Return to Renku Home

Note: The material below appeared on as given here in 2000, and has been edited only to correct minor errors in the original and punctuation (for example, replacing “W.H.” with “W.J.H.” and “--” with “—”). At one point, I have also inserted a link to somewhat revised thoughts, which appear at the end of the piece. (To the best of my knowledge, this interview text is no longer available on talks with William J. Higginson

Search for items by William J. Higginson. Where are you from? How—if at all—has your sense of place colored your writing?

W.J.H.: I grew up in New York City and suburban New Jersey, but spent a healthy amount of summer time with my grandmother in rural Connecticut.

My parents both loved the outdoors, and we often spent weekends hiking. The Hudson River Palisades and private woodland outside of Middletown, Conn., were frequent hiking areas.

As a young adult I was involved with scout and “Y” summer camps in northern New Jersey and nearby New York State. I hiked and camped in the region, fought a forest fire there, met a bear on a bridge one night, and so on.

This training in small moments of natural wonder seems to have prepared me to appreciate Japanese haiku, which has been a dominant theme in my life since my early 20s. When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?

W.J.H.: The first poem I ever loved was Vachel Lindsay's “Congo”—which I memorized in high school for an English assignment. Unfortunately, my early schooling was mainly in science, math, and technology, so I didn't finally discover my love of poetry until some years later.

The US Air Force sent me to Yale University to study military Japanese. In one of my classes, an instructor happened to recite Basho's famous poem:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water's sound

—I spent 8 years getting to that translation. The poem “went right through me” when I first heard it in Japanese, but I didn't find it in print until a couple of years later, when I came across books by R. H. Blyth in Japan.

I started reworking Blyth's translations, because he didn't seem to honor the structures of the originals. I was fascinated by the way grammatical structures could or could not be translated from Japanese into English. It was obvious to me that the 17-sound structure of Japanese didn't translate into 17 syllables in English. But I was more interested in the order of the images, the grammar between them (or lack of same), and the psychological effects of the poems. These are what I still strive to bring across in my translations. Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way? What books have most influenced your life?

W.J.H.: When I returned to the States after my military service, I went to work for Yale and thus had access to the University library. There I soon discovered the writings of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and other pioneers of modern American poetry. I also found Cid Corman's translations of Japanese haiku, which sometimes seemed to support my own ideas about translating. About that time I also found out about people writing haiku in English, and began corresponding with the editors of haiku magazines in North America.

Under the influence of Williams, I began writing my own poems, longer poems as well as haiku. I went back to school, and tailored my studies to suit my needs for research in world poetry, particularly Chinese and Japanese. I made some sample translations from both traditions, including poems by Li Po and Mao Tse-tung and a small portion of *The Tale of Genji*. About the same time, I moved to northern New Jersey and eventually into Paterson, the setting for Williams's epic poem and Allen Ginsberg's home town. I got to know Allen slightly, and published a small collection of his *Mostly Sitting Haiku*.

By this time Eric Amann in Toronto had turned over editorship of his *Haiku Magazine* to me, and I was working as a visiting poet in the Poets in the Schools program, which was my main source of income for a decade. I learned a good deal about how to teach writing—including haiku—during those years. I also met Penny Harter, who has become one of our finest poets and my wife. She has taught me a great deal about writing from the heart as well as the intellect.

In addition to modern poetry by North Americans particularly in the Williams/Beat/Black Mountain/San Francisco groups or movements, I have been deeply influenced by the scholarly works of Makoto Ueda, and lately by the work of Haruo Shirane, Steven D. Carter, and Stephen Addiss, each of whom works very hard at translating in addition to understanding the works they write about. And for the last decade or more, I have collected Japanese haikai saijiki (poetry almanacs), which have deeply influenced my view of haiku. What music, if any, most inspires you to write? What do you like to listen to while writing?

W.J.H.: I don't usually listen to anything while writing, but rather enjoy music while reading or doing housework. My favorite music is any instrumental work by J. S. Bach, but I also enjoy romantic symphonies and piano concerti, as well as a variety of jazz, Native American, and traditional Japanese and other world music. What are you reading now? What CD is currently in your stereo?

W.J.H.: *The Old Taoist* by Stephen Addiss et al., Tony Barnstone's first book of poems, *Impure*, plus various books on Japanese and Chinese religion and philosophy. Bach's keyboard Partitas. What are you working on?

W.J.H.: I'm working on some translation projects, and my own poems, both haiku and others.

Also, I am an editor of the “Haiku and Related Forms” category in the Open Directory Project, work which helps keep me current in the field and puts me into contact with many people interested in haiku and related kinds of poetry. Use this space to write about whatever you wish.

W.J.H.: In addition to my basic fascination with the genre, I believe that haiku help us to see the world more clearly. I believe that such genuine “seeing” is essential in helping us understand our rightful place in the biological entity that is our planet and home. In Japan, psychiatrists use writing haiku as a therapy to help those who have become disassociated from reality. It seems to me that our whole “modern” way of life has become so, and that haiku may be a useful therapy for us all.

Haiku can also be an antidote against the kind of poetry that is dominated by egos and battling personalities, the overly personal writing that has taken over so much of our poetry scene and is, to my taste, frankly banal. If one has the gift of gab, I believe it will best serve humanity if it also serves the environment. Self-centered poetry seems to me a sign of perpetual adolescence, and does not interest me. When I find a poet's third book about the traumas of their childhood or the details of their love life, I move on to another poet. [See note below.]

In short, if a poet can't get beyond the strictly personal, I lose interest in the work pretty quickly.

I shouldn't end this without noting that my interest in haiku and other poetry has put me in contact with many fine people whom I have greatly enjoyed knowing.

Rereading this in January 2006, I realize that I have also written and published poems that might be described as “overly personal writing”, including many that deal with my childhood and the lives and personalities of my senior family members and so on; my objection is not so much that such writing occurs, but that some writers allow themselves an obsession with it. I believe that the greatest poets get beyond any particular topic, and write well and personally about a tremendous variety of things, reflecting a more rounded humanity and our involvement in a broader reality in the process.

Interview copyright © 2000, 2006 William J. Higginson. All rights reserved. Page first posted on Renku Home 10 January 2006.
You may email William J. Higginson at wordfield-at-att-dot-net.