AN INTERVIEW WITH JANE REICHHOLD
BY D. S. LLITERAS
Waves come ashore bringing shapes of pink, blue and purple. Their sounds wake the heavy sleepers but already another light burns at the top of the steep cliff. The glow of a computer screen reflects on the serene face of a woman with braided hair. More waves crash on the sand as the tide turns to become day. The rush of water rattling round stones down the slope of sand is the sound of the printer is rattling off words written out of the dark of the passing night.
If waves bring to your mind Virginia Woolf, it is because there are several correlations between that woman of the downs of England and Jane Reichhold with a postal box in Gualala, California. Both were strong women, hard workers, who hide their traits behind a shy demeanor. Each, with her husband-writer, formed their own publishing companies that not only freed them from the tyranny of big business book makers but allowed them to promote deserving new writers. Whereas Virginia Woolf had her social life in London and a Spaniel dog, Jane has a cat and makes Emily Dickinson look like a party animal.
As time enters our picture and the waves climb higher on the beach, a half century begins to separate the two women. One leaves off writing book reviews to start a novel and the other turns from William Everson-inspired free-verse to writing haiku. Thus, Jane Reichhold holds a unique position in the ever-expanding global poetry. Many poets have translated poetry of other cultures into their own language, but for one reason or other, most never, or rarely, wrote their own poetry in these new forms. She first learned to write haiku, tanka and renga, and then, and only then, began to translate the poems from the Japanese. In addition to her own three books of tanka, (A Gift of Tanka, In the Presence with Werner Reichhold, and Geography Lens) Jane has translated, with Hatsue Kawamura, the tanka of four women: Fumio Saito (White Letter Poems), Akiko Baba (Heavenly Maiden Tanka), Fumiko Nakajoo (Breasts of Snow) and Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the legendary novel – The Tale of Genji (A String of Flowers, Untied. . .)
From Jane’s work translating all the known poems by Basho and her extensive haiku oeuvre (she has appeared in the Independent Coast Observer for over ten years as “haikujane”), she was picked by Kodansha International of Tokyo to write a definitive book for guiding non-Japanese to become accomplished writers titled, Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide, which appeared in bookstores in February of this year here in the States, in Australia, England and Japan.
DSL: Your checklist and rules reveal the complex structure of haiku and its hidden nature without losing the fun of writing. How did this system evolve and how did you employ this system of rules to your own work prior to the writing of this book? When did you become aware of this developing system?
JR: It was only in the late 1970s that I learned other people were also writing haiku in English. Up until then, I thought my daughter and I were the only ones in the whole world who were fool enough to imitate the Japanese. I was living at the time in Germany so when I realized that there were organizations in the States that had been publishing English haiku for some years, I immediately began to read everything I could get into my hands. Like everyone else who reads haiku, some I liked and some I either did not understand or did not like what I understood. I wanted to write haiku like the ones I admired, so when I went back to writing haiku seriously, I made a checklist of my own dos and don’ts. I still have the little black lesson books in which I would write out
whether each of the points was handled correctly in the newest poem. During the years this list underwent many changes. Some came from my own understanding of the form and some came from reading valid translations from the Japanese.
DSL: This is truly a masterful guide on how to write haiku. You actually reveal secrets. I’m referring, of course, to your twenty-four valuable techniques, which are brilliant. How did you arrive at this list?
JR: From Basho. At the time, I was translating all the known Basho haikai and hokku into English. The longer I worked with his words I began to realize how important the two parts of the haiku where to his use of the form. From this I wrote the “Phrase and Fragment Theory.” As I was preparing this article for publication, I started testing it against Basho’s haiku. I noticed that there were certain techniques that Basho used over and over such as similes and metaphors, but also the riddle technique. It was from this discovery that I realized that the present haiku authorities were wrong with their admonishments that haiku did not use metaphor or simile. Haiku was and is poetry and continues to use poetical techniques. The difference, and what a huge difference this is, haiku uses the oldest techniques of our poetry in a new way. That is what there is yet to learn from haiku. How to use the techniques of world poetry in a new way is something every poet wants to discover.
DSL: You did not neglect tanka, renga, haibun and the history of Oriental poetry in Writing and Enjoying Haiku. But you put it in its place, later in the book, after the student had been shown the building blocks. Again, like haiku, you reveal the parts until the whole can be seen. Was this an effort to avoid being academic?
JR: The philosophical or academic part of haiku is, I suppose necessary, but this comes after a haiku has been written. Usually this is done by someone other than the author and is a process of naming and organizing what has been accomplished. I am far more interested in the front end of haiku – the inspiration and capturing of that inspiration in words. The only afterwards of haiku that interests me is the collaboration between writer and reader. I wanted the reader of the book to practice this with me right on the pages – to stop thinking and start doing. Our best haiku are still inside of us. I wanted to reach out, to hold out my literary hand, to support the reader to have the courage to bring forth his or her very own hidden haiku. I started the explanations with the haiku because it is the youngest genre, the smallest element, and the one best known outside of Japan.
DSL: What gave you the idea to translate the poems in the Tale of Genji?
JR: As I learned more about haiku, I was also studying the tanka of Japan. The more I understood about tanka, the more I realized that Seidensticker, who had done a marvelous job with translating the story (and was more true to it than Waley had been) had failed with the poetry. It was not uncommon that early translators of Japanese were language experts first and not poets. The more I learned about tanka, and as I read better translations of both haiku and tanka, I realized that Murasaki Shikibu had to be saying more with her poems than Seidensticker was showing us. Also, it greatly bothered me that he had put the poems into couplets. This was an improvement over Waley who often simply made them into sentences of dialog, but still I felt that there was much we new tanka writers could learn from this ancient master of the form if we could just see more clearly what Shikibu had written.
DSL: From reading your translations, I’ve become aware of the vast feminine power that lies underneath this work. Was it your intention to reveal this in your book?
JR: When I read that Akiko Yosano, the great tanka poet of the last century, had translated The Tale of Genji from the archaic Japanese into modern language. I was instantly suspicious that such a sensual woman as Yosano was, (judging from her poetry in her book Tangled Hair) and that this indicated that there was equal or even more unexpressed sexuality in the Genji story. Our work bore out this initial hunch.
DSL: Even the design and layout has an unusually feminine feel to it. How did this come about?
JR: Somehow, as I was dreaming this book into being, I had a strong feeling that I wanted it to lie in the reader’s hands the way a woman’s body would open up for a lover. This meant that the pages had to be wider than most paperbacks are so that the weight of the book would be distributed across the thumb, the palm and the little finger. I wanted the book to have a tendency to lie open instead of springing shut as narrower pages tend to do. As it turned out, having the pages wider made it possible to put the Japanese version of the poem side by side with the English. And, an even greater blessing was the ability to put the footnote information right beside the poem as a sidebar. It was the idea of Peter Goodman, my editor at Stone Bridge Press, to make those sidebars into a lovely graphic element by repeating the wisteria design from the cover on each of the pages. He also designed the cover by researching fabric designs of kimono and if you look closely you can see that the photo is from a fabric. We picked the title, A String of Flowers, Untied from the line of this of the tanka because it is such an evocative phrase.
in evening dew
strings of flowers were untied
in this way
thus by chance our destinies
have a reason to exist
In Japanese, the name for the cording that holds up the undergarments is “the string of flowers.” Thus when one unties this string our most flower-like parts are exposed to each other and the human race continues. The shape of the tiny florets of wisteria, with their purplish-pink coloring, has long been associated with the innermost parts of a woman and affords a graceful way of referring to this fact by the use of the flower in poetry. Since wisteria flowers also look as if they are hanging on a string of a stem, there is another connection with the story of Genji’s many love affairs.
The complete interview is available online at http://www.ahapoetry.com/jrinview.htm.
D.S. Lliteras, a novelist whose newest book, Jerusalem’s Rain, his third Biblical historical by Hampton Roads Publishing is just being released with a starred review in Booklist. His seven novels include two other spiritual fictions, The Thieves of Golgotha, and Judas the Gentile. In addition Lliteras wrote In A Warrior’s Romance, a book of haiku and tanka written as result of his years in the Viet Nam War that set new standards for the form and for content.