When I was searching for an author in the Haiku Anthology for my study, the haiku above caught my attention. When reading the haiku I can picture a child franticly scratching out his mistake in the hopes that no one will be able to read through his scribbles to discover his error. I can hear the pen scratching across the paper as well as see the black blob growing. This haiku makes me think about how everyone has their faults and makes mistakes. No matter how badly you want to erase them or try and make up for them they will still be there. The important thing is to learn from our mistakes and strive to become a better person. Mistakes then become less threatening. They can be viewed more positively as learning tools and ultimately along with our other life experience, they mold us into the person we are.
I began my research on Stevenson through the internet and I discovered that The Herons Nest had named John the Readers ChoicePoet of the Year for the second year in a row. John Stevenson resides in New York. Besides writing, he works as an administrator for the New York State Office of Mental Health. John has two books, Something Unerasable (1996) and Some of the Silence (1999). Additionally, he was the editor of From a Kind Neighbor, the 1997 Haiku Society of America membership anthology. Stevenson is currently an editor for FrogPond. Furthermore, in my research I found a paper written by Nicole Bilyeu. In her paper, I discovered that John had another form of poetry published at the age of eight. Stevenson has written poetry on a daily bases since the age of fourteen. It wasnt until his involvement with the PlayBack Theatre that a Japanese actress had introduced John to haiku. He was then in his early forties.
I was fortunate enough to be able to correspond directly with Mr. Stevenson himself through e-mail. John very kindly and quite promptly responded to my inquiries. He answered each of my questions with responses that provided me with more information than I couldve hoped for and Im very excited to share it.
John had been writing poetry for many years, I asked him to
share how his writing had evolved over the years and explain
where he got his inspiration. John stated that the very first
poem he remembers writing was about the American Civil War.
He also replied that his motivation for the earliest years
of his career was simply to amuse his friends. John wrote
parodies of nursery rhymes and songs. In his adolescent years,
John showed his work to almost no one and he tried to write
his poems in a code. His own personal satisfaction was his
motivation during these difficult years. Stevenson noted that
it was during this time that he learned about idioms and became
skilled at writing in multiply layers of meanings. There were
a couple of teachers in high school that encouraged John and
got him to write a straightforward verse again. Then in college
John began publishing his work because he discovered that
women were attracted to poets. John told me that from this
point on, the influences on his work became very complex.
Some of the influences included his favorite poets like Wallace
Stevens, Theodore Roethke, and John Berryman. Playwrights
such as Ionesco, Beckett, and Pinter also influenced Stevenson.
He was even influenced by some songwriters and shared that
one of his personal theories was that poetry was musical
I love this haiku because it shows how the simple act of smiling at someone can be so contagious. You can see someone passing by a mother talking and smiling at her baby who is cooing and smiling. You are filled with a warm feeling because you can sense how much these people are enjoying each other. I can relate personally to this haiku since I work with infants and know how their smiles can brighten you day. Sometimes you are bombarded with the evils of the world from the news and its nice to be given an image of kindness.
Another similar haiku of Stevensons can also be found on page 45:
I really like this haiku because when you first read the haiku you are taken back. I really value my time alone because with two little girls I dont get much of it. Also with all the demands of a full time job, 15 credit hour school semester, a family, and the house Im often racing around eating on the run. Therefore the day I would get to sit down and enjoy a simple sandwich by myself in the peace and quiet would definitely be a joyous occasion for me. Another reason I enjoy this haiku is that it different than most. Its not about nature and the human interaction is with an innate object. For this reason it makes you stop and think of other pieces of your daily routine in a new light.
Some of Johns haiku make you really step back and look at yourself and how you view things. An example of such a haiku can be seen in Some of the Silence on page 39:
When first reading this haiku it seems really sad. You can picture someone having to make a call from the ICUs pay phone to tell other family members that their beloved child is fighting for her life. This is every parents worse nightmare. However, you can read the haiku again and then thank God that you do not need to use either that payphone or the tissues because he has blessed her with good health. The little problems that my daughters do have such as a learning disability and a lazy eye that at times seem overwhelming, could be a whole lot worse.
To further illustrate a persons viewpoint is the haiku from Some of the Silence, page 32:
This is a perfect example of how some people are pessimistic and others optimistic. Is the glass half empty or half full? In this instance your view changes everything. Dead roses would be silly to keep but dried roses are a whole other matter. When people dry roses they are from a special occasion the person wishes to have a token around to remember the event by. My husband asked me several years back why I had placed a dead rose in a vase on our dresser. I explained that I had dried one of the roses from the bouquet he had sent me for my twenty-fifth birthday in which the card read Happy Birthday Mommy as I had just discovered that I was pregnant with our eldest that morning. From then on my husband looked at the rose in a new way. Sometimes we need a little reminder to look for the positive or the silver lining.
I think I enjoyed Stevensons haibun the most. When writing haibun, John says that he tries to employ his aesthetics to the Japanese renku. He says that the link and shift element is very important in a haibun. In addition, John explains that the poem and prose should not be too closely linked but they cannot be totally unrelated. John says that the element of the haibun that he enjoys most is the suspension- if one piece is removed the whole thing will fall apart. Id like to share two of Johns haibun. The first is very comical and is located on page 23 in Some of the Silence.
You cant help but to smile yourself when reading this haibun. I have done some pretty stupid things myself not paying attention or trying to do things in the dark. The haiku relates to the prose through the line of the warm smile but the haiku can also stand alone. This is a perfect example of the balance Stevenson was talking about.
The second haibun I like to share can also be found in Some of the Silence on page 51:
I think that this haiku is more closely related to the prose than in the first haibun. I can definitely relate. Many times the girls have had toys with low batteries mysteriously go off in the middle of the night. As if the sudden noise in the still of the night wasnt startling enough, the batteries being low in charge give the toy a distorted sinister sound. Somehow these sounds in the middle of the night do instantly trigger thoughts of your worse fears as a parent. I like the haibun because it gives you the story that inspired the haiku and thus gives you an insight into the life of the author.
last of my e-mail questions for John dealt more with the actual
process of writing haiku. I asked John what tips he would
offer someone just beginning to write haiku. He replied that
the most common misconception was the 5-7-5 pattern. John
says he often gives people the following to think about: Ive
been emphasizing that I prefer a haiku that registers first
as a vivid sensory image, second as a stimulant for intuition,
and only thirdly as a stimulant of thought. Too much of what
I see goes directly to thought and, once youve engaged
the rational mind, its very difficult to fully engage
the senses or intuition. I then inquired about the process
John used in editing his work. John said that he puts his
work away both physically and mentally for awhile so that
when he reads it again he can read it as his readers would.
He repeats the process several times before offering his haiku
for publication. John says there are numerous things to consider
including the order of the images, the element of simplicity,
he looks out for forced effects and tries to leave some of
the details for the reader to fill in. Lastly, John says that
he receives editing advice from other poets and editors.
As far as publishing a new book, John says that it takes approximately five years to write the material for a book, which would make him due for a book in 2009.
In conclusion, John Stevensons haiku reflect common moments with such vividness and clarity that you can experience them through all your senses. You can feel his emotions even though they are not specifically stated. Stevenson subject matter is one that is down to earth and easy for all to relate to. He uses both human and seasonal elements. John writes on a wide range of subjects from the more serious like the tanka found on page 3 of Some of the Silence.
to ironic haiku like the one appearing on the Herons Nest website:
Stevenson is an amazing author and a kind man. He had some great information for me and truly enjoyed reading his work.
Some of the Silence. Red Moon Press. 1999, 3,23, 32,
39, 45, 51.
Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved
for original authors
last updated: July 13, 2005