At a reading in Callander at the weekend, my friend Larry Butler mentioned the Shirakawa Barrier, an ancient gateway between Japanese regions, mentioned by Basho in his Oku no hosomichi – the masterful haibun/renga sequence written about his travels in 1689. It’s a real, physical place, in Fukushima Prefecture, sadly better known today as the region north-east of Tokyo where the ill-fated nuclear reactor sits, leaking radioactive waste into the Pacific.
Larry’s mention of it has got me thinking about my forthcoming Hawthornden Fellowship, when I propose to write a book-length collection of haibun about my own travels. I need to start preparing for it. What will I take with me? Basho’s book, of course, the poems of Shiki, some Chinese wilderness poems, my photographs and travel notes, my singing bowl, meditation mat and cushion.
Haibun, that combination of poetic prose and haiku, is a form I’ve come to love. I’m very comfortable writing them, and I’ve had several published. Thanks to a conversation with Alan Spence, my working title for the collection is The Book of Ways, and it will have sections dealing with America, Europe, Japan, China, Tibet and the ways of home.
Life has been a bit frantic since the beginning of August, and it’ll go on being frantic until the end of September, but after that I want to decelerate, so I’ll be mentally more prepared for the retreat. I’ve spoken to several friends about the Hawthornden experience, and I’m looking forward to it very much – the semi-monastic daytime regime will suit me very well. I’ve been on other writing retreats elsewhere in the past, and they have been very productive; I’m hopeful this one will be too.
Writing for a big project like this one, I’ll encounter Barriers of my own, self-made ones. The trick is to regard them as Gateless Gates, in the old Zen manner, and to know them for what they are.