A very warm welcome from the whiptail team.
Tell us a little about yourself - your family, your hobbies, your dreams, or anything else you want the readers to know about you, apart from being a haiku poet.
My longtime partner and love of my life, Maureen Gorman, and I are in our 35th year together. That makes it the 4th-longest non-family relationship in my life, behind haiku (37 years), tennis (where I was involved professionally in a variety of capacities for 44 years), and my good friend Tom Borkowski, the current Treasurer of The Haiku Foundation, whom I met back in 4th grade (so, 59 years, for those of you counting).
I try to get away at least once a year to kayak, most often in Maine or Nova Scotia, but occasionally in the Great Lakes or even the San Juan or Gulf Islands. And I’ve parlayed international trips into kayaking opportunities as well, and have dipped my paddle in, among other places, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Scotland, England, France, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Australia, and New Zealand. Greenland and Iceland are on my to-do list.
It’s really important to have a life away from poetry, if for no other reason than we all need something to write about, aside from the act of writing.
Are you active on social media? How do you think social media affects the writing process?
I am not at all active on social media. I have a Facebook account for The Haiku Foundation, but I never use it personally, and I do not have any other social media accounts. And I think this has had a great impact on my writing process. Because I do not feel pressure to share my latest piece of writing immediately, I am able to follow my longstanding practice of putting it away in a drawer and not looking at it for a year or more. By the time I return to it, it is often extremely clear what needs to be done with it—keep it as is, edit it, or toss it. I think taking this opportunity for perspective has been one of the most important ways I have approached writing and sharing.
What made you decide to try out haiku and/or tanka in one line versus their more popular enjambed formats? How does it feel different to you?
Let me start by stating that I do not advocate monoku, or any format for that matter, to the exclusion of any other. I am an advocate of finding the exact right format for each poem, and that means being open to all sorts of possibilities, the “fixed” forms being a couple of options among many.
The three-line format of haiku in Western languages, which was not inevitable, was an inspired choice, with many rich potentialities that have been exploited for over a century now. But it is not unlimited, and there are poems that attempt to encapsulate experiences that defy the technical possibilities inherent in three lines. There are circumstances in which three-line poems, which occupy space (and consequently time) in a specific way, are not well equipped to meet. Simultaneity is one such condition; experience which requires our moving through it quickly and looking back upon it (so, a kind of hindsight poetry) is another; experiences where the context of the poem is better left unspoken or assumed is yet a third. I have termed these three instances, respectively, multi-stop, speed rush, and one thought. There are others.
My experimenting with, and adopting, monoku has really been nothing more than an attempt to find the appropriate format in which to present these kinds of experiences. I have also written a number of poems in what I would term “organic” formats, as well as plenty of normative work. In all instances, when trying to find accord between an experience and a presentation of that experience, my hope is to find a technique that allows the reader or listener his or her best possible access. My choices are not polemical, but practical.
Many poets still struggle with the dilemma of whether a particular poem will work better as a one-line poem than the enjambed form and vice-versa. What is the deciding factor in your practice?
If a genre has a normative form, as haiku does, then I think variance from it can only be justified by the need to present something that cannot be contained in the normative form. This does not need to be anything earth-shattering (though it may be), but it needs to be evident that the variant preserves its knot of energy in a way that cannot be replicated elsewise. If certain kinds of knots show themselves to be best preserved in a variant form, then this variant may itself become normative. This is what has happened in the case of monoku.
I have been working with monoku for a couple decades now, and so this struggle to decide the best presentation mode may be less problematic to me than to some. And again, it is never my intent or purpose to write a monoku, or a normative poem, or an organic poem, or anything else. It is my intent, when provided with a stimulus, to find the best mode of expression for the consequences of that stimulus. If it turns out to be a monoku, it will be because the poem’s energy inheres best in that fashion, in my opinion. And of course, that’s a lot of what an artist does—makes decisions about how to keep the energy flowing between inspiration, curator, and audience.
It would be a great help to our readers if you could walk us through your writing process from conception to the eventual birth of a one-line poem. You are most welcome to take a one-line poem or two of yours to discuss how it came to be and/or process.
As with life, these things are not simple; or, when they are treated simply, they don’t offer us very much in the way of understanding. So please forgive the detail of my explication here. It is an attempt to make things as clear as I can make them.
Describing artistic process is fraught, and probably altogether misleading. So much of the process resides in the artist’s personal being—his or her experiences, predilections, understandings, even what he or she may have had for breakfast that day. So treat these descriptions as what they are—woefully inadequate, merely hints of what actually goes into the process, most of which is unrecoverable.
A poem is useful for as long as it contains and disperses its energy. This energy dissipates for a host of reasons, and inevitably, but the better the craftsmanship of the poet, the slower the loss. Form is the way the poet crafts the receptacle that preserves the energy of the poem. Forms persist because they have been shown to preserve such energies in many instances, and offer techniques that allow the poet to put the energies involved into relief, or sharpen their impact, and so on. Decisions of form should never be idle, or default, but may yet end up as normative choices.
And bear in mind that nothing need be final: you can present a poem in one place in one format, for its purpose, and present it elsewhere in another format, for a different purpose. Nothing final has to be decided until, well, you know.
Here are three poems, illustrating the three categories of such poems I mentioned above. They all resolved into monoku very effectively. The fact that I can speak of categories suggests that certain kinds of effects seem to recur in some kinds of poems sufficiently that we can identify similarities between them. This doesn’t mean, of course, that this is the final, or even necessarily the best, way to identify or characterize them, and it will probably be evident that there can be a great deal of overlap between categories. Art is not science, and classifying poems is at best a reductive act.
So, to the poems:
pain fading the days back to wilderness
How this might look as a normative poem:
fading the days
back to wilderness
The technical advantage a multi-stop monoku enjoys is that the lineation does not exhaust the number of alternative readings available to the text. In the “normative” version of this poem, enjambment reinforces stops after “pain” and “days” and these are appropriate: pausing after “pain” permits the reader to conjure something personal and affective before plunging into the remainder of the poem. Likewise, stopping after “days” allows for a satisfying pairing of lines: “pain fading the days” is a suggestive mediation by the body to the presence of pain. In this reading, “back to wilderness” feels hortatory, and the poem becomes triumphant: whatever the pain (presumably engendered by previous interactions with wilderness), it has not been enough to keep us from once again confronting it. All this is perfectly legitimate within the contexts and meanings of these words.
But such a reading hardly expends the potentialities that this sequence of words contains. These potentialities reside primarily in their various pairings, but as we have seen, normative lineation limits these pairings. By rendering the poem as a monoku, we have at our disposal all the pairing available to the three-line poem, as well as some additional ones: pain fading; pain fading the days; the days back; the days back to wilderness. Each of these collocations has its own valence and brings a slightly different weight to the ensemble. Each tilts the perspective and the tone slightly. There is a great deal of difference between “pain” and “pain fading”, and between “pain / fading the days” and “pain fading / the days . . .”. In the multi-stop version, you get to engage them both, and they reinforce one another. This cumulative repossessing of different facets of the same image is the great technical advantage of this form. What is more, I believe this advantage is a consequence of the format. I have never seen a Japanese poem operate in this way, despite the single vertical array of its own normative form.
So we might regard multi-stop poems as we would a cut jewel: it is comprised of many facets, and each facet provides a different view. But we are still regarding the same jewel, and the various views contribute to an enlarged composite appraisal of its entirety. A good multi-stop haiku gains from each of its possible readings, and it is the linear array that makes these additional readings available.
gunshot the length of the lake
How this might look as a normative poem:
of the lake
This poem “works” as a three-line poem, and I considered keeping it this way. As mentioned, I think deviation from normative style really ought to be done only when a discernible advantage can be had from the variant. But most often I have presented this as monoku. Why?
The primary advantage the poem receives in being a monoku is reading velocity: the enjambments of the normative version slow us down by making us swing our eyes back to the beginning of line two, and again, line three (not that they have very far to go—these are very short lines—but still). The monoku version allows us to proceed right through to the end of the experience without hesitation. This, in fact, is more expressive of the actual experience, and perhaps allows us to have a more analogous response to it. In truth, most of the poem resides in the silence that follows that nearly instantaneous moment of gunshot. Both versions of course leave you in silence, but one does so more dramatically, more in the same mindset that was experienced at the moment of conception. The monoku format allows for this rendering of instantaneity a bit better, in my opinion, than the more traditional version.
five til they are one and none geese
How this might look as a normative poem:
til they are one and none
This, in its way, is the exact opposite of the previous poem: rather than the lightning stroke of a gunshot, we have the slow evanescence of a perceived pattern. To think that the techniques available in monoku might be perfect for both says a good deal about how elastic this form is.
And again, there is something attractive about the three-line version. I especially like the way “five” and “geese” bookend the long middle line: they provide the context like the bread to a sandwich, and the eye catches it this way. The long middle line emulates the slow resolution of the image, reenacting the process the poem celebrates. This is a very good solution to the presentation of this poem, and if I had settled on this, I don’t think I would feel as though I had missed an opportunity.
And yet, I do usually present this one, too, as monoku. I think most of what is offered in the three-line version is available here, and for the same reasons. What is lost is the way the eye catches “five” and “geese” at the left edge of the poem. This is regained, however, when the poem is scanned as a whole: the “bread” is now on either end of the sentence, and the “makings” still contained between them (maybe it’s a hoagie now . . .). But what is gained is again a bit of speed, and a consolidation of the poem into a single image. The context of the poem is the wide sky, of course, and our own presence before it; these, and time. The way time plays out over the single line feels more linear (as well as being actually linear) and more in keeping with the actual process of the poem. There is no distraction of having to return to the next line, and no expectation of the sort of “surprise” that is often contained in (and the point of) the three-line format. This one line of thought is all there is, and all that’s needed. That, to my mind, is the best possible argument.
Do you have any tips for aspiring poets of one-line forms?
Don’t default into thinking any format will do. Strive to find the form—one line or three (or six)—that best enacts your poem for your audience. It’s worth it. And don’t be afraid to revise, even poems you’ve already published. All the great poets revised all the time, because they were always trying to find a way to keep the most energy contained for as long as they could. They kept at it until they found the best solutions they could, and that’s exactly why we think they’re the great poets. Enjoy the journey!
Jim Kacian (he/him) is founder and president of The Haiku Foundation, founder and owner of Red Moon Press, editor-in-chief of Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, author of a score of books of haiku, and editor of dozens more. He is currently working on an anecdotal history of haiku in the West.