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Los Altos Writers Roundtable

The Los Altos Writers Roundtable was the first group of poets in America devoted exclusively to the composition and study of English-language haiku. Helen Stiles Chenoweth established the writers’ group in Los Altos, California, as early as 1956. Fourteen of the women, all from the San Francisco Bay area, began serious study of haiku in 1964. The group’s 1966 collection, Borrowed Water, is believed to have been the earliest anthology of original English-language haiku.

As more and more people in America became aware of haiku, inevitably they became aware of one another as well. They began to meet to discuss their readings, debate haiku form and esthetics, and critique their own writings. American haiku was beginning to get organized. In 1956 Helen Stiles Chenoweth organized what is likely the first informal haiku discussion group in America, the Writers Roundtable of Los Altos, Calif., to foster creative writing, and for at least a decade members of the group studied and wrote haiku. The city of Los Altos is located in Santa Clara County California, 40 miles south of San Francisco, in what came to be known in the early 1970s as Silicon Valley .

In 1968 James E. Bull published a short article on the group, “Los Altos Writers Roundtable,” in his journal American Haiku. The following paragraphs are a paraphrase of Bull’s article.

According to Helen Chenoweth, the Roundtable was fashioned on the practice of Japanese haiku writers who held meetings in which the poets exchanged ideas, haiku, and criticism in a kind of round robin.

At each meeting; each writer was allowed to have five haiku criticized by each member of the class. She would provide a typed copy of each haiku for all members. Each poet had in her possession a list of 15 points “For Haiku Criticism,” a list that underwent several revisions since the group began its study:

  1. Avoid prose statement.
  2. Avoid “pat” ideas.
  3. Avoid the subjective—I, Me, Mine.
  4. Avoid Beauty … Sadness … Cruelty.
  5. Avoid explanation.
  6. Avoid vague pictures of experience.
  7. Avoid a clutter of subjects (objects).
  8. Use American subjects.
  9. Shift lines for contrast.
  10. Avoid editorializing.
  11. Avoid senryu.
  12. Avoid “telegrammic” expression.
  13. Avoid deliberate rhyme.
  14. Try imagery, contrast.
  15. Employ intuitive means.

Bull said this about the checklist: As presented, the “Haiku Criticism” list would be but an approximate guide for others, for it is not given as it was transmitted to the author. It had been reworded to set thoughts in parallel. Consequently, many of the points had been given prescriptive, negative form. Bull thought this was unfortunate, but without direct discussion (over an extended period), unavoidable. Further, group leader Chenoweth stressed that whereas its list had meaning for the Roundtable, each group had to develop its own list to meet its own needs and peculiarities.

The group discovered that it could consider three to five haiku by each poet in a two-hour session, using its “Haiku Criticism” method and discussing such things as form, arrangement, idea, and diction for each haiku. After the meeting, the poet would revise her haiku, following suggestions (based on group consensus), with the proviso that the poet herself was to be the final judge of her own work.

The Roundtable met throughout the year, and when conditions permitted, as often as twice weekly. All members had an equal voice in discussion, without regard to age, education, or experience.

Cover of Borrowed Water (1966)

A sampling of haiku by the members of the Los Altos Writers Roundtable was included in their 1966 anthology, Borrowed Water, brought out by the prominent publisher of Asian-related works, Charles E. Tuttle. The table below presents one haiku of each named group member taken from the collection.

A crescent moon
     is bent on following the boat
          around the small pond.
Helen Stiles Chenoweth

Look! one moonbeam,
     caught below the water’s surface,
          has not dulled one bit …
Hilda Aarons

Hoarfrost, hot coffee
     and glint of amber honey—
           did they reach the moon?
Madeline Beattie

Kids used to call him
     “the old jelly man”
          the one with the jack-hammer.
Margot Bollock

Fragile green-winged bug
     nestled deep in rose petals—
          do you feel the sun?
Peggy Card

That flash of gold flame—
     was it just a wind-swept leaf
          or an oriole?
Rosemary R. Jeffords

Summer’s hot playtime—
     child’s view of weeping cedar—
          hidden toys, secrets! 
Barbara Ogden Moraw

A small flower grows
     where decisions met and died
          on top of brave dreams.
Violet M. Parks

The book lies open—
     words are clearly printed
          but an unknown tongue.
Catherine Neil Paton

From the infinite—
     when the estoppel of thought
          is reached, comes the haiku? 
Ann Rutherford

Cold-street memory,
     buying hot peanuts in shells
          from lamp-lit pushcart.
Joy L. Shieman

The church bells tolling,
     calling people to worship—
          old man goes fishing.
Jerri Spinelli

Seedlings in the ground
     and snows from the Sierra
          in my sprinkling can.
Georgian Tashjian

Over the period 1964–68, the Roundtable worked out its program of haiku study. Its next project was to have been a group haibun, but it is not certain that the project ever bore fruit. In 1968 the members were engaged in a study of Issa’s The Year of My Life and Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. After thorough study of Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translations of Bashō and Issa, the Roundtable planned a visit to Montalvo [the large estate, park, and cultural center in Saratoga, California], in order to gather material for its haibun.

The history of the Los Altos Writers Roundtable after publication of the anthology is not clear, but Bull notes that the group was still very active in 1968. Helen Chenoweth was actively publishing in the haiku journals until 1978; she died in 1987.

Adapted from James E. Bull, “Los Altos Writers Roundtable”

Sources / Further Reading

  • “Borrowed Water, by the Los Altos Writers Roundtable, edited by Helen Stiles Chenoweth.” American Haiku 4.2 (1966), 41. Brief review.
  • “Borrowed Water, by the Los Altos Writers Roundtable, edited by Helen Stiles Chenoweth.” American Haiku 5:2 (1967), 61. Review.
  • Bull, James E. “Los Altos Writers Roundtable.” American Haiku 6:2 (May 1968), 7–8. The entire issue of American Haiku has been digitized and can be found at https://mineralpointlibraryarchives.org/omeka/files/original/7e22d3f6623ae86e20d1cce0c174aa71.pdf.
  • Chenoweth, Helen Stiles. Pageant of Seasons: A Collection of American Haiku. Illustrations by Jacqueline Blake. Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1970. Full text available in PDF format on The Haiku Foundation website: https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/5368.
  • Hadman, Ty. “Helen Styles Chenoweth: Poet Profile.” AHA Poetry website: https://www.ahapoetry.com/PP900..htm; posted January 20, 2012. 
  • Los Altos Writers Roundtable. Borrowed Water: A Book of American Haiku. Edited by Helen Stiles Chenoweth. Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966 and 1970.
  • Matsuo Bashō. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Translated and with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa. London: Penguin Books, 1966.
  • Yuasa, Nobuyuki, trans. The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa’s Oraga Haru. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1960.
Updated on October 17, 2023