Thursday, May 30, 2013

I don't know how I got interested in haiku; it might have been the idea that you could compress large wisdom, big pictures, many possibilities, into tiny sentences; getting the right words was then kind of like getting a ball right over the plate. You could play with the words until you got the sound right; that was kind of like any musical instrument. When you were done, it was never more than seventeen syllables.

It turns out, in the haiku world, translating seventeen Japanese sounds into seventeen English syllables is considered silly; in fact, people who stick to the 5-7-5 structure are shunned, or considered ignorant at the very least. Most haiku experts don't even want to argue about it. But I continue to be attracted to the 5-7-5 structure for several reasons. One is that, though it was clearly derived from a Japanese rule, or style, it is, in English, clearly American; it's even pop American, since haiku experts shun it. Second, one can unite a body of work with a single structure; although I could just as easily use 4-6-3, I don't, because I've never had a chance to do more than a few with any other besides 5-7-5. In short, I started with 5-7-5 and now that I have over 700 in 5-7=5, I'd like to think of the body of work as united by one syllable structure.

I was first moved by a collection called "airless suburban haiku," all 5-7-5, all I believe freely available on the web. I was impressed by its ability to capture so much in such a brief format; I wanted, then, to capture much of what I'd seen and felt, and wanted to see if I could put it into a similar format. I wrote TOEFL haiku, airport haiku, coder's haiku, and various other kinds. But mostly I used it to record the moments of my travel experience that stuck with me. Because I'm very geographical, and always have been, I incorporated that into my haiku. I figured that American haiku has to tell you where it is placed, since the US is so diverse, so I just decided to let every one tell where, thus crowding an already crowded little set of words. But what is the US if not a collection of very interesting place names? In the end, I figured I could have fun with it.

I am not the most careful proofreader, apparently. As of this writing my most recent volume has over 600, but isn't perfect by any means. There are equal signs where there should be a dash. There is one entire header missing in the self-published version. And on and on.

Yet I find that people respond to it; lots of people are geographical, and it really brings out the color of a country that is so wide, so various, so diverse. Whereas this prose account tells the truth of my travels and my opinions, the haiku is allowed to bring moments into focus without being so concerned with the truth. Yet most of them are based on some kind of truth, at least, real things that happened out there. In some cases you can match them up against the real story and find the truth of it here. One major difference is that the haiku sticks to the USA, whereas in reality some of my most interesting experiences happened in Canada, Mexico or Guatemala. And in fact I never made it to North Dakota or Hawaii; I had to do research on those, in order to write even a single verse.

I found myself dreaming them up in spare minutes of the day; I've always gotten bored easily, so, for example, if I was at the park, watching small children, I'd daydream into some kind of haiku that took me back to those days on the road. I was slightly worse at childcare, maybe, but you want to know how I got over 700, that's how. Days are long. There are lots of free minutes. I don't watch television. The wide continent, and the people that inhabit it, are the most interesting part.

In a sense, it's a tribute to the US. This is why I publish it on the Fourth every year. I mean it genuinely, not to picture the country as vagabond, alcoholic, drug-soaked, but rather, to get a clear picture, good and bad, incredible in its nature and its people, twisted for sure (in some cases), but beautiful, mine and my family at once. Now as I feel like I'm wrapping it up, that kind of accuracy is important, even though it's not true to fact. I've had trouble keeping it set in the seventies, when I was out there, as so much has come to me since then. I've refrained from telling everything that happened; after all, I tended to find the most unhinged of people; I associated with the unemployed. But I took a wide sweep; I saw as much of the country as I could; I got to various corners. What people had to show me, they showed me, and I saw it. I tried to get these pictures into the account.

Having that out there, in whatever shape it's in, is important to me. It may get better, cleaner, more complete, than it is now, but it's pretty unique as is, so I'm sticking with it as the one published thing I can really be proud of (the novels have never been finished). I have always had trouble seeing myself primarily as a poet; I don't. But, of what I have done, the poetry book is the one that people look twice at. That's partly because each seventeen syllables is worth an entire novel. Yet it's just a single moment, carefully expressed.

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