Diplomat Finds Serenity in a Haiku Life

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Before Abigail Friedman moved to Japan she had, like many Americans, "lots of well-founded ignorant views" of haiku. In the June 2006 Book Sense Pick The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan (Stone Bridge Press), she writes, "In my mind, Japanese haiku poets were either long dead or living somewhere hidden away in the hills, practicing Zen in a Buddhist monastery. I had imagined [them] in long, flowing robes, writing haiku with an ink brush on an elegant scroll."

As it turns out, plenty of haiku poets wear polyester pants and polo shirts. According to the vice president of the Haiku Society of America, Michael Dylan Welch, (he wrote the introduction to The Haiku Apprentice), haiku is an extremely popular pursuit in Japan, where seven to 10 million people from all walks of life write haiku each month.

In 2000, Friedman became one of them. She was living in Japan for the third time in her life -- she had joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1988, and in the course of her work as a state department official has lived in Paris, Washington, D.C., Tokyo, the Azores, and, currently, Quebec City.

Abigail Friedman

The debut author, who is married and the mother of three children (ages 19, 16, and 12), is a self-described Type A personality who is no stranger to challenging work: while in Japan from 2000 to 2003, the time period covered in The Haiku Apprentice, her diplomatic assignment was to research and work toward coordinating the approach of the United States and Japan to North Korea.

Thus, when a serendipitous encounter with Oiwa Kohei (whose haiku name, Ryojinboku, means Traveling Man Tree) led to an invitation to join a haiku group, Friedman welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the poetic form ... and engage in a pursuit that would bring her relaxation. She said, "Writing haiku became an important part of my life because I'm such an intense person -- it's a way to make sure that I can stop and really focus on something beautiful."

Friedman found that haiku did help her relax, but not in the way she anticipated. "The idea that poetry in Japan is a social activity was stunning to me. I always thought poetry was the quintessential isolated or lonely art -- but in Japan, people do it in groups, as a fun activity," she explained. And, she learned, each participant is given a haiku name that reflects the poet's personality, interests, or self-image, or perhaps evokes the way in which the poet is journeying toward self-awareness.

In The Haiku Apprentice, Friedman describes her haiku group gatherings as marked by quiet (when the attendees are writing their poems on slips of paper, to be shared with the group) and chatter (everyone chooses a favorite haiku and takes turns reading aloud). She forged friendships and learned about Japanese culture, history, and poetry by talking with -- and listening to -- haiku master Momoko, Hiroshima bomb survivor Traveling Man Tree, and her other classmates.

Friedman's descriptions of her haiku-poet counterparts are finely wrought, and her explanations of the intricacies of Japanese haiku are fascinating. (The emphasis on seasonal references, for example, will likely have readers looking at autumn leaves and winter storms in an entirely different way.) But it is because of the haiku practitioners she came to know, Friedman explained, that she wrote The Haiku Apprentice. "I had a sense that these people deserved to be known more widely. Many of the people in the book speak no English, so if I didn't write the book, no one would know about them or what I experienced."

The story emerged in near real-time: Friedman said she began writing it after her third or fourth haiku-group meeting, and "it was in some ways like journalism, which made it easier for me." She added, "Not writing it was more painful than writing it. I wrote it because I had a story that I felt needed to be told, not because I wanted to become the author of a bestselling novel."

In sharing her experiences, Friedman said she focused on the people she met rather than on herself, recounting the goings-on at her haiku group gatherings, her sessions with a sweet and patient calligraphy teacher, and conversations with her fellow poets. She recalled, "When I submitted the manuscript to the publisher, he said, 'We want to hear more about you.'"

Friedman said she was surprised at the request: "I hadn't anticipated that when I wrote the book, because those other people were so interesting. It took some time to get my mind around the idea of talking about myself."

In fact, she said, "I never thought I would be the author of a book about haiku. There's still a part of me that thinks, 'What if people don't take me seriously as a professional [diplomat]?' but I just have to accept it. I take what I do seriously...plus, people are a lot less critical of others than we are of ourselves."

Fortunately for haiku aficionados Friedman has firmly embraced her affection for, and interest in, the poetic form. She has even founded a haiku group in Quebec City (poets may write in English or in French, but have to be able to understand French in order to participate). She said, "I started the group in Quebec City because my publisher said he'd like to have an appendix on how to start a group. It's my first book, so I said, 'Sure, anything!' I'm really glad I did it, because it has me back writing haiku regularly."

As soon becomes clear in The Haiku Apprentice, haiku is a poetic form that can be grasped quickly, and practiced indefinitely, in keeping with the Japanese approach to lifelong study and learning. (For example, Momoko, Friedman's haiku master, worked on a haiku project about cherry trees ... for 27 years! ) Added Friedman, "The thing about haiku is, it's a really low barrier to entry, and it's very accessible to people. Someone who has an interest in it can walk into a haiku group and be welcomed."

Readers who, upon finishing The Haiku Apprentice, find themselves curious about haiku -- and perhaps inspired to pen their own poetry -- should read the book's end notes. There is ample information for those interested in learning more about haiku, and perhaps starting a haiku group of their own. Friedman also discusses the differences between writing haiku in Japanese and English, and offers a reading list (journals, websites, books), too.

On June 20, Friedman led a discussion and signing at the Japan Information and Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., which is jointly sponsored by the Japanese Embassy and the Japan America Society. She's also writing a blog, online at www.stonelantern.blogspot.com, and is considering writing another book.

As for future authorial endeavors, Friedman said, "I have the sense that, if I do another book, it would be something completely different." But, she added, "I want to be doing haiku all my life.... [The people in The Haiku Apprentice] are great people, and their names are in the book. I want readers to come away with the same feeling of enchantment that I have about haiku." -- Linda M. Castellitto