Listening to Scott Mason wax poetic (pun intended!) about haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry, it is clear that he has a true passion for the subject having published close to 400 haiku in edited literary journals or anthologies. And that passion has helped him earn more than 150 awards, including more than 20 first place finishes in international competitions– more than any other North American, in the genre. To coincide with National Poetry Month coming in April and the launch of his latest book, The Wonder Code, Inside Press had the opportunity to sit down with this prolific poet and learn more about this art form.
Mason claims writing and also reading haiku (it is the same in both singular and plural form) has changed his outlook on life. Admitting that it sounds grandiose, Mason claims that haiku has made him “more attentive and more appreciative.” The Chappaqua resident though never intended to become a haiku poet. “If you told me twenty years ago that I would be doing this, I would have looked at you like you have three heads,” he chuckles.
As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, Mason majored in art and did a minor in math and physics. He obtained his MBA at Harvard Business School and worked in advertising at Prudential. Following that he consulted for advertising agencies to help them strategize and win new business opportunities. “My background isn’t what people typically think of when they think about poets.”
Always an avid traveler, Mason and his wife Carla Gambescia (the former owners of the now defunct Via Vanti in the Mount Kisco train station) took a hiking trip to Japan in the early 1990s with a company called Wilderness Travel. The tour guide challenged the group to write their own haiku over dinner one evening in the traditional Japanese format of three lines with, five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second and five again in the last line. Mason wrote one but didn’t think much about it at the time.
Fast forward a decade later and Mason found himself wanting to express himself poetically. As he took his first attempts at writing, he noticed that his poems were short and resembled haiku.
He later learned that haiku poems in English do not need to conform to a 5-7-5 structure since English and Japanese word sounds are not comparable in duration. On a whim, he sent some of his poems to Modern Haiku magazine and they accepted one of his haiku for publication.
Since then he has become the co-editor of The Heron’s Nest, an online and print haiku journal with an international readership. Having an analytical mind, Mason sought to figure out why this form of poetry resonated with him so deeply and what characteristics the best haiku have in common. He poured through 9,000 haiku that had been published over the years in The Heron’s Nest and eventually chose his favorites writing each one on index cards. He sorted through them and found to his surprise that the poems wound up naturally being organized into five piles. “Each poem had one common denominator and that is wonder. Now wonder is both a verb and a noun and they operated on me in both ways. These poems brought me to wonder in some ways but also caused me to wonder in a verb sense,” explained Mason.
The five groups also had some imperative that eventually formed the five chapters of The Wonder Code. So for example, think small was an imperative and the haiku in that particular pile all focused on things like small animals or bugs. It struck Mason that this was the “diametric opposite of our culture and our times. Each haiku seemed to offset some aspect of our Western culture that tend to estrange us from wonder. Americans want big cars, big restaurant portions. Bigger is better is our credo but there is so much wonder and beauty in small things.”
Mason is gratified that this book has been so well-received in the haiku community but hopes to expand its readership to a wider audience. Kirkus Reviews magazine noted that is “ a superb haiku collection for readers who thought they didn’t like poetry, richly expressive and very accessible.” The first five chapters feature haiku written by various authors and the last chapter features haiku written by Mason. The book also received a Kirkus Star which signifies a book of exceptional merit.
As we wrap up the interview, Mason reminds us that “haiku is the people’s poetry. It is the opposite of elitist and truly treasures the everyday.” Mason will be giving a presentation on “Looking at Nature the Haiku Way” on March 27 from 7-8:30 pm at Teatown in Ossining–a place where he enjoys hiking and of course has inspired many of his haiku. Tickets are available at teatown.org/events/haiku-way where his book will be available for purchase at the event.
By Scott Mason
Venetian canal –
lifting fog reveals
another mask shop
of toe prints on sand