Rochelle Potkar on her new book Paper Asylum, and the wonders of Japanese haibun poetry

In Paper Asylum, Rochelle Potkar combines her love for the Japanese form of haibun (part-prose, part-haiku) with social commentary

Mallik Thatipalli November 25, 2018 10:05:26 IST
Rochelle Potkar on her new book Paper Asylum, and the wonders of Japanese haibun poetry

A short story writer and poet, Rochelle Potkar is fast becoming the face of Haibun in India. Her new book, Paper Asylum, combines prose and poetry to wondrous results. Rochelle speaks about her preferred form of writing, which is all about imagery, “I once entered a ‘haiku’ at a competition, to which a haibuneer told me there was a difference between three lines of poetry and a haiku.

Sample this:

reunion party—

the taste of rum

on her lips

Here line 1 is image 1, lines 2 and 3 are image 2. These two images are juxtaposed. I was startled and got hooked to writing haiku then on, and eventually was drawn to the prose that comes around it, called the haibun.”

Soon after his city was destroyed by fire, Basho, the 17th century Japanese Zen-Buddhist and master Haijin, began months-long journeys on foot and traced those journeys in a new poetic form called haibun. Written in part-prose, part-haiku, haibun makes for a flexible form to accommodate the abstract and concrete; stillness and movement; historical and terrestrial. Calling it the 'candy crush' of words, Rochelle uses it to great effect in her book, to convey everything from pain, longing, love and betrayal to travel, in a dazzling combination of prose, poetry, essay and short story.

This haiku in the book speaks about the #MeToo movement:

phosphorus sky—

the gulmohar bursts


“I have always thought of angry women as gulmohar trees, every fourth one. Besides, of course being in love with the gulmohar tree for the way it filters sunlight.” Rochelle explains, “My ideology as a writer is to follow an idea and have its soul embody in the flesh of any form: short story, novel, script, haiku. Haibun, then, accommodates part-prose, part-poetry (haiku) and hence makes for a flexible form to speak in abstract and concrete ways.”

Rochelle reveals that what drew her to the form was its succinctness, musicality, brevity. She says, “In one page a poet could jump history, memory, or time-lapse from immediacy to far-metaphysicality. This traversing of orbits between the links and shifts of prose, fragments and phrases of haiku, and the jive between haiku and prose made for an amazing maze. It spoke so much of what can be done in limited words and time. Additionally, I felt the haiku was a big crunch – the smallest trilogy, because a world opens up and continues expanding the moment you find its (two) juxtaposing images. Take Laryalee Fraser’s haiku, where a whole climate change saga unfurls in a short while:

apple harvest—

weighing the future

of honeybees”

The poet says that the time for Haibun has come, adding that she is confident about the smartphone generation, which refuses to flip a paper, embracing this form. “You will be surprised with the number of youngsters who have taken to poetry as a means of expression. When I join the dots – the nooks, pubs, art spaces, open mics, videos – I see a social revolution. Even working professionals and retired people are coming back to poetry, and catharsis. So yes, smartphones show different consumption patterns, but good content is a vortex in any size. I find for shorter attention spans, haibun works to the telegraphic nature of poetry.”

Paper Asylum has all the claustrophobia of living in an urban setting. In the book cover, the flower peeps from within a prison of concrete, at the sun imprisoned in horizontal and verticals bars outside. Rochelle divulges her inspiration for the book, “Paper Asylum has two meanings (for me). The catharsis that springs from speaking about cloying existences. And the process of writing itself, which means that on paper, all is brittle and fragile. It can tear, soak, or drown.”

Rochelle Potkar on her new book Paper Asylum and the wonders of Japanese haibun poetry

Haibun for every emotion

shells of the snails remain—

the same

our holiday homes too…

This verse from the short story Selena in the book is a powerful indicator of the potency of the medium. Capturing the tale of a hopeless marriage with startling beauty, Rochelle says that this haiku has to do with hope that can carry us a long way even in unchanged situations. She elaborates, “We are inflicted with undying dreams, turning to delusions. Life is very inspiring in its range of sorrow and sadness, sunshine and serendipity. People in life, too. I like conflicts and contradictions because they are marked by their inherence. That makes it so beautiful, this irrationality. Add language to that and we have a feast.”

Paper Asylum is a collection of natural, willing pieces which were written over a year. While the haiku in some places are obvious, they take a life of their own in some stories, like Mass which talks of dinosaur dreams. Rochelle, who says that she never force-fits an idea, explains, “Haiku in the haibun is supposed to walk a tangent to the circle or universe of the prose. It’s meant to take a tiny leap, one to three thoughts away. In some cases, a quantum leap. Finally, it will fall within the realms of existence based on a mesh of shared emotions, language and imagery even if prone to multiple interpretations.”

Stories about women

A lot of the stories in the book touch upon issues concerning women, from the #MeToo movement to issues with in-laws and marriage woes. Rochelle admits that she reacts to these issues instinctively and remarks, “The journey of a woman compared to a man on the same path is very different. We deal with heavier levels of patriarchy and misogyny in the most startling corners. In the poetry world I have been left out of festivals and anthologies.

I have to then ask myself:

A. if I was a man would this happen to me.

B. if I was an appeasing woman would this happen to me.

I would ask a third question, but I dropped it off when I saw the quality of writing around.

C. if was a better writer, poet would this happen to me.

It has to do with point B. A woman has to be a giver, fan girl the entitled alpha male, not concentrate on her own craft. Once I heard my name eliminated from a list. I earned paranoia. Who knows what else is going on in the dark? That has consequently made me more productive. So when I write a haiku in this book:

Bodhi tree—

spears blossoming

into stipules

… I mean it.”

Rochelle Potkar on her new book Paper Asylum and the wonders of Japanese haibun poetry

Rochelle Potkar

Building images out of words

Many of the prose poems in the book have a soul which reflect slice-of-life issues, like in Samsara, the sexuality of two men is described as a “spiritual retreat – melting the gods for their gold”. Rochelle explains that haiku is all about having fun with images in the fewest of words. She says, “What happens when god is just the material it is made up of, and not of faith? Like someone else’s god? Or distanced from your own god because of a change in path? Then even its gold is for melting. It’s a hegemony of human interpretation.

Also, haiku juxtaposes two images in three lines. One image is for curating nature, the second to do with human states. Take for instance:

the way pink orchids —

blossom into periwinkles

heresy ...”

With haiku entering the popular lexicon, (St Xavier’s College, Mumbai is the first to include this form in its Arts syllabus) Rochelle’s advice to budding haibuneers is simple and straightforward:

“Read Contemporary Haibun Online, Haibun Today for your daily fix of zen. Then write some. You will be surprised by what you write. This is a new beast. Or call me for a workshop anytime,” she smiles.

Currently awaiting the release of two books in 2019, a collection of short stories titled Hangovers from a Bombay Debacle and a third book of poetry, The Inglorious Coins of the Counting House, Rochelle believes that haibun can strike a chord with people of all ages, and worries of catering to a niche audience don't bother her. “Poetry is niche anyway. So the Japanese short poetry forms, of haiku and haibun become more niche. But that’s the advantage and uniqueness that it’s not for everyone. That to be a reader or a writer of haiku and haibun you need to cultivate a certain skill, and train yourself. Isn’t that beautiful and rare?” she asks and adds thoughtfully, “ Let’s not underestimate the young at heart and mind who are always curious for something new at the turn of everyday (if just to escape boredom). These new readers and writers love to plunge into a new form.”

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