John Brandi gave the plenary address with consumate skill, tying together threads from across the conference, quoting people who spoke during the conference, bringing together humour and tribute. (He knew Nanao Sakaki and Bill Higginson.)
At one point he shared a secret — he showed the clock he had stashed in the podium. What speaker would want to talk with time hanging over his head? Now he is standing over time he quipped.
He did not stand alone there. The room was warm with community in suspended time. And with those who have gone before who, as Patricia Donegan put it, serve as “an archive of the human spirit” such as Elizabeth Searle Lamb who was said to never prune a branch which she could walk around.
We are small and humble in this universe, a human scale of now against space, powerless alone and yet not. As Elizabeth Searle Lamb put it,
shutting out the cold
But grief still enters
By another door
We write of large mortal things in our small scale. We may do so in many styles. Brandi said of himself that he hasn’t been of the perfectly clean line, more like the scene at the monastary he saw where,
Fallen leaves –
The abbot sweeps
Poetry is not the linear unpacked expected but the intuitive synthesis of now and what has come before. It mat be centering or unsettling.
To keep balance is a challenge in haiku yet as we write the poems they write us and the lessons can be extended outside the page. For instance, he and his wife were considering relocating and the clincher came from poetic principles — the leap that keeps vitality. Why not also practice leaping in daily life? And so they moved from Alberquere to El Rito and the new home proves the reward of this wisdom.
His path to haiku was not a direct one. More like,
Of the way
In leaking boots
as he said in his presentation.
It began simply. As a kid his family would take trips into nature, such as to the Mohave desert. This shaped his twig towards the haiku tree in two ways:
1) It plopped him down into direct experience with nature
2) After each trip his dad would say draw something that impressed you from the trip and then his mom would say why don’t you write a line or two about how you felt about it? After a series of vacations, around age 10, they suggested, why don’t you draw a cover and make a title for those? They bound it and so he had his entry into book making and validation of what he perceived.
Years passed and college and an English professor came. When Brandi presented his short poems the prof suggested he try the tried and tested, valid Western forms like the sonnet, or maybe the limerick instead.
Unfortunately that prof is still out there in one form or another; we know that the small, contained form of haiku has the core poetic elements. At the heart of the practice are the essentials…what you need to know is present and concrete without embroidery, there is a central image and a leveraging of perception into suggestion.
A poet can learn a lot from Miles Davis who said, “I always listen for what I can leave out” and “don’t play what’s there – play what’s not there!”
Seeing what is absent is an entry point to where you might not otherwise discover. Back on those family trips seeing the hermit homes in Sierra Nevada’s tree roots fired his imagination. Years later Brandi would come to walk alongside artist philosopher Ninao. Leaving him one day Ninao called Brandi back saying,
Haiku is a call back to the land where there is a grounding. With the new media there’s an emphasis on staying connected, but what does it mean, he asked, to be connected to who and what is absent?
As Emiko pointed out earlier in the conference, it helps to establish the seasons in yourself. As Nunao advised,
if you need answers,
to the white water.
Haiku is grounded in the immediate real. Ninao and Bill understood this although both could slip fluidly between the practical and the philosophical. Bill was well-versed in what came before and had a habit of pointing past himself to history in a way that humbled and mentored. Upon writing
just an ordinary day
A horse has 4 legs
A man has 2
Bill was able to point to the antecedent of
when cherry trees bloom
Birds have 2 legs
Practice is helped by study and by doing as Basho advised — turn it over a thousand times on the tip of your tongue. There are many flavours of haiku but diversity is a sign of health . “A good practice is always undermining itself.” Or as Yogi Berra said, “What difference does the uniform make? You don’t hit with it.”
Haiku has brought good things, good conections this conference. Where next?
In his 2008 chapbook from Tangram, Staff in hand, Wind in pines he wrote with a nod to Lamb he wrote,
To cut that branch
Or walk around.
To see what is next.