Books

Lifetime devoted to haiku nets Scottish poet prestigious honor

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

The 2018 recipients of the Order of the Rising Sun honor were announced in spring of this year. Alongside headline-grabbing winners such as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, haiku poet and novelist Alan Spence was honored for “contributions to developing haiku poetry in the United Kingdom and promoting mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom.” He received the honor in a ceremony in Edinburgh on June 29, 2018.

Glasgow Zen, by Alan Spence.
144 pages
CANONGATE BOOKS, Poetry.

“I’m really chuffed, it’s brilliant,” says Spence. “The consul (general) here (in Edinburgh), Daisuke Matsunaga, told me he was putting my name forward but you’re never sure with these things, there’s so much protocol involved, you just don’t know what’s going to come out of it. But it’s really fantastic.”

There is a certain circularity in Spence receiving this award. His first Japan-set novel, “The Pure Land” (2006), explored the life of “Scottish Samurai,” Thomas Glover. Glover was one of the first Western recipients of the Order of the Rising Sun, something Spence describes as “a nice continuity.”

To date, Spence has published four collections of haiku and other poems, beginning with “Glasgow Zen” (originally published in 1981 and rereleased in full in 2002). In light of the honor, he is pursuing the idea of an anthology of collected haiku, 365 in total, “one for every day of the year.”

Spence’s interest in Japan and Japanese culture began early in his life. “When I was about 19 or 20, I was at a photographic exhibition in Edinburgh and there was a big black-and-white photograph of Mount Fuji with two Zen monks in the foreground,” says Spence. “I just couldn’t stop staring at it. It was like I’d been struck. There was some kind of recognition going on, something awakening in me — what felt like a memory. Whatever it was, it was a very powerful aesthetic experience and it kind of confirmed a sense I’d had of Japan as a place that had a very special spiritual energy.”

This experience coincided with his discovery of haiku and his exploration of Buddhism. “I read Alan Watts’ ‘The Way of Zen’ (1957) which had a chapter on haiku,” says Spence. “(Jack) Kerouac also had his own haiku in some of (his) novels. I was kind of attracted by the form. And then, very early on, I got the four volumes of R. H. Blyth’s translations. I used to make wee pilgrimages to London to buy them one at a time because that’s all I could afford. I’d hitchhike down to London and hang out with some pals and the extra money I had went on a copy of Blyth’s volumes.”

Spence’s appreciation of Blyth also has a certain circularity to it. As well as introducing haiku poetry to English readers, Blyth moved to Japan in 1940 and was interned in Kobe during World War II. He acted as a liaison between the Occupation authorities and the Imperial household after the war and eventually became the current Emperor’s English tutor. Now, Spence is working on a novel based on the life of the author.

The Blyth novel will be Spence’s third Japan-set novel, after “The Pure Land” and “Night Boat” (2013), a fictionalized account of Hakuin (1685-1768), an Edo Period (1603-1868) Zen master.

He has also published two other novels, two collections of short stories and a number of plays and, in 2017, was named the Edinburgh Makar (The Scottish poet laureate). But for all his success, he still has the drive to explore new avenues. One is to see “The Pure Land” make it to the big screen.

“It was originally going to be a film before it became a novel,” says Spence. “I wrote a screenplay and it made some headway toward being made and then suddenly everyone was getting cold feet. Word filtered through that the bloody ‘Last Samurai’ (2003) was in production.

“It was scuppered by ‘The Last Samurai.’ It still surfaces from time to time, I had meetings last year looking at a mini-series, maybe a Japanese coproduction, but there’s a big gulf between talking and it actually happening.”

Given the popularity of NHK’s “Massan,” the 15 years that have elapsed since “The Last Samurai” hit the theaters, and the enduring legacy of Glover, particularly as a draw for tourists, a film or TV adaptation of Spence’s novel seems a no-brainer. Perhaps the Order of the Rising Sun honor will spur one of the streaming giants, such as Netflix or Amazon, into action.

In the meantime, Spence continues to work on his life of Blyth. “I kind of stalled a wee bit,” he says. “You know how it goes with these things, I’d written myself into a corner. But from this summer through to the end of the year I’ll be able to get a clear run at it. I’m about 25,000 words in. Getting there.”

Spence is a regular visitor to Japan, both to research his books and to practice meditation, but unfortunately the award won’t be another excuse to visit the country.

“In the old days I think the Emperor himself used to hand these things out but I think that’s long gone,” he says, wistfully. “However, I do need to come back to Japan, I’m absolutely pining for it.”