Haiku Author Interview: Michael J. Rosen

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , , April 30th, 2009

by Kelly

by Kelly

Ever curious to learn about the world of haiku, I contacted author Michael J. Rosen.

I wanted to ask him some questions about his most recent book, The Cuckoo’s Haiku. It’s a book that combines birdwatching, haiku and watercolors.

Here is what he had to say . . .

What do birdwatching and haiku have in common?

They’re both arts of the ephemeral. The fleeting. The caught glimpse from which so much else must be inferred.

If a warbler lingers for a few minutes in my burr oak tree while on its migration path, I have to act quickly. I have to see the bird. Grab my binoculars. Rush outside with my field guide. Hope the bird is still there.

And then I have to try to discern those telltale markings that differentiate that bird from other warblers. Are there eye rings, wing bars, darker outer feathers, a rusty bib, a black cap? From those details, I can, sometimes, make an identification.

In haiku, as in all poetry, there’s the desire for similar extrapolation: what can this image or metaphor reveal? What will this detail suggest about the wider world?

So I mean to write about birds, sure, but also about the birdwatcher, about the world we share with birds, which is subject to so many other forces.

You live on a farm in a rural Ohio. Are all the haiku in this book about birds you commonly see in your own backyard?

I will admit, I’ve never seen a cuckoo. They’re elusive!

But all the other birds in the book are ones I see regularly here in Ohio. And I deliberately chose birds that had wide distribution. Birds that readers would know about.

Part of my interest in doing this work is to stop us in our tracks, to make us re-see, see more clearly.

George Abbe once wrote that poets are like most people, only more so.

If I were to sum up the impulse behind these haiku, it would be to be a person among birds and nature…only more so. To share my binoculars with you…and the poem, in the same way.

Many of the haiku in Cuckoo’s Haiku paint vivid word pictures of a bird in action. Did you find that you were paying greater attention to birds while you were working on this book?

My interest in birds spans some thirty years. There are times where I remember myself reading more…deliberately venturing into the woods with binoculars and field guide in hand. But, I have to say, now I’m more interested in the whole ecosystem, how the seasons affect this farm and all its occupants.

Here’s a word I learned recently: phenology. It’s what occurs at any given point in each season in a given place: when do the hummingbirds return, the wild apple trees drop their blossoms, the bluegill in the pond begin to lay their eggs in the mud craters they create?

So, I’ve sort of lost some of the knowledge I had about actual species in exchange for these more abstract or overall observations.

Of course, writing The Cuckoo’s Haiku was another chance to research these common birds, specifically looking for those amazing and curious facts that would renew interest in even the most familiar birds.

For instance, the fact that doves are unique among birds in their ability to drink water without tipping their heads up so that gravity can draw the water down their throats.

The fact that mockingbirds always sing in triplets, repeating their phrases three times before moving onto another “song.”

The natural history is a significant part of my engagement with the language as well; it often suggests a poem, or, at least, another meaning to a seemingly simple description.

It seems that you’re also quite a dog lover. What’s next? A book of dog haiku?

Funny you should say that, Kelly!

Yes, I’m a huge dog person. I’ve always lived with dogs. I’ve rescued a number of dogs and cats…and written or edited several books about the companion animals that share our lives.

And, yes, in fact. Mary Azarian is creating illustrations even now for a book that Candlewick is planning to publish in 2011. Some 24 breeds of dogs about which I’ve written haiku.

And, if I have my way(!), I hope to do books on a world of other creatures. Haiku, at least as I try to practice it, offers me a wonderful form against which my creativity can find enough friction to make some sparks.

I think haiku, as practiced in English, has a great deal of energy when it exceeds the mere 5/7/5 syllabic orientation. It’s a form that’s too venerable and profound to merely require breaking lines like dropping a pound of spaghetti into boiling water.


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