Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2002

Dorina Aguilar

Real Symbolism: Readings
of John Stevenson's Haiku

Dorina Aguilar

Dorina's Haiku



Real Symbolism: Readings of John Stevenson's Haiku

It was simple everyday symbolism that drew me to the poetry of Haiku author John Stevenson. He used the most familiar events to contribute a pulling feeling of familiarity within his writings. I often myself thinking . . . "Yes. I definitely know that feeling." I enjoyed his value of those certain moments and feelings that present a subtle yet powerful force upon those who endure them. You feel the elements in his poetry, and you see his visions. As a writing major it is very difficult for me to stray away from the temptations to edit whatever I may be reading, but that is different with Stevenson's poetry. I do not find myself editing it, I find myself immersing my being into the scene he has depicted for me. I wasn't surprised when Dr. Brooks suggested him as my author of choice after I told him how I enjoyed poetry about everyday experiences.

under the
blackest doodle
something unerasable

The poem that I chose to open with (found in The Haiku Anthology) is a sheer reflection of those things that you try to hide from others but you cannot hide from yourself. It creates the impression of leaving an impression without that sort of intention. I found myself reminiscing about several instances in junior high and high school when I would scribble my crush's name down, and then quickly scribble over it so that no would think I was weird. You never want to let anyone into your most inner thoughts and desires because you are afraid of being ridiculed and judged by others, this poem is the epitome of facing the realities behind your facades. In some way it may encourage an honesty within, that would therefore persuade the self to be more confident and accepting of true feelings.

John Stevenson was born in 1948, in Ithaca, NY. He is the single parent of a 19 year-old son. He's in his first year of college and lives alone in their house in Nassau, a small village located about 15 miles southeast of Albany, NY. According to Stevenson, his family situation is unusual. He moved to the Albany area in 1980. He didn't know anybody there (went for a job) and, since he had a background in theatre, he started working in local community theatre immediately, as a way of meeting people. One of the people he met was Patricia Kennedy, who directed a play he was in. They became good friends and were married on December 5, 1981.

Their son, James (Jamey), was born on February 23,1983. Stevenson claims he'd always liked children but didn't anticipate becoming a parent because he was very aware of two things most people don't think about - "it is an immense responsibility offering life and death to someone and the world is over-populated already." He and his wife actually discussed these things for some time and came to an agreement to have one child. During his son's first five years, he spent all his free time with him while his wife continued her theatre work and also began the education which eventually led to her work as an addictions counselor. Stevenson says that he didn't feel that he was missing anything, despite the fact that theatre had been an important part of his life since I was five. He supposed that this may have made him seem boring to Pat. "I was a little boring," he stated.

During this period he had the repeated experience of seeing old friends from college receiving Emmy Awards on television. He got fed up with this at one point and immediately got a part in the first play that came along (Inherit the Wind at RPI). But it didn't feel the same as it used to. So, he was in a period of looking for new meaning at the same time his wife was. She found it with another man and left me in April of 1991.

Fortunately, they both felt that Jamey needed a father and a mother and were both determined to make a bad situation as good as it could be for him. It took them almost three years to finally work out all the terms of our divorce. But they were in and out of family court within a month of separating, with an agreement about childcare. They have, ever since, been cooperative co-parents for their son.
His ex-wife soon became pregnant. He has a poem which marks the occasion on which she made this known to him:

Father's Day
she tells me
I'm not the father

This poem is another example of the real events in life that influence Stevenson's poetry. This poem is a reflection of a significant moment, in the simplest terms. This is a way that he achieves the commonality of his work. He presents his senryu in a way that will leave an imprint without even trying. This poem may be a possible blow to anyone in a similar situation, but no one else would know that but the.

He began writing Haiku and Senryu in 1992 after an enlightening experience at a Playback Theatre when he was forty-three. His first publication was in January of 1993. He has a degree in theatre and was a professional actor in his twenties. He was attending a summer institute on Playback Theatre and was placed with a Japanese actress for an exercise. Playback Theatre is a form of theatre in which members of the audience are given a chance to tell a story from their lives and then see it performed right before them. He had had experience in writing other types of poetry; as a matter of fact his first poem to be published was when he was merely eight years old. He then began writing on a daily basis from the age of twelve on.

His first poem was inspired by his third grade teacher, Lydia Sears. When I started writing poems regularly, his inspiration was Robert Frost, then Carl Sandburg. In high school it was E. E. Cummings. Starting in college (and still) it was Wallace Stevens. As a theater artist, Shakespeare was his bible. Samuel Becket has been very influential and in some ways prepared him to appreciate haiku when that came my way. Jonathan Fox, the creator of Playback Theatre, has been tremendously influential in his last ten years.

After discussing with this actress and enduring a conversation full of laughter, they began to talk about language, which would then lead to the mutual appreciation for poetry. She then introduced him to her favorite Haiku. This was the first he had ever experienced such poetry and from then on, for the next month he became immersed in haiku from various aspects, and then within the following month, he began to write and publish his own work.

Another poem that struck me close to home was one found in Some of the Silence:

old slippers
the comfort
coming apart

This poem reverted me back to my childhood when my grandmother bought me my first pair of slippers at the discount store around the comer from her first home in the U.S. on the South Side of Chicago. The discount store was owned by a Polish family; and there were all kids of goods inside. I remember being amazed by the towering boxes of party supplies, and household items like fly swatters, plastic spoons, miniature chairs, and even house slippers. These weren't just any ordinary house slippers; they were the grandma-style, one strap, terrycloth, flat bottomed, pink flowered slippers. But as soon as she picked a pair out and I stepped into them, I was a grown up. I remember my mother had to throw that pair away without me even knowing about it. They were worn and ripping, but they were my slippers. Of course I never called them slippers I called the "chanclas" which of course meant slippers in Spanish. My grandmother started a trend in my life, and that is the memory the Stevenson has triggered in my mind with his poem.

One of his most recent poems depicts a more solemn image that drew me back to a very significant and tragic day in our country's history. I wasn't there, but this poem made me feel like I was. I found it on a website that posted similar reflective Haiku:

between people
a glimpse of
the second tower

This poem is an excellent example of the impact that Stevenson has with his simple imagery. Obviously the event was not a light experience, and he captured one of the most powerful moments. He describes a glimpse to symbolize the instant in which that type destruction can occur. I remember waking up to horrible news and watching all the chaos on television, feeling like it was all a movie. I caught my glimpse of that second tower, and then it was gone.

Stevenson has also accomplished several senryu. He claims that his favorite is:

spreading through the woods, the Native Plant Society

This poem is part of the ironic elements that currently surround our natural environment. I was impressed and surprised that someone recognized the same things I did about all the park rangers infesting the forest. I wonder what all that car pollution is doing for the trees?

I am very excited to be able to study John Stevenson, he is truly an inspiration when it comes to capturing the moments in life. The objects he sees through humble eyes, are those of greatest value to the heart. I am encouraged to reflect on my past, present and future and grab what is right in front of me and create it in the art it can truly become.


The Haiku Anthology, 3rd Edition
Edited by Cor Van Den Heuvel
Published 1999

Some of the Silence
By John Stevenson
Published 1999

©2002 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors