At the store where I work, a spiritual book and tea shop, we host events every Thursday. A few weeks ago we hosted a poetry reading with two Native American poets; Kim Shuck and Duane Big Eagle. It was an inspiring evening of poetry.
In talking with Duane Big Eagle both before and after the reading he informed me that he does not publish his poetry. I know that some of his poetry has been anthologized, and he seems willing to let that happen. But he has not made any effort to have a collection of his poetry published even though he is fairly well known in California and his poetry is admired.
I have run into this before. It isn’t common, but I have seen it with a few poets; this reluctance to publish. The quintessential example is Emily Dickinson. Bill Albert is another example that I discovered recently. He died in the late 80’s and his haiku were published by friends who gathered his haiku into book form. Albert himself never made any effort to publish his haiku either in book form or by submitting them to haiku journals. The Chinese poet Han Shan (Cold Mountain) is another example; his poems were gathered together by others and published after Han Shan died. If you look for poets who were reluctant to publish you can find them here and there.
Talking to Duane Big Eagle gave me an occasion to think about my own mixed history with publication. Early in my writing of renga I submitted some of my solo renga for publication. Some were accepted by various haiku magazines. Some were rejected, but the rejections were always very helpful and detailed. I still have some annotations by Robert Speis on two renga I submitted to him; he rejected them but took a lot of time writing marginal notes which I read and learned from. I also, in the early 80’s, submitted some haiku that were published. And I was anthologized in a few books of haiku and renga. And finally, when I began writing tanka I submitted some to a few journals and they were published (Denis Garrison was particularly encouraging.)
Then I began to pull away from submitting and pretty much stopped doing so altogether. I don’t recall making a conscious decision in this regard. The shift in attitude seems to have simply happened on its own, and I went with it.
Partly, I think, the pull away from submitting my poetry had to do with my own changing esthetic. As I moved away from a free verse approach to haiku and renga I found the syllabic approach more and more rewarding. But at the same time I had the realization that I was heading in a direction not shared by the journals and organizations noted for publishing this kind of poetry. I began to see publication in them as, in a sense, entering alien territory. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but I began to feel a sense of distance and estrangement from haiku and tanka publications and organizations.
I began to notice what the effect is of having a syllabic haiku published in a haiku journal dedicated to a free verse interpretation of haiku. The effect is that the syllabic haiku simply looks like a free verse poem. This is because the relationship to the other haiku does not mark it as distinctive. Thus free verse haiku has a corrosive effect on syllabics; though free verse haijin won’t see it that way.
To see what I am getting at, if you take a collection of syllabic verse that all share the same form, say the published volumes of the cinquain journal ‘Amaze’, as you move from poem to poem they all share the same form. This is true even when there are variations on the form. And the reader picks up an underlying shared sense of rhythm and shape that all of the cinquain share. There is a relationship between the poems that is deeper than their surface depictions; a communal commitment to a particular pulse. You can find this in sonnet anthologies as well.
This deeper dimension is lost in modern haiku anthologies because the communal commitment to a shared syllabic shape is not present. So even if the anthology, or journal, agrees to publish a few syllabic haiku, the effect of a communal sharing of, and commitment to, a deeper, underlying pulse and rhythm, is lost. If you read a haiku collection by Edith Shiffert, to pick just one example, the shared pulse acts as a stream like current carrying you from haiku to haiku. But if you take a single haiku from her collection, and then place it in an anthology of free verse haiku, that current that carries the reader from haiku to haiku is simply not there. I began to feel the absence of this pulse, this current, as a loss of meaning.
These thoughts are in hindsight. At the time I just felt less and less at home in the free verse haiku and tanka journals. Tanka journals in particular struck me as simply collections of free verse poetry with no discernible connection to the actual history of tanka as formal verse. This has developed into a feeling that syllabic haiku (and other syllabic forms that free verse poets have taken a liking to) needs its own space and journals; because when a syllabic haiku is placed in a collection of other syllabic haiku the relationship between the haiku, the shared shape/pulse/rhythm emerges with clarity. And the fact that this sharing is a communal commitment, and not just an accident (which is what it seems like in a free verse haiku context), and the centrality of that communal commitment, becomes clear. The result is that the reader senses that the form itself is meaningful, which is not clear when a syllabic haiku is surrounded by free verse haiku.
There is another aspect about poetry journals that makes some poets reluctant to participate; and that is that they are ephemeral. And most of them have a very tiny readership. And this readership is often scattered geographically so that you don’t really get a sense of community from their presence in the pages of a journal. For some, it is unsatisfying. I even wrote a sonnet about exactly that feeling.
Eventually, I would access print-on-demand technology, and this made it possible for me to publish my work in a way that I find satisfying. I think this is true for many poets today. The gate to publication is no longer controlled by those who have a particular esthetic commitment; in the case of haiku, publication is no longer controlled by official haiku organizations that have an esthetic commitment to a free verse interpretation. This kind of access has tipped the balance away from such organizations and allowed poets to put forward their poetry even if that poetry is based on an understanding out of sync with the official gatekeepers. I think that is a very good thing.