Philip Kenney and I met pre-pandemic at a Northwest Writers Association Conference in Seattle when we presented on the same panel. I was introduced to his book The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity, which had been a finalist for The Red City Review 2018 Non-Fiction Book of the Year. This is not a book that tells you how to write, it is one that initiates you into being a writer, having a writer’s mentality and facing the fear and rejection that writers do at times. Philip Kenney is well suited for examining the writing life because he practices psychotherapy in Portland, Oregon. As writers, we are always facing new territory and the need to be understood. We must observe and observe and observe and our writing may make us and others nervous. Kenney knows how to help people deal with all of that. So, when the pandemic hit, he had to use those tools for his own well-being and writing. He began writing haiku to help lubricate his mind from the stress of the Pandemic. Within months he had written over a hundred and fifty haiku and began putting together the just-released chapbook we discuss here.
I am looking forward to learning about your experience of bringing your new book Only This Step into being.
Sure, this is one of my favorite stories of late. In early 2020, I planned to return to a novel I had buried in the closet. I hoped that this time the rewrite would take off. Like many writers, I thought the pandemic shutdown would be beneficial to getting lots of work done. Wrong! Soon the isolation and what I call covid-brain set in and I found my mind had turned to sludge. The book ended up back in the closet and I was about to give up on writing altogether when one morning a little voice said to me, “Hey, why not have some fun and write a few haiku?” Why not, I said. And before I knew it, several haiku were accompanying me home from my daily walk through the woods.
If you remember, the early days of the pandemic were marked by a rare and lovely quiet. The streets were empty, but the birds kept singing, and their joyful song carried through the stillness of those days. Moreover, in the Fall I had read Richard Power’s book, The Overstory, a novel that altered me and made walking through our arboretum-like park more magical than ever. Of course, the inspiration of nature is ideally suited for writing haiku and by June 159 had settled on my notebook.
I had written a few haiku in my time, but still had little confidence I could pick the good from the bad. From there I contacted my good friend and poet, John Brehm and he helped me edit them down into the chapbook, and there you have it!
Later, I will have you tell how you found a publisher. First, though, tell us what prompts you to write poems.
First, I have to say I am a very unlikely writer. What’s even more surprising is that I write poems. Though I graduated from college with a degree in American Literature, I never liked most poetry and, truthfully, didn’t understand most of what I read. Bunch of snobs I thought. From there I went into psychology and never picked up a book of poetry till I was 45.
It was the early 90’s and Prozac was taking off and transforming the world of psychotherapy. Coming from a long lineage of depressive men and having suffered my own bouts I decided to give it a try. No thanks. After four weeks I felt awful and wasn’t fond of the no-libido approach to mental health.
What did you do?
I quit cold turkey. Bad idea. The next two weeks were among the worst of my life. Utter despair. But on a sunny Saturday in early spring, after the two-week detoxing ordeal, I woke up in a full-blown anxiety attack. Great, bye-bye depression, hello high anxiety. But to my astonishment, tagged to the anxious brain was a poem. Yep, a complete 20-line poem. It was terrible, but it was alive. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to write it down and as I did, I realized I was neither anxious nor depressed!
A short time later I was introduced to the work of William Stafford. What good fortune. I took two pieces of sage advice from him: #1- write whatever comes to mind, #2 – write a poem every day. The first was easy for me having been trained in free association to do psychotherapy. The second, not so easy, but I learned to love it and wrote a poem every morning for ten years. Most were as bad as the first, but oh, the ones that sang were sublime. Bad or good didn’t matter, I loved the expanded state of consciousness that consistently arose in that ritual. And so, I can say without hesitation or embarrassment, that writing has, and still does, feel like a miracle to me.
Why haiku this time?
I really don’t have a good answer for that. Early on I dabbled in some haiku and was taken with the form while studying Zen in the 90’s. But it was later, after writing the novel, Radiance, that I felt I had truly become a writer. Then I thought, I can do anything! I had begun to feel my poetry was lousy and I was, to be honest, a bit turned off by the poetry world and work that did not move me. Everything began to feel too long, heady, and wordy. At the same time, I was writing essays, and in particular, a piece about writing and spirituality that explored the paradox I love so much: when you fully engage, you disappear.
This awareness has been around at least since the 13th century when the Zen priest and poet, Dogen, wrote about it, and it had been my experience writing the novel Radiance. What a relief it is to forget all the preoccupation with being good enough and disappear into the flow of the creative spirit. I find this joyful.
Just then I discovered this remarkable haiku by the great-grandfather of haiku, Basho:
A cicada shell;
it sang itself
I fell in love with this poem and realized I wanted to write stuff that would move people into fresh and uplifting states of being in as few words as possible. That is my experience with good haiku, like this one by Buson:
the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell
This one bends my mind.
Finally, I want to say that writing so many haiku has had an amazing impact on my brain! I now have haiku come to me walking in the woods, driving the car, taking a shower. You name it. And the amazing thing is that very often they come prepackaged in the traditional 5-7-5 syllabic structure! Apparently, my brain likes the rhythm and surprise of haiku as much as the rest of me. This is the magic of the form; in a flash, it can transform consciousness through a simple act of perception that stops the mind in its tracks and opens to life and the surprise, delight, fascination, and any number of experiences that freshen and awaken one to the mysteries and wonders of being. That’s the answer to why haiku.
Tell us more about the theme of the book.
The theme of the book, if there is one, is awe. As I said earlier, I began writing these haiku after reading The Overstory. My mind was in an altered state having been introduced in a very deep way to the wonder of trees. Here are two lines from Richard Powers’ book that remain with me every day: “You have a right to be astonished.” And I am. And this: “A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.” And I find that to be true.
I walk every morning to our neighborhood park, where 1,000 trees live and get along. They greet me and I say hello to them. And I touch their bark. And I find the hollow places and drum a little. In short, we have a conversation. Our park is more of an arboretum than a regular city park. It is home to trees from around the world and twelve giant Sequoias! Oh my. It’s relatively easy to know awe in that place and when it isn’t, the trees remind me of how to be still and quiet and receive what is there despite the noise of a society going full speed ahead. Haiku are what flowers from those meetings.
How is writing haiku different for you than writing poetry or fiction?
Interesting question. In some respects, it isn’t. I’m a very fluid writer, my son says too fluid! I work as a therapist in large part by trusting unconscious associations and the same is true with writing. I rarely outline or know where I’m going with an essay or in fiction and certainly not with Haiku. And it shows when I read a first draft over! So, the obvious difference is in the revision process that with most writing is the bulk of the work. On the other hand, with haiku it’s so improvisational, so captured by the moment that most of the haiku that pass through me are done when they hit the page. Believe me, that is very satisfying, so much so that I warm up every morning with three or four haiku before moving on to the novel, which I am happy to say is doing quite well thanks to the good people at Allegory Editing in Seattle. How about a few recent examples from my morning warmups?
on old oak
Who goes there?
The groundhog slept in
shadow or no shadow
it’s cold outside
Spin, spin, spin
we turn to February
dizzy with desire
There you have a few from this week, fresh out of the oven. I have no idea if they are good or not, but I like them, I enjoy reliving those moments. If I write twenty in a week and a few are good enough to publish, I’m happy.
And here are two from the book:
My hand is empty
no cup, no victory
only this step, and this one
The silent windchime
lonely for one sweet caress
waiting in stillness
Thank you for these. Writing for the sake of writing keeps us fluid, as you say, and being able to sort out ones of genius from ones doing the work of keeping us fluid isn’t always easy.
Do you share your warm-ups with your poet friend or others? How do you decide which you want to see out in the world?
Occasionally I’ll read one to my friends, or my wife and son, especially if one really grabs me. Usually, I wait till I’m about to submit to one of the haiku journals and I’ll ask Lori and Geo to look over twenty or thirty and pick their favorites. Their choices reveal a lot. Then I check out the past issues of the publication and see how mine compare. In the end, it’s really a matter of two things: first, just the feel and rhythm of the haiku and whether it makes me pause and smile inside. And second, I think back to the writing and the spontaneity of the inspiration. If it feels like I’m trying too hard to make something happen, I generally don’t go with it. Maybe I need to rethink my process because I’m collecting a stack of no thank you notes! So it goes. I really don’t care that much. I’m pleased with the book and writing haiku is like doing Tai-Chi, it’s good for aligning my inner world.
And on to publishing. How did you find a home for the haiku?
My friend John, who helped select the poems for the book, suggested Finishing Line Press in Kentucky because several of his students had published through them. I sent in the manuscript and they said yes. I liked that. I don’t have the patience to search for publishers. I’d rather be writing or walking in the woods or just about anything else. That’s why I’m sticking with small presses from here on out. That, and I’ve found them to be very dedicated to the work, the authors, and not the buck.
We must never underestimate our friends and professional networks. I like the way you reached out to him when you wanted to know if the haiku you were writing made a book and worked with him on “slenderizing” the content. I like how you followed his suggestion about Finishing Line being the right place to publish your work.
What was it like working with the press? I am curious about the dedication you experienced in that publisher.
Well, honestly, I don’t have much experience with publishers. I’ve mostly self-published my books or had essays selected by a few journals. The other thing is the entire process took place during some of the worst of the pandemic and they were thrown off like everything else. But, in the end, they made a high-quality book. They are clearly very devoted to that end and work hard to get things right. Not just with publication but in offering marketing advice. I think it’s a great press for unpublished poets to make an entry. The other thing I liked from the beginning is that they publish many poets of color and give them lots of exposure. I would go back to them without hesitation. I should say Finishing Line Press does not limit their work to poetry. Check them out!
Philip, thank you for your description of the birth of this book.
Readers can listen to more from you in this podcast from the radio interview we did a few years ago for KPTZ FM.
And here is a postscript from an email I received from Philip recently. In it, he says he enjoyed giving two readings in Portland in May. One was with his friend John Brehm at Broadway Books and the other was at The Sellwood House for the local chapter of the Haiku Society of America. That one was followed by a workshop on writing haiku.
His biggest, thrill so far, though, is that so many people tell him they are using haiku as a contemplative prompt. He loves that haiku have the power to reveal the sacred in the happenings of an ordinary moment.
In the comment section below you can let him know if you have experienced poems in this way. And you can certainly review his book online at Finishing Line Press where there is a review prompt. It can be a short review, he says. Haiku is short after all, he reminds us.