Sunday, 15 May 2011
haibun as memoir, historical document and sacred biography (EelPie Dharma)
Writing Eel Pie Dharma:
Haibun as Memoir, Historical Document and Sacred Biography
I wrote Eel Pie Dharma: a memoir/haibun in the fall of 1988. I had quit my job as a desk clerk at Toronto Public Library, and was living on unemployment insurance. I self-published it in 1990 with Unfinished Monument Press. About a decade ago my webmaster, Weed, put it online.
EPD is the story of my adventures from the summer of 1969, when I dodged the draft for the Vietnam War, until 1972, when I returned to
, land of my birth. During much of those three years I lived in an abandoned hotel in Canada with a band of hippie squatters, the Eel Pie Island Commune. Twickenham, England
For two decades I had told and retold stories of those heady times. After almost two decades, I decided it was crucial to capture these adventures while the memories remained fresh. So I quit the library, with plans to write my debut novel, a bildungsroman perhaps, like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Or more likely a freeform memoir like one of Jack Kerouac’s biographical tales of being On the Road as a wandering beatnik Dharma Bum. Man.
I set a strict daily schedule, and every afternoon I would go for a long hike to encourage the endorphin flow before settling at my typewriter for a minimum of one hour of productive writing.
An “accidental” haibun
There was no initial intention to write a haibun. I drew up a list of the most memorable events, and then began writing short passages about each. The first chapter, A Psychedelic Basho, contained a lot of haiku. I am fortunate to be in the second wave of English language haiku poets, and this first chapter chronicles my introduction to a lifetime of writing haiku.
Other passages also contained haiku, and I found remembering poems I had written keyed profound memories of events. I was in the process of creating both a haibun as well as a memoir, with these two genres interacting and stimulating the creative process. However, these passages were still intended to be notes for a later fleshing out into full-fledged chapters in a traditional novel.
In January of 1989 I sold my tiny house in east end
and moved to the old mining hamlet of Cordova Mines. I bought a rambling and ramshackle century farmhouse, and spent that summer fixing it up as best as possible. In the winter I renewed my task of writing EPD, sitting upstairs every night peering through dusty windows at the rundown church across the way basking in the dull glow of the solitary Cordova streetlight. Toronto
I decided to copytype a cleaner version of the manuscript over the winter months. I had revised many of the 28 “chapters” that summer, adding haiku to the chapters which lacked them. In my subconscious I was creating a haibun, although I hadn’t yet consciously reached this conclusion.
Poet Mark McCawley arranged a Canada Council reading for me for Valentine’s Day 1990. I stayed with Mark and his wife for a week in
, where they were friendly and supportive hosts. One night I shyly mentioned the manuscript to Mark. The next morning Mark gave an enthusiastic response to the work-in-progress. But Mark added a twist, “Publish it as it is. It reads well and it’s concise.” Edmonton
And so EPD greeted the world as a 58 page, cirlox bound, 8 ½ by 11 inch book photocopy published by my small literary press,
. Over two decades later I still feel indebted to Mark for encouraging me to just go ahead and publish the manuscript “as is”. Unfinished Monument
The first copies were published with the subtitle “a memoir/novella”. Although there are now hundreds of thousands of entries for haibun on Google searches, in 1990 there were only two previous Canadian haibun of which I was aware.
Two earlier Canadian haibun
Jack Cain published his evocative short haibun,
, in 1964. It is available online at: Paris
pages 12 – 15 of up against the window: contemporary haibun Volume 1
edited by Jim Kacian and Bruce Ross.
Rod Willmot published the lyrically beautiful The Ribs of Dragonfly with Black Moss Press in 1984. So to the best of my knowledge, EPD was the third Canadian haibun and only the second published Canadian haibun of book length (again, not counting the incredible beat generation books by Jack Kerouac). I have the vaguest memory of telling Rod I was quitting my library job to write fulltime, as Rod had inscribed my copy of TROD with Chris – welcome to vagabondage!
In retrospect I wonder why we haijin members of Haiku Canada were hesitant to publish haibun. Perhaps we were daunted at presenting our work for comparison with ancient masters like Basho. For decades most haiku poets remained content to publish small chapbooks of haiku, and without the prose framework, the context of these individual haiku was missing. No matter how evocative the poems, without a supporting prose structure, the haiku remained orphaned slices of momentary awareness.
Surprise use as online resource
It’s been over two decades since I first published EPD. Fellow communard from
days, Weed (once Chris Whitehouse), encouraged me to let him post it online about a decade ago. According to Weed, EPD has since been accessed by tens of thousands of readers. An unanticipated result of EPD’s availability on the web has been its establishment as an historical document. In an earlier blog posting, EPD quoted in 2 recent rock histories: WON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN & Eel Pie Island , I’ve recounted its value as an historical reference for the sixties rock music scene. EEL PIE ISLAND
British novelist Hari Kunzru also used EPD as an historical resource for his novel My Revolutions. Kunzru credits the chapter on the 144 Piccadilly Squat for background insight into the mindset of a young revolutionary member of
’s Angry Brigades. Britain
U.K.’s All Out Productions also interviewed me as a resource for a 2007 BBC Radio 4 documentary on the Thames Valley Music Scene, in which the Eel Pie Hotel Ballroom provided a nurturing venue for the early days of The Stones and many other groups.
Victoria Urubshurow, in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to: The Life of Buddha, uses the phrase “sacred biography”. I love her term “sacred biography”, for this is what all true haibun are. There have been periods in my life when I’ve ‘lost myself’, forgotten the highest levels of consciousness I have experienced and described in several chapters of Eel Pie Dharma: meditating with a Buddhist monk in the London monastery, or having Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta, the founder of the Hare Krishnas, look me in the eyes and tell how he remembers working with me for the betterment of mankind in previous incarnations. This aspect of haibun has been the most personally beneficial for me, although when I re-read EPD every few years I always reflect on the Grateful Dead’s famous lyrics, “what a long strange trip it’s been!”
May 15, 2011