INTERVIEWS

Christine L. Villa
United States Winner, 2018 VCBF Haiku Invitational  (Interview by Michael Dylan Welch)

yaezakura petals
a child learns to count 
beyond 5

Christine L. Villa
North Highlands, California


Congratulations on having your haiku selected as the top winner in the United States category in the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival’s 2018 Haiku Invitational contest. How did you first learn about haiku, and how much writing of haiku or other poetry have you done?

Thank you so much! I would also like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival and judges for selecting my haiku. I’m honored to receive this award and to share my haiku story. I thought I learned from school all that I needed to know to write a proper haiku until I stumbled on Berry Blue Haiku, an online haiku magazine for kids, in 2010. The magazine’s submission requirements and recommended books and articles opened a new window of learning for me. I became friends online with the editor, Gisele LeBlanc, who directed me to several haiku journals. Since then I’ve been hooked, especially when I discovered haiga (combining haiku with artwork). One thing led to another. Before long, I started writing tanka, too. Writing haiku and tanka has been a part of my everyday meditation and healing therapy. Both have not only made me appreciative of life and my surroundings, but have also helped me heal from grief, loss, and depression. My passion for both have resulted in numerous acceptances for online and print journals, a few awards and recognition, and my first poetry book, which is a collection of short-form poetry entitled The Bluebird’s Cry.

What was the inspiration for your winning poem?

Every spring, I enjoy daily late-afternoon walks in my neighborhood where there is one cherry tree. I’ve watched it bloom for several years, but this year I had a different way of looking at it with my dog named Haiku. She sniffed around, and bounced on a bed of fallen petals like a little child who had just seen it for the first time. She made me smile so widely that I imagined what I would have done if I had a child and she were doing what Haiku was doing. I would have picked a cherry blossom and examined it up close with her. And perhaps I would have plucked the petals of a fallen cherry blossom and taught her how to count. When I was thinking of what to submit for the contest, I researched online the different kinds of cherry blossoms. When I came across the word yaezakura, which means cherry blossoms with more than five petals, I recalled my experience with Haiku. And that is how the birth of my winning haiku came about. It also fits the theme of the contest. Just by marveling at nature’s bounty, we can be in harmony with each other and be one with our surroundings.

Describe the moment when you first learned you had won.

I was almost in tears when I received the email! I couldn’t believe that my haiku was selected among all the numerous entries. I can’t count the times I had wished my name would be there on the very top of the list. I’ve always thought it was difficult to create a refreshing haiku after so many wonderful cherry blossom haiku had been written. And then suddenly, my haiku as the best in United States category? I was so thrilled that I couldn’t wait to share the good news to my friends and family.

Do you have favourite books or websites relating to haiku that others might benefit from in order to learn haiku as a literary art and to share one’s haiku?

I started learning from Jane Reichhold’s online teaching guide, “Bare Bones School of Haiku,” and her book entitled Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide. But what really honed my haiku writing skills was the generous early mentorship of Michael Dylan Welch. His warm community group on Facebook, NaHaiWriMo (short for National Haiku Writing Month), has been a place to go back home to whenever I need a jumpstart, a refresher, or a place to share and give support. In addition, his website, Graceguts.com, has provided a wealth of information and guidance to keep me right on track. Other than learning and being inspired from others people’s work published online or in printed journals, I also attended the Seabeck Haiku Getaway near Seattle, Washington. It gifted me an opportunity to not only finally meet some of my online poet friends and to create new friendships, but to immerse myself in fun and interactive workshops.

Please tell us more about yourself.

Migrating to the United States from the Philippines has given me the luxury to fully tap and nurture my creative side. Children’s story writing, poetry, photography, video-making, arts and crafts, and ukulele playing are my main interests. I have published eight children’s books and one poetry book. I’m also the founding editor of Frameless Sky, a video poetry journal that showcases poets, artists, and musicians in collaborative projects. I’ll be visiting the Philippines and traveling to South Korea next year. I’m hoping that revisiting old places and creating new travel adventures will fuel a wellspring of haiku and tanka inspirations.

How does where you live and what you enjoy doing affect the way you write haiku?

I believe that having lived in two totally different places has made my life richer and has given me more experiences and inspirations to write haiku. In the Philippines, I grew up where there are only two seasons—the dry and wet seasons. In Sacramento, California, where I have lived more than fifteen years, there are four seasons that have given me a bigger view of the world around me. I love nature walks, seeing new places, taking pictures. Whether it’s just sniffing the scent of sampaguita (a sweet-smelling tropical flower) or hearing a typhoon lash with strong winds and heavy rains in the Philippines, dipping my toes along the shores of Waikiki, feeling the scorching heat in Sacramento, or tasting a snowflake at Lake Tahoe, there’s always a haiku waiting to be written.
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The Bluebird's Cry: an Interview with Christine Villa
Interview by Margaret Dornaus
Published in Ribbons Journal (Fall 2016)


M: Chrissi, before we begin, I want to congratulate you on the recent publication of your first collection of poetry, The Bluebird’s Cry. Both the design of the book and its content are beautiful, moving readers through an emotional arc from opening to close as they follow your journey as caregiver and spouse after your late husband,John, contracted cancer.


I first became aware of the work you were doing in response to John’s illness and death three years ago when I published one of your early tanka prose poems on my website as part of an annual Day of the Dead call I put out to celebrate and memorialize loved ones. When I received your poem (an earlier, untitled version of the tanka prose piece “Sanctuary” in your collection), I was touched not only by its tenderness, but also by the honesty you displayed in exploring the riot of conflicting emotions that accompanies the death of a spouse who has suffered through a debilitating illness. The tanka that concludes that piece

this morning
nobody fills up
the birdbath . . .
the blue jay and I
thirsty for you


is such an evocative portrait of grief—one that manages to be both universal and specific without being maudlin. How do you maintain that sense of balance without giving in to the temptation of sentimentality?

C: When I was much younger, I used to write cheesy poems that rhymed and sounded like Hallmark greeting cards. I was a prolific poet then, but one day I just got tired of this writing style. It was because of Kathy Uyen Nguyen’s post online that I discovered the beauty of tanka. I craved for more, dared to become a beginner in this form of poetry, and read a lot of examples. 

Ever since I started writing about my grief, tanka has served as a poetic diary for me. I do exactly what Basho said to do when writing haiku, “Learn the rules; and then forget them." I write from the heart, usually based from my own experiences, and after I’ve written down what I feel, I double check myself to make sure I do not sound overly dramatic the way I did in my old poems. I write by showing rather than telling. 

M: I see from your bio that you have a background in math and business administration, but I know that you also write children’s books as well as Japanese short-form poetry. How and when did you come to realize your passion for writing? Was it something that you held from an early age?

C: Have you ever heard of someone who loved something so much but was too afraid to pursue it because of fear of failure? That’s me. When I was in high school, I loved writing poetry and after college, I enjoyed writing short stories, a few of which were published in magazines. I knew for sure that I had the penchant for writing, but I couldn’t commit myself. I always made excuses. In short, I had an off and on relationship with writing poetry and short stories until that relationship became . . . more and more distant. It was only in 2009, a few years after I migrated to the U.S. from the Philippines, that I realized my passion for writing children’s books. Witnessing the lives of a family of robins outside my window made me come full circle. I started writing again, and this time it was for children. A year later, I stumbled on “Berryblue Haiku,” a children’s journal which introduced me to the joys of haiku writing. Soon I discovered some outstanding poets who led me to different international journals and Facebook groups. I found NaHaWriMo and Tanka Poets on Site, two homes that have helped me hone my skills in haiku and tanka writing.

M: You've told me that writing this book provided you with a way of dealing with your grief. I wonder how John’s illness might have given you the impetus to explore your writing more fully   . . . and the role that played in your healing process?

C: At first it was just my way of dealing with all the overwhelming emotions I was feeling when John was diagnosed with cancer. Then it helped me cope with my grief. The more I wrote, the more it became a healing balm for me. Writing this book was a channel to release the heaviness in my heart and at the same time, it preserved all the memories, including the ones I thought I had forgotten. It made me more grateful of each moment and more connected to the natural world. 

M: By far the greatest number of poems (more than sixty) included in your collection are stand-alone tanka or tanka sequences. It seems to me that the tanka form, which traditionally compresses feelings associated with romantic or courtly love into five-line word paintings, is particularly effective in portraying the sense of longing you experienced after the death of your husband. But I’m wondering what drew you to this form (versus, for example, haiku) as a way to express your emotional reaction to John’s illness and subsequent death? Can you speak to that?

C: I have a tendency to gravitate towards tanka because its form allows me more freedom to explore and release my emotions. The extra two lines also give me more words to play with, thereby providing more dreaming room for the readers, allowing them to relate to the poem. 

M: Although many of your tanka have the kind of lyrical quality readers might anticipate from the form, there are others in The Bluebird’s Cry that you tackle with a Postmodern grit which turns that expectation on its head, leaving readers, at times, gut-punched and breathless. I’m thinking of poems like

they tell me
to take you to a nursing home
I don’t hear anything              
just the counting in my head                        
of pills and diapers 


which ends your tanka prose called “Another Purpose”; and this stand-alone tanka

icicles
stabbing the pavements—
I tell him
his cancer is back
as if I feel nothing


Knowing that the range of emotions accompanying grief cannot be candy-coated, I also recognize how difficult it is to own emotions others might erroneously interpret as “unfeeling”—especially given our society’s tendency to push those emotions down. How difficult was it for you to present these aspects of your grief in such an honest fashion? And did you find that poetry provided you with a way to express those feelings that, otherwise, you might not have expressed?

C: Grief has many stages and faces. It has no specific order. When I write my grief tanka, I let my thoughts and emotions flow naturally. I express what I feel at the moment, or I think of a recent memory. When I was writing these two tanka, I remembered holding myself together.  I couldn’t break down and cry because I had to be strong, the pillar who made sure that John was going to be taken care of the way he wanted to be. Tanka provided me a vehicle to express not only bottled-up feelings but also feelings of being numb or “unfeeling.” The brevity of this form of poetry provided just the right amount of words I needed to say and could say. 

M: You also have haiku interspersed throughout your book, such as

twilight . . .
under the red oak tree
more dead leaves  


            and

fall leaves                     
still touching each other                     
our clothes in the closet


What, if anything, led you to choose haiku instead of tanka in such instances to express your grief? Was the choice instinctual? Or did the form itself dictate the content of your selections?

C: The choice was usually instinctual. When I found it too difficult to be overtly emotional or subjective, I turned to haiku. I implied my “aha” moment in fewer words and most often, that turned out to be more effective than stretching the poem out to five lines.

M: Several of the pieces included in The Bluebird’s Cry are examples of your haiga/taiga (images combined with haiku or tanka)—a form that, as editor of the online haiga journal  Frameless Sky, you are particularly adept at creating. How do you think your work as a visual artist has influenced your poetry, and vice versa? 

C: Sometimes my visual art sparks an inspiration to write a haiku or tanka or the other way around. When I combine both, I make sure that the poem can stand alone and is not a mere description of the visual art. It should also be able to add depth to the experience by conveying those other sensations that the visual art leaves out. I try to achieve an end product that creates a bigger impact, an added layer of meaning which cannot be achieved by the two parts alone.
 
M: Finally, what advice and/or encouragement would you give others who might approach a similar endeavor to deal with their own grief? 

C: For anyone who might want to use Japanese short-form poetry as an aid to deal with his or her own grief, write down in words those tears that need to be expressed. Keep a notebook or small index cards handy so you can jot down a thought, a feeling, a memory, or any concrete image. Even if closure is impossible, it will help you explore, discover, release, understand, and express your thoughts and emotions. Always remember that your grief is unique. Take as much time as you need and always be kind to yourself. You don’t have to force yourself to write every day. Let grief itself lead you to its different forms. It might come in snapshots, snippets of haiku, or in a string of tanka sequences. Not everything will come to you in chronological order. Just listen to your heart.
tumbling leaves . . .
I drift where grief
takes me today

M: Thank you, Chrissi. And congratulations again on the publication of The Bluebird’s Cry. I wish you every success as you move forward with your new life.

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Chrissi Villa
NaHaiWriMo daily writing prompter for January 2015

1. How did you get started with haiku?

I thought I learned from school all that I needed to know to write a proper haiku until I stumbled on Berry Blue Haiku, an online haiku magazine for kids, in 2010. The magazine’s submission requirements and recommended books and articles opened a new window of learning for me. Intrigued and captivated by its charm, I voraciously read all the books about haiku I could get my hands on but I easily gave up when I had rejections along the way. Haiku had a way of wooing me back into its arms, though. I became friends online with the editor of Berry Blue Haiku, Gisele LeBlanc. She directed me to different online journals. I soon went back to writing and submitting haiku, especially when I discovered haiga. It was love at first sight! I was thrilled to incorporate my love for photography into my haiku writing. The “Collaborative Photo-Haiku Project” by Tif Holmes and “I Doodle, You Ku” by Aubrie Cox were great sources of inspiration. By participating in these projects, I met some poets to emulate such as Sanjuktaa Asopa, Cara Holman, Kathy Uyen Nguyen, Rita Odeh, and Sandi Pray, to name a few.

2. Tell us more about yourself.
Since migrating from the Philippines to the United States, I have been drawn to nurturing my artistic side. Children’s story writing, poetry, photography, and jewelry-making are my main interests. I’ve recently published a children’s story DVD, The Eskalets, and an early chapter book, The Magic Paintbrush. You can read about them on my website. This year my goals are to publish my poetry book about grief and loss and to keep improving “Frameless Sky,” a video journal of haiga and tanka art, of which I am the founder and editor. I blog my haiku, tanka, and haiga at “Blossom Rain.”

3. What does NaHaiWriMo mean to you?
NaHaiWriMo is a warm community that I love to go back home to whenever I need a jumpstart, a refresher, or a place to share and give support. February is my favorite time of the year for taking part because it reconnects me with friends and familiar names who have played an important role in my haiku journey. This is also where I met Michael Dylan Welch. Because of his generous advice, patience, and honesty, I have remained an inspired and dedicated haiku student.

4. What one piece of advice would you offer to those who are new to writing haiku?
Read, write, and read some more. Graceguts.com has a wealth of information to keep you on the right track. The most effective poems I’ve written came from my own experiences, so be receptive to life around you. Carry a small notepad wherever you go. And when you act on these little “gems” that you have recorded, try to remember what James Hackett said—“haiku is a finger pointing at the moon, and if the hand is bejeweled, we no longer that to which it points.”

5. Please share three of your favourite or best haiku.
My favorites keep changing, but these are the current ones.

evening drizzle
notes from his guitar
perfume the air

a bird song
no need to know
the color of its wings

mimosa leaf
how a touch feels
when it isn’t you

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