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Haiku for Parkinson’s Interview-Tim Roberts

 

Today, at Haiku for Parkinson’s, we meet Tim Roberts, a British poet living in New Zealand.

Welcome to Haiku for Parkinson’s, Tim! Could you tell us a bit about yourself, how you came to haiku and Parkinson’s?

I was in my twenties when I first met haiku on a sleepy train platform in England. It was late 1980s and I was on my way from North Wales to join Hertfordshire Police. I had spent all but one pound of my savings on the train ticket. I changed trains at Crewe. I bought a cup of strong British Rail tea and looked for something cheap to read. On a shelf was a slim book of Basho’s haiku. I had no idea what haiku was but it was affordable, so I bought it.

It opened at:

summer grasses,
all that remains
of soldiers’ dreams

—Basho

This haiku shocked me. Such impact. I couldn’t understand how these few words could move me so much. I read and re-read it on the train. It was pocket-sized and for a while, I took it everywhere.   In my late 40s, I became aware of PD in my body. Gradually symptoms arrived. A frozen shoulder and neck issues, then my body started to fatigue easily, and shake, and a good night’s sleep became a thing of the past. I was a leadership coach and would often run workshops, but my hands started to tremor and my voice was hard to control. I worked with leaders in the Ministry of Health. In hindsight, I think some of them suspected I had Parkinson’s and that I didn’t know. I asked my GP three times for help, and he diagnosed it as PTSD, which was understandable, but the symptoms kept coming.

Then two things happened. I was doing some presentations at a conference and as my time slot approached, my tremor got much worse and my left arm which was bent and stiff would wave up and down rapidly. I was due to talk soon but I rushed to the nearest shop, a hardware store, and on impulse I bought the heaviest portable thing I could hold – a 5 kg orange hammer. I thought great… now what!? On the way back to the venue, I picked up a seagull feather and quickly redesigned my entire talk on leadership to revolve around a hammer and a feather and then I also bought a mask… ironic as my face was losing its expression. It was an excellent seat-of-the-pants talk – I held the hammer throughout – and my arm tremored with the hammer in it too. I knew for certain something serious was going on.

Shortly after I went to a Billy Connolly show. He walked onto the stage, holding his arm just like I held mine – crooked and stiff. Then he told the audience that he had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he explained that the way he held his arm was a common symptom… All my denial fell away… I left the theatre terrified.

Reading your article Haiku and Parkinson’s Disease: A Practice, I am impressed by your strong conviction that haiku helps you with your Parkinson’s. Can you tell us how?

I had to stop work shortly after being diagnosed. I was adrift. I didn’t have any real hobbies and lost my identity. I felt rudderless and scared. I didn’t know who I was anymore – perhaps that means I never had. I had confused who I was with what I did. Now, having developed such a rooted haiku practice, I have a solid sense of who I am and an exciting sense of purpose. I love poetry and I like to use it to connect to others. I see it as my vocation – and a part of my spiritual practice. Now, thanks to the challenges of PD, I am much more me than the person who was a leadership coach, or any of my previous personas, the university teacher and the detective.

I enjoy haiku in a relaxed and expansive way, for example, wandering through nature, opening my senses, pausing to feel what’s around and in me, and exploring what may become material for poems. Haiku also helps with Parkinson’s symptoms by training and retraining my cognitive focus, which PD and its medications can cloud.

I meditated twice a day for twenty years, seldom missing a day. I can’t do this in the same way now because of the PD symptoms and discomfort, so I’m constantly exploring other ways to derive the meditative experience because I like it and because it can reduce inflammation in the body. One way I do this is to use haiku in a focused way as you would use a meditation bell or mantra. I start writing haiku and when I get distracted I keep coming back. Meditation is all in the coming back. And although this may not be ‘proper’ meditation, I love it.

The goal is to enjoy the experience and maintain focus without causing ‘mind-cramps’ by being forceful. I regard this as crucial brain hygiene… I tend to think of this as making my neurons ‘beautifuller’.

When I am immersed in reading or writing haiku or haiga, I can often cruise through what are normally difficult times during my day. If I’m absorbed in haiku, I can go for much longer periods without experiencing any downtime and with good movement and clarity of thought and speech. I think of it as riding the bow wave of haiku for health.

If I have a setback and the symptoms worsen, my first inclination, rather than increase the medication, is to relax my diaphragm, stop ruminating and write haiku, and/or draw or edit haiga, to restore the balance.

Haiku also helps me at a meta-level. After being diagnosed and stopping work, my confidence took a knock and I struggled to find meaning. Becoming involved in haiku and investing so much energy in reading and writing haiku and other poems, I now have a restored, more robust sense of identity, purpose, and direction.

Creativity, particularly writing haiku, also gives me motivation, a sense of accomplishment from crafting a haiku or reflecting on one that graciously arrived in my mind. I enjoy this moment of pleasure, a bit like solving a puzzle or cracking a case…but more fulfilling. It somehow offsets my frustrations and helps compensate for the limits imposed by PD. And if the haiku doesn’t quite work out as I hoped…that’s okay and it will taste sweeter next time. Either way, I am strongly motivated to try again.

Haiku and the way haiku poets express themselves on social media have helped me learn a new way of living with PD. Haiku as a practice gives me structure and offers fulfillment, and through haiku, I have connected with poets I admire, like you, Stella. You gave me advice as I was writing Busted! Reflections on Police Life, and you wrote the introduction. We didn’t talk about Parkinson’s in any detail, but the fact that we both face this is a bond I feel strongly. By your way of being in the world, I realized that PD isn’t the limitation that I had assumed and I didn’t need to feel shame at being diagnosed.

Debbie Strange is also someone I admire not just because her art is excellent and pushes limits, but because she does this despite her health challenges and with dignity. The more I learn about poets, the more I realize that many of us have challenges and that poetry is helping so many.

How would you describe your experience of haiku to someone living with Parkinson’s Disease – with the pain, stiffness, anxiety… who doesn’t know much about haiku? Can you give us some examples?

At first, the haiku I read in my twenties were enigmatic, mysterious, hit and miss, but when they hit – big impact! Then I was busy policing and being a dad and it fell by the wayside. I resumed my interest after the PD diagnosis, by which time I had become quite isolated. When I started to look for ways to rebuild my life, I heard about a haiku group on social media, and on a whim I joined. They were friendly and supportive, and they followed the 3-line 5,7,5 syllables formula as their preferred way. At first, I loved it. The syllable count was great for managing my mind. As I learned more, I realized that this structure wasn’t for me. At that time Jim Kacian gave me some advice which challenged me, but he also opened my eyes to the evolution of haiku and monoku… it was electrifying… I was hooked.

The first haiku-type poem I wrote that felt like a ‘proper’ poem just arrived in my mind fully formed. It was a dream I had.

dreaming of birdsong
I wake to a wolf shaking me—
tremors again!

As soon as I woke up, I knew I wanted to write it so I wouldn’t forget it. It was about 4.00 am and the medication had worn off so my body was tremoring and stiff. I remember the effort it took to hold the pen and fight the tremors while slowly forming the letters. It may have taken 30 to 45 minutes to write. When I had finished, I was knackered and elated. It was a massive experience, and I could feel a new vitality in me – after feeling despondent for so long, I was not going to let it escape so I took hold of it, and I haven’t let go. Perhaps I will tame this wolf while letting it re-wild parts of me that PD has dulled.

Here is one of the first one-line haiku I wrote,

inside the tremors a bellbird

Tremors can be just tremors, but sometimes they bring with them strong emotions, including fear, anger and panic. I practice meditative listening, or what Saint Benedict described as listening with the ears of the heart to sounds around me. When my mind is stable, I place it gently on the tremors and wait for the energy behind the tremors to ease. On this occasion, the tremors were starting to soften when a bellbird broke into song outside my window. We seldom hear one where we live but they have a hauntingly beautiful quality to their calls. The surprise and the song washed through my meditation and the tremors dissolved. The poem arrived as if it had always been there – all I did was write it down.

I like this poem very much. I am fascinated by the way it brings sound together with tremors. Sound is also made by movement, the vibration of particles creating sound waves. A few years ago, I experienced a tremor in my chest that felt like a woodpecker was at work inside me! Perhaps it’s time to start thinking of a Parkinson’s aviary!

Yes, I can understand that. Non-PD people would be surprised at how forceful the tremors can be. Here’s another haiku for your aviary, Stella.

summer dawn—
from a blade of lightning
a Tui’s call

The Tui is a New Zealand bird with two voice boxes and it sounds like a mix of bellbird and renegade beat-boxer. I love them. They fly with wings that strut staccato sounds like a helicopter’s rotors. This haiku was another wonderful listening experience I had. In the relative quiet between thunderclaps, a Tui raised its voice just as the sky flashed.

Writing a haiku about it magnified its pleasure for me – while also protecting me from negative experiences that I may reflect on… That made me think that haiku is a polarizing poetic filter. It is capable of intimacy (into-me-see) in that it allows me to open and go inside an enjoyable experience, like the tui, and shape it into a poem. It also enables me to delve into what were disturbing experiences without being overcome by the original emotions. This is because haiku is objective enough to filter out the discomfort. Sometimes what was troubling about an event shifts or dissolves. For me, it is one-breath-poetry as a kind of therapy. It’s an option I wish more people were aware of.

My current interest is one-line haiku and haiga (bringing together haiku with image). Learning about one-line haiku has excited me like a few other things and I enjoy the crafting involved. I am exploring ways to hint at liminal spaces, crossing points, and Celtic thin places in short form and to bring in some of my cartooning. It’s easy to get washed through with creativity, enthusiasm, and fulfillment… not much space left for PD!

Are you working on a book or other haiku-related project at present?

A proposal to make a video presentation to a haiku conference on ginko (multi-sensory nature walks) and the therapeutic effects this walking has on a person diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I’m writing more one-line haiku and contemplative haiku… I hope there’s at least one book in it, though time will tell.

Coming up next

Haiku for Parkinson’s Course—Sonam Chhoki

 

Sources

Basho. “summer grasses” in Penguin Classics (trans. Lucien Stryk), Penguin Books, 1985, p. 59.

Tim Roberts. Busted! Red Moon Press, 2023.

Tim Roberts. “dreaming of birdsong” in Haiku and Parkinson’s Disease: A Practice (see below)

Tim Roberts. “inside the tremors” in Whiptail, issue 4, Personal Transitions, 2022 (also discussed in re-Virals )

Tim Roberts. “Haiku and Parkinson’s Disease: A Practice” in New Zealand Poetry Society Archives, 2020.

Tim Roberts. “summer dawn” in The Wales Haiku Journal, Summer 2023.

Biography

Tim Roberts was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at 49 and has found freedom and joy in writing haiku and other Japanese-style short-form poems. He enjoys foraging for experiences and inspiration with his dog and lives a life that, he hopes, makes poetry inevitable. His book Busted! (Red Moon Press) is haiku and micro-poetry about his experience as a British police officer. Tim lives in New Zealand and is in awe of the scenery, wildlife, and southern stars. His favorite Maori phrase is Kia kaha, which means stay strong.

 

Stella Pierides is a writer and poet. Her books include "Of This World" (2017) and "In the Garden of Absence" (2012), both HSA Merit Book Award recipients. Her article “Parkinson’s Toolbox: The Case for Haiku” appeared in Juxtapositions: A Journal of Research and Scholarship in Haiku, issue 8, 2022.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for sharing your story and how haiku have helped you to move forward positively. I am always struck by the power of a haiku practice can alleviate a variety of health challenges. I can see similarities between your practice and my own – though in my case it is coping with my chronic migraine. I was especially moved by —

    “I felt rudderless and scared. I didn’t know who I was anymore – perhaps that means I never had. I had confused who I was with what I did.”

    That rings so many bells.

    All the best

    Ben

  2. Uplifting.

    My postgraduate research (on dopaminergic neurones in the CNS) was related to this subject; a dear friend and colleague from that time suffered this disease in later life, as does another acquaintance who is now unable to speak intelligibly: I will pass her this thread.

    Mention of re:Virals: we took Tim’s bellbird in https://thehaikufoundation.org/revirals-359/

    1. Thanks Keith, fascinating subject. Best wishes to your friend who you will share this thread with…..re re-Virals…I enjoyed that. The bellbird still calls here and I sometimes go into the forest to listen. Wonderful

  3. What beautiful prose you have written to share your haiku and story in such an inspirational way.
    Thank you,
    Mimi

    1. I am way past the middle-stage of PD.
      My haiku mentiong butterfly wings and Cassius Clay alludes to Muhammad Ali who lost his fight against PD. Second is leaden feet a PD outcome & seeking refuge in the widom of the Buddha.

      What is gingko? Crooked feet is a birth defect.

      1. Ginkgo -I think of it as a walk to write haiku by gathering thoughts, phrases, reflections, materials and maybe even a couple of complete poems. I think of it as an adventure….it may be just a few minutes or hours…it’s all about my intention. I’ve also seen it spelled ginko

    2. Thank you, John….love the imagery….crooked feet – trying to get my left foot to stay in line with my right. If I slow down it birdsteps like an Albatros landing …

    1. Thanks Krishna. I have been thinking about the butterfly image since I first read your words last night .

  4. Thank you for sharing your positive experiences with haiku during a time of distress & confusion. Post my illness, poetry has turned my life around in ways that was unimaginable a few years ago.

    1. with leaden feet
      finding refuge in the Buddha
      Ananda
      (The Buddha had his last conversation with his disciple Ananda)

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