A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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“The problem with a full on bio is that
I don’t know a polite way to say that I *hate* cats.”

— John Carley     

Dyslexic as a child, a condition he would mention in more recent correspondence, John Edmund Carley was raised in an Irish Catholic community in the northern industrial region of England.

“My childhood was entirely spent trying to avoid adults beating the devil out of me. Literally. Turns out the problem wasn't Ashtaroth but Dyslexia. But at least I learnt an abiding hatred of anyone in a position of power. Myself, for instance, as sabaki.”

John showed a talent for poetry in his youth, composing mostly ‘in his head’, displaying a distinct ability for aural retention, preferring that mode to the rote study of literature. Around the age of twenty he took interest in a book that belonged to a friend. That book was The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, by Matsuo Basho, as translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa.

Striking a chord deep within, its prosaic style and subtle suggestiveness made a lasting impression that would influence John for the rest of his life.

As a young adult in the late seventies John worked simultaneously as percussionist/musician and sound engineer at the Bristol Records studios in Bristol, England. He was a founding member of The Spics, a post-punk bar band somewhat renowned for their democratically mannered collaborations in composition and performance. You & Me/Bus Stop, their one known recording of a two-sided vinyl single, was produced in 1980.

After the Spics disbanded, John formed The Radicals, who also enjoyed an LP release on the Wavelength label. John later penned, performed, and produced two more songs, Nights of Passion and Riot, two reggae influenced numbers which appear on a more recent anthology titled The Bristol Reggae Explosion1. The precipitous nature of the latter’s title and lyrics, concurrent with the ensuing riots there, led to the song being banned by the BBC!

During the ensuing years John resided in both France and Italy, honing his translation skills in both languages while working in commercial advertising.

A decade or more having passed, John returned to the north of England and became involved in the nurture and care of autistic and developmentally disabled children. At the same time he composed verse, lyrics and other forms, working with state funded grants, and developed literary programs wherein he was responsible for the establishment of a number of collaborative initiatives, including an early email based poetry forum named The Pennine Poetry Works. His interest in poetry, as well as Japanese literature, took hold and began to blossom.

John produced the first webmail forum dedicated to linked verse, The Renkujin Palace. It was there he became acquainted with Eiko Yachimoto, a leading member of the Association of International Renku (AIR) in Japan. Together they began a working relationship dedicated to the English language translation of Basho era Shofu no renga.

He also worked with others in his community to raise the profile of poetry in minority languages, establishing a series of Mushairas, poetic symposiums of national significance, which featured Bengali, Hindi and Pashtun as well as the more usual Urdu and Farsi.

To further advance the haikai form, John initiated the Young Renga project, a program involving school students of all ages in the composition of linked verse. Simultaneously, he worked as compiling editor for the regional poetry magazine Pennine Ink.

Responding to the fierce debate surrounding haikai prosody, John's creation of the zip haiku – a two line fifteen syllable stanza combining elements of fixed and free form - applied the discipline of fixed sound units of Japanese hokku to the broader verbalization of English language haiku.

     not so young      the leaves are learning
       when to brace      and when to bend

by the time      I reach the gate post
another leaf         has fallen

By century's end, having acquired a considerable working knowledge of the history and machinations of haikai composition, John became the first renku editor of the online journal Simply Haiku. His essays on renku composition have since appeared in numerous online journals – World Haiku Review, Haijinx, A Hundred Gourds, and Haiku NewZ to name a few. He has also contributed extensively to the Journal of Renga and Renku.

Over the last decade John developed the Renku Reckoner website, the most viewed and dog-eared source of renku diagram and aesthetics in the English speaking world. An updated and expanded version of Renku Reckoner will soon be released in book form2.

A more recent innovation of John’s was the Yotsumono, a compact, intuitive form of renku wherein two authors alternate voices in only four verses. The Little Book of Yotsumonos3 was published in 2012. Composed with John and six other international renku authors, the 60 poems within the book cover an entire range of emotional tenor and control. Here are October Sun and Armstrong’s Boot, below:

I weigh myself
against a spider mite—
October Sun

forced strawberries
the colour of spilt blood

for a dare
he holds a 9v battery
to his tongue

fizzing in our ears
long after dark

                John Carley  / Sandra Simpson

dear reader
please note that my pond
is just a pond

yet the ripple spreads
from shore to shore

Armstrong's boot
forever planted
on Selene's face

from afar so blue
this pockmarked planet

             John Carley  /  Carole MacRury

So well received was this format that even John marveled at its effect;

“What has been really encouraging about this project is that I’ve returned to sequences I haven’t seen for a while – and haven’t immediately been sure who wrote what verse.”

John’s innovative and beautiful poetry book, Nothing But the Wind 4, was published in 2013. Each of these fifty-three previously unpublished haiku are paired with Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaido.

“25th of December 2011, Christmas Day - my presents. Amidst the whisky and the wah-wah pedals was a copy of The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō by Ando Hiroshige. My son had chosen it because it reminded him of that famous travelogue by Bashō. Did I like it?”


  a ferry plies
between the floating worlds
snowy Fuji

John and his immediate family have most recently resided in the Rossendale Valley region of northwest England. He once described himself as, “the quintessential representative of the only minority that isn't a minority … a fair skinned, middle aged, middle class Briton with 1.0 wives and 2.2 children.”