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(words first -- will fix the aesthetics soon)

Slug Obsession?   Well, yes and no.

I thought the question and exclamation would be:

How can a 500 page book with 1000 haiku on sea cucumbers be interesting?

As it turned out, the most common question is:

How did you come to be so obsessed with sea cucumber? (And, from people who have not read the book, “Why do Japanese have such a thing for them?”)

Orlando Rodriguez,  reporter for the Islander News asked me such questions, albeit in a more polite manner, prior to writing a very good article on me for the paper.  He wanted a few sentences but I wrote at considerable length.


“Surviving by eating the san one lives upon is like realizing the dream of living in a gingerbread house. The sea slug, by staying still and learning to live on so little, has turned this world into its paradise. – Motokawa Tatsuo (Tokyo Institute of Technology Professor – quoted on pg 3 of “Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!”)

Orlando, i would box the above and use it. Now, re your question:


To Japanese, the sea cucumber is not a cucumber of the sea, but something with its own name, namako.   This shows a greater consciousness of its existence.   This namako is found in dozens of words.   “Namako” iron for what we call “pig” iron.  “Namako” pattern for what we might call stippled tie-dye and whatnot.  This sea cucumber consciousness was originally born of culinary culture.  In Japan, people eat sea cucumber. 

But, this sea cucumber consciousness has also grown into a type of affection, probably born from identification with this sluggish and silent creature.  

The sluggish part is self-evident.  All Japanese and probably most Americans can understand a haiku like, say, “a large sea slug / making us people / feel sleepy.”   This sluggishness also includes being ecological, for slow living uses less energy than fast living.  This means the sea slug does not need to be aggressive.  Many Japanese identify with its passivity. You might say the sea slug is the opposite of the aggressive globe-eating, SUV-driving, fly-everywhere, high-consumption culture of the United States. The sea slug does not live an irresponsible life of glamorous waste.  It swallows sand and leaves it clean.  Imagine poop that is cleaner than food!  I am not saying we can do the last, though Francis Bacon in his Utopia did consider it.

The “silent” part comes from mythology.  Most Japanese know that the sea cucumber alone did not reply to the Gods when asked if it would obey them.  It remained mum and for this lese majesty had its mouth lacerated (a just-so story to explain the “ugly” feeding tentacles in its mouth) by an angry goddess.  Then the haiku poets noticed that the formlessness of the sea cucumber made it a good symbol for the original sack of Taoism and so it also came to embody ancient things.  As Shiki, the father of modern haiku put it, “ chaos:  / if it had a name / “sea slug.””  You will note that Taoism also believes in doing the least possible, so that to ties in with the sluggishness of the sea slug.

In reality, the sea cucumber works hard all night in the winter.  Sucking out nutrients from sediment is not that easy of a job.  But what we – and that includes the japanese -- see is the sea cucumber by day when it is sleeping, so we have every right to think of it as sluggish.

You ask, Orlando, what made me interested in the sea cucumber.  The truth is I never had any particular interest in it.  Like most children who grew up on Key Biscayne in the 1950’s,  I enjoyed using them as water pistols.  But  such memories were the extent of my interest until I became aware of the metaphorical sea cucumber, or “sea slug” of haiku and the Japanese culture.  The variety of the metaphor was the main draw for me.   The formlessness of the namako allows it to stand for so many things. I began making out sub-themes of sea cucumber as the embodiment of “cold,” “meekness,” “slipperiness,” “ugliness” and so forth.   Sure, the real sea cucumber has its interesting points:  for one,  it is amazing that it gets along as well as it does without a brain.  But, even now, I am not as personally interested in sea cucumbers as i am in, say, mosquitos and cherry blossoms, to name but a couple more of dozens of subjects I will be turning into books soon. 

So why do I start my publishing in English with the sea cucumber?   Mostly because I know that people will wonder what in the world could be in a 500 page book on sea cucumber haiku and if the book turns out to be interesting, it would prove I can make anything into a good read.  I had published 7 books in Japan and learned that the content of a book is not as important as the manner of its publication.  My most difficult book outsold the book that, with the proper name and marketing might have been a best-seller.    I suppose I am also taking advantage of the sea cucumber, using it as a battering ram* upon the English world of letters, which, in my opinion needs something different.    –  rdg


In other words,  strategy rather than obsession dictated that sea slug went first.  But I will admit that is not all of it.  Here is a paragraph of a letter to William Higginson, whose Haiku World, an International Poetry Almanac opened my eyes to the international spread of the haiku spirit.

i am embarrassed to say that i do not think i have managed to become much of an expert on the sea cuke and i am pretty sure i will do much better with another bk-to-be on mosquito haiku, for i can claim to be one of the most 'squito-bitten people in the world, for i hate screens on windows and have always lived with them (i tell myself the females are looking out for my health: relieving me of iron).   True, as a kid on key Biscayne, we used sea cukes as squirt-guns, which you will find in the bk, but i cannot say i have a special affection for them, though i do appreciate what they do for us and find they are a perfect vessel for my ecoradicalism(?) and, being hard to grasp, a good cover for my shortcomings as an editor.

To this I would add that the collecting of haiku on a given theme, like the collecting of anything, easily develops into an obsession.   Haiku about sea cucumber are particularly dangerous in comparison to haiku on more popular themes because they are few enough in number that one can realistically hope to get most of the good ones.  Moreover they are a particularly rewarding game because Japanese are delighted to help with a subject they recognize expresses a lot about their culture.  While I have had help with other haiku themes, this this one generated exceptional enthusiasm and this – to return to the language of mental imbalance -- egged me on.  Moreover, the formation of metaphorical sub-themes, whether about sea slugs or cherry blossoms,  beckons one to fill in the corners with appropriate poems in a manner that purely thematic compilation does not.  One begins to search for missing links as one might for holes in a taxonomy.  And there is, of course, no end to this.



Perhaps, I deny too much.  There is something (its thingness? silence? singularity?) about the namako that does seem to induce monomania.   For all my coolness, there were times in the writing of the book when, i will admit to being possessed.  If Sterne/Tristam intercepted the  messages of geese on high with his quill, my fingertips occasionally intercepted holothurian chat flowing upward through the silicon in my computer.

can anyone tell me why the g'damn frontpage shows all the above is justified in the normal view but makes most left for the "preview'?

(Microsoft lies: What You See Is all too often NOT What You Get!)