A Personal Journey to Haiku

by Francine Porad

The Constitution of the United States guarantees the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Notice that it’s the pursuit of happiness only that’s guaranteed. I’ve been happily pursuing happiness for years, through creative endeavors. Happiness to me is my children, gardening (at one time I knew the Latin name of every plant in the yard), knitting, painting, and the most recent of joys, writing haiku.

I’ve been asked to speak about my personal journey to haiku. Two talk show personalities in the United States, Regis and Kathie Lee, don’t talk to each other before their television show. They want the conversation to be unrehearsed; the reaction of one to the other genuine. That’s the rapport I would like to establish with you today, that we are having a one-to-one conversation.

A love of nature and scenic beauty was instilled in me at a very young age. Seattle, Washington is unbelievably beautiful, with snowy mountain ranges to the east and west, Mount Baker to the north, and the awesome glacial peak of Mount Rainier to the south dominating everything. Visitors are attracted to our area by waterways that can take ocean-going ships, and lakes galore, including Lake Washington, which edges the city and neighboring communities. I guess I sound like a walking advertisement, but on a daily basis as a family we stopped whatever we were doing to admire the sunset, a stand of trees, a beautiful garden. It’s not surprising I became a painter, although this did not come about until I was forty years old. In fact, my son and I graduated from the University of Washington in the same ceremony.

I was first a visual artist. I preface the word “artist” with “visual” since someone took offense at my saying “I was an artist before I became a poet.” His retort, “Doesn’t she think a poet is an artist?” Actually, it’s not surprising that a visual artist would be attracted to a visual poetry form. I’ve been very active in many art organizations, including the Northwest Watercolor Society, Women Painters of Washington, and the National League of American Pen Women. When the Seattle Branch of Pen Women sponsored a program on creativity, all the artist members were asked to write a poem and the poets were asked to create a painting for the program. The premise was that artistic disciplines are closely related. If one could paint, one could probably write, and vice versa. I wrote a piece for the program, which was applauded, wrote another, received more compliments, and I was hooked! Because my time is my own, being self-employed (and having a husband to support me), I could spend as much time as I wished on writing, and did—fifteen hours a day for three months. Having access to marvelous women poets speeded the learning process. Just as appreciation for the natural environment led to painting, so painting, coupled with a philosophy of harmony and a relaxed pace of life, led to writing haiku.

Driving through town one bitter cold day, I saw an old man bent and pushed by the wind. I saw him only for a few seconds. The man was tall, gaunt, with bony, pale wrists protruding from his warp . . . something odd there . . . and then I realized what was strange about the scene. He was wearing a woman’s fur coat, much too small. My first thought was, “How humiliating! As bitter as the day.” I wrote a short poem about this, and was told I had written a haiku.

That was the first time I heard the word “haiku.” I investigated the form, joined the Haiku Society of America, and subscribed to a few haiku publications.

All of the poets were unfamiliar to me at first, but I noticed there were certain poets whose work captivated me. I remember looking for the contributor’s list of Frogpond for a one-syllable name. Was it Dutch? No. Was it French? No. Ah! Swede, George. I sent my first fan mail to George. He writes with compassion, understanding, and humor about the human condition—my goal.

Thinking again as a visual artist, I recall being asked: How do you know when a painting is completed? That you’ve don’t the last stroke? I study the painting, look deeply, stare at it for weeks. If I can’t think of anything that would improve it, it’s done. It’s pleasant to have the latest painting admired, because I want the latest to be the best. So it is with a haiku. I believe I recognize a haiku moment, the ah-so experience. I might write and rewrite ten different versions of a piece, then go through it word by word. Does it convey the shades of meaning I seek? Has the moment been presented in the proper order? Is it well-crafted as a poem? I’ve been accused of spending no time at all at writing, that I just jot down whatever comes to mind. I’m glad the struggle doesn’t show, but I do apologize. Craft enters in when the reader feels not the effort of the poet, but the power of each word. Simplicity of language gives force to the words. Once a piece is crafted, or even published, we can still ask: Can this be improved?

Right now I have ideas for poems that are not yet converted to haiku or senryu or tanka. These happenings, realizations, moments are assembled in a computer file labeled “Haiku Ideas.” I’ll share three with you. The first is a horror story: I had worked all day on a large charcoal sketch and wished to preserve it with a fixative. Instead of the fixative I accidentally grabbed and sprayed the drawing with an adhesive. Dust, leaves, and a large piece of paper now hide the artwork from view forever. The next story contains a moment of surprise: My granddaughter had received permission for me to visit her seventh-grade classes. We were to meet in the main office. I arrived early and sat down among a row of chairs, placing my purse and a book on a desk-like shelf. I’m not paranoid, but everyone seemed to be looking at me strangely. When a boy joined me, I discovered I was seated in the detention area. This third example is nature based: During a wild wind and snow storm, a tall camellia tree doubled over with the weight of snow turned to ice, and fell against the kitchen window. Each leaf was ice-encased so that frozen drips pointed to the sky. A possible haiku form this could be:

arctic storm

the tree’s frozen drips

pointing skyward

Three times during the writing of this paper I changed those words. Other versions may follow because that image of upside-down icicles on each leaf is so compelling to me.

I believe I have grown into haiku by studying both the Japanese “greats” and the English-language haiku being written today. Because haiku in Japan developed over a period of hundreds of years, almost every style and inclination can be found. As Robert Hass pointed out in his foreword to The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa, the three men represent three types of the poet—Bashō the ascetic and seeker, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist. To quote, their poems “have a quality of actuality, of the moment seized on and rendered purely . . . for years I didn’t see how deeply personal these poems were or, to say it another way, how much they have the flavor of a particular human life, because I had been told and wanted to believe that haiku were never subjective.” It seems to me that English-language haiku in North America has grown more subjective in recent years, but hen, English-language haiku is still in its formation stage. Sad that I won’t be around fifty years from now to see what form haiku has taken.

I’ve been asked what prompted me to collect my work in book form. As my biography states, fourteen collections of my published haiku, senryu, tanka, and renga have been printed. Originally, my reasons for putting a book together were twofold. One, I wanted a record to give my family of what had been published during the year. Another was the challenge of creating an aesthetically pleasing and artistically arranged volume. There was no thought of producing it for sale. However, a lot of people expressed a wish to purchase copies, so I obliged.

No one can enjoy my poems as much as me. Each haiku, senryu, or tanka contains a memory I wish to hold—the triggered memory comes full-blown with all the details of time, place, color, and attitude. Each poem is a story, although I may be the only one who knows the entire plot as it happened. You as the reader will devise your own plot, because each of us can interpret only according to our own experiences. Perhaps I should define myself as a story-teller, rather than a poet. Perhaps I should avoid labels altogether. I’ve finally resolved the question: As I a painter or a poet? The deliberation with self went on for ten years with much torment. A tanka (and a dream) explored and answered my debate:

should I paint

should I write—

in the dream

I stride to a sunlit street

wearing one black shoe, one white

(Poet’s Market, 1995)

Both mediums are important to me. I can’t give up either. Does the finished haiku affect what I put down as a visual image? Lately, I’ve been using the same theme for both disciplines, consciously trying to explore an idea more fully. By way of explanation, here’s another tanka:

legend has it

a sorcerer stole

three days of sunshine;

I stumble through dark clouds

to know the storm

(Windsong, 1995)

Bashō’s maxim “to know the pine, go to the pine” I paraphrase: To know the storm, one must live through it. The storm in this case was a hospital stay for me, a lengthy recovery, the life-threatening illness of my sister, the death of my mother. A twenty-verse tanka sequence about my mother’s final illness and death was therapeutic. A series of ten paintings titled To Know the Storm helped me work through my sadness. The first eight paintings are moody, often dark, but by the ninth and tenth, my palette had lightened. I can’t paint and remain unhappy. This joy of creating!

A recent gift, The 20th Century Art Book, is on my coffee table. It’s a gorgeous production in full color—500 pages that offer and A-to-Z guide to the art of an extraordinary century. Art has become more international. Artists have experimented with new media, including oil paint, collage, sculpture, ready-made objects, installation, and video. Each image is accompanied by an incisive text, shedding light on the work and its creator. There’s also a “Glossary of Terms” and “Glossary of Artistic Movements.” It’s simply great! What fascinates me most, and remains unstated, is how the editors decided which pieces of art to exemplify an artist’s lifetime. Personally, I don’t know what I would choose. A portrait? A landscape? An abstract?

The same problem of choice holds true for editors of an anthology. Jim Kacian of Red Moon Press, and selected editors, are preparing a volume, The Red Moon Anthology 1996, containing what they consider the best published haiku and related writings of the year. As with art, haiku/senryu/tanka/renga/haibun have become international forms, with much experimentation going on. Not yet having seen the completed Red Moon Anthology manuscript, I’m guessing it will have examples of one-line, two-line, three-line haiku, concrete poetry, haibun, renga, and the new form “rengay,” devised by Garry Gay. Because the final selections of haiku and senryu were made from poems anonymously listed, the decision of just one from each artist doesn’t apply.

Again, I’m intrigued by the thought of which one haiku I would choose to be remembered by. Over twelve-hundred of my poems have been published. Would I want it to be humorous? Serious? Dealing with nature or human beings? About travel, art, the computer world? All of us are multidimensional beings. I have somewhat decided on one. It’s a haiku you may have heard:

poolside, we chat

about reincarnation

no longer strangers

(Point Judith Light, 1993; “Waterways” Haiku Canada Sheet, 1995; Tea Contest Award, Japan, 1996)

And so I leave you with this question and dilemma—what one haiku would you choose from your oeuvre to represent the total “you” for posterity? A difficult choice.

[From Frogpond supplement, 1997, pages 60–66, from her talk prepared for the Second Haiku International Association–Haiku Society of America Joint Haiku Conference, held April 19 and 20, 1997, in Tokyo; a few minor edits have been made for clarity and consistency.]