Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Jan Cornall on haibun, the Mekong and spiritual writing

    Jan Cornall is one of Australia's most beloved writing teachers, and she has had an enormous influence on co-host Walter Mason's own creative life. We are so honoured to be able to bring you this wonderful post about a book that has been inspiring Jan:

    John Brandi  -  Water Shining Beyond The Fields: Haibun Travels, South East Asia.

Jan Cornall writes: Before I tell you about this wonderful book, I have to tell you how I found it. In 2009 I set off on a six-week journey through SE Asia. For the first part I was following the footsteps of my literary icon, the French writer, Marguerite Duras,  (The Lover) through Vietnam. She was born in 1914 to French school teacher parents who were living and working near Saigon (when Vietnam was part of French Indochina) and she spent most of her first seventeen years growing up in small towns along the Mekong River.

I started in Hanoi, searching for the ‘house near the small lake’ that Duras lived in as a four-year-old. I didn’t find it, but it did prompt the beginning of my SE Asia bookshop crawl, as I went searching for clues in any bookshop I came across. In the process I found some other book gems, so perfectly in-sync with my trip that I often felt they were placed on there just for me.

John Brandi’s haibun journal was one such find. I was fresh from the two-day boat trip up the Mekong River from Saigon to Phnom Penh when I wandered into Monument Books, a large aircon emporium of great books (and as I was to discover, with branches also in Laos and Myanmar).

Whether it was the cover, the title, the size, the paper, the pen and ink haiga drawings, that made it leap off the shelf into my hand, didn’t matter. I knew my trip was worth it just to find this book; a haibun travel journal written about the places I was travelling to. Too perfect!

After reading (no, savouring) Brandi’s book, haibun has become my favourite genre.

Haibun is a prosimetric (def: combining prose and poetry) form of descriptive writing that can be traced back to the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. He used it in his own travel journals, most notably his famous Narrow Road To The Interior.

In haibun the author describes a place, an event, person or scene in a paragraph or more, then punctuates it with a haiku ( a Japanese three line poem). The haiku shouldn’t merely repeat the description but take the reader to a deeper level of reflection and perception. (Modern haiku allows the poet all sorts of leeway and deviation from the strict 5-7-5 syllable rule; see Cor van den Heuvel’s excellent English language collection, The Haiku Anthology).

 John Brandi is a master at this. Born in California in 1943, he is an inveterate traveller/painter/poet who traces his influences to the West Coast Beat tradition, Federico Garcia Lorca and the Japanese haiku masters. His work, published by numerous small presses and journals in the US has won a number of awards.

In the beginning of Water Shining Beyond The Fields, Brandi tells how since boyhood he has always written down small incidents of travel, but not until the late 1990’s did he start punctuating his prose snippets with haiku. In outlining his haibun writing process Brandi says:

These journeys were recorded as they unrolled, details usually scribbled in spiral note-books on a bus, in a temple corner, cliff hopping, riding a bike rambling markets or ducking underneath a verandah in the rain. Late evening or next morning, crosslegged on the floor, in a cafe, or on a rare chair before a desk, the scribbled prose blocks, with occasional haiku in between, would be transferred to a larger notebook. At home, after travels, I took to transcribing the journals. Donkey work at times, but mostly a pleasurable chance to relive the journey and discover where, exactly,  I had been - from a comfortable distance. The biggest effort was to remain true to the notebooks, the immediacy of the first hand “takes” - no alterations to make the travels into something they weren’t .

The fact that he was describing a similar process of writing to the one I was practising on my travels was affirmation enough, but when I stepped into his haibun writing, all I could feel was excitement.

Brandi records what he sees, makes lists of concrete detail, evokes the senses: taste, scent and texture, in the same way Natalie Goldberg advises writers to do in her Zen classic: Writing Down The Bones.

“He gets inside and outside things” says beat poet David Meltzer who first published his prose poems. " His work seeks source and renewal in new geographies and in the act of travel with its inevitable encounters and mysteries." It’s the opposite to 'fancy' writing, rather it is very down to earth, like his description of the sellers at AngkorWat:

    A few water vendors are hanging out; children mostly; and a woman hawking pirated guides to the ruins. Even at this hour the humidity is strong:

    the postcard seller
    folds out all ten views
    and fans herself.

    He even turns others’ thoughts into a haiku as he retells a conversation his Angkor Wat guide, Ponheary Ly, a genocide survivor (who I met on my next trip).

    We talk about world leaders, their inability to dissolve their egos, conquer their own greed. Ponheary punctuated the discussion with her thoughts about war:

    “even if you win
    you have the word
    ‘lost’ inside”

    His haiku of course can also stand alone.You can skim through the book just taking inspiration from poems like:

    in the empty niche
    where Buddha sat
    bees at work

    stone vaults collapse

    roof becomes sky, stars shine
    from rain pools

    fields shimmer
    beyond a gate
    made of reeds

One of my favourite passages describes his last night in Phnom Penh.

    More beers, then too a quiet, surreal, restaurant, furniture piled downstairs, big clock ticking near the door. Jeff treats us to mint-onion-lime spicy shrimp salad, basil-beef curry and seafood satay. The waiters have smiles and dirty sleeves; they bring candles, disappear into the shadows. The dining room opens to a balcony overlooking a row of jagged rickshaws parked between moonlit frangipanis, as if in a sinister Shanghai 1936 movie. What a wonderful meal; what a strangely perfect place to say goodbye:

    in the kitchen
    fish playing in cold water
    under the butcher block

     A couple of days later I tucked Brandi’s book tightly under my arm and set off for Angkor Wat. No Lonely Planet Guide for me, but the words of a poet leading me through temple ruins which for hundreds of years had lain hidden beneath the Cambodian jungle.

    The sun doesn’t completely burn through the moist shade. Growth is turbulent, the odor herbal. A sweet exotic rot. Locusts whine among broken eaves and fallen porticos:

    not the gods
    but the banyans

(c) Jan Cornall 2013

Italicised text is from Water Shining Beyond The Fields - Haibun Travels, South East Asia.

John Brandi.

    Jan Cornall is writer, performer and teacher who leads writing retreats in inspirational locations: Fiji Bali, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Morocco. A regular guest at festivals in the Asia Pacific region, Jan has performed her spoken and sung word at Ubud Writers Festival, Utan Kayu Literary Biennale (Jakarta), Hong Kong Literary Festival, Irrawaddy Literary Festival (Burma), Darwin's Wordstorm, QLD’s Reality Bites. Her novel Take Me To Paradise (set in Bali) was launched at Ubud Writers Festival in 2006. Jan is currently working on a book of short stories with Indonesian author Triyanto Triwikromo and a travel memoir that follows the footsteps of Marguerite Duras in Indochina.

    The next Writer's Journey trip is

    Sacred Song, Sacred Story - Fes, Morocco.

    June 7 -15 (arrive 6th, depart 16th).
    A writing retreat incorporating the annual Sacred Music Festival of Fes.
    This year's festival will be headlined by songstress/storyteller Patti Smith.
    More info:
    Contact Jan:

You can purchase books mentioned or any others through our bookstore links (above right). The small % returned to us supports the Universal Heart Book Club. We would also love to hear from you...we treasure your comments and responses.
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