Hamish Downie’s Five Questions with Preston Keido Houser

Editor Note: Hamish has another in his series of Five Questions With…

Hamish came up with this idea because he was accumulating too much material for his Famous News Sushi column and asked if he could do these mini-interviews. Why would we say no?

Thank you Hamish for being such a trooper for us. We really appreciate all for your hard work.

Let us know what you think of these interviews in the comments below.

TGG: Following from Jann Williams, we have another member of Writers in Kyoto, and I’m sure everyone is going to love this interview as much as Jann’s. So, without further ado, could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

PKH: Preston Keido Houser. The Keido in the middle is my geime or shihanme—the name I acquired when I received my shakuhachi master’s license many years ago. I was born in Kansas but grew up in the SF Bay Area. San Francisco in the late 60s seemed to be another planet and I embraced that whole cultural zeitgeist. I suppose it shows. 1970s America, on the other hand, was a reversion of sorts, a return to 50s repression. By 1980, Ronald Reagan had been elected POTUS, John Lennon had been murdered, the Vietnam War had morphed into endless war, I arrived in Japan soon after.

TGG: Could you tell us about your latest Poetry Collection, “Headlines:: Twenty Four Villanelles”?

PKH: Headlines is a collection of villanelles, self published via Kindle Direct Pub. My initial purpose is to simply get the poetry out there as a kind purgative substance. I think we need all the help we can get these days to lessen evil and heighten general courtesy. I chose the lowest price possible, about as much as a cup of coffee but hopefully with a stimulating rush of longer duration. The title refers to a reading style currently in vogue: something akin to skimming or scanning but less. For example, readers tend to read the headline without continuing on to the essay or perhaps like someone who goes to YouTube and looks at all the titles but doesn’t actually watch anything (filmmakers must be going mad these days). I would like to build upon if not reverse this trend: each line of my poems acts, I hope, as a kind of headline: readers are free to make necessary connections and segues in order to bring a sense of “sense” to the verse as a whole. Ironically, within a strict western poetic form I try to bring an Buddhist/Taoist perspective—nothing new if you like Keats and Shelley. At the end of each villanelle I hope a synergistic, if not synchronistic, experience can be had.

TGG: This is your second collection of villanelles, what inspires you about this poetry form?

PKH: As an English Literature major in college (my Ph.D. dissertation was on Christopher Marlowe and the advent of subversive discourse which was an examination of how taboo topics are introduced into the general collective cultural conversation usually through art) I studied literature from Beowulf and the Caedmon Hymn all the way to the Beats and Post-Modernism, stopping along the way at Chaucer, Early Modern, Romantics, Victorians, and high Modernism—that’s what a doctorate in lit means.

The villanelle form appeals to me, I think, because of its lyrical element. In the early 60s I was a fan of the singer-songwriters: Bob Dylan of course but also Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs, et al. For a while there I even toyed with the idea of writing song lyrics for others (like Robert Hunter or Bernie Taupin) but it didn’t seem to take. Then, I wrote my own songs which are easily forgettable. I liked the idea of a refrain which underscores the gist of the lyric and which invites oral rendition and the villanelle with its repeating lines seems to do that. Villanelle topics are traditionally “obsessive,” meaning political, social, philosophic rather than personal or psychological, so I hope readers will be able to connect on a more social level instead of with me as an ordinary individual.

Ideally, I might even brazenly suggest that readers read one of my villanelles a day out loud to get a feeling of what I’m driving at in each poem. Besides the strict format, I realize that my poetry can be rather dense and includes numerous ulterior references (I like to give readers something they can sink their teeth into) but I would hope that the form will resonate within and without the reader, and not scare them off. Hard to explain in an interview format like this but I think people will get the idea if they do it (where have I heard that before?).

TGG: Poetry is really meant to be read out loud, so I agree with you! So, as a long-term resident and member of Writers in Kyoto, could you tell us what inspires you about the city?

PKH: All this time I’ve had a parallel life as a musician, classical, jazz, rock. I played rock music during college and for some years after. Rock music, after all, is a pretty broad field, so much is included—blues, gospel, jazz, reggae, country—that it’s difficult to think of anything that’s excluded. Also, along with literature, I was studying Asian arts, Chinese and Japanese literature, Buddhism, etc. so when I arrived at a transitional point in my life everything seem to convene in the arts of the komuso monks who practiced suizen, a blowing meditation (the komuso are usually portrayed as bamboo flute players with large baskets over their heads as a way of depersonalizing the art form). For me, the shakuhachi repertoire is a wider field than rock music, so much more is included, so that was a natural transition for me. Since 1981, I have been lucky enough to study with the Mujuan Shakuhachi Dojo under the leadership of master Kurahashi Yodo II. The shakuhachi tradition seems to embody a self-contained, artistic, meditative, energetic, dare I say religious, way of life. That’s a roundabout way of answering the question of what Kyoto means to me: it means that, a broad inclusive field.

TGG: How can we best support you? (do you have a website? Where can we buy your books? Are you on social media?)

PKH: Frankly, I think the question should be reversed: How can I support y’all? Unfortunately, all recitals have been cancelled this year so not much happening on the concert stage. A decade ago I tried producing music podcasts and actually did one a week for a year. I think they are still available and downloadable at Kyoto Meditations (https://keidokyoto.wordpress.com/). Hopefully the music remains timeless. Help yourself. For years, I wrote for Kansai Time Out and Kyoto Journal—lots of output. These days I publish occasionally on the Writers in Kyoto website (John Dougill and Jann Williams have been very generous with their time, space, and expertise). Other than that, I’m afraid I don’t understand social media. Thanks for listening or rather reading!

My three books, Headlines, Twenty Villanelles, and Invitation to Tea Gardens are available at Amazon:




WiK website: https://www.writersinkyoto.com/

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