Reflections Unedited, summer, 2010
Editing a haiku journal is not the glamorous occupation that some may envisage. There’s the constant weight of obligation, represented concretely by the envelope-heaped In-box (or ever-increasing pile of unread email submissions) that stands between you and a respectable response time. Then, in processing those submissions, there are the hours spent crafting constructive rejections for authors who may not care what you think, might bridle at such a show of “condescension,” or who may even take the time to send you an expletive-laden screed by way of thanks—you continue anyway, in hopes of reaching that handful of others who are working at their craft in relative ignorance of the contemporary conception of the genre and/or who are just a few gentle suggestions from blossoming into valued contributors. (I’ve heard enough stories of individuals who said that a single editor made a complete difference in their embrace of haiku that I could never give up on this time-consuming correspondence, even though the lure of form rejections could be overwhelming.) Then there’s the task of ordering the final selection of poems; some larger journals necessarily fall to external ordering, as by author, lest this job become unworkable, but for smaller journals, there can be a huge value added by way of placing poems next to each other in such a way that (a) they recreate for the reader the same sensation that made them noteworthy to the editor, and (b) there’s room for additional resonances by the movement from one scene and sensibility to the next, without awkward repetitions, unfortunate readings, or jarring shifts. This is an art that nobody teaches—although work with renku might prepare one for a way of thinking about pacing—and yet it can very much affect the overall perception of any given issue, taken as a complete volume, and of each poem when first encountered.
The final edited journals are where the satisfaction lies—quality poems (or other content) on board, ordering decided, layout working, all ready to go out the door. Here, too, there’s less glamor than some submitters seem to think: most mailings involve late nights stuffing envelopes in front of the TV, and most journals barely make enough money to break even. But a range of dedicated editors are willing to put up with all of the hassles and costs because they feel that they are doing something valuable, promoting the haiku genre, showcasing good work (according to their vision of what the form currently is or perhaps where it might be headed), advancing scholarship in some way, shaping the contemporary conception of haiku. Different journals have different strengths and visions, but I think that all of them have some subset of these underlying goals.
However, working so constantly like this on the “front lines” of haiku has a range of personal costs that may catch new editors by surprise. For example, after hours per week of sifting submissions and suggesting edits, it becomes hard to partake of haiku “recreationally.” In my case, this disaffection took three main forms: (1) I was no longer able to participate fully in an online “kukai” discussion group that I used to greatly enjoy; I just didn’t have more hours in the week to analyze the haiku of other writers, whether offering criticism or kudos, and added email just felt like another burdensome obligation, rather than a source of fun and comradery. (2) My reading of journals fell close to zero. I now have a drawer filled with unread back issues of Frogpond and Modern Haiku, two journals that I used to devour within days of tearing them open. And I virtually never look at haiku content, edited or otherwise, online. (3) My own writing, never very high in output, fell to barely tangible. Further, I stopped being able to think constructively about my own work. At one time, long ago, I spent time playing with ways of structuring a poem, whether it was thinking about the number of beats per line, or changing line order to create varied approaches to the content; over time, I felt lucky if I perceived a “haiku moment” among my busy days and was able to get it down on paper, with little chance that I’d be tweaking and massaging it any further, and the lack of input from other writers means my craft feels a bit stale. Additionally, I rarely remembered to submit to journals on a regular basis, when dealing with my own deadlines, losing another possible source of feedback on my work.
So what has it been like to step aside as Acorn’s editor? Well, first, I feel I was very lucky that timing and circumstances combined to allow me to hand the journal off into the hands of a writer and editor that I much admire. So from the point of view of leaving a legacy, and of continuing to have an influence over the development of English-language haiku, I feel a reflected pride from the issues that Carolyn Hall has put together. Because our transition was gradual (first editorial, then production, website, etc.), Issue #24 (spring, 2010) was the first issue that came to me without my having seen the po- ems or final layout in any context, and I had the added benefit of reading it while on a vacation in the woods—I actually got to read the whole journal at one sitting, and it struck me as a wonderful issue, full of gems, and made clear that “my baby” is in good hands. That is truly a good fortune both for me and for fans of the journal.
However, in terms of my own reading and writing, I haven’t found myself coming back to the haiku world the way that I imagined (or that I have seen for other editors as their terms expire). This is mainly because I have a toddler at home, who appears capable of absorbing most of the time and energy that her parents have available! Many of my previous hobbies and causes have fallen alarmingly by the wayside, and I now imagine that it will be a few years before there will be space in my head and time in my day to pick any of them back up. (Nobody can really prepare you in advance for the all-absorbing nature of parenthood!)
I rarely get to read anything, and when I do, it tends to be the sort of fiction that gives my brain a rest from daily life and leads it on diverting adventures. Additionally, since my own writing of haiku has tended to come from a place of solitude and receptiveness, rather than from going in search of ideas or making writing a discipline, it has been particularly susceptible to a jump in the busy-ness of my head and the crowding of my days, and thus is not likely to be quick to recover.
And yet, the pull of haiku has not slipped away from me. I have a Twitter account, and gradually, in addition to friends and political wags, I’ve found myself adding philosophers and poetically minded posters whose awareness meshes well with a haiku way of looking at the world. Taking my daughter to the playground has also given me occasional stretches of stillness in which I have reconnected with the sparrows and trees that have often mediated for me the changing seasons and other parts of the natural world that pull us out of our heads and into awareness of the moment. And I still think of myself as a haijin, however wearied by 5–7–5 Internet doggerel and heaps of eccentric poetry submissions, so I suspect that this genre will continue to represent for me a way of capturing the world around me and my relation to it. But it may be some time before I find myself the eager reader of journals, attender of workshops, and writer of recognizeable poems that I once was—I just hope that the time is measured in years and not decades! Meantime, my gratitude goes to those continuing to do the hard work of producing the journals that keep us all connected, and my best wishes to everybody exploring this genre and attempting to master its subtleties and keep a balance in their own daily lives.