April 12, 2016

Friday, September 21, 2012

Poetry Friday: Not Wasabi, Wabi Sabi

Welcome to Poetry Friday. Pull up a chair. Let me pour you a cup of green tea.
"A warm heavy bowl/ comfortable as an old friend --/ not fine, smooth china."

Today, we are visiting with Mark Reibstein, who wrote one of my favorite poetic picture books, WABI SABI.

Find the book on Amazon.

Wabi Sabi is a cultural concept with roots in Japan. One of the simplest definitions I could find is this: wabi sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection.

It is not the same thing as wasabi, the hot green mustard served with sushi and memorable guest star on Annoying Orange.

One of the reasons that I love WABI SABI, aside from the gorgeous artwork and lovely poetry, is what the book says, subtly, about labels.

Wabi Sabi is a little cat who goes on a quest to learn the meaning of her name. One of the things she finds out on her journey is that labels [smart, pretty, mean, dirty, poor, kind] are never complex enough to capture the essence of a place, a thing, or a especially a person.

Here are Five Questions for Mark Reibstein:

1. Hi, Mark. How did you learn about wabi sabi? Explain why the topic was a good fit for a children’s picture book.
When I was living in Kyoto, I met another American, and she was studying tea ceremony. She told me that in her training, everyone always talked about whether things were wabi sabi or not, and she tried to explain this sophisticated idea -- kind of like a sense of nature, in things -- or more specifically, a wistful appreciation for something as beautiful, due to its aging and imperfection.  On the one hand, this sounded paradoxical and complex.  On the other hand, I thought I had always had a sense of something very close to that all my life, if not exactly it.

I was intrigued and began asking all of my English language students -- Japanese doctors, housewives, business men and women, students, etc. -- what wabi sabi was.  They all began, "That's hard to explain," and then they gave me something -- a haiku, a story, an explanation -- and these responses became the book.

Because wabi sabi is an aesthetic concept, I felt it needed visual expression to be complete, and I was interested in what an artist could add to my story. The story came to me simply (perhaps because I had gotten a cat and named her Wabi Sabi), and Ed Young's pictures have such wonderful tactile appeal, so that I am told there are even two-year-olds who want this book read to them every night, even as the book seeks to appeal philosophically to the adults doing the reading.

I feel as though we succeeded in expressing that feeling which I've had my whole life, even if we may not have done justice to the whole of wabi sabi's esoteric background in Japanese culture.  In a way, the paradox of expressing a complex sensibility in a children's book is itself an attempt to achieve wabi sabi elegance, as both Ed and I were trying to capture the beauty of simplicity.

2. Names can be a powerful force in children’s lives – knowing the story of one’s name, having a nickname, sharing a name with a family member. How did you connect a cat’s search for the meaning of her name with the process of understanding wabi sabi?

When the Japanese people would repeat, "That's hard to explain," I always wondered if they were really telling me, "You're not Japanese -- you'll never get something so central to our culture."  I related, therefore, to the cat's journey because I was living in Japan purely out of  the love-inspired curiosity I had developed for the culture -- so in that sense, Wabi the cat's and my own journey were outward ones.

But just as I felt wabi sabi was something I had always known, my trying to understand it was an was inward journey, too -- relating to my own identity.  In fact, all my fascination with Japan came from that feeling of connection to something there, embodied in the aesthetics. It was different from what I'd grown up with in America, yet it spoke to me.  Wabi Sabi's humble revelation, when she comes to understand her name well enough to return home satisfied, was my own experience of living in Japan for two years, journeying outwardly and inwardly, sensing and finding connections.  Perhaps it was also the journey of the real Wabi Sabi, who was missing for about a week once (we don't know that it's not a true story!)

3. Why did you decide on this form – some prose, some haiku? I’m curious as to whether you think of the book as an extended haibun poem.

Yes, haibun was a great discovery. Basho used that form for his travel journals, with haiku representing moments of heightened awareness, so the form is perfect for Wabi's philosophical and physical journey.
"The cat's tail twitching/ she watches her master, still/ waiting in silence."
I originally had only the one famous frog-in-the-pond Basho haiku in the story, but Ed Young's first reaction to my text was to ask me to send him the ideogram for "haiku."  I didn't know why, but a light went off for me: "Haiku!  Simple elegance!" and I wrote a draft that was all haiku.  An editor suggested I go back to the original form, but then I tried haibun, and the same editor agreed that the perfect balance had been struck.
4. Tell us how you felt when you first saw the artwork for the book. It is amazingly tactile. Do you have a favorite spread?
I had intended my text to be an invitation for an artist to realize my concept, but also his/her own, and it was deeply satisfying to see Ed Young do both with such breathtaking elegance. I love the image of Kosho, the monkey, offering tea to Wabi Sabi.  He appears to be coming out of the tree  -- a stunning realization of my own subtle suggestion of that, in the text.
Mosho is a macaque. (
The gentle power of Kosho's gaze is something I recognized in Ed Young himself, but there's also an intensity of emotion there, going beyond the colorful, skillful ease already there in his first set of pictures (which never made it to press). That image captures what I think we were both offering readers in this book -- something of value, something of depth.  

5. What have you learned from writing haiku/haibun and writing about Japanese culture that you have taken into your writing practice? (By the way, I love how the book’s non-traditional layout -- it opens so the pages spread from top to bottom -- immediately breaks English readers out of our cultural expectations.)

The non-traditional layout was Ed's idea.  In fact, he was talked down by the publisher from even more ambitious (and costly) designs!
I insisted on the Japanese text in the book -- the inclusion of classic haiku and the involvement of a Japanese haiku scholar. It always struck me as strange, when I was in Japan, that there was English written on everything. Japanese seemed to me to be the far more beautiful language, graphically -- I thought things should be vice-versa, with hiragana or katakana decorating our goods!  But what I really wanted was for this book to be in dialogue with Japanese culture -- a Westerner reacting to it, trying an idea on for size, playing with it -- maybe creating something new.
Hiragana table from Wikipedia.
As a Chinese-American who grew up in China, Ed brings his own sensibility, where East meets West. Some Japanese have reacted to our book on wabi sabi as an American might to foreigners writing about Thanksgiving -- but our intentions were more about engagement than definitive explanation, and many Japanese have appreciated that and the book.  Many Westerners like how the book opens up a new way (for us) to understand beauty.  No feedback pleases me more than hearing about people who, after reading the book, do what my friend, the student of tea ceremony in Kyoto, did: they find wabi sabi everywhere -- using a new name for something they knew was there all along.
Mark Reibstein is an English teacher in California.
Thanks for the great conversation, Mark! I want to thank author and artist Christy Hale for introducing us.

Today's Poetry Friday host is Renee at No Water River. Thanks for doing the poetry post round-up, Renee!


GatheringBooks said...

Oh wow, this is such a treat, Laura. I learned about Wabi Sabi through the beautiful Corinne Robson from Paper Tigers and I have fallen in love with both the concept, the artwork, and the narrative. Thank you for sharing the 'behind the scenes' with us through this lovely interview.

Robyn Hood Black said...

I LOVE this book, and as Myra said, it's a real treat to learn more about its author and backstory! I've always thought Ed Young's art was perfect for the text - there's definitely a synergy there making such a subtle concept come alive. Thanks to both of you for sharing!

Author Amok said...

Hi, Myra and Robyn. It is such a beautiful book. I'm glad you both enjoyed the interview. I was really fascinated to learn the story behind the story, how Mark came up with the concept.

iza said...

What a lovely interview! And the book- well, I'll keep my comments brief- I"m rushing out to get it!

iza said...

What a lovely interview! And the book- well, I'll keep my comments brief- I"m rushing out to get it!

Marjorie said...

Oh, thank you - what a joy this interview is. Yes, as Myra says, Wabi Sabi is a great favorite of all of us at PaperTigers! I LOVE everything about it, and I am also grateful to Mark for how my younger son, who is a big fan of all things Japanese, has assimilated the concept of Wabi Sabi via the book - just like Mark says, he finds it in lots of things around him and in a sense it gives him a deeper appreciation of what could so easily be overlooked. I love Ed's artwork too - and the story of the two different sets of artwork is amazing - Alvina Ling wrote about it here - and Ed Young spoke about the book in my interview with him last year - I've really enjoyed reading about Mark's journey to creating the book. Thank you.

Author Amok said...

Thank you, Iza and Marjorie. Marjorie -- I'm going to save those links for this weekend so I can savor reading the posts!

HATBOOKS Author Holly Thompson said...

Thanks, Laura. Great interview!

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Holly. High praise, coming from you!

Irene Latham said...

Laura and Mark, thanks so much for this! I feel a kinship with anyone who embraces another culture out of the love of his heart... we need more books like this one.

Linda B said...

Long, long day, but wanted to stop in & here I found a wonderful poetry picture book that I didn't know about. What a lovely concept, "beauty, but with imperfection". Thanks Laura!

Tabatha said...

Sorry, I have to keep this quick so I can go buy Wabi Sabi immediately!

Author Amok said...

Irene, I agree. One thing I love about this book is that the cultural lessons are a natural part of the story, the way children learn best.

Linda -- you will love this book. It's a treasure.

Renee LaTulippe said...

Thank you so much for this fascinating post and interview, and for introducing me to Wabi Sabi. I am in love and putting it on my list! :)

Cathy Mealey said...

Seems like I am not alone in feeling that I must rush out and buy this book immediately! Thank you for this lovely interview.

Author Amok said...

Renee and Cathy, you are in for a treat. (Cathy -- we were both thinking tea this week!)

As you can tell from the interview, Mark is a very thoughtful person and his book reflects that in the gentlest way. It's truly lovely.

Joyce Ray said...

Thank you, thank you for this interview. I, too, have an affinity for Japan and its culture. I loved reading the author's story of how Wabi Sabi came to be. I've meant to find this book for a long time - now I will do it!

Arielle said...

Great interview. I love your book so much... it sits next to my desk and I look at it everyday! I have also written about Wabi Sabi -- how to use it in your relationship -- check out 2 cool videos on it here:

Author Amok said...

Hi, Joyce. Japanese culture is embedded in this book, but not as a "lesson." It's just a natural part of the story, which I find very beautiful.

Arielle, I'm glad you found the interview! Thanks for sharing the video clips.