I recently spoke with Merrill Gonzales, an accomplished haiku poet and artist, who often combines haiku with her ink brush paintings (sumi-e). The Japanese call this “haiga.”
I hope you learn from my interview with Merrill, and become inspired to write haiku. And, perhaps, you will combine haiku with the type of art that you excel in.
When and how did you discover haiku?
Through poetry journals, I began enjoying haiku for its simplicity of language. Oh, how I admired people who could say so much with so few words. As I met other haiku poets, I was encouraged to learn about this form.
One of the first to help me cross over from other forms of poetry to haiku was Leatrice Lifshitz. She had published one of my poems in her anthology of women’s poetry, and we’d also share haiku.
Another influence was Alan Summers of England who introduced me to “Azami,” a wonderful journal in Japan through which I learned a great deal from poets all around the world. Ikkoku Santo was the editor who would publish our letters as is, and we’d discuss haiku and the events in our lives. Since this was before the internet, it was a great source of information for us all.
Hugh Gumpel just passed away at the age of 85 on May 2. He had a profound influence on my life. He gave me the confidence to follow my goal. My thanks go out to him in a prayer for his eternal soul, that it may find the light, peace, and grace that he passed on to so many others. He was a teacher who would never get in the way of each student’s inner vision.
What inspires you to write haiku?
It’s necessary for me to be near nature to write haiku. I do not think in words. A certain curve of a line, or the way light falls on an object, or some similar incident might trigger a haiku.
Tell me about your art background.
I have been an artist since I was a child. My great-grandmother taught art in Maine. She had so much influence on my father that he moved to New York City to study art. He met my mother at Grand Central Art School, and Art Student’s league. They both were studying under Arshele Gorky. Even though they decided to marry and raise a family, rather than to become professional artists, I grew up in an art atmosphere. Some of my most valuable education came from my parents as I tried to explore the vast areas of art.
When I was ten I went to summer camp and became extremely ill. I spent the next two weeks in the infirmary with a Chinese nurse who spoke no English. In my feverish state, I watched her write with a brush and that simply amazed me. As I began to recover, she taught me basic brush stroke and there seemed to be a great communication between us through this love of the brush.
As I grew stronger, we’d walk the grounds and she’d point to plants along the way. I also noticed that often when she’d be writing, she’d sometimes sing. It was all an amazing fragment in my life and soon I was home with my world turned upside down. Once home, my days were spent in doctor’s offices and therapy sessions. But I was introduced to the art of the Far East through this encounter.
Through my parents’ influence, oil painting took precedence. But in high school I encountered a teacher that demanded I proceed in a certain direction with my art that seemed diametrically opposed to the direction I had in mind. I had always been influenced a great deal by the “white space” of Far Eastern art. This seemed to be an anathema to this teacher, and so I left formal art teaching, only to return to it briefly when I studied with Hugh Gumpel at National Academy. His advice that we only learn to paint by painting, fit right in with my own belief.
This turned out to be propitious, since I had a spinal condition that has caused me to change course so many times in my life. I had to learn new methods and media. When I no longer could paint in oils, I turned to watercolor.
When I no longer could paint in watercolor or sumi-e, I turned to drawing–pen and ink.
What about your poetry background?
Although I had written poetry that my teachers in high school praised, I was too shy a student to enjoy it and the exhibition of poetry. With a painting I was a bit removed, but with poetry, I was right out there involved with other students. I felt quite “naked.”
I have always enjoyed reading poetry, and I started submitting my drawings to journals around the 1980s. Many journals enjoyed receiving easily reproducible art for their pages, and so my journey began.
More and more, this has become difficult for me. Often, I’m housebound and unable to find those quiet walks in the nurturing woods and trout brooks around where I live in Connecticut. Yet, on my shopping trips, I often see something along the way as I walk that triggers a haiku. Since I’ve not been able to do sumi-e and have had to transfer some of what I learned in that art form into pen and ink, I find that I’m dealing with a recognizable image instead of an abstract one. I also find that I no longer have the contemplative time of grinding my ink.
How do you usually spend your days now?
I still do oil painting from time to time. But now, I live in a trailer and there is little room for art supplies. I haven’t done an oil painting in a couple of years, because I need the space for other things. I had to sell my mat cutter when we moved here since I have no room to set it up. So I seldom do watercolor anymore, and I fear all my watercolor paints must be hard as rocks in their tubes.
I no longer do sumi-e due to my spinal condition. So I have narrowed my focus to pen and ink and find it the most versatile at this time.
There is something about simple black and white that harks back to the ancient brush paintings, even if I no longer can use the brush in the same way.
How do you combine your love of haiku and your artwork?
Well, when I started reading haiku journals, I found that I had a deeper feeling for the haiku I was reading if I could give it an image. When I started “snowbird press,” making notecards with haiku and sumi-e, I had seen a haiku by Poet Yu Chang of New York. I wanted to see if I could create the drawing without revealing the purple finch that he had used for the surprise ending. It is still one of my favorite notecards. Although I have found other haiku, too, that simply come alive with a drawing.
I loved drawing the red-tailed hawk in full scream for Allan Burns’ haiku. It is a haiku of peacefulness after the scream passes. I felt that many people reading that haiku would not really understand the power of that scream that had passed. But I enjoyed bringing that out, so even if you had never heard a red-tail scream, you would understand.
How do you define creativity?
Creativity is born by wanting something more than you can have. When I was a kid, I had no camera, but wanted to take or make pictures of everything I saw.
Long hours of boredom are required for the mix, so you have time to just play with it and see what comes.
It’s the simple enjoyment of seeing the way things come together. It’s never what you have in mind, but more and more something new is added to the world. It’s an adventure. All it takes is imagination.
What are three of the favorite haiku you’ve written?
Three of my favorite published haiku? I have to tell you, Charlotte, I don’t have favorites, really. Often the haiku that is selected for publication is not the one I love the most. But, here are a few that seem to appeal to editors.
the robin weaves my life
into its nest
Heron’s Nest 11:4 (December 2009)
Snapshot Press Calendar 2011
cicada and cricket
sound as one
Modern Haiku Volume 41:1 (Winter-Spring 2010)
I rake dried leaves
from my garden path –
the smell of mint
Haiku Society of America Members Anthology 2008
There’s another one in “Modern Haiku” that I love too:
with the sky
all to himself
(Volume 41:1, Winter- Spring 2010)
What I’d really like to share with you are some of the haiga I had at The Art Walk in Liberty Theater in Bend, Oregon recently. They were for sale to benefit the Haiku Society of America.
In these, you may find the direction my art is taking me, and how it affects my haiku. People can reach me through my e-mail address: email@example.com.
I also have a FaceBook page under “Merrill Gonzales.” It has my art.
Are you working on a book?
At this time, my book manuscript is with Jim Kacian of Red Moon Press. But, it will have to be held up for a year, as I’ll be involved with Alan Burn’s bird haiku book that I believe is a volume long overdue. I am thrilled to be part of that project.
By the time a year has passed, my art will have changed so much, that I will probably have to rewrite my manuscript.
A year in my life is as many lifetimes . . .
Copyright 2011 by Charlotte Digregorio.