An American poet and artist. Richard is the founder and developer of drifting-sands-haibun.org, and an active haibun, tanka prose, haiku/senryu, tanka, and haiga poet. Richard has authored several books including Peace, Fly on a Wall, Traveler, Longevity: Poems in the Key of Helen, and Perspective.. He also happens to be a fabulous artist
Tête-à-Tête: Richard Grahn
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(Neena Singh, Guest Editor, The Wise Owl in conversation with Richard Grahn)
The Wise Owl talks to Richard Grahn, an American poet and artist, born in Wisconsin in 1959, and currently living in Evanston, Illinois. He has travelled extensively and has been writing poetry and creating art for over 30 years. He started writing short-form and prose poetry in earnest in 2016 as an outlet for coping with illness. He has since been recognized and published extensively in publications such as Atlas Poetica, Haibun Today, Contemporary Haibun Online, among others. Richard is the founder and developer of drifting-sands-haibun.org, and an active haibun, tanka prose, haiku/senryu, tanka, and haiga poet. Richard has authored several books including Peace, Fly on a Wall, Traveler, Longevity: Poems in the Key of Helen, and Perspective.
Thank you, Richard, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl.
RG: Namaste, Neena, and thank you for this opportunity to spend some time with you and your readers.
NS: You are a poet, a composer, a sculptor, and a photographer—a multi-faceted personality indeed. Our readers would be curious to know how you evolved, developed and juggled such diverse creative skills?
RG: Well, the short answer is that I wrote an 80,000-word autobiography titled Burn this Book (unpublished), which partially answers the question. To summarize, I believe it started with an unmoored childhood, flitting around the country, learning to adapt to a variety of new environments, cultures, and social settings. Perpetually, the ‘new kid on the block,’ I found myself, more often than not, on the outside looking in. This left me to my own devices and in my own world of imagination, adventure, and experimentation. I became very good at entertaining myself. I was also an avid reader during those days, which fostered my awe of the world and my creative nature.
As for juggling, I am what is known, in a tiny circle, as a Bad Juggler, one of a group of college students whose goals in life included trying every art form and media on the planet as we could cram into a couple of semesters. We were a true mixed media collective of Zen-curious, hippie-centric, rock climbing, bongo banging, paint slinging, bronze casting, wiffle ball fanatics who, instead of getting drunk at fraternity parties, threw mellow art gatherings in our homes. And yes, we were bad jugglers but always working on getting better at it. That has never left me. From early in life, I have been juggling very badly, but juggling all the same.
I now have a sort of aversion to repeating myself creatively. I feel there is so much to explore that I must keep moving into fresh territory, which is where I seem to thrive. Some of my best work in any media seems to come from my very early encounters with it, when it is new to me, when I am in a state of complete discovery, before I know the rules. It is one reason I only play improvised music and, also, why I love writing, because I get to go off in new directions each time I sit at the keys (my piano/synth or my computer).
Back to juggling. I often have a lot of balls in the air, but there are also always some on the ground.
NS: For the benefit of the reader please tell us a little about your journey as a poet. We would also like to know how and why you switched from conventional poetry to short poetry especially the Japanese genres of poetry like haiku, tanka, senryu etc.
RG: I have no formal education in poetry. My paternal grandmother read extensively to us when we were very young, and that included poetry. I never even read much poetry until very late in life. That said, I have always had an attraction to—without a label to attach to it—lyrical prose. It probably started in my fascination with Rudyard Kipling's writings (Just So Stories), which my grandmother read so eloquently it was the same as poetry, and with Kipling, it's hard to draw a line between prose and poetry, anyway. So, from a very early age, I've had an affinity for prose.
As for conventional poetry, I have muddled in it on and off for years, but never really created anything I felt was worth anything. Just ‘the moon's in tune with I love you June’ kind of stuff. My prose, on the other hand, was getting lyrical. I was paying attention (subconsciously) to cadence, internal rhyme, metaphor, simile, and other poetic devices. Some people early on called my writing ‘flowery.’ Even my college essays were flowery.
I discovered the Japanese genres after suffering a serious mental breakdown following a series of devastating life events. During my recovery, I started writing haiku and senryu, and later tanka. I discovered these forms through Facebook while institutionalized with nothing better to do with my time. I cannot overstate the healing effect on me of writing and of writing these forms. This changed my life and led to a full recovery.
Eventually, I stumbled onto haibun, and the circle was complete. What little I knew of haiku came together with my knack for prose and they were a perfect fit. I still struggle with haiku; it's a very sophisticated and difficult to become proficient at (let alone master of) this form of expression.
I still dabble in conventional poetry, and I think it's improved due to all the haibun and tanka prose writing I've done over the past few years. I don't submit it though. It's purely for enjoyment or to share with special people in my life.
NS: I was listening to your composition ‘Breadcrumbs’ and looking at some of your sculptures. You clearly love experimenting with music as well as shapes and materials. Even your poetry does not tread the beaten track (I especially loved your onomatopoeic ‘om’ in Meditation) What inspires you to innovate and experiment?
RG: As I mentioned earlier, I love adventure and discovery—new (to me) experiences. In this sense, I am a blatant consumer of the fruits of my own imagination, emotions, memories, and dreams as they interact with the outside world. Art is a very personal thing. I don't think you'll find an artist out there who isn't at least a little off the beaten track.
The most unbeaten track I know of seems to lie within. At least it's so overgrown in there that it's all unfamiliar territory for me. With something as simple as climbing a tree, the foggy memory takes on a whole new life as it mingles with the experiences of a lifetime on the page. Suddenly it becomes something you never imagined it was when it was happening. You never really know what an experience is, what a memory is, until you have lived with it for a lifetime. It just keeps evolving, and in that sense, it is always new.
Another angle on innovation and experimentation is that the world desperately needs actual solutions. Part of what artists do is to move people's minds. I feel art is a critical component of any tangible evolution in the human collective psyche that is necessary to foster genuine change for the future of humanity and the planet. It may be this thought, above all others, that drives my need to create and innovate, and to encourage others to do the same.
NS: You are the founder and developer of Drifting-Sands-Haibun.org. Our readers would love to know what made you set up a website devoted to promoting an understanding of English language haibun and other Japanese genres of poetry?
RG: I truly believe that haibun and the haiku-related arts saved my life. They came along when life was so very dark and hopeless, and showed me I have something to offer this world. The people, the community, I encountered during this healing period provided the support and inspiration I could find nowhere else. To those people and these forms, I owe an unpayable debt of gratitude. I simply took what I know how to do and applied it to the thanks-giving process, that being web design.
I never envisioned myself as an editor, but it seems that's become my role, among other things. So, I created a learning experience for myself—not something completely foreign to me or unwelcome. Just that sometimes, I think I'm in miles over my head. I get a great deal of satisfaction in knowing I've helped someone grow or learn or enjoy or just find a little peace or healing. I want others to benefit from what I've learned. I wasn't taught these life lessons just to keep them to myself. If someone else can benefit, I'm all about sharing them. Hence, Drifting Sands.
NS: Our readers include a lot of budding poets who are honing their haiku & haibun writing skills. What advice would you give them?
RG: Well, I'll stay away from defining or outlining the rules of the road or blueprints for success, but I will talk a little about what seems to work for me.
Virtually everything I write comes from personal experience, even if it's pure fiction. Somewhere, there's a seed of the familiar. I don't know about anything better than I know myself and my own experiences, yet sometimes the writing is a journey to discover things about myself heretofore unknown. That doesn't mean being self-centred, just relatable. People can relate to real-life experiences.
I usually write in the present tense. There's nothing quite like bringing the reader right into the moment with you.
I also use a good grammar and spelling checker. Editors love that kind of stuff. I'm no English professor so a good tool is a crucial piece of the puzzle for me.
Brevity: I'll quote my college professor, Dr. Ritner, who said, "Never say with 100 words what you can say with ten" and "Get out the bloat!" As a Dr. of Literature, he also recommended "Daily doses of dictionary."
NS: You have authored several books—Peace, Fly on a Wall, Traveler, Longevity, and Perspective. What was the inspiration behind writing these books?
RG: Well, I just wrote poems. I have five defunct computers in my closet with data on them I'd like to recover some day, including early poetry. The point there is, I've had a hard time compiling it all into a cohesive body of work. Books seemed like a way to get at least some of it compiled. I also, like other artists I know, enjoy sharing my work with others. Books are a great way to do that. They also seem to have a better shelf-life than computers.
All but one of my books (Longevity) are self-published. With Longevity, I went back into my repository and looked specifically for poems of a particular flavour. The other books are simply random collections. Longevity focuses on positive things, uplifting messages that reflect the spirit of my grandmother, Helen, who was such an important influence in my life. I wanted a book that left the reader feeling good about themselves and the world, to see the beauty in it. I wrote these poems as I healed from a psychological breakdown. As I told myself to focus on the good in life, and to let go of the pain, the anger, the feelings of abandonment, and loss, and fear, and sorrow. I wanted to share this healing with others. I wanted to share her healing spirit with the world. So, I didn't set out to write the book; it wrote itself and I just put it together—with love.
NS: Who is your favourite poet (among ancient masters as well as contemporary writers) and what is it about the poetry that attracts you?
RG: As far as ‘ancient’ poets go. The one I am most familiar with is Homer. I read a prose translation of the Odyssey as a teenager and am currently working my way through Emily Wilson's translation (written in Iambic pentameter). The poetic reading seems much richer to me than the prose version I read as a kid, though the poem would have probably been harder for me to get through back then.
Speaking of ancient poetry, I have read portions of the Bhagavad Gita and find it very inspiring and insightful. Here's something I keep on my refrigerator door.
“The wise man lets go of all
results, whether good or bad,
and is focused on the action alone.” ~Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa
I grew up reading authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Herman Melville, which. should give you an idea of where my prosaic inclinations and love for exploration and adventure took root.
As for contemporary poets, some of my favorites are/were also musicians/songwriters: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Paul Simon, John Lennon, etc. There's something about mixed media that's very appealing to me and nothing fits together quite like poetry and music. Poetry, in and of itself, is a very musical medium.
Then there are the likes of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and E. E. Cummings on my short list.
I am attracted to poetry because it is healing for me. And it offers a way for me to communicate my deepest thoughts and lightest moments with others. I hope that in that communication process, others find meaning, healing, and growth in their own lives. I hope that through this connection with the reader, I plant a seed that moves the entire human race, one person at a time, toward a better future, one that provides us common ground to stand on. Creativity is the gift. I was taught not to waste. I don't see it as a pastime or a hobby; I see it as a responsibility, one I embrace with all that I am.
NS: If we were to ask you to define yourself (as a creative poet & artist) in three words, what would they be?
RG: Curious, philosophical, passionate.
Thank you so much Richard for talking to The Wise Owl. It was indeed a pleasure to interact with a multi-faceted creative poet/artist who also takes time out to promote haibun and other Japanese genres of poetry. We wish you the very best in all your creative endeavours. The World needs people like you to make it more beautiful and musical.
Dhanyavaad, Neena. I enjoyed this opportunity immensely, and appreciate the opportunity to share some of my journey with you and your readers.