The Stone Lantern

Friday, June 23, 2006

What is haiku (con't.)?

I'm still enjoying my vacation. Yesterday I took my 12-year-old son and his cousin to visit the museums in our nation's capital, on the Mall. It was 94 degrees and muggy. We visited the insect zoo and an exhibit on the Arctic. Then we crossed the Mall to the Hirshhorn sculpture garden and after that, tackled the Hirshhorn itself.

What's that? The question came as we approached the first item in the sculpture garden, an array of metal construction beams, painted thick with red. That is NOT art! my son announced, indignant. Sure it is, I told him. It's a modern sculpture. Why is that art? How do you know it is art? I wished my sister-in-law, the art history professor, were around. She would have the answer. I tried the Socratic method. Pointing to a Maillol nude, Well, boys, what about that? Do you think that is art? and then, before Rodin's Burghers of Calais, What about that? Is that art? and inside the Hirshhorn before an assortment of paintings, What about that? is that art? And this, is this art? Sam and his cousin studied each piece, debating with each other which ones were art and which not. We came to a sculpture, Kiln Man, by Robert Arneson, and there the two clearly disagreed, my nephew convinced it was art and my son just as convinced it wasn't. I couldn't figure out what their standard was, and they couldn't explain it to me, but they were sure, regardless.

(You know where this is going, of course.) It didn't take long for me to ask myself, What is art? Well, what is haiku? There are hundreds if not thousands of definitions of art. My sister-in-law the art historian challenges her students to think: why is one thing called "art" and another "craft"? What is art to one person is not always art to another, even among professionals.

So, what is haiku? Do we all need to agree on a definition? Can I define haiku my way and you define it your way? Can I say, That's a great haiku! while another says That's not haiku at all? For me, the answer is yes. Everyone can, in theory, define haiku in his or her own way, but - and here's the catch - you better be prepared to defend your opinion, because I am going to defend mine with passion and determination.

So, if you aren't sure what haiku is, you may as well start with the definition in my previous post. If you are sure of what is haiku, then go right ahead and pick out your favorites, and try to write haiku that lives up to your standard. But don't assume I'm going to agree with you. I've got strong opinions.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What is haiku?

I had a great time last night giving a talk about my book at the Japan Information and Culture Center in Washington, D.C. The audience as far as I could tell was a mix of westerners with an interest in things Japanese, and Japanese with an interest in haiku. All of the questions were excellent, and I enjoyed trying to answer them, and I especially enjoyed thinking more about the questions in the car on my way home.

Here's one question that came up: What is haiku? It's actually a really good question, and it is one of the hardest ones for me to answer. Often, someone will say, "Oh, it's a seventeen-syllable Japanese poem about nature," or "It's a poem in three lines about nature." But in fact, nowadays most haiku poets outside Japan are moving away from a structural definition of haiku (x number of lines, x number of syllables) and toward a definition based upon content.

In my book, I quote the current Haiku Society of America (HSA) definition of haiku:

A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.

I like this definition not because it is perfect (after all, there are some good haiku out there with no connection to nature or to the seasons) but because it gets budding haiku poets away from thinking about syllables and lines.

You might be asking what's so bad about focussing on syllables? Well, for one thing, the seventeen syllable bit comes from the Japanese, but in Japan a "syllable" works very differently than in English. (In fact, the actual Japanese term isn't syllable but "sound.") Here's the challenge: In Japanese, all "syllables" are the same length, so seventeen syllables are seventeen "beats." Seventeen syllables in Japanese gives you a rhythm. But in English, the length of a syllable has no bearing on rhythm as it is not equivalent to a common length of a beat. For example, "a" is one syllable, but so is "read." "A" is a short beat, but "read" is a long beat. So if you try to write a seventeen syllable haiku in English, you are really doing nothing to help give a rhythm or beat to your poem -- which is what you would be doing in Japanese, of course.

I think I'll stop there. There's tons of information on this subject on the Web. Next time I sit down to write, I'll address some of the other questions that came up, like do differences in languages beget different kinds of haiku? And if so, how do they differ?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Book Sense!

My publicist emailed me earlier this month to tell me that my book has been picked as a Top Pick for June by Book Sense, the association of independent booksellers of America. She's happy because it means that my book, The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan, is featured in the monthly Book Sense flyer available at all Book Sense independent bookstores, and it puts me on the screen for reviewers and interviews. I'm happy because I feel less like an idiot when I walk into a book store and ask them if they'd be interested in stocking my book.

Walking in off the street to sell my book is what I'm doing all this week. I took the week off of work and drove down from Quebec to Washington, D.C., with a stash of books in my trunk. The hook is a talk I've been asked to give June 20, at the Japan Information and Cultural Center, jointly sponsored by the Japanese Embassy and the Japan America Society. The rest of the time, I'm popping into bookstores and promoting my book. I feel like an encyclopedia salesman. What's worse, my relatives keep asking me when the Washington Post or the New York Times is going to review my book. "And what's this Japan-America Society thing? How come Borders isn't asking you to do a signing?"

The big discovery for June? The same as last month: bookstore managers look at the word "Poetry" and roll their eyes. Poetry, it turns out, is a non-starter in America. Now I am catching on, so when I walk into a store, I quickly point to the word "Memoir" in the title. I even mention Diplomat. And Foreign Policy. And North Korea. (I really do talk about North Korea in my book. Check it out.) None of this seems to be enough to overcome the P word, and there being no sex or violence in my book. But Book Sense did select it as a Top Pick for June, didn't they? So it must be really, really well-written, right? I mean, because the sex isn't there. (Okay, so next time, I'm throwing in the sex and getting rid of the poetry.)

The winner of the Kindest Bookstore Employee of the Month Award goes to the woman at the Barnes & Noble on M street in Georgetown. If you are reading this (I am sure she isn't), thanks for your enthusiasm. "Oh, I love new authors and new books!" she said, and then she introduced me to the store book buyer and they both gave me the name of the events organizer. And they said they would order some of my books right away. And she liked the book cover. (Miss Manners Rule #3,405: There is no such thing as an ugly baby, and there is no such thing as an ugly book cover.) So I'm sending my buddies over there to buy copies. It's nice to have that warm feel of camaraderie in a bookstore, and it's especially impressive in a large chain.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Next Book or Not

On my computer I have a folder I’ve named New Book Project, and one called My Blog. New Book Project was last opened Memorial Day weekend, the same weekend I started My Blog, which as you can see I open more frequently. So now I am running an experiment. I am going to continue this Blog for two more months and see if I make any headway with New Book Project. If I don’t, I’m going to then open a new folder on my computer titled Depression. The latest rage is to turn a Blog into a book, but that only makes sense if I’m planning on writing a memoir or a first person novel. What if Blogs aren’t the first step to writing a book at all, but just one more excuse not to get around to writing a book? Hmmm.... I may have to open that Depression folder earlier than I thought.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Translating Haiku; Emiko Miyashita

I used to think that my only limitations to translating haiku were my fluency in the original language and my poetic talents in English. But I now know there are more obstacles than that.

Last winter, I decided to entertain myself through the bitter cold months in Quebec City (where I live) by translating haiku:

first snow --
I linger in bed
translating haiku

Abigail Friedman

Japanese haiku poet Emiko Miyashita had given me a book of her haiku a while back, so I pulled this off the shelf one Sunday morning, got back in bed, and flipped through the pages. This one struck me as quite translatable:

harusamushi kara no kataki o fumikudaku

At first I thought of translating it this way:

cold spring
the hardness of husks
I crush underfoot

or maybe this way:

cold spring
the hardness of husks
crushed underfoot

but then I felt that “cold spring” sets a stark, clear mood. The cold in springtime isn’t a fuzzy-minded cold, like in the winter, where the cold is so harsh it numbs my faculties. In the springtime, the cold wakes me up and makes me alert. So I thought I should be blunt and clear at the end of the haiku, like this:

cold spring
the hardness of husks
I step on and crush

As an aside, I confess that I am partial to inserting a subject (in the above case, “I”) now and then in my translations, as I think we sometimes take the ambiguity that is natural in Japanese and carry it over into English, where it is unnatural. The result: North America is awash in haiku that sound like the fortune in a fortune cookie. I don’t always spell out the subject, but I think it is okay now and then to favor the natural tone of a haiku over the literal (lack of a subject) in the original Japanese.

Here is a condensed version of Emiko's email back to me on my translation of her haiku:

Dear Abigail,

My English version of this haiku goes like this:

a shell's solidity
crushed under my foot
early spring

殻 can be husk and also shell, a very handy word in Japanese, and at the same time a very confusing word for a translator.

春寒しis used in spring, after risshun 立春 (my note: another haiku seasonal word) and when it is still cold. An early spring kigo (my note: seasonal word). We feel that "Oh, the calendar tells us it is already spring, but we are freezing!!" We feel even colder because our expectation is high and we think it should be warmer judging by the calendar.

I have the image first--the crushed shell--and then the early spring in the third line in my English version. Somehow, I had wanted the fact first and then the matching seasonal word to give the background for the poem.

Crushing a tiny shell under my sole was a cold experience for me. Its crisp texture and that small crushing sound, a very dry sound -- they were very appealing to me then.

And then Emiko took on my translation:

cold spring
the hardness of husks
I step on and crush

She wrote:

I did not intend to step on a shell and crushed it on purpose, but this one has such a feeling, and it interesting in that way--as if to crush the hard husks of winter which are still remaining here and there on the surface of the ground. By crushing those husks of winter one by one, it gets a little warmer and warmer.

I am grateful that Emiko Miyashita was able to clarify for me what she meant by her haiku. With haiku poets who are long gone, my only hope is to learn as much as possible about them before tackling a translation.

The other thing I enjoyed about my exchange with Emiko is how she acknowledged the possibilities in my version of her haiku. It wasn’t just politeness (although she is always gracious and thoughtful). She was also highlighting a reality of haiku: we might write a haiku intending one meaning, and another person will come along and see in the haiku an alternate meaning. In my book, The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan, Traveling Man Tree touches on this when he says to me, “Sometimes a haiku will hold more meaning than you think of when you write it.” (The Haiku Apprentice, p. 121.)

Rather than being irritated by multiple interpretations, I see it as an intriguing aspect of haiku -- one that is not so different from life itself. I might go about my day thinking I am conveying one face to the world, but another person will see a very different part of my soul, one that I had no idea I was conveying.