Friday, January 11, 2008

STEPPING STONES: An Interview with Janice M. Bostok

by Sharon Dean

CELEBRATED Australian haijin Janice M. Bostok has written haiku and its related forms for more than thirty years. She lives on the far north coast of New South Wales, where she judges national and international literary competitions, and edits anthologies and magazines, including Stylus Poetry Journal and paper wasp.

In this short interview, Sharon Dean talks with Janice about the release of her fifteenth book:
Stepping Stones, an ‘extended haibun’ about her early experiences as the mother of a severely disabled son, Tony.

S: Tony is deaf, mute, mentally retarded, cerebral palsied and autistic. Why did you feel compelled to tell his story in haibun?

J: Many people have written about their handicapped children. If you have a handicapped child it is quite good to be told, you know, ‘There is a book about autistic children and how they develop; you might like to read that.’ But I didn’t want to produce another medical-type story; I wanted to write my feelings. So in the prose sections I described what happened and what we were doing and where we were going and seeing doctors, but in the other parts I wrote poetry, which, for me, is the truth.

S: That’s where you get into what you call ‘pure creative writing’?

J: Yeah. That’s why I did it that way. But I found it was hard to get published because publishers of prose, or non-fiction, said it had too much poetry in it – which is non-fiction to me, but fiction to them! – and publishers of poetry said it had too much prose in it. So, eventually, nice Mr John Knight at Post Pressed published it for me, for which I’m very thankful.

S: Stepping Stones strikes me as feminine narrative, mainly in the sense that the focus is on what you’re feeling, rather than on a linear kind of story telling.

J: Yes, and I also found my husband, Silvester, didn’t influence my writing. As soon as he knew Tony had something wrong with him, he thought we should put him in an institution, and he didn’t want to be involved in his development because he didn’t think it was going to work. So that was the only male side I knew, which was practically nothing. Maybe why it sounds so feminine, because it was just me.

S: When you wrote the pieces in Stepping Stones, were you drawing on all those feelings at the time, or did you write some of the haibun long after the events occurred?

J: I actually had, oh, about 120,000 words I wrote in the 1970s, when I was going back and forth between Brisbane and our farm in NSW with Tony, and when I thought I was going to write the sort of book on having a handicapped child that everybody else wrote. But then, after years of mulling it over, I decided to cut away most of it. I was left with Stepping Stones, and I’m quite happy with that.

S: In the haibun called 'Pullulate' on p.8 of the book, there’s a line that runs: ‘first light touching the body of the boy my words dappling the softness of indistinguishable gurgling sounds coming from his throat … ’ To my ear, that reads like a long one-line haiku. What do you like about writing in that non-punctuated, stream-of-consciousness style? Does it remind you of one-line haiku?

J: Yes. I don’t like to stop my thought. That might sound egotistical …

S: But aren’t you giving the reader a certain amount of freedom – mainly in terms of where to pause for effect, of how to glean meaning from the prose?

J: Yeah, freedom! That’s what I mean.

S: So you’re not imposing one particular way of reading on the reader?

J: People will work out where they’ll want to stop. And I think part of the idea with the stream-of-consciousness technique is that you can read backwards and forwards; where you think there’s a stop, you can read on or you can stop. It’s like a pivot, rather than a full stop. I don’t know whether that’s one of the ‘rules’! Some people have lots of rules! But it does work for me that way. Have a pivot instead of a full stop.

S: Do you think stream-of-consciousness writing is particularly suited to haibun?

J: Yes … if you don’t make it too long. If you have shorter paragraphs.

S: In the haibun entitled ‘Polarised Light’ on p.11 of Stepping Stones, you describe watching Tony ‘running along the path flapping his arms for balance’. You write: ‘… he almost seems to be in flight which compensates for his awkward gait giving him a lightness and ease of movement which he would not otherwise attain …’ Then, in the haiku that follows, your gaze returns to the ‘slow beating of butterfly wings/upon the window sill’. In terms of your description of movement, there’s a lovely correspondence between the prose and haiku. Do you see such associations in the moment and write descriptions based on experience, or do you strive to come up with a resonance like that?

J: It actually happens. It’s not imagination.

S: There literally would have been a butterfly there?

J: Yes, but people would probably think I made it up. With Tony being so autistic and having so many different types of retardation, we never had eye contact. He never came to me and looked at me. What does the last part of that haibun say?

S: ‘… his face expressionless he bypasses me each in our own world …’

J: Yeah, we both go about our own ways. He’d run straight past me and never look at me. And I’d watch him walk on his toes, and flap his hands.

S: I suppose it’s that kind of thing, if you’re really perceptive, and you’re really aware of Tony moving like that, you would naturally see other things in nature moving like that.

J: Yeah. I’ve actually written a tanka that says something about the crow’s awkward sideways gait reminding me of Tony, which probably isn’t so unnatural after all … because Tony would sort of hop. Perhaps the crow is autistic.

Note: Stepping Stones is published by PostPressed, Teneriffe, Queensland, 2007, and can be ordered online.

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