marlene mountain
letter essay

japanese convention

dear bob 10/7/87

Thanks for looking at the womanspirit renga, and your comments. I don't feel that I can delete another woman's poems, or ask her to do so. It was the joint experience that was significant. If anything, I'd love to delete my own, as I see them as a far cry from what I now believe womanspirit to be. But it was where we all were at the time, in ourselves and in the expression of it in haiku. I'll ask Elizabeth what she thinks, and share this and your letter with her.

Regarding Japanese convention. It was in '60/61 that I first became enamored with some of the arts of Japan, tea rooms, pottery, gardens, screens, and in '64, with zen and Japanese haiku. All through books. My experience of living in Japan for four months plus 17 years of mulling over the many varied situations ('the good, the bad, and the ugly'--of the latter: 'before my eyes a japanese poet hits his wife') has given me a much better perspective not only on eastern art, but on my own. I believe in the Japanese spirit, but I also believe (& I'm not a flag-waver) in the western/American spirit--and there's a ton of difference. I experienced a life-time of 'convention' there, to the point at times where it was incredibly sad, as well as frustrating. An experience, however, which really stands out--and it was years before I truly understood it--was when John brought a man home for lunch whom he had just met. Before I even saw him, he was calling out 'sono mama, sono mama'--things as they are. (Jason's toys on the tatami mats, as well as any variety of things not put away.) John brought him into the kitchen--from his reaction it was his first experience in anyone's kitchen--as I was fixing sandwiches, to which John joined in. I actually thought the man's heart would break (or he would have a heart attack) from the joy of such an unprecedented experience. He was near tears. I wish I had a nickel for each time he said 'sono mama.' And a picture of his ecstatic face. So much of Japanese life is based on convention, which is reflected in the arts. Much is exciting and moving, much is contrived and compulsive--I've seen tremendous commotion on exactly where food is placed on the plate. I saw many situations of the sumi painter/calligrapher/poet/ etc. What the Japanese artists value more than correctness is something else: a beautiful mistake--'allowed' perhaps after umpteen years of work toward perfection (read: convention). What each is really doing is waiting out those years for the time when a 'goof' (an unconventional line, 'flaw') might happen. I stress the word 'might.' It's mind-boggling to see these things first-hand. One must live in (not just visit) Japan to grasp at least some of the complexities of 'things Japanese.' Truly. I feel extremely fortunate to have had so many close experiences with the art--and its relationship to the past- even though I denied at the time and for years some of the things I felt and saw which were in conflict with what I wanted to believe about Japan, its arts and spirit--and my relationship to it all.

Part of my personal quest these last 10 years has been to comprehend/ confront my (western, American, modern) conventions. (Thirty years 'in art.') It too has been a mind-boggling experience. Like the 'older' Japanese, I too feel I know too much about art--and I too am waiting for the flaw; rather, the many flaws. I've been lucky--I've had quite a few. (And oddly enough it is at these times that I feel closest to the Japanese artist.) POP&CW comes nearest to the rawness I crave--and it was unintentional. We have much to learn from the Japanese--so far we have learned only half the story. There's more.

in the spirit of understanding Japanese and contemporary haiku,



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