An Interview with Isabella Mori

Picture of Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori writes novels, short fiction, poetry and nonfiction, and is the author of three books of and about poetry, including A bagful of haiku – 87 imperfections. Isabella’s work has appeared in publications such as State Of Matter,  Kingfisher, Signs Of Life, Presence, and The Group Of Seven Reimagined. An alumna of The Writers Studio, Mori is the founder of Muriel’s Journey Poetry Prize which celebrates socially engaged poetry. A book of nonfiction about mental health and addiction is planned for publication with Three Ocean Press in 2024. 

When were you first introduced to haiku?

My mother talked about them when I was a child. A German writer she admired, Klabund, was writing what he called “imitations of the lyrical style of the Japanese”.

Do you have a favourite time or place to do your writing?

I write haiku all the time, but I absolutely love ginko – going for a slow walk and writing haiku is perhaps my favourite activity. 

I know you are a member of both Haiku Canada and Haiku Vancouver. Are you a part of any other haiku groups?

I’m also a member of The Haiku Society of America. There is also a very active Twitter haiku community, and I’ve been part of it since 2007. I even tried to coin the term “twaiku” but it never really got traction. 

I also know you are deeply involved with other projects such as Muriel’s Journey. Would you like to share a few words about that?

I started Muriel’s Journey Poetry Prize in 2019 in honour of the Indigenous activist, actor, and poet Muriel Marjorie, who was an important figure in the Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside arts Scene until her death that year. Muriel’s Journey is a bit different from other prizes in that it has two first prizes (one specifically for poets from the Downtown Eastside), the entry requirement is not monetary but showing how one contributes to community, we have a “Fortuna’s choice” prize to acknowledge that judges’ opinions are idiosyncratic, and we do all sorts of other things. Submissions will open again in January, and of course Japanese forms are welcome. In 2022, the second prize went to a haibun.

Do you have a favourite season or kigo for haiku?

I’ve discovered that I have more poems about autumn and winter than spring and summer. Also, I am fascinated by how each season contains the previous and coming seasons. Yesterday (it’s December right now) I looked at a hedge rose with still a few rosehips on it and beside it was a bush with pussywillows starting to form! In terms of kigo, I don’t strive to include traditional Japanese kigo but I am still hoping that some day we can build our own localized saijiki (a seasonal reference “dictionary”.)

Do you feel there is a distinct line between haiku and senryu or do you feel the line is becoming more and more blurred? How do you feel about that?

I’m of two minds about that. On the one hand, haiku that are firmly rooted in nature (e.g. Sheila Weaver’s) clearly have a very different feel from urban haiku that don’t mention nature at all (e.g. Orrin Prejean’s) so why not give them a different name? But the current practice in English language seems mostly to be to call it all haiku. I do think it’s interesting to learn about the history of these terms, both where they converge and diverge.

Is there one “must-read” book essential for haiku writers?

No. It’s impossible to get the flavour of this (or really any) art form from one book. I think it’s best to read a wide variety, from the four classical masters Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki to Ueda, Blythe, and Kerouac, to contemporary Japanese and English writers, and, if possible, also writers in other languages. Also, read haiku and/or their translations written in different times. My beloved 1962 “Haiku Harvest” collection by Beilenson/Behn is very, very different from, say, Chuck Brickley’s two-word monoku

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Any advice for those new to haiku?

Read a lot, practice a lot, and join a haiku group! I wish I had found the Vancouver Haiku Group much earlier.

What do you think is the most essential element of a good haiku?

Like with any poem, that is really hard to say. There this by Donald Keene: “The haiku … must contain two elements … there should be the two electric poles between which the spark will leap for the haiku to be effective” but then there are some beautiful haiku that just show a moment or image, without much tension.

Describe for us your most powerful haiku moment.

Here’s one that comes up right away: Rachel Enomoto had this fabulous idea that a bunch of us bilingual women should present haiku at the 2019 Haiku Canada Weekend. It was called ‘Women Echoing Women – A Haiku Enchantment’ and it was truly magical. Alegria Imperial read in the Filipino language Iluko, Josephine LoRe in Sicilian, Rachel Enomoto in Japanese,  Tracey Wan in Cantonese, and I in German. Each of us translated classical Japanese women’s poetry (Fukuda Chiyojo, Sugita Hisajo and Inahata Teiko) into our own language and then also presented our own haiku in two languages. Yes, collaborative work is very powerful.

And thank you for inviting me to share a few of my haiku. What a great opportunity to air some of my more obscure haiku. My father was an abstract painter – many of my most deeply felt creations are in this tradition of the abstract/surreal.

a thousand sleepless nights meet me at the scottish shelter

frank zappa …

the fibonacci swirl
of the last leaf

old growth
my words disappear
in the bark

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