The Meandering Walk Called Writing: Mark Karlins on Kiyoshi’s Walk, Part 1

Happy Book Birthday to Mark Karlins on Lee and Low’s release of Mark’s picture book, Kiyoshi’s Walk, illustrated by Nicole Wong. I sent Mark a couple of meandering questions, since I was lucky enough to stroll alongside during part of this book’s journey. Here’s our conversation.

[Uma] I’ve been thinking about the arcs of writing projects—how some take odd turns, or become something entirely different from what we imagine they’re going to be. Will you talk about the arc of this project—how it came to you, how it changed, and some of its unexpected turns? 

[Mark] I started by not knowing where I was going.

Nine years ago I wrote a few words and then a few more. I was on another of the meandering walks I call writing. After a few misturns and a patch of muddy ground, I found myself in a seventeenth century Japanese forest. The poet and wanderer Basho and his grandson, Kiyoshi, were beside me.

“Where do poems come from?” Kiyoshi asked.

“Come,” said Basho, “let’s walk.”

They walked past deer, birds, cottages with windows lit by kerosene lanterns. Basho wrote.  Kiyoshi wrote. Their poems were haiku that came from what we now call Mindfulness. They saw clearly, they listened, they let what was in their hearts join with what was in the world. Their poems blossomed.

[Uma] And then you wrote to me that they folded their poems into paper boats and set them on the water.

[Mark] Each boat was the length of a small child’s hand. On an inside wall of the boats, a poem. The river was dark. The sky was dense with stars.

[Uma] That’s poetry right there. And now can we go back to the long arc?

[Mark] The long arc of my writing depends upon images.

I’ve always been attracted by images. They speak to me deeply, like lampposts lighting the way. During the writing of Kiyoshi’s Walk, the boats were central, radiant images that kept me writing.

There were also other images in the writing of the story. A deep pond sounded with frogs. A pair of cranes appeared. When I was stuck at one point, I opened an art book and found what I was convinced would help lead the story in the direction it needed to go:

In my book, Basho and Kiyoshi would hang their poems in spring blossoming trees. The poems would also be boats. Was this too much? Was I falling in love with images and not giving the story its proper structure? After all, a satisfactory structure is one of the pleasures of reading a picture book.

[Uma] But your story didn’t embrace structure readily, is that right?

[Mark] For years the story drifted—a new line written here, another line taken out there. I read the story over and over—to my wife (my longtime and always first reader), to myself, at a night of faculty readings at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I wrote haiku under the personas of Basho and Kiyoshi. I wrote haiku for myself. I read about poetry and Japan. I wondered why I was so attracted to this story.

[Uma] Kiyoshi’s obviously still in the book, but there’s no Basho present now, and the setting has changed. Yet that orginal vision of finding poetry in everyday observations has found itself. In a starred review Kirkus described the book as “a meditative walk,” saying it “unleashes the power of poetry.”

More soon from Mark about the publishing journey of this beautiful picture book.

4 thoughts on “The Meandering Walk Called Writing: Mark Karlins on Kiyoshi’s Walk, Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Story Before the Story: Mark Karlins on Kiyoshi’s Walk, Part 2 – Uma Krishnaswami

  2. Pingback: [review] Kiyoshi’s Walk by Mark Karlins and Nicole Wong | Jama's Alphabet Soup

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