Reviews and Comments about Writing and Enjoying Haiku

AN INTERVIEW WITH JANE REICHHOLD BY D. S. LLITERAS in which these contemporary writers discuss Reichhold’s two newest books, Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide, an instructional book on the writing of Oriental poetry forms, and A String of Flowers, Untied. . . the Love Poems From The Tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu translated into English with Hatsue Kawamura. They begin their discussion with the book Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide.


  1. DSL:  Your reminding us about haiku’s spiritual point of view is fundamental to this art form. Do you think this spirit can have an influence on artists in a country where art has been largely secularized?
    JR: Yes, because there will always be, I hope, artists who understand that making art is a sacred act whether they or anyone else acknowledges this. We are given our ideas and visions. They come from outside of us, from beyond us, as gifts. As long as a person honors this giving by manifesting the inspiration into some form, the ideas will continue to flow. As one becomes more successful with the art form and needs less time in practicing it, I think more time must be spent in repaying the spirits in an attitude of offering. There is a belief that the spirits have hunger and need nourishment as do all life forms. Since they cannot eat the grains and grasses of our world, our mouths eat for them and from our nourished bodies we are caused to have emotions – the electrical energy upon which they survive. The more emotion we have, display and feel, the happier they are with us. Yet, if we allow them, they can literally eat us up when we churn out clouds of emotion such as in anger, violence, guilt and regret – all pitfalls for an artist that can lead to addictions and or destructive behavior. Therefore, we practice meditation (to calm ourselves to keep productive) and take time for prayers to offer the spirits our love, our thanks, our appreciation, our constant gratitude. We can also make gifts of our time to the spirits by helping one another. I also think that many of the greatest artists of each age were the most spiritually realized persons. This is not the same as saying the person was religious. What you say is true; very little of our valued art is done for religion. Secular is the opposite of religion. But the secular can be, and must be, combined with the spiritual. We are, as has been said, spiritual beings having a human experience. The attraction of others to art and artists is the feeling that artists are keeping a wider, more conscious channel open between themselves and the spirit world. The value of haiku, is that it offers anyone and everyone a path to follow to let more spirituality into a life.

  2. DSL: I love the personal and active nature of this book. You have also instructed that the reading of haiku is as active as the writing of haiku. These elements are certainly what haiku is about.  Was this your intention?
    JR: Yes, because I find the Japanese genres demand more from the reader than most other poetry forms. Because the haiku is so short and seemingly simple, it is hard to convince people that they need to learn to read them. Any second grader can read a haiku with its elementary vocabulary, but it often takes a lifetime of living to completely understand a haiku, if at all.

  3. 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 others, especially Lorraine Ellis Haar in Portland, Oregon and Emma von Bodmershof in Germany. Due to all this input from reading so many persons’ ideas of what they thought a haiku should be, I was able to come up with the list of the many rules of haiku.

  4. DSL: Going back to fundamentals is critical for an artist. Has your own work changed because of what you relearned while writing this book?
    JR: It is interesting that you ask this because I never would have thought that just writing down what I knew could change my own work but it did. Over the years my tanka had gotten more and more experimental, so investigational that I was hesitant to even label them as tanka. But after writing the section on the tanka form I was so enthusiastic about it, I actually felt “relighted”– it was if I had rediscovered it all over again for myself. It was fresh and exciting as it had been when I had begun to work seriously with it in 1988.

  5. 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 Jim Kacian for publication in Frogpond, I started testing it against Basho’s haiku. This was much the same way I had used check lists to test my own early haiku. While doing this I noticed that there were certain techniques that Basho used over and over like 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 the “charm” of haiku, the fascination that poets and non-poets have for the form. 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.

    a. DSL: Now that the book is published, are there other techniques you wish you could add to this list?
     JR: Yes! When Jim Kacian then decided to print the second article on the techniques, he wanted a sample of each one but did not want to have to get permission from anyone to borrow the poems from Basho. So I began searching through my book, A Dictionary of Haiku that contains over 5,000 haiku, for examples. I found I had been using not only the techniques from Basho, but that we modern writers have added several new ones. There are other techniques in my haiku, and the haiku of others,  that are just waiting to have the processes that make them work, named, described, and explained.
    b. DSL: What would be in the next book?
    JR: What I would like to have is the opportunity of a longer book to explain these techniques more fully. There is so much more to be said about “leaping,” the values and different varieties of juxtaposition, and the uses of other Japanese genres as they are beginning to be used in contemporary poetry. For too long people have thought of haiku as child’s play or for poets unable or unwilling to write “real” poetry. It is exactly our best poets – Rilke, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens  – who have discovered these secrets for themselves and thus, were able to invigorate their literary heritage with the discoveries of the Japanese poetic methods. I have already written this much-longer  book in which I discuss various poets and their works, but due to page constraints for this book, I had to reduce my manuscript by two-thirds so all that good stuff had to be left out this time.

  6. DSL: You are truly a master of this poetic form. For me, your book reveals what you know by how much you point to that which cannot be revealed. This hands-on guide’s deceptive simplicity is also a reflection of how haiku operates. You show us what had been concealed about haiku. Was this your intention?
    JR: Perhaps, I never thought of it that way. I do know I would get very frustrated with the many articles of mist and mystery in the magazines on “The Zen of Haiku,” “The Haiku Moment,” and the epitome of nonsense - “The Wordless Haiku.” Haiku is about putting inspiration into words. One practice of using words is writing. Writing is a skill with a learning curve. Yes! the moment of inspiration is magical and it will always be a spirit-given gift. Yet the writer must put the mystical into words so a reader can relive a similar experience and come to the same feeling. That is also magic.

  7. 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? Or was it a teacher simply teaching the basics? You show the reader rather than telling the reader what to do.  You get them to do it rather than talking about the forms. Was this an effect to avoid being academic / philosophical?
    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.

  8. DSL: You teach like a masterful mother: with kind discipline and with encouraging authority. This book reveals a feminine strength equal to masculine strength. Are you aware of this?
    JR: Ah, you picked up on this because you have been writing about feminine strength in you own book Jerusalem Rains. That great part where Saint Peter’s wife has the courage and fury to point out what a coward he and the other disciples were during the crucifixion. I think you have done a great service to women by reminding them of what they were, and the power they possessed before the reign of the Roman culture. But you are right, by my being a woman writing an authoritative book on poetry form usually thought of being more in the realm of men,  I have tried to be nurturing rather than trying to impress others with whatever knowledge I have acquired – an idea that seems to appeal to both women and men.


The conversation now swings to a discussion of Jane’s other book A String Of Flowers, Untied. ., a translation of the  tanka of Murasaki Shikbu from her most famous novel, The Tale of Genji.

  1. DSL: When did you first encounter The Tale of  Genji?
    JR: In the late 1970s, when I had begun to seriously study haiku, I was reading everything I could find about the form and Japanese culture. One day we discovered this tiny bookstore in Hamburg, which was basically the man’s living room in his house. There I found the fat paperback of Edward G. Seidensticker’s complete translation of The Tale of Genji. The very next week, while unloading one of my large rope sculptures for a show, a heavy bale of rope  dropped on my foot. It was bruised badly enough that I had to spend the next week lying in a hammock under the apple tree reading my new book.

  2. DSL: When did you realize the tanka were the heart of the book?
    JR: The complete realization did not come until I was well into translating the poems. In my previous readings of The Tale of Genji (I had by now also acquired the Arthur Waley translation) the story line was so compelling and fascinating, that the poems were just a novel aside to the story. I found my eyes racing over them to get on with the plot – to my regret.

  3. DSL: What gave you the idea to translate the poems?
    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 failed with the poetry. It was not uncommon that early translators of Japanese were language experts first and usually not poets. Translations of haiku suffered from this fact as well as the tanka in The Tale of Genji. 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. It also 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.

  4. DSL: How did you and Hatsue Kawamura share the collaborative writing experience?
    JR: I am studying Japanese, and my dictionary is in tatters, but I have enough respect for the complexity of the language and the poetry, that I would only consider any translation with the collaboration of a native speaker. Fortunately, the fates and I  have found Hatsue Kawamura – a gem of a person and excellent poet. She gives me a word-for-word translation and then I would then write my idea of what the author had tried to say in the form of a tanka. Sometimes she would be pleased with the resulting poem, sometimes she found me so far off base so that I had to try the translation again and again, and other at times I know she wept because the English result sounded so ugly in comparison with the Japanese original.

  5. DSL: Would you do it again?
    JR: Yes. There are still over four hundred tanka in the second half of the book and it is my dream to be able to do them all. At the moment, though, Hatsue and I are translating the tanka of a contemporary Japanese poet – Fumiko Nakajoo. But I have already begun working by myself on the rest of The Tale of Genji poems while Hatsue is busy arranging a tanka convention in Bangkok, Thailand.

  6. DSL: Could the poems be linked without any prose connection and still preserve the sense and power of the story?
    JR: I don’t think so. At first I had planned to present only the new translations of the poems and to leave the reader to find the story as others have translated the prose. But to do this would make a very different “story” out of Murasaki Shikibu’s poetry. I felt strongly that the tanka were deeply connected to the personalities of the characters and that somehow the reader of the poetry needed this additional information to appreciate her genius.

  7. DSL: Essentially, you’ve written a series of linked haibun. However, you were careful to preserve the light of the poetry before a subdued backdrop of prose. Was this intentional?
    JR: Not really. As I prepared to start the translating job, I felt I needed to have some notes about the situation for which the poem was written to guide my own thinking, but I did not want to get caught up in the story (too easy to do) by having to read the full text. So I got a big three-ring notebook and on each page I gave the poem a number, wrote up the parts of the story relevant to the poem and below that pasted in the fax sheets with the Japanese and the word-for-word translations. Below and beyond that came the many versions and variations of the English attempts. When I typed up this manuscript, I still felt I wanted to have the prose sections to accompany the poetry. I wanted to honor Murasaki Shikbu’s own feeling that the poems needed to be separated by prose. Also I had this idea that the poems were like gemstones and that to be worn or understood or carried around, the jewels needed a mounting. For me, that mounting was the prose – the situation that held up the poem. Also, since the earliest anthology of Japanese poetry, Manyoo-shuu (Ten Thousand Leaves), it was a common practice to have prose headings to the poems. In these few sentences was additional information about the reasons for the poem being written or remembered. Because of the briefness of tanka, these headers have remained a useful setting to prepare the reader’s mind for finding the complexities of the poem.

  8. DSL: A lot of emphasis is placed on the tanka translations and research in preserving their meaning – and rightly so. Equally important, however, is adapting the prose that links the poetry into an engaging synopsis that will preserve the story, as well as rise above the mere retelling of the plot.  Was Hatsue involved  in this?
    JR: Yes. Because she had in her hands the text of The Tale of Genji as translated by Akiko Yosano, she pointed out things that were missed or presented differently in the other two English translations. Also, since we worked from Yosano’s version of the story, we included, as an extra, the tanka by Yosano that she had used as overture to each chapter. Thus, the reader gets tanka translations from two of Japan’s most famous women poets. Because Hatsue is herself a famed Japanese poet, her help with both the story and poems was valuable beyond measure.

  9.  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 this out. An aside about Yosano, another woman worthy of the deeper study. She was, after her early success of her own book of love tanka, the mother of eleven children, translator of The Tale of Genji twice (her first draft burned in the Tokyo earthquake of 1924), the writer of over 17,000 tanka, nearly 500 free verse poems, had published 75 other books of her tanka, literary critique and children’s fairy tales, all the while supporting her husband, the poet Yosano Tekkan.

  10.  DSL: How did you develop the feminine sensuality of the book?
    JR: Develop it? I just stood back and tried to keep it from slithering off the page into a banned book! Both Murasaki Shikibu and Akiko Yosano were, in their quiet and delicate ways, very open and up-front about sexuality, in all its aspects between men and women, men and men, women with women.
  11. 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.

(A portion of this interview was published in the Redwood Coast Review, edited by Stephen Kessler under the title, "Haiku Priestess" in July 2003.)

Copyright © Designated Authors, 2003 - 2007.


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