August, 2001

ai li

ai li's reply, when I first wrote to her asking for information for this profile was: "My main reservation about this profile is the fact that so much of me is already in my work, and that is why I have refrained from saying too much about myself to date. I am also a very private individual who believes that writers should always be behind-the-scenes as it were, on the periphery of everything, and should only be heard and not 'seen'."

So, I went to her web site to read her resume and found that the dates on it begin with 1995, when she appeared on the poetry scene with the announcement of her new magazine – still.

Her magazine still has come to be not only a publication but a projection of the artist corresponding in stillness with another friend and fellow poet, but as she writes:
"still is best read in a quiet room and in a comfortable chair. Its lack of text on the front cover of the journal has been designed to enable a reader to remain centered, to be free from unnecessary distractions. The full colour abstract images are there for you, the reader, to explore the ambiguity and vagaries of space, to be temporarily lost outside of yourself, leaving ego in the maze of abstraction. This prepares and quiets the mind for its embarkation on an inner journey. By the time a reader opens the journal, and is ready to enjoy the first poem, he or she is probably listening to breath now made slower & quieter. By placing one poem to a page, still honors a poet's effort by recognizing its worth and the words are allowed to breathe in abundant white space, giving the reader a chance to fully experience the shared moment without clutter."

Like me, you may have wondered how ai li came to be the founder of still. Her answer was:
"In early 1996, the outgoing and founding editor of Poetry Postcard Quarterly in London invited me to take over the editorship of his baby PPQ which had just sponsored the very successful and the only independent Haiku competition in the UK at the Design Museum, Shad Thames. He was leaving Poetry to further his career in another field.

I gave his invitation much thought and discussed the matter at length with family and close friends. My decision was to decline his kind offer, and instead came up with my own version for a journal I could call my own. Besides, I was getting restless from not being able to find any good haiku magazines to read or to submit good work to, apart from one or two independent publications. The majority of haiku magazines around then were publishing conveyor belt work, which at best was lackluster and at worst was simply too dire to contemplate. Editors who are guilty of accepting one poem from each subscriber just to keep their magazines afloat, and their paymasters happy, have done considerable damage to the genre. Without discerning editing and an editor who respects a reader's ability to recognize and desire strong and good haiku in a journal, one is lumbered with poems that are best left in the wastepaper basket of the mind. Keeping a magazine going simply to keep an editor or an organization in 'power' says a great deal of the lack of integrity on the part of these individuals.

still was born out of necessity. I wanted a journal to honour haiku & tanka by publishing them one poem to a page, giving these unique forms the dignity and presentation that they so richly deserved but weren't being accorded. There was a lack of good Haiku around in magazines for me to enjoy and be inspired to put pen to paper. I was witnessing the homogenization of haiku in English by people who cared little for the genre despite their protestations. Funding and handouts were coming in from abroad to put a small band of people in 'power' to ensure the form remained restrictive. Harnessing the creative spirit in my eyes is cruel and I cannot understand how power can take the place of the pure joy of seeing someone write without the boundaries of dogma."

This answer made me wonder how ai li had come to start writing haiku and tanka, so I asked her.

"Haiku & Tanka appeared at a time when I badly needed order in my life. Losing both my father and my husband suddenly in the space of a six-week period almost led me to despair but the unshakeable belief in myself would not allow me to turn to pills, drugs or suicide. Instead, I chose to write short verse. My first haiku I believe was: 

red leaves

I was faced with the bareness of raw, of suddenly being alone and without armour. It enabled me to own my truths, give them substance by writing them down daily as personal journal entries. Haiku & Tanka charted my healing progress, and my personal growth. By keeping quiet enough to hear one's breath, one's real voice can then be retrieved loud and clear. I write from that place of truth without revisions or hesitation. Writing Haiku & Tanka keep me centred, and provide me with an oasis of calm during crisis, chaos and trauma.

I have never forgotten that I chose to write Haiku & Tanka at a time of great loss and this decision enabled me to see my life ahead with hope and clarity. My first written tanka brought home a truth I could not deny:

returning at dusk
realising that
i walked
a stranger

Noticing that ai li seemed to connect haiku and tanka closely, almost making them as one, I wanted to ask her how do she sees these genres - as separate entities (genres to be kept 'pure' in themselves) or as inspiration for other kinds of poetry? Her answer:

"It saddens me that there aren't that many poets around who are able to write both Haiku & Tanka well. Often a poet who writes good Haiku is unable to make a smooth transition into Tanka, a genre which demands that commitment to deep feeling and emotional bravery in its five lines for the poem to work. Likewise, a Tanka poet may often find the paring down of words for Haiku to capture that 'glimpse of the eternal’ difficult discipline generally.

I think it beneficial for readers and writers to have them as separate entities for now. The originality and uniqueness of each form can involve the reader into applying differing emotions for each genre as they are read, and they can offer the writer different disciplines when it comes to writing them. This is both exciting as well as challenging.

In particular, if new writers are involved, writing haiku & tanka can be a great introduction into creative writing. While I am happy for Haiku & Tanka to be regarded as two unique forms for the time being, I do not propose that these genres should stick rigidly to the 17 & 31 syllables of old. The only path forward for these two amazing forms is for writers to experiment and push the boundaries forward with new approaches whilst keeping the essence of each form intact. That is all I would ask of them. In time, a serious new form or forms may emerge from Haiku & Tanka which were after all Hokku & Waka in another lifetime. The possibilities are limitless and I hope I live long enough to see all of them."

While we were discussing the future of poetry and the politics of haiku, I asked her if she would care to comment on the British haiku community? Her answer surprised me:

"'Community' is not a word I would care to use easily to home haiku writers and poets. It is my belief that we are private individuals who need solitude and anonymity within our own real community to be able to observe in quiet, which in turn enables us to write truthfully. Friendship, in my opinion, is a much better word. I have made some good Haiku and Tanka friends but we are not a community, just kindred spirits who feel passionately about writing Haiku & Tanka without the straight jacket of dogma. I value their friendship, caring, and truths enormously and respect them for their uncompromising stand at any attempts by self-appointed 'pundits' to interfere with their creative spirit."

The next step in such a conversation was to discuss the new concept of a world haiku community. ai li had definite ideas here, too.

"If the aspirations of those who want a World Haiku Community are for real growth within Haiku and their sentiments genuine for committed friendship, then I have no problem embracing the idea of a World Haiku Community even though you already have my views about how I feel about the word 'community'.

I believe that as a writer I need to be the eternal observer and stargazer, the loner in your midst, always reflecting change from the inside, and to be able to be in constant touch with my humanity."

While discussing utopias, a world haiku community, and other supernatural phenomenon, I asked ai li, "If you could wave a magic wand over the poetry scene, what would you ask be changed?" Again she surprised me with her answer:

"That Poetry be non-elitist and preferably short. Concise poetry like Haiku & Tanka can be memorized and kept in the mind all day long which make them perfect candidates for 21st Century living. We are told that our attention spans are shorter, and time seems to be in short supply and so to impose long poems on a reading public would turn even more people off Poetry.

With these two short forms, Poetry does not need to be inaccessible or far removed from everyday life. It can, in essence, become part of us via the timeless power and profundity of good Haiku & Tanka." 

And, I asked, "What would be your idea of a perfect day since we cannot have a perfect world?" 

ai li answered: "As a lifelong Buddhist with zen leanings, the mere idea of a perfect day seriously worries me as I sip tea from a fractured cup. To be able to wake up daily with no evident aches and pains, with my cat Midnight purring into my ear, and to have muse come laden with haiku, tanka and prose gets my day off to a great start. I'm at peace with the world when I'm able to spend quality time with my self, reading Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance, practicing Ch'an meditation when all around me there could be chaos, with Callas in the background, the volume turned down low, singing Tosca into legend.

In short, my day has to include being kind to others & to myself, being true and being here in the moment to find the sacred in an imperfect day."

Wishing for a more complete picture of ai li's life over the distance of e-mail, I asked her, "Could you describe your desk, where it sits, what it is made of, what is on it, what you treasure about it, what it does for you?"

"My study faces South. I sit in light, my elbows on hexagonal plate glass which sits on two pale triangular grey Italian marble plinths in the room's first floor bay window. There are no screws, no bolts to hold everything together. Every piece is well balanced, slotted in to cut grooves with due care to fit seamlessly. My desk was a prototype, probably the only one made but never sold commercially in this country. I am stared at by photographs of my four late cats who are sorely missed, reminded by two ammonite fossils of my short term tenancy in this new century, and enriched by blank paper and pencil in muse's waiting room about to become journal.

Each one of my cats loved lying on my desk warmed by the old telephone in winter. They delayed my brushstrokes reaching canvas and board when I was painting, with paws made for hunting, and thoroughly enjoyed being their carefree & playful selves whenever they were on my desk. I learnt about my authentic self from the four of them on this now scratched expanse of glass. They wore no masks around me. I was their best friend and they mine. I treasure the quality time they gave me and I wrote this tanka for them:

mist on this night
of new sorrow
the lake has two moons
i make tea
try to hold onto steam

Seeing the desk without them begins my long journey into a world where I still hear their unique voices, see them out of the corner of my eye settling comfortably in the same old positions, then I look up and there is only starlight and the harsh reality of memory."

With the taste above, of her work, here is a selection ai li has arranged especially for the readers the Poet's Profile.

all night long
in the corridor
mother sleeps
not quite alone


in my hand
you vanish


the jigsaw finished
he breaks it up
starting again
with a piece
of sky


alone with leafsmoke


show me the dark
the child asks the grown-up
now, empty house
and ash blows
full circle


to find a river
free of memory
curving into dusk


they exchange stories
tell lies
two old men
meanwhile the raven
waits on coffin pine


zen garden
in moonlight
i'm not here


observe the butterfly
under glass
a garden
in its silence


i find
a backroad
summer deepens


fractured glass
my wet night
no one
on the rooftiles
but Pan


zimmerframe approaching
a cupboard
full of dancing shoes


staying out
long enough
a shawl
for fireflies


i hear the thunder above a dead cat


days of healing
late fall
every unfolded note
you left behind
is scented


All poems copyright ai li 2001

[Acknowledgement Peer Poetry International, Winners' Works: The English Tanka & Haiku on Water, River, Lake & Sea, and still].

Column Copyright ©Jane Reichhold 2001.
Page Copyright © AHA Books 2001.

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