Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Poetry & Martial Arts: A Discussion of Parallels with Josh Stewart

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On Poetry & Martial Arts: A Discussion of Parallels with Josh Stewart

When I first started planning my Open Book WIR, I had originally wanted to write an article that articulated the parallels between two art forms that have been part of my life since I was a teenager, karate and poetry. Unfortunately, it proved difficult. Partially due to constantly relocating to new cities, and partially due to chronic back problems and a rapidly developing ‘Dad Bod,’ I haven’t been actively involved in martial arts training since 2007. So, considering myself somewhat of a “has been” now, I decided I would talk to someone who was still actively involved in both karate and poetry. I wanted to see if they shared similar experiences of the two art forms and whether or not they saw the same parallels. The following is a conversation I had with poet and martial arts instructor Josh Stewart.
BT: First of all, tell us about your martial arts history. When did you start training? What ranking have you achieved?
JS: Actually, this year marks my twentieth year in the martial arts. I started out in Karate after bouncing around a few different hobbies as a child. My parents insisted on having me try different things until I found something I really liked. I tried Karate and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t until I was in my teens that I really found my passion for it. At that time, it became a defining feature of my identity, and a lens through which I was able to see myself clearly for the first time. In terms of rank, I actually have second Dan in two different systems—the one I originally began training in as a child, and another that I was lucky enough to stumble across and found that it was exactly the wheel I’d been busy trying to reinvent.

BT: Tell us about your writing history. When did you begin writing and publishing? How did this come about? What are some of your publications?

JS: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but my memory of childhood isn’t all that great. Growing up, I always wanted to be a novelist. I began submitting my poetry, short stories, and even novels in university, and much to my surprise my poetry was what met with the most success. At that time, I had no real notion that not all publications are created equal. Over time, I refined my efforts. So far, I have two poetry chapbooks—one from Cactus Press on the theme of baseball, and a new one from Anstruther Press called Temptation as a Technical Difficulty, on the theme of temptation.

BT: Both poetry and martial arts take extreme dedication and endurance with a unique drive to “create” or “perfect,” yet both are often financially fruitless and very difficult to maintain while balancing a career, education, family, etc. Are there parallels between your drive to write and your drive to train? What keeps you going in both? Do they ever conflict with each other? (During my most intense years of training, I barely wrote a thing. Similarly, during my most prolific times as a writer I rarely find time for training.)
JS: I’d say that both involve a pursuit of the impossible—whether it’s trying to articulate an ineffable emotion or trying to execute a technique with the ideal body mechanics to achieve maximum result with minimum effort. Many find the impossibility of actually achieving what you strive for frustrating, but I think it just keeps both practices interesting. They’re both paths with no finite destination, and done well, both involve constant evolution. In both, the only failure is when you stop trying.
In that regard, I’d also say that both require a special kind of stubbornness. Progress can be quite slow, and often the results of the effort you put in don’t get seen until many years later. In our society of instant gratification, the kind of mindset it takes to endure in these arts is unlike many other pursuits. I think it underlines the importance of actually enjoying the art as an effort in and of itself, rather than merely enjoying the accomplishments.
The idea of form is very interesting in both. Karate’s traditional solo drills are called “Kata” which means “mould, shape, form, or template.” Contemporary poetry has of course largely moved away from form poems, but until quite recently, conforming to the conventions of the archetype while simultaneously forging something creative and unique was the essence of poetry. I think performing Kata is much the same in Karate.
The only way in which my martial arts and my writing conflict with one another is in terms of time. My writing career has definitely slowed considerably since Karate became my primary hobby. I usually teach or train three to five days a week, and exercise every day to keep myself in shape and manage the wear and tear that occurs after twenty years of doing this. I also keep a diary about every Karate class I attend or teach. On the other hand, now that I’m working full-time, I usually do creative writing about once or twice a week. My job is to teach English to Canadian newcomers, so I find that I don’t have any linguistic energy left on most days when I get home from work.

BT: Let’s discuss the concept of “the first book” and “the first black belt.” My instructors used to tell us that it is extremely rare that anyone actually obtains a black belt in a martial art. I’ve heard a wide range of statistics, ranging from 3/100 to 1/1000. Of course, once achieving a first degree black belt, we were also taught that it really means nothing except that you’re just now ready to start training. I’d argue the first book is similar; it’s merely an indication that you’re serious about writing and it’s a stepping-stone to a life long passion. However, when you first start writing, it feels like that first book or publication has impossible odds of becoming a reality. What do you think about these stats? How do these seemingly elusive goals inform the practice of your art form? Are they similar? Are they harmful or helpful, realistic or idealistic?

JS: I’ve heard a similar range of different statistics, all of which are impossible to verify. The reality is that anyone can buy a black belt online, open a school, and give out black belts after X amount of charges have been paid. I’ve had black belts from other schools come in that are comparable to beginners, and I’ve seen students from other places that meet the requirements of a higher rank in our system. There’s no established standard of what it means to be a black belt. That’s why videos of black belts being graded have gone viral in the martial arts world because of how obviously incompetent the practitioners are.
I’ve also seen a lot of people quit within a few years of receiving their black belts because they seem to think they’ve “finished” their martial arts study. In reality, there are seven Kyu ranks (coloured belts) and ten Dan ranks (black belt). Black belt is less than half-way up the totem pole! In Japan, black belt is treated as an intermediate level rank, but somehow in Western society it’s been distorted in pop culture into an ideal that has never fit the reality.
In terms of writing, that correlates to the idea that not all publications are created equal. There are lots of places that will publish just about anything, and then there are places that are very selective. Anyone can self-publish and then, technically, they have published a book. I’m certainly not saying that all self-published work is inherently bad, but at the same time, having a book published with a reputable, established press will instantly tell you something about the quality of the work.
In both cases, if someone tells you, “I just published a book” or “I just got my black belt”, asking “Where?” will tell you a lot about what that person has actually achieved.
Unfortunately, this lends itself to a certain amount of politics within both these pursuits. Martial arts, and even different styles within the same martial art, quite often regard one another with distain. In poetry, whom you associate with says a lot about which doors will open for you and which will stay shut. Sometimes those associations more than anything dictate what ranks you receive or how many publications you are offered. That’s part of the game, of course, but it just underlines the fact that the quality of work can’t be judged by the colour of the belt they wear or the length of their CV.
I think ultimately the value of achieving these elusive goals is only the value you put on the person bestowing them. I value my rank within Karate because I respect the immense talent and accomplishments of the person who gave me that rank, and I am humbled to be representing him as an instructor. Similarly, I’m proud of the two chapbooks I’ve published because I respect the exacting standards of the person who accepted them. If I’m fortunate enough to publish a full-length book in the future, I’d want it to be with a publisher whose contribution to the literary world is one I truly appreciate.

BT:Tell us a bit about the Poem and the Kata. Compare these two art forms.

JS: In most cases, I’d say a poem has inherently more freedom, in that the sequence of a kata and many of the principles that make its performance “correct” are dictated from the outset. On the other hand, a poem can be a much more creative endeavour. Often when I’m writing, I’m not sure what the criteria for success in that poem is until after I’m finished writing it and then I know what kind of poem I’m trying to write.
One definite similarity is in the process of Shu Ha Ri, which represents the three stages of learning in martial arts. Shu represents following tradition and the model of an instructor. Ha means to separate from tradition and experiment, which is a much more creative and individualistic stage of learning. The final stage of learning is Ri, which is where the practitioner can fuse the discoveries of the first two stages and transcend the limits of tradition, while simultaneously building on the base of those who came before.
Certainly as a younger writer, I imitated others I admired, or even just whatever poetry I was reading at the time, much more than I intended. Over time, I started experimenting more and finding my own voice. As cliché as that may be, I still find at times that it can be difficult some days to write without sounding like someone else. The great poets reach the last stage, in that they exist within the tradition of poetry and within the contemporary scene, but make unique contributions that could never have come from another person. The truly brilliant writers exist in those margins, both within the confines of the canon and totally outside all the boundaries.

BT: Both karate and writing are often solo, self-reflective acts that we do alone, yet at some point, whether we create a poem or perform a kata, we must present our work to an audience, whether that is an editor or sensei, reader or training partner/class. What are your thoughts on the relationship between these solo art forms that eventually necessitate an audience?

JS: The system of Karate that I train in is largely based on two-person flow drills to teach the practical applications of the solo practices, but I’d say that it’s absolutely true that most of the legwork is often done behind the scenes. Writing follows the same pathway, where the brunt of work is done well before an audience or editor ever sees it. Of course, there are those who read brand new pieces on open mics to get initial feedback, but generally speaking the poems that appear in the public realm have already been scrutinized, torn apart, and stitched back together again. However, the initial inspiration for a poem is usually, for me at least, a moment of true isolation. Even if there’s too much background noise it can interfere with the process.
It’s interesting to consider what the relationship is between these individual, isolating processes and then the process of sharing the result with others. While I’d like to say that I am wholly satisfied just doing the work that no one else sees, if that were true, I’d probably never submit to publishers or teach others in Karate. Because I actively pursue publishing my writing and I actively pursue sharing my training methods and techniques with others, I have to assume that there is a payoff that results from getting some sort of public verification of my efforts. Perhaps that’s merely the insecurity of the ego showing through, but maybe it’s more than that as well.
However, I’d also say that writing a poem or performing a kata for an audience usually smacks of inauthenticity. When the effort goes into worrying about how the work will be received by others, it shows. That requires the poet or martial artist to satisfy his or her own standards before those of others. In that regard, the journey always has to be inward first before it can be expressed outwardly.

BT:Whenever a writer gets interviewed, they are inevitably asked about their "process." I'm thinking about poems, how we initially write them, the slow and arduous steps to editing it line by line, reading it over and over thousands of times before it's finished, yet sometimes the initial inspiration to create that poem was on a whim, where we sat down, wrote it out, and were done until the editing process started. How does karate necessitate a process? How does it compare to the writing process?

JS:In Karate we frequently talk about the concept of “functional spontaneity,” which is where we deal with an attack effectively without previously knowing exactly what the assailant will do. Any particular encounter is random, but physical violence as a whole is actually quite predictable, in that there are habitual acts of violence that tend to reoccur. So, that moment of functional spontaneity happens because we’ve rehearsed various common situations so many times that you can then transcend the restraints of having a sequence or drill, and just deal with whatever you get. That’s the ultimate stage of mastery.
True moments of “creativity” are, I believe, a result of the same process. The practice, rehearsing, editing, etc. makes a moment of true creativity possible. When you see a poet who makes it look easy, it’s the same concept of functional spontaneity that gives that appearance. Because of the hours spent engaged in the process, you can wake up one day and suddenly it just seems to happen of its own accord.

BT:How do traditional martial artists view the rise in popularity of UFC? Does the literary world have a "UFC" equivalent?

JS: Actually, several years ago I wrote an article in Shotokan Karate Magazine that discussed the relationship between MMA and traditional Karate. I began the article with a discussion of Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, and the fact that feeling the need to justify the existence of poetry inadvertently verifies the question itself. I feel that traditional martial arts face the same question. The direct and unquestionable effectiveness of MMA is a threat to the overly ritualized, and in many cases arbitrary, criteria for success or skill in traditional Karate. That situation should sound familiar for many poets, I think. However, I see this as a challenge that traditional martial artists have to respond to by adapting their own methods, not by burying their head in the sand and justifying incongruous practices behind the veil of tradition.
If you ask ten classical martial arts teachers about their opinions of UFC, you’ll probably get ten different answers. There tends to be a criticism based on the lack of ethics and respect that these competitors have, but I feel like competition generally can lend itself to that kind of attitude. If you look at boxing or competitive traditional martial arts, you actually see a lot of the same politics, personal grudges, and poor behavior. Of course, this is a gross generalization. Some UFC fighters are great examples of sportsmanship and humility. Some traditional martial artists that preach discipline and universal respect don’t follow the principles they espouse.
Being overly critical of UFC or MMA also runs the risk of seeming overly defensive. Truth be told, traditional martial artists haven’t performed particularly well in that context, with a few notable exceptions. I use the success of UFC as an opportunity to balance my own practices with more contemporary ideas and training techniques. I teach many traditional practices, but I attempt to do so in a contemporary context. The founders of Karate, for example, didn’t have access to the same information that we have today. I can imagine that if they could have used YouTube in the 18th Century, they would have integrated a lot of the MMA practices you see today into their tradition.
I see UFC’s success and popularity as an opportunity to build on and improve our own practices. Luckily my instructor has trained in everything under the sun, so I have access to training outside the bounds of the typical restraints of our tradition. For example, one class that I run is a grappling and groundwork class—an area that you probably wouldn’t see at all in the vast majority of Karate clubs. Because we look at our practices from the perspective of self-defense rather than rule-bound sports, we need to know a bit of everything.
In the literary world, I can see spoken word or slam poets as a sort of equivalent to the UFC movement. They have the kind of mass appeal and accessibility that is similar to the appeal of UFC. The reaction of the classical “page poets” is also very similar, in that there is frequent criticism or dismissal of a movement that is clearly gathering followers and breaking into the mainstream. Secretly, I think both the classical poet and classical martial artist are jealous of the success of the spoken word artist’s and the UFC competitor’s popularity and acceptance from popular culture. Another parallel is that the traditionalists seem somewhat reluctant to learn from these newer practices. Whether you value the content or not, a slam performance is much more entertaining than the vast majority of traditional poetry readings; in slam, the performance is the point. Conversely, a lot of more traditional poets who write with energy and passion completely lack it when they read their work to an audience.
Lastly, I’d say there is pressure to choose sides. In poetry, there is social pressure to either be a page poet or a slam poet—few are both. The martial arts world is becoming similarly polarized, with the traditionalists on one side and the MMA group on the other. My hope is that in both people will realize that these are different methodologies to reach the same ultimate outcomes. I also believe that our practices, different though they may be, are stronger together than they are divided.
BT: Thanks very much for talking with us Josh. We really appreciate it! Readers, you can find training footage from Josh’s karate classes at the links below:

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.