INTERVIEW ~ AN'YA
by Saša Važić
first published in haikureality
SV: Your first collection of haiku poems, haiku for a moonless night, immediately won second place at the Merit Book Awards 2004 of the Haiku Society of America. But even before that and for a long time your work has been published worldwide, you were well established and internationally recognized, you have won quite a few contests and a bulk of very impressive awards and honors in many competitions, and "your haiku has sprung to the foremost as one of today's major voices in English language haiku," as put by Ty Hadman, to which many would agree. It seems as if you were waited on to collect your work in a collection to immediately be awarded... How do you feel about it and did you expect such an award?
a: Sasa, no, I didn't expect it at all, but placing in the Haiku Society of America's Book Awards was a great honour for me, especially since «moonless night» was hand bound rather than perfect bound and I formatted and printed the entire book on my home computer, plus it was my very first publication. My husband (Petar) and I then started a little printing company called the natal * light press. However, I never could have finished the book without the help of a dear friend, Ernest Berry, from New Zealand. At the same time I was writing «moonless night,» I also was writing a book with him called «haiku wine» which was a sister-book and the two were sold originally only as a set. I entered them in the Merit Book Awards as a "set," and requested that they be judged together. Michael Dylan Welch, who was collecting the submissions, separated the two without telling me, and «moonless night» placed but «haiku wine» did not. When I first found out, I tried to withdraw my «win.» The HSA would not let me do this, and I'm still bothered by it (being a principled person,) and didn't feel it was right to judge the books other than how I submitted them, as I would never have submitted them to compete against each other in the first place. Nevertheless, it's still an honour to be recognized for my hard work and for my haiku.
SV: You are a Christian gipsie of Serbian-American heritage. Here in Serbia we "lay claim to you" as our haiku poet, in America they "lay claim to you" as theirs. We are honored to have a poet of Serbian origin living in a distant country but whose poems in a great measure reflect Serbian spirit. Where do you belong to and how do you feel about these claims?
a: Truly, I belong to both. My heartbeat (by birth) started in America and Francis Scott Key, who wrote the most famous poem-put-to-music in America, (the Star Spangled Banner) is a distant uncle of mine. . . However, my poetic soul and stara srca (forgive me if I say the Serbian words wrong, my Serbian vocabulary is limited) will always belong to Serbia, and be enhanced by my husband Petar and the Serbian diaspora here throughout America. The welcome was so profound for me from stari kraj, even my epic poetry was received more enthusiastically there than here. I think my Serbian side writes haiku and my American side writes tanka. I only wish more of my Serbian friends would write some tanka.
SV: The impact of your Serbian roots can be felt in many of your poems. How is that when you have never lived in Serbia and have never had a chance to experience the real life here? What are your connections with your Serbian roots? Have you ever had a chance to visit your relatives here in Serbia and to socialize with Serbs in America ?
a: My poetry lives on in our family Rodoslovolje, and "that" is where my experience comes from, and what I am connected «to.» My husband is a Serb whose grandparents came to America in the early 1900s. Our Pravoslav churches in this country have kept things in order, especially after the church split healed. We've never traveled to Stari Kraj, but have been associated with Serbian churches here in the USA. I taught dance troupes at two of these churches: St. Georges in Cleveland when our daughter was a baby, and then at St. Sava Serbian Church in Florida when she was a teenager. However, most of my interest is in Serbian "folklore" and how it overlaps with the modern-day religious aspects of Orthodoxy/Serbianism.
SV: It may come as a surprise that you are more informed about the Christian/Orthodox religion than many Serbs. And you employ that specific feeling in many of your poems. How does it come to be?
a: Again, family traditions and our churches here keep the candles lit. Before I came to write haiku, I was «venting» my nationalism in long epic poems. Then one day, while posting some of my poetry on a website, someone posted a haiku. At this point in time, even though my husband had worked for a company back in the late 70s and built 3 Japanese fishing boats and we had much exposure to the Japanese crew, I wasn't writing haiku. Later I came to find out that haiku was very popular throughout the Balkans, so I started researching and writing it, using my knowledge of folklore and nature. Serbs are just born to write haiku because this is the way we live. The '93 war made public epic poetry almost dangerous here, so I took a respite and moved into haiku, never to return to the heavy weight poetry again. I am, however, still proud of my epic Serbian poetry some of which were published in Serb World Magazine and the America Srbobran Literary Supplement and online at Perunika.
SV: You are known under your pen name an'ya. There are several aspects of its origin. Would you tell us more about it?
a: an'ya evolved out of my Serbian name Andja, which is a very old one. My pen name is an'ya which ended up being phonetic. The meaning of my haigo (haiku name) name was given to me by David MacMurry from the Asahi Evening News. Here is somewhat what it says in the preface of my book: "If you do not know (an'ya) the haijin personally, her haigo (pen-name) would only mean 'darkmoon,' with no connotation of light in any way. However, if one takes a close look at the calligraphy of it, an'ya is represented with the oriental characters 'an' (peace,) and 'ya' (night,) associating her haiku name with 'a light in the moonless night,' its analogy 'a surprise light that brings peace to the moonless night.'"
SV: Your poetry life... when and how did it begin?
a: It began when I was about 13. My mother loved books and always had encouraged me to read a lot and then to write poetry. My grandmother (her name was Zora) married a Swiss antique dealer who gave me an old leather bound book of poetry for my birthday. I think my European blood was always a help even when I was young. I used to take a green apple and some cheese up in our big tree and write poetry. If I had only known about “haiku” back then instead of writing other types. I could see a lot of nature from that tree! Later on, and growing up in California, I was also influenced by the poetry from the “beat” generation.
SV: What/who were your first models?
a: I always loved poems like «The Highwayman» by Alfred Noyes. Emily Dickinson was always an inspiration of mine; much of her poetry is very haiku-like and nature-oriented, as well as Christina Rossetti's. I was truly thrilled with Michael McClintock's comment on the back of moonless night that reads: "an'ya is the 'Christina Rossetti' of contemporary haiku --her work consistently reflects a similar artistic philosophy, passion, energy, and joyful image-making." Albeit, my most favourite poet is Milos Crnjanski who was a translator of early haiku.
SV: What are your personal inclinations in poetry, western and eastern? Who are your favorite poets? And why?
a: My personal inclinations have evolved continuously; I think haiku and tanka now challenge me the most to be more aware of nature and life than ever before. I have an old-soul anyway and believe that the archaic nature of eastern poetry accomplishes this much better than contemporary western poetry.
SV: You have lived in a number of places and spaces in a variety of lifestyles. Very interesting and not so usual... always in contact with nature at its source. Even more unusual as you live in a civilized country. What can you tell us about why you so often had or wished to change your living environments and about experiences you gained.
a: This was sometimes thrust upon us mostly due to following work. America, of course, is very vast and has much more primal country than even most Americans ever are privileged to see. We have always stopped to smell-the-roses, and lived out of the city. My husband preferring to drive as far as 90 km each way to work, just to live 'out.' As a very large machinery systems person, projects were long-term, but rarely close together, be it ships or stationary plant work. We've lived aboard ship and on land both. I prefer aboard ship because I grew up near the ocean.
SV: When and how were you introduced to haiku?
a: As I said earlier, I was posting my other types of poetry online and one day someone posted a haiku. I thought to myself, how easy is that? I shortly found out that wasn't the case however. Anyway, Pamela (Emile's Pam) was the one who actually got me started writing haiku. I tried a couple and posted them and she emailed me to say that although my haiku weren't exactly haiku, but she thought that with a little guidance, I would be good at it. She sent me some kigo lists and website URL's and told me about the old Shiki list, which I joined. Well, not all of the haijin there were as nice as Pam and I was put off by their rudeness and unwillingness to explain why a haiku wasn't working. At this point, I almost quit but carried on since. I'm the type of person to see something through to its end. Finally, after researching more everything myself, I caught on and it blossomed from there.
SV: What is haiku to you and why have you chosen this ancient poetry form to express your inner being?
a: Haiku is all around us every moment of every day; life is haiku, so I have no trouble ever finding a haiku moment or, I should say, it finding me. I think I enjoy this particular form most because I'm born a Virgo. They like to put things in neat little packages and working within the confines of 3 lines with a maximum of 17 syllables, is a challenge for me, rather than a restriction.
SV: Can you recall your fist haiku poems? When did you write them and under whose influence?
a: The very first haiku I ever wrote was published at the Heron's Nest:
one limb at a time the falcon calls her fledglings nearer to flight
I wrote it when we lived at a campground, and a pair of falcons made their nest right above our campsite. To me, being Serbian, this was some kind of sign. Every day we watched them grow and enjoyed seeing and hearing the mother falcon coaxing them «nearer to flight.» This second haiku I ever wrote was about living back East near all the mills in Ohio where my husband and our daughter were both born:
gray day smoke from a mill meanders over the river
It won an Editor's Choice at the Heron's Nest. You can read Christopher Herold's write up here:
He was very influential in my early haiku writing.
Then I wrote:
a hole in the cloud
a sudden vastness
but a couple of my own personal favorite haiku that I've written to date are:
spiderweb silk suddenly I've become the puppeteer
and night of stars all along the precipice goat bells ring
In the very beginning, and as far as the Balkan writers who helped me along the way, Dimitar and Zoran were both there for me. And after them, others came along too.
SV: How would you relate haiku to other poetry genres?
a: Far superior and much more difficult to write. Having written rhyming poetry with absolutely no trouble at all, and everything (from epic poetry to sonnets to pattern poems, one of mine which is written in the shape of a huge Orthodox Cross,) I find that haiku needs to be totally fine-tuned to be at all successful, not to mention that the competition is fierce (especially from Balkan writers.)
SV: Who are your favorite haiku masters, both classical and contemporary?
a: For classical I enjoy Santoka, Chiyo-ni and all the other Masters, of course, Shiki, Basho, etc. For contemporary females, I adore Jasminka's and your own haiku and Alenka Zorman. For males, Michael McClintock is wonderful, I enjoy Tenzing (aka Dennis Dutton) and I am always inspired by J.W. Hackett. And, of course, I admire greatly all of the haiku writers in the Balkans, male or female. Doing the «crosswinds» book with Dejan, Zoran, Dragan and Svetomir is my absolute most rewarding experience to date.
SV: It appears that you write haiku so easily, that words find you and not vice versa. Is it really so? How difficult is it to write haiku poems?
a: Well, a Higher Power just gives them to me. I am only the vehicle that writes them down. They come to me often, even in my sleep. It is not difficult at all to write a haiku, but not every one is a good one. Those are rare for all of us I believe. Haiku is an inner sort of thing that we Serbs (and most other Slaves) just have; we view life quite differently than other people, I think; our thoughts are «enhanced,» our colours brighter, our experiences more vivid. Now I sound like my gipsie self . . . but it's true . . .
SV: Do you think there is anything more you have to learn about composing haiku and do you think that you still have to improve your writing?
a: I still have everything to learn and don't have the time to even come close to being good (in this lifetime at least . . .). I am a mere beginner in this ancient art form.
SV: What is your opinion about the world haiku movement? Why is haiku so widely written all over the world, more than any other poetry genre?
a: This is a good question. I honestly think that haiku writing is almost a «cult» type of poetry. Either you love it or you don't. I've talked with other poets who don't even consider haiku poetry at all. But for those who love this form, there is usually nothing else like it -- and this applies worldwide. The whole concept of writing haiku poetry is an aha-moment within itself.
SV: What is your opinion on today's global haiku production?
a: With the Internet, it's good. There seem to be places that have many more writers than other places, for instance, the Balkans. I've taken note lately of more good haiku coming out of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, though there have always been a few excellent writers there anyway.
SV: How do you view the haiku world? Has it been developing or stagnating in comparison to its Japanese roots? Do you believe haiku is written more successfully today than hundreds of years ago? What do you generally think about old Japanese haiku masters. Are they overpraised? What do you think about contemporary haiku poets in general and what names can you select as specially successful haiku poets?
a: The haiku world today is developing much more and much faster than ever before. In comparison to its Japanese roots, I think it actually equals this now. I don't believe, however, that it is written any more successfully than hundred of years ago, but since haiku is an ever-evolving and living art form, I think it is written «as» successfully in its own way. One thing that hinders modern-day haiku writers, is that usually no one is willing to take lots of time to teach them. Sure, people get help on lists and other places but overall, it's not indepth. This is why I took on the job of WHC beginners for a while. Another hindrance is that many haiku writers are just plain «rude» to newbies and scared to death to give away information that would give new writers any edge over them. As I said, the competition is fierce. One has to be secure in their own haiku writing in order to help others.
The old Japanese Master are, of course, the best and always will be. The form «belongs» to them and always will. We are just on the fringe of imitating it. I find contemporary haiku poets in general to be either overly-prolific and writing down anything at all that they think is a haiku and putting it out there without giving any deep thought to the end-product, or I find them to be so selective in the work that they aren't actually living a haiku lifestyle at all. So if one can find a balance between these two by writing all they can write and yet taking the time to fine-tune each haiku, then I think it works. As far as successful haiku poets, Ernest Berry, Michael McClintock, all the Balkan poets so I won't name them, a new haiku poet on the scene is Andrew Riutta whose work I like very much and will be the featured poet in my next issue of moonset, Kathy Lippard Cobb and there are so many it's difficult to mention all of them.
SV: We come across a whole debate about what is and what is not haiku. There are many definitions of it and still pretty much disagreement regarding the haiku form, its content and poetic devices that may or may not be employed leading to a vast variety of the way of the writing of haiku and poets' expressions. Especially in America there were a lot of discussions and efforts to make a definition of haiku for the West so that even a committee was established by the HSA to come with a final definition. Haiku - can it be defined? If yes, what would be your own definition?
a: Sasa, it's an impossibility for one person to define haiku, but attempting to answer your question, I believe haiku is what the haijin and the reader both make of it. In my journal I try to point out different styles and ways of writing haiku. Some of the haiku I chose, others may not think are good at all, but I've seen something in them that no one else has seen and that's what makes a haiku successful. If even one single person likes what you wrote, then you have a good haiku. I don't use the word «great» when it comes to haiku because the great ones are few and far between and mostly written by old Japanese Masters.
SV: What we all have are classical examples in translation. It's a pity that most of us do not know Japanese so we must depend on those who have translated poems of great haiku masters. What do you think about this shortcoming? There are still debates about the meaning of some poems written by Basho and other masters. How can we ever be sure what those ancient poets had on his mind?
a: Of course, we can never be sure of what they had in mind, but I truly admire greatly the people who take the time, have the expertise and the interest to translate at all. I think by reading translations of the same haiku by different translators is the closest we can ever come to the poet's meaning. Combining in your mind all of these, still, will only ever give us the «gist» of each haiku. To be misunderstood (being a Serb) is the worst thing in the world, and it's really not much different than our own poetic history, from gusla bards on through . . . the "translation" is never fully accurate, and it's difficult to be inside of a given foreign poet's head. The time in history, the culture, the territory, education, the exposure to a tainted input system, are but a few of the variables that we cannot ever recreate or see when trying to interpret "exactly what Basho saw," throw in the translation failings, and you really have a very broad gray area to deal with. Some of my haiku have been translated by my Serbian soul-mates and I trust them completely to understand what I'm saying.
SV: What do you think about the modernization of haiku (key words, straying from its original form and essence...)?
a: If you mean «kigo» words, I think it is a shame. Of course, there is the known fact that different kigo for different folks, depending on where you live. Albeit, I am a firm supporter of nature haiku and kigo words. Of course, there are many good haiku without them, but I think any haiku is enhanced with them. This may not be what you meant by this question and if so, please excuse my ramblings . . .
SV: How can you explain the difference between English-language haiku, especially those written in America, which are very brief and concise, and other languages haiku (particularly Serbian in English translation) which are mainly not that brief and concise?
a: Of course, somewhat it has to do with the translation end of it, but once again, it's a balance. Haiku can either be too concise or too lengthy, which doesn't necessarily depend on where or who it was written by, American or Serb. I started out writing the traditional 5,7,5,7,7 format like almost every newbie does and then I went to concise and then settle in between. For me, the perfect count is 4,6,4,6,6, though for others, this is not the case. I believe now that just the flow or rhythm of s,l,s,l,l is enough. If a haiku doesn't have this rhythm, it is a short poem instead, but this is strictly my own personal opinion. The same goes with tanka but with a s,l,s,l,l count of some variation.
SV: You serve as the Director/editor for WHCbeginners. What can you tell us about your experiences and accomplishments with beginners? What would be your expert advise to haiku poets in general and what to haiku beginners?
a: Well, since it took me so long (please forgive me) to do this interview (and you've been so patient,) I'll go back in time and say that serving as the Director/Editor for the World Haiku Club beginners sessions was probably more enlightening for me than for the mentees. Taking the time to explain and analyze every haiku presented, was actually what we should all do every single time with every single haiku we write. The usual, removing unnecessary words, incorporating juxtaposition, asking ourselves what makes this haiku different from other haiku about the same subject, is there a wide-setting, a subject and a verb (preferable an action one,) is there an «aha,» does it flow smoothly and have cohesive thought, have I used the correct articles and the best words possible to «show» this moment rather than «tell it,» is there a pause, do my lines break in the right place, etc. and so forth.
SV: You are also the editor-in-chief of haigaonline, newsletter editor for the Tanka Society of America, founder and President of the Oregon haiku and tanka Society... Have I left out anything? How do you manage to be permanently engaged in so many haiku activities and yet to run your house, take care of your big family, devote yourself to your other interests...?
a: Again, I am remiss in this interview and have turned haigaonline over to Linda, but I still am editing the TSA Journal Ribbons. The OhtS, I am now VP instead of President, TG I found David Baldwin to run for President and he has also taken over as Webmaster. Meanwhile, I added my own moonset journal in there, which now publishes haiku and tanka and haiga. And you're correct, Sasa, at one point in time I was doing it all. I am at home almost all the time taking care of my 87 year old mother and my 87 year old mother-in-law and I always thank them for giving me the opportunity to not have to work outside the home which gives me time to write poetry, edit and publish books and journals. However, the amount of care they require now is increasing daily, so it is difficult to keep everything straight. I, too, am getting older but my husband helps and supports me. The cooking is suffering a bit, we haven't made sarma in a long time!
SV: How do you estimate the haiku situation in Serbia ?
a: This is a very general question, but I think overall, it's very good! As good as anywhere in the world. It's difficult for me to enter as many contests as I would like to due to our limited income, and I think that if Serbian hajin were entering more contests than just the free ones, no one else would ever have a chance to win. We would have the whole haiku market, tied up . . .
SV: Who do you think has done most in terms of writing significant haiku in Serbia? Can you name a few poets and cite their best haiku?
a: Another difficult question. I am not familiar with all of the Serbian haijin, but just about every one I've read, writes decent haiku, whereas in America, only a portion of writers write what I would call decent haiku. The ratio is much higher with Serbian writers and there is a similarity in their work. I can almost always tell if it is a Balkan writer when I first read a haiku. The war haiku of course, are especially moving and the way Serbs tie in nature with war is amazing as everyone knows.
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an'ya is of Serbian/American heritage, and lives in Oregon, USA. This published haijin previously taught Balkan dance troupes, was a former Nascar-track trophy girl, Slavic foods caterer, and a pre-school teacher. She is the Past-Director/Editor of “beginners” for the World Haiku Club, and the past-editor-in-chief of haigaonline. Currently she is the Editor of the Tanka Society's journal Ribbons. She is the original founder and President of the Oregon haiku and tanka Society, and is now serving as its Vice President.
an'ya has been printed in numerous publications and anthologies and has won quite a few contests (her extended biography can be seen at her website: www.thenatal-lightpress.com ).