One Daughter’s Journey to Fulfill Her Mom’s Literary Legacy to Publish a Haiku Picture Book
By Amy Losak, Special to JenniferMargulis.net
“Haiku is lineage.”
When a poet friend told me this a few years ago at a meeting of the Haiku Society of America in New York, I wasn’t sure what she meant.
My friend, children’s author Rita Gray, and others, knew about my dogged, but difficult, efforts to publish my late mother Sydell Rosenberg’s haiku picture book.
My mom, Sydell Rosenberg, was a teacher based in New York.
She taught English, literacy, and adult ESL.
She was also a translator, poet and prose writer, and puzzle creator.
A charter member of the Haiku Society of America in 1968, Syd served as HSA Secretary in 1975, and on two of HSA’s Merit Book committees.
Mom was quite well-published during her lifetime: journals, newspapers, magazines, anthologies– even in a splendid public poetry project in NY in 1994 entitled, Haiku on 42nd Street, in which one of her short poems, called a senryu, was featured on an old theater marquee.
She even published a “dirty book”: a pulp fiction novel in the early 1950s, called Strange Circle.
Mom used Gale Sydney as a pseudonym, reversing the initials of her maiden name, Sydell Gasnick.
Mom, fresh out of Brooklyn College and working in a small publishing company, had chutzpah.
Family legend has it that she wrote Strange Circle on a dare from her boss to write something better, when she complained to him about the quality of the manuscripts she was copyediting.
But when my mom died suddenly at home in October, 1996, she left one unrealized goal: a haiku picture book.
I don’t know when mom decided she wanted to publish a haiku picture book, preferably an alphabet reader.
I have to assume this idea crystallized in the 1970s, perhaps around the time she earned her Master of Arts in English as a Second Language from Hunter College, and became a teacher.
Mom loved the world and “way” of haiku, and did her best to immerse herself in its ethos and aesthetics.
This tiny poetic form is packed with possibilities.
It demands – and rewards – looking deeply, with all five senses, into things.
It requires craft, discipline, and the ability and willingness to write simply, and with both focus and flow.
Haijin – haiku poets – study and practice this form for years.
Mom even studied Japanese, I remember, so she could try and read the original haiku masters.
Mom was, in her way, an adventure-seeker.
Writing and I think haiku especially–perhaps because of its brevity–provided the creative outlet she needed to express and expand her perspective and sense of adventure.
Mom tried to make me part of her audience.
She often asked for my opinion and feedback about her poems.
But I was mostly indifferent, sometimes impatient.
I didn’t pay much attention, years ago.
I regret this now. Maybe we might have collaborated on her haiku picture book and other projects.
But at least I knew how important her literary life was to her, and I remembered later.
She submitted her haiku picture book manuscript to publishers. She saved some of her rejection letters, which I have somewhere among her welter of papers, journals, notebooks, and other materials.
Mom’s later years were not kind or easy.
My father, Sam, who was much older, developed dementia and other ills.
Mom was forced into the role of unpaid caregiver, and the stress of caregiving over several years finally took its toll.
She died of an aortic aneurysm, a few months shy of her 67th birthday.
At her funeral, her family resolved to somehow publish the haiku picture book that had been her dream for so long.
But I was mired in grief and the demanding ups and downs of daily life.
It took years before I could summon up the emotional resolve and organizational stamina to pick up Syd’s dream and move it forward.
Plus, I’m a procrastinator.
Around 2011, I started to get serious.
It was tortuous and slow-going, because her stuff was (and still is) so all over the place.
I almost abandoned this effort a few times, because it was so painful.
Still, I managed to put together a good selection of her writings, mostly her poetry, to use in various ways to reach children today.
Among other projects, I’ve been in a partnership for several years with a terrific nonprofit arts education organization in NY, 10-year-old Arts for All, which brings a variety of arts programs into public schools. Artists have used mom’s “word-picture” haiku to teach the basics of painting, drawing and collage; music; and theater to second-grade and other students in Queens and in the Bronx.
Finally, in April of 2015, I began sending out her haiku manuscript to publishers directly.
In 2016, I connected with the wonderful Penny Candy Books, thanks to a poet, editor, and teacher, Aubrie Cox Warner.
After all these years, my mom’s haiku picture book, H Is For Haiku, was released in April 2018 to coincide with National Poetry Month.
Penny Candy editors Chad Reynolds and Alexis Orgera–both poets themselves–have been a joy to work with; and Sawsan Chalabi’s energetic illustrations vividly highlight the gentle playfulness in mom’s poems.
At long last, Sydell Rosenberg’s dream has come true.
And along this journey, I have come to understand Rita’s words, “Haiku is lineage.”
A few years ago, I joined HSA.
I write and even publish my own haiku.
I just turned 62. At this late stage, I know I always will be a beginner–and that’s fine with me.
The process is its own gift.
I’m almost as old as my mother was when she died.
Going through her papers, trying to organize them, and fulfilling her dream twenty-two years after her death has helped me feel more connected to my mom. I am grateful for the literary legacy Syd has given to her family.
Warning his mother
to talk softly …
~Sydell Rosenberg (1929-1996)
Editor’s note: Two other wonderful haiku picture books, which are among our family’s favorites, are both by Jon J. Muth: Zen Ties and Hi, Koo! Highly recommended.
About the Author: Amy Losak is a veteran New York public relations professional who likes to write haiku
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Valerie Coulman says
It seems your journey in some ways echoes your mother’s dream too – a set course with infinite possibilities in a series of small steps. Congratulations for all you’ve learned through the process and for finding such a lovely tribute to your mother.