John Tiong Chunghoo: An Interview
John Tiong Chunghoo is a Malaysian poet who writes in both freeverse and haiku. He has won various awards for his poetry, and has achieved a measure of success in getting his poetry published. His poems have been used not only to commemorate historical events, but also placed on exam papers and published in journals both online and otherwise.
A list of the published poems of John Tiong Chunghoo can be found here:
Your haiku have been featured by publications as a way of commemorating or marking the passing of certain events. How do you feel about the potential of haiku to act as a medium for sharing moments?
That may be because I make sure I write some haiku to commemorate these monumental events. These include the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton and the March Earthquake that struck Japan last year. I think Haiku poets can use their work as a means to record the happenings around them in an artistic, poetic and meaningful way. Recently, when the Malaysian court found Anwar Ibrahim not guilty of sodomy, I wrote:
Anwar Ibrahim's acquittal
so what's the game
During the first days of the American war in Iraq I remember I wrote this...
a Koranic verse
hits the sky
It is not a particularly great haiku but it does show a confrontation of two cultures.
Is this sharing ultimately the purpose of haiku?
Haiku is a way of exploring the nature of nature. It is best written from direct experience of what we see in nature. Haiku poets let people see the happenings in nature and bring them closer to the changing world around them and make them realise what they would miss if they do not pay attention to nature even though they are living in its midst. A romance with nature is awakened when we realise we have taken nature for granted, so much so that sometimes we don't see the delicate part of it. Nature is our breath, our heart beat, our longing but sometimes we just don't realise these little things have their own characteristics that may astound us. I am told that if we know how to control our breath, we can live longer lives and be a real yogi.
Do you feel that you take quite a liberal approach to haiku writing?
Yes, I never really think one should be controlled by rules in haiku. Otherwise the spontaneity that is so important in the genre would be lost. At one time the word Red would be haiku itself because the mere mention of it would evoke fear, a change of colours of the face because communism at one time was such a taboo word. It had caused millions of deaths in Russia alone. The word Jew at one time would qualify as a haiku in Germany. I am not a racist, I just want to show what is inherent in haiku, which are words written at the right time and place to get people to become more aware of themselves, nature and environment. Haiku sometimes is able to tell us the order of things more effectively because of its subtlety. Less is more is very apt to describe what some haiku can convey.
Do you feel that the freedom encouraged by a liberal approach is more important than the conciseness encouraged by adherence to a strict structure?
I prefer the liberal approach. One of my haiku reads
leaf by leafthe windtears away autumn
I don't really know how to write in another way to bring out the essence of autumn, how the shriveled leaves on the tree eventually are taken away by the breeze one by one, how every tree eventually becomes leafless in the depth of autumn.
When do you write?
I think I am born to write. I work as a reporter. I like to meet people. My distaste of writing only rises sometimes because of my lack of knowledge of some subjects but have to write about them since I am a reporter. We need to be jack of all trades and master of none. I love the changing world that a reporter is able to experience all the time. I would be meeting fashion models in one day, an artist the next and a politician the day after. I crave the changing world around me.
Are there certain moments or situations which cause haiku to bubble within you?
I remember when I started writing haiku about eight years ago, I was really very much into it. My head swirled with the verses everyday. In the bus, in the car, as I walked, I would look at things and would eventually struggle to wring a haiku from what I saw. Those were the days when I was not working. I had an antique business on an island in Malaysia called Langkawi. It is quite a popular island among holiday makers especially those from Europe. I stopped the business and for a number of years shuttled from job to job. Those were the days I found haiku through the internet. I remembered the haiku of Matsuo Basho really touched me. If you were to ask who was the greatest influence for me to take up haiku, I would say, Basho. I was touched so much by his haiku, I made it a point to learn more about it, joining the World Haiku Club to learn more about the genre.
Can you produce haiku on demand, or is it a subtle flow that you have no conscious control over?
The best are haiku that comes to us, the way a flower blooms. It has to be natural. To write such a natural thing like haiku, it has to come naturally. However, I can produce haiku on demand. I remember once I went onto a Japanese website that encouraged people to put haiku on its photographs. I wrote about 200 haiku in one afternoon. The owner of the site said he could not look through so many of the haiku to approve them on his website, so many were just cancelled.
Do you feel that music has a part to play in the production of haiku? Do you see an interplay between these two art forms?
Music affects people in many ways. It is a great way to visualise things to bring them to fruition. So you have to be very careful of what you think when you listen to a piece of music. Always be positive when you visualise with the help of music because what you visualise would eventually become reality. So I think, music does play an important role in the way the brain works. Haiku is an interplay of nature with our mind. So I do think if we listen to the right music, it helps in composing haiku. I listen to a lot of Japanese traditional music once, and I think they have a strange way in helping one compose haiku.
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