in the mid 1990s, by mail, I conducted an interview with Robert
Spiess about haiku and his role as editor of Modern Haiku.
I sent Bob two or three questions at a time. In a letter to me
with his answers to the last questions I sent him, he wrote, "Enclosed
is the continuation of the interview. It has become somewhat lengthy
and I believe it is time to conclude itone, or at most,
two, more questions." We continued to exchange letters, but
after the break that ensued, I never quite got around to continuing
think my main reason for hesitating was that I was unsure which
final questions to ask him. Though I never sent it to him, in
the summer of 1999 I had made a note to myself about a possible
last question I wanted to ask him. It was, "Would you prefer
to be remembered most as an editor or as a poet, and why? And
which do you think you will be remembered most for?" I suspect
he probably wouldnt have had an opinion, perhaps being too
modest to wish that strongly for posterity to remember him either
for his poetry or his editing. Perhaps he would have wanted, instead,
to be remembered for treating poets and others around him with
dignity and respect. I am confident that Bob will be remembered
as both a poet and an editor, as a leader and steady achiever
in both arenas. More important, however, judging by tributes that
surfaced after he died, I believe he will be remembered as a compassionate
human being, as a man who was always more concerned about others
replies to my interview questions were all carefully typed out
on his old Smith-Corona typewriter, usually with no corrections
to the typing, which suggests to me that he must have written
out his answers before typing them, sending me a polished version
of what he wrote. I sent him batches of questions many months
apart; his replies usually came back to me three to eight weeks
after I sent the questions. His only changes to the text were
usually brief additions where he felt the need to expand an answer.
I find it particularly interesting, in nearly two-dozen pages
of typewritten answers, that he crossed out only a single one
of his sentences. It was near the end of the interview. He obviously
had decided that he did not want to say "I try to be reasonably
liberal in my view of haiku." Perhaps, indeed, he realized
in himself that he was a gatekeeper for haiku, and that being
too liberal was not what American haiku needed, or perhaps that
he wrestled with whether he was liberal or not.
who knew Bob Spiess knew him to be humble, with high ethical standards,
a disciplined man of convictionsabout his personal beliefs
and haiku. He seldom talked about himself, though I learned in
one of his letters that he loved to canoe, and lived right by
Starkweather Creek in the town of Middleton on the outskirts of
Madison, Wisconsin. I believe he seldom talked about himself because
of his Buddhist practice and the humility that came from reading
Thoreau and Buddhist texts. He read the entire canon of Thoreaus
writings several times, and he had a phenomenal collection of
books about Buddhism. He considered himself a "theoretical
Buddhist." In talks with his friends about the afterlife
before he died, this was something that fellow Madison haiku poet
Mark Osterhaus and other friends such as Rex Owens and Tim Durfee
kidded him about, yet he remained resolute about this self-assessment
to the end.
have edited Modern Haiku for thirty years, twenty-four
of them as its chief editor, as well as his earlier work with
American Haiku, demonstrates superlative commitment to
the haiku genre. As John Stevenson writes of Bob Spiess, his was
"the first complete life in American haiku." His own
books were varied and remarkable, and frequently received high
praise, including Merit Book Awards from the Haiku Society of
America. Beyond this, though, through the pages of Modern Haiku
he probably shaped the art and craft of writing American haiku
more than any other person, aside, perhaps, from translators such
as R.H. Blyth. He was tireless in responding to submissions with
advice and suggestions, and the occasional correction. He knew
when to encourage a beginner and when to tell a more seasoned
writer that poems from a given submission would not represent
the poet at his or her finest. He was kind and gracious, yet conscientious
and rigorous when he needed to be, not being afraid to take a
clear stand in matters of ethics or scholarship. He was widely
known for saying "not quite" in his letters when poems
didnt make the grade. His kindness in using this endearing
phrase reflected the absolute rather than relative standards I
believe he applied in editing haiku.
believe Bobs humility kept him from knowing, till late in
his life, how widely loved and praised he was. Certainly he had
his faults, but a few key events clearly recognized his exemplary
contribution to American haiku. Perhaps the first of these was
the Haiku North America conference that took place at Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois in 1999. Bob had not traveled
to any previous Haiku North America conference, and in fact many
haiku poets had never met him before. He had attended the 1995
Haiku Chicago conference, probably because the event was also
not too far from Madison, and that was where I first met him in
person. At the 1999 HNAs Saturday-night banquet, at a reading
for contributors to the third edition of Cor van den Heuvels
The Haiku Anthology, Bob was one of the readers. Most people
had never heard him read before. While other readers were applauded,
only Bob drew a spontaneous and prolonged standing ovation by
all the conference attendees. It was a moment of impromptu appreciation,
a moment that turned into minutes, that left Bob visibly moved
second prominent honor was his being named, in spring of 2000,
as the honorary curator of the American Haiku Archives in Sacramento.
Every year the archives advisory board appoints an annual
honorary curator, and Bob was the committees unanimous choice
for the 200001 term.
third and probably his greatest honor was Bobs receipt,
in the autumn of 2000, of the very first Shiki International Haiku
Award from the Ehime prefectural government in Matsuyama, Japan.
The prize, which included a first-class plane trip to Japan and
¥500,000 (approximately $5,000), was awarded at a special
ceremony on September 10. Lee Gurga has told me that he had to
beg Bob to go, and even arranged for some of his editorial duties
to be lessened so he would feel more free to attend the ceremony.
Even so, he almost did not go, and literally had to be coaxed
to the airport. After the trip, though, Bob was clearly deeply
touched and humbled by the honor, and delighted at last to have
made a trip to Japan.
much more personal honor awaited Bob. At the instigation of Charles
Trumbull in the early fall of 2001, news was spread through the
Internet, unbeknownst to Bob, about Bobs forthcoming eightieth
birthday. Haiku poets everywhere were invited to send Bob a special
message on October 16, 2001. To save Bob the trouble of carting
extra loads of mail from his post office box, people were asked
to use Bobs home address. The mail carrier must have loved
that! Apparently several hundred letters, cards, and other tributes
poured into his mailbox at 2830 Tomahawk Court.
the official public awards and honors, I suspect this final honorthe
cards and letters from many hundreds of fans, friends, and fellow
poetswas probably the one Bob cherished the most. The outpouring
of appreciation came from individual people, from seasoned poets
who had long been influenced by him, from beginning poets who
had only just been touched by his guidance. Mark Osterhaus has
told me that "Bob had a lot of incredibly solid friendships
with a variety of people who didnt know each otherBob
was the hub and his friends were the spokes." Many of these
spokes of friendship became apparent in the time just before Bob
died, and new friendships formed as they came together around
him, perhaps an unspoken memorial in honor of Bobs influence.
there was still more. In February 2002, Bob made the decision
that he could no longer continue to edit Modern Haiku. He prepared
a letter to be made public to explain that health reasons made
it necessary for him to turn the reins of Modern Haiku over to
Lee Gurga. When Bob was later hospitalized, word quickly spread
through the haiku world about his illness, though Bob himself
did not go to any effort to tell anyone that he was sick. Messages
of love, appreciation, respect, and support flowed again, this
time with increased thanks and compassion and with ardent wishes
for improved health. They came in by the hundreds, many of them
faxes or phone calls to Bobs hospice bed, and the nurses
and other staff, when they had time, and the friends who visited
regularly, would read the messages to Bob. Mark Osterhaus reported
to me that Bob was more touched by the letters and phone calls
he received at this time than anything else in his life. Mark
told me of talking with Bob in the hospice as he took his walker
down the hall. Over and over Bob expressed his amazement at the
outpouring of concern and affection. "I had no idea,"
Bob said, "that there were so many people out there who cared
so much to take the time to write."
struck me as energetic when I last saw him in 1999 (I recall the
beam of his ready smile and the glint of delight in his eyes).
None of us imagined at the time of his eightieth birthday in October
of 2001 that he would pass away fewer than five months later.
of course, he is gone. His cancer, when it was discovered, had
already spread to too many organs for surgery to be of any help.
He chose to forego chemotherapy, choosing simply to accept medication
to lessen his pain. In the end, when he felt he could no longer
be himself, he asked to be taken off hydration and passed away
a few days later.
each haiku, life connects to life. I think haiku has great power
because its very ordinariness can become extraordinary by the
careful choice of juxtaposed details (Bob always insisted that
the juxtaposition or "turn" in the poem was vital to
its success). Haiku brings life to life, not just in the sense
of making experience alive, but in bringing the observation and
awareness of ones own existence to the attention of another
person, resulting in the joy of shared experience. We see ourselves
more clearly for what we are in the larger natural world. We see
each other more clearly through our poems. And we see, through
our poems, as the earth turns on its poles, facing an ever-arriving
sunrise of the infinite now, that we are a community not in competition
with each other but in cooperation. For several decades, Bob found
himself at the center of this community, as a humble leader, and
as a fine poet with a determined and clear voice. No wonder he
observed, in concluding A Years Speculations on Haiku,
his book of observations about the way of haiku, that "Haiku
poets memorialize the ephemeral moment." Bob Spiess would
probably consider his own life to be ephemeral, his own contributions
to haiku literature to be of no great consequence, or at least
that no fuss need be made about him. I think the best memorial
we can give him, in contrast to the dismissal I imagine he might
give of himself, is to continue writing haiku, to continue to
memorialize the ephemeral moment, as he himself wished to do.
Every moment of life should remind us, and death clearly does
remind us, that the fleeting moments we seek to capture in haiku
are impermanent. Yet, as Bob also wrote, "that impermanence
allows us to be creatively free, [for] if the universe were fixed,
true creativity would not be possible." Heres to this
freedom, to the ephemeral moment, and to the eternal now. And
heres to Robert Spiess, poet, editor, and friend, a true
pillar in the temple of haiku, and the greatest gatekeeper of
with Robert Spiess
Dylan Welch: How and when did you first become interested in haiku?
What keeps you thriving with it?
Spiess: It was in the late 30s or very early 40s that I became
acquainted with haiku, through the writings of such personages
as Amy Lowell, Yone Noguchi, Lafcadio Hearn, Harold Hendersons
The Bamboo Broom, and Asataro Miyamoris An Anthology
of Haiku Ancient and Modern. The sheer simplicity of expression
and brevity of the poems enthralled me, for it was during this
time in my life that a strong interest in poetry was developing.
War II brought a three-and-a-quarter-year hiatus in my continuation
with haiku. After the war, my fascination with haiku returned
and I read such works as Kenneth Yasudas A Pepper Pod,
and the four volumes of R.H. Blyths Haiku as they
began writing haiku along with other poetry, and the first haiku
I had published (may it rest in peace) was in early 1949 in American
Poetry Magazine. In 1963 I saw the first issue of American
Haiku in a bookstore in Madison. AH was the first magazine
to be devoted entirely to English-language haiku. I was greatly
taken by the publication and submitted a few of my haiku, of which
two were published in the second issue.
of the reasons I may be "thriving" (thank you for the
kind word) with Modern Haiku is that the attributes and
qualities of haiku are so myriad. I am continually stimulated
by receiving excellent haiku with new and deeper or higher perceptions
in them; and I delight in being able to introduce new haiku poets,
and to encourage others who are writing "not quites."
In the thirty years since you became associated with American
Haiku, how do you think English-language haiku has changed?
Are we writing better haiku now? What have we learned?
Perhaps the most obvious change has been in the increased use
of much freer forms or structures for haiku instead of the formal
or classic 575 syllabic pattern. Also, haiku have
become tauter, fewer words; there is less syllable-counting. There
is more experimental work, such as concrete haiku, but these often
tend to be tours de force rather than genuine haiku.
believe there are relatively fewer haiku being written that are
merely similes or metaphors, and also less anthropomorphism, pathetic
fallacy, personification, and so forth. The subjects included
in haiku are more diversethe city, persons, the homeless,
poverty, destruction of the environment, social concerns, and
many othersthere are still too many haiku that are only
recordings of stimuli or just journalistic or scientific descriptions.
it is not possible to know the number of haiku that were written
each year in the 1960s or the number that are now being written
each year, so the proportion of good haiku then and now cannot
be determined. To answer your question, however, I once did an
analysis of the overall quality of haiku published then and now.
I took 100 haiku in sequence (omitting senryu) from Vol. II, No.
2 (1964) of American Haiku, an issue for which both James
Bull and I selected the haiku, and paired them with 100 haiku
in sequence (omitting minimals and haiku that were in a sequence
or group) from Modern Haiku Vol. XXV, No. 3 (1994), for
which I was the sole selector. I evaluated haiku #1 from AH with
haiku #1 from MH, #2 with #2, etc.
evaluations resulted in:
of the haiku in AH were better than MH haiku.
54 of the MH haiku were better than their AH counterparts.
23 were ties.
we would be forced to break the ties, we probably would give half
to AH and half to MH. Then we get a ratio of 65H for MH to 34H
for AH. Either way (with or without breaking ties) it seems that
published haiku now are of better quality than those that were
published thirty years ago.
Through many years you have distinguished yourself as both a poet
and editor. How do you differentiate these two aspects of yourself?
To coin an oxymoron, I suppose I could say that I need to be "integratively
schizoid!" But realistically, as editor of a haiku journal
I must be openly aware and appreciative of those now-moments of
haiku that others have and of which I as a poet and an individual
person might not have been able to experience due either to my
environment or particular sensitivity-opaqueness. As editor, I
need to be able to say to myself when reading the haiku of others,
"Hey, thats neat! As poet myself I never would have
been able to have perceived that event-experience the way that
Tell me about some of your other poetic influences. Which non-haiku
poets have most affected you? What might you talk to them about
if you could spend an afternoon together?
I have no idea as to what degree I have been influenced in my
haiku by particular writers, excluding the vast panoply of those
with whom all of us are familiar, such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth,
Keats, Whitman, etc. Since first coming upon the poetry of Emily
Dickinson I have been enamored of her poems, and have wondered
about what might have been created by her in the line of haiku
had she been acquainted with them. I am also deeply taken by the
Chinese poets with their genius for the concrete and for their
favoring intuition over intellect, the holistic over the dualistic.
Even the Chinese yin-yang concept is in essence unitive or holistic.
Thoreau, too, is in the top group, of course. In addition to having
read his Walden, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, A Week on the Concord
and Merrimac Rivers, etc., I have read twice the one million
words of the fourteen volumes of his Journals.
There are so many other writers I feel indebted to that I would
have to undergo hypnosis to recall them, but a few that immediately
come to mind are Emerson, Robert Frost and Robert Francis, John
Clare, Gilbert White for his The Natural History of the Selborne,
Diasetz T. Suzuki, Frithjof Schuon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Lama
Anagarika Govinda, Saigyô, Santôka, Robinson Jeffers,
A.E. Housman, Lorine Niedecker, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Masao
Abe, the cloistered French nun Carmen Bernos de Gasztold for her
Prayers from the Ark and The Creatures Choir.
What are some of the best rewards that surprise you as editor
of Modern Haiku?
In general, I try to take each day as it comes and act in accordance
with what it brings, not to be particularly concerned with the
future or to lament aspects of the pastalthough I try to
avoid repeating past errors. Perhaps there is a streak of Taoism
I deeply appreciate the kind words about MH and the works of its
contributors, I do not keep a scrapbook of them. As for letters
of rebuke (mild or strong), I try to give appropriate consideration
to them and institute remedial actions if they seem advisable.
My fulfillment in editing MH comes from trying to make it a superior
English-language haiku periodical, a journal rather than another
haiku magazine, for it to be a forum for the best haiku and the
various views about the haiku genre. I am in agreement with Linchi,
who remarked in reference to what poets lives should be
like: "They have naught to do but go on with their life as
they find it in the different circumstances of their earthly existence.
They quietly arise in the morning, dress, and go to their place
of work." And now my place of work is the desk (actually
a large teakwood table) of Modern Haiku.
About how many poems and articles does Modern Haiku receive
and publish every year? How have these numbers changed in the
past 20 years?
MH currently publishes some 800 or so haiku and senryu yearly,
15 haibun, 20 essays and articles, 3035 book reviews and
translations of foreign haiku. I estimate that 12,00014,000
haiku and senryu are received each year. This is considerably
more than, say, ten years ago, and the number increases each year.
One time I received 250 haiku in a single submission, all being
about the Hawaiian Islands by a person who had visited there.
Not one was accepted.
percentage of haibun and essays that are accepted is significantly
higher than the percentage of accepted haiku; and I believe that
the proportion of senryu received and accepted in relation to
haiku slowly increases.
a haiku passes my initial screening, I read it aloud in order
to gain a deeper feeling for it, for it is the rhythm, the music
of the words that carries or contains the essence of real felt-significance
of the haiku. Before a haiku can be anything within the genre
it first must be a poem, not some sort of intellective message
that merely transmits information. Genuine haiku poets accept
the view of the renowned physicist-philosopher Werner Heisenberg
(formulator of the uncertainty principle in physics) that the
universe can be perceived as being made out of music and not matter.
Modern Haiku was ranked second out of sixty in the "New
Poets" category by Writers Digest which ranks
those markets that often publish poets whose work is new to their
publication. Although I do not give new haiku poets any breaks
by accepting their work if it is not up to standard, I do encourage
their efforts and devote some time to replying and try to point
out both the good and undesirable aspects of their work.
problem in editing MH concerns haiku that are very similar to
ones that have been published in the past. Of course, I cannot
recall all the haiku I have read in my life, but certain haiku
often trigger my recollection of their being remarkably similar
to haiku I have previously seen. New haiku poets seldom have read
many of the haiku that have been published over the years, so
they believe that haiku on such subjects as the following are
unique: a kite or the moon caught in the branches of a tree; the
wind lifting the wing of a dead bird or the wind moving a rocking
chair on the porch where grandpa, who is now dead, used to sit
and rock; looking at oneself in the mirror one day and seeing
the face of ones mother or father; the tide erasing ones
footprints; and the last leaf falling from the tree (with the
last words often arranged in a fluttering down manner. Lately
there have been several haiku received on the subject of hearing
the voice of someone, now dead, on a telephone recording device.
I am nonetheless amazed at the number of haiku being written on
subjects that essentially have not been touched upon before, or
which perceive in a fresh manner subjects that often had been
How do you balance your inner needs as a poet and your routine
obligations as an editor?
I hope it is evident from the contents of Modern Haiku,
both haiku and prose, that, regardless of my own "type"
of haiku, I am appreciative of a wide range of haiku and the various
opinions about it. My few anathemas are against the merely novelty
haiku; sentimental and pretty-pretty ones; intellective comments
masquerading in haiku form; salacity; prose in the semblance of
haiku; shop-worn and trite subjects; the "Japanesque";
the banal, ego-centered haiku; and I suppose a few other kinds
of haiku more or less of this ilk.
Some poems are obviously not haiku, some poems are haiku, and
some are good haiku. As editor, to what extent do you see yourself
as a "gatekeeper" for the genre?
If haiku publications did not have "gatekeepers" (read:
responsible editors) then anyone could publish a haiku magazine;
all they would need to do is open the envelopes, see if the pages
had print on them that was not a letter of inquiry, assemble the
pages and send them to the printer. Voilà!a haiku
hope that my fifty-five years of interest in and study of haiku
and very many years of being an associate or full editor of haiku
publications have allowed me to learn the rudiments, and by luck
a bit more, of what constitutes the various levels of haiku quality.
I do not believe that if an author produces a piece and calls
it a haiku that it necessarily or automatically should be considered
such, for the writer can be too close to her/his own work and
too emotionally attached to determine the quality of the haiku,
or even if it is a haiku and not some other type of writing. Physicians
and attorneys, for example, need to undergo a period of training
before they are allowed to set up a practice. Perhaps neophyte
haiku poets should be a bit cautious before they hang a shingle
reading "Haiku Poet."
different haiku editors may assess any given haiku in a dissimilar
manner, but editors who are honest with themselves can determine
from letters received how their publications are doing. By "honest
with themselves" I mean that they can recognize letters of
mere flattery from critical ones from persons who have achieved
some stature in the haiku genre.
suppose that my standards for assessing haiku, aside from such
conditions as breath-length, etc., are: Am I innerly stirred by
it? Does it evoke a responsive chord in me? Do I feel or have
kinship with what the haiku portrays? Yes, I miss on some both
ways: being feelingly obtuse about some and rejecting them (fortunately
there are other haiku publications), or perhaps being a bit sentimental
about others and accepting them when later, after seeing them
in print, I have second opinions. I try to be reasonably liberal
in my view of haiku, but tend to avoid what appears to be mere
What responsibilities do you see Modern Haiku having to
English-language haiku at large? And what about to poetry at large?
I think most people would agree that Modern Haiku is the
premier haiku publication in the world outside Japan.
As editor of MH I believe that my responsibility to English-language
haiku is to produce the best haiku magazine that I am capable
of, and this entails the journals being a forum for various
viewpoints about the haiku genre regardless of my personal concepts,
though the articles and essays must be more than mere opinion
that does not have substantive foundations.
time to time I receive comments that MH should also publish tanka.
Since there are other publications that do this, however, and
as MH received enough good haiku, senryu, haibun, essays on haiku,
and reviews of haiku books to fill its pages, I refrain from expanding
its coverage of poetry genres.
really do not know how much haiku is published in high quality
poetry magazines, but suspect that it is very little, and the
few "haiku" that I occasionally do see (often by name
non-haiku poets) usually are rather bad. Haiku is actually such
a complex genre that general poetry editors seldom seem to realize
its unique attributes as poetrymost unfortunate.
In the 1980s and 90s haiku seems to have blossomed in various
countries around the world. What are your thoughts on world haiku?
Do you think it can or should be different from American and Japanese
From the proliferation of haiku publications and organizations
in countries other than the U.S., Japan, and Canada, it is apparent
that the writing of haiku has become almost worldwide. MH receives
and publishes haiku from many countries. This certainly helps
us in the U.S. to feel-realize the perceptions, conditions of
life, attitudes and so forth, that haiku poets in other countries
have, and this is a cultural boon for us. This being said, however,
it is also important for there to be local haiku publications
in these places, for I find that the best haiku are created by
persons who are in tune or in vital accord with their locality
and its unique conditions.
am not sure of the reasons for the world-wide burgeoning of interest
in haiku, but surmise that part of it is due to an increase in
sensitivity among a number of poets with concern for the destruction
of our natural habitats, with the sense that we are becoming too
alienated from our roots in nature.
years ago, in the first of four lectures at the University of
Chicago, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the internationally distinguished
philosopher and professor of religion, remarked that nearly everyone
who lives in metropolitan centers in the West has an intuitive
feeling of a lack of something in life. This, he fully believes,
is because of their artificial environment from which nature has
been excluded to an extreme degree. The void created by the loss
of nature in human life tends to manifest itself in many ways,
sometimes taking violent and desperate forms. There can be no
peace in human society and within ones self as long as there
is an attitude of aggression toward nature and the entire natural