Pandemic Haiku by Gregg Bordowitz
The artist, activist, and writer talks with curator Peter Eleey about his writing habits over the past year and his current exhibition at MoMA PS1.
Gregg Bordowitz, Peter Eleey
Jun 15, 2021
In connection with the MoMA PS1 exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, the artist published a small book of 52 haiku selected from a large number that he wrote in Brooklyn over the past year of isolation. (Pandemic Haiku was published by the Cooley Gallery, Reed College, where the exhibition originated.) Long active as a poet and essayist, Bordowitz uses language in much of his work. He spoke about his haiku and interest in language with Peter Eleey, former PS1 chief curator, who organized the exhibition.
The book is available as a free download, and additional poems are included throughout their conversation.
Wet leaves flick around
Waiting for the sniffing dog
Breath inside my mask
Peter Eleey: Why did haiku become your favored form during the pandemic?
Gregg Bordowitz: I think for the same reason as a lot of people. My concentration was compromised by the pandemic. I couldn't read whole books or long texts. I even found long poems to be difficult. And I also found it very difficult to write for long periods in a sustained way. So, the concision and brevity of the haiku enabled me to write and focus. It also works well for me because I write poems using constraints, and the syllabics of haiku were an interesting challenge in the same way that the syllabics function for Debris Fields.
Colors pink purple blue
Twenty-five a box
When did you start writing haiku during the pandemic? Do you remember?
Yeah, about three months into the pandemic. I complained to my friend, the poet Joy Ladin, about my problems with reading and we were commiserating about the difficulties we were having. And she said she was thinking about turning to haiku, and recommended Robert Hass’s translations of Basho, Buson, and Issa, which I immediately ordered online to be delivered to my house. And then through some kind of algorithm I came across a recommendation of Richard Wright’s haiku.
I had no idea that Richard Wright, author of Native Son, wrote haiku in the last 18 months of his life. It’s a fascinating story. He wrote about 4,000 haiku and left behind a manuscript of 800. He was increasingly ill, but he could sit and write haiku anywhere. He was living in the south of France in exile at the time. And so he was able to write haiku when he was well enough to write, and he could carry around a notebook. Which is then basically what I just adopted for myself.
So, you started in June, roughly.
Yes. If you cling to the models of Japanese haiku, there is an imperative to always write a line that signifies either directly or obliquely the season in which you’re writing.
So actually, June lent itself well to lots of mentions of flowers and spring and heat. Actually, in the 52 haiku that we published to accompany the PS1 show, there’s a great deal of references to temperature, steam, fog. There are poems about flowers. But then I departed from that, too, into feeling states, which may or may not be associated with seasons. The last haiku of the 52 includes the line “As if seasons still exist.” The problem of writing a poem about nature is that nature is severely altered by climate catastrophe. If you read the traditional ancient haiku, there’s the presumption of a regularity and continuity of seasons.
Dwelling in sorrow
Not every day, some days
Today the sun’s out
Gregg Bordowitz’s Selections from Gregg Bordowitz’s library (1983-2013), in the exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well
Right. Reading your selection of haiku, I was led down the garden path, as it were, towards an expectation of external rhythm, whether through weather or seasonality. I didn’t feel the intimacy of daily time, I felt something closer to longer, seasonal, cosmological time. But that struck me as interesting against the fleeting immediacy of the kind of subjects that often feature in haiku.
Well, in the COVID pandemic in particular, nature was viewed through the steamy glass panes of my window, much of it. I wasn’t dwelling in nature and I was wearing a mask every time I went outside. Plus, the news feed that comes directly into my phone is part of my daily life, so some of the haiku actually are lifted from headlines.
Could you say a little about the actual book design?
The Pandemic Haiku booklet for PS1 was designed by Heather Watkins, who designed the two booklets that accompanied the previous iterations of I Wanna Be Well at Reed College and at the Art Institute of Chicago. I really enjoy working with Heather. The format was somewhat dictated by the dimensions of the booklets themselves. Stephanie Snyder, the director and curator of the Cooley Art Gallery at Reed College, has overseen the production of all three poetry booklets, as part of her continuing commitment to this show. We wanted to include as many haiku as we could, so Heather determined that 22 pages folded and staple bound would be the largest we could do without going to another form of binding and not having the book open on itself. Heather suggested 52, which I thought was interesting, why 52? And she said, “I don’t know, 52 cards in a deck.” I said, “Oh, yeah, 52 weeks.” She decided to distribute them using or borrowing the 5-7-5 syllabic pattern of a haiku in terms of numerically grouping them into two, threes, fives depending on the page but then that morphed into a way of distributing them that would be cloud-like, with a lot of space, which seemed to accord very well with our installation ideas for the show and the appearance of clouds in the show.
Pleased to see faces
Though some continue to mask
Many seem confused
Were you reading any other haiku while you were writing, other than by Richard Wright?
No. Now, I read Basho, Buson, and Issa. I’ve read other haiku that were influential. Keith Vincent is a very well-respected, renowned translator, working on a book of translating Shiki’s haiku, and he sent some to Douglas [Crimp] because Douglas had developed an interest in poetry during his illness.
Was haiku a favorite form of his?
No, actually we read widely and he was teaching himself poetry. Douglas felt like that was a blind spot in his early education, so we were reading poetry and he was kind of taking it on and enjoying it. He actually ended up loving Marianne Moore, in particular.
One funny thing is how much people have used the general short form of haiku as a kind of metaphor for Twitter.
I’m not a tweeter but I am aware that various social media platforms have produced their own genres, so I know that there are Twitter novels that were line by line in Twitter. I know there’s a genre of Twitter poetry. There’s a genre of poetry called flarf, which I’ve not practiced but I find very interesting: doing a google search and composing a poem from the results. There are all sorts of computer-generated, Internet-generated, cell phone and social media-generated poems at this point.
I was trying to write against the grain of an aha moment, although sometimes it just happens and you let it.
I also think that the word haiku is a nice word for people to say. You know, you don’t have to say iambic pentameter...
Right, right. Although they’re very difficult to write. The hardest thing about writing poems in general—and haiku amplifies this problem—is avoiding false profundity. So the hardest thing about writing the haiku was the third line—that’s supposed to be the aha moment. I was trying to write against the grain of an aha moment, although sometimes it just happens and you let it.
A friend who wrote haiku told me they got around this problem by writing four lines and excising one. They would go 5-7-5-5, and then decide later which of the two fives to keep.
That’s nice. I’ll try that.
New York City laughs
Dancing along avenues
Multiply and inhabit