marlene mountain
letter essay
april 1987


some random notes

dear cor  4/87

In 1964 a colleague at the University of North Dakota said my paintings reminded him of some zen ideas. He gave a copy of Alan Watts' THE WAY OF ZEN to me. It was my first contact with haiku, and I was very taken with Watts' discussions of the 'marvelous Void,' empty spaces, wordlessness. I indeed felt that those ideas related to my painting ideas--even though the paintings were bright, flatly-painted enamel red and green 'abstract' shapes on white. Minimal statements about squares, rectangles, stripes which had come about through a two-year exploration of windows--from assemblages with curtains and collage to stark, partly painted window-inspired shapes. My MA thesis of 1965 on the development of window as theme and its transformation included references to Watts' book and Japanese haiku. (At the time I didn't know contemporary Japanese or Westerners wrote haiku.) I continued to paint until 1969. One painting, 1967, is called 'Big Haiku' (though I don't exactly know when I titled it).

In 1968 a colleague of John's gave us a copy or two of 'American Haiku.' We were both taken with haiku. John because of his background in poetry/literature, and I because of my background in minimal, abstract painting and photography (and a little bit of minimal poetry). And the previous contact with zen.

My earliest haiku were minimal--one-line and words written down the page with brush and bamboo stick. There were also 5-7-5, three-line, punctuated haiku. There was a publication 'Movin On' put out by George Hoyt (?)--sort of hippie, zen, etc. oriented, which I found very interesting. I think there was a Reps drawing in one of the two I saw. I had been drawing haiku a little before Eric Amann (ed. of 'Haiku') suggested I take a look at Reps' ZEN TELEGRAMS I think though Reps' drawings inspired the idea of river (which I designed, arranged the haiku on the page, hand-printed with brush, stick, and match cover dipped in ink).

We went to Matsuyama in 1970--June through September. I took some of my other drawings--at a haiku meeting, an old Japanese poet got on his knees and asked for some of my drawings. Through translation he said that Americans ruined the moon. A few days later 4 of his haiku were delivered to me--one I think that reflects that American/moon idea.

To live in Japan for a while is to understand a little better the Japanese haiku. It is also to understand that Westerners--Americans, in particular--have a much different sensibility. All Westerners who write haiku really should live in--not just visit--Japan for a while.. They would gain a much better perspective on Japanese haiku (unromanticize it), on themselves, and on their haiku theories. [A side note: I told many Japanese males that soon women's lib (as I called it in those days) would come to Japan, as it has. They didn't believe me.]

We moved to Hampton in August 1971. It was here that I found my first real and personal content for haiku. The people, the mountains/land. And my relationship to them, to it. 'Nature' was an overwhelming contrast to that seen in Georgia. Previously, I had thought and painted very minimal and reductive compositions. Up to that time I had mainly seen and photographed abstract patterns in 'man-made' objects, e.g., windows, doors, rust, stacked pipes and lumber, close- up abstract compositions found in dumps, and in nature. I was a mind artist. Except for some early landscape paintings--somewhat impressionist/expressionistic--and drawings of nudes, haiku became in a way the very first 'realistic' way to see and to experience. Highly personal. Non-abstract.

As with the progression of my painting toward minimal statements, the haiku too followed this path. One-line because of minimalism, or minimalism because of one-line--I'm not sure. Probably intermixed.

I like Eleanor Smeal's 'women's issues are the issues of the world' and I like haiku's 'moments keenly perceived.' That's where my art is today, and has been for some time. Primarily, both painting and writing are minimal in form and political in content. The ideas often overlap; on several occasions I have painted a haiku, and have made a haiku from a painting. I don't believe haiku poets can neglect any part of life. Any moment. I think poets ought to drop the concept of 'moments keenly perceived' if it is not really believed. Otherwise we have 'some moments keenly perceived'---a watered-down version.

Sometimes I reject all my previous art--from 1959 to 1977, and then some, as male art or inspired by male art. Though the assessment isn't completely true, it's been a valid rejection in order to look again at form and content. Other times I feel that we (women) merely had no name, e.g., women's art (let alone respect), for some of our ideas--would have been scared off by that separatist sounding term (as many women still are)--but were doing/thinking it in one way or another. Often it was buried deep within because of the prevailing patriarchal forms and concepts.

Since August 1977 and the Ton of Bricks Experience, and the immediate creation of the visual haiku, 'labium,' I've consciously been interested in finding and expressing a deliberate woman's art. It's been a difficult venture--more difficult than all my other art ideas, seachings, philosophies from the past put together. Harder on me than on those who've been exposed to my ideas. It's been starting all over in art (and in life), first in haiku after having written it for almost 10 years, then in painting (since 1979), after having not painted for 10 years. The paintings have poured out--nearly 400--in series of from 5-10 to 40 paintings. They, though there are always those art problems to sort out, have been easier than the haiku writing. I after all was not very aware of what was happening in art (NYC), so I felt relatively free--though terribly spooked--to explore my new ideas. But I had many past years of haiku concepts, many of which I have love for, which have been very difficult to shake off. And, I felt that I needed to shake them off in order to see where this other awareness would lead. (In 1963 when I was trying to paint red and green, I once slammed shut a book on Bonnard--and didn't look again at his paintings until I found my way in red and green.) It's been a long process of demythologizing haiku, as well as many many other facets of life/art.

Sometimes I think some of my fellow poets believe that all I write is political haiku--not true. The changed content has disappointed some. But others appear to understand, like it. Artists somehow fall into 2 groups, those who find a way and stay with it and get better at it, and those who keep searching. I seem to be one of the latter. I feel 10 years' interest in the 'political' haiku is still a search (not a phase), though it's been a slow moving one, in which I've just begun.

Haiku has had some bad press from other kinds of poets and critics. Some of it is deserved. Much is not. Much has happened within the North American movement since the early 60s. Many changes in form, style, and content have taken place. And for the good, I believe. Haiku is a good--very good--way to see and perceive and feel and think. More poets and non-poets should become aware of haiku as a way of perception. The opening up of content can/will allow this to happen more readily. Though haiku is an old poetry, it's not archaic--or doesn't have to be. Haiku can be as fresh as the latest thing, yet, can contain by one of its very natures much depth. Or it can be light and pleasant or political. Haiku is not one kind of poem. There is no such thing as 'the haiku,' but a variety of haiku--potentially.

I love all kinds of haiku (Japanese and Western) and the ideas surrounding them--but get distressed when A Philosophy is imposed upon the writers. This interferes with the normal creative process inherent in all art, in all people who keep themselves open. I would part company with haiku--and for a while thought I would have to--if I didn't see it as potentially open-ended. But I'm no longer worried that I'll have to part with it. Haiku hasn't been around all these 100s of years by staying the same. Art breeds art, but periodically a new, sometimes diametrically opposed force comes charging in to revitalize the artist and the art. I'd like to see the whole world brought into haiku--and haiku into the real world.

A recent haiku:

long time in coming haiku mine not theirs


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