How Haiku led me to Haibun and the importance of Kintsukuroi to my Writing Life

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Oh, how we need inspirational quotes and prods from friends and that nagging inner voice, to pick up the pen, or in modern parlance, sit in front of the computer and tap doggedly at the keys.

Today, when so many people are writing it is easy to be discouraged if you go down the track of comparing your offerings in a negative way. Instead of learning, experimenting, editing and rewriting, you give up because you think I can’t write like that… my book won’t be as popular as that… he/she writes so much better than me…no one wants to read what I write… I’m a poet, a short story writer, a musician, a blogger, a novelist, I don’t understand other genres… I’m not good enough… it’s too hard to change… (or is it in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words ‘the malady of not wanting’!)

Almost everyone in the creative arts, not just writers, suffers at some time on their journey from the fear of failure, rejection, inadequacy and ridicule, but we also experience the incredible satisfaction of doing what we love and when it works its akin to ecstasy! For me, as a writer, the secret is to ‘hang in there’ like a surfer clinging to a board in a turbulent sea. I also venture into unknown waters, sometimes a paddle, other times a deep dive, and most of the times I’m waving not drowning!

One of my changes of directions involved learning haiku, which led to experimenting with other forms of Japanese poetry and like most form poetry, attempting to ‘get it right/write’  can be a wonderful and creative distraction when words fail elsewhere in your writing life. I’ve shared some of my haiku in earlier posts and want to thank Nobuko Sakai, a longtime friend for introducing me to Japanese verse. Nobuko came into my life when I was sixteen and she attended my high school in 1970 as a Japanese exchange student. We have been friends ever since, visiting each other here in Melbourne, Tokyo,  and in London, England where she now lives.

Nobuko sent me The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964), translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, which introduced me to the great Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa and so many others, as well as giving a potted history of 1500 years of Japanese tradition. (There is a not so glowing review of the book here, but sixteen years old me did not have the knowledge (or desire) to critique like this, I was just enthralled to discover a new world of writers!)

A more recent gift of a carload of books by a generous daughter from the estate of her mother, a local writer/artist, included Classic Haiku, a Master’s Selection (1991), a gold mine of poetry translated by Yuzuru Miura with a poet’s eye and they fit Bownas & Thwaite’s description:

(a haiku’s)… seventeen syllables should ideally – and nearly always did – end in a noun or an emotional ejaculation, and should contain their ‘season word’ (kilo) or expression hinting at the time of the year appropriate to the context.’

However, like all adaptations, if you become involved in the poetry scene you’ll find those who insist on traditional haiku, and those who accept changes to the form, whether in syllable count or subject matter. My advice – just write a three line image, manipulate the words as best you can and say what you want to say whether it exactly fits the parameters, or not. (It’s amazing how often it does!)

A frozen puddle
trip back to my childhood
worth wet socks all day

Mairi Neil, Hobo Poetry Magazine, Issue 21. (no longer in print)

Last year I introduced myself and the class to Haibun and without becoming too pedantic about the rules I tried to combine haiku and prose to tell a story aiming for the moon, but sometimes remaining on earth:

In good haibun, the prose deepens the understanding of the poetry, and the poetry gives greater energy to the prose. The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.

Here is my first effort at haibun (it doesn’t follow the rules of some traditionalists), but was  published in Celebrating Poetry by  Karenzo Media 2014:

Visiting Singapore 1973

Mairi Neil

We crowd on deck as the cruise ship glides into Singapore harbour, a week after leaving Fremantle. The silver sun aglow in a cloudless azure sky. Skin fiery scarlet from too many hours in the ship’s pool as Singapore City wobbles and wilts in the heat.

I ache for relief
from this tantalising veil
and covet the sea

Engines thrum and screeches of gulls mask the first hint a change is on the way. Rain falls in sheets and shafts. Solid blocks of water pound the decks.

Clouds scud across sky
The veil now a fog blanket
Hiding the city.

Beneath our feet racing rivers fill deck gutters and our shoes. On automatic pilot, we slosh for cover, although there is no icy wind in this downpour.

No unsettling chill
Just instant relief
From relentless heat

Rain hammers metal, swamps furniture and people, drenching everything not covered. Metal rails hiss. Steam sizzles on the shrinking, not sinking ship. No crevice escapes. A continuous stream of trickles and dribbles demonstrates the power of this deluge.

A turmoil of grey
Idyllic tropics in grip
Of monsoonal rain

Yet, within minutes, the ship docks and the downpour stops as quickly as it began. Singapore city a perfect watercolour painting showcases sunlight and serenity. The tropical shower and haze but a dream as perspiration leaks from every pore.

I tried to write another…

Sore Feet and Soaring Thoughts

Mairi Neil

A wonderful warm spring day. A clutch of residents from the nursing home walk around the block for a dose of Vitamin D and fresh air. Two carers dressed in floral finery, not wings and halos, their guardians.

Shuffling slippered feet
Walker wheels squeak and sticks tap
Dull pleated skirts flap…

Without a sideways glance, a gaggle of schoolgirls overtake the pensioner posse. They preen and prance. Laughter tinkles, iPod cords dangle, mobile phones jingle.

A raven squawks as
strutting peacocks and tired chooks
enjoy the sunshine

The ambulatory group not seeking to collide, or slide, to the other side. Today’s challenges taken in their stride.

Smiling carers guide
stumbling feet and rheumy eyes
to avoid a fall

Gnarled arthritic hands cling to walking frames bumping over paths once traversed with prams and baby strollers. Reminiscent of bygone children’s frolics, parrots chitter overhead as magpies chortle and caper.

Pavement cracks trigger
memories. Past lives flash of
mothers, daughters, wives.

The internet is a great resource for reading haibun online. To access several fine sites go to this link and here.

Saturday Morning Sojourn
Mairi Neil

Magpies trill
Ravens squawk, and parrots squeal
In morning mist chill…

The sea breeze tastes salty and brings a whiff of fish. Eucalypts counteract the exhaust fumes from an idling bus. My footsteps tap and click to compete with the clang of bells from the railway crossing, while a pink glow tinges a pewter sky.

An absence of folk
At seven Saturday morn
Commuters sleep-in…

The Frankston train grunts to a standstill, brake fluid turning the air rancid. Carriage doors open at the touch of a button. I smile. The heating works too.

Friday night’s residue
Stale beer and body odour
Bottles, cans, litter…

Fresh air, a relief at Chelsea Station. Community gardens glisten with dew, their morning hush disturbed by eager joggers and dog walkers.

Curtains, and eyes closed
Newspapers asleep on lawns
Doorstop cats restless…

Enticing smells float from a bakery and a group of young people huddle outside the tennis courts. Their dedication triggers memories of school hockey practice.

Teasing and giggling
the scantily dressed teens
Gather for sport…

I walk towards the medical clinic, a sixth sense telling me the lightness of step justified. I chuckle and feel ageless.

I’ll return to these poems and try to salvage the essence or write a new poem because that’s what I do – keep aiming for perfection and searching for words and form to share my thoughts and observations and ‘an overactive imagination’ – my Mother’s words!

And I’m grateful I came across this delightful image, which led to a discovery of another gift from Japanese culture and one I will share with my students when classes return as well as this delightful fable of its origins. The message to me as a writer is to never give up, find a home for those words, or rejig them into something different, perhaps even better, or just accept them for what they are – an expression from a moment in time – whether it be a deep and meaningful observation, a description or fanciful thought!

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As a philosophy kintsukuroi ,  treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. As a philosophy kintsugi can be seen to have similarities to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, an embracing of the flawed or imperfect.

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself.

Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics

Writers know about knockbacks, shattering truths, and lucky breaks – we also know about rebuilding dreams and that often requires rebuilding or salvaging our words – I can definitely relate to Kintsukuroi in my general life as well as my writing life!

Writers Write – That’s What We Do – Let’s Hope the Readers Read!

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To be a writer is to embrace rejection as a way of life.

Dana Stabenow.

Over the years, I’ve earned more money from my teaching than my writing, but I remember the day I considered myself a writer and decided to keep scribbling and never abandon an activity that has saved my sanity, brought pleasure and pain, and remains a vital part of who I am.

A Ticket To Write

Mairi Neil

The morning is a brilliant blue with a fresh sea breeze and cliched cottonwool clouds. The dog barks her annoyance at a piercing whistle from a city bound train and from my bedroom window, I watch an envelope flop into the letterbox as the postman pedals past.

Gently, I restrain two-year-old Anne’s ebullient rush outside. This ritual, a highlight of her morning. She loves the challenge of turning the key, opening the Perspex door and retrieving the letters while I hold her aloft as her dainty feet brush the agapanthus and geraniums.

I wonder if she notices my seesawing moods during this ritual: excited anticipation, then wistfulness.

Today, I stare at the black letters on the solitary white business envelope, a distinctive logo bold and embossed. I breathe deeply; try to remain calm. Oh, to be Superman with x-ray vision.

Anne, usually adept at opening the letterbox, fumbles today. My legs begin a nervous tremble – a premonition (or hope) pumps blood through my heart to pulse in already throbbing ears. The clear air seems lighter like my head; the scent of nearby lavender and sturdy eucalypts keeping me focused as I concentrate on Anne’s voice delightfully chanting, ‘Here Mummy… only one ‘vope.’

‘Thank you darling.’ I playfully pat her bottom as I set her on the ground, ‘Mummy’ll race you inside.’ This usual conclusion of our journey to the mailbox, one I always lose.

I pretend to run and keep one eye on the toddling fairy while ripping the envelope open. A cheque, attached to a With Compliments slip from The Herald & Weekly Times, flutters free.

I stare at the slip of paper worth $60.00. Blood rushes to my face and at that moment the world changes. Closing my eyes, I cross into a world only visited in dreams. Someone values what I wrote – enough to pay me for it. ‘I’m a published writer!’ I whisper to the plants not expecting a response like Prince Charles, but I need an audience! I babble the significance of the news to Anne, wishing she could understand more than ‘Mummy is very happy.’ She just giggles and laughs as I sweep her into my arms and swirl and twirl into the house, desperate to telephone John.

My husband’s joy palpable, ‘I knew you’d be published. I’m going out now to buy several copies from the newsagents. Well done, I’m so proud of you.’ A few minutes later, John rings to say my story isn’t in the current issue.

I had sent it six weeks ago – when was it published? I check the ‘with compliments’ slip for a hint, but no luck. I ring my parents who are regular readers of the newspaper. It had been Dad who’d encouraged me to send  a story to their fiction section. He answers the phone, happy and proud, ‘I’ll buy extra copies of the edition.’

‘That’s if, I ever find out, which one it is Dad. They pay on publication, but it’s not in this week’s.’

I ring the newspaper to find out when, or if, my story has been published. The receptionist off-hand, ‘If you’ve received a cheque then it’s already been published.’

I contemplate ringing Dad again; hoping their recycled papers hadn’t been collected, but Mum rings me before I can dial. Great minds think alike! She’d retrieved the paper from the recycle bin. The story published two weeks earlier.

Mum reads every page of newspapers or magazines meticulously. I learn an important lesson –  people read the words – the author’s name may not be noticed or remembered!

That was 1987 when I’d abandoned full-time paid work to be a mother. A confidante to my dreams, John encouraged me to write while I ‘had the time and opportunity.’ Only a man (or non-writer) could make that statement, but I am grateful he valued and encouraged me to write.

The administrative position I held in a busy parish office prior to motherhood hadn’t left much energy for creative writing, although the constant stream of people seeking help and advice fired my imagination, as did church political intrigue. The relentless work of a new baby, breastfeeding on demand and apparently only needing occasional twenty-five minute catnaps throughout very long days and nights didn’t do much for energy levels either! However, I did find time to scribble and polish some words and my imagination never switched off.

I had been writing for years gaining publication of poems and articles at school, university and church magazines, but never actually developing the confidence to send a piece off to a commercial publisher. At work, I was the one people asked to write doggerel on special occasions, or help to write letters. I had the reputation amongst family and friends of being ‘good with words,’ but regarded as a hobby writer. No one saw my writing as a serious career choice – not even me!

The desire to write led me to subscribe to a writing magazine. I read every article I could on the craft of writing. John, a trade union official had long irregular working hours, so attending a writing group, or writing class impossible for me to schedule. I noticed an advertisement in the newspaper for The Writing School. The correspondence course not cheap, but they guaranteed to refund your money if you did not recoup the fee from paid published work by the time you finished the course. Most importantly, it was self-paced with no time limit for finishing the course. What did I have to lose? John gave me the enrolment fee as an early birthday present.

One of the first exercises was to write a story under 800 words based on a character study. My effort returned with positive comments and a couple of punctuation suggestions and the advice to ‘find the story a home’.

Dad, a frustrated writer himself, always encouraged me to write. His love of poetry and frequent recitals of favourite poems made me love the potency of words. Mum, an avid reader ensured our house overflowed with books. Birthdays and Christmas always meant at least one book as a gift. All my life, a daily newspaper had been delivered and subscriptions to various magazines  factored into the family budget. I asked Dad for help to choose a market for my story and he suggested The Weekly Times, a popular newspaper in the 80s.

I sent off an unsolicited manuscript –– a photocopy of the painstakingly retyped story(no home computer then), a covering letter and prepaid self-addressed envelope.

My thoughts on an eccentric tram driver who interacted with commuters and the imaginary past I created for him entitled  A Ticket To Vaudeville became my ticket to publication and a much-needed boost to confidence and self-esteem. (This short story can be read in an earlier post.)

It is easy to become discouraged with writing and I’ve found ‘Life’ events intervene, but there are a lot of supportive groups and writers around who understand the pitfalls and as a writer, regardless of payment or other people’s judgment, I’ll continue to write!

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