A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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Haiku Guy: The Guy, the Books, and the Classroom

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 | page 4 |

Interview with David Lanoue

Aubrie: Where and when did the idea for a haiku novel come from?

David: It was born in the summer of 1956, when Jack Kerouac spent sixty-three days on fire watch on Desolation Peak in North Cascades National Park. His novel chronicling that summer, Desolation Angels, flows back and forth easily and naturally between prose and haiku, at least in its opening section. The book was published in 1965, and though Kerouac never referred to it as a “haiku novel,” he had created a new genre.

Aubrie: So when did you first encounter Desolation Angels?

David: Kerouac introduced the idea of a haiku novel to the world in 1965, but I didn't read Desolation Angels until 2008, when I was doing research for an essay I was writing about America's first haiku masters, Kerouac and Richard Wright. I was astonished and delighted to see Jack writing in a form that I thought I had invented. I admit that at first I felt a little disappointed to discover that I wasn't the originator of haiku novels, but then I consoled myself with the fact that I'd unconsciously followed the footsteps of one of my favorite writers.

Aubrie: What are some of the primary things you'd like readers to take away from reading your novels?

David: I’d like to tell a good story with lightly sprinkling in Buddhism, haiku instruction, and, of course, some tasty haiku. My original idea for the first book, Haiku Guy, was to write a “how to” book disguised as a novel. So my intention from the get-go was to teach. What surprised me in writing the book was how the story and its characters gradually took over, lowering the decibel level of haiku instruction to a low hum in the background, where perhaps it needed to be.

Aubrie: Although narratively the haiku and prose have slightly different functions, does your approach to haiku influence the prose of your novels? How so?

David: Well, my chapters tend to be short and pithy, as if the part of my brain that’s conjuring the prose is attempting to achieve the some sort of concision required for haiku. Of course, short chapters are nothing new; look at Kurt Vonnegut, one of my idols. Other than this connection of sameness, I think the more important connection is that of difference: the prose and the haiku contrast with one another, almost like I’m asking readers to constantly shift their gears of consciousness. The prose passages invite them to cruise smoothly forward; the haiku tell them to stop, pause, and contemplate. It’s like they need to tap their Western and Eastern minds, back and forth, like watching a tennis match.

Aubrie: One of the things that I admire most in your haiku novels is the juxtaposition of the narratives in Old Japan and present day (typically New Orleans). The juxtaposition and the way the narratives cross over and overlap remind me of the resonance of haiku and how it can cross over time and space. Did this start as a continuation or complement of your combination of Eastern and Western forms (Japanese haibun and the novel), or something else?

David: First and foremost, I was having fun. Wouldn’t it be fun to send my writing group dressed up like geisha and samurai, to Old Japan? Wouldn’t it be fun to bring one of the characters from Old Japan—as if he’s some sort of time-traveling exchange student—to Bourbon Street? I honestly wasn’t thinking about the power of haiku to transcend and connect things. Also, I wasn’t thinking about haibun at all. I made a conscious decision early-on that these novels would be Western novels written in Western style, not haibun, in which the prose is infused with the same poetic spirit that creates the haiku therein. This goes back to the East-West contrast idea. Haibun, even if you stretch it for 200 pages, is not haiku novel.

Aubrie: In examining what haiku novel is, you make a distinction between the journalistic aspects of haibun and the fictional narrative of the haiku novel. However, in the recent years, there's been an increase of haibun, in my opinion, that adventure into a structured, fictional narrative. Do you think these works are blurring the lines between what you imagine as haibun and haiku novels? Are there any other distinctions you've found between haibun and haiku since initially making these observations?

David: I’m so happy I answered your previous question before reading this one. You’re right: in my mind the distinction between haibun and haiku novel is clear. What we are seeing in many of today’s more experimental haibun, I would call “haiku short stories.” But, of course, labeling is overrated. Blurry lines are the essence of the arts, especially in these postmodern times. The situation is somewhat the same with senryu and haiku; some verses are clearly senryu, some are clearly haiku, but some exist in the blurry middle and defy categorization. I think this is a wonderful thing.