A special feature appears today: An interview with Robert Epstein about his new haiku collection, Checkout Time is Soon. Included are some sample haiku! Please read the interview and haiku below:
You have published a second book of haiku related to the theme of death: Checkout Time is Soon: More Death Awareness Haiku.
Why did you write this book?
Since the age of four, when my maternal grandfather died of a stroke and surviving family members were visibly bereft, I have been frightened by death. As an adult, I have spent many years endeavoring to face this deep-seated fear of death and dying. I attended numerous retreats on conscious living and dying facilitated by the late meditation teacher, Stephen Levine and his wife, Ondrea. I have read a good deal on this subject.
What helped me a lot was discovering the Japanese death poems of monks, samurai, and others which were collected and translated into English by Buddhist scholar, Yoel Hoffmann, entitled, Japanese Death Poems. It was a literature of loss that felt spiritually elevating and inspiring. I summoned the courage to begin writing death poems. Of course, since I am not on the brink of death, I realized that I needed to call them something else.
Death awareness haiku have been my attempt to face my own mortality. Doing so is important, because as the Buddha taught, living fully calls for an ongoing consciousness of our own transient or impermanent nature.
Recently, someone contacted me via e-mail for information about death poems and that query in itself precipitated an outpouring of death awareness haiku that I gathered together in this book of poems. I was surprised by how many poems came tome, almost unbidden. I thought, perhaps, I had exhausted the genre by creating a blog some years ago devoted to death awareness haiku, but I guess the haiku well I draw from is still active. (www.deathawarenesshaiku.blogspot.com)
How is this book similar to or different from the first book you wrote on the subject, Checkout Time is Noon: Death Awareness Haiku?
The first book of death awareness haiku was directly influenced by the death poems I read in Hoffmannʼs book, Japanese Death Poems. Hoffmann had suggested that death poems reflected the spiritual essence of the writer, and so I consciously tried to offer such a legacy in the poems I wrote. In retrospect, I think I may have been straining to be profound.
In my new book, I gave myself a bit more room to be playful, even light-hearted, without, I hope, trivializing the serious nature of the topic. I liked the idea of building the book around the theme of visiting a hotel or motel, since we humans are all travelers by virtue of our finiteness. The resulting poems may not be memorable or enduring but I enjoyed writing them and giving voice to a wide range of concerns relating to mortality.
Some might say that focusing on death is morbid or “negative.” How do you respond to this criticism?
Surprisingly enough, an American-born Buddhist faulted me for editing a book on grief and loss, suggesting that I didn’t need to dwell so much on the “negative.” I took great exception to this, because from my point of view, contemplating death or giving poignant expression to the love that underlies sadness and loss, is anything but morbid.
Unlike most Westerners, I do not divide the world into positive and negative. I regard such a template or frame of reference as misguided. I am interested instead in what the secular teacher, J. Krishnamurti, calls what is– meaning life as-it-is beyond our ideas, beliefs, memories and preconceptions. Death and loss are inextricable, inescapable aspects of life and there is much to be learned by facing our limited time here on Earth.
In fact, I passionately maintain that an awareness of our own mortality may enable us to live more sensitively, gratefully, fully.
I want to be clear that I am not encouraging people to become obsessed with death, per se. That would defeat the whole purpose of enjoying and appreciating life. For those who are already inclined toward despair or whose impaired mental health takes them precariously close to suicide, it is inadvisable to contemplate mortality. For those who are emotionally and spiritually balanced, there is a lot to be said for meditating on impermanence.
How do you think readers might benefit from reading death poems or death awareness haiku?
Despite the heroic efforts of pioneering thanatologists like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who opened the doors to death and dying in the 1960s, we still tend to relegate the subject to the margins of our lives. Many, if not most people, find it very uncomfortable to talk about cemetery plots, cremation, funerals, death anniversaries, and a host of other aspects of death.
My hope is that these books of death awareness haiku––many of which are written in a light-hearted spirit––might enable readers to dwell a while on the subject. If fear is a factor contributing to avoidance, perhaps the poems may take the edge off the fear.
It would please me if readers might share the haiku with friends or family, prompting conversations with loved ones about death and dying. Doing so might even deepen closeness or intimacy.
While I do not consider haiku poetry as therapy in itself, death awareness haiku may contain a therapeutic element. That is, a healing quality insofar as it enables the reader to face something perhaps they (or others they know) have avoided.
Wonʼt readers be spooked or scared by reading death awareness haiku?
It is possible that some readers might respond initially with fear to some of the poems in the book. Each reader needs to be emotionally attuned to his or her needs and limits. I maintain that human beings are fundamentally strong and capable of facing their fears.
In my therapy work, I might ask someone frozen in fear whether they would prefer to cross the busiest street in San Francisco during the height of rush hour wearing a blindfold or not. No one has ever opted for the blindfold. Each time we sensitively face our fear we are simultaneously building courage.
Do you recommend that readers write death poems or death awareness haiku?
Writing death awareness haiku is a matter of individual choice. That said, I think I would encourage readers to try their hand at writing haiku about other subjects of interest relating to their daily lives. I donʼt think I would encourage a beginning haiku poet to start out with death awareness haiku unless someone feels a strong desire to do so. In that case, by all means write away. For those wishing to write death poems, I recommend at some point reading Japanese Death Poems.
Can you give a few examples of death awareness haiku from your new book?
Here are a few poems from Checkout Time is Soon that I like:
packing. . .
but I only need one
tea on the balcony
how small things
how long will it keep
in a casket?
your lifespan & mine
about the same
listen for me
the wind through
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Yes, for those interested in delving into the literature on death and loss from an existential or spiritual perspective, I have included a Suggested Reading list in my book. These are all books that I have read over the years and found helpful.
I would also like to call attention to the Foreword that you graciously wrote for the book. You highlighted many of the affirming aspects of death awareness poetry that I have tried to summarize in this exchange, and I am very grateful to you for doing so.
El Cerrito, CA
14 August 2018
Copyright 2018 by Robert Epstein.