An Open Letter to the Haiku Society of America Membership and Literary Citizens

One of the defining characteristics of my fiance and partner Aubrie has been her commitment, passion, and love of haiku. From the poetry she has created to the community she has been an active participant, haiku and its family of forms is at the core of her creative being. In the short time we have been together, I have had the privilege to watch her be a tireless ambassador for the form and community: inspiring students by empowering their writing voice; sharing her work and scholarship in cafes and classrooms; actively looking for opportunities to connect haiku with the larger writing community.  When she took on the Managing Editor position at Frogpond, the flagship journal for The Haiku Society of America, she felt that all of those hours spent dedicated to the craft had lead her to her dream publishing position. She couldn’t have been happier and I couldn’t have been prouder.

So much happens in a year.

This morning when I watched her consider her future with Frogpond at our kitchen table, I saw someone who not only was ready let her “dream gig” go, but was ready to walk away from a community that has been central to who she is as a writer.  The last twenty-four hours have been difficult to watch, but even harder to remain silent about.  I have not been engaged in a conversation publicly about The HSA Executive Committee--those elected to represent the haiku community--out of respect and love for my partner. But it is out of respect and love for Aubrie that I’m writing these thoughts down, because it’s time to have an honest conversation about illness, personal well being, and what insensitivity looks like from a leadership chosen to represent a membership.

For those of you who don’t know, Aubrie suffers from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and fibromyalgia. EDS is a collection of heritable connective tissue disorders. It is thought to affect the collagen the body produces which can lead to a multitude of systemic issues: from hypermobile joints to susceptibility of wounding/poor wound healing to debilitating musculoskeletal pain to vascular (arterial/intestinal/uterine) fragility or rupture. EDS is often considered an invisible illness since those who have it seem healthy and do not have any external indications of disability. While Aubrie hasn’t ever hidden her diagnosis, she has never been one to draw attention to it as well. Her fear of living with EDS is a realistic one: simply put, she doesn’t want to be defined by her diagnosis. Aubrie is afraid that people will be quick to respond to how EDS can limit her; that due to her illness she is somehow less capable, and subsequently, somehow less of a person. Instead of using EDS as an excuse, she works harder. She gets up earlier. She does her damnedest to take care of herself in order to ensure you see Aubrie and not EDS.  Unfortunately, EDS also feeds off of stress and fatigue, so the harder she pushes herself, the more tired she gets, the more EDS pushes back.  I’ve spent too many weekends by her side trying to make sure she takes better care of herself, that she rests up.

Between starting a new life in Philadelphia and returning to graduate school, Aubrie’s EDS has been relentless. It affected her productivity with not only her own work but with the publication schedule with Frogpond. While the journal was already in the process of modifying its production calendar (part of a process which happens with each new editorial change), it became abundantly clear that expectation and communication between the board and the community it represents were as much at cross purposes as EDS was with Aubrie’s day to day schedule. After a lot of long drives and quiet nights on the couch, she had decided to step down from Frogpond as Managing Editor. She felt as if the journal needed someone who could be committed to it in a way that both her schedule and health were not going to permit her to be. For once, Aubrie was putting her well being first. It was difficult to watch.

But not as difficult to watch as the aftermath to last night’s HSA Executive Committee conference call. Aubrie had notified the EC of her decision to step down over ten days prior to the planned phone conference. Instead of discussing strategies for transition--or more importantly checking in to see if Aubrie was feeling well--for the most part the EC said nothing. There were a few boilerplate acknowledgements about her health, but above all… silence. They waited until a conference call over a week later to address the situation. 

And the way they addressed the situation: for nearly a half-hour, the HSA Executive Committee (with the exception of Randy Brooks and Patricia Machmiller who were not a part of the phone conversation) criticized, chided, and lectured Aubrie on the importance of the journal’s production and delivery. Rather than extending a helping hand to Aubrie--one of THEIR OWN MEMBERS--they felt it was their prerogative to express their lack of confidence in Aubrie’s work. Suddenly, the EC was in crisis mode, but instead of addressing strategies for transition (a conversation which had already begun between Aubrie and EC President Fay Aoyagi), they felt it would be more beneficial to gang up on Aubrie and read her the riot act. At no point did any member of the EC address her physical health in terms of her choice to step down. The very thing Aubrie has been afraid of when talking about her EDS diagnosis came to fruition in the most appalling, self-serving, and ignorant way imaginable. It wasn’t until Mike Montreuil finally righted the discussion a good half hour later that the board actually began talking about how they could help.

These are the people the members of the Haiku Society of America have chosen to represent them--a group who has put its “subscribers” over the health and welfare of one of its members.  Granted, I am sure the haiku community did not cast its vote with this type of representation in mind, nor am I saying the EC is comprised of monsters or people with malice in their hearts. What I am saying is that ignorance is the seed of ill intentions and if you are in position of power, your actions and accountability are to be held in check by the membership. That personal accountability is why Aubrie has chosen to step down, but where else has that same accountability been represented by the remainder of the EC in last night’s meeting?

As someone who has more of a footing in the mainstream literary community than the haiku community, I know that there is a sense from a segment of the haiku world that they live in a vacuum--that the academy or the mainstream is either unaware or uninterested in what the HSA and its constituents produce, promote, or represent. Ultimately, deep down, you know that’s untrue. It’s a falsehood simply because we are never members of just one community. Regardless of that debate, it should be made abundantly clear that membership and identity in any community--how small or large or multiple--means there is a level of responsibility to one another. Further, if there is a sense that your community is invisible and subsequently immune/insulated to those problems which arise in a larger world, your ignorance is multiplied tenfold. The Association of Writing and Writing Programs and its membership, with all of its factions and debates and controversies, would not stand for its representative organizational body to be so insensitive to its membership.  Nor will the HSA members.

The bigger takeaway isn’t whether or not Aubrie is staying with Frogpond; she isn’t. Nor is it a discussion about whether or not there were issues with Frogpond’s production calendar; there were. Nor is it whether or not Frogpond will be in the hands of its subscribers and readers; it will. The larger conversation which needs to happen is how are we--as members of our communities--respond to one another, and to those whose illnesses/disabilities aren’t adorned with physical reminders. For me, it’s easy. I am planning on spending the rest of my life with someone who lives with a chronic illness. There will be days more trying than others, and more rewarding than many I could count in any tome or collection of verses.  I will make mistakes, lack patience, be selfish, fuck up, but I will keep trying and ultimately hope that Aubrie is as equally forgiving as I am cumbersome. We will work on it, together, and hopefully we will be working on it right next to you.

Best,

Jim Warner