The Story Before the Story: Mark Karlins on Kiyoshi’s Walk, Part 2

Kiyoshi’s Walk by Mark Karlins, illustrated by Nicole Wong, is a meditative reflection on poetry and love, family and connection and the beauty around us. Earlier, Mark told me about his journey as he dreamed of this picture book. Here’s more from him now on the path by which the book grew into itself.

[Uma] You began this part of your reply to me with a question: Where do stories go when no one reads them? Where did this one go and what happened when you sent it out into the world?

[Mark] When I sent Kiyoshi’s Walk to publishers, no one wanted it. Difficulties, people say, make you stronger. Tell someone that when they’re in the middle of a difficulty. I didn’t touch the story for several years.

[Uma] But you also said there was a story before the story. So what was that?

[Mark] The arc of the writing of the story actually began before I wrote the story. Elements from my life that made their way into Kiyoshi’s Walk had been brewing for years.

The story begins with a reference to “the wise poet Eto.” When I was in college, I was searching for a mentor, a wise poet, someone like Eto. I remember the black and white photo of the poet, Robert Kelly, on the back cover of one of his books. He was walking out of a misty forest, his long beard flowing. At poetry readings, his voice was deep. I remember thinking of it as a river.

The grandson Kiyoshi is a central character in the story. Can writing spring from unknown desires? I wrote Kiyoshi’s Walk, a story that’s about a child learning how to write poetry and also about the relationship of a grandfather and grandson, years before Jesadha, my first grandchild, was born. Was I delving into and exploring a relationship I wish I had? Kiyoshi’s Walk is, among other things, a love story, a story about the love of a grandparent and a grandchild. Jesadha is now the center of my life. He makes me feel alive.

[Uma] And there’s no Basho now. No boats. How did that happen?

[Mark] Eventually, the story was picked up by Cheryl Klein at Lee & Low. Cheryl, a great editor, can make you see things in a different way. What, she wondered, would the book be like if it took place not in 17th century Japan but our contemporary world? She also discovered, during an editorial meeting, that Basho never had any children, let alone a grandchild.

I tried a new draft, placing the story in a contemporary city rather than in rural Japan. I thought about and tinkered with the two versions, showed them to Mary Lee and to my friend and colleague Uma…

[Uma] That would be me.

[Mark] …who said I should give the modern version a try. I sent both versions to Cheryl.

I asked her, “Would you just pick one of them for me?”

“No.”

By the time I had finished the “final” draft, there was no Basho, no river in Japan, no paper boats sailing towards the stars. Yet draft after draft, image after image, I still felt that the first story was there, a shadow story informing the versions. Now the story is contemporary and takes place in a small American city.

[Uma] Or a Canadian one–let’s say it looks like somewhere in exurban North America. But then the story changed some more?

[Mark] The story didn’t go where I had originally planned. It took on more of a life of its own, with the help of others. There were surprises in the writing. During the process I lived in ambiguity and uncertainty, which is an apt description of my creative act and its long arc.

After the book is published the arc continues.

When I read the published book out loud, when others read it, when children look at the illustrations, the story continues. What I wrote in a room by myself becomes a performance piece. It becomes interactive, child and adult sharing, each of them weaving the story, in some way, into their life.

[Uma] That’s the beauty of the picture book! Congratulations, Mark, on a joyful, lovingly crafted book.

See Caroline Starr Rose’s interview with Mark about Kiyoshi’s Walk.

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.