Outside my window is a sweet pea plant. Today, suddenly it seems, there are only seven flowers, the rest having turned into pods. Maeve expresses this process of change in one of her Summer haiku:
my sweet pea flowers
In these few lines there is a dynamism that paradoxically captures a frozen moment, a reciprocal dance of time and motion. Maeve explains it concisely in her blog:
Many haiku practitioners say that writing haiku helps to keep them anchored in the present moment…
In her latest edition of poetry, A Train Hurtles West, Maeve has captured moments in her life and with imagery invested with tenderness, painted a world consisting of the memories of her mother and father, the seasons and the power of inevitable change, intimate moments in her life and contrasting settings.
Maeve’s mastery of the Haiku form is evident in this collection of verse. Read the words slowly and mindfully; they are a gentle reminder that we are all on that train.
Q1: What’s the significance of the title of your latest collection of poetry?
A1: A Train Hurtles West comes from the title haiku which is also part of the title sequence of the book. The full haiku is a short one-liner: ‘mother dying a train hurtles west’, and the sequence contains haiku I wrote in the few months before and after her death in October 2014. I live in Dublin, in an apartment over the train line heading south and west towards Cork, Limerick and Galway, so I can literally see and hear all the trains as they go by.
I also like the open-ness of the idea of heading west which could have as many interpretations as readers. Traditionally it means dying or being destroyed or lost, which chimes with my mother’s passing away, but in Ireland everyone loves heading west of the Shannon, so it’s probably got more positive connotations here, as I’m sure it has in other countries also. Of course the gold rush in the US also involved people heading west.
Q2: How does “death” affect your writing?
I guess bereavement is an experience to draw from in relation to poems and haiku. Of course it is more intense (at times) than other experiences, so possibly more dramatic and more ‘inspirational’. I’ve heard quite a few stories about poets who only started to write after the death of a parent. I had been writing for fifteen years before the death of my father, the first person I lost who was very close to me. There is a sequence called Father’s Death Day in my first collection of haiku, Initial Response (2011, Alba Publishing) which has haiku written around the time of my Dad’s death in 2010. That book is out of print but now available to read or download free in the Haiku Foundation’s Digital Library.
Q3: What brought you to Buddhism?
I had an interest in Buddhism as a young woman, but it was many more years before I became one. I suppose, like lots of others, I was searching for answers. I liked the fact that Buddhism was a non-theistic faith, also the notion of Buddha-nature, which is pretty much the opposite of the Catholic doctrine of original sin (I was raised a Catholic).
I took refuge five years ago, in the Kagyu tradition. It coincided with my mother’s dementia diagnosis, and I found my dharma very helpful in dealing with that process, with its emphasis on impermanence and acceptance. I also like its stress on pacifism and welcome having an ethical code by which to live my life, one which values compassion above success or materialism.
I’ve aimed to explore the dharma gradually, at my own pace, and that has worked for me so far. I enjoy attending talks and pujas, and am a member of a dharma book club. I’m lucky enough to live near the Kagyu centre in Dublin. I’ve also attended Ringu Tulku’s Summercamp in Portugal for the last three summers, and love connecting with teachings, practices and other sangha members in that way. He is a very wise and inspiring teacher, with a great sense of humour.
Q4: In your sequence Portugal and Galicia, as elsewhere, you have captured the essence of an experience. Does meditation help you formulate ideas about experiences?
A2: I would say that meditation and mindfulness practices help to keep me in the moment (or yank me back there). Haiku are more about sensations than ideas, so being in the moment helps you to increase awareness and concentrate on the senses, resulting in what we call ‘haiku moments’, some of which result in haiku. It’s no accident that the tradition of haiku poetry is partly rooted in Zen Buddhism, or that many of the old Japanese haiku masters were also Buddhist monks and nuns, or practitioners at least.
Q5: Your haiku is not in the traditional 5-7-5 syllabic structure. Does it matter?
Since English is a very different language to Japanese, the 5-7-5 structure does not have to be adhered to. I’m told the English syllable packs more in than the Japanese onji, or word section, so 10-14 syllables are considered the equivalent in English-language haiku to the Japanese 17.
Q6: Does the Irish tradition of poetry – Yeats, Heaney, Colum – influence you at all?
It probably influences my longer-form poetry more than my shorter-form poetry (O’Sullivan’s first longer-form poetry collection, Vocal Chords, was published by Alba Publishing in 2014). No Irish poet can avoid the shadows of Yeats, Kavanagh, Hartnett, Heaney et al, or the influences of the living greats such as Longley, Mahon, Boland, Kinsella, Montague, Ní Dhomhnaill and others. We’re a nation of poets who have to find our own individual voices while embracing those wonderful influences.
Maeve O’Sullivan’s new collection of haiku poetry, A Train Hurtles West, is available from the publisher, Alba Publishing (firstname.lastname@example.org). 30% of profits go to Ringu Tulku Rinpoche’s charity Rigul Trust (www.rigultrust.org). You can find Maeve on Twitter (@maeveos). Her blog post Why Haiku? is available here: bogmanscannon