Cathy Drinkwater Better works as a newspaper editor and columnist, a children’s book author, and a freelance editor and writer. A widely published poet in a variety of genres, in recent years she has concentrated mostly on Asian forms including haiku, senryu, tanka, and haibun. She also enjoys combining her poems with art and photography in both traditional and modern haiga. Her poetry has been published in the U.S., Canada, and abroad since 1969, including three haiku chapbooks. Cathy has won numerous awards for both poetry and journalism, including prizes in the annual Robert Frost Poetry Festival Haiku Contest, the Zen Garden Haiku Contest, the Francine Porad Awards, and the Yellow Moon Competition; as well as First Place, Local Column/Humor or Features for the past four years running in the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association Editorial Contest. Long a student of many Asian traditions, Cathy holds a second-degree black belt in shorinji-ryu kenkokan karate and has achieved instructor-level in the martial art of t’ai chi ch’uan. Cathy and her husband, Doug Walker, live in Eldersburg, Maryland, USA, where they own and operate Black Cat Press, producing and publishing limited-edition collections of Asian-style poetry and art. They named the press after their black cat, Raven; Kiki, their long-haired calico, has never forgiven them.
1) Why do you write haiku?
Why not? But seriously, folks…. I write haiku because I’m a photographer. In a photo you try to capture a moment in time—a butterfly perched on a flower or a bee in mid-flight; a baby’s first smile or first steps; the perfect sunset over the water or a rodeo contestant airborne after being thrown from a bucking bronco—because those images take hold of our imagination or inspire some emotion in us that we don’t want to lose. We can hold onto the memory forever and share what it looked like with others through the medium of photography. A haiku is a word-photo: a flash, an instant, a moment in time that somehow grabbed us in mid-stride and wouldn’t let us go. We encapsulate the images of that moment forever in a few words that can be read in one breath. But the images of a haiku go deeper than dye on photo paper ever could. A haiku has layers that reveal themselves with each reading and rereading. If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then I think a well done haiku might be worth ten thousand. It’s at least as much of a creative challenge to write a worthy haiku as it is to get “the perfect shot” with a camera—in part because the sound of the poem, the rhythm and pacing, whether read to oneself or aloud, has to be just right; but also because, in such a diminutive form, every single word, right down to an “a” or a “the,” makes such a huge difference to the success or failure of the poem. As Mark Twain wrote in his hilarious—yet utterly brilliant— essay, “The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper”: “An author should: [Rule 13] Use the right word, not its second cousin.”
2) What other poetic forms do you enjoy?
I love to read and write tanka—they give you more wiggle-room than a haiku, and sometimes you want that. Sometimes what you need to say would spill over in a haiku but fits neatly into a tanka. I’ve been publishing poetry in various styles for 40 years—since I was a flower child. I’ve read and written free verse, blank verse, and prose poems. For several years I supplemented my income by writing humorous light verse for a local newspaper; and once I even penned a story for a children’s magazine entirely in limericks. But for at least eight years or so apparently I’ve somehow drifted to a place where I’m focusing almost exclusively on haiku and tanka (with a bit of traditional and photo haiga and some haibun thrown in now and then). These forms seem to be the perfect medium for whatever I find myself needing or wanting to express. I simply can’t see blathering on verse after obscure verse anymore when I can state my piece in three or five lines, in the least possible words. I was once asked in an interview whether my newspaper humor columns started out very long before I cut them down to the desired 600- to 700-word length. “No,” I replied quite seriously, “I begin with a punch-line…and then I pad.” With haiku and tanka, I don’t have to pad.
3) Of the many wonderful haiku you’ve written, what do you consider to be your top three?
I don’t know about “top three,” but here are a few recent ones:
scent of the seaweed soap
as it slips through my hands
Bottle Rockets 11:1 (No. 21), August 2009
of the frog brooch
Bottle Rockets 11:1 (No. 21), August 2009
in my yard again—
first crocus sprouts
Magnapoets, No.4, July 2009
If you've been enjoying this weekly series and have not contributed, please consider sharing your response (whether it be for haiku or tanka) to the three little questions that Cathy answered. You must be a published poet in order to participate.
David Serjeant will be our guest next week.