someone calls someone else
using my name
When David Cobb first moved to the small Essex village in the east of England where he still lives, the locals used to refer to him as ‘The Colonel’, convinced that someone who spoke foreign languages and made frequent, sometimes twice daily, trips to the village post box, not to mention trips to unheard-of countries ‘to do research’, had to be involved in something military and secretive. But there is nothing either military or secretive about David Cobb, a relaxed and rather shy man who is nevertheless happy to share his thoughts and ideas about haibun writing, although he self-effacingly says, “After 10 years struggling with and talking about haibun I’m not sure I have anything more that’s worth saying.”
“My first attempts at writing them were little more than word photos,” he says, “and it would be another twenty years before Spring Journey would be published.”
Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, a book length haibun, or ‘nikki’ as Cobb prefers to call it, was published in 1997 and established Cobb as the ‘initiator of the haibun in Britain’. It was inspired by Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North but as Cobb saw no value in creating a pastiche he also sought out the works of British writers that might give him some ideas about the prose, among them Gilbert White, Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way, R.L. Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage, and the collage haibun of his contemporary, Bill Wyatt. He encourages other haibun writers to do the same.
“Read the sort of people whose prose will inspire you,” he says, “not just other haibun writers”. Two of his own more recent inspirations have been WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and Iain Sinclair’s Edge of the Orison. “Although not in themselves good models of haibun prose, they gave me reassurance that haibun ‘has found its time’ in European letters.”What other advice does he have?
my poem goes to Ladbrokes
to be jotted down
“The haiku have to be important and necessary,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a case of ‘I’ve written a paragraph of prose and now I need a haiku.’”
In creating his own haibun he normally starts with the prose, and while he will often write haiku specifically for that piece, he will equally use previously written haiku that feel appropriate to the theme and subject matter.
What does he see as the function of the haiku within a haibun?
“It’s crudely simplistic, but I suppose in the prose one might look for settings and actions, whereas the haiku are deeper into reflection. There’s also the visual impact they have on the page. Something we haven’t fully exploited yet, I think. In fact, some of Basho’s seem to go beyond ‘link and shift’ and act as punctuation, bringing an end to particular sections.”
In the Introduction to Table Turning Cobb re-confirms his opinion that the haiku need to be ‘good in themselves and also perform a role within the haibun’ although he considers this desire for autonomous haiku as an ‘ideal’, a rule that can be relaxed occasionally rather then being written in stone.
“I’m humble enough to admit that it’s a very difficult thing to do” he says, “but I do believe that the haiku should retain a link and shift relationship to the prose, which should also have the capacity to stand alone too. But the essential thing, surely, is that neither prose nor poetry should upstage each other.”
He remains dubious about the often stated ‘rule’ that a haiku shouldn’t be easily capable of being ‘folded back’ into the prose. “There’s such a variety of prose that’s acceptable in haibun – clipped syntax, stream of consciousness, a more relaxed narrative voice – that almost any haiku could be written out as part of it!”
So how does he feel about the idea of the ‘haiku-less haibun’? Can such a thing exist?
“I haven’t seen one yet,” he says, “and it really seems illogical. After all, the one thing that distinguishes haibun from other kinds of short prose writing is the interplay between poem and prose. Take away the poem and what have you got?”
He draws a parallel with the debate around ‘one-word haiku’ – “It’s inconceivable such a haiku can contain a kireji. – but admits that he’s less interested in philosophical discussions of this kind than with the literary merits of haiku and haibun and his responsibility as a writer to his audience.
While other writers might wish to stress the value of ‘process’, Cobb’s motivation is normally towards ‘product’ and the satisfaction of the reader.
“A reader wants to be entertained and/or informed. A reader wants a sense of fulfilment and enjoyment. As an author you have a profession and a responsibility to enable that to happen.”
But a lot of contemporary haibun are written from autobiographical or life material. How can haibun writers avoid the trap of self-indulgence when using their own personal experiences?
“Yes. I’ve read a lot of haibun that seem to me to be substitutes for a trip to Freud’s couch. A haibun writer must not be looking for some kind of therapy for him or herself, but keep an eye on the reader and what will not be wasting his or her time. Interest is all, to adapt a well-known phrase of Keats.”
I listen to the lark
Self-indulgence is not an accusation that can be levelled against Cobb’s haibun that celebrate landscape, nature, literature, history and myth, and the characters that populate them. Their blend of story and poetry is close to his heart as someone who began by writing short stories, then shifted to haiku, and subsequently found the haibun form.
“From things that have been sitting in my consciousness for years (memory), from things that are new to me (experience), and from my imagination. I used to look for things to write about – we all need the practice when we start out – but these days I wait for them to arise.”
And how does he go about creating them?
“Nowadays I compose on the computer screen, print off a copy and make corrections, then go back to the screen. After several drafts, and when I feel I’m in danger of losing the spontaneity, I’ll put it aside and let my subconscious carry on working on it.”
And how does he know when a haibun is finished?
“I’ll have any number of writing sessions to bring a haibun to a state of completion, but is any haibun every really finished?”
This question isn’t at all rhetorical. In 2006, Cobb revised his 1997 version of Spring Journey for inclusion in Business in Eden, a task he received some criticism for, but he defends his decision because, among other things, he wanted to correct an element of “unfairness” he’d displayed towards one of his characters.
By “unfairness” he doesn’t mean a lack of truthfulness but more a misjudgement, and he has definite ideas about the ideas of truth in relation to haibun.
“People who want factual truth [in haibun] are evaluating them in terms of philosophy rather than in terms of literature. We know that Basho’s account in The Narrow Road does not always conform to what really happened by comparing it to his companion Sora’s diary of the same journey. Sora’s diary was a faithful, or ‘true’ if you like, account. Basho took artistic liberties, selected and re-organised things to create art. I view haibun as reorganised experience.”
Some people might be alarmed to know that Cobb’s own Spring Journey deviates in places from the factual truth. “But why should that matter, if the reader believes it?” he asks. “What matters in literature is emotional truth.”
‘Room’, a haibun from Business in Eden, is a sensual and playful account of how, during a Sicilian siesta, he is seduced by his hotel room, by ‘her cool breath’ on ‘a steamy afternoon’. ‘Withdrawing’, another haibun from the same book, places its narrator in a future society where voluntary euthanasia is a socially acceptable alternative to natural death, an obviously fictional scenario.
“’Withdrawing’ started as a short story,” he explains, “and was an exercise in seeing what a haibun might be able to achieve. Up until now, this totally fictional approach is a one off, and isn’t really representative of my work. But I still believe it has emotional truth.”
through a small circle
of paint-splashed glass
the open sea
“It’s liberating to write haibun,” Cobb says. “Haiku, although they can sometimes arrive whole like a gift, even if they are open-ended and one may take liberties with the form, can feel claustrophobic in their making. There’s less constraint with prose, it’s more like setting out on an adventure.”
Cobb says, “To be in at the birth of a genre is somehow idyllic,” but he admits he was apprehensive about the endeavour at first. “Would there be some irksome loss of independence? Would artifice supplant integrity? And we didn’t even have the sketchiest plan that might help us produce a coherent literary work.”
But in fact, the lack of all but the most minimal prescriptions turned out to be an advantage, and he was delighted to experience a boost in creativity, writing things he might not otherwise have written, roaming “between actuality and fiction”, without ever feeling he was really compromising his cultural “differences” as a writer and lapsing into what he regards as “infertile” homogeneity.
apricot tree is an astonishing text. It opens with a stand-alone haiku by Codrescu followed by a short haibun written by Youmans in response. That haibun’s concluding haiku acts as ‘the link and shift’ for Cobb to continue. The reader then travels with these three writers through memory, experience, and imagination, across geographical boundaries and cultural perspectives, but never outside the domain of universal human experience.
Does he think that collaborative linked haibun have a promising future?
“[Rich was] a sensitive and discerning ‘manager’ [and] his instinct for picking writers who might collaborate in a positive way must have been crucial. I suggest that it would be unwise, as some person might be tempted to do, to ‘go one better’, to launch a grandiose open invitation to all and sundry to take part in a linked haibun. It would not be ‘one better’, it would risk the infant’s life before it had begun to toddle well. It would be good if ‘linked haibun’ could keep its innocence a healthy while before the rule-mongers set to work on it.”
And one final word about how he sees his own haibun?
“Nobuyuki Yuasa recently said to me, ‘What is important is that the author is absolutely true to his or her feeling. If he contrives to be fanciful or serious, he loses his genuine feeling. It might also be a good idea to be both fanciful and serious at the same time, because our feelings are usually mixed… it is clear to me that there is philosophy behind your comic descriptions. You only hint at your philosophy and do not preach it.’
“I would be very happy if my haibun achieved something like that.”
the journey goes on
I squeeze just that bit higher
up the toothpaste tube
 from ‘a day in twilight’, Palm (2002)
 nikki: “By this I mean extended or serial haibun… Basho referred to Oku-no-hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) as michi no nikki.” Cobb, 28.1.08
 ‘Batting for Essex, England − and The World’ by Nigel Jenkins in ‘Planet – The Welsh Internationalist’, No 173 Oct/Nov 2005
 from The New Haiku, Snapshot Press 2002
 British Haiku Society Haibun Anthology 2005
 kireji – cutting word
 from The New Haiku, ibid
 “The writer seems more interested in giving us the… spiritual experience than in the prosaic recording of facts. This is expected of any literary journal.” Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho, Kodansha International 1982, p.140.
 from ‘Second Course’, Business in Eden (2006)
 from an email exchange with Nobuyuki Yuasa (Basho’s translator) about one of Cobb’s recent haibun, ‘A Walk with Issa (and the dog came too)’, Blithe Spirit, Vol 18 No 1, 2008
 from ‘deliverance’, Palm (2002)
Business in Eden, Equinox Press 2006
apricot tree, with Ion Codrescu and Rich Youmans, Leap Press 2006
Forefathers, Leap Press 2004
Palm, Equinox Press 2002
A Bowl of Sloes, Snapshot Press 2000
The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, Equinox Press 1997
Jumping from Kyomizu, Iron Press 1996
Euro Haiku, Iron Press 2007
Table Turning, The British Haiku Society Haibun Anthology, BHS 2005
The Dead Poet’s Cabaret, Iron Press 2003
The British Museum Haiku, British Museum Press 2002
The Iron Book of British Haiku, Iron Press 1998