Nanette Wylde of San Francisco Interview
with Jane Reichhold
Whirligig: You spent over twenty years working on Basho: The Complete Haiku. What compelled you to create this book? Can you talk about your motivations and processes?
jr: I felt that if I could really see how Basho wrote his hokku, by seeing each word he used and not some translator’s idea of what a haiku could be in English, I could figure out how to write a better haiku. I started first by collecting every translation of each of his poems and comparing them. Then I asked Japanese friends to give me a word-for-word translation. I began to study Japanese but still depended on Japanese translators. My main contribution was to understand how Japanese poetry works and to allow the translations fit or follow these precepts.
Whirligig: What initially drew you to haiku?
jr: On the sale table at City Lights Books Store in San Francisco, in 1968, I found a Peter Pauper book of translations for a quarter. Through I had been writing poetry since college, I felt that here in the Japanese poems was a new way of expressing ideas and images in poetry. Soon afterwards I was making a vessel on a potter’s wheel and just as I pulled the clay upward a bird sang out. I had the feeling that it was the bird’s voice that caused the clay to rise. I realized that this coincidence that I felt was the same kind of inspiration Japanese poets valued.
Whirligig: What is a "haiku moment"?
jr: A moment of inspiration that is then expressed in a haiku. In the 1980s it was taught that only haiku written about such a moment of inspiration that occurred in the natural world were worthy of the name haiku. It was also implied that if one’s “haiku moment” was true enough, an excellent haiku would result. Later it was acknowledged that writing skills were necessary and could be taught. Still I have to admit that certain moments of insight – those showing an association, contrast, or comparison of things do ask to be written into haiku and rarely in any other poetry form.
Whirligig: Can you explain the difference between the Japanese conception of sound units and English syllables?
jr: The simple answer is that what the Japanese are counting to form their poems (kana) are much shorter than English syllables. A kana is most often a vowel plus a consonant – ka, ke, ki, ko, ku – but very often just a vowel or a consonant. When we use 17 English syllables we have about one-third more information in the poem than the Japanese do. It is much like trying to build two towers the same height out of the same number of bricks that are formed of different sizes. Because the numbers of the parts of the haiku – 5,7,5 – are so ingrained in Japanese thinking, it has taken some time for those teachers to realize how different our languages are and to allow writers in other languages the freedom of pursuing brevity and clearness instead of syllable counts.
Whirligig: What makes a haiku successful?
jr: When a reader is able to take in the few words of an author to build enough images to follow the wonder, miracle, or insight to make his or her own poem. The reader’s delight, or not, determines whether the poem is successful. If the reader can find and create poetry out of a minimum of words then the haiku is a success. It always takes two to make poetry – the inspired writer and the informed reader.
Whirligig: How is this similar or different from the success of western or contemporary poetry forms?
jr: Western poetry most often involves the author telling the reader what he or she did, thought, or what he or she wants the reader to think or believe. Haiku just state an observation, at best stripped of author and judgments, in enough words so two or three relevant images can form in the reader’s recognition that are rich enough to create the poem.
Whirligig: On your website you operate "The Sea Shell Game" in which haiku are compared as a means of finding the best of a given selection of
haiku. Can you talk about your interest and involvement in the Sea Shell game and why you continue to run this on Aha Poetry?
jr: The principle of the Sea Shell Game has long been a popular child’s play in Japan. To find the best thing in a pile of similar items, one compares them two at time and placing them into two piles – admired or not admired. The process is repeated for each smaller pile until only one of the shells or flowers remains. Instead of simply looking at the pile and picking the best one, the person is required to consider the beauty or advantages of each individual item. Basho understood that he could use this method to educate others about poetry by comparing poems. The only book he published himself in his lifetime was a collection of comments on his comparison of a collection of hokku called The Sea Shell Game. He did compile several other books and anthologies but they were published by his disciples.
Whirligig: This is one of your own questions from an article you wrote for
Mirrors: What makes a haiku different from other three-line short poems?
jr: Occasionally free verse poets will simply take a line of their poetry and divide it into three short lines thinking they have then written a haiku. This rarely works because a haiku, in spite of its brevity, comes with an amazing array of rules, guidelines, and specifics. Any of these rules can be broken or ignored and the author can call the poem a haiku, but there will always be people with other rules who deem the poem not to be a haiku.
Whirligig: What do you consider your unique contribution to haiku?
jr: In addition to thousands of haiku which I have written, I feel I have added to the understanding of how haiku work and how to write them by formulating the “Fragment and Phrase Theory” which was the first time poets were made aware of the necessity of the two parts of a haiku. Also, from my work with Basho’s poems, I have been able to categorize certain techniques he used to make his poems “work” as they do as haiku. Writers acquainted with these techniques can use them in formulating their own haiku or as guides in other forms of poetry and writing.
Whirligig: In your 2000 article on haiku techniques for Frogpond you stated, "poetry, as it is today, is the commercialization of religious prayers, incantations, and knowledge" What did you mean by this?
jr: It is my belief, based on the theories by others, that the earliest poetry was in prayers or incantations to the gods. These ritualized sayings were remembered from one use to another, and as they were continued, corrections and improvements were made in the spoken prayer / incantation. These were in the oral tradition and passed from master to apprentice. At some point in every society, these sayings of love and adoration to the gods were diverted for use in other aspects of life: the entreaty of a lover, the expression of grief, or even joy in living. An evidence of the early use of poetry is still in the Noh plays of Japan in which all the words spoken to the gods is in the form of tanka poems, no matter when the play was written and despite other dialog not being in a poetry form. Just yesterday in my search for something else, I found in the preface to the Kokin Wakashu, Fujiwara Teika wrote in 903 C.E. in the second paragraph: “Our poetry appeared at the dawn of creation. In the era of the mighty gods, the number of syllables in a poem was unregulated and the statements were artless, so that it must have been difficult to grasp the nuances of meaning. When the human era began, Susanoo-no-mikoto** introduced the thirty-one sound unit poem.” ** Tsuki-yumi no Mikoto the elder brother of the divine Amaterasu no Oho kami – Goddess of the Sun. It is from this couple the Imperial Family of Japan traces its ancestors.
Whirligig: In your recent presentation at the Commonwealth club you said, "Poetry is the art of piling up dissimilar images to create a new idea that has no exact name." Can you expand on this?
jr: Though the English language has more words than any other language now in use, poets still find it to be imprecise. There are no exact names for so many feelings and things. One of the poet’s jobs is finding better expressions for these by using other words. Homer’s “wine-dark seas” is an example of combining images to create a mind-picture to explain what he saw. The metaphor, saying the seas at dark look like wine, is the method of comparing the sea with wine and showing an aspect of it more exactly than saying “at dark the sea took on the colors of the sunset and turned a reddish purple.” The practiced haiku reader will see that in even Homer’s poem the implied relationship between wine / water/ seas and evening as well as the idea that the time to have a drink of wine just as the world goes dark. The Japanese, like Homer, form their metaphors and similes directly by placing the images side by side and letting the reader find the connections.
Whirligig: You are also a visual artist working primarily in three dimensional media. You created rope sculptures while in Germany which were very successfully received. Can you talk about this work and time.
jr: In the 1960s I had a ceramic studio in Dinuba, California. I also had three children. Working in clay was too dusty and dirty to do with my children around me, so I only worked with clay while they were away at school. Afterwards, at home, I wove. I could be at the loom and still be there for the kids for conversation or just companionship.
One Saturday in early spring, as my marriage was dissolving and my husband had brought his newest friend to stay the weekend in the house, I bought some rope and drove into the Sierra foothills to find an isolated tree where I could hang myself. Down a deserted ranch road I found a lovely live oak tree and began my preparation for the hanging. While looking for something to stand on before jumping off of it, I found a unique gray-weathered piece of wood with several holes in it. Somehow in my distracted state I got the idea of suspending that from the overhanging branch. I was so fascinated with the way it looked that I just enjoyed being with it as it changed the shapes of meadow behind the tree as I adjusted the way it hung. That way I forgot about wanting to end my life and finally felt hungry. I drove back to the highway to a tiny rural one-stop general store. Among the groceries were balls of twine and finger-thick ropes for ranch work. I bought one of each and took them back up to the tree.
With more rope I was able to reposition the wood piece and add a woven net around it. I worked until darkness and my fear of rattlesnakes made me go curl up in the van to sleep. The next morning the sun was shining through the weaving and I saw several more parts I wanted to add to it. I then sat and enjoyed looking at it and the world around it – and the new world in which I still was.
This began a pattern of my leaving the house on weekends, going up into the foothills, and making weavings in the trees. When summer came I rented a cabin in Cedarbrook from the mother of a friend so the kids I could live close to the trees where I could do the weavings. I have no idea of how many I actually did. Sometimes I would start a weaving and then, unable to find my way back to it, would not finish it. Once a park ranger caught me and made me take my weaving down. I left the states the next year and never went back to see any of them.
In Hamburg Germany, after I married Werner, I began to work with clay again and tried to re-establish my ceramic studio. The requirement for permission to install a kiln was a three-year apprenticeship with a master. This was not feasible, so I tried for awhile to use other artists’ kilns, but I was making far too many pots to easily transport the fragile greenware back and forth. In my distress of not being able to do clay some memory in me brought back the times of making the big rope weavings. Hamburg, with its several rope factories around the harbor, was the perfect place to find interesting left-over bits and pieces. Later I was able to order special ropes, or sizes, for commissioned works such as the Children’s Hospital at the University.
The largest rope sculpture was done for the Rasmussen Gallery in Berlin. It was three stories tall and was installed in the inner court of a hotel complex for the summer. The day of the opening the work was featured on the front page of the Berlin Daily News and I had the additional excitement of a man threatening to shoot me.
Whirligig: Were there elements of your childhood and upbringing which encouraged you towards the creative life?
jr: I was an only child and my parents preferred the company of each other or other adults to mine so I was alone much of the time. Their disinterest in me gave me a freedom most kids do not have. Though it was often upsetting to find myself locked out of the house, I learned to create my own places of security and independence outdoors. I learned the value of occupying my mind with plans and ideas to avoid thinking of painful situations over which I had no control. I was forced into accepting any behavior of adults without question; something that got me into several situations most parents would not want for their children. But I survived and only in my later years, while studying psychology and talking with women friends, did I realize how different, and difficult, my childhood had been.