Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, June 2005

Patti Freimuth
on

John Stevenson’s Haiku


Patti Freimuth

Patti's Haiku

 

 

under the
blackest doodle
something unerasable

~ John Stevenson, Haiku Anthology. p.204

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 Heron’s Nest had named John the Reader’s Choice—Poet 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 wasn’t 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 could’ve hoped for and I’m very excited to share it.

Since 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 speech.’

There was a time in John’s life that he ceased publishing his work because he became consumed with his new role as a father. However, he continued to write poems and fragments of poems on napkins, envelopes or whatever he could get his hands on. For his fortieth birthday his wife put together his collection and had in published. This brought John back to the poetry world. Additionally, this was the time that John discovered haiku and the rest as they say is history. John himself summed it up best when he said, “Writing poems has often been my best way of living in such a way as to know I’m alive.”

I asked John what his favorite subject was to write about and he replied that most of his poems were about the meaning of God. He also stated that he writes “out of a sense of how improbable this ordinary life we live can seem when examined closely.” I strongly agree with John that the tiniest things in life can be incredible. The following haiku found on page 45 of Some of the Silence perfectly represents this:

I smile at her
smiling at the baby
smiling

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 it’s nice to be given an image of kindness.

Another similar haiku of Stevenson’s can also be found on page 45:

alone again
making an event
of a sandwich

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 don’t get much of it. Also with all the demands of a full time job, 15 credit hour school semester, a family, and the house I’m 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. It’s 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 John’s 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:

children’s ICU
a tissue box beside
the pay phone

When first reading this haiku it seems really sad. You can picture someone having to make a call from the ICU’s pay phone to tell other family members that their beloved child is fighting for her life. This is every parent’s 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 person’s viewpoint is the haiku from Some of the Silence, page 32:

not dead roses
she corrects me
…dried

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 Stevenson’s 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. I’d like to share two of John’s haibun. The first is very comical and is located on page 23 in Some of the Silence.

A First Impression of Middle Age

After more than twenty years of marriage he is single again. When finally ready to try dating, he finds it a strange, new experience. He is self-conscious in a way which makes him feel too young. That’s how it is for him on the first night at her apartment. She is his age but she is a dancer, works out regularly and is in great shape.

He takes a turn in the bathroom before coming to bed. Squinting to check his hair as best he can without his glasses, he grabs the toothpaste and begins a vigorous brushing, which stops suddenly. Spitting and rinsing, rinsing and spitting, he is already certain, though he looks again and again. The tube on the sink contains, not toothpaste, but bengay.

salesman,
his warm smile
won’t quit

You can’t 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:

Bedtime—October 30th

Last year my son received a plastic jack-o-lantern, about the size of a crab apple, as a Halloween party favor. Pressing a button on the back made it laugh a high-pitched cackling laugh and flicker with a simulated candle light.

Sometime during the year this object came to rest in my catch-all top bureau drawer and tonight, after getting my son off to sleep with some effort, for he is looking forward to trick or treating once again, I turned out my light and tossed my watch into the drawer, accidentally setting off the long forgotten jack-o-lantern. Suddenly, I was painfully aware of a multitude of my single parent fears.

battery weakened
the low, slow laughter
of a demon

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 wasn’t 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.

The 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: “I’ve 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 you’ve engaged the rational mind, it’s 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.

My final question for Stevenson was why he enjoyed writing haiku and if he was planning on publishing anything in the near future. John replied:

“I rejoice in the fact that there are choices and that poetry, in general, is capable of providing me with a great deal of latitude in expressing emotion, thought, intuition, and homage in just the way that the occasion requires. I think haiku are particularly useful for expressing small but abiding feelings in the range of awe, serenity, gratitude, sadness, loneliness, and the like. I think it’s one of the best ways of expressing intuition.”

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 Stevenson’s 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.

autumn street…
some leaves pause
in blowing by
one day, I just thought
enough grieving

to ironic haiku like the one appearing on the Heron’s Nest website:

signs of spring
the expiration date
on fat-free milk

Stevenson is an amazing author and a kind man. He had some great information for me and truly enjoyed reading his work.

Work Cited

Stevenson,John. Some of the Silence. Red Moon Press. 1999, 3,23, 32, 39, 45, 51.
http://www.theheronsnest.com/haiku/0602v1758/thn_va.cl.html
http://performance.millikin.edu/haiku/writerprofiles/BilyeuOnStevenson.html
e-mail response from John Stevenson


©2005 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors
last updated: July 13, 2005