Robert Epstein has invested years in conceiving and writing books, among them a series of impressive haiku anthologies. This National Poetry Month, I am delighted to post an interview with him that gets to the heart of how haiku connects us to the sacred and demonstrates what we come to poetry for — to understand and to share essence and capture what it means to be alive in the moment. Robert’s experience with the haiku form and the resources he shares will benefit all of us as writers.
Robert, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. You wrote me a few years ago about one of the anthologies you were creating and asked if I would be interested in providing a back cover blurb. After I read the poems you were including, I could not help but provide that blurb. The poetry you had selected was exceptional. Now I’d like to share your thoughts and your project with my Writing It Real members.
How many haiku anthologies have you edited and published?
* The Breath of Surrender: A Collection of Recovery-Oriented Haiku
* Dreams Wander On: Contemporary Poems of Death Awareness
* The Temple Bell Stops: Contemporary Poems of Grief, Loss and Change
* Now This: Contemporary Poems of Beginnings, Renewals, and Firsts
* The Sacred in Contemporary Haiku
The sixth anthology, and most likely the last, is: Beyond the Grave: Afterlife Haiku
What prompted your interest in this project?
There has been a lot of controversy in English language haiku circles about gendai, which is a Japanese word meaning modern. English language haiku has been centered for many years on Nature. Gendai haiku can be surrealistic, fanciful, human-focused, urban, edgy, etc.
Beyond all this controversy, haiku poets writing in English have been quietly going about their poetic business, focusing on what matters most. In the case of the last anthology I published, The Sacred in Contemporary Haiku, since I feel that the sacred is about what is most precious in life, I wanted to call attention to that which is holy, beyond the squabbling about haiku form, structure and such.
I care very deeply about the sacred and wanted to bring other poets’ love of the sacred under a big tent; that is how I see the anthology. It’s a big tent where poets and readers from around the globe gather to share their reverence, awe, wonderment, doubt. Insofar as the topic was close to my heart, I had no difficulty fulfilling my commitment to complete it. I wanted to make available to readers, not just poets, a collection of haiku, senryu, tanka, and haiga that might inspire or offer comfort in challenging moments.
Why do you suspect the anthology Beyond the Grave: Afterlife Haiku will complete the set you have published? It does sound like something has come full circle from The Breath of Surrender: A Collection of Recovery-Oriented Haiku to Beyond the Grave: Afterlife Haiku
I’m not sure exactly how to answer your question, which is a reasonable one. The first anthology was about recovery–which constitutes a rebirth for those in the throes of chemical dependency and perhaps I have come full circle, without realizing it, with the afterlife project. On a practical level, I don’t have any more ideas for another anthology. That’s not exactly true: I have long wanted to edit an anthology on animal rights and haiku; I even sounded out People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about it, but didn’t receive much encouragement. However, a new book by David G. Lanoue, Issa and the Meaning of Animals, might impel me to pursue the anthology project, after all. I have found it deeply inspiring.
I put on hold several years ago an anthology of essays on the healing power of haiku; perhaps I will return to it when Beyond the Grave comes out. I hoped it might be a touchstone when people find themselves overwhelmed by the stresses and strains of everyday life such that they feel lost or despairing.
It makes me smile to know that you do in fact have more book ideas. They both sound wonderful. Why is it that haiku has been the form that attracts you?
When I developed chronic health problems, my short-term memory and attention span shrunk to virtually nothing. I loved writing but had no concentration. Haiku is wonderful for writers like myself with very short attention spans! Haiku saved my life, spiritually speaking. It helps to root me in the present moment, where all the action is anyway.
Had you been a haiku poet before your health problems affected your attention span?
Yes, I started writing haiku in the early 1990s. I was mostly playing around with the form. I had a few Zen Buddhist books that included haiku, so I tried emulating these but really had no idea what I was doing. To my surprise, a haiku poet was teaching a beginner’s class on haiku at a community college so I signed up for it. I am grateful to Carolyn Talmadge for grounding me in the basics. Following this class, I joined the Haiku Poets of Northern California and was shocked and delighted when my first poem was accepted for inclusion in the now defunct journal, Woodnotes. I don’t recall what that first poem was.
Perhaps it is available online. I’d gladly research this for you. Speaking of online, I’ve never asked you how you found me to request a blurb.
You graciously provided a back cover endorsement for Margaret D. McGee’s book, Haiku–the Sacred Art. I sought contact information for you online, which led me to your website.
I like so much that authors can find one another so easily now and how contacting one another about our books and projects creates community. I am so glad you found me and that I have had the opportunity to read a few of the collections you edited.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you found the poets and poems you’ve included in your anthologies?
With regards to the recovery-oriented haiku anthology, I asked a number of people in recovery to write haiku about their experience in recovery. Some of these were co-workers and colleagues; others were people active in twelve-step programs. Word of mouth played a significant role.
For subsequent anthologies, I have posted calls for submissions in the Haiku Society of America’s Newsletters as well as blogs such as Tobacco Road. In addition, I search print and online journals as well as individual haiku books for poems related to the particular theme and then endeavor to obtain contact information for the poets to ask their permission to include previously published poems or to solicit unpublished poetry.
Thank you. I think tracking your efforts for gaining contributors will help people who have anthology ideas realize there are avenues that are convenient and fruitful for gathering work together. As you solicited poems for the books, I am sure you felt your work as a psychotherapist influenced your connection to the haiku form. How about the other way around: has your appreciation of the form influenced your work with others?
I occasionally write about therapy; I’m inclined to regard these poems as senryu, rather than haiku, although I am somewhat looser about these distinctions than other haiku poets. The psychotherapy work I do is, for the most part, separate from the haiku I write.
I don’t walk or sit in Nature, beholding what I observe as a psychotherapist, and write from that frame of reference. I don’t, for that matter, assume the stance of a poet in order to write haiku or senryu. The poetic perspective simply appears and poems come to me (or not).
I occasionally will recite a haiku or senryu with clients I am working with, if I think the poem might shed some light on what they are grappling with. To this extent, haiku and senryu sometimes have therapeutic value; that is, they might stimulate a client’s intuition or nudge him or her to a different way of relating to themselves or others. For example, I sometimes share a death poem that the Japanese poet Chogo wrote:
I long for people–
then again I loathe them:
end of autumn
I love this poem because the poet expresses a universal truth that transcends time and culture. He had the courage and genius to convey this truth in three short lines. The poem normalizes ambivalent feelings that many (if not most) people have yet reproach themselves for.
I love it, too. How much it reflects our needs for others and connection to them and the way in which we desperately need our own time and space for our own way of thinking. “End of autumn.” A time of beauty from what was and is ending. A time when we think of going inside when outside things are fallow.
What more do you feel when you read it?
I admire the poet’s courage in stating an existential truth: As he faces the end of his life, he acknowledges to himself and the world that he has spent a lifetime longing for the love and comfort of others, yet is deeply conflicted about this need. Fritz Perls, the co-founder of Gestalt Therapy, once said that awareness in itself is curative; perhaps the realization of this truth set the poet free on his deathbed. Yoel Hoffmann, the editor of Japanese Death Poems, in which Chogo’s poem appears, remarked that the Japanese regarded the death poem as a gift to others–the essence of a spiritual legacy, as he put it. I think it’s wonderful to impart such wisdom to those who come after one.
Sheila This is a good reminder that what is wise is often what is succinct. Are there other forms of poetry that you turn to for pleasure, consolation and spiritual growth?
As I mentioned earlier, my attention span is short, so although I would like to read longer poems I have great difficulty following and comprehending them. I find a lot of Western poetry self-indulgent and convoluted; it’s too abstract to me. That is my shortcoming, not the poetic form. Billy Collins is a notable exception; I appreciate the humor he infuses in his poetry. Mary Oliver’s love of Nature speaks to me.
I try to read tanka, which is another Japanese-inpsired short poetic form that allows for more human emotion but find it difficult to write. In short, I am very partial to haiku, for better or worse, and the lion’s share of poetry I read consists of haiku and senryu.
As odd as it may sound, I am not into spiritual growth. I was struck by a remark that Jungian analyst James Hillman once made about growth: Trees and plants continue to grow, not humans. Living with spirit strikes me as a matter of unselfconscious unfolding.
It is revealed rather than sought or pursued. Spiritual seeking, however well-intentioned, is driven by ego and too often leads to what the Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, calls “spiritual materialism.” For me, realizing wholeness is not a matter of growth but revelation.
I admire what you have quoted about wholeness not being a matter of growth but revelation. I think when we grow as writers, what we have actually learned to do is use the craft to reveal rather than conceal. I think of actors who talk about being able to play a part when they have been able to “get out of their own way.” As a writer, I feel that–when I am not thinking about how to do something, but doing it by relying on the words to show me, my writing has much to show and tell me.
What do you think about the connection of writing and revelation?
My intuition has a field day when allowed to express itself poetically. Haiku is the poetry of truth, apprehended pre-reflectively; that is, prior to conventional knowledge. Haiku sidesteps the conditioned mind in a way that I find exhilarating and liberating.
Might you share some of your own haiku with us?
Well, only a few come to mind; because they do, perhaps these are the poems that I wish others might remember me by. Although some of them address mortality, I hope I am not thought of as morbid because, as the Buddha said, contemplating death is the “supreme meditation.”
in pine shade
for a while I forget
this life will end
checkout time is noon
I turn in the key
and everything else
basset hound her gift to me imaginary
what it feels
like to hold a rake
I pass on
the blue suede shoes
Here are some additional poems, but I won?t say that these are the ones I want to be remembered for.
in the closet
where she hides
like a pinata
I could have gone
that way too
New Year’s Day
my mother refreshes
her old complaints
blue jean patches
the sky will always belong
to my mother
even in december rain her blondsong
you and me and our 60 watt life
I already know
the way home
start the world over
limb of believing
war is over
Thank you for giving us some of your work to sample. I really like these and even the ones you say you don’t want to leave as a legacy leave me contemplating—who tries to steer me a different way than the way I know I must take? Why is war always happening even when we want it to stop? How wonderful to hear the crows as starting the world over!
And it is delightful to learn that haiku might sometimes be written as one line poems. You told me in an email that “One-line haiku have become more popular over the last few years, though Marlene Mountain was writing them back in the 70s.” I know I have come across this idea when I learned that Alan Ginsberg suggested we write what he called American sentences–sentences with the same number of syllables as the traditional Japanese haiku. I see that your one line haiku, though, are not necessarily full sentences. I like them very much.
Are there haiku books you would recommend in addition to your anthologies? And also, if someone wants to study the form, what help would you suggest?
There are any number of haiku writer guides that people may access at their public library or online at Amazon.com:
* William Higginson with Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku.
* Jane Reichhold, Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-On Guide
* Bruce Ross, How to Haiku: A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms
In addition to the above-mentioned books, it is very helpful to read lots of haiku in print and online journals. Jim Kacian has a well-written primer for haiku poets which can be found online. Michael Dylan Welch has an excellent website devoted to haiku. If poets are interested in haiga–haiku plus art–DailyHaiga is a wonderful website. Readers should also visit Jim Kacian’s thehaikufoundation.org.
Have you published other material we should be aware of?
Oh, thank you for the opportunity to promote myself! I have edited selected quotations of J. Krishnamurti, U.G. Krishnamurti, and Henry D. Thoreau, which readers may wish to look into, as these are spiritually-oriented writers/teachers who speak deeply to me.
I mentioned earlier that I have been living with chronic health problems. I wrote a book of prose poetry inspired by the ancient Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, called Suffering Buddha: The Zen Way Beyond Health and Illness. Readers with chronic illness or pain might find this book to be of interest.
Are there any questions you’d have liked me to ask before we close?
No, I don’t think so. Thank you very much for taking time for this interview. I greatly enjoyed our exchange.
As a reader and as a writer, I am grateful to you for these anthologies, for bringing audience attention to the shine and depth of the Haiku form, to as you say, “root us in the present moment where all the action.” is. Thank you for letting us know about your project and the books and the service haiku performs.
I wish you and your readers the very best. I regard haiku as a poetry of truth. May we all find an enduring home in truth. Although it is a pathless land, as J. Krishnamurti observed, it compels me way more than happiness does.