Haiku

My Mother Was A Poet

My mom and I were always friends, but perhaps I didn’t truly appreciate her until after her death. I have never fully recovered from this loss. I still grieve. I always will.

Sydell Rosenberg was a teacher in New York City and a gifted writer from childhood. Family legend has it that she wrote a “dirty book” on a dare from her publisher boss. Syd also worked as a copy editor for a time. It may have been her first job out of Brooklyn College. Apparently, she was unhappy with the quality of the manuscripts crossing her desk. When she complained, her boss said (I’m guessing), “If you think you can do better, go ahead. write a book.”

Her novel, Strange Circle, described on the cover as “a compelling story of savage jealousy and strange passions in the asphalt jungle of the city,” was published under a male pseudonym, Gale Sydney, a reversal of the initials of her maiden name, Sydell Gasnick.

This was in the early 1950s, when mom was her 20s. For the time and type of novel it was, it sold respectably. The total that sticks in my head is 270,000 copies. This book is still floating around online, and I have a few delicate, tattered copies in my possession. (Mom hid them from my brother Nathan and me when we were kids.)

Strange Circle is a hoot-and-a-half to read. It’s quaint by today’s standards, but it’s also bold and badass. And in this potboiler, I can detect the voice of the poet and writer Syd became.

At some point in the early 1960 s, mom discovered a new literary passion: poetry — and more specifically, haiku.

In 1968, mom became a charter member of the Haiku Society of America (HSA), founded in New York (http://www.hsa-haiku.org/), and I am a member myself. You can also check out http://www.haikufoundation.org/, a wonderful resource.

How to define haiku? Haijin – haiku poets – engage in passionate discussions, and even debates, about them. According to HSA, “A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.” But there’s a great deal more to say about haiku. For more details about this and related forms, click here.

Haiku is globally popular today, with some extraordinary work being written, shared and published. And it’s fiendishly difficult to write well. (Important heads up: among other misunderstandings about English-language haiku, it no longer is routinely written in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. Usually, the syllable count is fewer. Haiku also is both plural and singular).

Most importantly, I view haiku as a vibrant form of poetry that demands – and rewards – the ability to pay attention to what’s happening around us – especially small moments we might overlook.

Poets who are serious about haiku read the work of the old Japanese masters and other great haijin, and study the form seriously for year, as my mother did.

In a classic text, The Haiku Anthology (1974), mom referred to her work as “city haiku” because they captured or reflected her urban way of life. But many of her short poems also are timeless and universal, and perfect for children. For example:

So pale – it hardly sat

on the outstretched branch

of the winter night.

Syd was nicely anthologized over her literary career in journals, newspapers, magazines, online, anthologies and more. A “city haiku” was even featured in a novel public art project, “Haiku on 42nd St.” in 1994, in which haiku were displayed on the marquees of abandoned movie theaters:

In the laundermat

she peers into the machine

as the sun goes down.

However, despite the thrill of being published, mom had a dream: to publish a picture book, especially a haiku A-B-C reader.

But when my dad, Sam Rosenberg, was diagnosed with dementia in the 1980s, mom’s priorities had to change. She still wrote and submitted, but it became more difficult. Even with help, caregiving was a full-time job. Her responsibilities as a caregiver exacted a cruel toll on her physical and emotional health. She was nearly 20 years younger than dad, but she died before him. I remember getting the morning call at work from my father’s home health aide, Margaret, to come home, that my mother “was not well.” Syd had collapsed in the living room, apparently, and died from an aortic aneurysm. Her unexpected death, in 1996, was a shock to everyone who loved her.

At her funeral, my brother, Nathan; my sister-in-law, Debbie; and I promised that somehow, we would publish her book.

But for various reasons, I didn’t start to get serious until a few years had passed. I just didn’t have the necessary emotional energy before then to tackle what was for me a Herculean task. We had to take care of dad (he entered a nursing home and died in 2003) and close up their apartment. Plus I had a demanding career as a healthcare public relations executive (PR is not a 9 to 5 job!). Mom’s papers, notebooks and other literary materials were haphazardly stuffed into boxes and bags. I’m no archivist, and organization and order are not my strong points. I felt overwhelmed and defeated. I almost gave up.

Yet somehow, in 2011, I began to organize some of her poems, from her manuscripts, publications, and other sources. I also began to get some of her work out there in creative ways, such as collaborating with a terrific nonprofit arts education organization in New York, Arts For All (www.arts-for-all.org) on school programs that paired her “word-picture” haiku with art, music and theater; doing poetry readings at the Queens Botanical Garden; and more.

But the kids’ book has long been the ultimate goal. A poet, editor and teacher, Aubrie Cox, first told me about a wonderful small publisher, Penny Candy Books, started by two poets, Chad Reynolds and Alexis Orgera. I submitted H Is For Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku from A to Z – and on October 31, 2016, we signed the contract.

Syd’s book – her dream – will be released tomorrow, on April 10, during National Poetry Month.

In addition, in September, National Geographic is releasing The Poetry of US, edited by former U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis. Her “city haiku” will be featured in this beautiful anthology of photographs and verses celebrating “the wonders of America’s people and places.”

I now write and publish my own haiku. I’m not very good, but I’m improving. It’s the process of sensory observation, of finding bits of magic in our daily lives. I think mom would be pleased.

I hope to write a kids’ book myself, perhaps one combining our poetry. And I’d like to publish a chapbook of Syd’s poems for adults, another goal I think she had. We will see what comes next.

Meanwhile, H Is For Haiku, with the great Sawsan Chalabi’s witty and energetic illustrations, is everything I could have hoped for. It’s a collection of simple yet striking poems both kids and adults can enjoy.

The support I’ve received from my husband, Cliff; family, friends, colleagues, poets and children’s authors; and Penny Candy Books, has been nothing short of extraordinary. A friend of mine, the Northeast Regional Coordinator of HSA, Rita Gray, who also is a children’s author and children’s therapist, once said to me, when I told her about my project, “Haiku is lineage.”

It took me a while to understand those words and the truth they hold.

Now I do. I’m continuing my mom’s lineage. Here is one of my own haiku. It’s about Syd:

pastel pond

the iris of her eyes

staring back at me

 

To order H Is for Haiku, click here.

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