SYDELL ROSENBERG (1929-1996) lived, wrote and taught in New York City. Syd was a charter member of the Haiku Society of America in 1968 and served as HSA’s Secretary in 1975. Her short poems – notably haiku and senryu – as well as other poetry, were published in various magazines and anthologies. Syd received her M.A. in English as a Second Language from Hunter College in 1972. It was Syd’s dream to publish a book of haiku for children.
Compiled by her daughter, Amy Losak, H is for Haiku is the fulfilment of the late poet Sydell Rosenberg’s dream to write a book of poetry for children. I was excited to talk with Amy about her mother, her journey with H is for Haiku, and her own poetry.
Can you talk a little about your mother and her love for haiku and senryu?
Sydell Rosenberg was a New York City teacher (various grades; substitute, English, literacy; and also adult ESL). I think Syd Rosenberg “discovered” haiku and senryu in the early-to-mid 1960s. How she may have stumbled upon these poetic forms, I wish I knew. Mom always was a writer – short stories, poetry, literary and word puzzles, and more. Syd wrote in English and in Spanish and translated literature from and into Spanish too. In her early 20s, she published a racy novel, “Strange Circle,” under a male pseudonym, Gale Sydney (a reversal of the initials of her maiden name, Sydell Gasnick). This was in the early 1950s! This potboiler sold a respectable number of copies. In fact, “Strange Circle” is still floating around online.
In the 1960s, as a still-young wife and mother, perhaps she was restless and searching for a challenging format to test her talents and reflect, or give credence to, her singular way of viewing the world around her. Syd was a native New Yorker who loved nature and found marvels in mundane moments. Perhaps the lucid qualities of haiku and senryu, with their concise yet intense focus on such things, gave her—paradoxically—the amplitude she wanted to express her vision and ideas.
What is the difference between the two forms?
I’m no expert on haiku and senryu. Poets spend years studying and they labor over their work. These are difficult forms to write well. Like any creative art, it takes practice. It seems as though the definitions can get “in the weeds”—and then there are some poets who don’t get too “hung up” on the distinctions. Here are topline definitions from the Haiku Society of America, and readers can go to this Haiku Society of America page for more details:
The Haiku Foundation also is a great source of information, and there are many other fine resources in books, online and in social media.
HAIKU: 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.
SENRYU: A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.
Were the poems in H is for Haiku originally written as an alphabet-inspired collection?
Yes, some of the poems in H Is for Haiku were in one (or more, possibly) alphabet-themed manuscripts I located among mom’s many materials. And some were previously published in journals decades ago.
It was Syd’s lifelong dream to publish a book of haiku for children. Can you talk about the journey you’ve taken with H Is for Haiku?
Mom was submitting at least one of her kids’ poetry manuscripts (I’m not sure how many she created, and I don’t think they were all haiku) to publishers since the 1980s. My fuzzy memory tells me she may have submitted as far back as the 1970s. This has been a long and zigzagging timeline, by any measure.
Mom’s poetry was well-anthologized in a variety of media over several decades (including classic texts such as The Haiku Anthology, The Haiku Handbook, The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, among others). Syd was a teacher, and she had this desire to publish a poetry picture book, preferably a haiku A-B-C reader. I think she wanted kids to illustrate it, although she also had illustrators she liked in mind (in one old cover letter I found, she mentions Arnold Lobel).
After her sudden death in October of 1996, her family promised to try and publish her dream book. But it wasn’t until around 2011 that I knuckled down—and even then, the process of collecting and organizing some of her work was, to be frank, tortuous. But I managed to curate a good compilation.
In the meantime, I spearheaded other projects to revive some of her work for today’s audiences, especially children. For example, I’ve been in a partnership for several years with a terrific nonprofit arts education organization in NY, Arts for All which brings a variety of arts programs into public schools. Teaching artists have used mom’s “word-picture” haiku to convey the basics of painting, drawing and collage; music; and theater to young students.
In 2015, I finally started to send out her manuscript to publishers that didn’t require agents. In 2016, I connected with the wonderful Penny Candy Books, thanks to a poet and teacher, Aubrie Cox Warner. Penny Candy’s Chad Reynolds and Alexis Orgera have been such a joy; and Sawsan Chalabi’s dynamic illustrations vividly augment the gentle playfulness in mom’s poems.
Syd was a charter member of the Haiku Society of America. Can you talk about her work with the HSA?
HSA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Syd attended the founding meeting in October of 1968. She also served as HSA secretary in 1975 and twice on committees for HSA’s Merit Book Awards “for excellence in published haiku, translation and criticism.” Of course, mom’s work was published in HSA’s beautiful journal, Frogpond, and a good number of other journals and publications, including (but not limited to) Modern Haiku, Wind Chimes, and Haiku West. HSA memorialized Syd by reading some of her work shortly after her death in 1996. In addition, Frogpond published a lovely memorial page in its December 1996 issue. It also published one of her posthumous haiku in a 1997 issue. Her first published haiku in a journal was in 1967 in American Haiku (although I believe she may have published haiku even earlier, in the poetry column of a now-defunct newspaper).
HSA and all things haiku—and writing overall—were important, even essential, components of her life. Creative expression was aa important to her as breathing.
The haiku in H Is for Haiku have such a wonderful sense of active observation and eye for personality and fun. Do you remember this as a quality of your mom while you were growing up?
Yes! Mom had a playful, offbeat, and I think an innate optimistic spirit. Mom was a “knowledge-adventurer.” Her intellect sometimes had an almost childlike quality. She tried to instill this expansive sense of curiosity in my brother Nathan and me. I have come to realize that mom looked forward to each new day as jam-packed with the possibilities for new experiences. And she sought them out for herself and her family.
I read that you also write poetry. Can you share a little about your work?
I’m a beginner as a poet. I think I always will be, and I’m fine with this. There’s a lot to learn.
I especially enjoy the process of trying to write haiku and senryu. It allows me to “be in the moment” and dial down distracting “chatter” that can bombard and dull my senses. Some of my work has been published. I’m slowly improving.
Thanks to social media, I find inspiration in the work of other poets today, especially haiku and senryu poets (and others, as well). There’s so much great poetry out there! I also have learned to find “bits” of inspiration in my daily life. Our pixilated cats, for example, were a wellspring of inspiration! And New York City, of course, offers an inexhaustible supply of both small and big moments. Even something as routine as my bus commute can sometimes trigger “slices” of awareness that lead to a short poem. Or I will be walking to the bagel shop for an iced coffee, and something out of nowhere—the peep of a sparrow in a forsythia bush, a squashed pine cone on the pavement—will draw my attention. Maybe this “haiku moment” will result in a poem. Or maybe not, but I’m still richer because of these “slivers” of experience.
And mom, it turns out, has had more of an influence on me that either one of us could have imagined. Syd’s spirit resonates today. I like to think she would be pleased with this book. And of course, kids and their parents!
The poetry and kidlit communities are caring and supportive. I’m grateful for all their encouragement over the years. And I’m grateful to my husband, Cliff, brother, Nathan; sister-in-law, Debbie; other loving family members; friends; colleagues, etc. So many terrific people! They’ve kept me going, and I can’t thank them enough.
You can find H is for Haiku at these booksellers:
National Haiku Poetry Day Review
About the Holiday
Small things are amazing—and surprising! We all know good things come in small packages, and just look at the wisdom, humor, and capacity for love of children. The same goes for haiku—the smallest form of poetry in size but never in impact. During National Poetry Month, today is set aside to especially celebrate the haiku. The simple 5-7-5 rule that we all learn in school doesn’t begin to define the complexity of these three-line beauties that distill the world into little nuggets that make readers see life in amazing and surprising ways.
H is for Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku from A to Z
Written by Sydell Rosenberg | Illustrated by Sawsan Chalabi
In her lovely and delightfully whimsical poems, Sydell Rosenberg holds moments in the palms of her hands, letting readers immerse themselves in the tender, humorous, and wistful flashes of a day before they shift, evolve, or fade away. H is for Haiku begins, appropriately, with Adventure and its dreamy memory for a worn-out kitten as he slumbers.
The journey continues as readers meander along a city sidewalk and see a “Boy on a mailbox / perched like a solitary bird / watching the sunset.” Walking on, readers peek into car backseats, queue for ice-cream on a sweaty summer day, and visit a barbershop where you always ask for Xavier. Down country lanes, you’ll spy a pale moon, turn the heads of sunflowers, share bike rides and car rides, and watch as “Munching on acorns / a squirrel sweeps up sunbeams / with her transparent tail.”
Rosenberg’s studied eye for connections makes her poems especially enchanting. Leaves and flowers, birds and insects, rain and thunder interact with those in their midst, adorning hair, scurrying away, playing musical backup, meeting danger, and creating transformations like the one at Y: “Yesterday’s cool rain / left this flat puddle smoothing / the wrinkled leaves.” A trip to the fish market is infused with humor, and an optical illusion makes you look twice at the flamingos in a pond.
Even in her observations of the routine, Rosenberg remind readers that there is music and poetry in common actions. For example, at U we hear: “Up and down the block / homeowners mate the covers / of gusted trash cans.” As a teacher sits grading papers to close out the book, readers can’t be faulted for wishing our alphabet had a few more letters.
As a teacher Sydell Rosenberg was attuned to the spirit of children, and her sophisticated and fun haiku are particularly accessible for young readers. Touching on a wide range of subjects, Rosenberg invites kids to look and look again. Her keen observations and lilting imagery will inspire them to do just that.
Sawsan Chalabi’s charmingly quirky illustrations and stylized lettering present each poem with dash and personality that will enchant kids. Her delicately lined drawings are infused with vibrancy from a gorgeous color palette. Just like Rosenberg’s haiku, Chalabi’s pages are animated with a love for life that will resonate with kids—and adults.
H is for Haiku would make a terrific gift for poetry lovers and a wonderful addition to home, school, and public library collections.
Ages 5 – 11 (and up)
Penny Candy Books, 2018 | ISBN 978-0998799971
Discover more about Sawsan Chalabi and view a portfolio of her work on her website.
National Haiku Poetry Day Activity
Haiku Wall Art
The haiku you write deserves to be shared with others! With this easy craft you can display your poem in style.
- Colorful heavy stock paper, 2 or three colors
- Glue or glue dots, or double-sided tape
- Dowel or wire for hanging
- Paint to paint the dowel (optional)
- Write a haiku and print the lines on colored paper
- Cut the lines apart, making the first and third line shorter than the second line
- Glue or tape the lines to the ribbon, leaving about a half inch between them
- To make the hangers, fold the tops of the ribbon over and glue or tape it closed
- If using a dowel to hold the poem, you can paint it to match or contrast with the paper
- Hang the poem from a dowel or wire
Picture Book Review