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An Interview with Jane Reichhold

John McManus

JM: Hello Jane, and welcome to A Hundred Gourds. We are very pleased to have you here.

JR: Thank you, John, it is an honor to meet you and to get to know you better. I hope the readers of this delightful new haiku magazine will find us entertaining and informative.

JM: I recently heard that you believe anybody is capable of writing a haiku. Have you always thought that, or is it something you have come to realize as you've become older and wiser?

JR: John, I had to have that thought back in the 60s or I never would have had the courage to make my own first attempts. It was only in the 80s when I discovered the several haiku groups in North America that I realized that not every one agreed with me. Even they, with their power and powerful personalities, could not change my mind. If second-graders, with proper instruction and good models, can come up with the marvelous haiku they write, then I still think anyone can. I think the problem this statement causes with some people is the fact that they think everyone should write just as they do. If the verse does not meet their personal rules, then it is not a real haiku. We have to get over this inclination for a goose-step haiku world. The form, though the smallest in the world, is too big for that.

JM: What was it that prompted you to make those first attempts back in the 60's?

JR: On the close-out table at City Lights Books Store in San Francisco, in 1968, I found a Peter Pauper book of translations on sale for a quarter. Though I had been writing poetry since college, I felt that here in the Japanese way of writing poems was a new way of expressing poetry. Soon afterwards I was making a vessel on a potter's wheel that was still outdoors and just as I pulled the clay upward a bird sang out. At that moment I had the feeling that it was the bird's voice that caused the clay to rise. I realized that in this coincidence what I felt was the same kind of inspiration Japanese poets valued. From then on I read haiku when I could find a translation and I tried to write my own. I thought I was the only English person writing haiku until in 1980 I found out about the Germans, and through them, the English writers.

JM: When you discovered them, which writers of English language haiku appealed to you the most?

JR: As soon as I began to study the haiku of others I vastly preferred those being published in English to those in German. I really wanted to learn how to write a real haiku and I desperately wanted instruction. At the time I had not yet found any book on the subject, so I studied the poems as published in Frogpond and Modern Haiku and Wind Chimes as if they were holy writ. I bought a leather-bound blank book and copied in my favorites. You have made me get it down from the top shelf, blow off the dust, and open the pages to that old book smell. Two haiku on the first page are from Helen J. Sherry, who is still a friend.

migrating geese
using only a wedge
of sky

(Modern Haiku 15:3)


yellow finch
extending the color
of forsythia

(Modern Haiku 15:3)

Then comes a page of Nicholas Virgilio's haiku topped with my then favorite:

the old neighborhood
with fresh paint and new faces:
the whores up the street

(Windchimes #27)

but I quickly began to prefer haiku with strong associations as his haiku:

the long winding road
a run-over snake
writhing in the sun

(Modern Haiku 15:3)

Very soon the names of women out-numbered the males. Ruth Yarrow was an early favorite (and still is!) and her sequence "Down Marble Canyon" taught me so much about the importance of putting haiku together so that their individual greatness created a symphony of images. Ann Atwood's work, both as a haiku writer and translator of Guenther Klinge, was a guiding light.

the child asleep
still the soft crying
of the rocking chair

(Modern Haiku 13:1)

Emily Romano, who still writes and publishes her haiku with computer graphics she creates in Lynx is here in these pages of early teachers.

winter's end
where a snowman pooled his wealth
white crocus

(Modern Haiku 19:1)

I was always attracted by Alexis Rotella's quirky mind and felt she best understood the inner workings of a haiku though we later disagreed about caps and punctuation.

As I daydream
a sandpiper stands
on one leg.

(Brussle Sprout 6:1)

I felt Anna Holly must have reincarnated from the lifetime of being Japanese as she so completely captured the essence of their poetry in her own haiku and later in tanka also.

the iron ladle
sparks on the well stone:
the evening is cold

(Modern Haiku 19:1)

I never forgot this one by Janice Bostok and was glad to accidentally find it in this book:

pregnant again
the fluttering of moths
against the window

(Tweed 3:2)

And I could not fail to include Marlene Mountain with her one-liner:

with rain I hear the old tin roof

(Tweed 5:1)

It is really hard to stop! Just now I saw Gerard John Conforti's"

Hospital bed
she holds my gift
against her sleep

(Modern Haiku 20:3)

And just above it was Charles Dickson's:

surly receptionist
a vase of snapdragons
on her desk

(Modern Haiku 20:3)

JM: I really enjoyed those poems Jane. Thank you very much for sharing them. At what point did you start to develop an interest in tanka?

JR: It was from a study of haiku and then of renga in the early 1980s that brought me to tanka. When in Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri's book, The Monkey's Straw Raincoat, I saw the relationship between renga and tanka and realized that when writing the links in a solo renga I was almost writing tanka. I say 'almost' because, among all the greatly useful information I was receiving, in another book was Miner's comment: "Others are led . . . to think they can, as Westerners, compose a real tanka . . .[there are] techniques which demand our attention and a respect that should freeze the anxious poetaster's hand." Being new to Japanese literature and culture, I took the commandment seriously because I saw almost no tanka being published in English. It was only in 1988 that Jack Stamm arrived to visit his friend in Mendocino and came to stay a few days with us. He told us about translating the tanka of Machi Tawara and how exciting it was to work with her contemporary style of the form. It was Jack, between concerts on his harmonica, who convinced me that it was possible to write a tanka in English and he left me Atsuo Nakagawa's book Tanka in English. It seemed a curtain had been drawn aside for not only me, but suddenly it became known that others were writing tanka in English.

In my research for the book, Those Women Writing Haiku, I discovered that in Holland more of the women considered themselves tanka poets than haiku writers. They were writing tanka even though almost no one was publishing them.

At the time I was publishing an unusual magazine called Mirrors. It was founded and based on the idea that its pages should reflect the being of the author. Each subscriber was entitled to one 8 x 11 inch page per issue. However and whatever the person chose to publish on that page was in the magazine. It was the perfect place to bring the tanka, and renga, haibun, and haiga, that editors of haiku magazines were unable to accept. From issue to issue the amount of tanka grew along with the Americanized version devised by Adelaide Crapsey in 1911, called cinquains.

By the later part of 1989, I had published a book of my early poems called A Gift of Tanka and Alexis Rotella had her chapbook, The Lace Curtain. With the tanka pages in Mirrors by Anna Holley, Pat Shelley, and George Ralph there was enough interest in tanka so I wanted to see and share the best tanka others were writing. That year I started the contest "Tanka Splendor Awards" hoping this would a rallying point for tanka poets. I was not interested in ranking the poems with first, second and third places, but wanted to present the tanka in an anthology that could be the basis for studying the best work currently being written. So the judges were instructed to pick 31 winning poems. The contest remained the only one to publish winners in a booklet, and by that feature to offer such wide range of excellent tanka for the twenty years.

JM: I know this may be a difficult question for you to answer Jane, but do you prefer to write tanka instead of haiku?

JR: I pick the genre according to my situation. If I am sight-seeing or observing others at an event or even just watching my own life go by, I will put my thoughts into haiku. If I am having feelings or am in touch with my emotions about something or someone, then I will pick tanka. Very often the haiku come to me so easily it feels as if some else had written them and I only need to write them out. Tanka tend to come more slowly and demand more work. That could be because it is harder to know exactly what I am feeling and how best to say it.

I can almost see a diagram of how the haiku materials come from outside of me, but the tanka come from inside me and move out as words. It is possible for a haiku to open up or access a feeling that I want to express so I will take the haiku as it came to me and add the additional emotional stuff in the last two lines so that a singular situation will be in both a haiku and a tanka.

JM: You have provided such wonderful resources for people to learn about haikai poetry through your essays and website. Do you think that because minimalism is in vogue at the moment it might pave the way for haikai poetry to become what is considered mainstream poetry?

JR: John, I would do anything I could to get haikai accepted as a mainstream poetry genre! I have considered becoming a harlot – instead I give away for free the lessons in Japanese genre poetry. At times I think the acceptance of haiku as an English poetry genre is a process and I cannot really push the river. However, as I see the problem I feel it lies with universities. As long as they turn out poets who think haiku is that cute 17 syllable child's toy from Japan none of them will take us seriously. We need professors who understand that haiku in English is a valuable showcase for poetic work which is different from its Japanese forbearer and teach it as such. Randy Brooks at Milikin University and David Lanoue in Louisiana are beacons in a dark night. We also need editors of established publishing houses to have this knowledge so they can feel confident in picking the authors and poems for their more prestigious books.

JM: In haiku composition the use of kigo is essential for some poets whilst others deliberately write haiku without one. What are your thoughts on the use of Kigo in English-language haiku?

JR: The use of a season word in a haiku can be a big help. Many new-comers' haiku are very short or seem to have only two images. Adding a seasonal reference can often help 'nail the haiku down' into the reality with a nature image and give the poem the essential third line/image. Even for other writers, the addition of a seasonal reference can add realism, punch, and interest. As with any good tool or technique, the over-use of season words can bring on boredom – how many "spring rain" haiku can you read or write in a year?

Also, I have a problem with using season words as springboard or 'inspiration' for new haiku. This practice often leads to unrealistic combinations of images or what are pejoratively referred to as 'desk haiku.' I much prefer haiku that spring from an interaction between the author and nature-nature or human-nature.

I dislike the arguments over whether 'spider' is a spring kigo or an autumn one or the critique of a haiku based on whether there are "too many" kigo in a poem or pointing out that the kigo do not match. This seems mostly a waste of words better spent in writing haiku instead of putting down the works of someone else.

I do find kigo an excellent way to organize large amounts of previously written haiku. Understanding and using the principles of a saijiki (as I did with A Dictionary of Haiku where over 5000 haiku are in one book) can be very helpful for others to find haiku on a certain subject or even to find a haiku when one can only recall part of it.

I think proponents for the use of kigo can go too far when they state that haiku must have a season word or it is not a 'real haiku.' There are many excellent haiku out there that are surviving, and doing very well, without a kigo. However, this idea is a major one within the Japanese tradition and is partly what separates their haiku from those written in English.

JM: Do you view English-language haiku as being completely separate and different to Japanese haiku?

JR: I think it would be impossible for English haiku to be completely different from Japanese since we still share the name of the genre and so much mutual history now. And we will never get everyone writing in English to make the same changes at the same time. I see a continuum. There will always be people pushing the boundaries and writing short poems that at first glance have very little to do with haiku in either language. At the same time will be others doing everything possible to make their own work as close as possible to that of the Japanese masters four centuries ago. We are poets; not soldiers. The Japanese have done a far better job of education in the haiku field so the results of their haiku writers are much more homogenous.

If I had gotten my dream, my wish, that English haiku be taught in universities so teachers would have a similar basis for their own work and that of future students, there might have been a clearer line between the two genres as our changes would have been codified. As it is, we are mostly do-it-yourselfers, so each of us has taken inspiration and education from a wide selection of Japanese translations – some faithful and some not even poetical to end up with this mish-mash poetry that seem easy to ignore.

JM: Are there any particular trends or developments in western haikai poetry that worry you?

JR: My first answer was an immediate "no" and then I realized that I have been "on a mission" in the past couple of years about the shape of a haiku. Yes, I understand and accept our not counting syllables but I feel the poem should maintain the shape with short, long, and short lines. I now manage to get upset when I see a haiku like:

falling from the wreath

It would be so easy to switch the lines around to give:

falling from the wreath

It is nothing new to learn. It just means being aware of the shape of a haiku in any language and a little more time spent in revising. By the way, this sample haiku was taken from my book, A Dictionary of Haiku, published in 1992.

JM: With that preference for haiku with short/long/short lines in mind what do you make of the number of one-line haiku that regularly appear in many of the best journals?

JR: Sometimes writing a haiku in one line is a marvelous device. I think a one-liner that allows the reader several different places to make the breaks and changes meaning with each variation is an excellent addition to a haiku writer's toolbox. An example would be Penny Harter's:

mallards leaving in the water rippled sky1

I find one-liners less interesting when the haiku has the breaks clearly indicated by syntax. Then the poem is only a three-liner saving space. And example would be:

tracking the cliff-bound beach the noon clouds

The biggest problem with one-liners is when they are used by newbies or the unskilled with the fragment and phrase practice and the one-line haiku becomes a complete sentence as in:

while walking on the beach I lose my car keys

JM: The English-language haikai community seems to have more active poets from America than anywhere else. Do you think this could be purely due to the size of the population in the US or do you think that there's some other reason for this?

JR: Oh John, this question upsets me for some reason. Could it be that we are louder and more noisy? Probably! I think that if someone could do a haiku writer-per-total-population study the statistic would not be that much different for the US or other countries. This would not be easy to study as the people we know as 'haiku writers' – due to publication in the many venues – are only the very small tip of the iceberg. I truly believe that, hidden from us, is a vast number of people who know of haiku, and try to put their thoughts into the form, without any understanding of what we may think of the genre. Our very 'noisiness' works to keep them silent.

JM: Since haiku evolved from 'haikai no renga' do you think it is important for poets to take time to study and practice renku and renga?

JR: I would hope that poets study and do renga for the sheer joy of doing collaborative writing. It is a pleasure like none other. I think doing renga makes one aware of the shifts, leaps, and methods of linking that is absolutely necessary for writing sequences. It also teaches tolerance, patience, the art of forgiveness, the delight of watching another person's mind at work and thankfulness for the abundance of the earth. My hope is that people will use the word "renga" when referring to Basho's work (as he did) and all the Japanese poems done before 1744. If one feels the need to designate collaborative poems after that date with a different term, we all could use the term "linked poetry" in English which is the exact translation of renku. Only while speaking Japanese is there a need for the word which has been mistakenly, and continually, foisted off on us.

JM: Jane, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your thoughts. It has been a pleasure to work with you.


1 The Monkey's Face, Fanwood, NJ: From Here Press, 1987, p. 21. Found on: http://simplyhaiku.com/SHv2n5/haikuclinic/haikuclinic.html in the "Haiku Clinic #3: From One-line Poems to One-line Haiku" by William J. Higginson.


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