Stephen Addiss, PhD, is Professor of Art at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Author of The Art of Haiku, one of Tricycle’s picks for “Books in Brief” this issue, Addiss is a prolific scholar-artist who has been practicing Japanese calligraphy and ink painting for over 40 years. He is a true jack-of-all-trades—Addiss also studied music under the tutelage of John Cage and toured internationally for 16 years as part of the folk duo “Addiss & Crofut.” Tricycle’s Emma Varvaloucas spoke with him by phone last month about his recently published book and his thoughts on the “haiku spirit.”
You’ve been doing Japanese calligraphy and ink painting for over 40 years. How has your work changed over that long period of time? Well, I started by being interested in Chinese and Japanese painting and calligraphy historically. Since I always felt that the best way to learn about something is to try it yourself, I started practicing, and I must say I was absolutely terrible. [Laughs] I kept going anyway, and it gradually got better over the years. I studied with a Chinese gentleman in New York and then with a Japanese calligrapher in Japan. I just kept doing it out of the fun of it, and one day I looked at it, and I looked at it, and it wasn’t so terrible anymore. I had progressed all the way up to mediocrity! So once I reached that point, I realized that I could go ahead, and I kept going. So I’ve been going for, yes, 40 years now.
Have you found that your attitude towards creating art has changed over that time? Yes. At first, I was just trying to master the many difficult forms and all the possible variations of scripts and style that there were. As time has gone by, I’ve gotten less worried about mastering every kind—because that’s impossible, and nobody has ever done it anyway—and just did calligraphy as more to the spirit that I felt in it that day. It became more of a personal art as time went by.
Let’s talk about your new book, The Art of Haiku. Something that I learned about for the first time when I read it was haiga, haiku paintings. The word ga means painting; how zenga means Zen painting, haiga means haiku painting. It’s interesting, because not that many people know about it, even in Japan. It turns out that almost all the haiku poets of the past, like Basho, did haiga. But haiga hasn’t become as famous as the written haiku that they did, partly because it’s harder to reproduce.
Do you have a favorite haiga painter? Probably the greatest haiga painter was Buson, because he was a great painter anyway. He’s one of the rare cases of somebody who’s considered one of the world’s great painters and one of the world’s great poets at the same time. Lots of painters do poetry, and lots of poets do some painting. But he’s one of the rare ones, maybe the most rare, who has really excelled at the very, very, very top of both painting and poetry. Of course, I’m also very fond of Issa, and Issa was not a very good painter. But he had a very simple, childlike, direct, personal quality that I like very much. So we learn from him that you don’t have to be an expert painter to be a good haiku painter.
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