Feature Writer Interview: Exploring Meditative Haiku with Jacob Salzer
It is with tremendous pleasure that I bring you the latest in our Brainripples interview series, where we glimpse the work, wisdom, and process of poets and writers, artists and designers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and other amazing people I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
Today we chat with Jacob Salzer, a Pacific Northwest poet and essayist, and a fellow Greener. Learn more about Jacob and his work at the Advaya blog.
JB – Greetings Jacob, and thank you for joining us at Brainripples for an interview. I’ve enjoyed watching your work grow since our introduction through The Evergreen State College alumni association. First things first: when did you begin writing? Did you start with poetry?
JS – Like many people, I started writing in elementary school. I have memories of writing essays throughout public education. In high school, I took a creative writing class where I wrote my first real poem, in memory of Dr. Seuss. I used his rhyme technique to write my first poem titled “Green Paper with Black Ink on Top.” It is a poem about greed, and how money is important, but reminds us that there are some things that money can’t buy. The last part of the poem is:
Money is fine and needed today. Green paper with black ink on top is ok. But to see it take over the people of Shoombay tells me that greed is in the way. In the way of an embracing gathering of life. Don’t let money get in the way, or you might pay a price.
JB – How about Evergreen? What made you decide to be a Geoduck? How did your Evergreen experience enhance your writing?
JS – I went to Evergreen because of 3 things: (1) Location (it was close enough to my hometown, where I worked during the summers), (2) Price (it was less expensive than a big university), and (3) their unique, interdisciplinary philosophy. I liked how Evergreen often combined different disciplines into a single program.
Like many people, I honestly felt pressured to go to college. After I graduated from high school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to study. Thus, Evergreen provided a well-rounded liberal arts education, where I focused my studies on neurobiology, creative writing, and health-related classes.
I was actually introduced to haiku at Evergreen in a course titled The Way of Haiku and Haibun, taught by Kate Crow (a great, down-to-earth teacher). Thus, Evergreen provided an introduction to haiku poetry, and (as is expected) I also wrote a lot of essays on a wide variety of subjects.
JB – How long have you been writing haiku specifically? What attracts you to haiku and other traditional forms of Asian poetry?
JS – I’ve been writing haiku since the haiku class I took at Evergreen in 2007. So, I’ve been writing haiku for 9 years now.
Haiku is the world’s smallest form of poetry. It is such a mysterious, beautiful, and challenging form to work with. I love haiku for its ability to quiet the mind. Like a sharp, digital camera, haiku can be a focused lens that captures the indefinable beauty of a single moment; beauty that may otherwise go un-noticed through the noisy chatter of the limited, conditioned mind. Haiku reminds us to “Be, here-and-now”. In that way, haiku helps us realize the importance of ordinary things that often go un-noticed.
Haiku also helps bring greater awareness to issues, challenges, strange moments, etc. I must admit, the technique of juxtaposition and the variety of haiku forms (one-line haiku, two-line haiku, etc.) allows for more creative expression than I had anticipated.
Haiku also reminds us to be careful with what we say, and how we say it. Because haiku uses very few words, it simultaneously provides a break from the thick textbooks that I’m reading in college.
Perhaps most importantly, haiku can bring people together from around the world. As private and personal as writing poetry can be, I feel that sharing haiku is an essential part of this challenging art form.
Here are a few of my haiku:
touched by so many hands
I eat with gratitude
The Heron’s Nest XVII.3 (9-15)
forgetting my name
the hook disappears
beneath the water
A Hundred Gourds 9/20/15
Now, I must say a few words about tanka and haibun. : )
I see tanka as mini-lyrics of a song. They are 5-line poems, often driven by strong emotions, and vivid imagery, and they have an inherent twist or turn in the narrative. They are a wonderful creative outlet, but I find they are often challenging to write.
Haibun (prose + haiku) has been a wonderful creative outlet too. They are like mini-stories, or short-movies. Haiku between paragraphs in haibun often parallel with the prose, offering more reverberations and echoes, while the ending haiku is often more powerful when it’s connected to the prose, but in an indirect way.
Alan Summers has said in the preface of my first book of haibun, Origins: “The key to haibun are the minute details – those diegetic sounds – arising from normal life throughout our lifespan, captured as a Super-8 movie, with haiku as a point-and-shoot camera.”
JB – Besides Frogpond Journal and the Haiku Nook on Google+, where are your favorite places to find good haiku poetry to read and emulate?
JS – The Haiku Nook is an abundant source of haiku and related forms such as haibun, tanka, etc. Haiku Nook is my main source of inspiration. In addition to Frogpond, there are a wide variety of haiku journals where I’ve found remarkable haiku, such as: Modern Haiku, Bones, The Heron’s Nest, Chrysanthemum, etc.
JB – Your poems often capture familiar, mundane moments; many are sprinkled with Pacific Northwest imagery. Besides these, what are your favorite sources of inspiration? Who are some of your favorite poets of all time?
JS – For longer poems, I’ve really enjoyed reading poems on VerseWrights.
My favorite poet of all time is W.S. Merwin. His book The Shadow of Sirius is my favorite book of longer poems. Throughout the years, I’ve come back to that book again, and again, and again. In fact, reading his work was the main source of inspiration as I wrote my first book of poetry: The Last Days of Winter.
Writing happens spontaneously, and how it happens (or where it comes from) is often a mystery, even to myself. It can happen at any time, so I’ve learned to keep a pen and notebook handy wherever I go. : )
On Haiku Nook, just reading a single haiku can inspire several haiku.
A lot of my longer poems are introspective, or perhaps could be called “meditations.” My primary goal is honestly not to provoke thought. I don’t want most of my poems to be thought-provoking. I want my poems to be so engaging, so utterly unbelievable, that they completely silence the mind, even for a moment. That silent space that is beyond thought, but always inherent and present within us, is both the source and primary goal of my poetry.
JB – In your essay, “Out of Many, One: Haiku Poetry,” you remind us that “haiku is meant to be shared.” What are some of your favorite (or most memorable) ways that you and fellow poets share haiku with others?
JS – The Haiku Nook is a primary way to share haiku, in a private G+ community (not public), where we can share and improve our work.
Getting haiku published in journals is another great way to share haiku.
Creating Haiku Nook anthologies is yet another way to share haiku. These anthologies are driven and empowered by the dynamic human spirit and the small difference we make by sharing haiku in this way.
The most memorable project I’ve been a part of is our Haiku Nook Anthology: Yanty’s Butterfly, dedicated to a poet named Yanty Tjiam, who passed away at the young age of 34 years old. (More info about this project provided further in this interview).
We are currently working on another haiku anthology dedicated to the 600+ million people who don’t have access to clean water. Our work for this anthology revolves around the theme of water. Proceeds for the book will be donated to organizations who help people in need.
I share many of my poems on my blog, Advaya.
Lastly, I’ve also given poetry books to friends and family, and that has been a memorable way to share haiku too.
JB – Where do your poems usually begin – spoken or written? Both? Somewhere else? Can you give us a peek at your inner poetic workings?
JS – Each poem is different, and each poem has a mysterious life of its own, even when they are interwoven with personal experiences, memories, and/or dreams. The inspiration to write can come from anywhere or anything, and at any time. As was mentioned previously, I find it’s good to have a pen and notebook always on hand. : )
My poems actually never start out as spoken. I like to keep the words on paper, to allow the reader to participate in the poem vs. having it be driven by my own voice, so to speak. ; )
Interestingly, my Uncle reads poems out-loud to my Aunt. He expresses the beauty of reading poems out-loud, and the inherent dimensions of the spoken word. I can understand where he’s coming from. In fact, we recorded my first haiku book together: The Sound of Rain, and my second haiku book: Birds With No Names, at his house at the beach.
JB – Besides creative writing, what other arts do you practice?
JS – I’ve been practicing meditation for over 10 years. I meditate every day; once in the morning, and once at night. But I do breathing meditation throughout the day. Specifically, I do pranayama (breathing meditation), tratak (third eye meditation), and mantra meditation (for the heart).
All this being said, I see living life is an art in and of itself. I’m always practicing the art of living, (and the art of balance). : )
JB – You’ve published a few books now. Can you tell us a little about the publishing experience? What were your biggest challenges? Biggest Successes?
JS – When I wrote my first book of poetry: The Last Days of Winter, it took 8 years to write that book. When I was done, I started exploring avenues for publication. I read an article online about lulu and self-publishing. Since that time, lulu has been the main source for publishing books. In addition to poetry, I might use lulu to publish a book of anatomy drawings as well.
The process of publishing through lulu is not too complex, and it’s free (with the exception of the requirement to purchase proof copies). You can create Ebook, paperback, and hardback books on lulu. When a purchase is made, some money goes to lulu, and some money goes to you (the author).
My biggest challenge was formatting the interior pages of the ebook. But, with some practice, I learned the details of how to make it work and embed fonts, etc.
JB – What was it like to collaborate with your uncle to produce the audio version of your books The Sound of Rain and Birds With No Names? Is there anything you will do differently with your next audio book?
JS – Recording the haiku books with my uncle was a blast. I got to be the audio engineer for both audiobooks, and used Audacity (free software) to record and edit the recordings. I asked my uncle to record my haiku audiobooks because he has a good speaking voice, and he used to work for a radio station.
There is one thing I would do differently: provide more space between each haiku. My uncle did a great job reading my haiku, but next time, I would provide about 7-10 seconds between each haiku, to let each haiku resonate more within the reader.
JB – Tell us about Yanty’s Butterfly. What was your team’s approach to edit such a big collection of poems?
JS – Yanty’s Butterfly was the most memorable writing project that I’ve been a part of. It is an international anthology, dedicated to a haiku poet on Haiku Nook Google+ named Yanty Tjiam, who passed away at the young age of 34 years old. In her honor, 20 poets from around the world came together to create this anthology. It is a celebration of her life and her haiku. It is also a celebration of our work in this genre, and the power of haiku to connect people, across boundaries, across countries, around the world.
I got to serve as the managing editor for Yanty’s Butterfly, but we all co-edited as we progressed. We used a separate, private Google+ site to post all our haiku that we wanted in the anthology. The founder of Haiku Nook, Willie Bongcaron, created this Google+ site for us, and in turn, he created categories that provided organization and guidance. In fact, Willie was a key moderator throughout the project, and he does a great job moderating Haiku Nook as well. With each post, comments were made, and respectful suggestions were provided. There were a lot of discussions as we created the book, and all of them were beneficial in the final outcome. We worked together in a mutual, respectful atmosphere that ultimately lead to improved haiku, and new growth for all of us.
Yanty’s Butterfly book sales are donated to Yanty’s family and to ActionAid, and The Hunger Project.
Yanty’s Butterfly is now available as an ebook, paperback, and hardback on amazon, barnes & noble, lulu, kobo, and the iBookstore.
Check out our Yanty’s Butterfly website to learn more about this one-of-a-kind international haiku anthology.
JB – In addition to creative writing, I know you do technical writing and are studying medical coding. What do you like about these kinds of writing and data? What opportunities do you foresee for writers in technical or medical fields?
JS – My personality type is technical-supporter. I’m very detail-oriented, but also like to support people, and am empowered to make a difference.
The core value of a technical writer is the ability to translate complex material into a language that is more simple and easy to understand. This is a key reason why I’m drawn towards technical writing. The heart and mind of a technical writer is about the people they are serving, so it also requires a great deal of empathy and compassion.
At my previous employer, I used my technical writing abilities to write IT test reports, updated job descriptions, revised and improved company forms, and wrote FAQ’s for the company website. In the medical field, technical writers can write (and/or revise) company policies, educational materials, job descriptions, company forms, marketing materials, IT test reports, and legal documents. Technical writers can also be a key part of website development, due to their attention to detail, their communication skills, and their ability to step into someone else’s shoes.
JB – What places or times (real or imagined) are on your writing wish list?
JS – I honestly don’t have a wish list, but now that you mention it, I’d like to write more about health-related topics, as I’m very involved in the medical field and would also like to create a book of anatomy drawings.
JB – What’s next for you? Would you tell us about your upcoming projects?
JS – I’m excited to publish my first book of haibun this August 2016 called Origins. It includes a foreword by the well-known haiku poet Alan Summers, and is edited by my two remarkable haiku poets: Nicholas Klascanzky and Brendon Kent. A new haiku book is also in the works, but the major writing project in-progress is our Haiku Nook H2O Anthology. It is an anthology dedicated to the 600+ million people who don’t have access to clean water. We have fine haiku in this anthology so far. I’m impressed by the sheer quality of our work. We expect to publish our H2O Haiku Anthology sometime in early 2017.
JB – Before we let you go, are there any pearls of wisdom you’d like to share with writers today?
JS – Have the courage to be yourself – always. Nobody on this earth can be you and nobody can tell you what is truly best for you. Trust your heart and your gut, at all times and circumstances. I find if you live from within, you will be centered and more successful in everything you do, and you also won’t be bothered as much by other people.
Jacob, thank you again for taking the time to share a little about yourself and your work at Brainripples.
Images and poetry appearing in this article are used by permission of Jacob Salzer. Do not reproduce without permission of the artist.
New portfolio items
I’ve restored blog links and added a few items to the portfolio.
I’m especially excited to point you to the Selected Poems. In addition to my poems these publications will connect you with juicy art and literature by many other contemporary dreamers.
Poetry Chapbook Review: Impossible Lessons by Jennifer Bullis
A hard copy of Impossible Lessons for today’s review was provided by MoonPath Press.
Poet Jennifer Bullis’ debut chapbook Impossible Lessons celebrates the mundane and familiar with thoughtful poems. Bullis writes poetry of place, reporting from corners of the Pacific Northwest, the poet’s mind, and locales both regional and temporal. She chooses precise yet simple words for each poem, with nothing overstated, and nothing left untethered.
“Test Kitchen” is one of my favorite poems in the book, probably because it contains familiar touch points, like “I begin making coffee, lift my eyes to the window—”. Rather than spinning off reams of convoluted thought, Bullis grounds us in a kitchen engaged by a distracted attendant. For me, the scene grows more familiar with each line. I too wonder, just “How do you funnel all your intentions / into a one-teaspoon poem?” By setting her poems among common things, people, and situations, Bullis disencumbers her verse to leverage more substantial ideas. She demonstrates this with another kitchen-based poem “Body, Blood” wherein she unifies the mundane, “standing over the sink de-boning a chicken,” with the sacred “that my body is in fact already holy but thanks / to the holy chicken will be continuing alive.”
As a homemaker, I am drawn to her kitchen and garden poems. But as a Pacific Northwest native, I feel most at home among her mentions of “gold cottonwoods” who “shuffle their starlings / from one branch to another”, or “a pileated woodpecker” who “works the dead trunk of a newly leaning maple.” When you read poems like “Day After Thanksgiving” or “Walking Wolf Creek Road, Methow Valley, October,” don’t be surprised if you feel thunder and rain raising the hair on your arms. This Northwest backdrop pervades Impossible Lessons, although many places Bullis describes in her poems are not places to visit, but to experience: womanhood and motherhood, anticipation and uncertainty, illness and discomfort, regret and lessons learned, hope and possibility.
These places are accessible to all readers of Impossible Lessons, thanks in part to Bullis’ clean writing style. Bullis uses a readable vocabulary, and pays close attention to sound and rhythm throughout each line. But what really makes her work accessible is that idea I stated earlier of “nothing left untethered.” There are no wishy-washy poems, no half-baked sentiments, no false starts. Bullis is logical, and each poem accordingly reflects a complete thought (or rather, a complete thought process). Her poems articulate a lightning spark, skip over emotional muddles, and move the reader toward acknowledgement, opportunity, next steps. For example, “Cover Letter from the Goddess” orients us to a parent’s challenge, “After some two millennia away / to raise my sons, I seek to reenter the workforce,” contrasts individual with organization, “If you are a locavore, I can grow / an entire village for you to eat,” and considers systems of value, economy, and livelihood, “holding it all together on a shoestring,” all within the greater context of Earth-wide systems, all without cracking a dictionary.
This steady progression employed by each poem makes Impossible Lessons satisfying to read. In her July 2013 interview with The Bellingham Herald, Bullis shares, “My writing process usually involves reading and walking. […] The movement of walking brings my own words forward.” And in the Cascadia Review she writes, “My relationship to the landscape is largely as a pedestrian, and my writing process largely kinesthetic: Poems map themselves out in my mind as I map these places on foot. It makes me happy that for eighteen years now, my shoes have been grass-stained, leaf-covered, and very often wet.” Be it your shoes or your imagination, expect the same results when you read Impossible Lessons: you’re going to travel somewhere fresh yet familiar, and you’ll probably come back with a few pine needles stuck in your hair.