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January / February 2012
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Man of Few Words
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Worth a Closer Look

Buffalo Street Books

It's A Wonderful Life
(About Frank Robinson)

Book highlights Frank Robinson's passion for haiku

"A museum director writing poetry is like a dog dancing," says Frank Robinson. "The amazing thing is not that he does it well, but that he does it at all." Robinson, who retired in June after two decades at the helm of the Johnson Museum, has loved poetry since childhood. His affinity for haiku inspired him to publish Soft Applause for the Day, a collection of more than a hundred of his short poems, with images by Ithaca-based photographer Dede Hatch. "I don't know why, but I was attracted to these wonderful insights from the Japanese haiku masters," Robinson says of his lifelong fascination with the form. As an adult working seventy-hour weeks, Robinson wrote haiku for a more practical reason. "I only had time for these little perceptions," he recalls, "these little insights in poetry."

Image

Robinson's work often departs from the traditional haiku form, which consists of five-seven-five syllable breaks, a seasonal reference, and a grammatical and rhythmic pause known as a kireji. Although he generally adheres to the seventeen-syllable format, he says, "the five-seven-five is just too difficult in the English language. But I hope that I'm not violating the spirit of haiku; even the great Japanese masters don't always keep to the traditional rules."

The small fifty-page hardcover is the result of nearly two years of work sorting and selecting poems and photographs. From the beginning, Robinson says, he and Hatch saw the words and images as separate but parallel. "We wanted to work together, not because she could illustrate my poems or my poems could illustrate her photographs, but rather because they were similar in spirit," he recalls. "It's the spirit of haiku—paying attention to the unimportant, to the everyday things, to all those moments that constitute and shape our lives."

In the book, Robinson's poems are arranged in chronological order, beginning with a haiku that he wrote as a teenager in the Fifties:

Little maple tree,
two inches high,
even your three leaves are turning.

As the book progresses, Robinson's poetry reveals a greater depth of emotion and vulnerability. On page 38, next to Hatch's photo of a twig encrusted in ice, he writes:

Autumn, and I feel
I'm turning another color,
darker, perhaps.

Soft Applause for the Day was self-published by EmilyPepper Press (named after Robinson's and Hatch's dogs); it retails for $17 and is available at several Ithaca bookstores or online at www.buffalostreetbooks.com. "People think that my poetry is a move away from what I've been doing, but it's not," observes Robinson, who has segued to a part-time position in Alumni Affairs and Development. "I just care about art. And art can come out visually—but it can also come out in poetry."

— Justin Min '11

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