New York City children—particularly those who grew up in Queens—haven’t always had the easiest time relating to the flowery descriptions of nature detailed in the books and stories they read.
But for Sydell Rosenberg, who raised her family in Briarwood, living in the big city is precisely what drove her to bring her passion for haiku poetry to life.
Unfortunately, Rosenberg passed away in October 1996, and her children’s poetry book, “H Is For Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku from A to Z” was posthumously published by her daughter Amy Losak in 2018.
Losak said that her mother discovered haiku poetry sometime in the ‘60s, and quickly fell in love with the art form.
“I like to say that haiku found her,” Losak said.
“She did seem to bond with this compact, lustrous form of poetry. It’s the shortest form of poetry in the world, and yet because of its small size, it’s perhaps the most expansive,” she continued. “It can capture so much, in such few words and such few lines.”
Rosenberg, whose daily routine consisted of traveling through Queens neighborhoods including Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, used her bustling surroundings as her primary source of inspiration for her work, including the poems in “H Is For Haiku.”
With images of street cats chasing after peach pits and keeping distant from pigeons and sparrows, Rosenberg makes use of the scenery and nature that is familiar to New Yorkers—specifically in Queens.
In her book, there is a poem that reads: “Queueing for ice cream, sweat-sprinkled office workers on Queens Boulevard,” in which children can interpret as their favorite neighborhood ice cream shop, the first signs of spring, or the Mister Softee trucks.
“She wasn’t galavanting around the world searching for exotic adventures, she found her own small adventures right in her neighborhood,” Losak said.
“She actually did write a longer poem about the Q60 bus going down Queens Boulevard, which I’m trying to sort out the versions and submit to a magazine perhaps,” she continued. “But that’s where she found the fodder for her writing — in her daily life as a resident of Queens.”
Losak said that the loss of her mother was very sudden, shocking and traumatic for the family.
Even though she knew her mother dreamed of publishing a children’s haiku picture book, Losak did not begin resurrecting her poems until 2011, or assembling them into a children’s book until 2015.
“That took me a long, long time, because the grief was so overwhelming. It was paralyzing and it lasted a really long time,” Losak said.
“Finally, I started taking baby steps to gather some of her work that she and I felt were best suited for a young audience. I researched publishers that didn’t require an agent to submit because I figured no one would want to represent a dead author, even though I was her living surrogate,” she said. “The book was the ultimate goal, and through a combination of determination, luck and utter generosity and kindness of the poetry community is what got it done.”
It was another haiku poet who recommended Losak submit “H Is For Haiku” to the book’s publisher, Penny Candy Books, who loved the book and signed the illustrator, Sawsan Chalabi.
The book was well received by both the poetry and teaching communities, and was honored in 2019 by the National Council of Teachers of English as a notable poetry book.
Losak has also participated in various visits and readings around Queens and elsewhere, including Kew & Willow Books in Kew Gardens.
Although Losak did not always find haiku so fascinating and illusive, she said it was later on in her life when she realized the true influence her mother had on her.
“Even with all the fits and starts and the setbacks, it became so important for me to get this to some kind of conclusion, because over time, her dream became my dream,” Losak said.
“And over time, I realized I couldn’t have the luxury of infinite time. I am close in age now to the age she was when she died suddenly,” she said. “I had to make that decision, and I had to get it published.”
Rosenberg was a charter member of the Haiku Society of America in 1968, and Losak keeps the family tradition alive as a member of the society today.
In addition to “H Is For Haiku,” Rosenberg’s chapbook, “Poised Across the Sky” was published in 2020 with Kattywompus Press.
Losak currently works on a collaborative, mother-daughter adult haiku book, “Wing Strokes,” which is slated to be published later this year with Kelsay Books.
However, she emphasized that “H Is For Haiku” is what started it all.
“It definitely captures in very lucid, simple but evocative language her life and by extension, anyone’s life being a resident of Queens. The great thing about haiku is that you find the universal in the particular,” Losak said.
“Even though it’s the shortest form of poetry, it’s not easy to write. But that’s what makes it so rewarding,” she continued. “These poems are her life, but at the same time, these are poems that anybody can relate to.”
She encourages all people, old and young, to indulge in poetry over the month of April, which is National Poetry Month.
“H Is For Haiku” is available for purchase from various sources, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kew & Willow Books.