An award-winning Irish author specializing in haibun, haiku, and zuihitsu. He is founder and editor of The Haibun Journal, a twice-yearly print publication dedicated to the haibun form. Sean has penned 4 books of which Fragmentation was the winner of the 2022 HSA Merit Book Award for Best Haibun Book. O’Connor was also awarded two Literature Bursaries by the Arts Council of Ireland (2021 and 2022).
The Interview : Sean O'Connor
(The Wise Owl in conversation with Sean O’Connor)
The Wise Owl talks to Sean O’Connor, an award-winning Irish author specializing in haibun, haiku, and zuihitsu. He is founder and editor of The Haibun Journal, a twice-yearly print publication dedicated to the haibun form. He was a member of the judging panel of the Japan-based Genjuan International Haibun Contest for 2020 and 2021. His first solo collection, Let Silence Speak: A Haiku and Haibun Collection (2016), was shortlisted for the Touchstone Distinguished Books Award. A second book, Even the Mountains: Five Years in a Japanese Village, followed in 2017, and his third, Fragmentation, a series of haibun and zuihitsu meditations on dementia and the dynamics of memory, in 2021. Fragmentation was the winner of the 2022 HSA Merit Book Award for Best Haibun Book. O’Connor was also awarded two Literature Bursaries by the Arts Council of Ireland (2021 and 2022). He resides in rural Tipperary, Ireland.
Thank you, Sean, for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl.
TWO: You are an award- winning author specializing in haibun, haiku and zuihitsu. For the benefit of our readers please tell us a little about your journey as a poet and writer.
SO’C: From the mid-1980’s I spent ten years studying and writing haiku before meeting Jim Norton who founded the print journal Haiku Spirit. He became a great mentor to me on writing haiku and haibun and he introduced me to the late Ken Jones from Wales. In the late 1990’s the three of us co-authored Pilgrim Foxes, believed to be the first book of haibun in the English language (now out of print). In 1998 I took over as editor of Haiku Spirit for its final eight issues.
In 2008 I moved to rural Japan for five years and this was a major turning point in my development as a writer in Japanese forms. Living in Japan and working with Japanese writers considerably deepened my understanding of both Japanese literary forms and their aesthetics. Since my return to Ireland I founded The Haibun Journal and became a professional writer.
TWO: Our readers would also be curious to know what attracted you to Japanese genres like haibun and haiku.
SO’C: My interest in all aspects of Japanese culture and my practice of writing haiku spans 40 years now. It is 30 years since I began writing haibun. I have never considered myself to be a Japanophile at all, however, Japanese culture feels natural to me.
TWO: You have authored several books in Japanese genres like haiku and haibun- Let Silence Speak, Even The Mountains, Fragmentation. What is the inspiration behind these books?
SO’C: It took 20 years to write Let Silence Speak, a collection of haiku and three haibun. Even The Mountains is an exploration of the five years I spent in a rural village in Japan. Written in prose and haiku, it is actually a form of long haibun. A few years after my return to Ireland, my father has a stroke and developed vascular dementia. Fragmentation explores the dynamics of memory, dementia, and the experience of caring for a loved one who is living with dementia.
TWO: Our viewers include lovers of Japanese genres of poetry. They would be curious to know (as I am) about your creative process as a writer and poet- thoughts, incidents, events that inspire you, how you translate your creative urges on to paper et al.
SO’C: Literary writing is hard work and time consuming. I do not rely on inspiration, that comes from the writing itself. When considering what to write about I favour subjects or incidents that are likely to generate emotional resonance for the reader.
At any given time I am working on several haibun, however, each one typically takes at least a year to complete. Once I decide what I will write a haibun about, I contemplate it for a few weeks, or months, and during that process I compose haiku I think connect with it. By the time I am ready to write prose I usually have between 4 and 10 haiku to work with. I constantly refer to these haiku as I write the prose. Only a fraction (often only one or two) of the haiku end up in the final haibun draft. This helps ensure that the prose and haiku in the finished haibun are integrated – are ‘linked’. I re-edit the haibun numerous times over a long period of time.
TWO: You are the founder of The Haibun Journal, dedicated to the haibun form. What was the vision behind this journal? After 5 years do you feel that the vision has borne fruition?
SO’C: The primary goal of The Haibun Journal is to bring the haibun form to a wide mainstream audience. It seeks to provide a publishing platform for serious writers of haibun to enter the mainstream. The journal strives to build the profile of the haibun form in mainstream literature and bring it to a wide audience of readers by publishing the highest quality haibun writing it can. Just as writers are not the arbiters of their own work, the success, or otherwise, of The Haibun Journal will be decided by the reading public. Now in our fifth year, it is too early to judge if it has come to fruition. That will take at least another five years.
The haibun is not a short form. From its inception 400 years ago, haibun have tended to be quite long and well developed. The Haibun Journal is willing to publish haibun with well-crafted ambition, regardless of the word count. This is important as there has been an increasing tendency to see haibun as ‘a short form’. Yes, it can be short, but longer work needs to be accommodated too. Like all journals, we depend on the writers to provide the work and I am grateful to every writer who submits haibun to us.
TWO: You are also an educator who runs online workshops of haibun. What do you think are the challenges in making haibun a widely accepted genre in the mainstream?
SO’C: I have no doubt that the haibun form is both accepted and respected in the mainstream. Many top writers write haibun and mainstream awards have been given to writers of Japanese literary forms. Mainstream writers have, from the outset, consistently submitted to The Haibun Journal. Between us, two members of The Haibun Journal team have won four major literary awards based on our haibun writing. The T.S. Elliot Prize was awarded to Roger Robinson in 2019. His most famous work is ‘Haibun for the Lookers’. The haibun form has been steadily growing in the mainstream, and I expect that to continue.
TWO: What advice would you give budding haibun writers?
SO’C: Read a lot of literature. Study books on the craft of writing and on how to edit your work. Learn from all literary forms. Write to the best of your ability and seek to extend that ability. Take the time to develop every piece you write to its maximum potential, regardless of how long that may take. Never rush to publication.
As the haiku form is a defining component of haibun, it is particularly important to develop the craft of composing them. Editing is not only a matter of ‘paring back’, it also involves knowing what to add to your writing. This is true for haiku too. The Japanese see the removal of a word or two from a haiku draft as an opportunity to add more to the poem. Be careful not to underwrite your haiku. See the use of kigo, not as simply a reference to nature, but as a technique for injecting emotional resonance and atmosphere into a haiku. Above all, enjoy both reading and writing.
TWO: Please tell us a little about your latest book, The God of Bones.
SO’C The God of Bones, written over a seven year period, explores war, upheaval, social dislocation and human cruelty. It proposes that, despite the darkness in the world; ‘everything is okay’.
American poet, Robert Whelan said that The God of Bones “. . . is a masterpiece. Each section is a short story dense beyond its economy. They are so rich with nuance and soul. I don’t have the words to express how magnificent it is. So much beauty in the dark. So much real truth that can only be found on the edge of existence.”
Thank you for asking, and for your wonderful questions. I wish The Wise Owl very success.
To find out more about Sean O’Connor, see: www.seanwriter.com
Thank you so much for speaking to The Wise Owl. It was indeed a pleasure to speak to you. We wish you the best in all your creative endeavours.