A Hundred Gourds 4:3 June 2015

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On Haibun: an Interview with Ray Rasmussen

by Mike Montreuil

Mike: Ray, how did you get your start in the haibun writing world?

Ray: In the 1990s, I was an image guy who created photography websites. On one project, I photographed and created a website for the Kurimoto Japanese Garden near my home in Edmonton, Canada. I wanted to add Asian poetry to go with the images and found my way to haiku on the Internet. This led to an interest in haiga (images + haiku) and I joined the World Haiku Club's haiga forum and started crafting websites with other people's haiku and my photographs and digital images. After a time, I started composing my own haiga compositions. From the start I struggled with haiku, which I still consider my Achilles’ heel (unfortunately, a haiga image needs a haiku).

        It was through the World Haiku Club's haibun forum that I grew interested in haibun. I had already been writing about some of my experiences, for example, the anti-war protest in the USA. The haibun form seemed ideally suited for my desire to write more personal memoirs that I intended as a means of sharing events in my life with family and friends.

        I quickly learned that haibun composition is a much more disciplined exercise than simply sending off an email or dropping a letter in a postbox. I tentatively started submitting haibun and the first were accepted in the World Haiku Review and Simply Haiku in early 2000. That success plus my involvement in the World Haiku Club's haibun forum led to my 15-year journey with haibun.

Mike: Some consider you to be one of the elder statesmen in the field of haibun, along with the founding members of Contemporary Haibun Online. How do you feel about that?

Ray: I don't think that the term fits me, Mike. Statesmen are those who helped put English-language haibun on the map. I'd apply the honorific to the following writers/editors: Jim Kacian who founded two anthologies that carry haibun (Contemporary Haibun and Red Moon Anthology) and founded the first online journal carrying haibun exclusively (Contemporary Haibun). Ken Jones and Bruce Ross who helped him enact Contemporary Haibun as an international vehicle by serving as editors. Also kicking off haibun's visibility were Ross' Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun (1998) & Michael Dylan Welch, Cor van den Heuvel and Tom Lynch's Wedge of Light (1999), the result of the first English-language haibun contest. In 2002, Ken Jones, through the British Haiku Society, initiated a haibun contest that resulted in three anthologies. A similar effort with Nobuyuki Yuasa judging and Stephen Henry Gill assisting has appeared yearly as the Genjuan International Haibun Contest. And the Haiku Society of America has a haibun contest and publishes the winners on its website and in Frogpond. Then there were those who early on promoted haibun through workshops and helped with the spread of haibun internationally – to mention but two champions of the genre: Susumu Takiguchi's World Haiku Club and Janice Bostok's haibun promotion in Australia & New Zealand.

        Taken together, these were the people who created the awareness and, importantly, the space in journals and anthologies in which the work of a second generation of writers appeared. I'm one of those second generation writers along with others who were active writing and having their work published starting in the early 2000s.

        Because I was into creating websites, and wanted places to have my writing judged and published by good editors and thought that haiku genre websites should be beautiful, I created the websites and served as webmaster for A Hundred Gourds, Contemporary Haibun, Haibun Today and Simply Haiku and I co-founded Contemporary Haibun with Jim Kacian and A Hundred Gourds with Lorin Ford.

        I also worked with the next generation of haibun statesmen, such as Jeffrey Woodward at Haibun Today. Woodward was the driving force for the direction that Haibun Today took, particularly with his emphasis on experimentation, on the inclusion of tanka prose, and on the importance of literary criticism.

        Up to this time, but for a one-issue stint as haibun editor at World Haiku Review, I didn't serve as a regular haibun editor until I was asked to step in as haibun editor at the now-defunct Notes from the Gean around 2009. I next served as haibun editor at A Hundred Gourds. Then three years ago I began my service as haibun editor at Haibun Today. But being an editor does not equate in my mind with being a statesman. I had a deep appreciation for the level of service provided by the editors where I was submitting my work and figured it was my turn.

        In short, Mike, I mostly think of myself as a mechanic who helps drivers win races.

        It's only in the last couple of years that I've begun writing articles on haibun, which arguably might put me in some sort of different category than 'writer' or 'editor'. Does that make me a statesman? I think not. But I do hope they add some necessary information to new writers.

Mike: When I started writing haibun close to 10 years ago, fellow haiku and tanka writers would comment, "I hope it's none of that pastoral crap that is being published."

Ray: I guess you're referring to what Ken Jones called "bald narrations of country walks rendered in flat, deadpan prose and enlivened only by their haiku?" 1 Jones went on to say that such haibun "are now mercifully few – though still occasionally published." Like him, I think that our journals now and for some time have been accepting a wide variety of prose styles including normal narrative prose, prose poems and even free verse and flash fiction. As well, content has shown great variation including memoirs, dreams, conversations, aging, death of friends and family, everyday events in urban settings (e.g., a trip to the supermarket), fantasy/fiction, accounts of travel, and yes, even some nature walks and my-day-in-the-garden pieces. In addition, we've had the tanka prose variation for some time.

        In general, I think most editors are looking for well-written prose. My impression is that we lean a bit toward wabi-sabi, but there's even some humour showing up.

Mike: What's your take on the experimentation that has occurred over the last decade or so?

Ray: I believe that the experimentation has occurred for a variety of reasons. Initially, there weren't very good definitions of haibun. Yuasa, for example, a major translator of Basho's work, tells us that Basho left no definitions of haibun although Yuasa did draw on Basho's work to venture his own definition:

“None of the classical writers . . . left any definition of haibun. So we must satisfy ourselves with a vague definition like ‘a piece of prose written with the spirit of haikai." 2

He goes on to say,

". . . respect for nature, use of words in close touch with our everyday life, and avoidance of abstraction and emotionalism in search of objectivism are among the important elements of ‘the spirit of haikai’.”

        Haiku had been established and evolving a lot longer than haibun and the haiku conventions that had emerged naturally spilled into haibun. So, some of the what has been labeled as ‘pastoral crap’ may have been the result of the long-standing orthodoxy that haiku must have a nature reference and thus, haibun should be about travel experiences (i.e. Basho) or walks in natural settings (ginkos) and include a reference to nature in the haiku. Without getting into the haiku vs senryu debate, the emergent dichotomy between the two may have helped create more variation because if there is a haiku-like form (senryu) that needn't have a reference to nature and could be about the urban human experience and even about humour, then why not haibun? I think too, that many writers and editors came to realize that most of today's writers are urban dwellers. Thus, there's less nature and more urban experience in this, our 21st century writing.

        Another factor is that we've now had 10-15 years with more writers and more publication venues. And thus we've had more editors and with that comes greater variation in editorial tastes, prose styles and haiku abilities. Some editors came up through haiku and others, like myself, came up through learning about haibun prose and haiku at the same time.

        Given that haibun is so new, it's only over time that the interaction of editors and writers will produce a sufficient amount of writing for us to take stock and to differentiate haibun style and content from closely related forms like prose poetry and flash fiction. Meanwhile, from what I see, almost anything goes so long as it is well written and has a reasonably good poem.

Mike: Do you think that haibun would have died in the English-speaking world had it not been for new journals on the web like Haibun Today or A Hundred Gourds where we accept other types of haibun style?

Ray: I think that haibun might not have grown nearly as widely as it has without the new journals, primarily because they provide space for and are more willing to accept work from new writers and because the editors themselves have different tastes in content and prose style. Initially, in the case of haibun appearing in Modern Haiku and Frogpond, the decisions were made by editors most of whom came from a background of writing haiku, rather than from prose. Few of those editors had haibun as their primary practice. Today, Contemporary Haibun and Haibun Today contain the great majority of haibun published each year. Both have had 5 different editors over their 10 and 8 years respectively. In addition, there are at least 11 online and 12 print journals that now carry haibun and/or tanka prose (along with other genres) and that means even more editors with different tastes and experience. That amount and kind of variation in itself allows for greater variation in the form.

Mike: Of all the Japanese forms written in English, haibun seems to be the one that is more accepted in regular poetry circles. My feel is that regular poets think they can simply slap a "haiku" or their version of a haiku at the end of a prose poem and call it a haibun. What are your thoughts on this as a haibun editor?

Ray: Let me start with a confession, Mike. I always write the prose first and as I do, I generate phrases that might be used in a haiku. That's because my mind works on longer experiences than the quick flashes that produce haiku. But this doesn't mean that I simply 'slap one on.' I add a haiku for several reasons. First, the haiku is an important element that differentiates haibun from prose poetry and short narrative memoirs and travel pieces. Second, few editors would accept my work without a haiku. And third, I like using a haiku to close a piece. Some see the haiku as a stepping out in new directions with room left for the reader to interpret the piece. I agree, but also see other ways that a haiku is of value. It can serve to summarize the overall mood of a piece. It can also bring the work back to a more or less pure 'show' modality; after all, most writers use some 'tell' in their prose passages.

        In my view, when we read prose, our brain functions in a story listening mode learned through reading prose stories throughout our lives. But haiku requires a different reading mode. The writer is offering two brief images and asking us a) to enjoy the phrasing of each; b) to imagine the relationship between the images; and, c) to consider the relationship between the prose and poem. In short, the haiku is like a koan, inviting participation through contemplation.

        Back to your question, Mike. As an editor, I see a lot of haiku that don't seem to enhance the piece. I don't know whether that's because they were 'slapped on' or whether the writers come from a prose orientation and think that any three line ditty will serve as a haiku, or whether they've simply not yet learned what a haiku is and how it works with the prose.

Mike: You mentioned in your answer to an earlier question that according to Yuasa, Basho never left a definition of haibun. My question, as an editor and haibun writer is then, why do some haibun editors enforce arbitrary rules on haibun? One example being where the title should be taken from.

Ray: Thus far haibun has been driven by the pronouncements of a few editors and writers. Most of these pronouncements, like Yuasa's above, are insightful and they tend to draw on the characteristics of haiku to inform the desired characteristics of the prose. Some also bring what we know about prose composition into play, such as long standing formulae like ‘show, don't tell’ and ‘avoid repetition.’

        It strikes me that whenever someone starts up a journal or publishes a collection of haibun, their own work or an anthology, they feel a need to include a definition and they either repeat or draw on previous pronouncements to form their own. About this definition issue, in a review on one issue of Contemporary Haibun, Jeffrey Woodward summarized it as follows:

“… haibun in English has few, if any, hard and fast rules. Well-intentioned journal editors who solicit or reviewers who comment upon the genre may inform the reader that haibun’s requirements include any possible combination of the following guidelines: prose plus one or more haiku; use of present tense; use of first person; a subject chosen from one’s common everyday existence; a revelatory or ‘aha’ moment. . . . Unfortunately, the curious reader who conducts even a cursory review of the literature will soon discover that exceptions outnumber cases of conformity to every guideline cited and that, moreover, the exceptions quite often are not weaker for this lack of adherence.” 3

        Mike, you've mentioned titles as one orthodoxy. Joan Zimmerman reports that the Japanese masters didn't use titles for most of their internal chapters. Titles appeared in the translations of their work. When I first started writing haibun, I noticed that a fair number of pieces lacked titles and sometimes also used ‘Untitled’ at the top where one normally finds a title. Now almost everyone includes a title and most editors demand them. Modern Haiku editor Roberta Beary has explained her view that the title is of prime importance to the piece:

“In haibun, the wrong title is like a wrong number. It makes the reader want to hang up the phone. A haibun’s title should be strong enough to draw the reader into the prose and make the reader want more. Let the title be a link to the prose and the haiku, not give away the rest of the piece. After reading the entire haibun, the reader should be able to look at the title and see more than one meaning.” 4

        I think that such pronouncements about titles come from our reading of other forms and are of value or at least should be considered by writers, if not imposed by editors. For example, contemporary short stories typically have titles. We're used to them and I'd say that we require them in order to feel comfortable with a story.

        At one point, I decided to explore our use of titles in published haibun and after surveying a few years each of several journals, found that we have pieces with five types of title: 1) untitled (3%), 2) a lead in title (3%), 3) a denotative title (59%); 4) a connotative title (29%); 5) creative titles (the remainder). To be clear, I hadn't intended to suggest that only one type of title is appropriate, but instead to help writers to explore the possibilities and not just ‘slap a title onto the piece.’ But some might read that as me insisting that all titles should be connotative or creative. I don't believe that.

        Only recently are we seeing critical writing that explores these issues and offers guidance to both writers and editors. And that's the way the more-established poetry forms have evolved. First the writers and editors have at it. A body of published work appears and the critical writers try to create better understandings of what works and what doesn't. Meanwhile, since few of these definitional issues have been resolved, editors and writers will continue to pronounce away according to their own tastes in prose and haiku.

        It's not the case that some characteristics aren't becoming cemented in. Most editors I know won't accept pieces that contain generalizations or opinions – they want work that provides at least a healthy dose of concrete images based on experience. Put another way, most want more show than tell. Most are looking for good writing, some of what Yuasa described as 'spirit of haiku' brevity and a haiku that works with the prose and enhances the piece, and so on.

Mike: In an email, you wrote saying that it's only recently that you've become aware that you are one of the early carriers of the history of the second period of haibun expansion. Can you tell me how you plan to carry out the task of ‘historian’ of the second wave through your website?

Ray: I didn't mean to suggest that I might be the sole historian. I meant that just as Kacian, Ross, Jones, Welch and others carry a deep knowledge of English-language haibun from having participated from its starting point, so do we who started writing haibun in the early 2000s, the second generation of writers so to speak, carry a history of this last 15 years because we've lived it. We all need to be historians because very little of that early foundation period and this second expansion period is being written as history and some of it is being lost. For example, I can barely remember Susumu Takiguichi and Debbi Bender's original World Haiku Review. Most of us haibun enthusiasts do our own writing, submit it and hope someone likes it enough to carry it in their journal.

        History is about making sense of and organizing the presentation of memories. What was it like to participate in the various forums, e.g. the World Haiku Club, Jane Reichhold's AHA Poetry, or Michael Rehling's Haiku Hut? How has it been to see the journals grow from two journals (Modern Haiku and Frogpond) carrying just a few haibun during their first 20 years, to having 40 or so journals that now carry haibun and two devoted exclusively to haibun? What's it like to see a good number of haibun chapbooks coming out? What is it like to see a journal appear only to disappear and not be archived, and thus be lost forever? What kinds of changes have we seen over those 20 years in the variety of content and style?

        As for my part, Mike, I've recently put together a website that contains critical writing about haibun (articles, commentaries, interviews, reviews) that has appeared in journals over this period. I hope this will help writers and readers understand where we came from and what we are now. I've also put up a directory of journals that carry haibun .

        I next plan to create an archive location so that we don't continue to permanently lose journals. For example, Notes from the Gean and the original World Haiku Review are lost at this point. Wedge of Light, the anthology containing the results of our first haibun contest is lost. I recently found out that it's not even possible to find the winning haibun online. And so it goes.

        Others have or are contributing in various ways. A few examples are Jeffrey Woodward who created two anthologies ( Modern Haibun and Tanka Prose) and has created a large collection of critical work on haibun and tanka prose at Haibun Today; Angelee Deodhar kicked off a new international anthology of haibun, Journeys, and is now doing the second issue. Claire Everett has created the Skylark Tanka Journal that carries tanka prose; Lorin Ford founded A Hundred Gourds and has ensured that it has a haibun section and carries haibun articles. Three haibun contests continue on: The Genjuan International Haibun Contest directed by Stephen Gill, the Central Valley Haiku Club's Jerry Kilbride Haibun Contest and the Haiku Society of America’s Haibun contest. Overall, we have 40 or so journals, each with its own editor(s) providing places in which writers can have their work published. We have just a few webmasters who assist the online journals. We need more of them. We've recently lost what I consider to be our most important anthology, Contemporary Haibun. We need someone to step up to the plate so that we can read a collection of the year's best published haibun. Writers can help by doing commentaries and reviews.

        In short, Mike, if haibun is to continue to grow, we need to understand our history and think about it critically. More participation other than just writing and having one’s own work published is needed.

Mike: We know about haibun by Basho and Issa. I would assume that Shiki or even Buson might have written some. But, other than that, the work of the Japanese masters seems like a vacuum. Maybe it is due to a lack of translations. I read somewhere that haibun ran its course in Japan and almost disappeared. What is the history of the haibun after Basho and Issa?

Ray: Editors sometimes suggest that new writers read the Japanese masters in order to understand the haibun and haiku forms and improve their writing. With respect to haiku, there is an abundance of translations and articles on the haiku of the masters. But as you say, Mike, besides Basho and Issa, the work of the Japanese masters seems almost non-existent. Even finding the titles can be difficult, and because the masters often didn't have chapter titles, they were often created by translators. Thus, the same piece can have different titles. Here are some examples of writers from Basho onward:

• Basho (1644-1694): The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi), Hut of the Phantom Dwelling (Genjuan no ki), Notes in My Knapsack, the Saga Diary, A Visit to Sarashina Village, The Seashell Game.

• Buson (1716-1784): The New Gathering Flowers (Shin hana tsumi)

• Chodo (1749-1814): Notes from Kōshinan'an (Kōshin'an-ki) and Sketches of Moonlit Nights (Tsukiyo sōshi)

• Issa (1763-1828): Last Days of My Father (Chichi no shūen nikki), The Spring of My Life or My Spring (Oraga Haru) .

• Shiki (1868-1902): Six-foot Sickbed (Byōshō rokushaku) .

        Recently I've done a search to see which of these can be found online. And I have been able to locate translations of Basho's Hut of the Phantom Dwelling (Genjuan no ki) and The Narrow to the Far North (Oku no Hosomichi) and Issa's My Spring (Oraga Haru) . But both Basho, Issa and others have written numerous haibun which I could not find online. If readers know of or have found any other translations online, I'd be happy to hear of them.

        However, all is not lost. Those serious about reading the haibun of the Japanese Masters will find them in several books including: Haruo Shirane's Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology,1600-1900, Columbia University Press, 2002 and Nobuyuki Yuasa's Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Penguin Classics, 1967.

        As for haibun being lost in Japan, evidently after Shiki's time, that's true. For some reason, for all intents and purposes, Japanese haibun had died out. Here's David Cobb's description of the situation as experienced by Ken Jones:

“Jones entered a haibun for the 2002 round of the Sasakawa Prize for Original Contributions in the Field of Haikai. Lucien Stryk, chairing the jury, declared Jones the winner and 'a very gifted writer.' An intriguing situation now arose. It was a condition of the Sasakawa Prize that the winner should use the prize money to visit Japan and there present the 'original contribution' that had won the prize. Then Jones went to Japan, where he gave a haibun reading at a meeting in Osaka organised by the Hailstone Haiku Circle. He discovered that outside this group there was no more than slight, polite interest in the haibun form, and that no Japanese poets actually practised it any more. Haibun was to all intents and purposes moribund in the land of its birth!” 5

        Jim Kacian reports that there is now a bit of rekindled interest in haibun in Japan. It would be nice if the land where haibun originated were to also carry it forward.

1. Ken Jones, ‘Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories’, Contemporary Haibun Online 3:3 September 2007.

2. Nobuyuki Yuasa's quote was taken from J. Zimmerman's articles: ‘What English-Language Haibun Poets Can Learn From Japanese Practices’, Contemporary Haibun Online 9:4, January 2014, and ‘What Haibun Poets Can Learn From Non-haikai Western Poetry Practices’, Contemporary HaibunOnline 9:3, 2013.

3. See Jeffrey Woodward's editorial series appearing in Haibun Today.

4. Roberta Beary, in ‘The Lost Weekend’, Frogpond, Volume 34:3 2011

5. David Cobb, ‘Transmissions of Haibun’, Haibun Today 7:3, September 2013.


Ray Rasmusssen lives in Edmonton, Alberta and Halton Hills, Ontario, Canada. He spends long periods of time on wilderness hiking and canoe excursions including in Alberta's Willmore Wilderness Park, Utah's Canyonlands, and Ontario's Algonquin Park. He has served as haibun editor of the World Haiku Review, Notes from the Gean, A Hundred Gourds, and presently serves at Haibun Today. Over 150 of his haibun have been published and a good number have appeared in anthologies. His haiku genre website is here.


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