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Bookstories 11: John Parsons’ Choosing the Stone

libraryofbabelEvery book tells its story, but what of the other story, the story behind the book? Bookstories offers an opportunity to tell that story. If you have a story about a book or poem you would like to share, contact us and we’ll help you make it happen. Thanks for letting us know the rest of the story!

 

I first discovered haiku in the early sixties. I was working at St Martin’s School of Art in London, teaching printmaking. During the lunch hours I used to spend time in the bookshops off Charing Cross Road, and in one of them, Watkins, I discovered A History of Haiku by R. H. Blyth. I bought it.

I’d always written poetry, the shortness and subject matter of haiku appealed immediately, so I made a few stumbling attempts, but none of them, it seemed to me, were able to catch that ‘moment’. From then on I wrote very short poems and any ideas of writing haiku dropped by the wayside.

In Better Books I found publications containing Concrete Poetry. Armed with these and books on Kurt Schwitters, I began to write concrete poems. These fitted in very well with the ideas behind my prints and paintings. I was largely involved in etching, a process of eating surfaces away, almost sculptural, it appealed to my interest in building two dimensional sculptures from words. Mark Rutter later published some of these in Blithe Spirit.

At this time I met my mentor, Brian Coffey, an avant garde Irish poet, many years my senior. We became good friends. He encouraged my writing and published two small volumes of mine under the Advent Books imprint that I helped him set up. I designed and printed the books in his hallway at the Muswell Hill address, on an ancient foot-operated round platen. It was the days of hippie communes, happenings, the Arts Lab, the Electric Cinema and Roundhouse concerts. There was no sign of haiku, but the poems were very short and hammered out on an old cast iron Remington. It was a complicated process too, for the concrete poems; spacing was difficult, it was all in the same face and everything had to be minimal and honed down.

About the same time I began working with Asa Benveniste, the Beat poet, at his press in King’s Cross, Trigram Books. There I met many writers, Geoff Nuttall, Tom Raworth, Jim Dine, George Andrews, Anselm Hollo, Piero Heliczer, George Barker, Ivor Cutler, John Esam and many more. Creative energy filled the air; in 1968 we even published Haiku by John Esam, Anselm Hollo and Tom Raworth.

Eventually I took up stone carving. My Grandfather was a master mason, it was in the blood. I carved huge quantities of stone away, to arrive at the mere bones of an idea. I also cut very short poems on the headstones of lost friends, the shorter the better; I am no letterer, once more, almost haiku.

I met James Hogan (Augustus Young), a young Irish poet who was also to have an influence; I took his portrait for a book cover. In the late nineties James had the idea of writing ‘word sonnets’ fourteen words arranged perpendicularly on the page. I liked the idea, wrote and published my own book of them under the imprint of Labyrinth Books called A Shadow Across Closed Lids. Once more, it required paring down an original idea to its bones, but haiku couldn’t have been farther from my mind. About that time I reconnected with Stanley Pelter, an old college friend, who was a member of the British Haiku Society. He suggested that I join.

After reading my first copy of Blithe Spirit the idea struck me that my book of word sonnets could be read as haiku. I arranged some of them in three lines; they became haiku, a revelation! I looked at other short poems, and rearranged them, they were haiku too. I’d been writing them all along. Armed with a fresh attitude and a touch of Zen from the Hippie days, I wrote some and sent them off to Colin Blundell, editor of the journal at the time, who accepted them. I had become a published haiku poet. The dam broke, they flowed out. Eventually I had enough to form a collection, which I sent to Colin, who also runs Hub Editions, and he decided to print them in parallel with a series of ink drawings that I had been doing at the same time. All very simple and sculptural, I saw them as visual haiku, thus my first volume Choosing the Stone came into print.

—John Parsons

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