Skip to content

Bookstories 23: Rebecca Lilly’s Shadwell Hills

libraryofbabelEvery book tells its story, but what of the other story, the story behind the book? Bookstories offers an opportunity to tell that story. If you have a story about a book or poem you would like to share, contact us and we’ll help you make it happen. Thanks for letting us know the rest of the story!


In 2002, I published my first book of haiku, Shadwell Hills, with Birch Brook Press, in letterpress editions, both in hardcover and paperback. Tom Tolnay, the longtime publisher of Birch Brook, remains committed to producing letterpress books, but no longer produces them in hardcover due to the high expense (and perhaps dwindling author contracts and sales for letterpress books, a consequence partly due, I suspect, to the impact of digital technology on book publishing.)

A good portion of the haiku published in Shadwell Hills initially appeared in Modern Haiku, back in the days when Robert (Bob) Spiess was editor. I began sending haiku to him at the journal—initially with no success—when in my late teens, and one of my first submissions consisted of only two haiku, both in the traditional 5-7-5 syllabic format. Both poems I’d composed as an assignment for an undergraduate class on Buddhism. Bob returned the haiku promptly (within two weeks), his comment penciled in the margin next to them: “not quite.” My curiosity was piqued; I had to figure out why my haiku had failed to pass muster. At the time, I had several back issues of Modern Haiku on my shelf, and consulted them in an effort to discern why my poems were deficient. I finally decided that my strain to fit the haiku into the 5-7-5 format was too apparent, and that while the juxtaposition of images held promise, both haiku felt too wordy and ‘effortful,’ rather than natural and spontaneous. I set those two haiku aside and tried writing others without the 5-7-5 restriction, but within the 17 syllable limit. I had better luck with those and, with Bob’s editorial help, succeeded in publishing a few early attempts in Modern Haiku. Bob often made astute editorial suggestions on my early poems, helping train my ear for sound and rhythm (musicality), and honing my ability to tell when a haiku seemed forced. In short, he helped me become a much better critic of my own poems by teaching me to discern the difference between art and artifice, especially where musicality was concerned. While I’ve generally had a preference over the years for longer, more musical, haiku, Bob’s instruction enabled me to see how some haiku are too musical (and thus sound forced), while other poems with much less attention to sound and rhythm (or in which the musicality is much less apparent) can still have significant impact. That poetic impact Bob referred to as felt depth. This was the elusive quality he claimed was the essence of an effective haiku.

After studying haiku and publishing poems in Modern Haiku over the course of several years, it was clear to me how seriously Bob took the art of haiku, and how dedicated a practitioner and generous an editor he was. He never hesitated to edit and advise on haiku he thought had potential and was kind enough to answer my no doubt naive questions about the philosophy behind haiku. Many of his own haiku I took as the highest exemplars in the genre, and wrote several poems mimicking the structure of poems of his I particularly admired. In mid-2001, I began putting together a collection of haiku for possible publication and intended to dedicate it to Bob for his generous mentoring. I queried several publishers with sample poems and while I received occasional positive responses, no publisher seemed interested in funding a collection, no doubt in part because the profits would be meager. After several months of unsuccessful queries, I at last received a letter from Tom Tolnay at Birch Brook Press who expressed an interest in publishing the book in letterpress edition. The downside was the expense. As an author, I would be expected to cover approximately 70-75 percent of the production costs, while Birch Book would pitch in the remaining 25 or so percent. This “cooperative” book agreement was a substantial investment on my part, but it felt right to go the extra distance to create a book with fine paper, letterpress print and wood engravings, since the book would be dedicated to Bob. I was fortunate that Frank C. Eckmair, a very talented wood engraver who passed away several years ago, was the staff artist at Birch Brook at that time and designed a beautiful cover engraving of a country cottage nestled in the hills, along with several woodcuts for the inside of the book, adding a visual dimension which worked well with my haiku.

I believe it was in February of 2002, when I was still putting together the collection with Birch Brook, that I received a rather terse and mysterious note from Bob, informing me that he would no longer be acting editor at Modern Haiku, and to submit thereafter to Lee Gurga, the Associate Editor. I heard (or read) a few weeks later that he was dying of a brain tumor. Once apprised of the terrible news, I quickly posted him a note that I was sad to hear of his decline in health and felt tremendously fortunate to have known him—if only by letter—over the course of several years and had been immeasurably enriched by his correspondence. I mentioned that I was in the process of putting together my first collection of haiku for Birch Brook Press, and felt honored to dedicate it to him. To this day, I’m uncertain whether he received the note, or was well enough to read it.

I’ve never picked up Shadwell Hills without being reminded of Bob and the wisdom he shared not only about haiku, but on many other subjects of mutual interest: the theory of Buddhist enlightenment, healing practices, travel and nature writing, and other genres of poetry, to name a few. He has always been deeply missed, and Shadwell Hills serves as a recollection of my relationship with a remarkable poet, teacher and mentor during the years I knew him as editor of Modern Haiku.

Ice crystals in the pines—
the dark half of the moon
faintly visible

—Rebecca Lilly

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thank you, Lilly-san, for your terrific book story. I am a fan of your poetry.
    Robert Spiess truly was a great teacher and poet. I saved every note he ever sent me. I often wonder if “we” shouldn’t collect all his kind and instructive notes…anyway, thanks for this story.


    1. Patrick,
      Thank you for your kinds words about my poetry and response to my bookstory Bob Spiess was a kind and wonderful teacher. I now deeply regret not having saved all my correspondence with him (and am glad you saved yours). –R

  2. Rebecca, your bookstory is deeply touching and brings tears to my eyes. Bob Spiess mentored so many of us, and your words make it clear that his legacy will continue far beyond our lifetimes. I have to say that your grasp of “how to haiku” in response to Bob’s notes came much more quickly than mine .

    How I hope that the digital age does not completely replace “real” books and that there will always be Tom Tolnays out there who continue to believe that a beautifully-made book is as much a treasure as other works of museum-quality art.

    Thanks for sharing this! –Billie

    1. Billie,
      Thank you for your reading my bookstory. As for the “how to haiku” it didn’t come easily and Bob had high standards, as you know. He rejected a lot of poems I submitted to Modern Haiku, but in the process helped me train my ear and become a much better critic of my own work. His criticisms and edits were invaluable (although very painful to bear at times). Bob had a great ear for sound and rhythm and I learned much about musicality from his own poems and those he published in Modern Haiku. I agree with you: may Bob’s legacy live on! –R

Comments are closed.

Back To Top