A Journal of Friends

Not previously published. Originally written in January of 2023.

“Only connect” —E. M. Forster

One of the virtues of Woodnotes over its entire nine years was that it was eminently readable. By this I mean that it was a relatively thin journal, even when it reached 56 pages, which helped with its accessibility. Journals such as Frogpond and Modern Haiku are 100+ and even 200+ pages at times, and other journals top 80 or 100 pages, and some online journals are longer. They can easily feel too long to read, often requiring a significant commitment. But even at its longest, Woodnotes was manageable, with varieties of content that renewed one’s energy while reading. Other journals have sections, too, but often larger, and Woodnotes found a sweet spot of readability and rich content, where one could enjoy fine poems without being overwhelmed, gather news, celebrate contest results, learn through one or two short essays, and discover books of interest. Each issue had appetizers, one or two main courses (the poems being one of them), and a dessert, making for a satisfying meal—with occasional surprises.

Ultimately, Woodnotes was a mutual sharing and development of a literary life. Its regional focus also helped to celebrate the community from within even while broadcasting that news to an increasingly wider readership. Woodnotes was also a record of a flowering, the emergence of an influential confluence of talented poets. Ultimately, the content represented a community, and Woodnotes was the conduit that connected subscribers, members, and friends to each other. That was the key boost to its readability—you were mostly reading the work of friends. Even as Woodnotes grew in page count and number of poems (reaching, I think, around 350 subscribers by the end, growing well beyond its California base), it seemed to maintain supportive connections and a warm sense of community.

In a way, the entire worldwide haiku community is still like this, which is why the biennial Haiku North America anthologies have always arranged poems by each poet’s first name, to point out that we’re still all on a first-name basis—or at least that we cling to this desire. This is still true compared to worldwide communities built around other passions people may have, such as tennis or bridge or oil painting, but with the advent of the Internet and social media, even the haiku community has grown and we’re losing that first-name interconnection. The journals grow larger and larger, and even the number of journals is increasingly hard to keep up with, not even counting ones that come and go like fireflies. In one sense this is a positive trend, indicating growth and engagement by a seemingly increasing volume of people who appreciate haiku poetry. But in another sense, something is lost in certain haiku journals, or at least waning, which may be a sense of community, of belonging, of intimacy.

Something worth mentioning about the success of Woodnotes is the sequencing of poems. Poems were never just arranged alphabetically, although there’s a democratic value to that, and it may make the work of publishing each issue of a journal simpler for editors. But Woodnotes took care in sequencing the poems, usually starting with the current season, where the poems spoke to each other in various ways, enhancing each other. Indeed, the nature of sequencing asked readers to peruse the poems with an awareness of interconnection, not just as individual expressions but as poems that propped each other up, the way we did as friends. I don’t remember how we sequenced poems in the earlier issues, but in later issues this was a task I did, related to the process of layout, thinking about which poems to place together on a page, and which poems to place on the opposite page, creating enjoyable flows of poetry. In some issues or at least on some pages the poems appeared in straight lines, but in other issues I varied that arrangement, sometimes to accommodate artwork. This was another aspect of the journal’s success that’s easy to overlook. The sequencing of the poems made each poem not just facelessly alphabetical. Instead, the careful arrangement of haiku and senryu created a larger concerto, connecting each poem to the next, subtly adding to a sense of community, boosting intimacy.

Haiku is indeed an intimate sort of poetry, and a poetry of vulnerability, where the act of sharing a poem says that something matters to the writer and asks the unspoken question of whether the same moment of experience matters to the reader. It’s harder to do that in a journal where you hardly know a lot of the poets. If we read each poem as a moment of vulnerability, not because of whatever the subject might be but simply because of the act of sharing, we can remind ourselves that haiku is a very personal and intimate sort of communication. That can be done one poem at a time even in the largest haiku journals, and even for other kinds of poetry, but with Woodnotes, its major strengths were the talent, pride, and self-esteem of its community, its relatively small size, and the journals power to connect. Woodnotes was a journal of friends.

Photos from the Haiku Poets of Northern California website.