Around the World As Briefly As PossibleJim Kacian, Haiku Pacific Rim Conference
Los Angeles, November 2002
Rest Stop, Pennsylvannia 21 October 2002
On my way today leisurely in the mid-morning. Showers and sunshine, the road empty, the van humming. Haven't had time to complete my LA talk, so I'll be doing it as I go. I've been asked to speak about my world trip from a couple years ago, and have the notebooks for inspiration, but trusting I'll be able to bring it together remains an act of faith. There is always a gap between our imagined journey and our actualthe calculus which measures the variances is valued in our deepest emotion, in pride and anxiety and fear and joy. The arc of our activities can never be known until completed. Time and distance have a way of heightening awareness of this reliance on faith. A trip to the grocery store can be fraught with the same drama as a trip around the world, but expectation, and the dwelling therein, certainly is not. Experience provides me a shape I might anticipate. But extended travel, with its multiplication of variables, can never be wholly plotted. And so I am thrown back on faith. A morning rainbow, fittingly enough. I've read that all rainbows are individualthat someone next to me will not experience the same rainbow as I do. This is because their angle of refraction, no matter how close to my own, is still slightly different. I might directly experience my personal rainbow, but can only infer the rainbows of others. Nevertheless I believe in them, knowing that whether real or imagined, it takes only a slight shift to heighten their colors, or to make them disappear altogether.
Oxford, England 29 August 2000
Can haiku, the briefest genre, ever be anything more than a hothouse exotic in the reckoning of world literature? We gather here not so much to debate this question as to overwhelm it with our presence. There are many speakers and panels and exhibitions, and we are all very earnest, but nothing here yet convinces that we are anything more than a particularly enthusiastic club willing to travel out-of-pocket to proclaim our advocacy. I am discussing this very point with Martin Lucas as we cross the bridge over the river Isis and meander the venerable turf beneath granitic architecture.
Martin is possessor of the only Ph.D. in Haiku ever granted by the University of Wales. He laments his lack of professional opportunity: in a world that values art as commodity, haiku has no purchase power. He is unemployed and unemployable. We walk by Blackwell's, and because we are book people and have no choice, we go inside. Not easily found, a small but convincing section on haiku-books on the Japanese masters, in English and Japanese; books by the best-known U.K. poets; even books from the States, including those from my own Red Moon Press. We are immeasurably heartened: Blackwell's believes in us. Is this false cheer based on marketing trends, or is haiku, positioned here between "Film" and "Entertainment", moving towards respectability?
Tolmin, Slovenia 3 September 2000
Gather the men of several countriesZoran from Serbia, Ban'ya from Japan, Ion from Romania, Milivoj of Holland via Croatia, Zinovy the Russian Jew, Alain from Bretagne, myself the lone Americaninto the house of a Slovene, born Bulgarian, bearing a Yugoslav passport, fill with euphoria from a successful weekend of talk, drink and high emotion, and they will sing. And what songs! Traditional songs of the many lands full of pathos and longingthe Japanese melody a trifle which nonetheless keeps its poise; the Russian full of strast and bravura; the chanson pastorale melodic and light as air; and Zoran declining to sing because he's played only rock n' roll and such music is "not fit for such a night in such company". I sing "Shenandoah" and am pounded on the back and proclaimed to have great soul. I am here among men and with their spirit.
passing the jug
The Wabash, Indiana 21 October 2002
The land is perfectly flat for two hundred miles east and west. Corn and soy predominate, and the huge machinery used to cultivate it can cut and bale a football field in three minutes. This is the local purview: endlessly flat, endlessly the same. But unexpectedly at the Indiana border the wrinkled declivity of the Wabash River snakes and bumps along a north-south axis, etching a deep cleft in the perfect tableland of the midwestern plain. This is exactly how I was first struck by haiku: the flatland quotidian cut suddenly deep, with an unexpected life to be found underground. Thoughts on the talk coheringrunning the road for hours on automatic pilot frees the mind, just as when I hike or paddle myself into a trance. In fact, this method is itself a model for what I need to say. Two thousand miles to finish the job.
Vilenica, Croatia 8 September 2000
Of the three major international literary festivals (Ohrid, Beograd, Vilenica) held each year in the Balkans, Vilenica is easily the most physically impressive. Held in a cave used as a hideout and safe place in times of war for at least 800 years, it instantly creates a feeling of solidarity amongst its participants
That feeling is reified by the messages of the speakers, who implore that we find ways to communicate beyond the boundaries of culture and language. Interestingly, the speeches are given in the native tongues of the speakers, and translated into English. Nobody even seems to notice. This year's top prizewinner, Peter Handke, is a German novelist known throughout Europe and increasingly elsewhere. His writing is terse, intense, melancholic, but he is none of these things; his talk is lively and well-received. The remainder of the program is given over to readings. I offer a dozen haiku in English. As I return to my seat onstage the master of ceremonies says my poems remind him of the last American to read haiku at Vilenica ten years ago, Allen Ginsberg:
In the half-light of dawn a few birds warble under the Pleiades
Skopje, Macedonia 11 September 2000
Skopje is the most international Balkan city, a true melting pot. It has tolerated and incorporated cultures and languages from outside its borders for three millennia without losing its aplomb and sense of humor. So it is disturbing to learn that Macedonia has begun, as national policy, to insist that all television and radio broadcasts be produced in Macedonian, and all non-Macedonian speech and text be translated into it. On the surface this seems harmless enoughit seems right that when I, an English speaker, appear on national Macedonian television, a translation be provided to our audience. But this is not the intent of the legislation: what is actually being attempted is the maintenance of the "purity" of the Macedonian language. Macedonians speak a farrago of the southern Slav tongues that have been alloyed until lately as Serbo-Croatian. But in the high lather of nationalization since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, each region, vying to maintain a tenuous hegemony over its own lands and peoples, has enacted legislation similar to Macedonia's. So there is now, at least nominally, a Bosnian language, a Hercegovinian language, a Montenegrin language, and so on. To the uneducated ear there is no discernable difference. For Serbo-Croat speakers, some regional and dialectical variances are accommodated. But there is no real difficulty for a Bulgarian conversing with a Bosnian, or a Slovene with a Croat. These things happen every day, and everybody knows it. During this same television broadcast, questions are put to my fellow poet Dimitar (a typical Balkan: born in Bulgaria, raised in Serbia, living now in Slovenia with his Croatian wife, and carrying a Yugoslav passport), which he clearly understands and to which he might respond coherently. But he must instead wait while our friend, the well-known poet Sasha Prokopiev, who has been brought along for the task, "translates" out of the Macedonian and into the Serbian. Dimitar is often quick to rise to indignities, and this certainly tests him, but it weighs even more on Sasha, a gentle man with a lively sense of humor who is finding nothing funny here. Several exchanges go on like this, with an edgy waiting while the same words are repeated, then again in the reply. The time goes by achingly, and we are all on edge. Suddenly this all changes: Sasha, unable to stand it any longer, risks greatly and responds: "I'm certain you all understood Mr. Anakiev's reply, so rather than repeat it to you let me add my own comments." A few minutes later our time is up and we are on our way out the door. We expected the police. Instead, the rest of the day is a celebration in the streets, at the pubs. Everyone has seen usthere is only one station and poetry is big news in this countryeveryone hails Sasha and applauds his act and tries to buy him a drink. The party goes on through the night and into the next morning when it's time for the next installment of the television show. But the station airs only its broadcast symbol. I'm told this happens a lot around here.
Nebraska 22 October 2002
Sofia, Bulgaria 14 September 2000
Bulgarians are famous for their women and yogurt and literature. Not just poetsall Balkans fancy themselves to be thatbut a people aware of their literary heritage: on the park benches in the central square a life-sized bronze of Ivan Vazov converses with another of Hristo Botev. This nation boasts other traditions as well: the first translations of haiku into a western language were not done in Holland or France, Great Britain or the United States, but right here, in 1836. So it is no small thing to be invited to speak before the amassed poets of the oldest literary society of such a country; even more to preside over the formation of their national haiku association. The days leading up are full of news conferences and photo opportunities, meetings with the directors and leading writers of all the literary associations, appearances on national Bulgarian television, luncheons with publishers. The occasion itself is held in the State Library, a massive gray Soviet-style granite building. The well-known stage actor Peter Petaric provides a simultaneous interpretation of my talk, while musical interludes are provided by the harpist from the Bulgarian National Symphony. A lively question-and-answer period is followed by readings by several of the poets in attendance, including Nikolai Kantchev and Dimitar Stefanov, both renowned even in the West, and the best literary publishing house in Sofia commissions a book to celebrate the occasion. The Bulgarians are doing better than what everyone else I visit is doingusing my arrival as an excuse to accomplish something that has been long in coming and simply needed a push. I am not so much a player in these events as a catalyst. But in a modest way I realize I am also the face of America herecertainly I am the only American most of them have ever met. I tell them I am not a typical American, but I don't insist upon it. For one thing, I'm a poet, and it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to have America identified for once with something other than politics.
Beograd, Serbia 23 September 2000
A great honor: I am invited to speak at the Yugoslavian International Literary Festival. Typically more than fifty nations send representatives, but Americans are rarely included, not the least reason being political. The theme of this year's festival is "I would like to say . . ." certainly opportunity enough for all. And full advantage is takenlots of political hectoring, literary posturing, personal self-aggrandizing. Also something unexpecteda kindness extended to me by the Serbs after my brief talk, a very moving tributeperhaps this is exactly what people would like to hear from Americans, that they are seeking bridges to connect with others. I am gathered up by a large contingent at the end of the day, and we go out to a bar built into a local Roman ruin beneath a bust of Janus to drink the local rakija and talk politics. Much good will is established, toasts drunk, poems exhorted. I feel, as I so often do in the Balkans, that I understand these poets. The next day these same people, emptied of the evening's spirits and bonhomie, are quarreling, threatening, wheedling, returned to the full compass of their earlier selves. As I make my way into the room with them, disputations cease in my vicinity, but break out anew behind me. And so on, through the room. I gather that I'm a token towards which all sides have agreed to take a common and positive view, but in the particulars of their own lives, there is no space for compromise, no ground to be lost. I feel, as I so often do in the Balkans, that I understand these people. . .
The Great Salt Desert, Utah 23 October 2002
The Great Salt Lake is rimmed by a margin of alkaline sand which runs a hundred miles as the Great Salt Desert all the way to the border of Nevada. Hardly anything grows, and it remains a vast empty tract, lunar in aspect. Traversed by Interstate 80a flat black strip across the whiteness of the plainyou can see the headlights of cars coming in for several minutes. There's no wood for posts out here, so the land is unfenced. Anyone is free to make his way, by car or on foot, off the road and out into this no-man's land. Some have tried, and tire tracks laid down a decade ago are still visible in this unchanging climate. But along the road edge, cobbles used to make the highway have been left, and wayfarers have taken to using this expanse for purposes of their own, spelling out messages in the sandy margin with the stones. Doug loves Cindy, not once but many times. Climbing out of Utah into Nevada, I forget about these messages, but farther up in the high desert encounter them again. They are writ on every sandflat that will hold a stoneacts of faithDoug hopes his Cindy travels this way, and somehow Cindy must know it is her Doug. I drive past, searching, as though expecting one of the messages to be for me. No one's coming, for miles. I stop along the margin of the road, cadge together a few hundred stones, and lay out a poem. One car passes as I'm working, a second just as I finish. I realize I'm writing for a very small audience, and that even of those, perhaps only a handful will know my poem is intended for them . . . or care. It occurs to me I've been doing this a very long time; it seems appropriate to find this measure of my life here in the thin air more than a mile up in the high chaparral of Nevada, a word which from one derivation might mean "snowy", or, in another, might mean nothing at all.
Banks Peninsula, New Zealand 28 September 2000
"Quardle-ardle-oodle-wardle-doodle, the magpies say." This is arguably the most famous line of New Zealand poetry, written by Denis Glover in his 1941 poem "The Magpies," which tells of the hardships of settlers in their new land, and that land's indifference to their sufferings, utilizing the stylized chatter of these ubiquitous birds as its symbol. One can find reference to the poem everywhere: the shop where Glover founded Caxton Press (the first and best literary press of these islands) bears a plaque which quotes it; the sidewalk before the government buildings in downtown Christchurch features a bronze plaque; and no anthology of Kiwi verse would be complete without it.
But finding his grave is something else again. John O'Connor has taken me out on a moody and threatening morning over Herbert Peak and down towards Little River, stopping in Akaroa for lunch and a glimpse at life here a century ago. Then atop the sheeproads, bending along the curves of the innumerable fjords emptying into Pegasus Bay, we dive into an isolated ravine. Beneath a blue gum (a much-despised Australian import) 100 feet high abutting a Maori family grave sits a modest and worn stone, unadorned and uncelebrated. Stories abound of Glover's capacity for drink and ribaldry and "a man's lone life". Out here, sheep run freely across these green and rocky slopes. Only the wind makes a sound, and the sea birds, looking out on a thousand miles of uninterrupted ocean.
long, slow curve
Katikati, New Zealand 6 October 2000
The Haiku Pathway set in restored land along the Uretara Stream is a gathering of two dozen boulders, each deeply incised with an English-language haiku placed along a meandering track which seeks to match the poem with its physical position. Janice Bostok's poem, for instance:
is located at the bus stop at the center of town where the pathway begins, and is an invitation to enter the park itself. Other poems are placed with equal felicityBill Higginson's poem, concerned with mud, is sunk into the bog near the beginning of the path and offers a flat spot, a stepping stone above the mire. Catherine Mair's poem on bird shadows occurs at a crepuscular bend in the river where shadows would be present at all hours. My own poem
is placed alone at a spot where the visible mountains are continually shredding the constant flow of clouds from the west. There are plans to double the number of poem stones, and Catherine Mair, who envisaged the project and has brought it to fruition, is even now contemplating new selections. The Haiku Pathway is not Cold Mountainwe are not here romanced by the power of story, as by the tales of Han Shan carving his Taoist poems onto the steep declivities of the Kun Lun; Katikati is only beginning to create its own tales. Yet it's not too much to say that the Haiku Pathway is the single most important physical monument to what we are up to, and the only place in the world where English-language haiku is carved in stone.
South Fork, Nevada 24 October 2002
Camping on hallowed Indian land beneath an ice moon at more than 7,500 feet, the thin wind even more pungent for the ubiquitous scent of sage. The Paiute once perfumed themselves with it, not only to honor their totemic plant, but also so that the wind, in passing, should find them of the same tribe. A clean, penetrating scent, keenly perceived, instantly identifiablewhat we search for to express in haiku: essence. The arc of my talk now apparentmy previous trip has become bound up with this one, the one commenting on the other. I don't know yet how it will endI haven't lived that part., but am homing in.
Tasmania, Australia 9 October 2000
Tasmania is a medium-sized island off the southern coast of Australia. Its place-name is used by Aussies to suggest unimaginable hickness, just as we might say "Timbuktu". People there live in modest houses and lead lives of quiet desperation just as anywhere else. They are hungry for adventure, recognizing a gap between their reality and their dreams, in the way people everywhere do. While visiting, I've asked Tassies about their idea of the exotic. One answer (of many) was the equatorial jungles of Central America. There they would find Progreso, a small city carved out of equatorial jungle in Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula. More worldly Mexicans, those from Merida, for instance, use the name Progreso to denote a place of unimaginable hickness. However, the people of Progreso have dreams of commerce and worldliness, and have recently put in a pier to accommodate cruise ships, so that they might sell t-shirts and watery beer to sunburnt Americans, trading this money for contact with a larger life. These people in their leisure do not frequent the bars they have built on their waterfront but have their own, tucked away on the lee side of town, insulated from intrusion into their own exotic dreams. The name of their bar is "Tasmania".
Sydney, Australia 13 October 2000
I am introducing haiku to a group of boys at a private prep school in downtown Sydney. The boys have sacrificed their lunch period voluntarily to listen to a Yank talk about poetry. There are 20 or so as we begin, and a few more filter in as their last morning classes let out. Half a dozen teachers join us as well. They all sit in the back of the room. I write a sample poem on the board. One of the teachers comments immediately that it doesn't have 17 syllables. It's a good opening . . . So we speak about form, which leads to history, to content, to sensibility, and ultimately to what really matters, the poetry of our lives. I ask these boys12 to 15 years old, dressed identically in their school uniforms with tieswhat matters to them. They tell me: grades, friends, sports, sex, girls, love, sex. It's another good opening, and we talk about these things, and about powerthe power that writing is, the power of carving out a space in the mind which is wholly our own, unassailable. We talk about how much in our lives is dictated by othersby our culture, our parents, our teachers, our friends. Writing, we decide, is a place where we are not beholden to all these influences, but only to ourselves. Writing is a room of one's own, and all the boys agree they would be eager to spend time in such a place. We try our hands at writing some poems. I ask them to be as specific as possible, to try to base their poems on their own experience, on things that they know directlyno second-hand truths. Heads bow, the sun streams in, the clock ticks away the seconds. After twenty minutes I ask if anyone would care to share. These are brave boys and honestthey write from their hearts about intimate things. I am honored by their trust, and love them for it. The poems are somewhat lacking technically, but this sort of thing can be learned. More importantly, they all ring true, which is only possible from a self seen truly. Every boy offers a poem. Our time is running out fast. I ask the teachers, who have been silent throughout, if they would care to contribute. A longish pause before one speaks up. Then another, and another. They, too, would like a room of their own, and have all tried to summon it. But somehow their poems feel distant, formal, strangled. They have become bound up with external matters, like syllables and season words. They are unwilling to let these things go, first or last. It's no been long since the teachers were the boys here, fiddling their ties and daring greatly. There is sadness in their faces. And something else, perhaps resolve, forming in the younger ones. The bell rings and they hurry off to their next classes. Left behind on the board, a poem by one of the boys:
tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .
Mt. Tam, California 25 October 2002
I bought my 1993 Volkswagen Eurovan a few months ago after a long search, knowing this trip and others lay ahead. And now I have traveled some 3000 miles across the heart of the country. During this time I did not see even a single Eurovan. Arriving here on the west coast I head directly for Mt. Tam, parking in the lot at Pan Toll Road Ranger Camp. It's a late Thursday afternoon at the end of October. Here in the lot are two other Eurovans, with a third pulling in behind. I feel a swell of solidarity immediately with these people who should gather their rare vehicles at this rare place and time. We are a tribal species, and the solitariness I've found in the heart of the country is slightly appeased by this community with others on the far edge of the continent. But as I walk Steep Ravine Trail down to Stinson Beach to camp for the night I find myself musing on the obverse side of the coin, on individual action. The whole of the peninsula would look, I expect, much like the rest of Marin County if not for the vision of John Muir, who found beauty worth preserving a century ago where we all find it today. It is individual vision that creates, somewhere down the line and often in unexpected ways, the possibility of community.
Kizu, Japan 19 October 2000
I am the guest of Kobori, a haiku poet from Kizu, a small town just outside Nara. We met at the Global Haiku Conference in Decatur, Illinois in 1997, and again in London at the beginning of this trip, where he invited me to stay with him when I was next in Japan. I had warned him that I am the sort of person to whom it is dangerous to make such an offer. We've been exploring his town, and have walked along the river, visited the museum, drunk sake and swapped tales in the graveyard. He's very happy and now also slightly tipsy. We're getting hungry as night comes on and walk into the center of the village to find something to eat. Slipping into a doorway so disguised as to be hardly noticeable, we seat ourselves at an L-shaped counter. Everyone here greets my hostthe chef, the daughter who helps with preparation, the wife who takes orders and serves the meals, and a couple of others, apparently regular customers. It's a rough-looking lot, and they consider me with apprehension. Lotus root is just coming into season and we order lots of it, and much else. One by one dishes appear before us. We eat and drink and talk, and I forget my slight discomfiture. All the while the restaurant fills. Three hours later we are still talking, now mostly about haiku. Nobody has left, but conversation in the place has dwindled. Now everyone is listening to us, enjoying the novelty or cursing the intrusion, it's impossible to say which. The food has also ceased, but the sake is available in profusion. Kobori excuses himself "to see a man about my horse" he tells me. There is at first a heavy silence in his absence, and I am aware again that I am in a strange place amongst people I don't know.
a long way from home
One of the men seated at the counter, a weathered, tattooed man in a rumpled sweater, pushes back his stool, scraping the floor. We all look in his direction, waiting. He stares down at his hands for a moment, decides, and clears his throat. When he begins to talk, hesitantly, it is in a barely remembered English he is resurrecting for the first time in many decades. He has a soft but gravelly voice, and there are long pauses between words. He tells me about himselfa fisherman, born in this village, traveled once as far as Russia, but now home to live out his years. The whole room listens in total attention. It is a tremendous labor for him, and he looks up from time to time to see how he's doing. I encourage him, supply words when I hope it's not intrusive, try to gain his eye. I am moved by his courage, and say so. Inspired, others in the room decide to try, too. A young couple in one of the booths tells me of their recent marriage and their newborn. An elderly woman at the far end of the counter recounts a visit to America she made as a small child. The waitress recollects that she studied English in school, but had always been too shy to try it. But now, caught up in the momentum of the night, she speaks her English out loud for the first time in her life. After everyone else, a woman who has been silent throughout approaches me, and, in English much like everyone else's, tells me she teaches English at the local elementary school. She is very excited to hear about haiku in English, and that I have come all the way from the United States to teach it. She would like her children to learn English better. Could I supply her with a few poems? I had forgotten about Kobori, who finally returns, and is astonished at what he hears, these sounds of arduously slow, miraculously mispronounced English. He laughs out loud, and rushes about, shouting encouragement. We run on, taking turns, enjoying our heady success, until well past midnight, when Kobori's wife, a silent, dignified woman, shows up to drive us home. I bow to my cohort, strangers when it began, and strangers to be again by the morning, but for one night, bonded by our surprising and mutual language.
Kumamoto, Japan 24 October 2000
It's been three months, and I'm going home tomorrow. This trip, which has filled me superabundantly with new friends and unexpected joy, is nearly over. But not quite. To wind down, I'm visiting Richard, who is on sabbatical, and so has the leisure, and like me, the inclination to seek out the perfect onsen. Kumamoto is blessed with hot springs. We have explored a dozen of them in a week's time. One had spectacular waterfalls plunging from the sheer faces of its mountain; another offered multiple pools of waters of varying temperatures and colors; one permitted mixed bathing; in town, a man-made bathhouse is so shrewdly judged as to suggest a natural grotto. When we were not boiling ourselves, we looked for Jizo. Jizo is the patron of lost children, and shrines to him can be found nearly anywhere; the median of a crossroads, the fork of a tree branch. Some of these statues are hundreds of years old, and their features have weathered into the broadest hieratic outlines. Almost all the shrines have been kept in good condition, and most have small offeringsa few old sen, an orange, a lit candleenclosed within. On this last day we are tired and sad. The toll of my travel is upon me. We go to a suigen, a cool spring of pure water, a sacred source to which are ascribed various medicinal properties. We ladle up the sparkling essence and I drink some, pouring the rest over my head. The drops meander along my face and into my beard, and I feel myself welling up, mingling salt with the sweet. At the same time, a peacefulness soothes me, as though the kami of the spring has entered, melting away my cares. Although I am tired, I am not spent, and feel myself growing suddenly, unexpectedly, stronger. I realize, in this cold clarity, that whatever I have expended, I could spend again.
Los Angeles, California 2 November 2002
Los Angeles, the intersection of our many arcs, the momentary still point of our turning worlds. What about haiku has made it our center of gravity, the force which binds us to its pull? More than anything else is its capacity to bring us to a tangible and heartfelt sense of community. Haiku provides for us something larger than our selves. Of course there are issues: issues of language; culture; history; sensibility; form; any of which might prove divisive if given the upper hand. Perhaps this is the critical point: despite these issues, haiku is capable of connecting people, bringing us to a common theme of appreciation, helping us to appreciate difference rather than to fear or despise it, allowing us to seek larger solutions rather than retreat into the smaller domains of nationalistic or culturalistic thought. The talk goes welleverywhere I speak, people are seemingly in agreement with what I have to say, that the most essential matter is to offer respect to all. We need not deny our tastes, nor lie about our opinions, but simply appreciate that there is something more basic to us than our writing of poems, that there is a ground out of which our creation and our appreciation arises. It is the common ground of our humanity, that which makes it possible for us to communicate one with another at all, which grants poetry its potential. Before leaving we share more poems and conversations and hugs, then disperse by noon into the wan desert day. The features of the horizon blur in the smog, and I muse on the disparity between the personal reception my words receive, and the actual state of unrest in the haiku, in the real, world. Respect is a word so many who have agreed with me have interpreted in such unexpected ways . . . I check the oil in the van and the straps to the kayak, knowing that by nightfall I'll be back in the clear air of Big Sur, counting the stars.