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Bookstories 9: Christopher Herold’s In Other Words

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!

 

In the fall of 1980, a few months after the birth of my daughter, I was sitting at an upscale restaurant in San José, California with the poet/songwriter J. J. Webb. We were negotiating a contractual arrangement for me to play drums on his upcoming album. The monetary compensation was, well, let’s say uninspiring, and I told him so. J. J. shrugged and lifted his wine glass, pinky extended. I reached for a breadstick . . . and that was when the idea hit me. Why not angle for a trade? Three drum tracks in return for the publication of a collection of my haiku. J. J., in addition to his various writings (which are stellar, by the way), was the co-owner of a small press called Jarus Books.

“Haiku?” His eyebrows indicated confusion, so I launched into the briefest description of the genre I could formulate at a moment’s notice. After a few minutes, during which I covered but a tiny fraction what I knew he would need to know in order to gain a modicum of appreciation of the form, he was still staring at me blankly. Clearly I’d blindsided him; he’d come to the table with music on his mind.

I decided to abandon the academic approach and hit him in a way I hoped would be more visceral, with examples of the real thing (as I understood it). So I recited a few of my own haiku, the ones I could remember on the spur of the moment. J. J. broke into a broad grin.

“You got a lot of those?” he asked.

“Sure,” I lied.

I’d penned my first haiku twelve years earlier, while in the midst of a monk’s training period at a Zen monastery. Since that time my production of poems had been spotty at best. There was a reason. In the winter of ’68, no more than a few weeks after leaving the monastery, I signed my first recording contract and dove headlong into the music biz. Oh, what a contrast from monastic life! My pace in the 70s was so brisk I rarely relaxed enough to take notice of the limitless wealth of small wonders clamoring quietly in the margins of my senses. They were there, though, and occasionally insistent enough to wrench me from my relentless pursuit of Point B. I’ll take a guess that in the twelve years that preceded my meeting with J. J., I’d written no more than two or three hundred haiku. But the deal was made. I’d play on three songs of his album and in return he would publish my book.

Looking back on it, I am delighted that music spawned my first public offering to the haiku community. There was a problem though. At that time I didn’t know there was such a thing as a haiku community.

Not a believer in luck, I am nonetheless suitably impressed whenever synchronicity provides a bit of what most folks would deem good fortune. Not long before my manuscript was due to go to press, I met someone who would become my first haiku mentor, opening my eyes to what the form could be if I were to stick with it and explore in depth what it has to offer. He also generously agreed to write a blurb for the back cover of the book.

We chanced to meet at a ramshackle and decidedly funky old biker bar called Applejacks, located in the notorious little town where I lived: La Honda, California. For a town with a population of little less than 1,000, it has a colorful history. Ken Kesey lived there in the ‘60s, as did quite an assortment of hippies and pranksters, not to mention Hell’s Angels. A hundred years earlier, not long after the civil war, three of the infamous Younger Brothers’ gang, associated most famously with Jesse James, were known to have gone into hiding in La Honda.

I’d gone into Applejacks to quaff some beer after a big softball tournament in which I played shortstop for the La Honda Bandits. There was an empty stool at the bar next to a guy with a bushy beard who dressed like a backwoods mountain man: a threadbare madras shirt partially tucked into a pair of baggy overalls that were held up, barely, by broad suspenders. Turned out to be the exceptional poet, David LeCount.

Being excited about my book project, and having exhausted the topic of baseball, I brought up the subject of haiku. David looked at me kinda funny. One side of his mouth twitched up and his eyes produced a little twinkle. It was as if he’d said “Oh yeah? Really?” without actually uttering the words. David had been writing and publishing haiku for years.

He invited me over to his place and we continued our chat, the first of many lengthy conversations about haiku. He handed me a copy of Jim Hackett’s groundbreaking collection, The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J.W. Hackett, a book that made a huge impression on me. I was further amazed to learn that Mr. Hackett lived a short walk from both David and me. Though I longed to get to know the man, he turned out to be a fierce recluse. It took ten years before we actually met and he befriended me. I became his gardener—another story altogether.

I entitled my first collection of haiku In Other Words. It went out mostly to family members and friends. Through David, I learned of a journal to which I could send a copy. Perhaps I’d merit a review and stimulate some sales. The journal was Modern Haiku, and yes, I did receive a review. I shall be eternally grateful to Robert Spiess for being gentle with me. He noted that my book was “. . . excellently printed, illustrated and perfect-bound . . .” As for the haiku, “Most of them,” wrote Bob, “are statements, sometimes of an abstract or pseudo-philosophic nature.” He gave apt examples and then noted, “Better ones are those in which the poet presents specific images.” I was disappointed, only later coming to realize that I’d actually been fortunate—such a slight bruising for a clueless and uppity young wannabe. Even though somewhat disheartened, I also felt encouraged, enough that I continued to read and write haiku and to delve into its history.

My book drew little attention, but its production served as a valuable learning experience, both about haiku-craft and the business of publishing. The intense focus needed to choose what I felt were my best poems, and to refine them further; the challenge of arranging the poems in a pleasing sequential order, deciding upon fonts and point sizes, enlisting the help of an artist to provide illustrations . . . It was all so new to me. And like an early stage of a rocket that falls away so that the nose cone can burst free of the atmosphere, my first collection succumbed to gravity.

Music? I continued happily with a new jazz-fusion project. As for J. J.’s album, it faired no better than In Other Words.

—Christopher Herold

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