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“Haiku moments can happen anywhere”: An interview with Iain Maloney

To launch Tapsalteerie’s very first Haiku Friday, we spoke to Iain Maloney about his recent first collection of poetry, Fractures, published by Tapsalteerie last year.

Maloney was born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland and he currently lives in Japan. He is known for his three novels – The Waves Burn Bright (Freight, 2016), Silma Hill (Freight, 2015) and First Time Solo (Freight, 2014) – and as the editor of In The Empty Places (2014), a collection of short stories and art. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Guardian Not the Booker prize.

Novelist, editor, freelance journalist, and as of late, haikuist. Maloney tells us about how his collection of haiku-in-spirit came to be and, among other things, the significance of a drunk businessman sleeping on a station platform.

Iain Maloney

I think most people would define haiku by its form, so it’s interesting that your pieces aim to capture the spirit of haiku without strictly conforming to the ‘rules’. What do you consider that essence of haiku to be, when it isn’t tightly bound to structure?

I agree. The first thing anyone knows about haiku is the 5-7-5 structure, and maybe that each poem has a seasonal element. When I first started writing haiku I tried to fit everything into that structure and I have a lot of respect for poets who work within that tradition. However when I was at Aberdeen University I did a class with Alan Spence, and his attitude towards the structure was much more relaxed. He said that it made no sense to throw out a perfectly good 18 syllable poem just because you couldn’t find a way to shave it down to 17 without damaging the poem. When I moved to Japan and started learning the language, it became clear that a syllable in Japanese and a syllable in English aren’t necessarily the same thing, so the rules don’t quite transfer smoothly. As in all translation (and English haiku is a translation of form and aesthetic) being too literal can destroy the essence and nuance of a poem. That essence is the capturing of a moment, or the juxtaposition of two moments that elucidates a wider understanding.

This outlook is far from radical. Even in Japan, where the rules are taken seriously by poets, there are movements of younger writers adapting and updating the tradition. There are lists of ‘accepted’ season words – cherry blossom, cranes, frogs, snow – that the poet is expected to work into the text. However these are hundreds of years old and often have little direct connection with modern life – there aren’t many croaking frogs in Shinjuku for example. Poets like Machi Tawara (who writes tanka) use a new modern vocabulary that still tie the poem to a season but in a vivid, real way. She’ll reference specific brands of chocolate that are only available in the summer, or the sight of drunk businessmen sleeping on the station platform – a sure sign that the end of the year is approaching. I found that attitude refreshing and inspiring.

Was it your move to Japan that led you towards this collection? Is there something you’ve observed about the environment or culture of Japan that makes people want to write really tiny poems?

I used to write a lot more poetry – and many longer poems – but the urge to explore ideas and tease out moments was subsumed into my urge to write narratives. Ali Smith said that novels are like black holes, they suck everything into them, and subjects or themes I may have written a poem about in the past get pulled into my novels. However the haiku moment, that flash of clarity or shock of an unexpected image, needs to be seen in some kind of isolation to have power. Dropped into a story, they’d just be another metaphor.

Moving to Japan led me towards this collection in terms of subject matter – as did backpacking in China, where some of the poems are set – but I think I’d have been writing these kinds of poems regardless. It’s a way of seeing the world, and haiku moments can happen anywhere.

I’m interested in the loose narrative thread that seems to run through the collection and how that came about. Were the poems written with this underlying cohesion in mind or did it emerge in the process of collating them? And how much do you think your experience as a novelist influenced your decision making?

Most of the poems weren’t consciously written with an overall narrative in mind but as they charted some of my experiences, that was kind of inevitable. The Chinese-set poems were deliberately more narrative based, as they started as an experiment in travel writing: doing haiku rather than a blog or journal. When I started to think about a collection I printed out all the poems I had and laid them out on the floor, and certain ones seemed to group themselves together. Once the fragmented narrative (or narratives, there are a few potential ways of reading the arc) became clear, I wrote a handful more to connect sections or bridge ideas. I think that because I am a novelist as well, my brain is looking out for connections and building stories. It was almost inevitable that my first poetry collection would have a narrative.

One of the more distinctive characteristics of haiku is their appearance on the page – I always think they are like islets floating in a sea of negative space, hinting at a mass of unstated significance beneath the surface. And something I noticed about Fractures is that the shapes of the poems seem to become slightly more irregular as the collection progresses, almost as though the fracture lines are extending in different directions. Do you have any thoughts on this more formal side of the collection, or in your approach to haiku and poetry more generally?

Wow, you have a good eye. I hadn’t consciously noticed that. Haiku need space around them to stretch out and breathe – that’s why there aren’t any page numbers in the book – and that was something Duncan and I spoke about when we were putting the book together. I also made the deliberate choice of putting a longer poem in the collection towards the end, even though there’s no way I can justify calling it a haiku. I see it like a huge rock in a river that forces the water into new channels, breaking the flow.

Do you have any other projects in the works that you can tell us about?

I’m working on a novel set in Japan and have been thinking about another haiku collection centered around mountain climbing in Japan – however I’ve been too busy to get up any mountains recently, so very little work has been done on it.


Fractures (2016) is on sale in the Tapsalteerie online bookshop.

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