Last week I had a great chat with Helen Venn over at Egoboo WA on being a writer, editor, and publisher, and in particular how The Tangled Bank came together.
This week, I’m catching up with Tangled Bank contributor Sean Williams, whose haiku sequence structures the book, to discuss his contribution and the nature of haiku.
Sean needs little introduction. A #1 New York Times-bestselling Australian speculative fiction writer, he is the author of seventy-five published short stories and thirty-five novels, been nominated for the Ditmar, the Aurealis and the prestigious Philip K Dick Award for Saturn Returns, and been published around the world in numerous languages, on-line, and in spoken word editions. He also writes poetry: his first published haiku appeared on a pair of Y-fronts, and his commissioned poem “Reflection on Water” became the centrepiece of the new welcoming soundscape of the Adelaide Zoo.
CHRIS: Your haiku sequence has a great title: “The Origin of Haiku By Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Renga in the Struggle for Meaning”. It captures both the intricacy of the sequence and the juxtaposition of haiku and evolution. The title is obviously a play on the full title of Origin of Species, but could you start with a quick explanation of the structure and content of the sequence? You can probably explain it better than I can.
SEAN: Thanks, Chris. I can try! My intention with this sequence is to provide a map of Darwin’s wonderful book, chapter by chapter, using his own phrases to capture the arguments he was working through–while at the same time following the slow change of the haiku form down the centuries. It struck me as a strange and exciting idea when it first came to me, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Darwin wrote passionately about nature, and no other poetic form is as closely associated with nature as haiku. Also, I’d been experimenting with using other people’s words to create new works (Gary Numan and Kim Wilkins are two others) so following that particular route too seemed appropriate. Who better to sum up Darwin than Darwin himself?
The whole thing would never have come about but for the proposal you circulated in March of 2009. One could say that putting together an anthology is itself an evolutionary process. How does it feel (if you’ll forgive the fallacy) to be the Intelligent Designer of The Tangled Bank?
CHRIS: Your submission was the first I got–as I recall less than 24 hours after the call for submissions went out–so the sequence certainly came together quickly!
The idea for the anthology also came together very fast. I’d read about the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species, and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, in February ’09. I did some searching for fiction projects connected to the anniversaries, and found a lot of non-fiction books and articles but no fiction. I didn’t think much of it at first, but the more I thought about it the more surprised I became. Before I knew it I’d typed up a proposal for The Tangled Bank. It was initially quite a daunting project to take on–how to suitably commemorate such an important book–but the enthusiasm of everyone who has got involved has made a huge difference to the final product. I feel less like an intelligent designer and more like someone putting together a puzzle, something with its own logic. Analogous I suppose to evolution in that I took what the world produced and pieced it together rather than designed something from scratch.
(I’ve since discovered several other fiction and poetry projects: Ecotone’s Evolution Issue, Origins: Tales of Human Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the poetry collections Darwin: A Life in Poems and The Darwin Poems, the last by Emily Ballou, who has a poem in The Tangled Bank.)
Your explanation of how the idea came to you strikes me as quite serendipitous–action and chance combining in the right person to create something new. I’m interested to know more about how haiku has evolved: is there an unchanging core, or is it quite different today from its ancestors?
SEAN: I’m no expert on haiku, but I’ve long had a fascination with the form and undertook a quick refresher course via the internet in order to see if the idea would work. (“Quick” is the operative word here. If I was going to submit something to your project–and I very much wanted to, because it was such a great idea–I had to squeeze the entire process between a couple of intense deadlines.) Haiku has evolved through a wide variety of forms–from the vulgar renku and the prose hybrid haibun to modern versions like the single-lined monoku and repeating cirku–but all stay true to or at least start with the principle of brevity. David G Lanoue’s definition of haiku as a thought that can be expressed in a single breath is, I think, the right one to start with, and I think the best scientific principles aspire to this kind of elegant sufficiency as well. Human inventiveness being what it is, the form takes all sorts of weird turns from there.
My first thought, by the way, was to put the last, often misunderstood paragraph of Darwin’s masterwork into Babel Fish, over and over, to see what chance produced, but I soon discarded that idea. It doesn’t embody the idea of fitness inherent in the theory of evolution. Not that anything’s evolving “towards” a state of perfection: things just change, as the haiku form has changed.
That you are yourself a hokkist was a huge stroke of luck. I imagine most editors would have taken one look at “The Origin of Haiku” and scratched their head, then quietly slipped it to the bottom of the pile!
CHRIS: Well, it was certainly the most unusual poetry submission, and it did take quite some thought to work out how best to incorporate it into the book. In the end, I decided to structure the entire anthology around the sequence, and I’m glad I did. The haiku, and the individual chapters of Origin of Species, influenced the selection of stories, poetry, and artwork, and the end result is, I hope, something that is both organic and in conversation with the idea of evolution.
Anyhow, thanks for the chat!
SEAN: You’re welcome–and Happy Darwin Day!