Milestones in Morgan
WV native wins Tony Award
ORBI Arts Network
From the director
Arts Action! resource kit
A steelworker goes to the ball
Arts Mongahela workshop
Dancing with two left feet
Arts conference inspires new ideas
Fellowship winner profile
A steelworker goes to the ball
By Belinda Anderson
Even Cinderella would have been impressed by Earl Keener, a West Virginia steelworker who wrote three lines of poetry that won him a three-week tour of Japan.
catching the light —
Keener had been writing haiku only a year or so when he entered an international competition. “I was competing against scholars who have studied the form for years,“ Keener says. This particular poem derived from Keener’s observation of a spider working in a flower niche. The three lines blossomed from literal description into metaphor, winning Keener the Shiki Haiku Prize.
Keener discussed how his foray into a new art form changed him as a writer and a musician during a break at the West Virginia Writers June conference at Cedar Lakes in Ripley. It was here, in 1982, that Keener met Tim Russell, another Weirton steelworker, who had won the Shiki Haiku Prize in 1999 and who would introduce him to haiku. “Even though we worked in the same mill, I didn’t know him until I came here,” Keener says. “We had a lot of rapport, and started pitching poetry back and forth. I was writing poetry, but not haiku. I knew what haiku was, but it wasn’t anything I was particularly interested in. Tim Russell introduced me to an Internet site and said, ‘You should check this out.’ I got hooked on it.”
Delving into haiku transformed Keener as an artist. “It changed my outlook on what it means to be a writer,” he says. “Usually when I’m writing, I think I have to apprehend something; I have to go out and catch something. In haiku, what you need to see finds you.
“I could give you an example. When my sister was dying and my father was dying, I was spending a lot of time going from hospice to hospital and I was traveling back roads. On the way back, there was only one thing that caught my eye. When I got home, I jotted it down, but I didn’t think much about it. It was dark and there was no moon, so it was the new moon night. And there was an orange-eyed possum my headlight caught. Here’s the haiku:
“When I looked at it a week later, I realized the thing I needed to see found me. That’s what I was doing. I was ministering to my dead and my dying in the way the animal kingdom ministers to its dead and dying. And it is a new moon because it is a time of darkness. And yet to say the word moon conjures some kind of light, which is the light in the eye of the possum. So even in the darkest of ministries, there is a light.
“But when I first wrote it down, I thought it was just an observation. I had no intention of crafting such a thing. You don’t need to be clever in a haiku. The world approaches you. The ego is not involved. You’re not trying to be clever. You’re not staging things, moving them around. You’re reporting. But there’s a whole more going on than reporting.”
“Some part of me thinks, ‘Why are you dabbling in that stuff at your age? You have a disdain for pop culture anyway, why are you doing it?’ It finally occurred to me: No one quizzes the apple tree, ‘Why are you producing apples?’”
After a strange dream
Just as Cinderella was both thrilled and terrified by the possibility of attending the ball, Keener also quaked at his good fortune. “I’m not foolish enough to think one winning haiku certifies me to suddenly be the American representative to Japan for haiku,” he says. “I was so intimidated when I got there.” He told himself, “I’m in over my head. I’ll never write a competent haiku again.”
He had even considered canceling the trip, which occurred only a week after the events of September 11, 2001. But even as he doubted, he kept writing. Haiku peppers The Narrow Roads of Ehime, a travelogue of his cultural expedition.
starry night —
“How does the whole ball of wax become a single burning candle? That’s the challenge in making any art form. Or, you could put it this way: How is it that the infinite sky is reflected in a small puddle? That’s the challenge of writing. We’re always overwhelmed.”
That very challenge may explain haiku’s appeal. “Each haiku is like a little candle, a little burning moment,” Keener says.
10/02/01 — Mikiko shows me the kanji for ‘busy,’ which consists of the symbol for heart, and a trailing sign of ‘go away.’ So ‘busy’ in the Japanese mindset is ‘the heart goes away.’
Asked how that mindset might apply to artists who find themselves ‘busy’ with other tasks that interfere with creating, Keener says, “That’s how love disappears. I’m not surprised if that’s also how creativity disappears. If you loved the task enough, you wouldn’t be doing something else.”
early morning —
Keener had traveled to Asia before, but in a much different context. “I went to Vietnam, but I was such a bubble boy, out of touch with the world. Almost my whole tour I was in a state of culture shock.”
This time, although the tall, bearded blond American still appeared vastly different from his hosts, Keener found much in the East that complemented his own views, such as his tendency toward animistic beliefs. The slipper fit. “I know many people, at least in Weirton or the Northern Panhandle, would think, ‘This fellow’s crazy. He believes in things that are absurd.’ I think there are those that would say, ‘For a college-educated fellow, he sure lacks a lot of sophistication. He sure can be naive.’ So many of my beliefs that I thought were fringe beliefs seemed to be already a part of the Japanese culture.”
Instead of feeling increasingly pressured to produce and succeed as a writer, Keener says that, following his trip to Japan, “I don’t worry so much about publication. I’m just intrigued by life. It’s like having a front-row seat at the theater. I know I won’t solve the mystery, but I’ll enjoy the show.
“Before I went to Japan, I wanted two dozen lives and I still want two dozen lives. And I hope I don’t say, ‘Uncle,’ in any of them.”
Keener’s and Russell’s accounts of their trips to Japan can be read online at www.cc.matsuyama-u.ac.jp/~shiki/haibun.html. More information about the Shiki Internet Haiku Salon is available at www.cc.matsuyama-u.ac.jp/~shiki/. Belinda Anderson, a regular contributor to ArtWorks, is the author of The Well Ain’t Dry Yet, a collection of short stories published by Mountain State Press.
How to haiku
By Belinda Anderson
Haiku is poetry and reporting, reflection and observation, all condensed into one perfect little package.
It’s also one of the most satisfying of the literary arts. You may never quite work that certain idea into a short story, play or novel. But you can capture any moment with haiku. Here’s how Japanese master Matsuo Basho did it 300 years ago (translation courtesy of the Shiki Internet Haiku Salon):
An old pond
As Basho shows, in striving for simplicity, a deeper meaning emerges without the use of simile or intentional metaphor.
The commonly accepted rules are few, but challenging:
• Write 17 syllables in three lines, in
Since there are no haiku police, these rules are routinely ignored. Earl Keener was awarded the Shiki Haiku Prize for a 4-4-3 poem. Keener refers to the 5-7-5 structure as a speedup tradition, based upon the belief that seventeen syllables was the equivalent English length to the Japanese haiku.
Japanese haiku also uses “cutting” words that have no English equivalent. “In Japanese, a haiku would be written as one line,” Keener says. “Cutting words indicate a break in thought.” Some composers of English haiku use dashes and other punctuation to approximate the cutting concept.
Here’s how Keener perceives the form: “A haiku, usually taking up the time span of a single breath, juxtaposes two images in the span of a single moment. The objective world collides with the subjective world of the observer. This is not contrived. The haiku form seeks to capture the moment in season, preserving some of its vitality through the conduit of words.” An example:
black lace and moonlight
“Silence is somehow a backdrop to all haiku,” Keener says. “It’s where we came from and where we’re going.”