Inkwash + digital poetry comics, 2014
This short but sweet collection of haiku comics was originally sent one-by-one to a mentor. She advocated for haiku as a means of everyday creative and spiritual exploration, and I wanted to return the gesture somehow.
This is an older project, and it’s far from my best work. But it was my first exploration of poetry comics, and I still enjoy much of the end results.
This book is long out of print, but you can read the best comics of the bunch in a digital recreation of the original book below. The essay from the original collection follows the comics as an afterward.
Introduction (from the original comic)
Hokku, what eventually come to be known as haiku, was once something different than it is now. Long ago, a haiku was the first part of a longer form of collaborative poetry called renga. By the middle ages in Japan, haikai no renga was known as a playful kind of poetry written among many collaborators (renga was the form, haikai the playful, collaborative approach to writing it). A poem of this kind started with one writer’s verse, the hokku – in the West, a poem with…
one line of 5 syllables,
one of 7,
and one more of 5.
The task for the second poet was to complete the “Full” form, the tanka of five total lines, by adding…
two more lines,
each one with 5 syllables.
But renga didn’t end there. Next, a third poet would join in, looking only at the last two lines and writing a new three-line hokku in response. The fourth writer then added two lines in response to the newest three, and so on for potentially hundreds of verses.
This writing process was improvisational and, by shifting seasons and subjects from verse to verse, helped to embody the beliefs underlying haikia no renga and eventually haiku – namely, the transience of things and the interdependent wholeness of reality. In modern times too, the juxtaposition of subjects in a haiku or a longer tanka verse can hold poetic connection for readers, while other times meaning is more difficult to discern. But, like sitting or walking mindfully in the world, the experience of reading such poetry reminds us of the true nature of things. In this way, the reader is the final collaborator, filling the spaces left for her so that she may uncover her own meaning.
One of the beautiful things about poetry itself is that it so easily puts the writer into conversation with people from very long ago. In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver discusses the crucial importance for poetry writers to read poetry – regardless of its era or culture of origin:
In looking for poems and poets, don’t dwell on the boundaries of style, or time, or even of countries and cultures. Think of yourself rather as one member of a single, recognizable tribe. Expect to understand poems of other eras and other cultures. Expect to feel intimate with the distant voice. The differences you will find between then and now are interesting. They are not profound.Oliver, 11
Writing haiku and tanka give me a chance to speak with haiku masters from centuries past-such as Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa. These writers’ honesty, astuteness, humility, and foolishness have shown me that anyone can create beauty with adequate effort, mindfulness, patience, and practice. Reading and responding to these masters’ works has deepened my own spiritual and creative understandings.
But, poetry can also reconnect the writer with people from not so long ago. Each of the haiku and tanka that follow started as part of an evolving daily writing practice. Originally they existed as test only, which I shared often with a mentor and friend, Gale Jackson, who encouraged me from the beginning of my creative journeys to establish a spiritual foundation, one that would ensure my steps forward stayed on solid ground. She explained to me once:
In the traditional form we look ‘out’ at nature around us and find it mirroring back lessons of our being. Contemporary writers, I realize, find it hard to lean into drawing wisdom from the world around us. But stepping out of yourself to find yourself, in the traditional form, is a potent exercise in communication. Prayer.Jackson, personal communication: Oct 2012
I have since drifted from daily poetry writing, but this foundation was worth setting. Much of my work is academic, but even here a solid spiritual foundation is invaluable. Philosopher and theologian Thomas Moore put it well in an interview:
When our reasoning and our education and our teaching have soul, they have more imagination; they’re more poetic in style. They’re not going toward solutions to problems. … Today we seem to deal with every issue in our cultural life as a problem, and never to take it as a mystery. A problem is there to be solved; a mystery is there to be initiated into, or to be entered fully.Moore and Suzi Gablik, Conversations Before the End of Time, 392
Leveraging poetic and metaphoric devices has allowed me a deeper understanding of life, its beauty and mystery, than I have ever had before. Following Gale’s advice (at some points forgetting it and later remembering it) has made all the difference in my time since.
Having reflected on my experiences, I returned to a few of my daily verses as a collaborator with myself. I adjusted the language when called for and complemented the text with images. As I completed each one anew, I sent it to my old mentor, inviting her to serve as final contributor. My hope was that she, without explicit prompting, might fill the spaces between these old-works-made-new with a fresh layer of meaning. Perhaps she might also feel the joy and mystery of looking back on simple moments and finding all new wonders waiting there.
Perhaps you might do the same.
TP, May ’16