The National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity predicts that 'the poverty population will be composed solely of women and their children by the year 2000.' 2
Interviewer: What is haiku?
Marlene Mountain: You would start with that question . . .
I: It seemed like the obvious one. You've been writing haiku for a while, and I rather assumed you'd have come to some sort of conclusion or answer.
M: I suppose I have, off and on. Definitions, though, have a way of restricting the natural growth of an art, and right now I'm more interested in how art might be broadened. But if defining is necessary, then I like the idea of having lots of opinions. I think Western haiku has a much larger base than it had in the early years.
I: Poets now, you feel, have more options?
M: As a whole we do, but individually we're pretty much stuck with how we see-think-feel at a particular stage in our understanding. We get into a 'style' and more or less stay in it. Yet, it is the distinctly individual voice--a Ray Roseliep, a Gary Hotham, a Matsuo Allard--which is exciting; however, we wouldn't want haiku to be limited to a few styles or even to many.
I: Do you have a style?
M: Let's say I've had a style. Or more accurately an attitude. I perceived the world around me through art and through the objects I saw as art (I was very attracted to inanimate objects such as a tin roof, a garden hose, a cement block), and attempted to express this attitude in the least number of words. Human relationships and, to a certain extent, natural phenomena were more in the background.
I: And now?
M: It's only recently that I've realized that my haiku have been in transition for several years and understood the direction they have been/are taking. Many of my perceptions of life have changed and, therefore, my perceptions of art have changed.
Those objects of haiku, the concrete images for instance, which at one time seemed quite 'enough' in themselves are no longer prominent; rather, they seem to be backdrops for human relationships, for, if I may, the daily life drama.
Also, the haiku are not objective as they once were. Not only are they more personal, but now I even interpret a situation/image:
it would have made sense
the speeding ticket getting home
rather than to work
In a sense, I've reversed, and I now see art in terms of the world around me.
I: What do you think has caused this reversal?
M: As I implied, it's certainly not been an over-night change. Art for me, though, has always been evolutionary; as a painter I passed through romantic landscape, figurative, abstract expressionism, assemblage, hard-edge, and minimalism/conceptualism, so I've come to expect change. As I look back now, however, I stopped painting (in 1969) about the time that a new attitude toward art was in the air.
I: Didn't you start writing haiku about that time?
M: Yes, though poorly. It was a starting-out-again process. And, as with painting, I eventually wrote myself into a minimal language. Haiku, in a sense, continued the development of a 'clean well-lighted' approach. During the mid-seventies I was about on the same level in haiku as I had been in painting when I left off. The haiku came to reflect a minimum of emotions as well as words.
I: You've since returned to painting, and your haiku
changed . . . back to the question of cause.
M: Though I hadn't painted in several years, I had continued to think visually--through photography and visual haiku and by just refining space and shape relationships in my head, but I had no interest in painting. Until the summer of 1977 I wasn't aware that there was any avenue in art other than what, for convenience, I call the NYC male art thinking, and though I had developed visually during and because of the late 50s, 60s and early 70s art, I had become dissatisfied with those attitudes. But human nature doesn't readily allow us to give up old ideas if we've nothing to replace them with. So, you might say, I had continued to be visual and minimal and conceptual. But, back to '77: I was exposed to a few ideas about 'women's art' which completely turned my head around.
I: '77? By then the women's movement had been around for several years . . .
M: I had not really understood what it was about. TV and popular magazines didn't--and still don't--portray the depth. I only began to understand when I saw/read the art, the ideas inherent in the art. But it took a while to digest what I'd encountered--and I'm still digesting.
I: Which came about first, the new haiku or the painting?
M: My first ventures into women's art were a few haiku. The visual stirrings came a year or so later--and since I had not considered myself a painter for ten years, I'm not sure what initially caused that return. It's quite possible I felt that haiku could not encompass this new content.
I: What do you mean by 'new content'?
M: Maybe I should explain old content a little. For a minimal painter, the content of a rectangle is a rectangle and the content of red is red. (How's that for a minimum of a definition?)
I: And haiku?
M: That's a bit harder to explain; we speak of the 'wordless poem.' As I learned more about the many social issues with which women artists were involved, haiku, at first, didn't seem to have enough room for words (regardless of the syllable count).
Let me simplify by saying that the new potential of art seemed very very different; I don't believe it would have mattered which style of painting or which style of haiku had been my previous direction. There was an explosion. What began happening was a pretty scary experience: much of what I had considered art took a nose-dive, thoughts that I'd never associated with art surfaced. Here I was again starting all over, but not feeling the process simply as evolutionary.
I: What do you mean--as that relates to haiku?
M: I think many of us have come to think of haiku as objective, as 'pure,' even as an art of noncommittal--as crows on branches, moons reflected in windows, and shadows here and there, all highly imagistic. In my new thinking, just to make art no longer seemed wholly valid. I doubt that I would have returned to painting just to make art. This feeling spilled over into my concept of haiku. A poetry of nouns, of image-making, of objectivity--these kinds of approaches just didn't seem to be enough.
I: A lot of people would disagree with that entirely.
M: I'm aware of that. And I realize that many people will disagree with the distinction of women's art. Especially in haiku, where we tend to think of it as a non-sexist art (as compared to other arts which are dominated by male thought). But I've come to see a need for distinction. And on a personal level, if I may exaggerate, I want to find what might come from the other side of my brain, the side that is not so influenced by male thought, nor even by the so-called non-sexist point of view.
I've only a partial grasp of content, yet, I believe the directions in both haiku and painting are many. More puzzling to me right now is technique. What technique--what medium even--is most natural, or corresponds more honestly with the content of women's art.
I: I'm still not sure I understand what you mean by a different or new content.
M: Let's take two haiku by Ruth Yarrow:
picking the last pears
yellow windows hang
in the dusk unseen
Warm rain before dawn:
my milk flows into her
'Pears' is a very attractive haiku. It's a good
visual image, employing internal comparison. It's intimate and warm; sensitive.
It's a moment of oneness. 'Milk' also has these qualities. 'Pears' has a rich
color, a feeling of autumn, including and underlying melancholy, and . . .
well, here, for me, it stops (though I'm sure that other readers could suggest
For me, 'milk' does not stop at the image itself, though the image itself is most interesting and quite uncommon in haiku (a new content?). What is really exciting is Yarrow's phrase 'flows into her unseen.' Even 'flow into her' would have been more than adequate as an evocative phrase, but 'unseen,' wow! The intimacy deepens considerably, as it had by the pronoun 'my' (rather than 'her,' although, again, that would have been more than adequate). What is this 'unseen' force which 'flows' from one female into another? Isn't it more than milk, or water, or even blood?
The image is rich in associations which go beyond the un/obvious nurturing of motherhood. The haiku takes women far back into our past. It has inherent within it the past matrilineal (mother-kinship) societies in which women passed their wisdom, their inheritance, and their spirituality onto their daughters. It speaks to a time in which woman was the symbolic as well as the actual presence of the cyclical rhythms of nature. When her nature was nature.
I: That's an interesting reading, however, one might conclude that you've stretched the image . . .
back to 'main contents'
M: The interpretation, of course, is entirely personal. Yet, I'd like to think that I'm not alone in seeing the underlying message.
M: Not only is the haiku a reaffirmation of the uniqueness of female--and the identification therein--it can be seen as a call upon woman to reclaim her ancient heritage. With the Northern Invasions (c. 2400 BC), and continuing through the awesome reversal of customs and priorities, came a loss of the way in which woman pursued life. Whereas, once she was looked upon as inventor of agriculture, music, mathematics, healing, weaving and pottery, architecture, industry, writing, and as Creator, and Mother of All, her gifts came to be usurped, and her opportunities to contribute limited. And, along with this profound loss, woman's image not only diminished but was denigrated.
i do not cry yet the ish-ish of our moon 4
Though progress has been slow, and repression still abounds, woman has begun to regain some of her rightful rights. The image of woman, however, remains clouded with many many misrepresentations. It is in this light, and for these reasons, that a piece such as Yarrow's--with either a covert or an overt reading--can be effective in establishing a spiritual bond with the past, and in restoring woman's original image.
I: You're throwing haiku into the political realm.
M: It's already there. In an age such as ours, omission is as much political as . . .
I: Haiku is not . . .
M: Haiku can be a lot more than pears and yellow windows.
I: Why do you insist upon stressing the political and the female?
M: I'm not stressing the political, rather, I am recognizing its existence, and within this recognition I am involved in reexamining the direction, potential, and truth of both my painting and haiku. At first, I felt that the potential of painting was wide open and that haiku had many built-in limitations. Now, I've come to see it was my own preconception of haiku that was the limitation. I no longer see haiku as a 'pure' art form, protected from the climate of the times
. And, I'm not just stressing the female. However, by being female I'm more likely to be interested (now that I'm finally interested) in content which reflects the image of woman. For generations and generations men have painted, sculpted, and written about women--handing out their not-so-accurate versions. It's only reasonable that we have a say, if not the final word, in what we're about. There's certainly an imbalance in interpretations which only women can correct, though I've found that most women aren't even aware of the imbalance. Art by women about women for women seems a necessary undertaking.
I: That sounds like propaganda. Are you saying that art by women should be reduced to propaganda?
M: Art, in one form or another, has always been propaganda. If you're in the mainstream you just aren't aware of it. But, I don't go along with your term 'reduced to'--it has a negative tone. It reminds me of how words are chosen, i.e., male-deity worship is called a religion, female-deity worship is called a cult. Men are labeled chefs, women cooks. And so on. However, I'd say yes, women's art can incorporate propaganda.
I: This is getting so segregated. Why don't we just have people or human-being art?
M: Yes, I've often wondered about that myself.
I: You turned that back on me.
M: At least, you've asked the question.
I: I'm beginning to see why you don't have a definition of haiku; you've muddied you own water.
M: Oh, I still like a 'moment keenly perceived.'
I: As in . . .
ovulation fold of the mountain scattered with mist
I: That's a bit strange. 'ovulation' isn't a word I'd expect in haiku. 'fold of the mountain scattered with mist' is practically a clichˇ. But, let's see, given your attitude you're stressing the female experience rather than the image of mountain/mist.
M: Yes, and you might take into consideration the mountain as female, reinforcing even further the femaleness of the haiku. Along this line is Michael Dames' discussion of the Silbury Hill, a Neolithic structure built near Stonehenge. Each year the hill, a female symbol for harvest/birth, conceives with the moon, births, and nurses the grain/child. Last year I painted a series of nineteen paintings based on some of his theories. Mountain and moon have become prominent in my paintings.
I: You're digressing. I believe, however, I'm catching onto your attitude. I'm beginning to see that there are moments which only women can write about. I don't know that I'd necessarily call the result women's art.
M: I don't believe that I'm digressing by bringing
up symbols. Women need to develop a collection of positive images with which
to enrich their art as well as their psyche. For me, reference to the mountain
('The first mountain was understood to be synonymous with the goddess and
with her throne . . .' Dames) and the moon as female is a necessary element
in building an esthetic vocabulary as well as personal identification.
Women have a tremendous amount of underlying texture from which to draw, but due to distortion, inversion, and removal of our archetypes, we have a long journey of rediscovery and of reclamation. Even geometric shapes are not as abstract as they might at first appear.5 I believe it's necessary to begin, at least, with the Neolithic era in order to find our symbols.
I: I don't see how this fits into haiku.
M: I'm not saying that symbols per se be incorporated into a haiku, but that the spirituality inherent in them--the identification and affirmation--could evoke or enrich an image.
I: As in . . .
first bleeding of the year 6
The symbol of blood, before its association with Judeo-Christian cultures/mythologies,7 perhaps even before its association with war and violence, was very much a source of female strength and self-esteem. It is believed that all ancient women menstruated together on the new or full moon. Eventually, the menstrual taboo (that which is sacred) 'was imposed in the gynocratic age . . . to protect all women from the rages of their male relatives.' (Davis) Later, however, this taboo was to be inverted as protection for men. From mystery and awe to 'the curse.'
Our culture is far from being comfortable with menstruation and, in fact, there are societies even today which exclude menstruating women from participation in ordinary activities. By selecting, then, this normal event as a moment keenly perceived, it becomes at the very least on a par with other moments keenly perceived. Referring back to politics and propaganda, there is art--including haiku--with the potential of reversing attitudes, of effecting change.
I: I'm tempted to ask if you've made a list of symbols or topics from which to write.
M: That's an idea, but, no . . . I feel that these kinds of perceptions come just as naturally as any other haiku experience. I do think I've a limited vocabulary just by virtue of having limited experience and limited awareness. I'm sort of depending upon other women--at least hoping that other women will want to share their awarenesses and, thereby, open up a new esthetic in haiku. It could be an exciting venture.
I: I've noticed that many of your recent haiku are about the body. Do you contend that physicality is the content of women's haiku?
M: Not at all--though certainly that's an appropriate as well as obvious direction. It's our whole awareness as women--not only that we too experience 'pears/yellow windows,' but that only we experience 'milk/unseen.' It is this latter experience--our spiritual vision--which most intrigues me.
I: Do I detect a ring of separatism?
M: That's an interesting speculation. At the risk of being misunderstood, I'm going to admit to what I feel is a healthy amount of separatism. It's been a necessary element in my growth process. I don't believe it's a prerequisite for all women but, as I mentioned, I was very much addicted to male-thought art. Now, art that moves me the most is art I rarely experience, as expressed in
i've never touched another woman's real painting
I'd like to add, however, that separatism need not be seen as a negative attitude. Quite the reverse: for me, the perimeters of art (content/form) have widened greatly since embracing the concept of women's art.
I: As in . . .
M: Well, I don't know as I've any 'as in' haiku in mind. It's just an over-all feeling; a personal evolution in which I've only gotten my feet wet and, as you've suggested, muddied my own water.
I: Perhaps, though, under a full moon . . .
M: Now, there's a lead-in
i'm committed to your maleness even more to the moon's femaleness
I: These are definitely different from what you describe as your earlier object/concrete image haiku. And they, especially the latter, seem longer. Is this a backlash to short ('bare bones') haiku? It seems that I've heard grumblings from people hear and there.
M: My previous mention of minimalism wasn't intended to negate its value. One of the better directions Western haiku has taken is the so-called minimal haiku. I've certainly learned a lot from that approach. Frankly, though, I'm still hoping for a definition of haiku which has absolutely no mention of syllables: 17 or 12 (a dadaku from several years back: syllablesylly). Also, one-line haiku has been extremely beneficial in the understanding of form.
I think has happened to me is due, in part, to the normal cyclical process. Art innately checks itself by swinging back and forth between classicism/romanticism, austerity/emotionalism (expressionism), purity/programmatic--what ever terms one might use. Hopefully, artists incorporate into the 'pure phase' what is learned in the 'programmatic phase,' and vice versa. We are enriched by each--though, in the long run, 'they' represent a wholeness.
My 'grumblings'/discussions with myself pertain not to the length of haiku, but to the breadth--the openness of emotion and of content. But, I say due in part to the cycle. I don't believe that the difference in attitude would have come about quite yet had I not been stirred by the changes which have taken place in my life and in the lives of many women.
I: Have you an example of an 'emotion(al)' haiku?
M: Perhaps, from a recent experience. A friend I hadn't seen in several months cashing a get-out-of-town check in a crowded store, her small daughter beside her:
leaving him she whispered in the grocery store
After the initial shock, what moved me the most was being told in the grocery store. Our traditional image of women/grocery store: she clips recipes, studies newspaper ad sales, saves coupons (20c off), checks ingredients on the labels, counts the calories, compares prices, attempts a budget, while remembering to get toilet paper and the cereal with a prize that Billie saw this week on TV--all this, and more, before making a 'creative' meal. It wasn't just the twist of situation, but I was flooded with the whole arena of womanhood, from the daily ordinary events to the earth-shaking changes taking place in women's lives. It is these life experiences rather than the concrete art image (if I may oversimplify) which have become more meaningful.
I: And this, you say, is women's art?
M: I don't want my conception (which is still evolving) to package women's art. Each woman has to find her own way. Recently I heard an interview with the painter Willem de Kooning in which he said he was still fascinated by women and, in effect, would feel silly painting men. Needless to say, I had several reactions from 'you'll never get us right' to 'how come you'd feel silly painting men?'
I: In other words, men have to paint men, and women have to paint women?
M: That's not the point at all. Since, however, almost all portraits/images of women in the history of art have been produced by men, it seems only fair and right and necessary and logical that women portray themselves and their understanding of other women. We don't have a 'history' of women--only a history of woman as perceived by men. One-half of the world hasn't been properly identified.
I: As I understand it, there is research being conducted to unearth the artistic contributions of women . . .
M: Virginia Woolf's 'Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman' only hints at the suppression of women's cultural/historical ancestors. What is even more distressing are the centuries of suppressed creativity. We have no idea what art created by women would have been, and how it would have developed; no idea, for instance, how women might have perceived sound/silence, rhythm, and texture in music. Nor what sensibilities they could have brought to bear upon the thinking of men--not just in the arts, but in science, theology, politics, and numerous other areas. We don't know what generations and generations of women thought, felt, said, or saw. That, to me, is separatism.
women have no past but our moon
It would be an understatement to say that I'm disturbed by the continued one-sidedness.
I: But, could it not be said that you've swung to the other extreme?
M: It's hardly extreme to want a balanced representation in art. Nor is it extreme to be dissatisfied with limited options. Nor is it extreme to believe that women can offer alternative answers to existing social problems as well as to the direction of esthetics.
women have plenty to paint
I: Do you mean that any art which any woman creates is 'women's art'?
M: No, I have to make a distinction. Since art is defined by male culture, most women are working within the culture's limitations. But, it really isn't as simply answered as that. Since we have no tradition to speak of, and since we are so embedded with 'mainstream' thinking, defining/making a true women's art is a complex undertaking.
I: Do women, then, have to 'give up' what they know?
M: I see the process more as a searching for rather than as a giving up. No doubt, though, there must be a certain amount of sifting and sorting, declining and accepting, and balancing. There are many more concepts to discover and to embrace than there to negate.
I: And you insist upon calling the result women's art?
M: I feel it's quite valid to call specific attention to what women create. I'm not in favor of using the term as a 'label.' It's up to individual women to contribute to the overall concept, to expand it.
I: Is women's art, then, a forever situation?
M: I'd say it's very necessary until there's a truer understanding of female sensibilities and her offerings--and, beyond that, of individuality. Today's woman has much to offer and, I feel, has an obligation to give voice.
'Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.' Adrienne Rich 8
M: i'm glad your voice isn't calm notes
Self-interview, July 1981.
2 'Newsletter,' Tennessee Commission on the Status of Women, Nashville, May 1981.
3 Cicada 5:1 Haiku Society of Canada.
4 Asiatic word, 'she who weeps,' referring to the moon goddess Isis (and, most likely, Ishtar).
5 Triangles, associated with caves in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Ages, are said to represent the womb/labia. Fused triangles (at one time the insignia of Ishtar, subsequently known as the Star of David) represent the self-fertilizing (parthenogenetic) power of the female. The diamond, composed of two triangles, also represents the womb and is of ancient female origins. Other symbols, as the Egyptian ankh, snakes, and yin/yang were originally female and have been usurped or inverted by male religions/mythologies.
6 Cicada 5:1 Haiku Society of Canada.
7 'The blood of Isis, the virtue of Isis, the magic power of Isis, the magic power of the Eye, are protecting this great one.' Incantation from the BOOK OF THE DEAD.
8 Heresies, A Feminist Publication of Art and Politics, Fall, 1977, NYC.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND RELATED READING
Budge, Sir E. A. Wallis, AMULETS AND TALISMANS, New Hyde Park: University Books, 1968. Dames, Michael, THE SILBURY TREASURE: THE GREAT GODDESS REDISCOVERED, London: Thames and Hudson, 1977. Davis, Elizabeth G., THE FIRST SEX, Penguin Books, Inc., New York, 1972. 'Heresies, A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics,' Spring, 1978, NYC. Levy, Rachel G., RELIGIOUS CONCEPTIONS OF THE STONE AGE, Harper & Row, New York, 1963. Lippard, Lucy, FROM THE CENTER, FEMINIST ESSAYS ON WOMEN'S ART, E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1976. Stone, Merlin, WHEN GOD WAS A WOMAN, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, 1978. Woolf, Virginia, A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York, 1929.