Alexis Rotella

 

When did you become interested in haiku?

I discovered the form while working on an undergraduate Zen thesis at Drew University, an old Methodist school which focused on Western thinkers. When I presented my oral paper to the chairman of the philosophy department, his response was Zen monks must have diseased minds. The Zen practice of burning books was a concept that he found most uncomfortable.

Although I received an A- for the paper, along with a bruised ego, I learned something really important – know my audience!  An important lesson in the School of Hard Professor Knox.

In 1978 while visiting the New York Cloisters, I came across two books that would change my life forever–Harold Stewart’s A Net of Fireflies and A Chime of Windbells. The illustrations were captivating and even though the haiku rhymed, I loved reading them.

 

When did you first start to publish?

My first publication was a longer poem called Purple, first published in East West Journal. Through life I went for 29 years thinking I wasn’t creative – that art and poetry were out of my reach. Then one afternoon Purple wrote itself. The Muse tapped me on the head with a feather to say, Wake up.

Click here to read Purple

It’s a poem that has been like a chain letter finding its way into many venues including writing and architectural texts.

 

When did you start to publish haiku?

Having been smitten by the haiku form, I began sending my meager attempts to Randy Brooks’ High Coo journal. Each week my little poems would come back to me in SASEs with sorry scrawled on the top. I kept it up until finally the day came when

Husband home from work
haiku for dinner
again

was accepted. I guess one could say it’s a senryu about a haiku. And while lying in bed one morning, a haiku seemed to drop into my frontal lobe:

The monk
sounding a butterfly
out of the bell

While there have been haiku written about butterflies asleep on bells, this one was a new slant. I felt like my heart was the bell and I was being awoken by Destiny herself for after that time haiku began pouring from my fingertips and in all these decades, no matter what I’ve gone through in my life, the flow has continued.  You might say the Muse paid me a visit and never left. I didn’t have to get down on my knees and pray for her help, I didn’t have to listen to pep talks on how to get through writer’s block.

 

You were one of the early presidents of the Haiku Society of America. When was that and what was the experience like?

In 1984 HSA President and translator Hiroaki Sato asked if I’d serve as president of the Haiku Society of America (Japan House, NYC) after Gerrie Clinton Little’s reign. Long story short, Frogpond, its house organ, was on its way to extinction. Members were threatening to demand back their dues. Gerrie and Vice President, the late Prof. Herman Ward, encouraged me to take that job on too. I asked many poets if they’d be willing to assume the responsibility of getting Frogpond back on its feet but there were no takers.

Editing Frogpond was a great experience especially since I was the only decision maker. It was a pleasure to publish many writers such as Raymond Roseliep, Bob Boldman and David LeCount. Sometimes I’d devote pages to one poet which irked a number of readers.

I also published my own one-word haiku simply because I thought another journal would never do it. Jim Kacian refers to it as the second most famous one-line haiku ever written.


                                                 shark


Everyone knows Cor’s

                                                 tundra

is number one. 

 

What was it like back in those earlier days?

Long before I came on the scene, Hiroaki Sato, Alan Pizzarelli, Anita Virgil, Bill Higginson, Nick Virgilio, Cor van den Heuvel and others were meeting at Japan House regularly and ironing out 'dos and don’ts' of how haiku ought to be written in English. They were a serious bunch and rather intimidating to a newbie.

Long before email, poets corresponded by snail mail or phone. It was Cor van den Heuvel and Rod Willmot who really were open to my work and from there, I started getting calls from Al Pizzarelli, Nick Virgilio and Virginia Brady Young. We’d chat on the phone about haiku, commented on each other’s work, and just got to know one another.

The haiku community was relatively small and consisted mainly of poets from North America. While I was still a newcomer in the early 80's, I traveled to Santa Fe where I met Elizabeth Searle Lamb (Roseliep’s First Lady of Haiku). Her husband, Bruce, had just had surgery so we didn’t linger at their adobe-style home, just long enough to have tea and cookies and get a tour of their rooms where we saw her famous harp with the broken string.

I also traveled to Maine to see Arizona Zipper where he let me use his kitchen and some of his precious vanilla to concoct a kudzu apple pudding. He smoked his pipe the entire time, didn’t indulge in the dessert and didn’t share any haiku. He and his charming mother lived in a rambling Colonial that took up the whole block.

The high diver
takes off her cape
in the stars.             
                 (Haiku Anthology, Norton)

is an Arizona Zipper classic.

We entertained a number of haiku writers in our Mountain Lakes, New Jersey home including Hiroaki, Cor, Bob Boldman, Hal Roth (editor of Wind Chimes Journal), Gerrie , Rod Willmot and Adele Kenny. I had a garden party in honor of the publication of Cor’s Haiku Anthology (Norton) where afterwards we all walked around our community’s beautiful namesake lake. I remember Cor stopping to lovingly place an arm around his wife, Leigh, to take it all in.

I remember when Rod was visiting from Canada, Cor spent the night at our house and decided to get up at the crack of dawn. Unbeknownst to each other, I also got up before the house began to stir, slipped on my black kimono and painted my face with cold cream. I wanted to catch my breath before another day of haiku talk commenced but it wasn’t long before Cor set the security alarm off. I dashed down the stairs to find Cor pale as a ghost. "You scared me ! I thought you were a kabuki dancer," he gasped.

 

Any other stories you’d like to share?

Nick Virgilio would often call to run a haiku by me. He used to tell me he was standing on his head as we spoke and I chortled when he said, "Alexis, you and I could make beautiful music together."

My response, "Nick, you’ve been drinking too much carrot juice."

Allen Ginsberg via Al Pizzarelli sent me a few haiku to be considered. Looking back, I wish I had published them, not because they were great, but to show how big-name poets wrote haiku. In fact, just recently Haiku Chronicles featured a Poem in the Pocket --one of the haiku that appeared there was one of Ginsberg’s. It may have been one that I rejected!

Poem in the Pocket on Vimeo

Poem in the Pocket on YouTube

Another poem featured in the latest Haiku Chronicles was one I wrote years ago that appeared in my meaty out-of-print collection of tanka, Lip Prints (Modern English Tanka Press):

My first haiku book
long out of print–
I find it
in a shop
for a dime.

It was actually a true story that took place in Pacific Grove, California. I wandered into a used bookstore where I noticed a box containing some of my books and a number of Frogponds which I edited. I introduced myself to the proprietor who was wearing a black sweater and brown scissor-pleated skirt. I complimented her on her color combination which I found unusual. When I looked down at her desk, there were a dozen or so of my haiku cut out and glued to cards! She said she was going to send them to her friends.

 

Is all of your work based on true experience?

Don’t try
to figure me out–
everything I write
is fiction
all of it true.

is another tanka from Lip Prints. I write from direct experience, dreams, imagination. On a White Bud and Affair an Affair which put my work on the radar screen were really based on a challenge I gave myself after reading Chekov’s Lady with the Dog.

After watermelon
shivering
in his arms

was inspired by a scene in Chekov which stimulated my own imagination.

The butterfly
from last night’s dream
waiting on the mailbox

was based on real life.

 

Who do you think is the most interesting haiku writer you’ve ever met?

Alan Pizzarelli is a colorful figure who is famous for his droll sense of humor. He married his soul mate, Donna Beaver, back in 2008--it has been an amazing
ride for both of them. When two good heads came together Haiku Chronicles came into the world for our viewing and listening pleasure.

Every Halloween I simply must watch on YouTube their incredible You Put a Spell on Me  musical number.

 

You lived in New Jersey for a long time.  Where did you head next?

In 1993, my husband was transferred to the San Francisco Bay Area where we lived in Los Gatos for five years. When I first moved there, I thought I would be more involved in the haiku community, but it turned out not to be so.

One afternoon I drove to San Francisco to meet another haiku poet. His first words were, No one deserves to have so many poems in an anthology. He was referring to van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology where several pages were devoted to my work. He actually counted the number of Alexis’ haiku which I myself had never bothered to do.

 

That was quite a welcome, wasn’t it? I hope you didn’t have many more experiences like that.

Well, there was another time when a fellow writer called to inform that a certain member of the Northern California haiku group seemed to be on a mission to prove that not everything Rotella wrote was great stuff. Years later I confronted that same person about his routine dismissal of my work, but there was no acknowledgment or apology.

One of my closet friends from my California days was the late Pat Shelly, best known for tanka. She was a widow in her 80's and we had many interesting outings together. I recall the afternoon she and I were headed toward Los Altos to a restaurant but became so engrossed in our conversation that we drove miles away from our destination until the spell wore off and we realized we didn’t know where we were.

I attended her memorial service and every time I passed the cemetery where she was laid to rest I waved. People have always been more important to me than poetry even though poetry may have been the catalyst that brought us together.


There was a time when you didn’t publish much. Why was that?

I began acupuncture school in Santa Cruz where I didn’t stay long. I wasn’t keen on the traditional Chinese Medicine approach, but more attracted to the Five Elements System which is a more holisitic methodology so I transferred to a school in Miami to which I commuted every few months for training and in between did clinicals in California. Learning Oriental Medicine required a lot of memorizing and in order to become licensed, I had to put my nose to the grindstone. I rarely submitted to journals but in my spare time I began corresponding with ai li, editor of Still journal. She and I created many renga offshoots such as colorenga, catenga and surrenga. They’re still online.

Ai li and I also shared recipes and life experiences and for a year or two we were project soul mates. She’s a great poet and gifted photographer; I hope she makes a comeback.

Carlos Colon and I rengaed back and forth for years via snail mail. We finally met in Winston-Salem at a Haiku North America meeting in 2007 where we read one of our renga. I also read of  my tanka which would soon afterwards be included in Elvis in Black Leather

After my father’s funeral
I lift the shroud
from the TV set
and let Elvis in black leather
break my heart

I don’t know if that tanka was an incentive for Carlos to become Haikuland’s own Elvis, but I like to think it may have planted a seed.

Carlos published Sassy, a collection of our linked poems.

As you can see, quite a bit took place during my haitus away from publishing in journals. I was frankly relieved for the respite away from the usual poetry politics. I also realized early on that California is a state of mind and I am, at heart, an East Coast girl.

California friends
here today
gone today  
                ‚Äč(Ouch, Senryu that Bite, MET Press)

 

Then where did you land?

When my husband was hired by a Washington, D.C. law firm, we moved to the Annapolis, Maryland area. I was soon licensed and opened an acupuncture practice. Within a few months I had the mercury removed from my teeth, got really sick and somewhere along the way I was also diagnosed with Lyme disease. But I’m not going to get into the miseries of having an illness that doctors said was all in my head. Instead I managed to take baby steps, study, and incorporate what I learned into my own healing practice. Life throws at some people an incredible maze and it’s up to us to try to find our way out.

As I started to make progress and was able to think more clearly, I dug into that big box in the closet that contained thousands of haiku, tanka and other poems that were written over a period of thirty years. Coincidentally I heard about Modern English Tanka Press and its founder, Dennis Garrison. He said he’d be interested in publishing a collection of my work.  Poems on scraps of paper morphed into Lip Prints. On a lark, I asked Michael McClintock, tanka scholar and exceptional poet,  if he’d take a look and tell me what he thought. I was shocked at the response – he loved the manuscript and wrote a long thoughtful foreword.

Dennis published Ouch (Senryu that Bite) which is another large collection, as well as Eavesdropping (a reprint of Clouds in My Teacup, Wind Chimes Press, 1981), and Elvis in Black Leather, my love affair with the King, and Black Jack Judy (Growing Up Italian in the Bronx), my husband’s autobiography written mostly in tanka form.

Regrettably my MET books are all out of print although I still have a few on my shelf if anyone is interested. When I see them for sale on Amazon, I grab them if they’re not selling for $100.

I gradually began submitting poems to journals, my favorite being an’ya’s moonset newspaper. An’ya and I did a long epic renga together about our growing up Slavic which won a Tanka Splendor award. On another lark, I sent a haiku to the 2007 Kusamakura Annual International Haiku Contest and won a trip to Kumamoto, Japan where my husband and I were given the red-carpet treatment. In 2006, I met Roberta Beary at a haiku gathering in 2006 where she piqued my interest about that contest. Her haiku won the 2005 grand prize for:

thunder
the roses shift
into shadow

My winning entry was:

Near dusk
sound of the last
fishing boat

 

When did you become interested in haiga?

Dennis asked me to put together a team of editors for a new on-line journal, Modern Haiga. Linda Papanicolau agreed, as did Dennis and Raffael deGruttola. I was a fledgling at haiga, having just started to play with PhotoShop. It was a safe environment in which to experiment. There was a dearth of haiga outlets and I like to think we were a springboard for other editors to start their own online journals as well as others to experiment with haiga. I never dreamed so many poets would jump into the haiga pond.

Before I became involved with Modern Haiga, Linda Papanicolau published a number of my works on Haiga-on-Line. She’s an excellent teacher from whom I’ve learned a lot.

 

Where do you publish most of your poetry?

For the past several years, I’ve been posting my poetry and haiga on Twitter and Facebook. I recently joined Michael Rehling’s Virtual Haiku for members. It’s a safe place to share one’s newest creations. Michael, also a prolific poet, shares his words on social media regularly. He’s a good friend to poets and writes reviews of books he likes on Good Reads.

Just a couple of months ago I began submitting again to journals and am finding it takes a lot of time and energy. I haven’t entered a lot of contests lately–I’m not driven to do so.

 

Were you interested in writing as a school girl?

When I was just a young girl, I was enamored with the blank page, especially the smooth end pages of the few books we had on the shelf. I remember running my fingers over the silky white sheets and thinking, One day I want to fill up these pages with something that means something to me, something that comes from myself, not other people.

So the metaphors were there long ago even though it took me years to understand them.

 

Who would you say influenced you the most?

The editor of Alembic Press who published Raymond Roseliep’s Listen to Light and Rabbit in the Moon saw my potential even though I didn’t. With just a few suggestions, I was able to hone my nature haiku into more personal moments.

Convertible top stuck
raindrops water
my flower-print dress.

In the pool hall
spouting zen
the young stud                  
                     (Eavesdropping, MET Press)

Raymond and I corresponded at least weekly. I published much of his work, both in Frogpond and Brussels Sprout. Raymond was eager to share his experiences and he was a new voice who wrote about his childhood which in turn got me to look at my own growing-up memories which I published in Middle City and Musical Chairs.

Here is a sampling of Raymond’s haiku from The Haiku Anthology:

brushing my sins
the muscatel breath
of the priest

the cat
lowers his ears
to the master’s fart

buttoning his fly
the boy with honeysuckle
clenched in his mouth

Sadly, Raymond wasn’t with us long–he had a heart attack in the dentist’s chair.

Bob Boldman was a short-lived star but while he wrote, he shone and showed us all how to minimize. He was also a master of concrete poetry. I didn’t believe Bob when he told me his writing career would soon be over; I thought he was exaggerating. I was happy to see that Red Moon finally put out Boldman’s everything i touch, which was awarded a 2012 Touchstone Distinguished Books Award First Prize for Best Individual Collection by The Haiku Foundation, and a Second Prize in the 2012 Kanterman Awards from the Haiku Society of America.

Boldman is a Zen practitioner and probably the most spiritual man I’ve ever met. Here are three of my favorite Boldman haiku (The Haiku Anthology, Norton).

mirror   my face where I left it

face wrapping a champagne glass

in the temple
a
heartbeat


Scott Montgomery, another minimalist,  was also a big influence. I met him at a Haiku Society of America meeting before I became president. We hit it off immediately. He too disappeared from the haiku scene before he could show us what he was all about. But we’re all lucky Cor noticed his work:

evening lecture
a shadow hangs
from the pointing finger

crying
she moves deeper
into the mirror

I published an illustrated chapbook, Drizzle of Stars, where I included two renga with Boldman and one with Montgomery. It didn’t get much notoriety, but is probably my favorite book of everything I’ve done to date, except perhaps for Lip Prints.

Before I met Hiroaki Sato in the flesh, I read his tome, Country of Eight Islands and again fell in love with his one-line translations. They stirred something in me as did his renga with Marlene Mountain.
Their collaborations can be read 
on Marlene Mountain's website.

 

Have you judged contests?

I’ve judged a number over the years including the Hawaii Educational Association Contest in the early 80's with Kenneth Yasuda and Hiroaki Sato. A Japanese television station was on the scene to interview the male judges but they didn’t bother to look my way.

For two years in a row now, I’ve been a Touchstone Awards judge and feel honored to have read so many books by so many haiku writers. This year John Stevenson’s (d)ark won first place. Even though they weren’t award winners, I was touched  by Elizabeth Crockett’s not like Fred and Ginger, a small chapbook with a big subject.

Mike Rehling says of this haibun collection:

"I am glad that Liz has both survived cancer, and shared the journey in this way for the rest of us."

Another fine read is Robert Epstein’s What My Niece Said in My Head, haiku written for his niece thousands of miles away.


It’s been a while since you published books. What are your plans?

In April of this year Red Moon published my haiku collection, Between Waves for which  Michael McClintock and Grace Cavalieri wrote favorable blurbs. Here are a few haiku:

Telling its story
gurgle
of the creek

Pushing winter
in deeper
owl hoot

Autumn
I sit inside
its holiness

I was also honored that I was Grace Cavalieri’s April’s featured poet/artist at danmurano.com which showcased a number of my haiga.

 

You’re posting a lot of art on social media. What’s with that?

When I post haiga, photographs, or iPad art, I’m really sharing my daily journals. There aren’t enough outlets for my work – the poetry and the art just keeps coming forth. My best work will probably never be seen in journals. Life moves on. What better way to feel alive than to live with the Muse on a daily basis? Friends and family members come and go. Poetry and art are forever.

 

What’s next?

The present
moment
my address

I’ve had a number of haibun accepted in the last few months–that’s an art form that has really taken off. It’s exciting to see how many haiku poets are writing it, and writing it well.

 

Who are your favorite modern-day writers?

W.S. Merwin, Thomas Transtromer and Ted Kooser are my favorite longer poets. I’m impressed with Jane Hirschfield’s essays on poetry. As far as those writing Japanese forms in English, there are so many and I’m sure I’ll hurt a lot of people by not mentioning them, but off the top of my head there’s Margaret Chula, Penny Harter, Roberta Beary, George Swede, Carole MacRury, Bob Lucky, Ron Moss, John Stevenson, Debbie Strange, Jim Kacian, David Terelinck, Beverly George and Tom Clausen.

 

Do you want to add anything?

I could go on for days but all things must come to an end. Thanks for letting me share.