INTERVIEW: L.A. MARKUSON, A HAIKU GAL IN A SHIFTING WORLD

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Courtesty of The Haiku Guys + Gals

Lisa Ann Markuson has carved out a very specific niche for herself in the New York City poetry scene—count on your hands how many full-time trilingual haikuists you know. Markuson, who is fluent in Spanish and Swedish, is the co-founder—and arguably the beating heart—of performance collective The Haiku Guys + Gals. The project started out as fashion-savvy haikuists in random corners of the world creating free haiku on vintage typewriters for passerby on request. It has since expanded into bookings for major companies and organizing their own events on both coasts and worldwide—today, in collaboration with Spain’s very own Kerouac Vigo Poetry Festival, Markuson will hold court over a bilingual haiku duel at the Arlo SoHo Hotel. Aside from her work with The Haiku Guys + Gals, Markuson is avidly crafting her own works, most notably the politically-charged project #PoemsForSenators, which garnered national attention for it’s critical yet light-hearted approach to the political structures currently in place. If a poem cannot change the world, it can contort it into something we can understand.

Modern Girls talked to Markuson about her take on Western haiku, politics, and writing poems for senators, passerby, and revolutionary women.

E.R. (MODERN GIRLS): How did you and your fellow haikuists conceive the Haiku Guys + Gals project, and how do you see it continuing to grow?
L.A. MARKUSON: In a nutshell, we wanted to discover a way to provide an antidote to mass-produced screen culture, and offer strangers an opportunity to be creative and vulnerable, tell their truth in some small way, and then receive a pure gift, with no strings attached.

We are growing big time this year. In fact, we are expanding our brand and capacities in a serious way with new tech integrations, media projects, a web series, special commissioned work beyond just performance poetry, and a new name to encompass it all: Haiku Studio.
E : What drew you to haiku as opposed to long-form verse or spoken word?
LM: I personally write many other longer forms of poetry for performance on stage and custom commissions, but for interactive performance in the context of something like a celebrity birthday party, luxury wedding, or corporate event, haiku is perfect because they are universal, timeless, pithy, and can go in any direction: serious, dark, witty, romantic, ironic, earnest, surreal… the options within the form are endless, and deeply satisfying for the poet and the recipient.
E: Your #PoemsForSenators project got a good amount of press; are you looking to continue exploring politics in your work?
LM: It’s inevitable for me, but I do take a stance that is equal parts moderate/pragmatic and wildly revolutionary. As you can see from my Poems for Senators project, I was really looking to understand these people—mostly men—on a human level and find commonalities, not attack in a purely partisan way. I can find at least some tiny piece of common ground with anyone, but the major thing that is lacking from these wealthy elite Republicans and highly partisan Democrats is just basic human empathy. So I want to nurture empathy to move the needle politically, socially, and otherwise. I’m definitely looking for a revolution, and to be a catalyst of it.
E: Haiku is traditionally an Eastern poetry tradition; as a poet in the Western world, what do you feel you’re adding to haiku by exposing it to people who may not be familiar with the form?
LM: The Japanese are positively fascinated by my (and the West’s in general) exploration of haiku. e.e. cummings was one of the very first Westerners to use it, so we’re not new there. I think the comparison of East/West can be problematic, but it is also real in a geopolitical and anthropological way because of deep differences in how we’ve built our philosophies. Sen and minimalism and evocative contemplation are all lessons from haiku that I think we contemporary Westerners (and all globalized capitalist societies) can benefit from.

E: You’re co-hosting a bilingual haiku duel as a part of the Festival Kerouac Vigo; how does the festival’s mission of building bridges between Spain and New York blend with the Haiku Guys+Gal’s cross-continental project?
LM: Great question. On one level, it is deeply personal for me. As a Californian, I grew up closely linked with Chican@ and Latinx populations, learning Spanish from 1st grade. I had a Spanish pen pal in high school, and studied Latin America and the history of The Americas throughout high school and undergrad. Being in New York, I think it’s a tragedy that immigrant, ESOL, and Spanish speaking communities are so isolated from native-English speaking people.Everyone’s like “oh I wish I spoke better Spanish” but no one tries! And Spanish-speakers learning English feel awkward trying to converse too. Why not try at a party, in a safe place, with no judgement?
The Kerouac Vigo founders, Marcos De La Fuente and Vanesa Álvarez, have a beautiful revolutionary goal of being “poetry fighters” and bringing down national walls through the art of poetry and performance. We’ve found that the beautiful experience of giving and receiving haiku is compelling across languages and nationalities, and we were featured at the Kerouac Vigo Festival in Spain last fall. Bringing their international festival (with much more than just Spanish artists) is a reciprocal generosity and statement that we’re more than our nationalist leaders and faulty politics, we’re humans with love to share.
E: What’s the wildest #freehaiku topic you’ve ever been asked to write about?
LM: The more specific and personal, the better. And when couples request poems, I love when they really collaborate on a topic they’ll both love, or dedicate them to something quirky about each other. Some that I’ve loved are “crush the patriarchy” “armadillo wedding” and anything that seems like it was taboo or that the person had to get a little courageous to have the guts to tell me.
E: You used to run a podcast for the Bowery Poetry Club called “A Revolutionary Woman.” Are modern girls revolutionary women? What does it mean for you to be a modern girl?
LM: Girl, Woman, Womyn, Femme, Butch, Broad, Chick, Lady… there are so many names that we can take on or slough off depending on our goals, moods, feelings, strengths, weaknesses, fears, confidences. The word “modern” can be whatever we want too! It’s your and our moment as feminine spectrum people to define ourselves any way we want, and become anything we dare. So for me, it’s about daring. Daring to take that risk to choose your own name.
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Credit: Karen Obrist Photography

Words by E.R..

All images courtesy of L.A. Markuson. Follow her and The Haiku Guys and Gals on Instagram.

More details about the Festival Kerouac Vigo’s third iteration in New York City can be found here.

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