Angelee Deodhar – A life in haiku

This interview was published in the online blogzine GLO-TALK on Monday, June 30, 2014.

Haiku by Angelee Deodhar originally published in Mann Library’s Daily Haiku, March 2013, reproduced by permission of the author.


Haiku has been as misunderstood around the world as it has been famous. To most, it is a 5-7-5 verse in 3 lines. In a series of interviews with haiku poets from India, I’d love to break the myth, and bring to you the depth and beauty of this form, expressed in just three lines.

I begin with Dr. Angelee Deodhar. An ophthalmologist by profession, her first passion has always been writing. A chance reading of Potpourri, the American poetry journal, brought her to haiku in 1989. Like a poet who finally found her calling, she took to it immediately. Besides haiku, she is also an exponent of the haibun – a form that brings together the experiential essay and the haiku into a symphony of emotions.

She has led from the front in translating the works of Japanese poets into Indian languages, and has promoted the development of the form in the Hindi language. Interspersed with the questions are Angelee’s haiku (reproduced with her kind permission).

*

RGR: What made you think haiku was your calling? How were your initial years writing haiku? You state in your interview with contemporary haiku master Robert D Wilson (Simply Haiku, Winter 2006, vol 4 no 4) that you struggled with the perception among Indian writers that it was no more than a 3-line poem, ignoring its unique semantic construct, objectivity, and sense of the moment?

AD: I had never heard of haiku till I was in a hospital bed in 1989-1990. So if it was a ‘calling’ I certainly didn’t know it existed. I was familiar with English language poetry and had written longer poems and short stories, but then I discovered haiku – It was love at first read and that affair has continued.

I wrote to the Japanese Embassy in Delhi to get an idea of what haiku was. They Xerox-ed a couple of pages in which I found Mr. William J. Higginsons’ address and wrote to him. He very kindly sent me a signed copy of his Haiku Handbook. Then I got a copy of Lucien Stryks book ‘A cage of fireflies’ as a gift from my husband. Many months later I was fortunate to come across Ms. Liz Fenn who ran an international haiku library (at the Haiku Conservatory, USA) from which one could borrow a book, read it, and send it back by post. She was very kind to me and sent me several books free of cost. I studied from them, noting down passages and haiku and then sent the book back.

Meanwhile, I tentatively started sending out my three liners to various journals. Those days one had to correspond by snail mail and send a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) and wait for several weeks for a reply. Here I would like to mention several editors who published my work: Patrick Frank of Point Judith Light, David Priebe of Haiku Headlines, Ken C. Liebman of Frogpond, Robert Spiess of Modern Haiku and several others. There was no one in India whom I could turn to, write to or discuss anything as ELH was unheard of.

Then in 2000, came the World Haiku Festival organized by Mr. Susumu Takiguchi in London and Oxford which is where I met a number of wonderful haijin from several countries. My haiku world blossomed and I heard of R.H. Blyth for the first time from Ms. Ikuyo Yoshimura. I met Jim Kacian, Max Verhart, Ion Codrescu,Visjna McMaster, Phillip D. Noble,the late Martin Lucas and several others. Still there weren’t many books to consult. I bought one book here, one book there and added to my haiku library as best I could. Some haijin were kind enough to give me their books.

On my return from England, I met Prof. Satyabhushan Verma the exponent of haiku in Hindi, who had published several haiku in an inland format from 1979. Many Hindi haiku groups sprang up,subsequently, but the credit for the first haiku club in India goes to the Late Prof. Satyabhushan Verma and to think I knew nothing about Hindi haiku either! Such ignorance!

*

meeting new friends
a flight of pigeons
rain-wet pavement

*

RGR: We all evolve in our writing, as we do in life. From 1989 to 2014, do you notice any changes in your writing style? Looking back at your early work, would you think of revising it now?

AD: In two and a half decades of learning about haiku I have understood one thing, that all writing is a lonely calling – to write a passable haiku one must be alone much – observe and respond from a felt depth. My earliest efforts were just pretty three liners and although the editors were kind enough to publish them, I feel they lack a lot.

I have never looked back to ‘revise’ an old haiku. I write spontaneously about what I see or feel, and work/rework that haiku till I find it works for me and catches the moment. I learn every day.

*

bonfire festival –
all the songs of my youth
sung by grandchildren

*

RGR: What is your haiku secret? What keeps you going, through the hundreds of haiku you’ve written. It’s hard to choose one’s ‘best’ haiku, but were I to force you to choose, which would it be?

AD: I don’t know if there is a secret formula, but I try to live in the now of every waking moment. I listen, observe, interact and then respond with a haiku/haibun. I do not have any favourite haiku but I will share my jisei (death poem) with you

water worn boulder
so smooth now
against callused feet

*

RGR: The environment has changed too – there are many more journals today, and haiku publishing (like all else) has moved from print to web. Has the resultant abundance of journals made it easier for people to write and publish haiku – or do you think it has led to compromises, as editors scramble to fill volumes within the deadlines?

AD: Yes, in the last couple of decades things have changed drastically, some for the better some for the worse.

Firstly, the web presence of haiku-related material has mushroomed, to say nothing of Facebook groups, personal blogs, etc. While this plethora of haiku-like material is available at a click to everyone, it has led to just about any short thing – one word, one line, two lines, or three lines – being passed off as a haiku. This is distressing.

Secondly, neophyte haijin are not responding to genuine experiences, but are writing desk-ku. Their absolute desperation to get on to any blog or site is obviously detrimental to the quality of the genre, which deserves deeper study and contemplation.

Thirdly, however, there are some fine, erudite free resources (too numerous to mention here) from which one can learn a lot. Online haiku, haibun and tanka journals are excellent places to learn from and the editors are trying their best to give a fair representation of the work they receive, most of which is very good. In that way present day haijin are very fortunate indeed. Still a book is a book…now Amazon, Flipkart etc are carrying haiku books which one can get easily.

*

in sudden squall
the gently swaying
abandoned swing

*

RGR: Not content with being merely a masterful poet, you have made translation a mission of your literary career to translate ELH and Japanese haiku into Hindi. When did you conceive of this idea? Did you have any qualms and insecurities as you started on your journey?

AD: I wanted haijin writing in Hindi to understand the basic concepts of ELH, going beyond the 5-7-5 form, and hence the translations, the bilingual site of Haiku Sansaar and the English pages of Haiku Darpan.

*

As regards my jump into the bilingual haiku pond of translations, with my first book about Masaoka Shiki I was filled with trepidation. But it was favourably received specially by Hindi haijin even though the translations were not in the 5-7-5 pattern. I conceived of this idea in Ogaki, Japan when I met Ms. Minako Noma who had translated Shiki’s haiku from Japanese to English.She very kindly arranged to get me the permission to translate Shiki’s work into Hindi.

The funds for this book came from my aunt, a saadhvi and the credit for assistance in translations goes to my late husband Dr. Shridhar D. Deodhar who had excellent Hindi.

*

-in the monastery
rising above the plainchant
a warbler’s half note

*

RGR: You have made publishing an act of selflessness – giving away precious works such as Ogura Hyakunin Isshu and The Distant Mountain to students who seek them. Why have you chosen not to profit from your work, even as many haijin in the West and Japan have opened successful haiku publishing houses?

AD: Since I had had a rough time trying to get books on haiku, I decided to make my six bilingual books available to everyone in India and abroad. Here again the generosity of finances and time given to my efforts in translation go to my husband and the secretarial work/editing to my son. I was given emotional support by a lot of haiku friends worldwide. I must mention the generosity of Jim Kacian who sent me a sack full of books which I shared with friends.

*

sharing an umbrella
your wet left shoulder
my right one

*

RGR: Looking back at your quarter century, what are the mistakes you made? What did you do that you would advise a beginner (like this interviewer) to not do?

AD: I would have liked to learn Japanese and also come to know about haiku in my school days. To this end I have tried my best to get haiku into the Indian school syllabus.

My advice for what its worth, would be to write every day, everywhere, about everything – a phrase, a fragment, a word and not worryabout its publication. Read, read, read every day.

*

an I.V. line
anchors me to the monitor
thoughts still wander

*

And lastly, we wish you a long career still ahead of you.

K Ramesh – from moment to moment

Haiku by K Ramesh reproduced by permission of the author.

IMG_2296In this post, I interview one of India’s earliest recruits to haiku and tanka, K. Ramesh, who began writing in these genres since 2000. Currently teaching at Pathashaala (an initiative of the J Krishnamurti Foundation), he has balanced teaching and writing, not just Japanese forms but also free verse. He has brought out two anthologies, and his haiku are regularly published in haiku journals of great repute.

*

Raamesh: How exactly did your journey in haiku begin? You state in your interview with Ramesh Anand that the internet played a role in discovery and adoption. How big was the role, and how has it evolved today?

Ramesh: My interest in literature started when I was in college. I used to read the works of D H Lawrence and existential writers like Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre, both in Tamil and English.

It was writer Sujatha who introduced me to haiku. He wrote many articles on haiku in Tamil literary magazines. The poems of the Japanese masters he used in his writing spoke a lot of the significance of the ‘aha moment’ and brevity. It was at the same time that I started writing poetry. I was thrilled when my first poem was selected by Nissim Ezekiel for the magazine Indian Pen. In the year 2000, we got an internet connection in the school where I worked. I started searching for articles on haiku and haiku magazines as well. This search led me to the practice of writing haiku. My first haiku was accepted by Ai Li, editor of Still, a haiku journal published in England. From then onwards, I continued to send my haiku to editors all over the world, and my poems began to appear in journals periodically. I am happy to mention here that some of our (Indian haijin’s) works have appeared in the anthology titled ‘The First Hundred Years of Haiku’ brought out by Norton Publishing Company published in 2013.

*

carnival over . . .
a little girl’s sandal
among footprints

(The Heron’s Nest, September 2012)

*

Raamesh: You have written across the many styles of haiku popular today — shasei, gendai and contemporary ELH among others. Do you have a preferred style?

Also, different journals (and their editors) have different sensibilities; you’ve said before that one cannot stick too close to any one journal. So do you write with an aim to submitting a particular haiku or tanka to a particular journal, or do you decide that afterwards?

Ramesh: One doesn’t think of styles while composing a haiku. To me, styles do not matter so much as the recognition of a mild surprise and the urge to jot down the cause of the experience. The writing works if I am really touched by something I witness and I then write. What I do after writing is craftsmanship. It comes through practice.

*

summer morning…
a garden lizard drinks
the dewdrop on a leaf

(The Heron’s Nest, June 2014)

*

Raamesh: You have stated many times that the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti have influenced you a great deal — you cite him saying “He considered ‘looking’ an art in itself”.

How difficult or easy was it for you to reconcile JK’s outlook with the haiku sensibility?

Ramesh: J Krishnamurti emphasised on this question: can you go through an experience completely without an experiencer? This manner of looking also works when we are in a state of observation as a haiku poet. I feel haiku moments happen when the mind is open. When we are fully present while we go through an experience. There is a possibility of becoming acutely aware of the moment.

*

sunrise…
I let the fish
bite my toes

(Soap Bubbles)

*

Raamesh: Teaching and writing are often in conflict with each other, each requiring complete dedication and different skills. How have you balanced these in your life? Has your writing influenced the way you teach, or vice-versa?

Ramesh: As a teacher, I have begun to believe in facilitating a learning process rather than teaching per se in class (the chalk and board). The teacher creates room for students to engage in exploring, thinking and raising questions. I feel it’s the same when it comes to composing haiku. It is the cause of the experience that stands out, which resonates in the mind of the reader. The poet is not there anymore!

*

evening calm…
the sound of pencils
sketching on the cliff

(From Pebble To Pebble)

*

Raamesh: You’ve said in your interviews and essays that you love walking and bicycling, especially around nature, and that that’s where you get your inspiration from. Do tell us some of your most memorable walks or bicycle trips.

For many of us in urban areas, this is a dream at best. So what would you advise us to do?

Ramesh: I do enjoy cycling. But they are not exotic trips. I used to go from my house to the beach and back.

I do not recall any memorable trips. But there were moments in the cycle trips that were memorable, and those have become haiku:

My advice: if you drive a car, often you get to see only other vehicles, new models or old in front of you. If you are on a bicycle, you can pedal by the side of the road, you get to see the bright flame of the forest; on a low branch a golden oriole; or get the scent of fresh loaves as you pass by a bakery. Also, you find a new rhythm in your life. Occasionally at least, leave your car behind, tap your bicycle seat and go pedalling, whistling a familiar tune. I am sorry if it sounds like an advice! 🙂

*

village in the hills
a monkey looks into
the bike’s mirror

(First Published by Frogpond)

*

Raamesh: You have published several books of your haiku, and been translated into many languages (including Irish!). How has your experience been? You’ve also said that you don’t send your work to haiku to journals as much nowadays. So for those conflicted between publishing their own anthology and submitting to journals, would you share your experience with both?

Ramesh: My works have appeared in magazines published in India and abroad. Only two of my haiku collections have come out:
1.      Soap Bubbles
2.      From Pebble To Pebble

My first book, Soap Bubbles published by the Red Moon Press, was launched by author Shreekumar Varma, and it was Glory Sasikala Franklin (the moderator of Glorioustimes) who sponsored the event in 2007. I take this opportunity to thank them again for supporting my literary endeavours.

It is necessary to send your works to high standard haiku journals because your poems get rejected. Rejection helps. You learn to write. However, it’s not good spending time reading e-journals to the extent that you miss a beautiful sunset! It’s better to walk around with a small notebook and a pencil.

*

cool evening –
a fish nudges a pebble
in the aquarium

(First published by Tiny Words)

*

Raamesh: Apart from haiku, you also dabble in free verse. You’ve mentioned that the two have different idioms – haiku restrains you from expressing emotions directly, while in a free verse you can pour them out, er, freely. Many poets I’ve known have had difficulty with these different mind-sets, sometimes keeping them in separate mental silos. Do you do the same, or do you let them cross-fertilise each other?

Ramesh: The practice of writing haiku has taught me how to write with restraint. I write the same way when I write free verse, preferring imagery to metaphor.

*

slight breeze . . .
the silent spin of
wooden wind chimes

(The Heron’s Nest, March 2013)

*

Raamesh: You write both tanka and haiku. Though both are derived from Japanese literature, many writers write either one or the other. How have you managed to write both (and extremely well in both genres at that)? How do you ensure that your tanka is no more than a padded haiku, or that your tanka isn’t a haiku split over 5 lines?

How do you choose whether the subject material is suitable for tanka or haiku? This would be a great help for those early in their writing journey, trying to choose between tanka and haiku.

Ramesh: Tricky question! I am still learning the trade! …and it will always be so.

One thing is clear. In a tanka there is room to express your feelings directly. We can be subjective. In a state of sensitivity and attention, if we get inspired, there is a possibility of the muse visiting us. The poem takes its form; later we can use our tools of craftsmanship.

*

searching for coins
in my pocket –
red seeds
collected by
my little daughter

(American Tanka issue 11)

*

Raamesh: Finally, what is your advice for a young writer starting out on haiku? Do you recommend they learn all the rules first, or do you recommend they plunge into writing, learning the rules on the way?

Ramesh: Both. He or she has to become familiar with the genre. Reading the masters will really help us get a perspective on the form. As far as writing is concerned, I believe in the words of the Tamil writer Sundara Ramasami. He says, “Write, that is the secret of writing.”

writing on the porch…
a moth’s wing touches
my hand

*

Raamesh: And with that our interview comes to an end. My best wishes.

Ramesh: Thank you for your thought-provoking questions, Raamesh! I enjoyed responding to them!