Stevenson writes: Beginning in April 2000, I worked with Bob
Spiess on a project that was originally intended to be a selected
works and biography. I found Bob a somewhat reluctant subject
for the biography. His natural modesty, combined with doubts
about whether his story was interesting and a disinclination
to comment on others, made for slow progress. What was producedthe
following autobiographical sketchimparts Bobs personal
style and at least some of his story.]
the request of John Stevenson, who thought that there might be
some interest among haiku poets in aspects of my life, I shall
set forth, with trepidation, a sort of autobiography, beginning
with some information about my grandparents.
mothers forebears were of Dutch heritage and had been in
the United States for several generations. My maternal grandmother
died before I was born. She had been a homemaker. My grandfather
had an interior decorating business, with a store on Milwaukees
main street, Grand Avenue, later renamed Wisconsin Avenue. I recall
that he drove a Whippet automobile and that at his funeral one
of the musical selections was Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.
the paternal side my grandfather was of Germanic extraction, and
my grandmother of Bohemian. As a married couple they came to the
U.S. in the early or mid-1890s. They lived in the south-central
Wisconsin town of Waterloo, where my father was born. Grandfather,
who was a good letter writer, began to manufacture pearl buttons
from the nacreous lining of freshwater mussels. This business
thrived enough for him to be able to have an employee, but for
most of his working life he owned a grocery store. He liked to
play cards. I was well acquainted with these grandparents, as
I would be at their large house in Waterloo during part of my
summers. Grandmother was an excellent preparer of meals. When
they retired from business and moved to Milwaukee, I frequently
visited them. Grandmother lived to be nearly 101 years of age.
Upon her 100th birthday anniversary she received a congratulatory
letter from Pres. Lyndon Johnson.
mother, Myrtle, was the last of seven children, and my father,
Oscar, the second of six. In temperament they were surprisingly
different. She was of a quiet, introversive, and somewhat aesthetic
nature and played the piano, while Dad was very outgoing and gregarious.
Most of his career was as a sales representative, mainly for Miller
Brewing Company in Milwaukee, the city in which I was born, in
a hospital, on October 16, 1921, at 2:00 a.m., an only child.
had a vast fund of jokes and sometimes played gentle practical
jokes. One time when fried eggs were part of breakfast, and my
mother had temporarily returned to the kitchen, he quickly cut
out the yolk of her egg and replaced it with one of the canned
apricot halves that were in a dish on the table! After a couple
moments of mothers perplexity, there was general hilarity.
was interested in and adept at several sports and played semi-professional
baseball. He enlisted in the navy during World War I and though
holding the rank of yeoman his real job was as manager of the
Great Lakes Naval Training Stations baseball team. He was
a good bowler and excellent pool and billiards player. In an undated
clipping from the Milwaukee Sentinel that I found among family
photographs, it states, Oscar Spies won the title of Milwaukee
city pocket billiard champion on New Years Day in 1917,
and up to the present time has never been defeated in twenty championship
games played in defense of his title. I was too young to
see him play championship games, but in later years often saw
him play and perform various trick shots. He also was a sharp
card player. Later he took up golf which he taught me and which
was my main sport for many years. I also played a bit of tennis.
Afterwards I purchased a small sailboat that I had for ten years,
then a canoe, and later also a kayak.
mother and father were both high school graduates, and Dad also
attended business school. I was educated in the Milwaukee public
schools, where in high school I became interested in poetry due
in part to a fine English teacher. I also had a wonderful Latin
teacher and consequently took that subject for four years: Caesars
Gallic Wars as a sophomore, Ciceros Orations
as a junior and Virgils Aeneid in my senior year. I did
not engage in extracurricular activities because I had a newspaper
delivery route in the afternoons.
graduation from high school I matriculated at the University of
Wisconsin, in Milwaukee, in 1939. Although my father paid for
my tuition I provided for my books and incidentals by driving
a light delivery truck for a janitorial supply company for a couple
of hours a day and on Saturdays. My university career was interrupted
midway by World War II. Upon being drafted I was trained as a
cryptographer (to be distinguished from a cryptanalyst, who breaks
codes and ciphers). I served in what was then the Army Air Force
and was posted to Christmas Island, the largest atoll in the Pacific,
about 220 square miles, including the large lagoon. When I was
there, its indigenous population was coconut palms and large land
crabs that ate fallen coconuts. There I met Eleanor Roosevelt,
who was visiting the troops on various Pacific Islands. At breakfast
she happened to sit at the table where I was eating. I do not
recall that there was any serious conversation that occurred,
just the exchange of pleasantries. I suppose that those of us
at the table were a bit overawed by the presence of the first
lady. As I was on duty that day, I encrypted a top-secret message
that was sent by radio (as all our messages were) to the next
island she was to visit.
a year or so on Christmas Island in 194344 I went to the
Hawaiian Islands for a few months and then embarked on a troop
shipdestination unknown. On the way our convoy was attacked
in the Western Pacific by five suicide mini-submarines. We put
on our Mae Wests (life jackets) and went topside until the battle
was concluded by the couple of destroyer escorts our convoy had.
We lost a few ships, including a tanker, and apparently sank three
of the submarines, although the others, too, would probably have
been flooded by their two-man suicide crews.
we landed on Leyte Island in the Philippines by wading through
the surf. In addition to carrying two large barracks bags and
a carbine, I also was lugging a medium-size suitcase filled with
books, a Websters Collegiate Dictionary, a complete Shakespeare
and complete Keats and Shelley, other books plus texts for a course
in psychology I was taking by correspondence from the University
of Wisconsin. During my three and a quarter years of service I
earned eight credits.
leaving the U.S. we had received overseas training, which included
use of the gas mask: taking it off and putting it on in a very
dimly lit tent filled with tear gas. We also learned the odors
of various poison gases, such as mustard gas, hydrogen cyanide
(bitter almonds), and phosgene, the odor of which is described
as that of new-mown or musty hay.
One rainy (as usual in Leyte) night I was asleep in a squad tent
on my cot under a mosquito net, with my head toward the vertical
lower wall of the tent. Some time in the night I awoke and for
a moment did not know why. Then I realized I was breathing the
almost suffocating odor of new mown hay. This is it!
I thought. In the dark Ill never be able to get out of the
mosquito net, take the gas mask slung on the side of the cot (the
carbine was slung on the other side) from its canvas covering
and get it on. Then I heard a breathy sound behind my head and,
turning, was just able to make out, with only the mosquito net
between us, the head of a cow. In order to get somewhat out of
the rain, she had pushed her head and neck under the loose side
of the tent and, while chewing her cud, was breathing on my face.
Lucky for me I had not had presence of mind enough to shout GAS
and wake the other eleven fellows in the tent!
my service I managed to become a staff sergeant, and after discharge
in October 1945, I returned to the University of Wisconsinthis
time in Madisonin February 1946. I earned a B.S. degree
in June 1947 with a major in botany and near-major in English.
I continued for another year and got an M.S. with a major in vocational
guidance. At graduation ceremonies for the latter degree one of
the persons receiving an honorary doctorate was Duke Ellington.
(I do not recall any of the others!)
a six-month stint as a trainee for a casualty insurance company
I passed the written and oral examinations for employment interviewer
with the Wisconsin Civil Service. After a few years I became an
employment counselor, eventually specializing in law enforcement
positions, from entry level police officer, highway patrol trooper
and deputy sheriff, to sergeant, lieutenant, captain, assistant
police chief, chief of police, juvenile officer, detective, narcotic
investigator, etc. and various positions for fire departments.
I also served on oral examination boards for these positions.
Some of my work also included examinations for the Department
of Natural Resources for wardens, park rangers, foresters, fish
and game managers, biologists, etc.
employed, I saved all my yearly three weeks of vacation time for
winter, would select one place and stay there for the entire time.
I began by going to the Gulf Coast of Florida, then to the Keys
and Key West, sometimes returning to the same place for another
stay. Then I started visiting the Caribbean islands. First, pre-Castro
Cuba, where I stayed on the Isle of Pines off the west coast.
Hart Crane had lived there for a while, and I met persons who
had known him. I do not recall any particular details about him
that were told to me, but I met an elderly lady who had known
him and who kept a large snake in her attic to take care of roof
rats. I did see that boy whom Crane wrote about in one of his
poems, titled (I believe) The Idiot Boy. The boy was
grown by then, of course, but still went around wearing a couple
of holsters with toy guns in them.
I traveled to Puerto Ricos southeast coast a couple of times,
St. Croix, Anguilla, Nevis, Grenada, St. Vincent, Tobago, Roatán,
the Yucatan Peninsulaagain, some places more than once.
My book Five Caribbean Haibun resulted from these trips. Then
it was the Hawaiian Islands: Oahu, Hawaii, Maui (three times)
and Kauai (seven times). My only visit to Japan was in September
2000, to receive a Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Prize.
Much of my summer activity, in addition to sailing for many years,
involved canoeing, and later kayaking, which was instrumental
in my writing of many haiku.
interest in haiku probably started to some extent in the late
1930s and early 40s, and after the World War II hiatus,
especially in the late 40s when I began reading more of
the earlier translations of Japanese haiku. In the late 40s
and early 50s I acquired R.H. Blyths four volumes
of Haiku, which I still have, their pages brown and brittle.
From then on it was one translation after the other, and I became
hooked on haiku. My first haiku were published in 1949 by American
Poetry Magazine, at the time second in terms of length of
publication only to Poetry of Chicago, I believe, among
current magazines devoted solely to poetry. My haiku then were
strictly 575, with the first and last line rhyming,
à la Henderson, and with titles.
1963 I saw in a Madison bookstore the premier issue of American
Haiku, the first magazine to be devoted solely to English-language
haiku, edited and published by James Bull of the University of
Wisconsin, Platteville. I sent some of my haiku, and two were
published in the second issue and five in the third. By then I
had eliminated titles (American Haiku did not have them)
and although I still wrote in 575 not all of the haiku
had rhyme. With Volume II, Number 2, my essays and book reviews
Hoyt was editor and publisher of American Haiku for one
year (Volume II) out of Houston, Texas. I met Clem twice when
he came from Texas to Madison to have treatment at the University
Hospitals for minor skin cancer. In late 1964 or early 1965 I
went to Platteville and met Jim Bull, a professor of English at
the University there. He was not exactly a typical English professor,
perhaps a bit looser in his demeanor and attitudes. I had evening
dinner with him, his wife, Gayle, three growing children, and
two basset hounds (that did not dine at the table!). At this meeting
he asked me if I would become editor in charge of poetry for the
magazine, while he remained editor for the prose as well as the
publisher. My tenure began with Volume III, Number 1. Most of
our work was done by letter or telephone calls, with occasional
visits in person in Platteville or a few times in Madison.
In 1967 I designed O.M.B. Southards Marsh-grasses,
published by American Haiku, which had also published my
first book of haiku, The Herons Legs, in 1966. In
1968 Jim ceased publication of AH because of other commitments.
The following year Kay Titus Mormino founded Modern Haiku
in Los Angeles. In the first issue several of my haiku and a book
review (of John Willss Weathervanes) appeared. I
had ten haiku in the second issue, and beginning with Volume II,
Number 3, I became an associate editor assisting Kay mainly in
the selection of the poems for the issues. In Volume VIII, Number
3 (1977), the first of the series of my Speculations on
Haiku appeared. Kay began having severe physical problems,
and she requested me to assume the publishing and editing of Modern
Haiku out of Madison, and with Volume IX, Number 1 (1978)
this came to pass.
I no longer canoe and kayak (it gets me in the small of the back)
I walk and swim at an excellent athletic club. I live on the shore
of a creek (muddier than it was many years ago) at the point where
it flows into a large lake, Lake Mendota.
of my hours during the day, and not infrequently into the evening,
are devoted to the many scores of various activities that would
read rather like a shopping list were I to write them out. Since
I retired from my civil service position in January 1984, the
amount of work over the years in connection with Modern Haiku
my spare time I sometimes write haiku or senryu, occasionally
visit friends or have them over for an evening. I enjoy classical
music, do some exercises, or swim at the health club nearby. I
like to think I have a fairly good sense of humor, liking jokes
and funny stories. In reading newspapers, I turn first to the
from composing poetry, my fondest activity is reading: translations
of Japanese and Chinese poetry, science, easy philosophy, religion,
and a bit of psychology, and once in a while a highly recommended
novel. I subscribe to such magazines as Scientific American,
The Eastern Buddhist from Otani University, Kyoto (founded
by Daisetz T. Suzuki), Mother Jones, The Progressive,
and several nature and conservation magazines. At the time of
writing this (summer 2001) I have started reading H.H. the Dalai
Lamas Ethics for the New Millennium.
Perhaps apropos the above: I have adopted and help
support a Tibetan family in Dharamsala, India. The familys
three children attend one of the Tibetan childrens village
schools founded by H.H. the Dalai Lama. Pema, the father, is a
superb artist, especially in painting the intricate and detailed
traditional Tibetan-style thankas. I own one of these along with
two of his other paintings. Pema uses mineral pigments that he
grinds himself, including a rather good quantity of nearly pure
gold (I do not know if he grinds this himself). I met him once,
when he came to the United States under the sponsorship of a person
who had met him in Dharamsala.
do not recall any special aspects of my meetings with various
haiku personages, and also I generally prefer not to comment publicly
on my assessment of persons. I recall the psychological insight
that, to bring it up to the present, says, Roberts
idea of Elmer tells us more about Robert than it does about Elmer.
Stevenson concludes: From my final contacts with Bob, and from
those of some others subsequently reported to me, it seems clear
that he hoped I would carry this biography project to its conclusion.
In order to do this, I will need your help. Please send your
memories, impressions, comments and thoughts about Bob Spiess
to me at PO Box 122, Nassau, NY 12123.]
by Robert Spiess
Herons Legs. Platteville, Wis.: American Haiku, 1966.
Turtles Ears. Madison, Wis.: Wells Printing Co., 1971.
Caribbean Haibun. Madison, Wis.: Wells Printing Co., 1972.
Shape of Water. Madison, Wis.: Modern Haiku Press, 1982.
Bold Silverfish and Tall River Junction. Madison, Wis.:
Modern Haiku Press, 1986.
and Selected Speculations on Haiku. Madison, Wis.: Modern
Haiku Press, 1988.
Cottage of Wild Plum. Madison, Wis.: Modern Haiku Press,
Years Speculation on Haiku. Madison, Wis.: Modern
Haiku Press, 1995.
Madison, Wis.: Modern Haiku Press, 1997.
& the Halfwit [with Lee Gurga]. Madison, Wis.: Modern
Haiku Press, 1999.
Sticks and Pebbles. Madison, Wis.: Modern Haiku Press, 2001.