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An Interview with Richard Gilbert
by David F. Hoenigman

Richard Gilbert (b. 1954)

Life from 16-42

Richard Gilbert rebuilt his first car and motorcycle (a Honda 750) at age 17 listening to Frank Zappa, Bert Jansch, Morton Subotnick, Ravel, delta blues, 50s-60s jazz, and WPKN (Bridgeport, CT). Majored in math/computer science and music at a nameless Connecticut university, worked in the electronics industry and as an engine rebuilder for some time, transferred to Naropa University (Boulder), where he studied and hung out with beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, etc.; composed sonic ur-scapes, became a Tibetan Buddhist meditator. Performed in and produced conceptual art multi-disciplinary presentations as poet, videographer, electric guitarist; undergraduate thesis on Japanese classical haiku, received a BA in Poetics and Expressive Arts. Went to a Buddhist seminary in 1984, and returned to Naropa for an MA in Contemplative Psychology. Into the early 90s, he was a clinical adult outpatient psychotherapist, at Boulder Community Mental Health Center. In 1988 he entered The Union Institute & University doctoral program, received a Ph.D. in Poetics and Depth Psychology in 1990, and took an important trip to Chaco Canyon resulting in the performance poem Big Bird & the Great North Road, set to music by composer/session-guitarist John March, which received airplay around Los Angeles and Denver; became a divemaster in 1991 and nearly moved to the islands; instead, a garage in LA: rebuilt a wrecked 1981 BMW R100RS, playing mostly acoustic guitar and listening to KCRW and KPFK, while working in post-production audio, sleepless in tiny, dark, soundproofed rooms strewn with old pizza. After some month-long meditation retreats, returned to Denver and worked in Community Television as a director/producer. Five years later, nearly became a Buddhist monk, but moved to Japan in 1997, pursuing a passion for Japanese haiku, research, translation, home, and for living above the poverty line.

Japan, of late

In March 2008 he published the book & dvd-rom, Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective (Red Moon Press, 306pp., The dvd contains the '' website, which presents subtitled flash-video interviews with notable gendai-haiku poets. In 2006 he engineered the shakuhachi & koto CD, Silent Letters, Secret Pens (, and is now completing construction of BigFish Recording Studios, whose main goals are to preserve the lineage of musicians playing traditional Japanese instruments (in whatever manner), record local musicians, and explore sonic and technological possibilities. Haiku have most recently appeared in NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, 6 (Autumn 2008) and around 80 academic papers have been published in the last decade, mainly on haiku (, learner autonomy, and EFL software development. Richard can be seen riding around Kumamoto on a 2003 Suzuki SV1000S (a 1000cc twin), when not in his office at the Faculty of Letters, Kumamoto University. He looks forward to riding Yakushima Island next year.

David F. Hoenigman: Can you tell us about the courses you teach at Kumamoto University? Do you teach in English?

Richard Gilbert: As an associate professor in the Department of British and American Language and Literature (we are a small Department of four), I teach in English in the classroom. Outside of class when students have questions or during advising, it's a mixture. Due to the privatization of national universities and resulting competitive pressures, my teaching load and curriculum have been changing: the load is up and the number of 'special lecture' classes is down. A plus however is our new graduate school, with its cross-disciplinary MA/Ph.D. program. I'm generally teaching Humanities students, and introduce a variety of American authors in classes. This year, I'm teaching a 'cultural seminar' to first-year students: "Introduction to Haiku in English." In 'special lecture' classes I'm free to design and teach what I wish. This year, Cyberpunk Fiction/William Gibson, utilizing No Maps for These Territories (1999). The class transcribed and translated the narrative into Japanese, and gave presentations (No Maps is the inspiration of Mark Neale, who also made Faster in 2003, a stunning film on MotoGP racing). Last year I taught a course on The Beats, using The Source. Generally, multimedia/multimodal approaches seem to help bridge gaps of language and culture. I've taught Nature Writing in American Literature a few times (Emerson to McKibben), haiku translation and analysis at the graduate level, and courses in multicultural literature. Lots of time is taken up with advising. Literature students write their theses or dissertations in English. There's usually a smattering of foreign exchange students in the so-called 'lecture' classes, with more Chinese students arriving of late.

Our Department has two notable progenitors. Lafcadio Hearn taught for around five years, and Soseki Natsume for many more. One of the buildings on campus is the original Meiji-era schoolroom, now a Soseki museum, and there are a fair number of Hearn scholars at our university.

DH: Your book Poems of Consciousness deals with the history of gendai (modern) haiku and some of it's leading poets. How is gendai haiku different from traditional haiku?

RG (*): Prior to my arrival in Japan, like most of my American-poet friends, I had virtually no knowledge of gendai haiku, and was looking forward to researching the classical tradition and haiku fundaments. It was only after living here for a couple of years that I began reading more gendai haiku, and meeting poets. I can say that I found the poetry, techniques, and critical ideas to be eye-opening.

Your question about the differences between gendai and traditional haiku is challenging, because a reasonable answer involves a bit of relevant history, and not only aesthetic but also socio-political considerations. Itô Yûki (Ph.D. candidate, Kumamoto University), has just completed an article on the origins and evolution of gendai haiku, tentatively titled, "New Rising Haiku: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident". He focuses especially on the wartime persecution of the New Rising Haiku poets instrumental to an understanding of contemporary Japanese haiku. His papers have now been published. (%) Below, I'll paraphrase from two relevant sections.

In the early 20th century, Takahama Kyoshi, one of the two main disciples of Masaoka Shiki, presided over the Hototogisu group (and its journal), which he had inherited from Shiki. Due to his dictatorial and uncompromising style, by the 1920s, several prominent poets had broken with him. Paraphrasing Itô, the 'New Rising Haiku movement' (shinkô haiku undo) wished to compose haiku on new subjects, and utilize techniques and topics related to contemporary social life. These poets frequently wrote haiku without kigo (muki-teki haiku), and explored non-traditional subjects, such as social inequity, utilizing avant garde styles including surrealism, etc. Therefore, along with aesthetic and technique differences, the New Rising Haiku poets, who began the gendai (modern) haiku movement in earnest, had strong philosophical, sociological and intellectual differences with Hototogisu and Kyoshi. During the war, over 40 New Rising Haiku poets were persecuted; they were imprisoned and tortured, and some died in prison. These progressive poets were also made to sign false confessions and denounce their own and others' poetry and thought. Various progressive journals were banned and printing presses destroyed. Many of these poets, after a stay in prison, were sent to the front lines of the war. Itô writes that Takahama Kyoshi became the president of a haiku branch of the fascist government culture-control/propaganda group known as The Japanese Literary Patriotic Organization (nihon bungaku hôkoku kai), which was devoted to both censorship and persecution, along with a host of other war crimes. At the time, the Director of the society was Ono Bushi, whose title was: The Agent of Investigation of the Minds of the Nation's Citizens (kokumin jyôsô chosa iin). Perhaps the most notorious statement published by Ono reads:
I will not allow haiku even from the most honorable person, from left-wing, or progressive, or anti-war, groups to exist. If such people are found in the haiku world, we had better persecute them, and they should be punished. This is necessary. (Kosakai, 169; trans. by Itô, with Gilbert)
At least one poet who survived imprisonment reported that he was commanded by the Secret Police to "write haiku in the style of Hototogisu" (Kosakai, 79). According to the fascist traditionalists, to write haiku without kigo meant anti-tradition, which in turn meant anti-Imperial order and high treason. As such, all New Rising Haiku was to be annihilated. Itô writes, "We are reminded of how the Nazis preserved so-called pure nationalist art, while persecuting the modern styles of so called 'degenerate art.'" (Cf.Kosakai, Shôzô. (1979). Mikoku: Showa haiku danatsu jiken [Betrayer/Informer: Showa era haiku persecution]. Tokyo: Daimondo.)

One sees that, historically, "freedom of expression" in the gendai haiku movement was not an idle aesthetic notion. A significant context to modern Japanese haiku history links certain influential persons and groups promoting traditionalist haiku culture with Japanese national-socialism. It would be a mistake to assume, regarding these facts, that traditional approaches are inherently lacking or that traditional haiku culture is by nature nationalist, particularly these days however, history leaves little to the imagination; more light needs to be shed on these facts, if only so that people outside of Japan can obtain a clearer understanding of the context of gendai haiku.

The war ended half a century ago, and much of this information has been surprisingly hard to dig up, Itô has found. Clearly, the spirit of the gendai poets in the face of fascism, repression and persecution is laudable. The liberal, democratic spirit and freedom of expression exhibited by the New Rising Haiku poets remains at the core of gendai haiku.

DH: Can you tell us about your time at Naropa University studying with the beat poets?

RG (#): Naropa Institute, now Naropa University, was a fantastic place for an alienated poet. My association with Naropa, as undergrad, grad student and later, event coordinator, grant writer, general factotum and uninvited guest, lasted a decade (1980-1990). During that time the school changed from an unaccredited hole-in-the-wall walkup on the Pearl Street Mall into a substantial, accredited, endowed institution. In December 1980 I arrived in Boulder from Danbury, Connecticut, sleeping in my '69 Dodge panel van, all worldly possessions within; mostly a tiny dresser and typewriter. Slept in the IHOP parking lot. In the previous two years I'd been rebuilding engines, and managing a steam-generation component-assembly division, in order to save for the school tuition. With a friend, had started "The Plant," an alternative community to the isolated social hell of Danbury. Our group created a café society, producing several local arts festivals in 1979-80.

Just prior to settling in, I'd wondered if there would be attempted cult brainwashings, but to my surprise in the ensuing months I could hardly get anyone on the Naropa staff to talk about Buddhism, much less the odd-looking Tibetan gentleman glimpsed smiling or glowering from small desktop photographs. Instead, I was quickly caught up in a marvelous, spontaneous cultural experiment, not particularly florid in terms of drugs and booze (though Boulder was no desert), blooming with arts collaboration. There were plenty more dancers than poets in our student body of approximately 120 (including part-timers), so I got involved in dance, music performance and production. I'd come to Naropa to learn from those who had become successful poets, rather than studying with teachers who just talked about poetry—analyzed—and my expectations were not just exceeded—events went far beyond anything I could have imagined.

Everything that happened related to Naropa has affected my "concept of haiku and poetic expression," which is, basically, life. One of the great gifts of Naropa was the lack of social barriers between teachers and students. Many of us were older students; I arrived, still BA-less at age 26. There was an emphasis on perception, direct examination and emanation of mind and the moment; teachers taught whatever they wished in whatever way they wanted. To mention a few examples, Larry Fagin read from his work journals, Anselm Hollo taught the Objectivists, Patricia Donegan taught East Asian poetry (and notably, haiku), Allen Ginsberg taught Blake. Gary Snyder avoided Naropa for some years, but began visiting summers to read and teach Beat history, the environment, and relations between poetry and Zen. A multitude of soirees, performances, parties, political actions—all sorts of events. Summers were filled with symposia: international students and teachers arrived from all corners. I was lucky enough to explore many new forms of therapy which involved energy, somatic focus and the arts—Lomiwork being a high point (with gratitude to Melissa Soalt, Christine Caldwell and Paul Ortel). A high point was the 1985 Jack Kerouac conference, in which most of the still-living Beats met together, many for the last time. Tim Leary was present, Burroughs, Paul Krasner, McClure and a number of others, along with the Naropa crew. I may be guilty of waxing romantic, but there's a lot of unknown history and achievement connected with Naropa worth acknowledging. For those interested in research, the Naropa library has a unique and sizable archive of audio and video from the 70s on.

You have to be a bit loony to enter "The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics," [] the moniker Allen gave to our Department. It's difficult to describe the influence of a disembodied poetics, but it was Kerouac's spirit that had created the context for the teachers and students and classes existing together, allowing space for the essential paradox of a 1200 year-old Tibetan Buddhist religious tradition intersecting with a bunch of autonomous and irascible American artists. The Beat spirit was perhaps vapor, but the Beats themselves were largely present in embodied form. As such, influence was direct, personal and idiosyncratic. I learned for instance how Greg Corso approached and taught poetry, and how he read (brilliantly); drank together and such. Did an internship with Allen, transcribing sections of his journals, so I got to know him. In exchange, he read and commented on my poems. Professional poets and artists are busy enough without teaching, and Naropa didn't pay much, so we were all busy, crossing paths and hanging out in various contexts over the years. It wasn't exactly chummy, yet we were in a small community in this trendy hick town, so there was a tight container and plenty of intensity.

The confluence of the Beat tradition and American poetic tradition on the whole never quite settled out of a somewhat confused stew for me during my time at Naropa—maybe the question wasn't uppermost in teacher's minds. I would have wished for stronger academics (which now exist I'm told). Sitting six students in a circle: Peter Orlovsky's class. We start breaking down the word "white" into phonemic sounds, chanting, whispering "wh-" "wh-" "wh-" "wh-" "wh-" "wh-", until it's no longer a word-part, just strange freaky energy, a few go on to the ""i-" "i-", we get louder, softer. The energy locked into words. What is language? I recently performed this word/sound experiment with a college class here in Japan, as part of a "Nature Writing in American Literature" class. Bill Douglas teaching "Bebop Etudes" (musical poems) exploring polyrhythmic syncopation, left hand beating 3 against 4 with the right. I got into meditation and became a Buddhist. So, many personal encounters and phenomenal experiences, leaving me quite changed. I'm not sure that my concept of poetry altered greatly from studying with Naropa poets but it expanded into real living beings who offered unique discoveries—I particularly want to mention Pat Donegan's love of haiku, patient critical comment on student haiku, personal mentorship and friendship, and her own publication of "Hot Haiku," now a treasured text. Discovery wasn't just of knowledge per se, but the passion, life and interest of those presenting it. Sixteen of us entered the Poetics BA in January 1981, resulting in two graduates, myself and Gary Allen, now a poet and teacher, back in Boulder after living and teaching for some years in Korea. I've often wondered what happened to the 14 classmates who flew on. At the time, the school existed in a state of great social flux, and something of the living Beat tradition was passed on in this context. How not?


dedicated to the moon
I rise
without a decent alibi

a nun beats a drum;
fretful by the shrine
at nightfall

a drowning man
pulled into violet worlds
grasping hydrangea

(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 1, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: 2004, pp. 25-27.)

her grainy image resolves
from surveillance

blood orange:
the curving radius
of sunset

after the rush
the hollow sound
of the holy

three oceans
exported into orbit
in a small cocoon

(Publication. NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, vol. 6, Philip Rowland, ed., Tokyo: Summer, 2008.)

(*) these comments from Richard Gilbert first appeared in The Spirit of Freedom Aspects of Contemporary Haiku?March 2007. They are used here with his permission.

(#) these comments from Richard Gilbert first appeared in Simply Haiku Journal, Spring 2005. They are used here with his permission.

(%) The New Rising Haiku movement is discussed in detail in a monograph and two published papers by Yûki Itô, now available online:

New Rising Haiku: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident (Simply Haiku 5:4, Winter 2007)

A follow-up interview with Udo Wenzel, Haiku Heute, is a de facto second essay:

Forgive, But Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism
Itô Yûki talks with Udo Wenzel (Haiku Heute, Winter 2007/2008)

About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of
Burn Your Belongings.

© 2013 Word Riot

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