An American haiku pet, editor, translator, publisher, organizer, filmmaker, public speaker, theorist and archivist.
The Interview : Jim Kacian
(The Wise Owl in conversation with Jim Kacian)
The Wise Owl talks to Jim Kacian an American haiku pet, editor, translator, publisher, organizer, filmmaker, public speaker, theorist and archivist who resides in Winchester, Virginia. He has written more than a score of books of poetry, mainly haiku or haiku related. His work has been translated into more than 40 languages. His individual poems have won such awards as The Harold G. Henderson Haiku Competition Prize (Haiku Society of America) (2005), and Poem of the Year from The Heron's Nest (2009, 2010 & 2012), as well as prestigious international competitions such as The Kusamakura International Haiku Competition (Japan, 2008), among many others. His books Long After, Presents of Mind, Six Directions: Haiku and Field Notes, Border Lands and after/image have all won The Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award for outstanding achievement in the genre.
Kacian also has edited dozens of English-language haiku books and journals, notably The Red Moon Anthology of English-language Haiku series (1996–2022), Knots: The Anthology of Southeast European Haiku Poetry (with Dimitar Anakiev, 1999), Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (with Allan Burns and Philip Rowland, 2013), among others. Perhaps most relevant to this interview, he also created, edited and published contemporary haibun, the series of books (1999-2014, 2020-present) often credited with sparking the haibun revival in English (and even possibly in Japan), and its electronic relation, contemporary haibun online.
Kacian founded Red Moon Press in 1993, which has become the premier dedicated haiku publishing house in the world. Beginning in 2004, he began work on The Haiku Foundation. Among its offerings are The Haiku Foundation Libraries (hard copy and digital); Haikupedia, the online encyclopaedia of all things haiku; interactive features for any level of participant; a history of world haiku, with specimen samples, in original languages and English; and much more. Also, in 2013 Kacian created the first video haiga and haiku films, now both internationally recognized and practiced forms. He first presented them publicly via The Haiku Foundation website, and then collectively at the HaikuLife Haiku Film Festival which he inaugurated in 2015. In 2022, partnering with tech designer Richard Mavis, he offered the book film version of long after, a unique interactive rethinking of the reading experience via his 2008 book which focuses on the process of grief.
Thank you, Jim, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We are delighted and honoured to speak to you.
JK: Thanks for having me, and for your interest in my work.
TWO: You have made a name for yourself as a haiku poet. You started writing haiku when you were a teenager. For the benefit of the readers, please tell us what attracted you to this genre of poetry initially? How did your love for this form grow and evolve over the years?
JK: Actually, I did not encounter haiku until I was in my early 30s, through Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums. (I have written and published ‘long’ poems since high school.) Once it found me, though, it was pretty quickly apparent that it had some use for me, though I made a bargain with it early on. Like most newbies, I was keen to learn as much about it as I could, and to try my hand. But I decided that I would not try to publish my haiku until I had written a thousand of them. So from 1986 to 1988 I read and I wrote, but it wasn’t until 1989 that I sent off my first submission. I have never regretted this decision, though were I to recommend to anyone today, I probably would recommend a couple hundred rather than a thousand. The interaction with capable editors is as much a part of the education into haiku as the reading and the writing, and I probably didn’t need to wait quite as long as I did to engage it. This decision also inculcated in me another habit which I think has stood me in good stead through these decades. I do not submit my most recent work, but “put it in a drawer” for a year or more. When I look at it again, those many months later, it is almost always evident to me what the poem needs, and whether to submit it, edit it, or trash it.
TWO: You are a prolific poet and have authored as many as 20 books, nearly all of which are on/about haiku and related genres. Our readers would love to know and understand the source of your continuous creative inspiration.
JK: I do not have continuous creative inspiration — I probably couldn't stand it if I did, so just as well, and be careful what you wish for. I have sporadic inspiration, and I am a classicist in my approach to it: I understand that I am the dogsbody of the Muse, who will mete out her influence on her own terms and timing. I also recognize that, though she has supplied me primarily with haiku over these many years, she may veer into any number of other avenues at her own discretion, and that it is my obligation to write what she dictates. As a result, I have periods where I write almost no haiku, but might have other presentation formats more to the forefront of my efforts. Or none at all. It’s not my call. My job is to keep the tools sharp so when I am needed, I am able to respond usefully.
TWO: You founded the Red Moon Press in 1993, which has become the premier dedicated haiku publishing house in the world. What made you start a publishing house dedicated to haiku publishing?
JK: My first forays into publishing were directly out of necessity. As mentioned, haiku decided it had some uses for me, and one of those uses was as a journal editor. I decided I wanted to try editing a haiku journal and began looking around for possible options in 1992. By 1993 I had settled on reimagining South by Southeast as an international quarterly, with certain regular features that I felt were not available elsewhere. And, very practically, I needed, in those days before widespread internet, a delivery system, which at that time meant print. I taught myself PageMaker and learned to do layout and design, and as a result needed to learn also about printing and distribution. It was all pretty much one foot following the other. By 1996 I had some years of journal publishing behind me and was ready to tackle books. The first collection I produced was Dee Evetts’s endgrain, which became a kind of minor classic. So, I was off to a good start, and things followed pretty much on their own after that. By the end of that year, I had decided an anthology of the “best haiku and related work of the year” was needed, and so the Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku was born. A couple years later I felt that new poets did not have sufficient presence in the haiku establishment, and so A New Resonance: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku came into being. And just after that I thought we needed a way to honor our recently deceased poets, and so I created the Postscripts series. These have been the mainstays of Red Moon Press over the years: individual collections, serial anthologies, and specific homages. At present we have over 400 titles, some 350 of which remain in print.
TWO: You have worked very hard at setting up the Haiku Foundation with its multiple offerings like The Haiku Foundation Libraries (hard copy and digital); Haikupedia, the online encyclopaedia of all things haiku; interactive features for any level of participant; a history of world haiku, with specimen samples, in original languages and English. It is a wonderful initiative which I’m sure is greatly appreciated by haiku lovers as well as haiku learners all over the world. Please tell us how this gem of an idea was born and a little about how you worked to make it such a resounding success.
JK: The response to the various offerings of The Haiku Foundation has been heartening, especially from outside the United States, where resources for haiku can be harder to come by. Our initial goal was to archive the history of English-language haiku, and to create new projects that served ELH going forward, but it became apparent very early on that this was not a sufficient vision for the Foundation. There was great interest around the world in what we were doing, and it feels, in hindsight at least, as though an international element was inevitable to our work, and we are much the richer for it. The initial impetus for the Foundation was a conversation I had in 2004 with the Kiwi poet Ernest J. Berry. Why, he asked me, could he not find all the past winning poems for the various international contests online somewhere? It seemed like a simple enough question, and I had no good answer, but I told him I’d think about it. It turns out there are many obstacles to creating the resource he had in mind, but the prompt made me wonder about other kinds of resources that might be made available, and also what was currently extant, and how they could be accessed. It turns out that very little was actually readily available short of library holdings in a few scattered locations, and as a consequence very little was actually of use to most poets around the world. THF used this as a jumping-off point, though in truth this is only one of very many resource paths we have explored.
I need to stress that while it is true that I have labored long and hard at this project, and continue to do so, I am far from the only one. The original steering committee of Dave Russo, Tom Borkowski and myself spent years imagining what THF might look like, and how we might deliver it to people around the world. It wasn’t until 2008 that we made ourselves visible to the rest of the world, and not until 2009 that we became chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since that time, we have been enlarged by the extraordinary talents and efforts of hundreds of people who have felt this was a worthy place to volunteer their time and energy for a common cause of haiku. Though THF is identified with me, it is in fact everyone’s Haiku Foundation, and only because of this does it have significance and cultural gravitas.
TWO: You created the first video haiga and haiku film, which has subsequently become an internationally recognized and practiced form. Do tell our readers about the conceptualization of this idea.
JK: I did, and the fact surprises (and also pleases) me, though there is certainly an element of inevitability to this. If I hadn’t, I have no doubt it would have happened shortly thereafter, so at least part of the circumstance has to do with being in the right time and the right place, and with a set of skills that could be repurposed for the new vehicle. It’s an exciting and still virtually unexplored domain, and a good place for someone looking to make a mark in the genre to consider. The origins are mundane: I had recently acquired a camera for the purpose of creating a short presentation film that The Haiku Foundation could use for an IndieGoGo fundraiser. I acquired software to process the raw footage and learned to use it. So, I had these new tools, what else could I do with them? As usual, the only real impediment to the creative process is the amount of time available. I would like to do much more in this vein, but the demands of the Foundation and the press supersede. I hope there will be a time in my future where I will be able to give myself over to my creative bent, but that is not now my current situation.
TWO: Do you have any special favourite among the various genres of Japanese poetry? What do you think of the haibun form which is a beautiful mix of prose as well as poetry?
JK: Of the Japanese short forms, it is really haiku that is unique. Tanka is quite nice, but not demonstrably different than short lyric from other cultures. So, it is haiku, and other forms incorporating haiku, such as haibun and haiga, that have always held my interest as the propagator of an effect that can’t be had anywhere else in literature. The consequence is that if my poem is more ‘Western’ I will likely render it in a Western form, but the very specific sort of effect that haiku produces can only be done in haiku.
I love haibun, and as you are probably aware, I have been a champion of the genre for a quarter-century. When I was editor of Frogpond, at the end of last century, haibun was very rarely featured in haiku journals. I made it a regular, and common, element, and now it is an expected part of all the major haiku vehicles. Shortly thereafter, I began gathering haibun from the journals as well as soliciting unpublished work to create American Haibun and Haiga (AHH), which over the years has become contemporary haibun (and has added its internet component contemporary haibun online). This serial anthology has probably had more to do with the emeergence of haibun as a serious genre in Western literature than any other factor and has even inculcated a renewed interest in the genre in Japan. These resources continue to grow, and I’m sure we have not come close to tapping its potential yet.
And, as you might glean from the original name of the series, I have a keen interest in haiga as well. Just as haibun had no home back in those days, haiga was also rarely encountered. AHH was the first place where Western haiga artists could share their work with each other and an audience that might appreciate what they had accomplished. It is gratifying to see today that both haibun and haiga are regular and expected features of haikai presentations, but it was not that long ago that they were almost invisible.
TWO: You are like the Godfather of haiku. What would your advice to upcoming poets of the Japanese genres like haiku, tanka etc be?
JK: That is a rather grand thought, but in truth I am the inheritor of a rich and longstanding tradition that is only beginning its expansion into Western culture, and it has been my fate and privilege to be tasked with aiding with this expansion. There is much left to do, and if my work has been useful to making this possible, then it is time well spent and I am grateful for that opportunity. But because we are here in time and space, it does suggest opportunity for poets working in these genres. Haiku is particularly well-positioned to appeal to the minds and hearts of humans in our circumstances. They are short, which has become increasingly important as our attention spans diminish. They contain home truths, things which help us appreciate our immediate lives and surroundings, not philosophical abstractions. They connect us in a community of like-minded sharers of the planet, the value of which cannot be overemphasized. They are accessible to anyone who cares to consider them, potentially making that community as large as the entire populace. And at the moment they are largely outside the reach of economic considerations, which means they have their own integrity and do not serve monied interests as advertising or polemic. These are significant resources which other genres cannot claim. Add to this that some few even can change the way we perceive and think about the world and reality itself.
Haiku has not succumbed (at least not too much) to the self-importance that other genres have found necessary, but remains rooted in heart, in sharing, in community. We have an endless need for these things, but never more so than in our current circumstances. My challenge to poets coming to haiku and related genres in the coming months and years is to discover within yourselves where your allegiances lie: if you crave fame or wealth or collosal book sale numbers, you are probably better suited seeking them elsewhere. But if you feel that poems are a means to bring people together, as opposed to building an ego and a career, then haiku might be for you. If you manage to do both — well, you’ll be the first.
TWO: Is there any new project or book you are working on? Please do tell our readers about it.
JK: I tend to favor large projects, as is probably evident from my history, and the projects I currently have in hand are not exceptions to this. I have been working for the past seven years on a peculiar potted history of haiku in the West, which I have hopes of publishing within the next year or two. I have also begun work on revising my 2013 volume Haiku in English. And I have a haibun project that is just starting to take shape in my mind. And of course, my work with the Foundation and the press keeps me very busy.
Thank you so much Jim, for taking time out of a very busy schedule to talk to The Wise Owl. We are deeply honoured and delighted to talk to you. We wish you the best with all your creative endeavours and congratulate you for all the great work you have done to encourage and inspire poets of the various Japanese genres.
JK: Thank you for your interest in my efforts, and for having me as your guest. If in fact I am encouraging and inspiring to poets, who could ask more? I look forward to seeing the fruit of these efforts in the coming years.