The proverb, “those can – do and those who can’t – teach,” was part of my knowledge even as a young girl. It came in handy for my disputes with high school teachers before the age of violence with metal weapons when we only used barbed words.
There was also another saying: “what goes around; comes around.” In my old age, after so carefully avoiding teaching over these many years, and while having great admiration for those souls who daily pit their wits with the young, I am being herded into a corner where I am becoming that which I thought I was not.
The fault lies on many heads, many of which are in the Poet Laureate Committee in Ukiah, California. Ukiah, a Pomo Indian word meaning “deep valley” is the name of the county seat of Mendocino where I now live. The fact that the name is haiku spelled backwards seems to be a sign that this place has some secret and preordained connection to a poetry form from Japan. I have been caught in the middle. In the ten years of the ukiaHaiku Festival more and more persons have been swept into the maelstrom of which I have been a floating rock.
It is possible to divide the world’s population into three parts. Those who have never heard of haiku, those who think they know all they need to know about the form –
seventeen syllables about nature – and those who are engaged in learning more. I have recollection of the moment when the scales tipped me from being a student to being a teacher.
Maybe it was the day in 1995 the guy from San Francisco asked me to design a web site about poetry for him. Maybe it was that day I got an email from a guy at Kodansha International in Tokyo asking if I would write a book on how to write haiku. Maybe it was being asked by the Commonwealth Club of California to speak on haiku or the day I bought the aqua dress.
A few weeks ago I got a book in the mail to be reviewed in Lynx (it is there in this issue: In the Field by Neil Fleischmann). Inside the front cover was a hand-written note thanking me for all I have done for haiku. “Ah,” I thought, “how nice that someone has learned enough from my work to make a charming little book.” I experienced actual physical pain as I read the 17-syllable aphoristic admonishments. With the clarity of a bolt of lightning I suspected people needed another way of learning about haiku beyond reading books.
One of my current soapbox topics is a heartfelt rant about how, in spite of the popularity of writing Japanese genre poetry forms in English, only one college in USA, as far as I know (Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois – thanks to Randy Brooks!) actually teaches haiku. The heads of far too many universities believe that departments of Asian Studies or even professors of Japanese lit courses have the subject adequately covered. That was perhaps true one hundred years ago, but in the meantime, while they were raising tuition costs, people outside of the college system have been learning what the schools were unable to teach about English-language haiku. It is a bit of the chicken and egg conundrum – who is qualified to teach when there is no one qualified to determine who is qualified?
We haiku writers are a DIY – do it yourself – bunch. Even the national organizations lacked the authority, and the desire to tackle this problem, because their leaders were mostly busy warring between themselves and getting their own haiku into ink on paper.
Yes, there are books, now maybe five or six, on how to write haiku. But even still, in my experiences with the teachers of Mendocino country schools, too many were satisfied with the validity of the previous folk-knowledge they had about haiku.
In an effort to change this, the Poet Laureate Committee of Ukiah organized a workshop for teachers. Even after one rainy afternoon of three hours of talk, there was a difference in the quality of the haiku submitted to the yearly contest for the ukiaHaiku Festival. However, the “deep valley” of Ukiah is due to the mountain ranges on both of its sides. These barriers to education melted down before the power of video-taping. This year the workshop talk was captured and distributed over the internet to people even beyond our lumpy mountains. Even as the hits to this website mount up, and when I read the stats on AHApoetry.com – the greater number of visitors go to the haiku information features, I felt I should be doing more.
You know how the suddenness of seeing a kite in the sky delights and enthralls you? Just like that the idea came to me to make a school of haiku. Actually I had gathered the glue, the paper, and the wooden sticks many years ago. When I started to work on Writing and Enjoying Haiku for Kodansha I was so thrilled to have an outlet for all I knew, had learned and loved, I flung everything possible into pages. This I proudly presented – all 480 pages of it – to my editor. Firmly but kindly he told me the contract was only for 139 pages. Okay, I had learned to be a good girl as a child. I chopped and chopped the materials down to fit his idea of the book. But in my fury I saved the original document as the Bare Bones School of Haiku – the title for the book Kodansha refused to consider.
Would a school of haiku on the internet, free and open for anyone with a shining screen, be the way to bring all I had to give? We will see. The school had only been up a couple of weeks but so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
In fact I was so delighted and buoyed up by praise that I found the strength and energy to also create the Bare Bones School of Renga. All those articles, all that work on, for and with renga now had a new home.
I am sure my shoulders sagged to begin hyperventilating even as I got the idea for a school of tanka also. I tried to talk myself out of it by saying, “Bare Bones is not a good image for a tanka school.” But it only took one night of sound sleep to remind me of the title of the first English-language tanka anthology that Werner and I co-edited in 1993 – Wind Five-Folded. There it was – at least the name.
For awhile I was slowed down because all my tanka articles were too general – covered too much of the same territory with different words. In an impulsive move, I dumped all I had written about tanka, and simply started from the beginning of tanka as part of the oral tradition of Japan and wrote my way back to today. As the information coalesced into sections and lessons, I found bits and pieces I would tuck in around the edges like parsley. My old favorite page template from Lynx allowed sidebars of information that would have puckered and pulled on the lessons. I turned into a monster to man and cat until I was able to control all the information I had swirling in my head.
Now it is done, the sun shines and muffins roll out of the oven again and you can now go to the Bare Bones School of Haiku, the Bare Bones School of Renga or Wind Five-Folded School of Tanka.