Tete-a-Tete: Alan Summers
The Wise Owl talks to Alan Summers, a multi-award-winning poet of haiku and related genres, whose poetry has been published in various anthologies and journals worldwide. Born in London, he now resides in Chippenham, England and is the editor-in-chief of The Haiku Reader. He has authored several poetry collections viz. Does Fish-God Know, The In-Between Season, among others, and been involved as an editor in various haiku-based anthologies including c.2.2.: Anthology of Short Verse and Four Virtual Haiku Poets. Alan’s work has also been featured in various poetry anthologies of which City: Bristol today in poems and pictures is especially noteworthy. The Haiku Foundation Digital Library contains a number of Alan’s books including Forbidden Syllables and Glint as well as the 2019 joint collection The Comfort of Crows. He is the founder and lead tutor of Call of the Page, where he runs international online courses, workshops and events on Japanese forms of verse such as haiku, senryu, tanka and haibun. Alan is also the founding editor of three journals viz. Blo͞o Outlier Journal, MahMight haiku journal, and The Babylon Sidedoor.
A double Japan Times award winning writer, Summers was filmed by NHK Television (Japan) for ‘Europe meets Japan-Alan’s Haiku Journey’. He is a Pushcart prize nominated poet for haiku and haibun, Best Small Fictions nominated for haibun, and was formerly General Secretary of the British Haiku Society (1998-2000), President of the United Haiku and Tanka Society (2017 to 2021) and was an editor for the multi-award-winning Red Moon Anthologies for best haikai literature between 2000 and 2005. He also happens to be the recipient of a Touchstone Individual Poem Award in 2016 for his poem ‘house clearance.’
Q. Our readers and viewers would be curious to know (as I am) what attracted you to haiku poetry and related genres like tanka, senryu, haibun etc.
A.The answer is serendipity!
I’d left England, UK, for Queensland, Australia, and it was a close call that I’d never write poetry ever again. Arriving in Brisbane, I came across the Metro Arts Centre, which had an office door marked Queensland Poetry Association, and their Director said she liked my poems! I’d had a very bad experience in a Round Robin poetry discussion back in England, and assumed, and was almost bullied, into believing I was terrible at writing poetry. The QPA Director picked three short poems (but not haiku yet) for a newspaper that prints one poem a month. I was successful, one was accepted, and I got paid! Being paid for your poetry really boosts your confidence.
At a later date I decided to visit the State Library of Queensland to improve my poetry writing and reading skills. In front of me I had compiled a huge pile of books, and settled in for the entire day, and just by accident, there was a book with early hokku and haiku: I started to get hooked.
Coincidently I visited the Metro Arts Centre again, and noticed an announcement about a haiku workshop, haiku collection book launch, plus a performance from the book. I found and bought the book, attended the workshop (though I didn’t do well), and attended the performance, and was further hooked. I then popped into a small branch library, on another day, and there was not one but two copies of a book, prominently displayed, called The Haiku Handbook (William Higginson and Penny Harter). I was due to fly out to Kuala Lumpur the next day and borrowed the book, and read it on the flight over, during my two day stay, and on the flight back, and was forever hooked!
The appeal of haiku itself is simply that I feel both enthralled, entranced, and light in a good way, and I want to keep that feeling.
Later on, I was hooked, and then wrote tanka, senryu, and haibun, and would like to show two published tanka and one especially composed for this interview. Love, death, and mortality, are just some strong themes for tanka:
butterflies are dying
as I help wrap her
in a winding sheet
The Right Touch of Sun
2017 Tanka Society of America Members’ Anthology
ed. Margaret Dornaus and David Terelinck
before falling in love
with my wife
again and again
the cries of swifts
Blithe Spirit vol 20 no. 3 (2010)
this blue sky
tinged with grey streaks
and left behind clouds
Q. What for you is the essence of haiku poetry and related genres like tanka.
I could leave it at that, but to elucidate, it’s also like solving a never-ending and elusive puzzle that includes me. Haiku remains as a welcoming and enduring enigma, mystery, and lifelong learning curve, and companion. I don’t want to conquer it, or fake that I can: I only want the genre of haiku, and tanka, to keep one step ahead of me so that I can keep forever being challenged and grow and evolve along the way of constant discovery.
Q. I was looking at your video made by NHK Television (Japan) where we see you sitting at the Bradford-on-Avon train station writing poetry or walking the streets of London for inspiration for your poetry. Please tell us something about the creative process that goes into writing your poetry.
A. My process has probably changed over the decades, but at its root It started with using scraps of paper, envelopes, even fast-food restaurant tray liners that were blank on the reverse side! It was just writing words, sometimes as phrases, or just as key words. There doesn’t have to be a logical connection with the words and phrases, just writing a lot of words down. That’s always a great warm up and can be followed by seeing what two groups of words might spark between each other.
Q. You also talk about how you came across the English version of a poem by Basho called ‘summer grasses’ and were inspired to read and then write haiku. Were there any other haiku or tanka masters that inspired you to explore this poetry?
A. As I didn’t own a computer, I relied on books from libraries mostly, and they were hokku (pre-1890s) dominated by Bashō, Buson, Issa, Chiyo-ni, and then some haiku from Shiki. The English versions came in all shapes and sizes and permutations from Heroic Couplets to Quatrains and various wordy and strange translations! Then I must have come across better versions of these hokku, and a decent three-line translation of Bashō’s summer grasses and how timeless it was, both as a historic and contemporary verse at the very same time. That aspect of haikai verses always appearing to be in the present tense is an intriguing thing! Plus that tiny branch library had copies of Machi Tawara’s tanka collection called Salad Anniversary, and I was entranced, but couldn’t emulate, or even write tanka myself for a few years.
Q. In the same video you talk about how after a while, the seasonal elements of traditional haiku poetry became restrictive and hence you transitioned to a modern form of haiku, inspired by Kaneko Tohta. Our readers would be curious to know, why the traditional haiku lost its appeal for you and what was it about Tohta’s poetry that attracted you enough to explore fresh ground.
A. I do actually come back to seasonal references, and I was recently the winner of the Modern Kigo Contest, and, have become part of the Core Team creating or researching new kigo. Of course, all the kigo back then appeared to be about Japanese culture and seasons, and mostly from the past, and I was living in Australia, in the present! Later, I came back to England, which is a very different place again regarding geographical locations!
My ‘sundog’ haiku collection does include a few Aussie seasonal references, so in general, it was mostly a resistance against the policing of kigo. Even in Japan, regional kigo were being subdued in preference for Kyoto or Edo (Tokyo) based seasonal references. When Tohta came out of the last Japanese combat situation of WWII (Truk Island) he was compelled to write about the negative aspect of war, its impact on society, and also seeing a way through to a more applicable modern experience of life that didn’t include war.
As haiku is traditionally written over one line in Japan, here’s a couple of my own, and in less ‘traditional style’ regarding the seasons:
Aoko mora we eat our livers as stilettos
Ekphrasti-ku… Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies
ed. Pippa Phillips (January 2022)
(Aoko, Japanese origin, meaning ‘blue child’ and mora, Spanish origin, meaning ‘little blueberry’)
The editor, Pippa Phillips said:
“If Finnegan’s Wake were a haiku, it would look something like this”
rush hour the train station cornea by cornea
Australian Haiku Society Spring Haiga Kukai: Non Seasonal
Judge: Ron Moss
Though I do write a lot of seasonal haiku too. Here’s a three-line seasonal haiku especially composed for the interview, which is also in a pattern of 5-7-5 English-language syllables!
the cheat days of Lent
songs of robins manifest
into blackthorn trees
Seasonal (kigo) reference: Lent (Christian festival, Spring: March/April)
Lent 2022 began on Wednesday, 2nd March and ends on Thursday, 14th April. There are 40 days of Lent. While Lent Sundays are part of the Time of Lent, they are not necessarily days of fast and abstinence. The composition date of this haiku was Sunday 13th March.
kûshû yoku togatta enpitsu ga hitotsu
air raid one sharp pencil
(English version by Alan Summers)
I don’t believe there is a direct seasonal aspect with Tohta’s haiku except that this haiku is about the huge WWII air-raid on Truk Island (Japan) which lasted two days (February 17-18, 1944). Just like the summer grasses it is horribly contemporary right now.
Q. Haiku as we all know has Japanese origins. When we did a haiku special in our Pearl Edition (January 2022), a lot of our readers wanted to know if the European haiku rigidly follows the Japanese rules, or whether it has evolved and become a distinct and separate form of poetry. As a poet and a creative mentor of these genres, what do you think?
A. As haiku has become a genre more than a ‘form’ in my opinion, and although it might remain rigid within some but not all Japanese schools of approach to haiku, I’d say not only European haiku, but poems from British/UK (Northern Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English) poets, from the Americas, Indian sub-continent, and Australasia etc… have used the haiku template and brought some beautiful variations. We are all very different.
It’s still a new genre, even in Japan, if we consider that Masaoka Shiki brought about the term “haiku” in the 1890s. This verse form still clung to being the same as hokku until the advent of the New Rising Haiku movement, which was a game changer, just before Japan entered WWII. We cannot keep avoiding the inevitable though, can we? There are huge social movements, climate changes, and technological change: It’s simply not healthy to remain conservative, too, as so much is happening around the world right now to the detriment of those of us who wish to live in peace.
Q. Has haiku poetry impacted your attitude or approach to life, the way maybe you perceive nature and people around you. Please share your thoughts on this with our readers.
A. Before I arrived at haiku, I’d started writing poetry again after a very bad start, and often keenly observed Australian natural history, as I lived on farmland, plus I was a volunteer for a 2000 acre landcare project, running a tree nursery, and planting trees as well. I was already a trained observer from previous types of jobs too. Though as I became drawn to writing haiku almost exclusively, I began to appreciate the more succinct and profound, that I found amongst the ordinary and not so ordinary: That is a kind of magic, and caught in barely more than half a dozen words or so, yet entering a new universe every time.
Q. If you were to describe haiku and tanka in one adjective, what would you say?
Q. Are there any contemporary haiku and tanka poets that you admire. What is it about their poetry that you enjoy?
A. I tend to be a fan of individual poems on a daily basis rather than selected poets. This will be amply shown, both in the haiku only Summer issue of Blo͞o Outlier Journal, as well as The Haiku Reader anthology coming out in early 2023.
Q. What advice would you give budding haiku and tanka poets?
This approach feels much more important than simply reading a haiku, which takes around six seconds, and left feeling that it’s nice, and then moving onto the next haiku and the next, and the next.
I would advise spending a lot of time with just one haiku.
Ask yourself questions such as “why I do really like this haiku?” Or “why don’t I like this haiku?” Or “Why don’t I understand this haiku?” Or “Why am I really indifferent to this haiku?”
It’s surprising what happens when we read and re-read a single haiku multiple times, we might change our minds about a poem sometimes only given six seconds to register, or even if we don’t, we will come away with something more useful than merely “it’s nice” or “I don’t like it” etc…
I would deconstruct the haiku right back to its basic building blocks i.e., label each word’s grammatical function.
When you completely pare back a haiku, so that you have listed each noun, verb, preposition, article [a, an, the], and other potential components such as personal pronouns, even adverbs and adjectives, then you have a chart of each word’s function in grammar.
That starts to purposely unravel the poem before we put it back together again.
As haiku are two parts, but often three lines, it’s good to see if there is a two-line phrase, and a one-line part.
After labelling each word in the entire poem, then shift to look at that one-line section and that two-line section separately and look at their ‘phrasing’.
Why are certain words placed in a particular order? How does the phrasing manipulate the words that we have in our word for word list of basic building blocks? Why are the lines in a certain order, and does the haiku work best starting with a single line fragment, or a two-line phrase?
As haiku are so incredibly short it’s not always as easy to decipher a haiku, as it might be for a longer poem. Haiku also hides half of itself in a way perhaps we could call ma—間 in Japanese. Sometimes we need to take a leap across an invisible tightrope: It’s a balancing act with some juggling involved, and that might help to see some of the inner workings of a haiku!
Keep adding haiku that you have deconstructed, those you like, or confused by, or you don’t like.
Simply reading a lot of haiku will not make us better readers or writers, rather it’s the hard graft of decoding these short poems through a process, that will help.
It will be surprising, but in days, weeks, or months of hard work, the understanding of haiku and its inner workings will become easier and easier. There’s no rush, no need to conquer, let the little poem work its magic over time, until it’s a lifelong learning instinct that gives our left and right brain functions an amazing workout too!
Q. How do you envision the future of these forms of poetry (haiku, tanka)? More and more people are of course embracing these forms. Do you think they will be niche-based or will be assimilated into mainstream literary poetry eventually?
A. I often give the example of Twitter, the social media platform, with its original limit of 140 characters, and how many people struggled with that ‘limitation’ except for haiku writers! We could easily fit one whole haiku into a Tweet, and actually you could even place two, but that’s greedy. And of course tanka also fits neatly into a Tweet. So future developments in communication will also be embraced by the highly flexible genres of haiku and tanka. These genres are both niche-based (especially tanka) and also popular within many mainstream creative writing journals. Haibun which is a combination of prose and haiku are accepted in many different types of creative and non-fiction publications, and tanka stories (prose+tanka) have the same possibility. Haiku poems are addictive, so many non-poets love them, and mainstream poets try to write them! Jack Kerouac did assimilate his haiku into The Dharma Bums, for instance, and perhaps there are covert haiku in all kinds of communications as we speak. Short bursts of information will always be vital, for various reasons, both as poetry and also as they did in early tanka days, as coded rendezvous assignations! I don’t think we have to worry as Shiki did, these tiny poems are here to stay, and continue to adapt to circumstances.
Q. You are a prolific writer and poet. Our readers would be eager to know if there is a freshly minted book on the anvil. When do we see it in the bookstores?
A. Most of my time is spent, acting as a mentor to other poets, which I love to do! But you have guessed right, there is something in the pipeline, and it involves a 5-book project, and most of these publications will appear later in the year and into 2023. I can’t say more yet!
Thank you so much Alan for taking time out to chat with The Wise Owl. We wish you success in all your future creative and poetic ventures and hope that your professional courses on haiku and tanka, sow the seeds of a better understanding of this beautiful genre of poetry.