Saturday, January 5, 2008


The Curious Incident of the Dog and the Birthday Cake: A Wide-Ranging Conversation about Haibun with Janice M. Bostok

by Sharon Dean

An avid haiku apprentice, I often drive north from my home on the Alstonville plateau to visit Janice M Bostok in Murwillumbah. The one-hour journey takes me through an ever-changing landscape of shimmering sugar cane crops, lush valleys pungent with the scent of lantana, newly laid stretches of highway overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Turning inland after the one-pub village of Billinudgel, I pass banana plantations, patches of sub-tropical rainforest, prime grazing country. At the foot of the Burringbar Range – the final mountain crossing before I reach my destination – is the seemingly deserted village of Mooball, where every power pole is painted in black and white ‘cowhide’ patches. Homemade signs implore me to buy a Big Moo Moo Burger at the Moo Moo Café, or browse the vintage wares at a shop called ‘Antiques and Collect-A-Bulls’. The village always seems deserted. As I drive straight through, a farewell sign tells me, ‘There’s no udder place like it.’

There’s little risk I’ll go hungry along the way. Roadside stalls and teahouses sell everything from homemade ice cream and chocolate-coated coffee beans, to rockmelons and papaya. Several kilometres from Murwillumbah is a grass tree that never fails to catch my eye; growing on a rocky outcrop at a bend in the road, it reminds me of one of Janice’s sumi-e paintings. Moments after I’ve spotted the grass tree, Wollumbin comes into view. Also known as Mount Warning, Wollumbin is an extinct volcano, the last refuge of ancient rainforest from a time when Australia was part of the pre-historic super-continent, Gondwanaland. Wollumbin is the sacred mountain of the Bungalung People; its name means ‘cloud catcher’. (Hence the moniker of our local haiku group, cloudcatchers. Every season, we meet for a ginko within view of the revered mountain).

All I have to do now is cross the Tweed River. In Spring, Murwillumbah welcomes me into a mauve haze of Jacaranda trees. Autumn and Winter are green, green, green. On this Summer morning, the town’s dominant hue is Poinciana red. I pass weatherboard houses, a hardware store advertising potted gerberas, Sunnyside Mall, a sushi café. Knox Park with its duck ponds, fountains and skate park. Up a hill, along a ridge and down the other side – past a cemetery and two old people’s homes – all the while drinking in the majestic view of Wollumbin … and suddenly I’m at Janice’s place. A sacred ibis Janice refers to as ‘Minnie the Moocher’ is poking about in the front garden. A family of magpies warbles from the gum trees.

Today I want to talk with Janice about haibun. We settle down with a cup of tea and start by acknowledging the way haibun in the west developed through the direct influence and imitation of Japanese literary forms. I ask Janice if she considers modern haibun to be closely related to these earlier models – such as Basho’s
Oku – or whether it’s developed into something else.

J: I think it’s developed into something else, and that is what is always exciting about something you take from another culture. But when you take something from one culture and put it into another one, it has to be understood. Anyone wanting to learn about haibun should look at its history and follow its development in Japan, but then move on from there. New forms of haibun need to be about experiences that happen in the second culture; they must become part of the culture in which they are created, and that takes time.

S: Almost like transplanting a seed?

J: Yeah. And it has to then become a natural thing, like writing haiku about Christmas. Very few people did it for a long time.

S: Because they were writing about cherry blossoms?

J: [laughs] Yeah. So it has to change. It has to change, whether you like it or not. And how it will change will depend, I think, on what happens in various countries. I mean, we all speak English – like the UK, the USA, Australia and New Zealand – but we also have slightly different cultures. Our countries and our languages have developed differently, so it’s only natural that our haibun will.

S: So you see the style of contemporary English-language haibun deviating significantly from what was happening historically in Japan?

J: Yes. For one thing, it seems to have become common to write one paragraph about something and then a haiku. I know the haibun usually ends with a haiku. Usually! But as this word ‘usually’ implies, it can also mean it doesn’t have to. The Japanese were writing full-length books of haibun. The Year of My Life – that’s a haibun. And Basho wrote short pieces and long pieces. He wrote some very short pieces, but that doesn’t mean that we just have to do that. Haibun can be any length. And then if you go so far as to take Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, well that was a complete novel, and that was a haibun.

S: So do you think writers are sometimes limiting themselves by writing haibun in the one-paragraph/one-haiku form?

J: Yes!

S: Why do you think that model has become fairly common?

J: Well, I don’t know, maybe it’s the way people started out learning haiku, saying that it had to be very short. In these days of not much time, people just read little bits, short pieces, and that’s why haiku is so popular, because it’s short and people can just pick it up and read three lines and just go off to work or whatever. It’s really like reading a couple of verses out of the Bible every morning or something, you know. [laughs] You never get the whole lot! Some short haibun can be very good, but one paragraph doesn’t really give you a lot of time to develop something for the reader. The writer may understand it, but I think you need time for the reader to work through it as well. Unless it’s terribly explicit, and then, you know, it’s not really all that good, if you haven’t got to think about it or there’s no depth to it. So I think you need more than one paragraph to develop the subject.

S: You’ve said that Brisbane-based poet Graham Nunn does the one-par/one-haiku-style haibun brilliantly.

J: Yeah.

S: What do you like about his work?

J: Well, he tells the truth. He’s shopping in the shopping centre and bumps his trolley into a good-looking woman or something, you know, and thinks about following her home. He probably writes about what he’s thinking.

I open a packet of chocolate biscuits and recall this morning’s drive to Janice’s place. If I were to write a haibun about the journey, I’d describe the wide sweep of ocean visible from the highway, the young woman who hitched a ride with me between Teven and Brunswick Heads, the wispy clouds threading around the summit of Wollumbin. Perhaps a haiku would pop into my head to express what I saw as I drove through the streets of Murwillumbah. In these parts, a weatherboard house with large verandas and a tin roof is called a ‘Queenslander’. Murwillumbah is a flood-prone town, so most of its Queenslanders are built high off the ground on stilts.

old queenslander
a heron wades
through the duck pond

A satisfying haibun, however, often traverses inner as well as outer landscapes. What journey was I taking in my mind as I headed north this morning? I remember driving past a friend’s place only minutes after leaving home, which triggered a memory of her recent birthday party. She’d given me a slice of sugar-free chocolate cake, something for which I wasn’t particularly grateful – it tasted revolting! What I did appreciate, however, was that when I surreptitiously offered the cake to her dog, the dog immediately ate it, thus disposing of the evidence. So I guess I’d write a haibun that described not only the tip of Wollumbin poking through cloud, but also my meditations on gratitude, my realisation that I can always find something to be happy about.

Biting into my second chocolate biscuit – packed with sugar, it tastes delicious! – I ask Jan to expound upon the notion of haibun developing into ‘a personal journey through experience’. In particular, does she see haibun as a journey towards some kind of epiphany?

J: Oh, that’s the word of the day, isn’t it!

S: Yeah. The word ‘epiphany’ seems to have that ‘hit by a bolt of lightning’ feeling about it. There’s probably a more subtle word. The deeper meaning of a haibun can involve a smaller realisation, can’t it?

J: Yes. You come to a realisation slowly and then you think, oh yes, that’s what I’ve been going around and around but not quite putting my finger on, sort of thing, and there it is. You find it.

S: On the other hand, could you also see a haibun being a journey towards a question rather than an answer, or do you feel there always has to be some kind of resolution?

J: I don’t think it always has to be an end. Sometimes a realisation is a beginning of something else.

S: In a Stylus interview with Rosanna Licari back in 2003, you predicted haibun would become ‘a very popular form of expression for many writers’.

J: Yeah. And it has become very popular suddenly, hasn’t it?

S: It seems that way.

J: It’s a pure form of creative writing. You really get down to it, you know, and the feelings come out. I think it just needs a little tweak here and there, as they say, to keep it on the straight and narrow. [laughs] Not to a large extent, but so it doesn’t get too far out of line.

S: If you could, right now, have three ‘tweaks’ – like three magic wishes – what would those three tweaks be?

J: [long pause] I think I would like it to be called ‘haiku prose’ rather than haibun, which is the Japanese name. As I’ve said before, ‘haibun’ means ‘haiku prose’. That name sort of brings you back to earth. You write it in a similar way to haiku – the prose is clipped and sparse; you only use the necessary words to convey what is to be said. After all, haibun began its life as diary notes. I found it very interesting too, that haibun was mainly written by haiku writers, so I would like to see that it is written by haiku writers, and not just people who suddenly come out of the blue who may have written a little bit of poetry or a short story or something and suddenly they’re writing haibun, without any knowledge of the history of haiku.

S: So those points would be your first and second tweaks. What would the third one be?

J: Actually, I would like to see that you can continue the haiku within the prose, but they don’t always have to be like in renga, that you don’t have to jump, that you can read on.

S: There have been so many rules, I suppose, in the last ten years, with editors saying the haiku has to create resonance but shouldn’t be a continuation of the narrative.

J: Yeah, well I wrote one where the haiku read on, a part of the whole piece, in about 1972, I think, and someone just found it, last year or the year before, tucked away in an old book, or magazine, and they wrote to me and said, ‘Can I put it up on the website? That is so different!’ So yeah, I think we should be allowed to have the haiku – or whatever type of verse we want to use – read on as part of the prose. Sometimes! That should be one way of doing it. Doesn’t have to be the only way, but it should be an option.

S: Well, in the event that a haiku prose genie comes along, that sounds like three good wishes to me! And you just touched on something interesting in your last comment, when you mentioned the inclusion of ‘whatever verse type you want to put in there’. In your first book of erotic haibun, Silver Path of Moon, the title piece features three stanzas of free verse followed by only three words of prose, and that’s where the haibun ends. So I’m wondering, how do you view prose that incorporates tanka or free verse or other verse forms, and what relation, if any, does such work have to haibun?

J: Well, if it’s written in ‘the way’ of haibun, it’s haibun. I mean, it sounds silly saying all the time ‘going on a journey’ or ‘going through something’, but if you are working something out in your mind or something to do with your life, and you’re writing haibun, I can’t see why you can’t include any kind of poetry. I’ve written haibun with free verse in them, and of course they’ve been considered not to be haibun, but I consider them to be. And with tanka, I mean … at the time when Basho was travelling around, and when he decided to separate the first verse from the renga, the poetry form of the day was tanka. So if anybody were writing their diary, they’d probably be writing tanka in it. So I don’t understand now why people throw their hands up in horror and say, [in a high voice] ‘You can’t have tanka in the middle of a haibun!’ That’s what would have been the natural poem to put in it, at that time. That’s why I think we should understand the history of things. Even if we don’t follow it exactly in the Japanese cultural way, we should understand what the Japanese did.

S: What’s the danger of not understanding or looking back at what’s happened in Japan?

J: You can become too constrictive. People today are making up rules for English writing, and it may be totally different from what the Japanese were writing. And I think we should just understand, even if we don’t follow it. We shouldn’t just go out on a limb and say, ‘Well, I don’t care; I’m doing it my way.’ There has to be some acknowledgement of the cultural attitudes of the time, I think. Even if it doesn’t fit in now, we should understand it.

S: Silver Path of Moon was published in 1996. Had you seen a collection of erotic haibun before that? [long pause] Did you just write one out of the blue?

J: [laughs] Oh yes, I just write things.

S: In that book, the narrator’s desire is strongly linked with nature. In the opening haibun, you describe a storm descending on the mountain, where ‘each crack of lightning tugs at me as strongly as the desire tugging at my insides; each jerk a counterfeit act of pushing inside of me; the rhythm building into the excruciating pain of desire’. Then comes the first of six haiku in that three-page piece:

falling in love
your name becomes
a mantra

J: That happens, doesn’t it? When you fall in love, you just keep saying that person’s name over and over and over.

S: Yes. It’s spot on. And I probably don’t need to ask this question, but how consciously did you work at linking your writing about past loves and lovers to the changing moods and seasons? You weren’t consciously striving to do that, were you?

J: No, that all happened.

S: Recently, I heard you refer to Silver Path of Moon as a book of haibun comprising ‘all the naughty ones’. [both laugh] Were you anxious about that book going out into the public domain?

J: Oh, yeah! I think I nearly had a nervous breakdown. But I thought, ‘No, that is me. I’ve got to put it out there. Why not that? Yeah! It’s part of life!’ And I tried not to make it, you know, crude, or rough, you know … I tried to make it dignified.

S: You could always write an undignified one now!

J: [laughing] Oh yeah, I could!

S: Some of the pieces in Silver Path of Moon inspired Melbourne composer Johanna Selleck to write a symphony, which was performed at the Castlemaine Festival in Victoria earlier this year. How did Johanna come across your work? It was in the library, wasn’t it?

J: Yeah. She just emailed me and she said she’d found that haiku about falling in love, and she said – and I couldn’t understand how she got onto it, an erotic book of haibun, to find one haiku! – but she said, ‘Oh, I’ve been studying haiku and going through books in the library and I really love this one and I want to put it to music.’ [laughs] And I thought, ‘What’s she gonna do? Just sing it over and over and over and over?’ I had no idea what she was going to do. And the music, the piece that she’s written, I think it’s just wonderful. To be able to write music like that! She had a soprano, a tenor, a counter tenor and a bass. I think the bass sung mine! [laughs]

S: And she used the haiku in a visual sense as well, during the performance?

J: Yes. There were huge projections of the words. And she used images of fractals as well – I didn’t realise that they look like flowers! – as well as some of my sumi-e.

S: It’s amazing where your writing ends up, isn’t it? Your real feeling about something expressed in a form that comes naturally to you … someone else picks up on it, and ...

J: What Johanna’s done, without knowing anything about haiku, she’s written a renga! And it goes through the four seasons.

S: She’s just done that naturally?

J: Yeah. So it’s amazing.

S: Speaking of surprises, you’ve occasionally expressed the unorthodox view that haibun can be composed without haiku. Can you expound on that?

J: Well, only in terms of what I’ve read through books written by people who are either Japanese or who are Japanese scholars. Even Bill Higginson, in the rules that he’s got in his handbook, says haibun usually has haiku. Well, ‘usually’ means ‘doesn’t have to’. Similarly, with the American Haiku Society, when they made their definition of haiku, they said the form ‘usually consists of seventeen syllables’ and the emphasis is on ‘usually’. So I imagine Higginson would use ‘usually’ in the same way. And I’ve actually read that any Japanese person would know they were reading haiku prose by just the way it was written – in the style of haiku, you know, very succinct and clipped. They wouldn’t need to see haiku to know it was haiku prose.

S: Are you confident that if you saw two passages of writing in English, that you’d be able to differentiate between which was haibun without haiku, and a piece of writing that was, say, a prose poem? Would you look, for instance, for those characteristics you were just describing?

J: Yeah, and also the other idea that you go through something, whether you’re going through the countryside, whether you’re going through something emotionally, or whether, you know, you come to some decision in the end that you’ve worked through something and you’ve been enlightened, or you’ve been aware of exactly what you were trying to sort out.

S: On a broader aesthetic matter, haiku poets and critics often speak of ‘haikai spirit’ or humour – a certain essence of the genre that can be present but difficult to describe. Do you perceive such a spirit in haibun, or as definitive in haibun?

J: Yes, I think it follows right through. We start with haiku, tanka, renga and haibun. Renga’s slightly different because it can be imaginary, you know, it’s like a game – you play out the game by writing to the rules – but yeah, I think it follows right through all the Japanese forms. That’s what makes them so different. As you say, it’s very hard to pin down, to describe.

S: Can you take a shot at it?

J: Well, it’s a spiritual feeling. On TV a couple of weeks ago, there was a guy talking about how his parents didn’t want him to become a conductor, and he said, ‘But music is a religion to me.’ I think it is a spiritual experience, that’s the only way I can describe it. Like, ‘the way’ of haiku, or ‘the way’ of whatever. I’ve just discovered that in the Japanese culture they have ‘the way’ of everything. With calligraphy, they have ‘the way of calligraphy’. The way you do it. You either do it in the printed style, which people can read clearly, or you do it in the more artistic version, which is sort of rounder and not as square … and Japanese may not be able to read it even, but it’s based on the original characters. So, there’s a ‘way’ of it becoming art, there’s a way of doing some sort of art which I think replenishes you spiritually, and you’re dedicated to it. But ‘the way’ isn’t like turning around saying, like, I’m not going to be a Christian or a Hindu or whatever, I’m going to follow ‘the way’ of haiku. It’s not quite like that, and that’s what people thought the Zen Buddhist monks were doing, following ‘the way’. But ‘the way’ can be anything you’re dedicated to.

S: So if you are reading haibun in a journal, do you get a strong sense of which pieces are infused with that kind of ‘hakai spirit’?

J: If it’s good writing, yes. Yes, I do. I get a strong sense of hakai spirit on an emotional level. And another thing I’ve discovered recently, is that haibun began as a humorous piece of prose, so it should start out seriously, and end up humorously.

S: Many are so serious, aren’t they?

J: Yeah, well I’ve written serious ones myself. And I’ve thought, ooh … but then, you know, I’ve written a few humorous ones … but see, they’re not as acceptable, because people don’t understand that. Apparently, they began just the same as the haiku; haikai-no-renga was humorous linked verse, the haibun was humorous prose. So I think we should have another look at what we’re doing.

S: And be funnier?

J: Yeah. You don’t have to be hilarious. But the haibun with lighter moments can be as rewarding as the sad, emotional ones.

It’s time for another cup of tea, then time for me to go. As I drive north towards Queensland’s Gold Coast, where I’ve arranged to meet a friend for lunch, I pass an avocado farm, fast-flowing rivers, the Condong Sugar Mill with its sickly-sweet smell of burning cane. Half an hour later, I’m stuck in four lanes of slow-moving traffic beside a multi-storey casino. Beachside skyscrapers glint in the sun. Hip hop music blares from a black BMW convertible. I think about my friend’s dog sparing me the indecency of eating that dreadful sugarless birthday cake, and I think of Janice’s advice to ‘lighten up’ when it comes to writing haibun. Who knows, perhaps the next time I try my hand at the form, I’ll produce a novel-length work of ‘haiku prose’ in which a variety of poetic forms ‘read on’ as part of the narrative, the subject matter ranges from sex to death to everything in between, and the ending inevitably involves a dog, a birthday cake and a modest epiphany about gratitude.

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