The Bookshelf: Keiselim Montás and the Art of the Haiku

Mar 3, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features poet Keiselim Montás of Lebanon, New Hampshire. When you’re talking about form poetry, the rules for the Japanese haiku are pretty simple. In a traditional haiku, you’ve got seventeen syllables—a line of five, a line of seven, and then a line of five. Usually the haiku hones in on details of the natural world and does so with a light touch. In his new book, Like Water, Montás offers us Japanese haiku he wrote in his native Spanish that have now been translated into English. Scroll down to read his top five reading recommendations and the transcript of his conversation with NHPR's Peter Biello.

Keiselim Montás' Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. "I must have read (in Spanish, or course!) this book four or five times, both for academic assignments and for the pleasure of reading it! Written over four hundred years ago, it deals with the issues we are dealing with today: religious intolerance and persecution, immigration, war, death, injustice, poverty, even Feminism and the right of a woman to choose her way of life. To me, this book is a MUST."

2.   Kicking the Leaves by Donald Hall. "This a collection of poems published in 1978, a few years after Donald Hall moved to New Hampshire. The poems, for the most part, are about simple country/farm life. In a way, the poems are tender poems; but mind you, so powerful that I have never been able to read some of them aloud and to the end, for at every attempt I have been overcome by sobs. Powerful."

3.   Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller. "It is the story of a white girl growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during their civil war. Tenderly told through the eyes of this little girl, we get to appreciate her love for the homeland and for her parents (both racist). And most of all, we get to appreciate the humanity in all of us in the face of conflict, racism, oppression and survival thru the eyes of a child."

4.   This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz. "To me, this book is the essential Junot Díaz’s book! It has so much: from his center character, Yunior, to stories of immigration and the first impressions of a kid who just arrived, to tales of coming of age or the daily life of immigrants as recognizable as my mirror reflection, with their fears, struggles and dreams. At the core of it all: a realistic and compassionate portrait of the human condition."

5.   Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity by Isabelle de Courtivron (Editor). "This a collection of short essays written by bilingual writers, some of whom write in one language or the other and, in some cases, in both. They share great insight about how living a bilingual (and bicultural) life, plays out in their creative, and in their everyday, lives. Truly insightful."

This is a fascinating book because, first of all, the Haiku is a Japanese form, and you wrote them in Spanish, and now they’re in English. Tell me about the process of turning these poems that were originally written in Spanish into English. I assume you were working with a translator?

Correct. The idea behind doing that is exposing myself to the English-speaking market, if you will. But at the same time, it’s a fascinating process.

When I first proposed it to my translator, she was like, “Haiku, that’s kind of difficult.” I said, “Well, let me send you the book.”

I sent her the book and she looked at it and she got back to me and said, “Let’s do this.” And then we began working.

She did the whole translation and then we met and began going over the poems one by one to see what sounded right, what worked, what didn’t work. After that, of course, it was a process of editing and changing and suggesting. So translation is fascinating, I will say.

Especially difficult when it’s such a rigid form. The haiku has—you followed the traditional model, which is three lines, and there are 17 syllables total, and they go, 5,7,5.

Correct.

And as was stated in the book, sometimes the English-Spanish equivalents have different syllables, so the translation gets a little messy there.

Yes it does, and you have to look for different words and make sure they don’t stray too far from the original meaning. Sometimes you have to add something here or there that might add an emphasis, because you want to stay sort of loyal to that original. It is challenging.

What draws you to the form of haiku?

In general, I’m attracted to Japanese culture, Japanese woodworking, and Japanese poetry. The haiku has that attraction of being such a restricted form, yet at the same time, you try to capture something that is really, really profound, a reflection of a particular moment.

If you stick to the guidelines, it’s like—to accomplish something that you feel great about it is a great sense of accomplishment within the restrained form, if you will.

The rules almost make it more fun to write.

In a way. I usually think of rules and I think of democracy. I think one of the great things about having certain rules. They are known and everyone sees them. Everyone has to play fair. So doing great and having fun within the rules is awesome.

So if you see a haiku that doesn’t follow the rules but pulls off something kind of nice, you’ll say, “Well, come on, you didn’t measure the syllables correctly!”

I wouldn’t call myself strict in that sense, but when I write I prefer to stick to the rules. But again, people are experimenting with different things, and I have seen things that I wouldn’t dare call them haiku, but if they do, I respect them.

One of the rules you followed here is the use of a “season” word—at least one in each poem. What’s a season word?

A season word alludes to what the season of the year is within the poem. And that has a particular attraction to me because I come from the Caribbean. Seasons there are pretty much one.

Summer. Perpetual summer.

Perpetual summer. And then coming here to New England and having the beautiful backyard, I have sort of been able to appreciate from my window, my writing table, looking outdoors and seeing the changing of the seasons. Extreme beauty. So that’s been an inspiration for the writing of the book. And therefore haiku that has that as part of its rules, if you will, sort of eases that transition for the appreciation of nature.

I think we’ve gone too long without hearing one. Is there one you’d like to share?

Sure. There is one particular poem. I just spoke to a friend about the melting of snow. This poem says:

Crystal fluid state
in the purring sound that flows
en route to April.

Traditionally poems, not just that one, but many in this book, tend to be about nature. For me the ones I enjoyed the most were the ones that successfully humanized the landscape. Is that something that you were going for?

I’m glad that you feel that way because I wasn’t necessary consciously going for that, but I was actually trying to make the connection between what I was seeing and my own relationship with nature.

If you’re feeling that, I’m going to put a feather in my hat for that one.

Some of these poems towards the end especially are poems that I think any writer would appreciate.

Today, without words,
it’s impossible to live,
as without water.

I think words are, and language is, the greatest human quality that we have. It’s what makes us human. And water—if I were to give an example of what God is, I would say that God is water. It is the power of nature. It’s the only element that you can see as a gas, a solid, as a liquid. When you see now the spring, the brooks, the rivers just roaring with that power. When you see storms. And yet, we humans depend on water and we, when we look for signs of life, say, “There’s water! There’s life!”

So, to me as a writer and as a human begin, words are as essential for my existence as is water.