While posted in Japan, American diplomat Abigail Friedman joined a haiku group and began writing in the 7-5-7 syllable form. Her recently published memoir, The Haiku Apprentice, tells of her journey into the world of haiku in Japan and beyond. Japan Visitor had a few questions for her.
JAPAN VISITOR: What made you decide to write this book?
Abigail Friedman: What got me started on The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan (Stone Bridge Press, May 2006) was a sense that the people I met in my haiku group deserved to be heard, and that what I learned through them would be useful for others. I was the only non-Japanese member of my haiku group and many of the people in my book, like Momoko Kuroda herself, speak no English. If I didn’t write this book, who would? Writing this book was more than just about me.
JV: I can see how you might be able to manage to write three haiku a month for your group, but as a diplomat, mother, and wife, how did you find time to write a book?
AF: I had often thought about writing a book, but I had a whole laundry list of reasons why I couldn’t possibly write one. For example, long ago I read that Thomas Mann’s children had grown up having to tiptoe quietly around the house so as not to disturb their father, the great writer. When I read that, I remember thinking, “Well, there you go. I simply can’t become a writer because I refuse to force my family to tiptoe silently around me.” Of course such thinking was crazy, and I now see this was my way of avoiding the challenge of writing a book. It takes courage to write.
I don’t know why, but eventually I just reached a point where I found it harder to live with myself not writing this book, than writing it. So I started. It wasn’t long after I began writing The Haiku Apprentice that I was talking to a friend of mine, an academic who has written several books, about how difficult it seemed for me to find the time to write. She said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, Abigail. If you write for five hours a week, at the end of a certain amount of time, you will have a book. It may be a bad book, but I guarantee you, there’ll be a book at the end.” I remember thinking, “Five hours? Why, I can do five hours a week!” And that’s what I did. For the first four months or so, I had a rubber stamp, and everytime I finished an hour, I would stamp my calendar. If by Friday I only had two hours stamped, then I knew I had to put in three hours by Sunday evening. (I didn’t let myself carry over hours from week to week or you can imagine how quickly the project would have derailed.)
As a working woman, married, with three children, I need to be flexible about when I write, because raising children is an unpredictable activity, right? Also, I hate waking up early in the morning. So, some days I might write from 8-9 p.m., other days, it might be ten to noon on a Saturday. The key with The Haiku Apprentice was that as soon as I turned my lap top on, I started writing. I couldn’t afford to dilly-dally.
There’s one more thing that helped make the whole thing doable for me: My husband is the principal homemaker. I haven’t done laundry since 1984. He makes dinner; he does the food shopping; he thinks about what we are going to eat tonight and tomorrow. Just imagine the number of women writers there would be out there if more men did most of the chores on the home front.
JV: In the first chapter, you write about meeting a survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, but we don’t learn about your father’s involvement in the development of that bomb until much later in the book. Why didn’t you bring up your father’s working on the Manhattan Project earlier?
AF: I agree with Stephen King in his book On Writing (Pocket, 2002), when he talks of writing as an organic process, sort of like uncovering a fossil. That part of the fossil (my father’s work) just didn’t appear until later on in the book. After I wrote the draft, during the editing process, I suppose I could have moved it up. Perhaps I didn’t move it simply because at the beginning, Traveling Man Tree and I were exchanging formalities about ourselves. In the later chapter, where it does come up, Traveling Man Tree has brought up his very personal experience in the bombing of Hiroshima. So it came naturally to me to offer readers my reflections about my father’s work at that point.
JV: What does haiku mean to you, especially now that you have left Japan and are living in Canada? Is haiku your hobby, or something that you do?
AF: Haiku offers the chance to create space, to allow silence and peace and nothingness in my life. That’s the spiritual aspect for me. I don’t mean to be esoteric; perhaps an example would help. The other night at my home, we had all gone to bed. Everyone was asleep. It must have been about two a.m. when I woke up and went into the kitchen to get a drink of water. I was walking from my bedroom, through our living room and then into the kitchen. As I crossed the living room in the dark, out of the corner of my eye, just casually, I saw the dark silhouette of gladiola in a vase, I kept walking but…
my family sleeps --
in the salon
the gladioli are black
Bam! Now, whether this haiku is good or not, whether it wins awards, whether a month from now I tinker with it some more -- that is so much less important to me than that I was able to take this experience, this mood, which couldn’t have lasted more than an instant, and through the process of translating it into a haiku, I gave it value in my life. I expanded the experience. Instead of thinking about getting a drink of water, or why I might be awake, or what I had to do the next day, or when I might fall back to sleep, I thought about - and still think about - whatever I needed to express in that haiku. I re-read this haiku and consider that instant again. So in this sense, I find haiku a deeply satisfying, “spiritual” activity. To answer another of your questions, I suppose this means that haiku isn’t so much a “hobby” as something I “do.”
JV: Could you tell a little about the haiku group you founded in Quebec?
AF: Having a haiku group really helps me commit to writing haiku. In 2003, I left Japan for the U.S. I was back in Washington, D.C., I knew it would only be for a year, and I didn’t get around to joining a haiku group in the area. My haiku writing dropped dramatically. The next summer (2004), I moved to Quebec City, where I knew I would be posted for three years. There were no haiku groups in Quebec City so I started my own. At first, I was sure there would be no one writing haiku in Quebec City - it seemed so far from Japan and from my Japanese haiku experience. But I found out through Haiku Canada that there are a number of haiku writers in Quebec province, some of whom live very near Quebec City. I met a couple of them and we started a group. We now have about 30 people, a mix of English and French speakers; experienced haiku poets and beginners. We meet once a month and at each gathering we have anywhere from 15 to 25 people present. We follow the format I describe in the appendix of my book, that is, the first part of our haiku group meeting is similar to a traditional haiku group in Japan, and the second half varies each month, depending on the choice of the person responsible for organizing that month’s activity. I am back to writing haiku regularly, and I really enjoy it.
JV: Do you write in French as well as in English? What about Japanese?
AF: In Quebec, I write in French and in English. (And I have a bilingual blog on haiku: www.stonelantern.blogspot.com.) Sometimes, I will try to write a haiku in English and decide it sounds better in French. Or vice-versa. I haven’t been writing haiku in Japanese these days, I suppose because I am not in a Japanese environment, and no one in my haiku group would be able to understand it.
JV: Do you have any further aspirations regarding haiku? Do you hope to publish a book of your own haiku?
AF: I feel as though I am still seeking my own, unique voice in haiku. I think I am getting there, but until I have a body of haiku that I have written where I can say, “Yes, that’s me all right!” I don’t feel an urgency to publish a book of haiku. Just to publish so that I can say I’ve published a book of haiku would run counter to that sense of personal development that is so important to me. I probably will publish a book of haiku one day, but I want to do so when I feel the time is ripe.
At the end of September, I’ve been invited as a guest poet at the International Poetry Festival in Trois Rivieres (www.fiptr.com.) I’ll be reading my haiku in French. And I just contributed several haiku to a book of poetry, the proceeds of which will go to benefit the homeless. I’m not lacking for projects, that’s for sure.
JV: Thank you, Abigail.
Friday, August 25, 2006