Sunday, November 21, 2010

Five Questions for an Editor: Jeffrey Woodward

Our Five Questions interview this month is with Jeffrey Woodward of Haibun Today.  (For those who haven't heard of the haibun before, it is a writing form that incorporates prose writing with haiku-- sometimes one of each, sometimes more than one of each.)

Let's see what he has to say...

1. There are obviously formal/technical differences between the haiku and the haibun. What would you say are some of the "spiritual" differences, or the differences of effect?

Haiku is remarkably democratic. The literate person who learns its basic principles and techniques has a fair chance of composing passable examples and, in “seventeen syllables or less,” of convincing his contemporaries, occasionally, that he has said more than he, in fact, has. Roland Barthes, in Empire of Signs, offered a lucid explanation for why this is so when he wrote, “While being quite intelligible, the haiku means nothing, and it is by this double condition that it seems open to meaning in a particularly available, serviceable way...”

Haibun cannot mean everything by meaning nothing, as Barthes implied haiku might, and it cannot do so precisely because it invites the many complications that haiku, by its brevity, forbids. The margin for ambiguity shrinks with each added syllable, sentence or paragraph and with each narrative or expository turn that haibun admits. Writers
of even a modest haibun of one or two hundred words are unlikely to convince an intelligent reader of their profundity, therefore, unless what they have written, in fact, is profound. One distinction between haiku and haibun is the degree of difficulty. Haibun must accept and compound risk even as haiku seeks to avoid or minimize the same. Consider haibun as a journey over unexplored terrain, the destination undetermined or unknown.

2. In your 2009 interview with Contemporary Haibun Online, you discuss haiku's "escape" from the orthodox English 5-7-5 structure. How has this benefited haiku and haibun?

This communal shift, if you will, from observation of a syllabic rule to today’s free treatment is a matter for the literary historian of haiku. The characterization of this change as an escape from orthodoxy, on the other hand, belongs to my interviewer and not to me. What the majority of practitioners did yesterday or does today can be only of relative interest from the point-of-view of haiku as literary art. Significant poets have always been in the minority and what they write, whether it accomodates or violates a syllabic norm, inevitably commands the serious reader’s attention.

3. Earlier in the same interview, you joke about your initial experiences with haiku and how you came to know the form as having "consisted of 17 syllables—neither one more nor one less." After the breaking of the orthodox mold, is there a place for counting syllables or morae/on to fit a fixed form?

A strong poet will adopt the form that is most suitable for his current purpose, whether that form is free or fixed. The existence of any form is an invitation to the poet to attempt to master and exploit it. A haiku will be judged strong or weak, in my opinion, not according to whether it has or does not have x-number of syllables but according to the genius of its composer. Counting syllables will continue to have a place in haiku as long as one poet can demonstrate its place by his good practice.

4. Building on the previous question, what is your take on New Formalism?

New Formalism is a convenient handle for literary critics and publicists. One need only remember that Imagism, to cite a well-known example, was broad enough to contain Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, H.D. and Richard Aldington, in order to remind oneself that little of substance can be learned from the simplifications that are employed in naming and marketing a literary school. New Formalism reinvigorated the flagging debate about poetic form and its place in modern or post-modern poetry that the New Criticism had initiated in the 30s and 40s. Important formalist poets, however, were publishing long before the advent of New Formalism; Stanley Kunitz, Yvor Winters and Howard Nemerov might be cited nor should we forget the examples of Robert Frost or Edwin Arlington Robinson, of Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore or Hart Crane. No art is without form. It should not be considered a provocation, therefore, to observe that there is little that is new in New Formalism’s advocacy of form.

5. What advice would you have for burgeoning poets who have written some haiku but have yet to try the haibun form? What might motivate them to try it?

Study the best haibun available in print and online. Try, when you happen upon an appropriate and powerful model, to learn the author’s techniques by imitation. When you have learned all that you can through imitation, do otherwise. And what might motivate the burgeoning poet to try haibun? An opportunity to discover the New World-- by traversing the globe itself or by looking closely around his own room.

JEFFREY WOODWARD resides in Detroit, MI. His poems and articles are published in periodicals throughout North America, Europe and Asia. He currently edits Haibun Today and formerly edited Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose. A collection of his poems, In Passing, was published in 2007 and he edited The Tanka Prose Anthology in 2008.

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