A life of poetry (2)

Here are some haiku I wrote over the past year or two. They have been published in the newest tome from Hailstone Haiku Circle:

Some morning birds
watch me fix
soup, eggs, bacon, fruit;
I feel sorry tho: 
no worms. 

In spring, finding
a fine view to sketch: 
the chosen scene's cat
adds herself. 

A yellow tinkle in the snow;
cold school boys
can't wait to get home.

Scattered over richfield,
a thousand crows load up on stones
then lumber nestward.

Crushed between flowing liquid and air,
a thin line of stilled earth

Kimiko and I were staying in a hotel right on the shore of Lake Biwa. It was winter, tho there was no snow falling. Nevertheless, the gray air and the gray lake almost could not be distinguished one from the other, except by a thin line of land on the opposite distant shore. 


A life of poetry (1)

April 12, 2013

From my mid-teens, maybe even earlier, poetry became an important part of my life. In college, when I was working evenings at some part time job, I would write countless lines of short poems. At that time I seemed to have been fascinated by pronouns. The pieces I wrote were filled with them. 

she was not aware that he had turned to leave, until the door closed.

he waited for her to arrive, remembering that she had said to him she would not come, but waiting anyway.

they felt that he was quite sure when he said that she had been there, but was now gone.

she knew all along, he was the one waited for, by her and the others. 

On and on I wrote lines like these. There was no end to this, until I left college for New York City and a profession in photography. There, the poetry appeared not in written form but in the B&W pictures I shot. 

After that brief three-year life failed, I was given a chance to come to Japan as an english teacher. Being at loose ends and not in debt, I accepted the offer. After finding my footing, more or less, the poetry composing urge returned. This time, not only in writing but also in my printmaking. I wrote several Red Poems, carved and printed them, and put them in my exhibitions. 

The three Ps have remained large in my life thus far. Photography I continue to do; printmaking is my whole attraction; underlying every activity and aspect is poetry. Now, not pronouns; rather, it is haiku. On the homepage called Icebox, I have contributed many pieces along with comments on what other members write. Here are some recent works: 


Earlier pages have more. Mostly I stick to the traditional rules of haiku. The organization which stands behind this site is not so strict about this, however. Writing haiku in english gives us the excuse to not follow the 17-syllable rule or the season rule too closely.

One poetic form I am interested in is the sestina.   The American poet, Edith Shiffert, taught me this style. She was good at it, tho she wrote only a few as far as I know. I like the challenge of playing intelligently with words. You can get a lot of fine information on sestinas on Wikipedia, but, briefly, you choose 6 words, use them at the ends of a six-line stanza, use them again in a different order but once more at the ends of the lines of a second stanza; repeat this for 6 stanzas, add a 7th stanza with only two or three lines, having three/two each of those six words in each line. The poem, of course, has to make sense. 

In Edith's book, The Kyoto Years, (Kyoto Seika University Press, 1971), there are two sestinas. Here is one:


Here in every garden
at dawn a priest takes action,
sweeping the leaves and nothing
until mossed paths are empty 
to daylight and no pity
troubles his even breathing. 

While darkness comes his breathing
keeps steady as the garden
chanting not pity
nor hate but only action
inside the black and empty
midnight of their brief nothing. 

My body warmth or nothing
can clarify my breathing.
Here in the temple, empty
in the deserted garden,
we all were made by action
and each death is a pity. 

Wood doves think no pity
and meditate on nothing
in maple trees. Action
is their quiet breathing
inside this temple garden
that has never been empty.

Magnificent and empty
temple halls shelter pity.
Their incense smokes the garden,
perfumes the leafy nothing
which my psyche is breathing
and unifies its action.

Day and night are action.
The priests are never empty
of their whole lifetimes's breathing.
A moment's crystal pity
sounds from that locust. Nothing 
escapes from this sure garden. 

Inside the garden action
comes from nothing, the empty
bears pity and a breathing. 


Cherry Blossoms, again

March 30, 2013
Tho it is still cold, and has been cold for some time now, despite a brief respite a couple weeks ago, the tiny pinks have decided to show themselves. There are, easy to guess, many species of cherry trees. I assume they all have pretty blossoms in the spring. I do know, however, that all of them are not pink. Here in Kyoto there are several white blossoming trees to view, and I have seen one that was "black." More a blue, actually. 

The favorite pasttime for the Japanese is to spread out a blue tarp beneath a cherry tree, preferably on the banks of the Kamo River, and drink, eat, and sing into the night. It is not uncommon for two or three individuals to come to the river bank early in the day, spread out the tarp, and sit there until early evening, guarding the space, when all their workmates get out of the office and come to the location. Great fun. I have done it.

At the same time as the cherry blooms are beginning to bloom, the weeping willows are also leafing like crazy. Their light green is so fantastic a color; I love it. It means SPRING to me. 

Simply lovely. All over the city there are cherry trees and willow trees. (In the fall, it is maple trees; but for now, they are keeping quiet.) Of course, along the rivers which flow thru town there are cherry and willow. In the children's parks, along school sports grounds, in big hospitals' gardens, atop the tall business buildings, in the private gardens of the wealthy, on the verandas of the common folk, in miniature pots.  Everywhere. And up on the mountains that surround Kyoto we can easily spot here and there a single cherry tree blooming amidst the brown of the other deciduous. 

In the city, it is a sight always in combination with buildings, like this:

There is a narrow canel running beneath this row of trees. On the other side is an eight-lane highway. The barely visable, black building on the right is the Silk Hall, a large structure devoted to the silk weaving and dyeing industry, which has seen its day in the ancient capital and is now vastly disappearing under the tsunami of Heat Tech and other related synthetic materials. 

 The blossoms, too, will soon disappear. They hang around for about a week, less if we get a heavy rain, and we often do. On weekends usually. What is interesting to me is that the cherry tree's leaves do not appear until the blossoms have dropped. The light green things sprout out quickly, continuing the greenness of the willows. Such a fantastic and beautiful world. In the hollows of some cherry trees I have found masses of small black and red insects. Seems they breed there, eating and milling around until they can fly away. I don't know this bug's name, tho I guess we can eat it when properly prepared. That is, when the insect has been properly prepared to be eaten, and we have properly prepared our minds to eat it. 



Yes, bug me

February 26, 2013

I read in a New Yorker magazine last year about the number of cultures on the planet which ate insects. It was a surprisingly large number. And just yesterday on TED I watched a talk about the same thing, but the speaker said that 80% of the present world population eats bugs. 

When you think about it, primates, of whom we homo sapiens are members, eat insects all the time, in the air, in the trees, on the ground, and underground by digging the little creatures up. For sure, very early humans ate insects. Much easier to catch and more nutritious than other mammals. 

A lot of insects are nearly pure protein. One of my print students, Ken Sallitt, who is a bee keeper, told me a few days ago about his experiences in Canada, where he lives when not wintering in Japan. He has to keep away the bears who like to eat the bees in his hives. I and the others present assumed that this was because the bears loved the sweet honey. Wrong, said Ken. The bears are after the grubs, the pupa in the hives, because these are 100% protein. The honey is simply an extra bonus, not strictly what the animal is after. Quite eye opening. 

Here are photos of, first, the adult grasshopper, 
 and its young.

Here in Japan, insect eating is not an unknown habit. Another student's girlfriend comes from Nagano Pref, up in the Japan Alps. There, eating grasshoppers and their pupa is common. When Miss Aya returns to Kyoto from a visit to her hometown, she brings a jar or a sack of prepared grasshoppers and the young, as you can see above. Not raw and kicking. The Japanese are not that close to our primate stage now. These insects are prepared in a sauce made of some sweetener and soy. Perhaps they are first cooked, or boiled, then cooled and eaten. The pupa taste like shrimp; the adults have their own, delicious taste, and the added crunch of the legs. 

I don't know about other insects, but I will begin investigating this. With a projected global population of 5 billion by the year 2050, we had better begin following the wisdom of the ancients and look to the bugs for our protein and minerals. 

Earthworms, anyone?


Wooden me

February 10, 2013

The wood of choice for printmakers in Japan is a basswood or linden from Hokkaido. It comes in as plywood, 4mm, 6mm, 8mm and thicker. Basswood is a relatively soft sort, easy to carve and to print, weak grain impression, fairly inexpensive. Not available in solid blocks.

For making prints with large areas, it is the best choice. If you want to have lots of fine-line carving, lettering, for example, then you have to go to a cherry or a magnolia. Cherry is the most expensive and the hardest. But the blocks last for centuries. I have only carved cherry once, and broke my knife doing it. Magnolia is readily available and not all that expensive. If you are going to print a large batch of prints, say 100 or more, then for any of your fine carving blocks, you have to use a hard wood. 

Michigan, where I was born and raised, grows basswood. A dear friend, Clifton Monteith, also from MI, gave me two tiny blocks of solid linden last year. I had never worked on a solid block before, so was quiet excited to give it a try. I gave one block to my printer, Konomi, to test, and I worked with the other. Given the small size, I designed a two-color work with both broad and line areas, one color on the front, the other on the back. The carving went quickly, mostly because of the small block size. However, I found that it carved almost the same as a plywood. That was a nice surprise. Printing it, too, went quickly and easily.The color registration was one that is off the block, not carved on it as is usual. 

I can't seem to play much with this image on this Blogger program, sorry. Nevertheless, you can get an idea of the piece. In the background is Michigan's silhouette. The boy doesn't look like me; my ears are smaller, and I have a mustache. Otherwise... 

The Linnean name for this wood is  Tillia americana. In Japan, it would be Tillia japanica, of course.


At the museum

February 6, 2013
  There are in Japan two very large, nation-wide print organizations. The older one is Japan Print Association (Nihon Hanga Kyokai).  It was organized about 80 years ago and is quite large with a membership of several hundred. It displays the whole range of prints, including digital and photography. They hold their exhibitions in the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum in Ueno Part, central Tokyo. 

The other one is the Japan Print Society (Nihon Hanga Kai; <www.nipponhanga.jp>). They held their 51st exhibition last year, also in the same Ueno Part museum. It was started by Shiko Munakata and his friends. He is perhaps the most famous Japanese printmaker in contemporary history. (See his Wikipedia entry for details.) My own teacher, Masahiko Tokumitsu, was a friend of Munakata's and an early member of the Society. 

I am also a member. At first, when I was still a student of Tokumitsu's, I displayed my prints in the annual shows. After I won a prize in one of them, I was up-graded to Junior Membership. When Tokumitsu quit the society for health reasons, I quit also. A few years after he passed away, I rejoined and was given Full Membership status. 

The difference between the two print organizations is that the older one accepts any print medium, whereas ours is 95% woodblock. When there was talk several years ago, during one of the annual executive meetings, of opening up the society to other print mediums, I denounced this motion with heated passion, even banging the table for special effect. It had a special effect, and we continue to display mostly woodblock prints. (The current president, Kogure Shimpo, is a silkscreen printmaker, so we display silkscreen prints every year. This cannot be helped.) Our group was started by woodblock printmakers, and I want to keep it that way. All the other print mediums have amply opportunities to display their artworks. But in these exhibitions there are few woodblock prints. 

Last November we held our 53rd show in the newly renovated Tokyo Metropolitan Museum. It was a huge exhibition. We had four very large and long galleries with probably over 300 prints on the walls. I went there on the day before the show opened to help hang the works. 

The next day, a Sunday, I sat at the entrance to help sell the catalog, and guide visitors to the prints of their friends. Museums want to know how many guests an exhibition has, so they loan the organizers those hand-held clickers. They fit neatly in the palm of one's hand and the clicker is just below the thumb. While I took care of sales, the woman sitting next to me at the desk did the clicking. I know that it is not unusual for organizers to add a few numbers to the total, to give a better impression to the museum. A group which has very few visitors will have a difficult time reserving the venue in later years. 

This woman, a very nice and intelligent, middle-aged individual, would add some extra clicks for every visitor who entered. After a while, however, her thumb took off and was clicking 6 or 8 or 9 for each visitor. She was banging away on the counter 100 clicks to the second, seemingly. I wanted to say something, but kept my mouth shut. It was unbelievable. One or two extra clicks is normal, but she was fanatic. I had to get up, go to the toilet and laugh. I witnessed this for only part of one day; if she was on board other days, or every day, then I would guess we had several million visitors. Everyone in Tokyo would have had to come for us to reach that number. 

But museums are not dummies. I am sure they know this trick, and reduce total visitor numbers by half at least. Even then, our 53rd exhibition must seemingly have broken some records. I wonder if she could use her thumb well for the following few days. 


Edith Shiffert at 97

January 25, 2013
Edith Marcombe Shiffert is a minor American poet. Minor in this case means that, tho she is well known, her fame resides mostly within poetry circles. She has published many books, several with my print illustrations in them. Her style is modern but not rash or affronting. There is a melancholic feeling to many of her poems. But they are not about love or related themes; rather about nature, the outdoors, the countryside, insects and animals.  She wrote some haiku occasionally, but found it too easy. 

A little of her life story can be read here:  <http://simplyhaiku.com/SHv7n1/reprints/Wieman.html> This was written by Jane Wieman back in 2007, so some of the information is not current now. She moved into a large Kyoto City Municipal care home a few years ago, and is pretty much confined to a wheelchair. She is very healthy, but does not write at all now.

For Edith's 97 (estimated) birthday, the care home wanted to give her a small afternoon party in her favorite French restaurant, Reborn. She and her late husband, Minoru, used to go there often. I, too, have shared lunch there with them. Edith wasn't able to attend herself; the care home brought to the party her lovely and beautifully dressed body in her wheelchair, with exquisitely done up white hair, full toothless smiles and ever bright, even sparkling eyes, and Edith's always gesturing hands.

12 guests attended, including Edith's helper, a young, vivacious and very capable woman,  two of Minoru's four sons (one brought his wife), and assorted friends who have known Edith for decades. We each greeted Edith, some gave her birthday gifts, held her hands, laughed at her not remembering who we were or where she was, and in general appreciated this wonderful opportunity to share her with like-minded friends. Photos were taken before, during and at the end of the party. We ate a delicious citrus ice cream pudding dish, a small piece of her birthday cake, and rather good coffee. Sufficient fare for the occasion.

Here are the names of the guests:  John Einarsen, Judith Clancy, Koka Saito the painter, Morris Augustine, Barbara Stein, Papa Jon's Charles, Lois Karhu, myself. 

Edith with Morris and Judith, holding my print.

 Left to right in foreground: Barbara, Charles, Lois, John.

Morris on Edith's right.

With Judith.

On left, one of Minoru's sons, talking with Koka Saito the painter. 

It saddened me, probably all of us, to see a once great poet, a fantastic woman, a truly rare human being, in an otherwise healthy body, but with no memory or awareness of her circumstances. Edith remembered none of  us, but was happy, eating everything put in front of her, spilling a lot of it on her lap, which Morris quietly picked up and places on a separate plate. The Japan Times newspaper is delivered everyday to Edith, but she does not read it. I doubt she would recognize even one of her own poems if someone showed it to her. 

Is this the way one is to end? Why Edith? How could it have been prevented? Could it have been prevented, this descending into a mindless body? No doubt Edith will live to be 100.  Toothless, smiling and waving, eating very well, unaware of what is going on around her, not only writing no poetry, but not even living a poetic existence. I couldn't have ever imagined this kind of ending for Edith Shiffert. From her last book of poems, with photographs by John, this sums up Edith's life and attitude:
After all those years
the only things that remain,
a few brief poems.


On the head of the snake

January 16, 2013

There are literally a countless number of mountains in Japan. They do all have names, however, even if those names are known only by the families who live below them. So, from the beginning of the culture, anyone wanting to go anywhere, had to cross a mountain or more.  Such being the case, the Japanese by nature are a mountain climbing race. Or, more accurately in these modern times, a weekend, mountain strolling people. There are hundreds of mountain climbing clubs. Some are quite serious, and challenge high peaks in the Japan Alps. But most are smaller clubs whose members, usually retired folk, just enjoy walking thru the hills, taking photos of unusual flowers, stopping for a lunch break of rice balls and tea, eaten on some sunny knoll or beside a small, abandoned shrine.  

There is, however, one very large group, with members from nearly every corner of the country. The Zodiac Mountain Climbing Club is based here in Kyoto where it was begun in 1960 by the late Kyoto University professor, Kenji Imanishi. (He made his name by refuting Darwin's theory of evolution. Tokiyuki Nobuhara wrote in his paper of 2010 

 Imanishi’s thesis was that a “peaceful existence” as an equilibrium within the
whole biosphere of nature is the goal of all living organisms in their adjustment to their
social environments.  (italics mine))

This club has a membership of over 100. Mostly retired teachers and some business people, doctors, housewives, almost everyone is over 60 years old with the oldest being in their late 90s. All of them are fit as fiddles. I have been a member since 1983, am the only foreigner, and have not missed a single climb in 30 years. Every January on about the second weekend, which is a national holiday,  we gather together near the chosen mountrain in some inn or hotel for a great evening meal, which includes lots of sake drinking, singing, sharing local foods, and general catching up of news. 

Next morning, early, we eat breakfast, don our mountain climbing gear, get into a bus or into private cars, and drive to the mountain whose name is the same as the year's. 2013 is the Year of the Snake. There are in Japan many mountains which have animal names, tiger being one of the most common. This snake was on Kyushu Island, quite far from Kyoto. I was going to take a night boat, a pleasure for me. But I opped out for the Bullet Train so that Kimiko and I could at least ride together to Okayama, her hometown, where she was to see her mom and one of her sisters. I arrived at Beppu in the mid-afternoon. Beppu is very well known as a hot spa town. That whole area around Beppu is volcanic; there are spas all over the place, steam vents everywhere. Quite fascinating. Our hotel had a spa, but it was lukewarm and not interesting at all. This means that I will have to go again sometime, and boil myself in a real hot spring. 

Snake Mountain is 1,024 meters high, about one-third a mile up. We did not start from sea level, however. Our bus took us up most of the way, and we walked up to the top in 40 minutes. This was an easy climb. Other climbs have been rougher. The weather was good; no snow falling, only patches here and there on the ground. 

After everyone reached the top, we drank a toast, gave cash gifts to those who were 60 years old, 70, 77, 80 and 88 years old. These ages have special meaning for the Japanese. Remembering that in the old days, living to be 40 was a feat, I wonder why every year past 50 isn't an opportunity to receive some gift. 

After enjoying some freshly brewed coffee and eating part of our box-lunch, we made our way back down to the cars and bus, and drove to the railroad station for some of us to return home. 

I went to Okayama, tho, to meet Kimiko and stay for two days with her sister's family. Both Kimiko and I are Rabbits. So, two years ago, I and only one other were gifted on top of Rabbit Mountain. (Kimiko has never attended this mountain climbing adventure.) That climb was hard, quite unlike the idea of what a rabbit ought to be. Still, we had fun and could enjoy the scenery of the surrounding countryside. As long as I am able, and that may be a long time, I intend to climb all 12 animals' backs repeatedly. 



January 7, 2013

In the Orient, the zodiac consists of 12 animals. In the West, 12 is the same, but not all are animals. Another difference is that each zodiac sign is one year long in the Far East, whereas the West's is one month.
So, 2013 is the Year of the Snake. Unlike the 2013's cousin which bothered Eve so much, Asia's reptile is one of good fortune. It is a god of sorts for many people in China and Japan. I am not too familiar with Korean customs or customs, but my guess is that there are folk there who continue to hold to the old ways.
The other eleven animals in the Oriental zodiac are, beginning at the start of the cycle, the mouse (some refer to it as the rat, but I don't like that nuance):  next is the cow, then the tiger, rabbit (both Kimiko and I are rabbits), dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog and boar. Quite a zoo. No pandas or cats or pigeons or eagles or crickets. 
In Japan, traditionally, new year cards are sent to friends, business associates, family members not present, school chums, clients, teachers and so on. In the old days, these cards were woodblock printed. Once a year, the family would get out the old knives from woodblock class in junior high school, buy some proper wood, and design something that included the year's animal, the standard greeting, GAN TAN, with open space for personal messages. However, that tradition has pretty much died. Now everyone makes the cards by computer. Before this present age, it was the home-style silk screen printer. Alas, this year we received so few woodblock cards, it almost isn't worth buying the New Year Cards holder. 
Of course, I continue the tradition. You can see my snake on my Facebook page. Only three colors. My student, Terry McKenna, and Kimiko, and I printed 300 this time, 250 for domestic mailing on special post office new years cards , 50 on hand-made paper for international. Printing is done in December, then taken to the post office where the cards are kept until January first. Then, regular carriers and special part-timers deliver the cards nation wide. The second of January and the third, too. From the 4th, the usual mail is also delivered along with late-sent cards. It is a fantastic tradition. Getting a fist full of cards on January 1 is so exciting. Who sent us cards this year? Who did we forget to send carts to? Shall we? Must we? We will. This conversation is repeated every year by several million families I am sure. 
Look carefully at the card I made this year. There is the happy, silly-looking reptile grinning at you. On the left side is the red GAN TAN greeting. What is that brown stuff at the bottom? Like the West's baby-year chasing away the old man-year, the bright, pretty green snake is emerging from the old, useless skin of its previous incarnation. On the skin, faintly seen, is the year 2002, which was the life it led 12 years ago. Snakes shed their skins, an obvious subject for a new year's card I thought. 
Snakes do not especially like snow. That's why they sleep thru the winter. In Kyoto, snow is not an option lately. When any snow does fall, usually in the nighttime, it is gone by the next afternoon. Wasn't always this way, of course. But it is recently. We had one rather large snake and a smaller, offspring in our garden. I haven't seen either for a while. They have both moved, or are asleep under the house. This is their year; maybe I'll feed them the noisy children who live down the street. 12 years from now, they'll be too big for snakes to eat. Something to think about.