David Lanoue

David G. Lanoue is a professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana. He is a translator of Japanese haiku, a teacher of English and world literature, and a writer of haiku and "haiku novels." He is a co-founder of the New Orleans Haiku Society, an associate member of the Haiku Foundation, and the president of the Haiku Society of America. His books include a translation (Cup-of-Tea Poems: Selected Haiku of Kobayashi Issa), criticism (Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa) and a series of haiku novels: Haiku Guy (2000), Laughing Buddha (2004), Haiku Wars (2009) and Frog Poet (2012). Some of these books have appeared in French, German, Spanish, Bulgarian, Serbian and Japanese editions. In addition, he has published The Distant Mountain: The Life and Haiku of Kobayashi Issa in English with Hindi translations by Angelee Deodhar. He maintains The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa website, for which he translated 10,000 of Issa’s haiku.He also manages the Daily Issa: a free random haiku by Issa sent out every day via email (Yahoo Group: "DailyIssa") and Twitter (@issa_haiku_).

Home Winter 2013 Features Interview - David Lanoue
An Interview with David G. Lanoue PDF Print E-mail

SV: I simply don't know what to ask you. Do you happen to know why?

DGL: Is it because we've known each other for so long?

SV: What would the Frog Poet say?

DGL: Ruka-ruka-ru, ru-ruka-ruka-ruka, ruka-ru-ruka

SV: Is the Frog Poet your alter ego?

DGL: The title of Frog Poet is ambiguous. It could refer to a frog in the story that croaks in five-seven-five bursts and is therefore suspected (by some) to be the reincarnation of a haiku master. Or, maybe that frog is just a frog and the "frog poet" in the book is Issa, who wrote over 200 haiku about frogs and toads. I wouldn't call Issa my alter ego. He's more of a master and guide for me and for the readers in all four of my novels. My alter ego is more likely Buck-Teeth, the young village poet whom Issa (named "Cup-of-Tea" in the books) instructs in the art of haiku. 

SV: I still think your best haiku novel is Haiku Guy. What do you think?

DGL: I've always been happy to know of your admiration for my first "haiku novel." I feel honored that you translated it into Serbian, bringing it to life in a part of the world where the appreciation for poetry, especially haiku, runs deep. I'm a little sad, though, to hear that you believe the quality of my novels has slid downhill after Haiku Guy. With inspiration and luck, I hope my last novel in the series will at least match, if not surpass, the first. You've given me a goal to shoot for!

SV: All of your haiku novels are interesting, but, in my opinion, Haiku Guy is both interesting and the most educative. Perhaps you have said almost all you needed to say regarding “haiku lessons” in Haiku Guy, or I am wrong?

DGL: Yes, Haiku Guy is a lesson-filled How To Write Haiku book disguised as a novel. However, the later books continue the story lines of my characters in Old Japan and today's world with some instruction mixed in. Laughing Buddha explores the question: What should poets do about writer's block, particularly when that block is caused by one's own insidious inner critic, embodied in the story as the evil ninja, Professor Nakamura? Haiku Wars asks the question, What makes a haiku a haiku? The fictional haiku conference that it depicts brings together representatives of three rival factions: traditionalists, modernists and avant-garde poets. The book's ferret narrator, of course, understands and reveals haiku's essence. And, finally, Frog Poet looks at the difficulties of publishing haiku--and what publication in this world is ultimately worth. Still, you are right that the instruction is way more prevalent and visible in Haiku Guy.

SV: It isn’t strange to me that your haiku novels are not accepted by publishers in your country, as it is vast and haiku is not appreciated by its mainstream literature. It’s opposite in other countries, as is, for example, Bulgaria, where all your haiku novels have been translated and published.  What is your opinion?

DGL: Haiku Guy was published by presses in Spain (Funambulista), Japan (Sanwa), Bulgaria (Iztok-Zapad) and Serbia (Mali Nemo). Its other incarnations--the original English and the French and German translations--were published by small haiku presses. Initially, I tried hard to find a big press for Haiku Guy. I had a New York agent who managed to get the manuscript read by everyone on his "A-list"--and, one by one, they rejected it. This was in the mid-1990s. Finally, my agent gave up, so I sent it to Red Moon Press, where Jim Kacian kindly agreed to publish it. The only explanation that I can give for being turned down by the major American publishers is that none of their acquisition editors at the time thought it fit into a profitable, pre-established marketing scheme. "Haiku novel" is a new art form--an evolutionary step beyond Japanese haibun. It takes a courageous editor to take on the new rather than simply attempting to duplicate last year's bestsellers. My agent could find no such editor in corporate America. In contrast, I somehow convinced publishers in Spain, Japan, Bulgaria and Serbia to bravely offer this new form of novel to readers in their countries. 

SV: What inspired you to write fictional novels about the haiku world? Or is it just Buddha’s job who, as you mention in your novels, directs your pen?

DGL:  Most of the credit must go to the invisible Buddha who lives (or visits?) deep inside my brain. In the early 1990s, I joined a writing group at Xavier University of Louisiana. Two of the members were writing novels, one was writing creative nonfiction, and I initially shared only haiku. One week, I decided to surprise my fellow group members by starting my own novel and writing all of them into it as characters. I had no idea what it would be about, so I started free-writing until the idea of a haiku primer in the guise of fiction materialized on the page--praise Buddha!

SV: Do you plan to write more of them (if Buddha is to answer this question, I will wait for him :-)?

DGL: These days I'm tidying up a haiku novel that has sat in my drawer for twenty years: Dewdrop World. After I finish it, I'll probably take a break and see if the Buddha inspires me with a new story. 

SV: As we all know, you are a devoted admirer of Issa and his poetry, meaning also you opt for traditional haiku. On the other hand, your own haiku are not traditional. Why is it so?

DGL: The haiku that I write may not be traditional, if by this word you mean haiku that follows all the rules that Basho, Buson and Issa embraced (and, often, broke). However, I see my work as very much part of haiku's evolving tradition. I'm a firm believer in the notion that to appreciate and write good haiku, one needs to know its tradition. Stephen Addiss's new book, The Art of Haiku, is a good book for anyone who wants to learn how haiku has never been static--has always been a growing and constantly changing tradition--Addiss's book provides a fine overview.

SV: What is it about Issa's poetry that attracts you?

DGL: Issa is so down-to-earth, so sympathetic, so insightful, so open, so funny and so human. I love how his humor and satire can imply deeper levels of spiritual significance. I also admire the way that he writes his own life into his haiku, censoring nothing. 

SV: Why is Issa important to your haiku worldview?

DGL: To answer this question I could write a book. In fact, I have written books on it! My translations, critical books, essays and even my own haiku have all been shaped by my relationship with Issa. I call it a "relationship" because, for me, Issa is a warm, human presence: a teacher and a brother. He taught me how to write haiku by his expert example. I am not merely his translator; I am Buck-Teeth kneeling at his feet, constantly learning from him: how to notice the importance of small things, how to sympathize with the abandoned and downtrodden, how to open myself to the personhood of animals and even plants, how to trust spontaneity in each moment of composition, how to discover humor in this fading Dewdrop world in which every blossom, every person, will die . . . I could go on and on, and I will, since everything that I write flows, with deep gratitude, from my relationship with Issa. 

SV: Are you conversant in ancient and modern Japanese? If not, how do you translate his poetry?

DGL: I studied Japanese with the specific intention of reading Issa. I might be the only person on the planet who ever set out to learn Japanese with this particular goal. Along the way, I learned a lot about the archaic grammar and vocabulary of Edo-period haiku. I was aided by dictionaries and, after I started posting my translations of Issa on the Web, a number of Japanese readers began sending me corrections and insights--most notably Shinji Ogawa, who took on the Herculean task of proof-reading every one of the 10,000 haiku in my online archive. Many of the followers of my Daily Issa Yahoo Group have also helped me to sharpen my understanding of Issa's Japanese. 

SV: What is modern haiku in your opinion?

DGL: "Modern haiku" is an ambiguous phrase. In the narrow sense, it refers to the 20th century modernist movement that liberated haiku so that locomotives, airplanes and other objects and experiences of modern life entered the poetry. This current of modernism continues flowing today, along with a traditionalist current that produces haiku that might have been written in 17th-century Kyoto. From the late 20th century on, a new current of postmodern haiku has added itself to the river of haiku tradition. Many people think of "modern" as signifying anything that's being written now, i. e. contemporary. For such people, "modern haiku" should rightly include traditional, modernist and postmodernist verses, since all are being written and published today. Though I would describe my haiku as mostly belonging to the modernist current, I love many of the slippery, experimental, postmodern haiku that are being written today. For examples, take a peek at the archives of the Periplum blog that I wrote a few years ago for The Haiku Foundation website, especially my essays on Ami Tanaka and Keiji Minato. 

SV: Aren’t zoka (nature’s creative force), ma and other Japanese aesthetic styles important to composing haiku today as they were in Basho’s time?

DGL: Again, I recommend Stephen Addiss's book for the grounding of haiku in Japanese aesthetics. In my opinion, the concepts of ma (space) and Zen simplicity are especially crucial. For a haiku to be a haiku, you need to leave empty space for the mind and heart to play in. Also, I believe that you need to keep it simple and concrete: be open and report; never explain! These ancient Japanese values are part of haiku's DNA. Haiku will continue to evolve, but these values will always remain integral, I believe. 

SV: You have been elected to be the HSA’s president. Congratulations! How do you view this association and do you plan to make some changes to it? If yes, what would they be?

DGL: I view the HSA as an important organization for the support and promotion of haiku in the United States (though we also have some members in other countries). I applaud the efforts of my predecessor, Ce Rosenow, for making haiku more visible and understood in the USA. I hope to continue HSA's participation, for example, at the American Literature Association's annual conference. As far as changes go, I first want to listen to what members have to say, which is why, instead of giving a talk at the first quarterly meeting (New York City,  March 30), I will lead a brainstorming session on possible new directions for the HSA. One idea that I have is for the organization to reach out and forge bonds with other haiku organizations in the world. To this end, I plan to represent the HSA this June at the German Haiku Society's conference in Ochtrup and at a Bulgarian meeting in Blagoevgrad.

SV: I am particularly interested in haiku definition, which, in my opinion, has not been made clear and definitive by the HSA’s committees. In order to write you must have some clear rules to guide you, and if some say that haiku cannot be defined, how can they write it?

DGL: The definition that I wrote for my Issa website is "a one-breath poem that discovers connection." I strongly feel that haiku is an art of discovering: perceiving and feeling deeply into the universe--both inner mind and outer reality--with an attitude of accepting openness. Of course, this definition isn't enough, since to define haiku completely one would need to include knowledge of the entire tradition of the genre and all of the Japanese aesthetic principles that we were talking about earlier. Haiku is being defined every day by the people who write it, read it, study it and dream it. Like I mentioned before, this defining process needs to take into account the essential threads of haiku's DNA. The use of space (ma) and the value of simple statement as opposed to rational explanation are just two of these ancient values that I consider necessary. Without them a one-breath poem might outwardly resemble a haiku but not be a haiku.

SV: A great number of the HSA's members still stick to RH Blyth's and Kenneth Yasuda's teachings, which are obsolete and wrong (according to a series of Robert D. Wilson's articles on haiku aesthetics published in Simply Haiku). If you find this correct, I think it's paramount to change many things so that haiku could be understood and written properly. What do you  think?

DGL: Blyth and Yasuda are not obsolete. They are simply parts of the ongoing conversation about what haiku is. The important thing is to not get stuck, claiming that anyone's teaching is the final teaching: not Blyth's, not Yasuda's . . . not even Basho's! We must keep reading, writing, exploring and learning. Robert D. Wilson is now part of the international conversation about haiku, just as this interview will be. The exciting thing is that the conversation, the tradition, goes on. Haiku is, still and always, becoming