by Alexis Rotella
In the beginning
As a woman haiku poet, I’ve been most fortunate to have been rewarded with much recognition and a feeling that I have played a small part in advancing the genre of haiku and its related forms. But perhaps my most satisfying endeavors were the startups of journals where old and new haiku poets were given a showcase for their work. Early on, I started The Persimmon Tree, Brussels Sprout and in later years, the still active Prune Juice (Senryu Journal) which has had a string of editors.
It was an honor in the early 80’s to have East West Journal publish two of my articles — one on haiku and the other on senryu which introduced the forms to a wider audience outside the haiku community. In that era, mostly small serious groups met at Japan House every quarter to discuss and share haiku (and not always in a civil way). After the meetings, Hiro Sato frequently invited poets to his house for appetizers and drinks over which we continued the dialogue. We sometimes gathered in restaurants and wrote renga together. Many encounters enriched and stretched my life in ways that were pleasant, but unfortunately, some were downright painful.
At my Mountain Lakes, New Jersey home, I hosted several outdoor parties. One such occasion celebrated the publication of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (Norton, 1984). Editor/poet Rod Willmot came from Canada to join the festivities. While getting up early to get fixings ready for breakfast, I first piled cold cream on my face, hoping to get a few alone moments to catch my breath, but Cor had beaten me to the punch. There I was and there he was when the burglar alarm went off as Cor opened the back door to go out for his morning constitutional. As if that weren’t shocking enough, he nearly doubled over when he saw me in a black kimono and white face — a creature from the floating world.
When Hiro Sato, who for years served as President of the Haiku Society of America stepped down from the post, he asked Gerrie Little and then me to serve as president. It’s a position I took seriously because the meetings generally did not have a friendly atmosphere — more like attending a wake with total strangers. Poets just sat round the large oval table, not speaking to one another, while waiting for the meeting to begin. But they seemed all too eager to pounce when someone read a haiku that was not to their liking. As a newcomer, I was shocked to witness such aggression. I tried my best to change the atmosphere by serving green tea and cookies before the meeting started. A warm drink and a little sweetness did wonders to break the iceberg.
At the time, Frogpond was in danger of folding and members were demanding their subscription monies be returned. After asking who would like the job of editor, there were no takers so I took on that task as well. I was often criticized for giving too much space to certain poets, but I was determined to let new voices be heard. I was blessed to have a great VP — Herman Ward, who invited me to his Colonial-era homestead just outside Princeton, NJ. His support was invaluable. We dined together in my kitchen numerous times to discuss how to make quarterly meetings more friendly and engaging. On one occasion we attended (with other poets) a moon-viewing in the hills of New Jersey where a shakuhachi flute player entertained us. Dear Herman snored all the way through.
My husband Robert and I did a fair amount of travel during which we met poets at their homes. On one trip we visited Arizona Zipper in Maine. He was still snoozing when we arrived but his mother made us really feel at home. She let me make kudzu pudding on their ancient stove. When Arizona finally rolled out of the sack, he stayed in his longjohns throughout our visit, puffing on a corncob pipe.
In Santa Fe, Elizabeth Searle Lamb hosted us for tea and cookies. Her husband, Bruce, had just gotten out of the hospital and we were careful not to overstay our welcome. Elizabeth proudly showed us around their historic adobe including the room with her legendary harp with the broken string. At that time, I, being the new kid on the block, took care to acknowledge her as the grand dame of haiku. However, I did sense a bit of worried concern coming from her.
I also sensed similar concerns from Gerrie Little, Raymond Roseliep and a few other old timers. I think they were afraid I was going to give haiku a bad name — taking it to unrecognizable directions. Gerrie, Raymond and Elizabeth often offered unsolicited advice about the journals I edited. Raymond suggested that in my own writing should I focus solely on concrete poetry. That most certainly would have tied my Muse’s hands. While Elizabeth remained distant until her final days, Gerrie phoned often when I lived in Los Gatos, California, rarely to discuss poetry, but to connect as friends. She wanted me to know that her husband took his own life. And she confided her fears of becoming a bag lady. This is the couple who attended my New Jersey party — her husband was engaging and gave me an impassioned pep talk on how important it is to love what one does for a living. I remember Gerrie’s spectacular silver ring — a giant Buddha head. Whatever star she landed on, I wish her everlasting peace.
During one of those morose haiku meetings in New York, (before I became president), I noticed a young man with sparkling eyes sitting close by. It was Scott Montgomery who had just returned from Japan after studying martial arts. We made an instant connection. A few weeks later he took a bus from Boston to spend a week with us. Scott is a Gemini and wow, could he converse! I don’t just mean chatter. We took many walks with Blue, our beloved golden retriever, and covered every topic imaginable. I loved hearing what rolled off his tongue. “Spring must be really hard on old people,” he said while the scent of lilacs hung in the air. I thought that so profound for a young man in his 20’s. Scott’s father, also a writer, committed suicide. We had talks about what it’s like to be the surviving child. Unfortunately, Scott faded from the scene early but not before having some of his fine haiku published in Cor’s anthology.
Scott served as guest editor of Brussels Sprout for a season. One evening we were so engrossed in going over submissions and talking haiku that we couldn’t believe it was already dawn. Looking up from all the little pieces of paper and index cards (we only had snail mail back then), the brilliant white dogwood pressed against the study window.
A new phrase is coined
Quite a few poets were miffed that I wrote haiku which included relationships with lovers, family, friends and strangers, as if only birds, trees, flowers were worthy of inclusion. (Rod Willmot coined the phrase psychological haiku.) I have always been interested in people and the games they play. From childhood I noticed how often people say one thing while their body language says the opposite. I did receive my fair share of “hate mail.” Surprisingly, much of it from women . . . some of the betrayals are hard to think about, but I’ve memorialized a few incidents in published haibun. A few males dismissed me, ignored me, did their best to convince others that my work wasn’t worth serious consideration. Making my way through Haikuland was often a precarious journey. While I sought friendships through open-hearted dialogue, many just wanted to ride my coattails. Others were determined to block every opportunity for me to become better known, especially at events where the audience was largely unfamiliar with haiku. Typically, I was told about these happenings at the very last minutes or the next day–purposely it seemed. Surprisingly, this kind of opposition often came from other women. Whatever happened to sisterhood and helping females break the glass ceiling?
I’m most grateful to Cor van den Heuvel for encouraging me to keep writing, no matter what others thought. It wasn’t long after my poems started to make an impact that I got calls from Nick Virgilio (who said he and I could make beautiful music together), Virginia Brady Young and Alan Pizzarelli. I’ll always cherish the long phone conversations back in the day when haiku seemed to be the most important topic on the planet. I recall Cor’s book-signing party in New York — how disappointed we were that Shirley MacLaine didn’t show despite my sending her a handwritten invitation!
I must share a funny but revealing moment when I met a San Francisco-based haiku poet at a coffee shop shortly after The Haiku Anthology was published. He extended his hand and greeted me with, “No single poet deserves to have so many haiku included in one anthology.” When the second edition came out, of course, he didn’t object when he, too, had a satisfactory number of pages devoted to his work.
Nothing stays the same
Time, of course, has wings and the old days are just memories now. Email drastically changed the way we communicate — I sometimes miss the earfuls of gossip and the extemporaneous Hi, Lex, can I bounce a haiku off you? via telephone. Haiku has circled the globe infinite times, made its way into mainstream poetry, often with embarrassing consequences. To the average person, haiku is still the classic (but to me, boring) 5-7-5 form filled with prepositions, adjectives and sentimentality forced into that mold.
After enrolling in acupuncture school, first in Santa Cruz, then commuting to Miami from San Francisco, I basically dropped out of the haiku scene (except for writing renga and inventing new forms with ai li, editor of Still). Learning Chinese Medicine is like learning another language — the right brain gets a real workout. I had no time to submit to journals or keep in touch with many in the community except for gab sessions with Vince Tripi every now and again between my stints in Florida. However, I did scribble my poems and fragments on scraps of paper before tossing them in a big box for the day when I would once again emerge.
To be honest, it was a relief to extricate myself from the politics and the game playing for half a dozen years. I didn’t know who was writing what and I simply didn’t care. After I opened my practice in Arnold, Maryland (having jumped through many hoops to get licensed in my state and nationwide), Alan Pizzarelli invited me to be his secret guest at Haiku North America in Winston-Salem (2007) where I shared senryu from my then soon-to-be-published Ouch (Senryu that Bite) collection. Shortly thereafter I submitted on a lark a haiku to the Kusamakura contest and won the Grand Prize (as well as the Second). My husband and I traveled to Kumamoto for the ceremony and then spent ten glorious days exploring the mind-blowing city of Kyoto. I’m not one to enter a lot of contests but I figured if I wanted to get to Japan, I would have to get there myself, since most of the American haiku poets who had been invited as guests were male.
2017 and beyond
In 2017 Hiro Sato asked if I’d like to take over his editorship of the Ito-En Haiku Grand Prize (English Division) Contest. The first year I traveled to Manhattan for the ceremony and banquet where I met a number of really talented artists including a jazz pianist, painters and a famous calligrapher. The banquet was over-the-top especially the Kumamoto oysters which were as smooth as butter. At the end of 2019, I will have served in that capacity three years after which the baton will be passed to another.
When the #MeToo wave started, I felt driven to share my own experiences and to edit and curate an anthology where other women (and a few men) opened up and told their story-poems in Unsealing Our Secrets which won a Touchstone Distinguished Book Award in 2019. It was the most laborious and emotionally consuming project I have ever undertaken since many poets wished to remain anonymous. My husband Robert helped edit and publish the anthology. I’m deeply grateful to him for giving the project his all.
Much of my present focus is on mobile photography and digital art. Within a short period, my work has been shown in Florence, Porto, Portugal and Milan, Italy. I don’t know what is on the horizon after I publish my next two books, Living in White Linen (haiku) and Dancing the Tarantella (tanka). Starting July 2019 I will be the 19th haiku poet to be included in the American Haiku Archives. One friend joked, At age 72, they probably thought they’d better act quickly.
I agreed to edit The Tanka Society of America Journal later this summer and if the stars align favorably, my husband and I will attend the Haiku North America gathering in Winston-Salem where he will discuss copyright pointers for haiku authors and I will talk about the moon.