A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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Essay: A Tactile Form: on haiku and pottery

by Thomas Powell

I have been a potter for twenty-five years and have been writing haiku for nearly six. One is a craft that requires hand and eye coordination, and the other requires the coordination of mind and soul, or so people say. However, what pottery and poetry have in common is that both need to be formed.

another bowl for fruit
I’ll never taste1

The first thing to learn about throwing a pot is the process known as ‘centring’. This involves throwing a ball of clay onto the centre of the potter’s wheel and clasping it by both hands to manipulate it as the wheel spins. The ball of clay is centred when it spins absolutely true on the wheel without any wobble whatsoever. If it isn’t centred properly, then even the slightest wiggle will become exaggerated as the pot gets taller or wider. This will result in a pot having an uneven top, or a belly with a thick wall of clay on one side and a paper thin wall on the opposite side, making it prone to collapse. Centring a ball of clay is a vitally important process that will always determine the outcome of a successful pot.

I see the process of writing haiku in the same way. If the captured moment or initial image isn’t centred within the haiku, then the haiku will fall apart or, worse still, survive to become nothing more than an unbalanced and flimsy collection of words.

When I first began learning how to throw a pot, I was shown the basic technique and then told to take it from there, to teach myself, as it were. And unless I needed a pointer or a suggestion, I was pretty much left to my own devices. There would be mishaps and mistakes, and I would be shown where it was I had gone wrong. But of course, simply knowing where I was going wrong would not be enough to instantly remedy the problem. I would have to learn by trial and error to correct those mistakes myself.

sunlit window…
another jug survives
the apprentice potter’s hands2

I found learning to throw quite a solitary thing to do. And no matter how much help and advice a novice receives, only the novice’s hands and fingers can control and shape the clay. And even if a novice has the master potter’s pot in front of them as an example to achieve, it will take a few years for the novice to repeat that shape with consistency and ease. And even then, what the novice creates will only ever be a version of the master potter’s example.

Learning about the ways of haiku has been a similar experience for me. I’ve taken my long-ago experience of learning how to throw a pot and applied it to writing haiku. I’ve made the learning process as much of a solitary process as possible. I’ve taken pointers and suggestions where I can, and read as many haiku as possible. But as with learning to throw, the experience of writing can only be attained by the writer. I have made mistakes as I’ve learned about writing haiku, some of which have been monumentally basic, but that is the same with learning how to throw a pot – when a novice’s pot collapses on itself, it does so in spectacular fashion and, more often than not, for the most simplest reason.

year upon year…
clay from a potter’s wheel
spatters the wall3

To become a master potter can take fifteen to twenty years. You learn, you improve and you develop. After twenty-five years of throwing pots, I’ve developed my own techniques and habits, and a lot of the rules and guidelines that I had learnt all of those years ago have been mostly left behind. The way I throw now is different to how I did when I was learning. I have garnered enough experience and confidence to be able to throw any shape of pot to any size, almost without thinking.

When I was a potter in my sixth year of throwing, I would have been between improvement and development. I could throw both small and large pots on the wheel, but my ‘eye’ for the definition of the larger pot’s form wasn’t quite developed enough, and the ease with which I could throw these shapes was also not quite there.

Where writing haiku is concerned, I like to see myself at being in that same six year stage between improvement and development. But even though I’m still in the early stages of writing haiku, I know enough to realise that some of those important, foundation-laying rules that I learned during the first two or three years will have to be left behind because of the necessity to develop.

These days, I tend not to think too much about the process and I try not to complicate it by over-analysing the haiku. I now find myself moving away from some of the rules and, hopefully, moving closer towards my own voice and nearer to the point of writing haiku without thinking.

last day in work…
the bowl’s throwing lines
smoothed away4

When I was made redundant from my pottery job in February 2013, I quickly realised that I was now free to make my own pots. After nearly twenty-four years of falling into the safe rut of making other people’s designs for that guaranteed weekly wage, I could now retrieve the ambition of making my own pots, knowing full well that I had nothing to lose. I had a kiln, a potter’s wheel, and I had the skills. And so I set about to starting my own small pottery.

To suddenly find myself making my own designs from beginning to end was liberating. I knew that to come up with my own shapes and designs I had to start with a blank page and do my best to forget all of my previous potteries.

apple blossom beginning from where I left off5

What attracted me to haiku on a sunny day in the summer of 2008 was the simplicity of the form. Just three lines containing no more than ten words was something magnificent to me. Just three lines that, once read, could be held in the memory simply by the mood and the imagery it produced.

When I began designing and making my own pots in the spring of 2013, it was important to me that what I created was both uncomplicated and tactile, something that people would want to touch and hold. And because there isn’t a shape out there that hasn’t been thrown already, I knew how important it was that I came up with a design that I could call my own.

dawn chorus shaping light from darkness6

My first point of focus was to find a form that I could transfer to all of my planned mugs, jugs, teapots and bowls – this turned out to be the easy part. The skills that I’d acquired during nearly a quarter of a century of making pots gave me a head start.

When the pot has been made, it then needs to be ‘bone dry’ before it can be fired in the kiln to a state of biscuit-like brittleness, this will make the pot’s body porous enough to soak in a liquid glaze, when applied. This first visit to the kiln is called the ‘bisque firing’, and can reach a temperature of up to 1,000C.

My next challenge was to find a reliable glaze that would bond perfectly with the clay body when fired in the kiln for a second time to a higher temperature of around 1200C. This can be a troublesome process. If the glaze doesn’t ‘fit’, then you can end up with a crazed glaze that renders the pot as nothing more than a decorative object – if you’re lucky. And then add to this the thickness at which the glaze needs to be applied to the pot and also finding the glaze firing’s correct temperature – or ‘the sweet spot’, as I like to call it, then the pitfalls of glazing are many.

I feel the same way when it comes to writing haiku. The words have to fit and there has to be a balance and a rhythm between the lines that bonds the whole piece, bringing everything together to touch that, much sought after, sweet spot.

white glaze dries
on a porous jug…
mid-winter dawn7

In the end, I decided to keep it simple and use a transparent glaze to bring out the natural tone of the clay body.

Along with the glaze, I needed to come up with a decoration, or my own motif. I wanted to stay away from the fussiness of a lot of pottery that I’d encountered over the years. There are all the colours in the world to choose from when it comes to decoration. I experimented with different colour combinations, always remembering that plan to keep it simple. I finally came up with the idea of a strong colour on just the rim and leaving the rest of the pot without decoration.

When writing haiku, I try to keep the poem as uncluttered and understated as possible. It’s all too easy to over-colour that small collection of words and fill it with fussy nouns, restless verbs and dramatic moods. And I always try to include colour in my haiku, usually by association through another word. A word need not be limited to its meaning, in the same way there’s more to clay than just clay.

breath of air…
my pocket’s contents
coated in clay dust8

With a box or two of finished pots, I headed off to any craft fair that came into view. And the more I did, the more I realised that people liked what they saw – with some even using the very words ‘tactile’ and ‘simplicity’. At one craft fair, I was told by a customer that my pots were ‘honest’. For my pots to be referred to in this way, made all of the hard work and experimentation that I’d gone through worthwhile.

Where haiku is concerned, after only six years of writing, I’m still pretty much the beginner. But my goals are no different to those regarding the making of pottery – to create something that’s tactile and uncomplicated. And if twenty years down the road someone was to refer to my haiku as honest, then I will know for sure that I’m heading in the right direction.

clay moon
the trampled road
ends in wilderness9

1 Presence # 44, 2011


3 Blithe Spirit Vol.20 No.4, 2010

4 A Hundred Gourds 2:3, 2013


6 Unpublished.

7 Presence # 45, 2012.

8Time Haiku 35, 2012

9Time Haiku 39, February 2014

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