I have a slightly different interview for you today. I am talking with Amy Losak, the daughter of the poet/author Sydell Rosenberg. Sydell taught public school and ESL. She was also a published writer. Although Sydell died in 1996, Amy kept alive her mother's dream to publish an alphabet haiku book. This picture book, H is for Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku from A to Z, released on April 10th this year.
Amy has graciously agreed to answer some questions about her mother, their shared love of poetry (specifically haiku), and the road to publication for H is for Haiku.
[Image Amy and her mother, Sydell.
© Amy Losak 2018.]
ME: Do you have memories of your mother writing these poems? Maybe trying to join her? Did she encourage you to write?
AMY: My mother, New York teacher and writer/poet, Sydell (“Syd”) Rosenberg, fell in love with haiku … and the aesthetics of this short, simple yet layered, form of poetry -- sometime in the 1960s.
She found haiku – or perhaps, more precisely, haiku found her. How, I don’t know. She started writing haiku around 1966 (maybe earlier). She published her first haiku in a journal dedicated to the form – I believe the journal was titled, American Haiku -- in 1967. In 1968, she became a charter member of the Haiku Society of America, which exists today (I’m a member now, too). Mom attended the founding meeting that year. She also served as HSA Secretary in 1974 and served on two of its Merit Books committees.
I have some memories of my mother’s desire to create a poetry picture book – haiku, but other poetic forms, as well. I believe she wanted children to illustrate her book. She had several concepts for a framework, apparently, including an alphabet reader.
Mom collected some of her poems into more than one manuscript and submitted them directly to a number of publishers. She undertook these initiatives in the 1980s, and perhaps as far back as the 1970s. (Among her papers and materials, I have some rejection letters she kept.)
Over the years, mom tried to engage me in her work. She appreciated feedback and input from family members and others close to her. Alas, I was mostly indifferent then, and sometimes impatient. Even so, we knew how important her creative endeavors and literary life were to her.
So, what drove you to get the book published?
I do remember asking her, about a couple of years before her death, what she wanted me to do with her writings – if …
And I asked her to organize her work, to make handling her legacy easier. But she really didn’t answer me. I think it’s because she had so much going on in her life then. She had a lot of burdens, and she could only focus on so much. Maybe she thought she would have time later.
So, when mom died suddenly in October of 1996, the shock was horrible in a way I find difficult to express. It was seismic. Our painful loss shook us to the core. The last few years had been horrendous for mom, and 1996 was a nightmare. She had been through a number of recent personal travails. At last, she seemed to be moving forward again with her writing life, with renewed optimism and a sense of purpose. And then, without warning, one beautiful autumn morning, she was gone.
We knew she had some unfinished goals -- perhaps most meaningfully, her picture book. At her funeral, her family resolved to try and publish that picture book she had long wanted and worked for.
I am so sorry for your loss and pain, hopefully creating this book was cathartic and helps a little. How long did it take you to get it published?
Mom died in 1996, but it took me many years to “get my act together” to even consider taking on this publishing project. Some of the delay was to be expected, of course. Life – my father Sam’s care (he had dementia and other ills; dad passed away in 2003), my demanding New York public relations career, moving with my husband Cliff to a new home in another state, etc. – got in the way. But much of it was my own procrastination, driven by deep grief and the unrelenting pain from losing mom so unexpectedly.
I also was afraid of missteps and failure -- of doing the wrong thing. Quite frankly, I dreaded it. For a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to start looking through all of mom’s stuff piled into boxes, bins, and bags.
But the need to follow through on the promise we had made weighed heavily on me, and this urgency grew. I realized that time was not on my side. I finally started to mobilize around 2011. But it wasn’t until April of 2015 that I mailed out the first manuscripts directly to publishers that don’t require agent representation. I connected with Penny Candy Books in 2016. H is for Haiku was released this past April: National Poetry Month.
Unfortunately, many of us can empathize with you. I am glad you overcame the fear and heartbreak to get this beautifully, poetic book published. Can you offer any insight into one haiku that is particularly special to you?
The cat sits in the fur ring
of his tail, and dreams.
Several haiku in the book are special to me. One favorite is “Adventures over.” Mom came from a large family and always lived in apartments in New York. As far as I know, she never owned any cats. But she enjoyed their antics and sometimes pixelated personalities. She had a keen eye for observing flora and fauna -- a hallmark of haiku. She found pleasure – and treasures – in the small moments of daily life we might ordinarily overlook.
In this haiku, note how “fur ring” rhymes with “purring” – a subtle but, I think, deliberate bit of wordplay which indicates the cat’s contentment and sense of safety. It is a sweet story in miniature: a child can imagine what the cat has been doing before settling down to sleep. Maybe he was roaming around outside, chasing a mouse or stalking a bird. Or indoors, playing with a catnip toy. A young reader can also have fun conjuring the cat’s dream.
This haiku was one of my favorites as well and a great one to start the book with (besides the fact that it begins with "A," of course). Some American poets don't stick to the "traditional" 5-7-5 pattern and instead write more of a "free verse" haiku? Did your mother write strictly to the Japanese tradition or in free verse?
There’s a lot of debate about what the Japanese tradition is when “translated” into English-language haiku. So, as a newbie trying to learn and grow, I’m not sure what it is! Poets discuss this all the time and I don’t know if there’s a consensus. My mom really was more of a “traditionalist” than a “free verse” haijin – haiku poet -- but she did experiment with the form; some of her work is really spare too.
Many of mom’s haiku follow a so-called “traditional” 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, but not all of them do. For many years, English-language haiku has not followed this structure – they are shorter. Haiku are about so much more than counting syllables. Mom also experimented with a sparer style as she delved more deeply into this poetic form.
This seems so much more complicated than what I remember from school. You mentioned your mother was a charter member of the Haiku Society of America. What does the Haiku Society do? Is it nationwide?
From the website, http://www.hsa-haiku.org/: “The Haiku Society of America is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1968 by Harold G. Henderson and Leroy Kanterman to promote the writing and appreciation of haiku poetry in English.” HSA is nationwide, with regional chapters, and I believe there are members from some other countries, as well.
Another fine U.S. organization is the The Haiku Foundation:
https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/. And there are other great organizations and sites in this country and around the world. Haiku is a talented and diverse global community.
Thank you for these links. So, what is next for you? Maybe publishing some of your own Haiku?
I’m a member of the Haiku Society of America myself now, and some of my haiku/senryu have been published in a number of outlets in the last few years. I’m proud of this. Mom would probably be pleased — and surprised — by my efforts and “successes.”
But I’m a beginner. At this “late stage” of my life, I likely always will be. And this is fine with me. People study and practice for years to become confident in their understanding of haiku, and good in the art and craft of it. Like any artistic or literary endeavor, it takes time, education, and effort to “master” the form.
The process of immersing myself in a sensory moment is just as important to me as the poetic result. Haiku has helped me learn to appreciate my daily surroundings more, to luxuriate in little moments and find clarity, joy, and meaning in them.
Mom left behind a sizable body of short poems and other writings. I hope to create at least one more haiku collection for children to enjoy. Perhaps the next book will be a combination of our poetry. We will see what comes next!
I think she'd be pleased and I hope you can create another picture book of her haiku. What is your favorite animal? Why?
I like dogs. And I love cats. For decades, we have been a “catty” household. My husband Cliff and I recently adopted a sleek beauty we’ve named Winnie. Winsome Winnie is mostly all black, with a little tuft of white on her throat. It looks almost like a bib or bowtie. She also has some white on her paws. And one white whisker.
We’ve had our pretty kitty Winnie only a short time, but she already is a wellspring of haiku-spiration! Here is one:
in the deepening night
a young black cat makes a toy
of a mosquito
I love your haiku. Thank you for sharing it and your story with us. It's been an honor to get to know you and your mother.
For some more information on Amy and Sydell, check out:
- the article on Next Avenue:
- Sydell's profile (and collection of Haiku) at the Living Haiku Anthology: https://livinghaikuanthology.com/index-of-poets/livinglegacies/2676-sydell-rosenberg.html
- Penny Candy Books introduction to Amy Losak & Sydell Rosenberg (and featuring one of Amy's own Haiku):
Please be sure to come back Friday for the #PPBF post on H is for Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku from A to Z,