Interview with Jeff Robbins, compiler of the Basho4Now Trilogy

Why “Basho4Now”?
This is not Basho4Scholars, but rather Basho for EVERYONE — not knowledge of Japanese literature, but rather knowledge of humanity will help you unlock the Basho works in this trilogy. Basho4Now is the hundreds upon hundreds of fascinating and humane Basho works the scholars neglect to tell us about, so almost nobody knows they exist; the verses, prose, and letters that contradict the well-established Basho-image of a lonely, austere, impersonal, and humourless “poet-saint.”

Basho4Now consists of poems focusing on humanity, especially women and children – for instance, three verses on breast-feeding, several on babies, and twenty on teenage girls — his hilarious prose parodies, the “gentleness and humanity” of his letters to close friends, the incisive statements he spoke to his followers.    Basho4Now is Basho to amuse, entertain, inform, and inspire ordinary people interested in humanity.

Basho's birthplace at Iga-Ueno

Basho’s birthplace at Iga-Ueno (photos by J. Dougill)

Isn’t Basho famous for his haiku and travel journals?
Most certainly, and that’s the problem; that is ALL he is famous for. Believe it or not, all of his haiku and travel journals are only about one third of his entire work.    If you look into enough books on Basho, you will find about half of his haibun or short essays, about one hundred of his linked-verse stanzas, a few sentences from his letters, and a few passages of spoken word. In contrast The Basho4Now Trilogy contains (in addition to 200 haiku and 60 prose passages you may have seen before) 230 stanzas of linked verse, three tanka, 30 haibun, 100 letter sections, 60 passages of spoken word; most of these will surprise even the dedicated Basho scholar.

I believe we should look closely at Basho’s statement:

“Many of my followers write haiku equal to mine, however in renku is the marrow of this old man.”

In linked verse, the “marrow” of Basho’s consciousness, we truly discover his astonishing insights into human life and consciousness – however his 1700 renku stanzas are studied only by a coterie of renku scholars, while few other people know even one Basho stanza.

Why “Basho4Now”?
This is not Basho4Scholars, but rather Basho for EVERYONE — not knowledge of Japanese literature, but rather knowledge of humanity will help you unlock the Basho works in this trilogy. Basho4Now is the hundreds upon hundreds of fascinating and humane Basho works the scholars neglect to tell us about, so almost nobody knows they exist; the verses, prose, and letters that contradict the well-established Basho-image of a lonely, austere, impersonal, and humourless “poet-saint.”

Rather than full 36-stanza sequences in which Basho wrote a fraction, I present stanza- pairs – a triplet and a couplet, one by Basho — so examples of Basho’s mastery stand out. We focus on the single link, the flow of mind from one poet to the next, searching for relation to our modern lives and consciousness.

How did you get into studying Basho? Can you tell us the path you followed?
At the end of the 70s in California I read a book with poems by the four great Japanese haiku poets: Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki; somehow, the only ones that stuck with me were by Basho. After I returned to Japan, I began studying Basho in Japanese, and found many haiku of deep humanity – however I noticed that the authors of books about haiku rarely mentioned these verses. All the attention went to Basho’s sad lonely works, while the cheerful and humane ones were considered “exceptions.” After several years adsorbed in Basho, I gave up the study, because it was taking too much time and energy away from what I had to do to support my family of three children. I continued thinking about Basho verses, but for two decades did not actively reach out for more knowledge of Basho. Six years ago, with my children grown, and my daughter taking over my business building and selling developmental play equipment, I returned to active study of Basho. I found a superb research assistant, Sakata Shoko, a certified instructor of Japanese language, who has been invaluable in helping me understand Basho’s letters, linked verse, and Japanese commentaries. For the past six years with Shoko’s help I have found and translated hundreds of treasures in Basho’s letters, linked verse, and spoken word, none of them found in any other English book.

How is your presentation of Basho different from other books?
Most important is my selection of poems to present. All the works in my trilogy appear in complete anthologies of Basho, buried among a thousands of words, so no single verse stands out. I instead bring your attention to the verses about humanity.

A Basho haiku at Iga-Ueno

A Basho haiku at Iga-Ueno

One way I draw your attention is by using a bright, lively font in bold for all words of Basho and the same font not bold for words of other poets. Following are brief summaries and the cover illustrations to each of the three volumes in my trilogy.
1) Take Back the Sun: Basho’s Praise for Women “Primordial power of the feminine emanating from Basho poetry”
60 haiku about women along with 140 Basho renku stanzas, three tanka, 30 prose passages, and 20 letter sections, all about women. As you read you will be overwhelmed by the dozens and dozens of Basho works on page after page, focusing on women, ordinary women in everyday life;    Many of these would be valuable contributions to woman’s study courses worldwide.
2) What Children Do: Basho Honors the Young, “Resources for kids, parents, teens, and educators”
60 haiku about children, teenagers, and their caregivers, 90 renku stanzas, plus prose passages, letters, and spoken word about young folk; many items could be part of any curriculum in child studies. The astonishing diversity of Basho images of children and teens, and especially his praise for the female (unique in this patriarchal society), may help you understand and deal with your child or any child.
3) Dear Uncle Basho: Poet of Humanity “Humor, Friendship, and Love”
One chapter of “absurd parodies”, including Basho’s hilarious cartoon Diagram of a Snore; 35 linked verses on “love and lust”, A chapter “High on Sake”,
five chapters about men and the nature of friendship, including letters to his brother and close friends in which we travel through the mind of Basho.

In translation I follow Basho’s dictum:

“Poetry benefits from the realization of ordinary words.”

I deliberately avoid the complex and abstract language other scholars use, preferring to follow the Book of Ecclesiastics and The Elements of Style with simple concrete words that “call up pictures.” I find the “realization of ordinary words” far more meaningful and empowering than academic and intellectual words.

Also, I believe Japanese poetry to be a form of music: Basho said

“The physical form, first of all, must be graceful, then the musical quality makes a superior verse.”

I translate every haiku and renku triplet with the same rhythm of beats, three beats and pause, four beats without pause, three beats and pause. This is the way Japanese musicians score haiku, and I find such a four-beat rhythm superb in English.

As for prose, all six of Basho’s journals have been translated, so here is nothing new, however I select out brief passages from long essays, giving you concentrated bits of Basho wisdom in poetic form. David Barnhill translates half of Basho’s 118 prose passages; many of the prose passages I translate are not in his book. He selects the ones that are sad, lonely, and Buddhist. I select the funny, trippy ones. Also the erotic ones:

“Beneath plum blossoms on the dark mountain unknown to people, unexpectedly we may be stained by the fragrance. On a hill of deep longing, with no one to guard the gate, somehow indiscretions occur.”

People led to believe Basho was a “poet-saint” devoid of sexual feelings may find it hard to believe he wrote such erotic prose – but there it is.

Barnhill translates the following passage in a long essay; I present just the first two clauses, focusing on the wisdom in Basho’s parallel construction:

“The mountains in silence nourish the spirit;
the water with movement calms the emotions.”

One well-known Basho prose passage is his account of meeting two “play-women” on his journey to the Deep North. I consider this passage a crucial document in the history of feminism and the struggle against male exploitation of the female body.  In a 20- page chapter of Take Back the Sun, I explore this passage, as well as seven Basho linked verses stanzas on “play-women” and other materials about prostitution in Japan, to uncover the reality of these women sold to brothels as children to suffer unspeakable misery as sex slaves until they died, often from syphilis, often before their 24th year. I pray that women who have been trafficked will find inspiration and empowerment, as well as amusement, in Basho’s sketches of “play-women.” I hope that those working to stop these crimes against humanity will find them an aide in their struggle.

Tell us about Basho’s letters.
Of 229 extant Basho letters, those to the women Uko and Chigstsu, and to his childhood and lifelong friend Ensui, have remarkable “gentleness and humanity”    These two words, yasashisa to ningenmi, from a Japanese scholar so perfectly fit the Basho in these letters. Consider one sentence Basho wrote to Ensui in response to a letter from Ensui announcing the birth of his first grandchild, a girl.

“I am happy you have a grandchild, my joy as great as yours.”

Basho links his heart with Ensui, matching Ensui’s joy with his own. We cannot read this letter without feeling the warmth in Basho’s heart. He expresses it so clearly. With no knowledge at all of such affectionate letters, scholars say Basho was “impersonal, detached, and objective.” I aim to destroy this false image of Basho, replacing with the true Basho, the warm affectionate Basho in his letters to Ensui.

Basho's grave at Gichu-ji in Otsu

Basho’s grave at Gichu-ji in Otsu

You say most of Basho’s spoken word has never been translated, but I once saw online a list of many Basho sayings —
I have seen those lists too.    Most of the items are either haiku laid out in proverb form, or passages from his journals. By “spoken word” I mean words he spoke to his followers but never wrote down; the followers recorded them in their own journals and essays. Several hundred of them appear in his followers’ writings. For instance, here Basho speaks of ki, the energy or spirit of Japanese martial and healing arts, the Force of Star Wars; I translate as “Energy.” Basho said,

“Make poetry ride the Energy.”

So writing or reading poetry is like surfing; you go along with the Energy, ever keeping your balance. Pretty cool, huh?

How is it that you, and no one else, knows about these works –
Every one of these works can be found in authoritative Basho anthologies in a Japanese city library. I know not why of all Basho’s works, only the haiku and travel journals have been selected for translation? Why the letters are not in all Japan study courses? Why the linked verses condemning male exploitation of the female body are not explored by feminists, and those about zazen not studied by students of Zen? Why the dozens of Basho poems about children are not used in teaching children to read? The language Basho uses is so simple, clear, and vital, why are these poems not used for teaching English as a second language? Why are his brilliantly clear and direct statements about poetry not known to modern poets? All because of pre-conceived notions, judging as worthless what is unknown.

Do you have a publisher for your trilogy?
At this time, I am not really looking for a publisher. Rather I am looking for a platform, for allies who will work with me in introducing Basho’s works on humanity to humanity, allies more proficient socially than I can be, allies who can get the word out about this new Pop Hero Basho, allies who can create a homepage for Basho and use social media to spread awareness of his works on humanity.

I am not looking to make any money on this; My foremost wish is to contribute this incredible legacy to the women of today and the future so it lives on after I die. So please be my ally and help me in this mission to make Basho the poet of humanity. Really, I should not be doing this alone. The humanity in Basho belongs to all of us.

Even in 800 pages of my trilogy are less than 20% of his linked verse and letters. This is a field far too vast for me to explore alone. There should be people studying Basho’s works on humanity in every college and university, not just some old guy in Fukuoka. Come out, world, enter the universe of Basho’s works on human life and consciousness.

What are your hopes for this trilogy?
To introduce Basho’s works on humanity to people everywhere. They can be a profound resource in all fields of human life; anthropology, sociology, history, journalism, philosophy, psychology, child development, education, food, drink, music, comedy – if anyone in these fields would simply look into the proper works.

Basho, the only male writer in world literature who focused on women and children in hundreds of poems, offers women and children a unique and powerful legacy; a vast pool of resources for the recognition of female and child integrity.

This is too great a legacy for me, an old hermit with no affiliations, no funding, no social nor social media skills, living in provincial Japan, to handle. I hope to transfer rights and full royalties to the Basho4now trilogy to a person, organization, university, or foundation who will work with me to spread Basho’s life-giving and inspirational works to people worldwide, while using the royalties to assist women and children in need. I pray for someone to edit the books to appeal to young people and women, find a popular publisher, and publicize it to sell millions, bringing in millions to help women and children, as well as empowering them with Basho’s vision. Discovering our common humanity through Basho may bring us together for a more peaceful world. I am willing to go anywhere to join an organization who will be the platform for this mission.

I need allies who will read my books and give me thoughtful feedback. I make this offer to all members of Writers in Kyoto; send me your postal address and I will send you a bound galley of one volume of my trilogy at no charge; all I want from you is 300 words (or more) of feedback, positive or negative, on either individual items or the book as a whole. Or I will send you, by post or e-mail, 30 – 40 page excerpts from the trilogy; your feedback requested.

Jeff Robbins