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My two haiku books This Wine (Deep North Press, 2002) and More Wine (Red Moon Press, 2012) grew out of a strong need to tap into my spiritual core, something that a work career had long stifled with endlessly entangling, unhealthful ego attachments and overwork. Behind the making of both books was a group of devoted magazine and book editors that nurtured my learning of the haiku form—while collectively tutoring a fortunate generation of North Americans into how to write in an imported tradition.
Surprisingly, my experience in receiving rejection slips was hugely positive. Here was a corps of magazine editors that built me up with kindly explanations rather than exclude me with boilerplate rejection slips. Robert Spiess, editor of Modern Haiku magazine, over a period of years was so constructive in this that without having met him I dedicated to his memory This Wine. He practically weaned that book with magnificently insightful scribbling in the margins of my hastily composed, returned submissions. Back then it was quite usual to receive haiku rejections with substantive attention to craft matters that clearly I needed to know. The following haiku, from This Wine, benefited from such help by an editor who focused on only a single letter in the final word:
i scrape the moss to find
It first appeared in 1995 in South by Southeast 27.1-2, then edited by Jim Kacian. As originally submitted, the haiku was different—it ended with the phrase “no names.” Why had I cast that final word in the plural? The slave cemetery that my wife and I visited had multiple gravestones that were roughly made with limited tools and resources (yet clearly made in respect for beloved individuals). Stained with mold or weathered into dullness, only a few had full names crudely chiseled on them; many had chipped-in initials or nothing at all. It was a tacit lesson in historical social oppression and the humanity of those wanting to remember loved ones. Accepting this poem, Jim wanted the terminal s to be dropped—a simple conversion of names to name. In so doing, he was getting the haiku to function dramatically as one “aha! moment,” not a half hour of field observations. Thus the revised haiku brings the reader face to face with one person, one lost name—the erasure of this marginalized person from collective memory. That is haiku’s power—sharply concentrated specificity directed to an exact, poignant moment.
Incidentally, the wine in my book titles refers to a central symbol in the Sufi Muslim tradition of mystical ecstatic verse. Rumi and Hafiz were the two early masters, and wine symbolized the God-lover’s intoxication from drinking in a love that shatters mere reason as it floods intuitive perception. In fact, Hafiz’s vision has been termed the doctrine of unreason.
That is what I was focusing on after the death of my infant son in 1987, which drove me to haiku writing in the 1990s. On the night of the day he died in surgery, my wife and I were reading in bed at 1 a.m., sleepless with unbelievable blasts of shock and grief. Trying to sleep, I was partly out when my wife nudged me into clarity around 1:12 a.m. Our baby’s swing, with its wind-up coiled spring, was clicking in his nursery. We went to his room astounded, but the swing had halted. When I tested the coil for any tension, there was none. It was so fully slack it could not have started the swing into motion for those seven clear clicks back and forth. Little in the laws of physics applied here. Although distinctly analytical, I was now considering that a loving soul might pause with us on its way to the Eternal. To this day, I am not one of those who doubt a loving deity for allowing bad things to happen to good people. I simply wonder.
Writing haiku became my way of attending to this realm of perception, this hunger for the meaningful moment. I found a classic moment in Basho’s frog pond haiku. Into what watery world is that frog diving? Basho was an intently focused Buddhist. His frog leaps out of our customary realm of transient illusion into a reality that always has been there, silently unseen behind appearances. In a perceptual shift, we awaken through a resonant water sound to the depth of the eternity previously overlooked.
In the haiku I wrote to end More Wine, wine is the symbol of such intuition:
cresting and vanishing—
Each wave, like my ephemeral ego existence, arises from the one, great sea to crest and then be reabsorbed in the source. How would I have started this haiku years earlier? I might have opened with a slack observation of “all the waves.” But that would ignore the one moment, a singular individual spirit as it experiences the existential brevity of physical life. In the haiku I did write, individual consciousness falls back into the divine ocean, from which it never has been separate and of which it always has been a part.
—William M. Ramsey