April 17, 2019

Birth Stories for Books, H IS FOR HAIKU, by Sydell Rosenberg's Daughter, Amy Losak

If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you'll know that in addition to my two humorous picture books coming out later this year, I also have a love story that has been acquired for publication. LUCY'S BLOOMS is picture book about the magic of childhood firmly rooted in unconditional love.

Sydell "Syd" Rosenberg and Amy Losak,
Photo Likely Taken by Sam Rosenberg
Today's Birth Story for Books post about H IS FOR HAIKU (written by Sydell Rosenberg, illustrated by Sawsan Chalabi, Penny Candy Books, 2018) is also a love story. It's about the late Sydell "Syd" Rosenberg's love for poetry, and it's about Amy Losak's love for her mother. Please join me in welcoming Amy Losak to the blog today:

Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by to talk with me about your mother’s book of haiku poetry, Amy. It’s a lovely book, and I’d welcome the opportunity to hear from you about how it came to be. I’ve read in other interviews that your mother, Sydell “Syd” Rosenberg, had long wanted to publish a children’s alphabet book of her haiku poems, but that she was unable to accomplish this goal before her sudden passing in 1996. When did you decide that you would work to fulfill this goal of your mother's on her behalf?

Amy Losak: The idea itself – to try and publish mom’s poetry for children – was first voiced at her funeral in October of 1996. If I remember correctly, it was my sister-in-law, Debbie Rosenberg (my younger brother’s name is Nathan), who brought this up, as we were leaving the cemetery in Queens, NY. But nothing happened for a long time, for many reasons – some valid, others due to procrastination based on fear, grief, and my lack of confidence in my abilities to undertake such a serious task. It wasn’t until roughly 2011 that I started making some headway to “revive” some of mom’s creative writings, most notably her haiku. I moved forward with baby steps.

DP: I'm so glad you took those baby steps, Amy. The end result is a very special book on so many levels. Can you tell us a little bit about the haiku poetry form, and why it was of particular interest to your mother?

AL: As a latecomer to this form myself, I consider myself an eternal beginner, one eager to learn and improve over time. Haiku is the briefest form of poetry, but arguably the most expansive. Much is conveyed with few words, and yet room should be left for the reader to “complete” the poem, as well. As I say in my introduction in H Is For Haiku, haiku poetry helps make (so-called) small moments in our daily lives “big.” Mom’s own intro in H Is For Haiku, first published in a journal called Wind Chimes in 1981, is more expressive. I think she says it better: “Haiku is that fledgling moment, when the wing strokes become sure – when the bird has staying power in the air.”

DP: Oh, that is beautiful. 

AL: There are some excellent online resources to learn about this rich and layered form: the Haiku Society of America and The Haiku Foundation are two, among many. And there are a number of fine Facebook groups, as well.

I don’t know how mom found haiku in the early 1960s. It may be more accurate to say that haiku “found” her. Mom had a restless intellectual and creative sensibility. She “saw” into things with all her senses, in a way which is difficult for me to describe -- and which I truly appreciate today. I think haiku – because of its brevity – paradoxically gave her both the structure and freedom she needed to explore and “explain” her views about the world around her. She called haiku “unfussy” but “demanding” in the 1974 anthology, The Haiku Anthology (edited by Cor van den Heuvel; Doubleday Anchor). In 1968, she became a charter member of the Haiku Society of America in New York City. In the early 1970s, for a term, she served as the organization’s secretary.

DP: Thank you for all of those resources, Amy. That's really helpful. I hope folks who are interested in learning more about haiku will check them out. 

Am I correct in my understanding that your mother had written and organized a collection of her haiku poems into an alphabet book manuscript that she had started submitting to publishers before she passed?

AL: Yes, correct. Long ago, Syd prepared at least one haiku manuscript for kids, and submitted it to a few publishers (I have some of her rejection letters). She also had other kids’ poetry manuscripts, and I believe she submitted at least one of these to publishers, as well. Mom also wanted children to illustrate her book for a time, if I remember correctly.

DP: I think it's wonderful that you've kept some of the rejection letters Syd received related to this work. The thread of persistence that started with your mom and continues with you is really empowering, and the existence of those earlier rejection letters really punctuates that! Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

Is there anything special that you’d like to share with us about how you came upon the unpublished manuscript(s)?

AL: I knew that these manuscripts existed among her papers and other materials I "inherited." About two years before she died, I asked her what she wanted done with her work when she was gone. I asked her to organize her materials for me – I needed her help, so I could help her (if this is what she wanted). I didn’t realize it then, but I was planning to be, in a sense, her literary executor. But mom didn’t answer me, and I dropped the issue. She was overwhelmed with caring for my father, Sam, who was much older and suffered from dementia and other ills. She couldn’t focus on this matter. Maybe she thought she would have more time to determine how she wanted her writing legacy to be handled … or maybe it wasn’t that important to her, in the scheme of things. I don’t know what she thought or ultimately wanted, really.

After her death, most of her “stuff” was deposited into bins, bags, and baskets, and brought over to our tiny apartment in Queens. Her stuff then made the trip with my husband, Cliff, and me when we moved into a small house in New Jersey. Shortly after her death, I sorted through and got rid of some materials I thought were duplicative or not worth saving. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake. I was so gripped by grief – not to mention overwhelmed with caring for dad and other issues – I probably disposed of materials I should have kept. But there is no going back, and it doesn’t help to have regrets over past decisions. She had so much stuff packed into their apartment. I used the best judgment I could muster at the time.

Then, for many years, I could barely look through her things. The pain I felt was almost physical. My continuing grief and fear held me back. But over time, these feelings became their own burden. It’s thanks to the encouragement and support of many people in my life that I was finally able to shake off this weight and start to sort through and review some of her writings, as well as take decisive measures to revive some of them– especially her haiku.

DP: I really appreciated the book the first few times I read it, Amy, but it's even more meaningful now that I've learned more about the emotional journey that accompanied you on your path to publication. I'm so glad there were people who provided encouragement and support to help you bring Syd's collection of poems to the pages of a children's book. Thank you so much for sharing this powerful backstory.

I am curious if you edited or revised Syd's poems before sending her manuscript out on submission? When you compare your mother’s original manuscript(s) to the finished book, how similar or different are they?

AL: Yes, I edited a few poems in the manuscript, and if I remember correctly, I also swapped out a couple of haiku for others she had written that I preferred. I also changed the title. But most of the poems in the book are intact as she had written them – and in some cases, published in journals – decades ago.

DP: So, putting it all together, can you recap the timeframe between the initial idea to publish your mother’s work, and the finalized collection of poems that you submitted to publishers and that eventually made their way into the book?

AL: As I mentioned above, the idea to fulfill her old dream of publishing a children’s book was broached around the time of her sudden death in 1996. But nothing moved forward for a long time. My own inertia eventually weighed on me terribly. I finally started to mobilize in 2011, but it wasn’t until April of 2015 (which I only realized later is National Poetry Month!) that I finally started to submit H Is For Haiku to publishers.

DP: I think it's fabulous that you started submitting this project to publishers during National Poetry Month without even knowing it at the time! I also think it's incredibly inspiring that you found a path through the inertia and were able to bring this longstanding idea to fruition.  

How did you go about finding a publisher for this project?

AL: I took some time to research publishers that are open to unsolicited manuscripts. The KidLit community is generous, gracious, and knowledgeable, and I learned a great deal from it. And it was a poetry teacher and editor, Aubrie Cox Warner, who told me about Penny Candy Books. I checked into Penny Candy Books in 2016. I was delighted by the passionate dedication of the principals, Chad Reynolds and Alexis Orgera, and their willingness to take risks with their titles, as well as present opportunities to new and various talents.

DP: I couldn't agree more about the KidLit community being generous, gracious, and knowledgeable. I don't know what I'd do without my writing community.

Reflecting on the journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for this collection of poems to find its way to publication?

AL: There really have been many moments. I wish to repeat that I’ve been fortunate indeed to have the unfailing support and encouragement of just about everyone around me. This has made all the difference! Aubrie’s suggestion about Penny Candy Books was certainly key, however.

DP: It definitely sounds like Aubrie's suggestion led you to the perfect match publisher for this project, Amy. That's so great. 

Let's shift gears just a bit. What was it like to see your mother’s poems paired with illustrations for the first time?

AL: It’s hard to express the magic of that special moment. But I was overjoyed! Sawsan Chalabi is an extraordinary illustrator. The book’s vivid interplay of mom’s poetic text and Sawsan’s art is a decades-old dream come true.

DP: The artwork and poems really are a delightful pairing. I'm so happy for you. 

H is For Haiku
by Sydell Rosenberg and Sawsan Chalabi
If you were to use haiku to express the experience of holding your mother’s book in your hands, fulfilling her longtime dream, how might that go?

AL: This is rough, but here you are:

old dream fulfilled …
a child turns the pages
of mom’s haiku book


lost in the pages
of my mom’s haiku book …
a young child

DP: Those are gorgeous, Amy. I find myself reflecting back on Syd's description of haiku from the introduction that you mentioned before: “Haiku is that fledgling moment, when the wing strokes become sure – when the bird has staying power in the air.” How beautiful that you could be the wing strokes that gave your mom's poems staying power in the air. 

If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself before embarking on this project? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

AL: I would tell myself that it’s OK to be nervous and even to have doubts about embarking on a creative project that’s challenging, novel, and perhaps even strange. This is normal, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. These feelings need not overwhelm to the point of paralysis and panic. I wish I had known sooner to make these feelings work for me, as motivators – rather than against me, as deterrents or barriers. I wish I could go back in time and give myself a pep talk, and maybe a dose of tough love!

DP: I think we could all use a little pep talk now and then! 

What do you think your mother would most like about the finished book?

AL: I think Syd would be thrilled about the way her words are interwoven with the art and lettering. This was such an ideal and terrific design choice! Her laughs of joy would reach the moon!

DP: That's a beautiful image, Amy. 

They say a mother’s work is never done…is there anything you learned from your mother, or about your mother, as a result of taking on this project and seeing it through that you’d like to share with us?

AP: Thanks to this project, I’ve learned to “see” more deeply and clearly into things. That’s a hallmark of haiku – or any creative endeavor that calls both for focus and flow, of course. I’m a New Yorker, so I’m always in a rush, it seems. Reading my mom’s haiku, other poets’ haiku, and writing my own short poems impel me to slow down and pay attention. It’s a rewarding way to be. And I feel more connected to Syd, as a result. She was a seeker of small adventures …mindful, curious, off-beat. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more captivated by her engagement with little slices of life.

DP: Thank you for such heartfelt responses throughout this interview, Amy. I've found myself reflecting deeply on what you've shared--as a writer, but also as a daughter, and a mother.  

Before we wrap up, do you have any new projects in the works that you’d like to tell us about?

AP: I have a second haiku picture book manuscript in the works. I’m still “playing” with it, but this one may feature both our haiku! I am daunted (in a good way, this time), but excited. Let’s see where this muse leads!

DP: That's great news. I'll be excited to hear more about that project as it develops!

Readers, H IS FOR HAIKU is a 2019 Notable Poetry Book (selected by the National Council for Teachers of English), and it was also a 2018 Cybils finalist for a poetry award.

So what are you waiting for? Go get your hands on a copy of H IS FOR HAIKU. I can't think of a better way to celebrate National Poetry Month (April), International Haiku Poetry Day (April 17), and/or Poem in Your Pocket Day (April 18)! And, if you feel inspired, maybe leave a haiku (or any little poem) of your own for all to enjoy in the comments section below!

Photo of Sydell "Syd" Rosenberg,
Likely taken by Jean Niles
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.

Amy Losak, Syd's daughter, is a New Yorker (Queens) who now lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. A seasoned public relations professional (healthcare, corporate, nonprofit, arts/education, etc.), Amy spent several years on a mission to revive some of her late mother's literary works--especially her poetry, and most especially, her haiku for kids. Inspired by Syd, Amy now writes short-form poetry, too. Some of her work has been published in print and online journals.

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? (forthcoming, 2019), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at

No comments:

Post a Comment