Nicole Bilyeu

John Stevenson's Haiku

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Nicole Bilyeu

Nicole's Haiku



John Stevenson's Haiku

cold Saturday—
drawn back into bed
by my own warmth

This haiku is the reason I chose John Stevenson. I love sleep and the feeling this haiku provides me with is comforting and familiar. I experience this daily, not only on Saturdays. When I read this, I knew that I would find more of his haiku’s to connect with. He writes about everyday experiences, feelings that most people can relate to. I wanted to focus on an author that I could relate to and understand.
After searching for more of his work, I found that I could not find anything besides what was in The Haiku Anthology. Dr. Brooks kindly gave me John’s e-mail address and I had the chance to communicate with the author himself. John was a very nice man and responded quickly to my questions. He went out of his way to ensure that I had everything I needed. I am very grateful to have corresponded with such a kind man.

John Stevenson resides in Nassau, New York with his fifteen year old son. Besides writing, he works as an administrator for the New York State Office of Mental Health. He is the author of Something Unerasable (1996), Some of the Silence (1999) and the editor of From a Kind Neighbor, the 1997 Haiku Society of America membership anthology.

When I wrote to John, I included a few questions for him to answer to help me understand his work better. First, I wanted to know how he began writing haiku. His answer was long, but I will do my best to relay it to you. He began writing haiku through his involvement with his involvement with Playback Theatre and because of his long experience with writing other forms of poetry. His first poem was published when he was eight years old and he has been writing on a daily basis since he was fourteen. He did not encounter haiku until he was forty three. He was attending a summer institute on Playback Theatre when he was teamed up 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 on the spot. After finishing the exercise they tried to find a joke they could both laugh at. It turned out to be a difficult task. She told a Japanese joke, which he did not get and he told an American joke which she did not get. She then told a Turkish joke which made him smile, but not laugh. In the end, they did find a joke they could both laugh at, but the key was in the "punch line" which was acted out rather than spoken. After that experience, they started talking about language and they discovered that they both loved poetry. She then shared her favorite haiku, in original Japanese and then in English, with an explanation. It was the first time he had ever heard anyone mention haiku except as a joke. Within a month, he started coming across haiku here and there, and within another month he was writing and publishing them.

I also wanted to know who his favorite writer was and did he have a mentor. Most people, no matter what their profession, have a mentor or someone they look up to. He told me his favorite writer is Walker Percy, whom I have read in my communication classes. His favorite poet is Wallace Stevens. He had a couple theatre mentors—Warren Enters in theatre school, and Jonathan Fox, the inventor of Playback theatre. He does not really have any poetry mentors, but two people come to mind as being especially helpful when he needs them: Janat Salas, who is not a well known poet, but a working poet who showed him how to be practical about poetry and Cor van den Heuvel, editor of The Haiku Anthology , who regularly attends HSA meetings in New York and usually shares new work there. It is his presence at the meetings that makes John strive to be at his best there.

John is very well known among American haiku writers because he served as President of the Haiku Society of America in 2000 and he is currently serving as vice-president. Not only that, but he served as Regional Coordinator for the New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware region of the Haiku Society of America in 1995 and 1996. He was also the Editor for the HSA Members’ Anthology of 1997. He was the Book Review Editor for the South by Southeast in 1996. He has received eight Brady Awards (for senryu) since 1994 and served as a judge in 1997. He also received Einbond Awards (for renku) including two grand prizes (1996, 1998) and two second prizes (both 2000). He received first prizes in the first Christian Science Monitor contests (1997, 1998) and honorable mention in the most recent (1999). He received several awards for haiku, senryu and rengay from the Haiku Poets of Northern California. He has received haiku prizes from Australia and Britain and "Best of Issue" or "Editor’s Choice" awards from various Haiku publications. He was included in the third edition of The Haiku Anthology (1999) and a Japanese anthology sponsored by the Gunma Cultural Center (2000). As can be seen, although he has not been writing for a long time, he has a lot to show for his work.

When I asked John what his favorite haiku from his own work was, he had a hard time responding. He responded with a cliché, "this is like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Even if a parent can do this, it wouldn’t feel right." Instead he gave me the haiku which gained him the most attention, but is also one of his favorites. It won a prize in the first of The Christian Science Monitor’s haiku contest, in 1997.

summer traffic
my shadow rides up
a stranger’s neck

I like this haiku, but it was not one of my favorites after reading through his work. This haiku provides me with a very laid back feeling. It is a slow, lazy day and it is hot and stuffy in the car. Since the traffic is not to his liking he notices things like his shadow on a stranger’s neck. Since he is obviously stuck in traffic, he has time to think of his haiku after he notices the shadow. I think this haiku could be interpreted in other ways as well, but that is how I see it. Since John had a hard time picking his favorite, he sent me a list of his top twenty favorites, most of which I chose as favorites too. I will be examining some of them more closely later in my analysis.

Why should John Stevenson be viewed as an important haiku author in today’s world? His haiku’s are very down to earth and easy to understand. I can relate to many of them, which is why I chose him for my project. His haiku’s express in words what goes through the minds of many people. For example, on page 41 if Some of the Silence,

checking the driver
as I pass a car
just like mine

I just love this haiku because everyone does this. I know that whenever I see a car just like mine, first I check and see who is driving it and then I point out to whoever is with me that "look, there’s a car just like mine!" No one really cares when I say this, but I like it. Everyone is curious when they see someone with anything like theirs. Especially cars. They want to see who would have something like theirs. Sometimes they wonder what that person does with their life and so on. But just by looking at the driver, one cannot really tell much about their life. Maybe their license plate can tell something about the person or the items dangling from the rearview mirror. It is hard to tell, but this haiku makes you think about those things.
Another one of my favorites, and also one of his, can be found on page 4 in
Some of the Silence:

old slippers
the comfort
coming apart

This haiku is the essence of my father. He is not an old man, but he is a dad. He has to have a certain kind of slipper. He wants one that is not a slip-on, but kind of like a high-top. It has to go just above his ankle, but not too high. It is a big ordeal when his slippers get worn. We have to search every store just to find the right kind of slipper. So when I read this, I think of my father and the great ordeal we go through when we have to get him new slippers. I also think of my favorite slippers, which are about to get duct-taped they are so worn. But, they are perfect, so I cannot change them. This haiku, like the others, just gives me a very normal, everyday, homey feeling. I like his haiku’s because I can relate and always think of a part of my life to go with them.

Another favorite of mine, found on page 15 in Some of the Silence:

border of sleep
the sound of nearby breathing
. . . mine

Here is another haiku focusing on sleep, my favorite subject. This, too, happens to many people. It happens just when you are drifting off to sleep and you begin to notice nothing else but the sound of your breathing. It takes a minute for you to realize that it is actually your breathing and then you are asleep. As can be seen with John’s haiku’s that I have already written about, he is a simple, down-to-earth man. He writes about the everyday occurrences in life. Things people do not think about until something like this comes along. He writes about things that people sometimes take for granted. That is why I like his work.

Also in his top twenty and one of my favorites is this haiku from Some of the Silence on page 46:

tourist town
postcards of the waterfall
racked upside-down

Once again, this haiku makes me think of a specific time in my life. I went to Niagara Falls with some of my friends last year. As everyone knows, the Falls are very famous. We had a wonderful time, but Niagara, Canada, is nowhere near what it was when my grandparents honeymooned there. It is, in every sense, a tourist town. We would walk up and down the streets during the day and see shop after shop selling postcards and T-shirts and bells and snow-globes. It was never ending. This is what I am talking about, a good haiku needs to make people relate. His haiku’s make me relate. I always think of some incident or event in my life to relate to his writing. I love the fact that I can read his writings and picture events in my life.
The last haiku I want to look at is also a favorite of John’s. It can be found on page 62 of Some of the Silence.

the thump
of a thousand rumps
returning to their pews in unison

I am a church going person, so I know that this is true. Except instead of a thump, I hear more of a creaking because our pews are old and wooden. I like this haiku because it is a simple action, but it occurs so often. The haiku also rhymes, which I think is fun. I love the way how he puts everyday events into words. I would never think to write about a congregation sitting all at once. It is amazing how he puts my life into words.

I have learned, through studying John’s works, that the simplest things can turn into a beautiful piece of art. He takes things that people take for granted and turns them into haiku’s. He writes about things that most people only think about in passing. He notices the small things in life and wants others to notice as well. He can make anyone feel like they share an experience with another person. I love his work because it is so fun and he expresses my thoughts. I understand what he writes and I believe that for a haiku to touch someone, they have to be able to relate to it.

—Nicole Bilyeu


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors