A Hundred Gourds 3:4 September 2014

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In Memoriam


Martin Lucas 1962-2014

Martin Lucas was an extraordinary haiku poet, reviewer and essayist and a superb editor, of the magazine he founded – Presence – and of two major anthologies; but first and foremost he was an extraordinary man. I won’t attempt to write Martin’s obituary here, since Ian Storr, with input from Martin’s brother Peter and me, has already done that in Presence 50. Nor is this piece a thorough survey of Martin’s poetic and critical career, which I will leave to someone far better qualified than me to do in due course. What I do intend, though, is to write a personal appreciation of Martin, focusing on Martin’s early writing and digressing as I go.

I don’t pretend to have known Martin better than anyone else, but I do think that, as is so often the case among haiku poets, he and I were on the same wavelength about haiku and most other things; and in all the years – from about 1995 – that I knew Martin, I can’t recall any but minor disagreements between us. I served on the British Haiku Society’s committee throughout Martin’s presidency of the Society, from 2003 to 2006, which was a difficult period dominated by arguments invariably caused by one individual, and saw at first hand Martin’s attempts to move the Society forward. I was honoured when Martin subsequently asked me to help with Presence by becoming its reviews editor. But for now that’s probably enough about me and my connection with Martin.

Martin, or rather his writing, first came to my attention in the pages of Blithe Spirit in the early 1990s, not long after the British Haiku Society’s foundation at the start of that decade. As far as I can ascertain (though he later wrote that his “first ‘live’ encounter with haiku took place in the autumn of 1986 at the beginning of a Creative Writing course at the City Lit., Holborn, London, tutored by Mark Williams” 1 ), his first published haiku was in the April 1993 issue 2, which coincidentally saw the publication of the first haiku by Stuart Quine, who would become a great friend and colleague of Martin. Martin’s haiku went like this: ‘amber incense burns… / the record stops. i’m listening / to the rain gush down’. Despite its 5-7-5 padding, the mini-story, excessive verb use, un-haiku-like punctuation and overall beginner’s approach, what is clear is that from the outset Martin was attentive to the moment and wasn’t afraid to bring different senses into play; facets that were to characterise his particular Lucasian style of haiku writing in the next two decades.

By the next issue, whilst still employing a padded-out 5-7-5, Martin had clearly been reading widely and improving: ‘song of a greenfinch; / a ray of sun on cold steps / and a few snowdrops…’ 3 . As someone who went on to champion the cause of English-language nature haiku, it’s interesting to note here Martin’s depiction of a bird and flowers; the notes of the greenfinch song are implicitly echoed by the thinness of the sun’s rays and the first snowdrops. It’s no wonder that Martin went on to be featured so heavily in, and was so supportive of, both Wing Beats 4 and Where the River Goes 5.

An issue later 6 and Martin was hitting his stride, noticing things that would otherwise go unremarked:

summer heat:
the greengrocer stacks

mumbled thanks…
on the beggar’s palm
a coin-sized callus

tipped from the beer can
the centipede staggers from
foot to foot to foot…

Each of these three does what haiku should do: present moments without fuss, letting the pictures speak for themselves without elaboration or exposition. In ‘summer heat’, one can feel the weariness of the greengrocer carefully stacking the melons. In ‘mumbled thanks’, attention is skilfully diverted from the beggar’s half-heard words to the sore sight of his hand, effortlessly engaging the reader’s sympathy without any emotive language. It is the observational accuracy of the two adjectives – ‘mumbled’ and ‘coin-sized’ – that works the magic. In ‘tipped from the beer can’, we see the first appearance in print of Martin’s trademark wry humour, and a far more natural and appropriate use of the 5-7-5 form.

By 1994, Martin had developed his style to the point where he was writing classic haiku and his first tanka:

evening hush…
a tabby cat
slips through the railings 7

on the walk home
streets empty of people
stars hidden
and the half-moon soft-edged
through haze 8

The first of these was chosen – together with another, lesser piece by Martin (‘cars race noisily / into / the gentleness of drizzle’ 9) – by Stephen Gill, who became a mentor of sorts to him, as the winner of the Museum of Haiku Literature Award for the best haiku/senryu of the issue; and it’s easy to see why: a poem constructed around a framework of masterly word choices, of noun (‘hush’ setting a tone of summery equipoise), adjective (‘tabby’, neatly assonant with ‘cat’) and, crucially, verb (‘slips’ being perfect). The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s tempting to think that Martin pondered long and hard as to whether ‘slips’ should be placed where he eventually decided or at the end of line two; the latter would have been visually more balanced, but aurally the pause after ‘cat’ gives ‘slips’ more emphasis and impact, and I have to conclude that Martin made the right call. The tanka form gave Martin the room to expand musically, here with a series of ‘h’ and ‘s’ words that bind the five lines together, culminating in that lovely ‘half-moon soft-edged / through haze’.

Martin continued to hone his style further:

after the goodbye kiss
    the sweetness
       of a russet apple 10

shadows lengthen
across the fields
a thrush’s song 11

Fred Schofield selected ‘after the goodbye kiss’ for another Museum of Haiku Literature Award for Martin; and in his adjudication rightly noted that, “The assonance coupled with the apparent simplicity of the language entices us to let images form without effort.”12 The specificity of ‘russet’, an English apple with a particularly tangy, sweet and nutty flavour and brownish-green coloration, is characteristic of the style that Martin developed: his view was that the specific invariably works better than the generic. It’s worth noting, too, that Martin loved crunching into apples, so it’s unsurprising that he wrote about them here and elsewhere.

Martin’s first collection of haiku, bluegrey, was published by Colin Blundell’s Hub Editions in 1994; followed by Darkness and Light (1996, Hub Editions), .. Click .. (1998, Hub Editions), Violin (1998, from Brian Tasker’s Bare Bones Press), Moonrock (2002, from Graham High’s Ram Publications) and Earthjazz (2003, also from Ram). Each book was excellent and varied. It is a pity that more of Martin’s haiku and tanka were not collected in the decade between Earthjazz’s publication and his death, but that will surely be remedied in the years to come. A selected haiku and tanka encompassing all periods of Martin’s writing life would arguably be as good as any in the English language. For the time being, though, readers unfamiliar with Martin’s work would do much worse than to read the selections anthologised in The Iron Book of British Haiku 13, The New Haiku 14, Wing Beats and Where the River Goes, the first two of which Martin co-edited (with fellow major British haiku poets David Cobb and John Barlow respectively).

Those readers unfamiliar with Martin’s extensive writings about haiku should obtain and read a copy of Stepping Stones 15, his Blyth-like anthology-with-commentaries, and read his (with input from Stuart Quine) seminal, manifesto-like essay, ‘Haiku as Poetic Spell’ 16, which should be required reading for all aspiring haiku poets.

Martin, with assistance from David Steele, founded Presence haiku journal in 1996, and Martin had started preparing for its fiftieth issue at the time of his death. The 49 issues of Presence that Martin oversaw contain a wealth of contributions from English-language haiku poets across the world; a true global village of like-minded souls who were guided by Martin’s unwavering pursuit of excellence and his encouragement of new talent, intellectual standards and debate of the highest order. For those of us – Chris Boultwood, Matt Morden, Stuart Quine, Fred Schofield, Ian Storr, Ian Turner and myself – who assisted Martin with aspects of the journal, Martin’s sure hand on the tiller is and will be missed to an immeasurable extent. For me, as the reviews editor, I found that Martin would, without fail, spot and correct any faults in the arguments expressed in my and others’ reviews. In all, Martin’s journal was as good as any in the English language – and a darn sight less pretentious, and warier of five-minute wonder haiku trends, than supposedly far superior haiku publications. Stuart, Ian Storr and I are determined to keep Presence going and maintain the wonderful community of writers and readers that Martin engendered and nurtured during the last 18 years.

Aside from his exceptional writing and editing abilities, Martin was naturally very clever and knowledgeable; and great, very funny company, with a contagious laugh and twinkling eyes. Like anyone part of collaborative efforts, he could be bloody-minded at times, but he usually had enough self-awareness to know if he’d gone too far. I was – and remain – in awe of Martin’s ability to notice the small things in life, find beauty in the unlikeliest of places, see the best in people and be at one with the natural environment, whether along the banks of the Ribble in and below Preston or elsewhere. Martin kept extensive records of his bird sightings and regularly assisted local groups and the British Trust for Ornithology in their heroic efforts to monitor bird population patterns. On a bitterly cold day in January 2012, Martin and I met up for a walk in Wat Tyler Country Park in deepest Essex, along the creeks that feed into the Thames estuary: after his seemingly endless packed lunch, inevitably involving cake and an apple, Martin excitedly pointed out that the Redshank that I thought I was looking at wasn’t a Common one but a slightly larger and scarcer Spotted one. He always wore his knowledge proudly – he even won an edition of the British quiz show Fifteen to One and was delighted to hear that although I’d been on it once too I hadn’t fared anywhere near as well as him – but lightly and, having an enquiring mind, was invariably thrilled to have his own knowledge extended by facts that were new to him. An ambition of Martin’s was to visit all the islands within the British archipelago and he’d made substantial progress in that regard, including far flung ones like St Kilda. Martin was also a talented table tennis player who played every week for a team in the Preston League, and a lifelong armchair supporter of Middlesbrough Football Club. But no details or anecdotes can adequately sum up a person, and in Martin’s case they could never do justice to his sheer intelligence, abilities, complexity and creative energy.

- Matthew Paul, Expositions Editor    

-  Photo by Frank Williams

1. Blithe Spirit, Volume 6 Number 4, December 1996, ed. Jackie Hardy.

2. Ibid., Volume 3 Number 2, April 1993, eds. Colin Blundell and Richard Goring.

3. Ibid., Volume 3 Number 3, July 1993, ed. Jackie Hardy.

4. Wing Beats, British Birds in Haiku, John Barlow and Matthew Paul, Snapshot Press, 2008.

5. Where the River Goes, The Nature Tradition in English-language Haiku, ed. Allan Burns, Snapshot Press, 2013.

6. Blithe Spirit, Volume 3 Number 4, October 1993.

7. Ibid., Volume 4 Number 1, February 1994.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., Volume 4 Number 2, May 1994.

10. Ibid., Volume 5 Number 1, February 1995.

11. Ibid., Volume 5 Number 3, August 1995.

12. Ibid., Volume 5 Number 2, May 1995.

13. Eds. David Cobb and Martin Lucas, Iron Press, 1998.

14. Eds. John Barlow and Martin Lucas, Snapshot Press, 2002.

15. British Haiku Society, Snapshot Press, 2007.

16. Presence 41, May 2010.