Interview with Deborah P Kolodji
Introduction: Deborah P Kolodji served as president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. She is the moderator of the Southern California Haiku Study Group and currently serves as the California Regional Coordinator for the Haiku Society in America. She has published over 800 poems in journals such as Star*Line, Strange Horizons, the Magazine of Speculative Poetry, Mythic Delirium, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Acorn, the Heron’s Nest, A Hundred Gourds, Rattle, Pearl, and poeticdiversity. She has published four chapbooks of poetry, including one of speculative haiku, “Red Planet Dust” in 2007. She has been anthologized in the Rhysling Anthology, the Red Moon Anthology, Dwarf Stars, Aftershocks: The Poetry of Recovery, Haiku 21, and Lighting the Global Lantern: A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Haiku and Related Forms. Her short stories have appeared in THEMA, Tales of the Talisman, and Everyday Weirdness. She has a memoir in Chicken Soup for the Dieter’s Soul. Her radio interview with Lois P. Jones on the Poet’s Café, which aired in Los Angeles in 2010, can be heard on the Timothy Green’s Blog: http://www.timothy-green.org/blog/deborah-p-kolodji/
Interview: Silver Blade is delighted to feature Deborah P Kolodji (DPK). The interview is by John C. Mannone (JCM).
JCM: What is or is not haiku? I think there’s a perception that a mere three-line short poem with 17 syllabables distributed over three lines ( 5-7-5) constitutes haiku.
DPK: Somehow, haiku made it into the elementary school curriculum as a way to count syllables. So, many people do have this idea that if you write something in 5-7-5, it is a haiku.
This means, of course, that
some very unpoetic
things are called haiku.
In 2013, I helped run a haiku booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the USC campus, and we had a whiteboard where we were conducting impromptu haiku workshops with people passing by. We’d see people stop, look at the sign, start counting on their fingers, and look puzzled. Sometimes they’d stop to talk with us and we’d explain.
In general, traditional haiku in Japanese is written in a pattern of 5-7-5 sounds. The problem is that a Japanese sound is not the same as an English language syllable—it is much shorter. For example, the word “haiku” is two syllables in English, but three sounds in Japanese.This is not how the word is said in Japanese, but it is how the sounds are counted.Michael Dylan Welch elaborates on this topic on his NaHaiWriMo (National Haiku Writing Month – February being the shortest month) website:
Notice in the above paragraph, I said “traditional haiku”. There are active groups of haiku poets in Japan who are writing non-5-7-5 haiku in Japanese, so it is obvious that when we try to define what a haiku should be in English or whatever language we are writing it in, we need to reach past this inclination to think of it as something written in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.
Traditional haiku also has a seasonal element and a “cut” or shift, with a juxtaposition, which adds to the complexity of writing a good haiku.Some people think that because they are short, they are easy, but that is far from the case. It is said that a haiku master may spend his whole life trying to write that one “good haiku.”
In 1973, the Haiku Society of America formed a committee to come up with an official definition for haiku and haiku-related forms, and the committee was re-activated in 2004 to come up with the following definition:
A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition. (http://www.hsa-haiku.org/archives/HSA_Definitions_2004.html).
JCM: I like what Cora Agatucci (Professor of English, Central Oregon Community College) says much better than what Wikipedia says about haiku http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum210/coursepack/haiku.htm
“Haiku is distinguished by its compression and suggestiveness. It consists of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Traditionally and ideally, a haiku presents a pair of contrasting images, one suggestive of time and place, the other a vivid but fleeting observation. Working together, they evoke mood and emotion. The poet does not comment on the connection but leaves the synthesis of the two images for the reader to perceive.”
DPK: One of the challenges for the haiku community is that this urban legend of 5-7-5, this misunderstanding how to write haiku is deeply rooted in the Academic world. I like much of Agatucci’s definition, although I wish she wasn’t so adamant on the 5-7-5 syllable requirement. A traditional haiku in Japanese will have a “kigo,” a season word that will be “suggestive of time and place” as Agatucci notes, as well as a “kireji,” which means “cutting word.” The kireji divides the haiku into two parts, “a pair of contrasting images, one suggestive of time and place, the other a vivid but fleeting observation.” So, Agatucci’s definition mostly works for me, especially her last line, “The poet does not comment on the connection but leaves the synthesis of the two images for the reader to perceive.”
I teach a lot of haiku workshops, and one of the hardest parts of writing a haiku for the beginning poet is the ability to present images that convey an emotional mood, versus actually stating the emotion or feeling in the haiku.Many beginning poets want to use words like “sad” instead of using an image like “rainy season” to convey sadness.
JCM: But this doesn’t mention the inclusion of a nature or a season, which I often hear should be. Is it true they are nlonger mportant? (Even Wikipedia notes that modern haiku only honors the juxtaposition of images and tends toward everyday things.)
DPK: A traditional haiku has a “kigo” or seasonal reference. I believe this is what Agatucci means by an image “suggestive of time and place”. To further cloud the issue, haiku-like poems about everyday life without a nature reference are called senryu. In Japan, there is a big distinction between haiku and senryu.In the US, not so much, mostly because most people writing haiku in English do not know how to distinguish the differences between haiku and senryu.There is also a movement in the haiku community towards gendai haiku, which is more avant garde and experimental, most of which does not include a kigo.
When we start talking about speculative haiku, it gets cloudier. Are we writing speculative haiku, scifaiku, or speculative senryu? I think the answer is all of the above. Some gendai haiku is very close to scifaiku, and the mainstream haiku journals have been publishing poems that many in the speculative community consider to be scifaiku, although the editors of those journals may not realize it.
I tend to use kigo in my scifaiku, so some of my speculative haiku is sometimes more traditional, in all but topic, than some of the gendai haiku being published in the mainstream haiku journals.
I tend to prefer the term “speculative haiku” versus “scifaiku,” but I sometimes use the terms interchangeably.
JCM: In commenting about about imagist poems, I think they have rhyming of images, not unlike what one finds in Hebraic poetry. Haiku is imagist poetry, and seems to be more subtle. (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11902-parallelism-in-hebrew-poetry).
DPK: Many of the Imagists in the early 20th Century studied haiku. Many people consider Ezra Pound’s, “In a Station of the Metro,” as one of the first haiku written in English. It is formatted differently. It has a title. But, at its essence, it is a haiku.
JCM: Uncertain on whether I should call speculative haiku a form of modern haiku, should one try to maintain the traditional elements, while adding a speculative one? I imagine there could be a need for additional words.
DPK: I prefer speculative haiku that retains the traditional elements. It is the image that puts it into the realm of speculative. About a dozen years ago or more, I had a conversation with the late William Higginson (author of Haiku World, Haiku Seasons, and The Haiku Handbook) regarding speculative haiku. He was thinking that speculative haiku might use keywords, the way traditional haiku uses kigo. For example, “time travel” or “worm hole.”
Around that same time, I was experimenting with a group of poets in writing speculative renku (Japanese linked verse). Part of the rules of renku revolve around having the correct season in a particular link, and so a group of us had a private mailing list to discuss and also write some speculative renku. One of the topics is what does season mean in a science fiction context? So, we were looking at categories of science fiction tropes and classifying them as to “genesis” (which would be spring) or “harvesting” (which would be autumn), etc. Mary Margaret Serpento did a lot of work in this area. Eventually, we published a shisan renku (12 verses) called “Gravity Spool” in an anthology about String Theory, “Riffing on Strings,” Scriblerus Press, 2008. The authors on that project were myself, Mary Margaret Serpento, ushi, oino sakai, assu, and Lucinda Borkenhagen.
But getting back to speculative haiku, I often use regular, established kigo and then juxtapose it against a speculative image, thus retaining the traditional elements of haiku.
JCM: Walk us through the creative process. I would guess that it is much more than assembling a collage of images. You can start with what you said in the Michelle Boston interview (July 2014) “Haiku helps you take little mental snapshots of your world.”
DPK: Haiku is part of my journaling process. I like to go on walks in botanical gardens, explore the beaches of Southern California, and hike in the local mountains, and when I do, I always have my writing notebook. Sometimes, I write haiku on the spot, other times I write “half haiku” – either the seasonal aspects of what I am seeing, a list of wildflowers or birds or butterflies, or a few lines describing something I noticed. My notebook might say:
red-whiskered bulbul – 2 in top of tree – 1 had nesting material
And, then afterwards this might become
in the bulbul’s beak
Later it might become something else. I might ditch “nesting material” and try to find out what exactly a bulbul builds its nest out of.
the bark strip
in the bulbul’s beak
Or, my mind might shift to a speculative version.
no bark left
for a bulbul
I never know where my notes will lead me, but my writing notebook (and my photos – I always have a camera with me) is where it all starts. And, the resulting haiku help me remember these moments I experienced even more than a photograph.
Sometimes, I work from prompts, whether a list of season words, or a group like NaHaiWriMo, a facebook group that puts out a daily prompt for haiku. Sometimes, I’ll write a haiku to the prompt, and sometimes it is speculative. A couple of days ago, the prompt was “newfangled” – and I ended up writing about a “new vampire”.
JCM: I see that you have a B.A. in mathematics from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. As a physicist, I like to think that we can let our analytial minds play together with our creative minds. How has your poetry benefited from your mathematical background?
DPK: I love juxtaposition and from a mathematical standpoint, some of my haiku writing consists of permutations and combinations, basically grouping images and ideas into sets and comparing them against each other.
JCM: I’m impressed with Jim Kacian’s analysis of the 2014 winning poems for Heron’s Nest, he said, “A great many of the poems I didn’t select were outstanding examples of normative haiku. By this I mean they contained juxtaposed images that, in company with one another, resonated; followed the usual structures of brevity, cutting, with that surprise. The poems I selected as Prize Winners and Honorable Mentions share these characteristics as well, and offer, at the same time, something just a bit more. In some instances it is difficult to say what that something more is, other than a feeling of justesse,* but I think it worth an attempt all the same.”
* I had no idea what justesse meant in context of haiku—simply “accurate” falls short. I searched the Internet and found the book “The Contemporary Poetry of France: Eight Studies,” by Michael Bishop, tin which he author describes Phippe Jaccottet’s poetry using that word. I think applies to haiku as well: “it is within this tension, within its dual, reversible optic, that the crucial equilibrium, that special sense of justesse always sought.”
Anyway, what is meant by “normative” haiku?
DPK: I think Jim is talking about the way most published authors in the haiku community are writing haiku, with two images juxtaposed around a cut.He mentions resonance, which we haven’t spoken of yet, because it is difficult to define. The best haiku resonates with the reader on some level, but what resonates for me may not resonate for you. Sometimes, a poet will write a haiku that is written perfectly – it has a season word, it is brief, it doesn’t have any extra words, it has two strong images that juxtapose, and then you read it and appreciate it but it doesn’t linger and invite the reader to explore it further.
Some haiku work on totally different levels and each time you read it, you see something different about it.
Some haiku just become part of you. I love to tell the story of the time I went to Gettysburg a few years ago. It was summer and I was looking at the dry grasses and the monuments and thinking of all of the blood of the soldiers who died there, and then this haiku by Bashō just popped into my head, and I started to cry. I was looking at Gettysburg and seeing/feeling/experiencing exactly what he wrote centuries ago in a totally different part of the world.
all that remains
of a warrior’s dreams
Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)
JCM: As an editor and reader, I see a lot of cut-up prose passed off as poetry. Is this a problem in poorly written haiku, too; i.e., when one thought broken into three lines.
DPK: Yes, this is a problem in poorly written haiku, too. There are a couple of issues. One is the use of enjambment, which doesn’t really work in a form as short as a haiku. This is also a problem with poets who are determined to write in 5-7-5, even when told it isn’t necessary, and then they pad the lines with unnecessary words to make the count or break the lines oddly, to make the count. English tends to be iambic, so a 4-6-4 haiku is much easier to write. It is possible to write a good 5-7-5 haiku – Patricia Machmiller does it beautifully, but a lot of beginning haiku writers come up with what are essentially statements in 5-7-5 syllables instead of a poem.
JCM: Please discuss the single pieces that appear in this Issue—anything about their backstory and craft you’d care to mention.
DPK: “spent lilacs” was written during one of those walks I mentioned earlier. I was at Descanso Gardens, which is in the foothills of Los Angeles County, about 20 minutes from my house.They have a lilac garden there and the week before it had been blooming profusely. However, that day, I was surprised to return and find that most of the blooms were totally spent. But, there was this one little corner of the garden that looked like the entire garden had looked the previous week. So, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s stories of how he looked at a tattoed guy at a circus and saw “the Illustrated Man” or a roller coaster being dismantled on Venice beach which became a dinosaur for his story, “The Fog Horn,” I looked at this corner of the lilac garden and saw a time warp. And then, with poetic license, I changed it from a public garden to “her garden.”
“morning launch” came out of a kigo exercise. I was writing haiku about cherry blossoms for the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival haiku contest, and I was just doing my poetic mathematical permutations and combinations thing, where I made a list of different types of cherry blossoms:cherry tree buds, blossoms just opening, new cherry blossoms, pink cherry blossoms, white cherry blossoms, scent of cherry blossoms, cherry blossom rain… and then I wrote a bunch of little two-liners to mix and match against the cherry blossoms to see if anything resonated for me. I wrote some speculative two-liners in that writing session, too, and one of them was “morning launch/of the last ship from earth” and I just loved the way it worked with “cherry blossom rain.”
JCM: I tend to write linked haiku, which would be titled. The title can do so much work in the poem. I know it is customary to publish haiku without titles. Would it be taboo to break that tradition and begin titling haiku?
DPK: I like untitled single haiku but feel that sequences and linked-verse should be titled.I have seen poets use titles for speculative haiku. Obviously, going back to Pound, “In a Station of the Metro,” had a title. There is also a tradition in Mexico to title haiku written in Spanish. José Juan Tablada, who is attributed with introducing haiku to poets in Mexico, titled his haiku (http://www.los-poetas.com/a/tabla1.htm#HAIKUS).
That all said, I still prefer speculative haiku to be untitled so that it will be more in tune with contemporary mainstream haiku. My goal for writing speculative haiku is to write haiku that the mainstream haiku community will appreciate as much as the speculative poetry community. That means, I want to write what Jim Kacian called “normative haiku” in your earlier question, just on speculative topics. I don’t want speculative haiku to read like spam haiku or haiku for cats or any of the “cutsie haiku” books that are published in a given year. I want speculative haiku to be taken seriously by the haiku community as well as the speculative community, which means we need to reach for a high standard when writing it.
That said, sometimes if the idea is “too alien” and the science fiction/fantasy/horror aspect of it is too complicated, it may not be possible to write what you need to say in 3 lines. If you are writing a haiku about a planet you invented and no one understands anything about that planet, three lines may not give any space for the reader to enter into the poem. Haiku is more about a conversation between the reader and the writer than other types of poetry.
I think the answer for these situations, where it might not be possible to reduce the poem to three lines without a title or note of explanation, is to write a sequence or a haibun and then title the resulting longer poem.
JCM: Please discuss these linked haiku that appear in this Issue—anything about their backstory and craft you’d care to mention.
DPK: I enjoy writing sequences of haiku and have found them to be more appealing in markets that don’t usually publish haiku. I have written a series of haiku sequences with four haiku, one for each season. There are several, written from the point of view of “If Bashō was walking around “insert fantastical place,” what would he see and write about.
I have done a couple of haiku workshops where I took participants on a imaginary ginko. (A ginko, not to be confused with the gingko tree, is a “haiku walk,” where a group of haiku poets go somewhere together, write haiku, then share them together afterwards). For these workshops, I had partipants close their eyes and pretend they were on Mount Olympus or Mars (I selected a place for the workshop) and then write what they see. If I am walking around Mount Olympus or Mars and look carefully at the details, what do I see? What does it smell like? Feel like
The three haiku sequences in this issue, “Bashō After Cinderella,” “Bashō on the Back Road to Camelot,” and “Seasons of a Time Traveler” were written from this perspective. What does spring in Camelot, in the Cinderella story, if I time-traveled someplace, look like? Then, how about summer? Fall? Winter?
“Equations of a Sonata” was obviously inspired by string theory. Even though it is a poem with no association with haiku, I believe its style was influenced by my work in haiku because I’m using juxtaposition, the lines are short, etc.
JCM: When you write other forms of poetry, does haiku inform them? For example, I imagine they would be very helpful in writing minimalist poems.
DPK: Yes, I started writing haiku because I thought my biggest flaw at the time as a writer was that I was too wordy. So, I started to economize on words, selecting words with powerful associations, getting rid of words that were unnecessary. Working with haiku and other minimalist poetry is helpful, even when writing longer poetry because you start to realize which words are unnecessary. If I am writing about apples, I don’t need to say “red apples” because most people would assume they are red. However, if I wanted to emphasize that the apples are green, then I would add the adjective. Further more if I am using apples, which are red, I can imply something else is red by simply having it near the apple and the mind makes the association.
As I wrote haiku more and more, I fell in love with this type of poetry and almost write it exclusively these days.
JCM: What about the popular Japanese forms, like senryu and others?
DPK: I write senryu as well as haiku, and also dabble in tanka and haibun.
JCM: Tell us about your haiku workshop and your moderatoring the Southern California Haiku Study Group.
DPK: In the late 1990’s, I started attending workshops of the Southern California Haiku Study Group, based upon the recommendation of gK, who I knew from the Scifaiku mailing list. Jerry Ball had founded the group and was the moderator at that time. In 2006, he moved to Northern California and I took over as moderator so the group would continue and because I felt that the group had given me so much as far as my growth as a haiku poet and I wanted to help others in the same way.
We meet monthly at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, the 3rd Saturday of every month, starting at 2 pm. Anyone who happens to be in the area is welcome to drop in. We have had surprise visits from haiku poets from places as far away as Wisconsin and New York.
We usually start with a read-around of haiku. I bring several books with me each month (I have a collection of several hundred haiku books and journals – not sure exactly how many – at least 500) and participants can either read one of their haiku or a haiku from one of the books. Then, it can vary. We might have a special presentation, such as the “Haiku of Shiki”, a workshop on some topic such as “sound haiku”, or a writing exercise. We usually conclude with an anonymous haiku workshop, where we workshop participant’s haiku.
I also am doing workshops at Joshua Tree National Park and the Fullerton Arboretum this spring.In January, I became the California Regional Coordinator for the Haiku Society of America, which means I help facilitate information sharing between the various haiku groups in the state, help publicize their events, and basically am an ambassador for haiku in California.
JCM: Tell us about your projects and where we can learn more about your work.
DPK: Most of my projects lately have been more organizational in nature, but I am currently working on a haiku manuscript. It has been almost seven years since I published a chapbook. I can be reached via Facebook and Twitter (@dkolodji). I have a new website at www.deborahpkolodji.com, which I will be adding to as the year progresses. I also have a blog at dkolodji.livejournal.com.
I am planning to attend several haiku conferences this year – the Haiku Canada weekend in Victoria, B.C. in May 2015, as well as Haiku North America in Schenectady, New York in October 2015.