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Some years ago I began to notice similarities between two different expressions of early modern Japanese culture. The first is the large number of haiku that feature living creatures, from insects to whales. The second is the many books of woodblock prints created by artists of various schools, not merely ukiyo-e masters. Although the haiku are reasonably well-known, the woodblock books have been largely ignored—yet a number of their images also depict living creatures, often with humor, or at least good humor. Why not find a way to combine haiku about mammals, birds, insects, and fish, with woodblock prints depicting the same range of subjects?
I began to collect images and translate poems, and enlisted the help of two good friends who were also professors at the University of Kansas (where I taught at the time), Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto. My initial thought was that the main body of the book would present the haiku in both Japanese and English, mixed together with the woodblock prints. Only the introduction and the ending list of illustrations, with thumbnail biographies of poets and artists, would need to be printed in English or Japanese. If we could find publishers in both the United States and Japan, they could share the primary costs of the haiku and color images, then each publisher could add the introduction and ending matter in the appropriate language.
Preparing the book was very enjoyable, since it meant leisurely going through collections of haiku and books of prints. For the latter, I had found several such volumes in Japan, and after some explanations I was allowed to visit and take pictures in the special books section of the New York Public Library. Ultimately, we had to cut down the unexpectedly large number of delightful poems and images that we had gathered—and now we had to find publishers.
Alas, we seemed to strike out in this regard, being refused by several American firms, and after some initial interest, by the Japanese publisher whom we had been advised to meet. Finally, Weatherhill in New York City (before they merged with Shambhala) decided to give it a try—but they also could not find a Japanese counterpart, so the front and back of the book were published only in English.
We had divided the images and haiku into four groups: Walkers, Fliers, Crawlers, and Swimmers, and here are examples of each group:Out from the darkness back into the darkness— affairs of the cat Issa The voice of the cuckoo slants over the water Bashō Pausing for a nap on the temple bell— a butterfly Buson The trout leaps up— and below him a stream of clouds floats by Onitsura
We only asked the book designer not to allow the poems and pictures to appear directly related, as these were not haiga but rather verbal and visual images in their own singularities. A Haiku Menagerie was published in 1992, and to everyone’s surprise, it became (at least for Weatherhill) a best-seller. Amazing!
Weatherhill encouraged us to follow it up, and so In following years we put forth A Haiku Garden (1996), Haiku People (1998), Haiku Landscapes (2002), and Haiku Humor (2007). Finally, at Shambhala’s request, in 2009 we combined the poems (some of which we re-translated) into a single volume without images or the Japanese originals. This became Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems; I personally miss seeing the prints, but it serves as a handy compendium for those whose interest is primarily the haiku.
What this entire experience taught me is that following up on a seemingly fanciful idea can bear fruit, and that one should never take the first (or second or third) rejection from publishers as a signal to quit. Finding a project that you can enjoy, having confidence in your work, editing it without mercy, finding the right venue—and perhaps a bit of luck—all contribute to success. In our case, it led to a total of six volumes when originally it had seemed difficult to find a publisher for even one. Looking back, I feel especially grateful to the original poets and artists whose work it has been a pleasure to explore and present to a new public, in our own time and culture.