Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 24, December 2012—Trans / Queer Issue)

What lies beneath

Here’s the thing about the haibun. I fell in love with the form in 2005 and wrote a lot of them. And I thought, when TC emailed me about this issue, I was done writing and queering the haibun. I felt comfortable with the form; I wanted to do something new.

But the haibun is an insistent form. And, apparently, it hadn’t finished with me yet.

The more I thought about this queer/haibun/potluck/road trip project, the more I kept coming back to how perfect the haibun is as a vehicle for exploration. Of landscape and identity. Of desire and love.

Fine, I said, finally. Haibun, you win. I will use you as a starting point. But I will explode you. It will be edgy and uncomfortable and new.

But the haibun is a defiant form. It did not explode on the page. It wound itself up tight and decided to explore the tensions between surface and subterranean. It became a way for me to explore what lies beneath: in travel, in my own queer identity, and in a particular queer, platonic friendship that simultaneously acknowledges and resists underlying and unmistakably non-platonic longings.

Haibun and a poetics of the porous

Seven years ago, Aimee Nezhukumatathil introduced me to the haibun at the Kundiman summer retreat, and I immediately took to it.

As I began to explore a queer::eco::poetics, I found the haibun a useful form in which to attempt a “poetics of the porous.” Such a poetics seeks the disruption of the distinctions between natural and unnatural, normal and freakish, outside and in.

I love the delicious possibilities of playing with the haibun in this context. As a queer, Japanese-American poet, I infuse the ancient Japanese travelogue structure with queer content while revealing the inherently queer possibilities of its form. I find its queerness manifest in the way it encourages odd conjunctions and demands disruption, how it couples the expectation of linearity in prose with the imagistic leaps of the haiku.

Subterranean vision

As I came to accept the fact that I’d be working with the haibun, the theme of the subterranean pulled at me. My partner and I were planning a trip to Southeast Asia, and it would be the first time she was going back to Malaysia since she left at age 18. I thought about how differently we would experience the trip: I as a tourist, she as a researcher returning to her homeland.

I thought of how, as a tourist, I would be gathering surface impressions of landscape, cityscape, and people. At the same time, I would be somewhat aware of — though would not necessarily have the keys to unlock — culturally specific interpersonal dynamics, as well as the political and social implications of our queer presence, both individually and as a couple, in the spaces we traveled to.

If I could write when I travel, I would have explored these tensions in writing. But I have never done well writing while traveling. Instead, I used the ubiquitous tourist camera to not only record my surface impressions, but also to capture some of what I was feeling and thinking about subterranean dynamics.

After returning to the U.S., I stayed with the subterranean, finding ways to access my subconscious creativity. I participated in the 3:15 experiment, which had its genesis at Narpoa, via Bernadette Mayer, Lee Ann Brown, and others. Every morning at 3:15, I woke, took my laptop from my nightstand, and wrote for 10 minutes, usually with my eyes closed and half asleep. In the mornings, I would read through what I had written, correcting typos where I could. It was fascinating to see how my subconscious mind obsessed and returned to certain themes. What kept showing up was both external stimuli (the cicadas this summer were so loud!) and some current internal obsessions: time’s passage and subsumed desire.

In the end, the haibun was, indeed, the right way to bring this all together. It may be insistent and defiant, but it is also a flexible form.

As I crafted the poems from my 3:15 writings and experimented with ways to link them to with the photos of my travels, I took pleasure in playing with and queering the contradictions of visible/invisible, surface/buried, linear/nonlinear. I positioned the haikus at the top, offering the surface glance, the momentary impression, while letting the tensions and contradictions of the prose stir below.

Future: to explode

I’m still thinking of what it means to explode a haibun. I can imagine the haiku as the intact center surrounded by exploded language. I still think it can offer interesting explorations of what it might mean to hold queerness and gender at one’s core, while the outside world explodes its expectations and desires against that center.

But that will have to be for another time.