Mini-interview: Jim Kacian

Jim Kacian is a poet, anthologist, editor, and the founder and Chairperson of The Haiku Foundation. He is the owner of Red Moon Press, and author of 20+ books, mainly of haiku. 

What draws me to the writer: I’ve been aware of his publishing company for years, pre-eminent as it is for haiku, and have read his essays, seen his conerence talks, but hadn’t looked for his own haiku until I saw it.

Book: waar ik ophoud / where i leave off: monoku and haibun of Jim Kacian (Red Moon Press, 2021)

About the Book: waar ik ophoud / where i leave off is the seminal first exploration of monoku as a viable resource in Western-language haiku, by the poet who coined the term. This updated reprint from 2010 includes both Dutch and English texts, and reformats the contents to create a more pleasant reading experience. It also includes several examples of one-bun, also the poet’s invention, which recasts English-language haibun in an enterprising way. This version is a faithful reproduction of the original Dutch volume from the important Dutch imprint ’t schrijverke, operated by Max Verhart in ’s Hertogenbosch until his death in 2018.

Sample:

gunshot the length of the lake

een geweerschot even lang als het meer


snowlight things seem so oh i don’t know

sneeuwlicht de dingen schijnen zo ach geen idee

Questions:

PP: You’ve been publishing haibun for decades more than I’ve been aware of them existing. I like the notion of a tight haibun. C.C. Coulton said, “The writer does the most, who gives his readers the most knowledge, and takes from him the least time.” Is that what propels you towards brevity?

JK: That’s an interesting quote, and will appeal to many writers of haibun (and other short forms). But as I see it, brevity isn’t really the goal, rather more of a tool. The goal is to find exactly the right form for the poem at hand, and there are times when brevity is the right tool, and times when it is not. 

Short forms generally make excess obvious, but excess nevertheless may be precisely what a poem calls for. Even the tightest novels have some fat, and it’s often the fat we could least do without. That said, keeping haibun streamlined makes sense in most instances. If a haibun’s resonance is oblique (as the best tend) then what a writer would desire would be a sense of inevitability, and at the same time unexpectedness. I think you can arrive at these things simultaneously only if there are no distracting elements. The more a piece is larded up, the more our attention can be captured by something that is beside the point. Of course the skill of the author in directing that attention is the determining factor in whether or not such a piece succeeds.


I have written lots of pieces that seek to be as brief as possible, and I have written lots that invite greater immersion over time. If I am sufficiently interesting as a writer, readers will allot me the time it takes to have my say, be it brief or otherwise. The truer I remain to the poem, the likelier I am to be worthy of this gift. 

 
PP: How did it come that Max Verhart translated your work to Dutch? Had you travelled through the Netherlands or had family ties there? Do you speak some Dutch?

JK: I have traveled, spoken, read and mentored in the Netherlands, been a guest in Max’s home and shared the stage with him on several occasions. Our relationship goes back to a conference we both attended in London in 2000, and he has participated in some of my projects (such as being an editor for the Red Moon Anthology from 2002-2012) and I in some of his. [For those of you who don’t know, Max died in 2018.] It was a seemingly natural thing for him to ask to translate my short treatise on monoku (where i leave off) into Dutch, and to publish it (as where i leave off / waar ik ophoud)  through his publishing house ’t schrijverke. The Netherlands has a very active haiku culture and society, and their journal, Vuursteen, is the longest continuously published haiku journal in Europe. Max was active for several decades in the Dutch haiku world, but he never did get me to learn any Dutch in the process beyond hello, goodbye, and a few choice epithets.

PP: How big is the role of waiting and silence in making your monoku? Do you set aside a time, or a space, to reflect?

JK: I’d like to re-emphasize that I do not exclusively write monoku, but am focused in finding the best form for every poem that compels me to write it. But my process for all these various forms is the same: I most often write in the middle of night. I keep pencil and paper bedside and write down whatever comes to me. I try not to judge or edit what I am given, but simply accept it with gratitude. I try in the morning to read my handwriting, and often fail. Whatever I can make out I try to organize into something coherent, still without judgment. These fragments I put in my working file and don’t look at for at least a year, usually longer. When I go back after that time whatever needs doing — keeping as is, editing or trashing — often seems very apparent to me. And I will play any poem that I plan to keep over and over in my head, a kind of lapidary process until it is worn smooth.

PP: I can relate. I recall waking one morning. In the night I saw myself making a poem in clear handwriting. By morning light I had scrawled sideways across a page, off the book and across the desk, entirely illegibly.

JK: I also subscribe to the ancient and ridiculous superstition of offering fealty to the Muse. This acts as a triggering device for me, a useful fiction that reminds me that I am not the fount of poetry, merely its amanuensis. That’s my process. I’m likely more patient about this than most poets are willing to be, and I don’t recommend it for everyone, but it has served me well for a long time. 

PP: Doing all you do with making anthologies and collections, you are a community building, a hub for like-minds to find like-minds. What encouragement has Red Moon Press given back to you?

Haiku has been the conduit through which I’ve been able to give to the world what I have in me to give. And what I have to give does seem to have served to bring many people together. These are wonderful things, and I am grateful to be in a position to play my part in making them happen. I recognize that I am an extremely fortunate person, living in circumstances that are not available to everyone, and to almost no one outside of our own time and place. I do not take these things for granted. I hope my efforts are commensurate with the great opportunities I’ve been afforded. 


But I have received more, too, as a result of my work. Most especially, the sense of community engendered by my contact with poets, readers, editors, scholars, commentators and volunteers via Red Moon Press and The Haiku Foundation has permitted me, an introvert and a loner, to have a rich social connection with the world, one that has helped to keep me informed about how my neighbor lives. I expect I would be a far different person without this gift of sociality. There are other things as well, but I think this the most amazing payback I could ever receive.