Saturday, March 24, 2007


June 15, 1763 - January 5, 1828
(Western calendar)

Due to the troubles I experienced in my first two interviews, I must admit I was a bit gun-shy in doing another. In my first interview, Dante had proven to be very racist and offensive and was wholly disinterested in the interview, not to mention I believe he lied to me on at least one particular occasion. Later, my interview with Walt Whitman ended up falling short of what I’d consider good (he had a strange fascination with a certain flatulant noise that governed our entire session, and didn’t answer my questions much). So, when it came time to do a third interview, I was worried and had some reservations. I chose legendary Kobayashi Issa (‘Issa’ to most), who lived in late 18th and early 19th century Japan.

I am pleased and delighted over this interview. It went much better than those previous, and Issa was quite informative. There were a few digressions, but in general, this was an engaging and attentive interview with a talented and rather personable poet.


When we met in my study, I found in Issa’s face that very Japanese duality in which both happiness and sadness can somehow be shown at the same time, in a single expression. This was a face that exuded a sort of importance, but a very human one. It was almost upsetting to sit across from, but I found myself caught by it almost instantly. There are award winning actors that couldn’t pull off that look. It is an expression rarely seen in the west, and I think it involves the eyes more than anything. Issa looked as if he’d been painfully tortured at some point, yet also seemed as if no such thing could have ever happened to him. He was amicable and relaxed, while terse and worried, if you can imagine that. His clothing was very loose and he slumped much, not quite like the picture of him I’ve placed in this post, but definitely hunched.

Kobayashi Issa is thought by most historians to have had a destitute and troubled life, involving many tribulations. These asperities are said to be the impetus behind much of his work, and a lens by which to measure his conflictions in that work. He specialized in haikai, a short form of poetry that we in the west now refer to as haiku, and it has tantalized the western mind (though we often exclude many of its actual attributes) since we first came into contact with it. That such depth can be created in a work so short both baffles and astounds us.

Issa and I settled into our chairs and, as a gesture, I had made a strong effort to get ahold of gyokuro tea for us to have, which was considered very fine and expensive in his time of life. Unfortunately, all I could manage was some generic mint tea from the corner store. Silly as I felt, I made it and set up in my study. As the incredibly hot tea sat in our cups and cooled, we began. His English was sparse, but easily understood.

RS: First, I’d like to thank you for allowing me to interview you. I am very pleased to be able to speak with you about your life and work.

KI (with a sharp nod): Okay.

RS: I think many people would like to know more about your youth. It is supposed that some of the difficulties you faced growing up influenced your later work strongly. Certainly this is the case with many writers, but your particular style of writing, mainly in haikai, demonstrates a remarkable ability to display emotion and sensibility. Can you tell us about your childhood and how it may have shaped you as a man and poet?

KI (thinking about this for some time): Okay, but not so quick you ask questions. I am learning English.

RS: I’ll go slower.

KI: Yes, so I understand though. So okay, first, I am born in Kashiwabara, in Shinano Province. Take more for my mother than father. But she dies when I am very young, and so then I take more for my father. He is a farmer, and so I was a farmer, and we grow mostly daikon radish, and also konyaku potato. Sometimes law bok. I don’t like the daikon radish. Everyone had daikon radish, and also we did not grow it well, and so can’t sell it very much. We always have daikon radish left over, so we eat it always, so I don’t like it after we eat it for too many years. I like law bok, though.

RS: After your mother’s death, your father remarried. It is known that you had trouble with your stepmother. Can you describe the relationship you had with her over the years?

KI: You already say the relationship: Trouble. But for more detail, I can tell you. Satsu marry my father, but then she hits me and is very cruel. Eh, mothers hitting okay for the kids, but my stepmother hit too much, too hard. She is mean to me and jealous I am my mother’s son. She has a son with my father, my half-brother Senroku. She thinks my father is her possession only, and so doesn’t trust me or love me. But my father love me, just there is very young Senroku to take care of, and the farm, and my stepmother. So, I am fifteen and I leave my father’s farm and start in my life.

RS: Tell us about that life. What are these tragedies that seem to occupy much of your work?

KI: Oh, sad. People always look at sad, not the will. I have no tragedies, just things that happen and many think sad. But so okay, I have no money, and my children die. I keep living and have my own troubles, and I get married many times, but they die, and one I leave, so forget my stepmother for many years. I keep getting married and have more kids, but they all die. But then my father dies when I am older, and my stepmother again must be dealt with. She stop me from his leaving me money and our farm, and tries to take it all. I have a stroke. I get into a small house near my father’s property and try to get the inheritance. Finally, I get my father’s money and farm, but there is not much money, only property. My father is dead, and I am trying not to be confused, then I need to be confused, so I let her live there and don’t live there with her. Then she is more cruel and I get sick, so I make her leave. She dies not too far past. And Satsu hates me until she dies, too. Senroku never talk to me either. But she never trusts me, even after my father dies. She is good with the roots, growing roots on the property, but not good for people. They buy her roots but then stay away from her, she has no friends until she dies. Senroku not even visits her much. But she is dead, so the farm is mine.

RS: That’s terrible.

KI (shrugging): Not terrible. Souls are the same. She has only different heart. You don’t have to like a heart if you like a soul, and so you understand everyone is confused and okay. Growing roots and growing angers... they are similar. So, she is dead, then I get married again and live on my farm, but have another stroke. My wife is very beautiful and young. I just look at her as much as I can, and then I keep getting sick, and a fire eats the farm, so I lose all but my wife, and we go live in the grain barn. Then, best thing happened.

RS: Yes?

KI: Yes. I die and can relax.

RS: Shit!

KI: No, shit is over.

RS (laughing): Well, you’d earned it, I suppose.

KI (smiling): So yes, okay. But you know how sad things are for arts. These things are not sad anymore if you have given them the most light and make them into draw or paint, singing music or haikai... anything. As your Summer in Love says: Go with the flow. Your new writers know this, too.

[It seemed fascinating to me that Issa had mentioned the Summer of Love, of all things, from the American late 60’s, and the hippy movement of the time. I wondered what other things he may have to say regarding modernity, or at least, our newest versions of it.]

RS: I see. Would you say there are any modern authors you’ve taken a liking to, onward since your death?

KI (excited about changing the subject): Liking to... so, that I like?

RS: Yes, authors you like.

KI: Okay. Alexander Pope. Yes, he is tidy on his poems. And I like Murakami stories but because he also remind me of a man I knew. Ah! I like very much your Mr. Stephen King also.

RS: Really? I wouldn’t have taken you for a horror fan.

KI (puzzled and waving his hand as if to cool himself): The fan?

RS: Oh no, sorry. I only meant that I didn’t expect you would like horror books.

KI: Horror book. I do like, yes, very much.

RS: Interesting. Out of curiosity, which of King’s books do you like most?

KI: Oh, I think the book he writes, Christie.

RS: Christine.

KI: Yes. Surprising car with a ghost, you know? Very eh... shocking to be scared by car and ghost, right? Fun book.

RS: Maybe he could write a book for you about haunted daikon radishes.

KI (laughing): Mean radish! I would buy it!

[We both begin laughing here over the silliness of the idea, and it takes a moment to get ourselves under control. He sips his tea and frowns, but then simply sets it aside. I probably shouldn't have offered something so boring and cheap.]

RS (after we’ve settled): Now, tell me what drew you to haiku.

KI: Haikai embodies. You have soul inside mind, but you can not say it, so you see something in a place, with a time, and you write it in form. Okay? You free it and capture it. You can spend a year for just one of them. Okay. Also, I was with Jôdoshinshû, and they are poets with haikai. So I am buddhist and am going to do haikai, but more than others, I fall in love in one, so easily. I can’t stop writing the haikai in my life, like I can’t stop being buddhist. Each contains the other for me.

RS: Can you describe Chikua's Nirokuan haiku school? It is known you attended this school for several years in your twenties.

KI (brightens): Chikua! Ikyô loves you still after hundreds of years!

RS: That’s right, you used the name ‘Ikyô’ while in attendance.

KI: Yes, many names. Issa is not my birth name, either. I am born Kobayashi Yatarô. Issa means Cup-of-Tea. I was Issa, Chief Beggar of Shinano Province.

RS: Chief Beggar.

KI: Yes, you have to beg.for awhile, right? Before you are born, after you die. What is this but asking for what must be? So, but yes, I enjoy Chikua’s school. He is strict, but he is also very alive. He shows you how to get inside haikai and meet yourself with nature and life. You have to breathe inside one, and so he teach you how, but at first, you just breathe Chikua’s breath in it, until you learn how to do your own and write the haikai outside of yourself. Then Chikua... if you learn it, he’d smile. Chikua had a smile you never saw until you deserved it... but okay, I say impossible anyone could smile like Chikua could.

RS: Is there anything about your life you would have changed?

KI: No strokes. They make you not talk for short time. I like to talk.

RS (quoting an English translation of one of Issa’s haiku):

how irritating!
the wild geese freely
call their friends

KI: Yes. I had stroke when I wrote it. No talk for Kobayashi.

RS: Well Kobayashi, I want to thank you for coming here and allowing me the interview. It’s been an honor talking with you about your life.

KI: Okay. Good fun. So, old poets, new poets... still learning, right?

RS: Very much so.

KI: Okay so, cool.

[At this point I reach over toward my laptop and turned the recorder off, the interview over. However, in doing so, Issa notices an image on my laptop’s screen for which I had earlier saved as my desktop image (it is the same picture of him found at the head of this interview).]

KI (pointing at screen): Hey, me?

RS: Yes. It’s a well known image. Now that I've met you, I'd have to say the picture doesn't look much like you.

KI (raising eyebrows and smiling): No, but so you want better picture?

RS: What do you mean?

KI: Make so I have pen for that picture.

[I was confused by this, but hoped perhaps he was going to create a new haiku for the world, something no one in history would have read until now. This would be an honor beyond anything I could imagine. Even an autograph would have been monumental. I open the image in Paintbrush and select the text tool, my mind turning in the possibilities. Issa then looks at the screen, thinks for a moment and selects the pen tool. He then slowly procedes to deface the picture. When finished, he chuckles and captions it.]

KI: Keep and use. There is more fun picture.

[I stare at his new version of the famous image. I don’t know how to respond, but finally manage to say something.]

RS: So, okay.

Changed by Kobayashi Issa, Chief Cup-of-Tea of Haiku Temple

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