, dirt roads, pine forests, ditch water teeming with tadpoles, and swamps. As an adult, I lived awhile in the Paraguayan Chaco surrounded by nature's wonders, both beautiful and perilous. Survival there can depend on one's awareness and understanding of the wild, natural world. Vaqueros swim with piranhas and crocodiles and sleep under the stars with blankets over their heads to protect them from vampire bats. Dust storms turn the air thick and red with powdered clay, and in the rainy season scorpions and tarantulas creep indoors to hide in clothes baskets and shoes. Mothers keep iguana fat handy for medicinal use, and on any morning the eucalyptus trees may brighten and tremble with the colors and voices of huge flocks of toucans and parrots.

Through necessity and surely genetic desire, all my life I have nurtured a relationship with nature that is as much a part of me as breathing. With this connection, I've experienced a slew of epiphanies, those mind-blowing moments when seemingly disparate memories and new pieces of information coalesce into new truths—and they just keep on coming. Finally, the challenge of writing successful haiku while honoring traditional techniques and contemporary standards set the hook, guaranteed the addiction. What a wonderful change from writing reams of fiction! Haiku . . . to read it, to write it and share my discoveries with others . . . having stumbled across examples of the genre affecting me so strongly that twenty years later I sought it out, how could I not embrace the opportunities?

JM: When you joined your haiku mailing list what were your feelings on the work that was being shared within the group compared to what you had encountered all those years ago in the coffee-table book you found?

FG: In 1976, English translations of haiku written by an Old Master enchanted and inspired me. Twenty years later, my feelings about the work being shared in the on-line group ranged from inspired, awed, and envious to incredulous and puzzled. Different levels of authority and acumen were represented on that huge mailing list, but in the beginning, for all I knew, everyone there but me was a haiku guru. I did get that sorted out fairly quickly. A few members sometimes offered three-line anomalies that they persisted in calling haiku, while taking great umbrage should anyone suggest otherwise. That was a bit confusing, but not for long.

Although it was evident that no one in the group was imitating the overall style of the poems in that little book, nevertheless I was encountering different schools of thought on what a finished haiku should look like and accomplish. The dialogue between members was occasionally inflamed and always enlightening. My involvement with the group was a life-changing experience, leading to my further exploration of haiku, independent study and conclusions, and embracing the haiku spirit. The open, constructive criticisms of individual haiku, subsequent discussions, and private correspondence between a number of other members and me were crucial to my growth as a haiku poet.

JM: You mention different schools of thought in haiku, do you think it wise to subscribe to a single school of thought when it comes to haiku poetics?

FG: I think haiku poets should subscribe to whatever brings them satisfaction in their work, whether that means adhering to the classic structure with juxtaposition of disparate images or trying different styles and experimenting outside the traditional boundaries. It has been my experience, however, that poets who know and understand the value of commonly recognized, rooted-in-tradition criteria of contemporary ELH are more likely to achieve success, regardless of their haiku style, than those who don't.

JM: In a review of your book shaped by the wind Anita Krumins stated her opinion that at the heart of your poems lies the voice and the overarching perspective of a woman of the South with a deep appreciation of both nature and the human condition. How much of an impact do you feel your environment and upbringing has had on your poetic voice?

FG: Environment and upbringing have had a tremendous impact on my poetic voice. While my haiku often demonstrate this, it is perhaps even more evident in my work in haiku-related genres (especially haibun and tanka) and longer poetry. Whether by my own design or subconscious impulse, one way or another the people and places that forever reside in me, and where I "go home again" if only in memory, will continue to influence my work.

JM: Which poets have most influenced your personal style and tastes in relation to your haikai poetry?

FG: A number of poets have influenced my personal style and tastes at one time or another, and some continue to do so. From the beginning of my haiku journey, of the many long-established, highly regarded ELH poets who helped shape me as a haiku poet, Robert Spiess, Peggy Willis Lyles, and Timothy Russell made the greatest, most lasting impact on my view and style of haiku. Of those poets who began seriously studying haiku at about the same time I did, Paul W. MacNeil most influenced my haiku leanings.

It was in my early, formative years as a haiku poet that I realized that some of Robert Spiess's haiku, in sound, shape, and content, represented the kind of haiku I wanted to write and the kind of poet I wanted to become. It was upon reading Spiess's "Becoming dusk" for the first time that I immediately knew beyond any doubt the path I wanted to follow. Entering the poem and seeing — feeling — the movements of the catfish on the stringer touched a chord, evoked a response like no other haiku had before. Perfectly, precisely concise, the poem speaks to my country-girl self and my nature-revering self—which, after all, are one and the same.

"A Tumbly Life of Haiku: Reading Robert Spiess," the enlightening featured essay by Randy Brooks in Modern Haiku (Volume 42.2), contains many of my favorite poems and all the reasons Spiess's haiku captivated me and continue to enthrall. Aside from Spiess's thoroughly accessible style, the primary reason was his inspired ability to subtly combine human presence with a focus on the natural world, so that the reader may at once empathize with the circumstances of both.

It was around 2000 that I became acquainted with Peggy Willis Lyles through a large email group. I began studying her work and soon realized that I was coveting many of her haiku—poems that I could have written from my own life experiences, if I'd had Peggy's quickness for grasping haiku moments and recording them and her haiku-writing expertise. Like Robert Spiess's work, Peggy's haiku spoke to my heart. Many of my favorites reflect moments from her youth. Her beautiful style spurred me to sharpen my technique while drawing from my own past. A number of years ago, Peggy and I became members of a small, private haiku group. We in the group were often the first to read new haiku by our fellow members, and we shared ideas and opinions. Peggy's poem that I cherish and covet the most is "fading stars," in which a bobwhite's call reminds the author of her father. Having firsthand access to my very fine, esteemed fellow poets' work and their commentary has been of enormous benefit over the years.

Timothy Russell's priceless critiques led me into the heart of haiku. His delightfully lucid explanations of the genre's elements and caveats helped me grasp what gives haiku its unique appeal among all poetry genres, its multi-layered penetration.

Paul MacNeil and I began to seriously study and write haiku in the mid to late Nineties. We became acquainted through the Shiki Haiku Salon mailing list and recognized in each other fellow haiku addicts. Paul researched avidly, attended haiku conferences, sought out respected poets, teachers, and authors, acquired their books, and remembered their wisdom. Best of all, he shared his gold with me, while setting a fine example through his work.

JM: What is the best advice you have been given by a fellow poet?

FG: The most valuable advice I've been given by a fellow poet about writing haiku came in the course of a single discussion a decade ago and addresses several points: One doesn't plan haiku; rather, one recognizes haiku. Haiku should not be forced. One should practice recognizing haiku when they happen (for me, this includes drawing from memory and realizing haiku that happened in one's past). One should practice recognizing the real juxtaposition that is present when a haiku happens, and when writing a haiku, remember that a thing cannot be juxtaposed with itself.

JM: As a haiku editor for The Heron's Nest you must get to read a lot of haiku from poets all around the globe. Have you noticed any trends or styles that are in vogue at the moment?

FG: There is one style that though not prevalent enough to be called a trend nevertheless has gotten my attention. In submissions during the last year or so I have noticed an increase in the number of haiku written as single, complete sentences, lacking immediately obvious caesurae (or cuts) and clear juxtaposition of disparate images:

my old dorm room
is smaller
than I remember

Those three lines, if submitted to me a couple of years ago, would not have made it into the first round of the THN selection process. No clear break or enlightening juxtaposition of images, no second or third layer of meaning that jumped right out at me . . . no resonance. Today I may play devil's advocate. Might there not be a pause at the end of the second line, while the author is gathering her thoughts in that moment of seeing with fresh eyes where she once lived? Or might this be a haiku in which the cut occurs at the end of the last line? I may sense that the poet has more to say, and perhaps it is at this cut, in this unpunctuated pause that leaves the haiku open-ended, that I enter the poem empathizing with the poet and wondering what else from our pasts we remember differently from the reality. Nevertheless, the absence or presence of a clear cut is not what makes or breaks a haiku. Resonance is key. I find that haiku written as single, complete sentences are often linear and fail to resonate.

Obviously, similarly structured haiku that are fresh and appealing and have enough of the "right stuff" do make it onto our voting list. Examples appear in the September and December 2011 issues. I'm seeing haiku written in this format from established haiku poets as well as from poets who are submitting their work to THN for the first time. Of course, single, complete-sentence haiku are neither new nor unusual in ELH, but for whatever reason, I am more aware of them lately.

What does this as yet subtle lean away from the hard-cut and even softly cut structures signal? Such poems from very new haiku poets may not indicate leaning away from a tradition but simply not having gotten there yet, which seems likely if their poems are not resonating for editors. From established poets who frequently submit haiku in the uncut and other less conventional formats, there might be a sense of restlessness, their poems perhaps demonstrating a growing reluctance to write haiku upon haiku that fit a common structural pattern. It is my observation that, in general, experienced and well-published haiku poets have a dependable percipience for what "works" in haiku, an intuition for combining certain elements to create resonance in multiple haiku styles.

THN editors recently discussed a trend that seems very close to creating a haiku cliché. We have seen an increase in haiku that are about "things not said." For example:

all the things
I should have said . . .
white chrysanthemum

Haiku with the theme of things not said can be very effective, and this is certainly not a criticism of poets who employ it (I've used it once or twice and surely will again). I'm simply expressing an awareness of the current trend that threatens to weaken the motif's force through overuse.

JM: As well as being one of the best loved poets in the haiku community, you're also an editor and a teacher. Which role do you enjoy the most?

FG: John, you are so very kind. I guess you haven't spoken to the poet who called me an illiterate heathen, or the one who informed me that every haiku he wrote was perfect even as it flowed from his pen.

It's difficult to separate my roles of editor and teacher, as they have been interwoven since my first month as a THN editor. I love sending acceptance letters (but hate sending rejections), and there is such a good feeling when a new issue of The Heron's Nest is ready to go on-line, a wonderful sense of team effort. It's grand to hold the annual print volume of THN in my hands, feeling the heft and texture, admiring the illustrations, and knowing that a huge amount of talent and hard work by a lot of people fills its pages. From 2001 to 2004 I was the editor of "Treetops," a haiku column in The World Haiku Review. It was a joy to study the submissions, arrange the selected poems, and write the commentary for each issue's featured haiku. But I can't deny it—I most enjoy the role of teacher.

JM: Out of all the haiku you have written would you share with us your five favourites?

FG: Oh, that's really difficult. Different haiku can become favorites for different reasons, and there are so many. I'd like to share these five haiku spanning my fifteen years in the haiku community; their special significance to me will never fade:

night rain--
the small serrated song
of a frog

breakfast alone . . .
the dove's feather
he left for me

the baby reaches
for a leaf shadow...
our talk of old loves

my child thirtysomething . . .
I close my hand on dust
adrift in a sunbeam

corn tassels
her unborn child
changes position


Gilli, Ferris—"night rain" The Heron's Nest I:2, 2000. Shaped by the Wind edited by John Barlow (Snapshot Press, 2006). "breakfast alone" Paperclips, HNA Anthology 2001. "the baby reaches" Modern Haiku 39.1, 2008; Simply Haiku 7:3, Autumn 2009; Contemporary Haibun XI. "my child thirtysomething" Frogpond 34:3 Fall 2011. "corn tassels" Shaped by the Wind edited by John Barlow (Snapshot Press, 2006).

gilliFerris Gilli is a daughter of the Deep South. As an adult, she has made homes in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Paraguay, and Germany. Today she resides with her husband on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, close to their daughter and grandchildren. Ferris is an Associate Editor of the on-line and print haiku journal The Heron's Nest. Her haiku tutorials have appeared in journals and classrooms in North America, Europe, and Australia. Her work in haiku and related genres has won numerous awards, and she is a frequent judge in international haiku competitions.


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