In Memoriam – Janice M. Bostok 1942 -2011
Janice M. Bostok will go down in history as the haiku pioneer of Australia. Though there was a general interest in all things Eastern in Australian poetry from the 1960's and a few Australian poets included haiku or haiku-like poems in their published collections, as far as a haiku movement goes Australia was terra nullius. Any sense of a haiku movement in Australia begins with the extraordinary story of the young Janice Bostok, a countrywoman with a flair for correspondence.
As a result of the chance mention of haiku by a pen-pal in the USA and Jan's query in return, "What is haiku?" a small volume of translated Japanese haiku arrived in the mail and Jan began writing haiku. For over forty years, Jan worked to encourage the writing of haiku and related poetry. She edited and published Australia's first haiku journal, Tweed, was haiku editor at various times for the journals Hobo, Paper Wasp, Yellow Moon and Stylus and for five years she was South Pacific Editor for the annual Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku. She taught haiku whenever and wherever she could, taking pride in being known as 'the haiku missionary' and she judged many haiku competitions. She joined John Bird in his project of the First Australian Haiku Anthology and the creation of HaikuOz.
Jan's haiku were first published in America, in 1971. Her collection, Walking Into The Sun, was a runner-up in the 1974 Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards. Her haiku were included in Cor van den Heuvel's 1986 edition of The Haiku Anthology and her work featured in numerous Australian and overseas journals and anthologies. Jan's poems have been translated into seven languages.
In August 2010, I asked Jan if there was an English-Language haiku that had particularly struck her in her early days of reading and writing haiku. Her reply:
"My first introduction to haiku in English introduced me to a Tennessee Mountain poet who only worked in the 5-7-5 . . . He wrote under a couple of names: Mabson Norway, Mableson Southard, O. Mabson Southard.
The old rooster crows
Out of the mist come the rocks
and the twisted pine
It's magical, as if the rooster's crowing brings up the sun, which in turn gives us back the landscape which had been in darkness. I loved it and I was hooked. We all have that one haiku which hooked us in!"1
Janice M. Bostok died peacefully in the Murwillumbah Hospital on Sunday 4th September, 2011. To the last, Jan proudly showed visitors a draft copy of her biography. Jan's daughter, Vicki McLeod, collecting Jan's belongings from the hospital, found an exercise book containing new haiku.
Please join us in commemorating Jan's life and enjoy reading a small retrospective of Jan's haiku and related work here, as she would've wished. We also introduce Jan's biographer, Sharon Dean, by way of her insightful tribute and an abridged extract from her book manuscript, White Heron: The Authorised Biography of Australia's Pioneering Haiku Writer Janice M Bostok.
Lorin Ford – haiku editor, A Hundred Gourds
"My interest in haiku was triggered in 1970 when an American pen friend sent me a Peter Pauper book of Japanese haiku in English translation. I immediately began to write haiku and to my surprise they were accepted for publication in American haiku magazines. My first efforts were not as good as I imagined, but by their acceptance I was encouraged to continue writing and studying haiku in English." –Janice M. Bostok
the width of the river
the fluttering of moths
against the window
we travel the mind hesitant at crossroads
the sky to the east
in this blue
the scalloped flight
of one swallow
cold night fire clings to the log it burns
talking we visit places
within each other
|Katikati Haiku Pathway
photo courtesy of Sandra Simpson.
Two of Janice's haiku have been carved on rocks along the Katikati Haiku Pathway, in Katikati on the North Island of New Zealand.
Small Poems from a Large Life2 – Sharon Dean
Janice M Bostok was one of Australia's leading writers within Japanese poetic genres. Her contribution to the development of Australian haiku, in particular, was immense.
After learning about haiku from an American pen friend, Marcella Caine, in the late 1960s, Jan created the first market for haiku in Australia by founding the journal Tweed. In the 1990s she wrote "The Gum Tree Conversations", the first series of articles to demonstrate the relevance of haiku to the Australian experience and landscape. Embracing the internet in 1999, Jan then co-edited the First Australian Haiku Anthology with fellow haiku writer John Bird, which led in 2000 to the founding of the Australian Haiku Society (Haiku Oz), and then in 2006 to the publication of the Second Australian Haiku Anthology.
In a career that spanned more than forty years, Jan had sixteen collections of haiku-related work published. Meanwhile, more than four thousand of her individual haiku appeared in journals and anthologies in Australia and overseas, with many featuring in unconventional places, having been carved by invitation onto rocks in New Zealand, programmed into computer games in America, and printed on the labels of green tea bottles in Japan. Her work also won numerous awards, including runner-up in the 1974 Haiku Society of America Book Award for outstanding achievement in the field of haiku publication, as well as the prize of which she was most proud: first place in the UK's Seashell Game for most popular haiku published in English in 2002.
Jan's work has been translated into several languages, including Japanese. In 1999, Hiroaki Sato, the Japanese poet, translator and past president of the American Haiku Society, cited thirty of Jan's one-line haiku in his essay "The Agonies of Translation", while the Japanese artist Takejiro Nojima was so inspired by Jan's haiku that he rendered a selection in calligraphy, several examples of which are now held in a collection at the Tweed River Regional Art Gallery.
Jan's passion for haiku extended well beyond the realm of personal accomplishment. Abiding by the Japanese notion that haiku is a communal activity, she spent countless hours leading workshops, judging competitions, editing journals and anthologies, working in collaboration with other haiku writers, and mentoring aspiring haijin from throughout Australia and across the world. It's little wonder she has been described as "the inspirational leader of haiku on this continent'"(John Bird), the "doyenne of haiku in Australia'"(Beverley George), and "the spirit of haiku in the southern hemisphere" (William J Higginson).
Born in Mullumbimby on April 9, 1942, Jan grew up with a strong sense of 'not belonging'. Shunned for being 'the fattest kid in town', she was also teased about her family's Seventh-day Adventism. As a seventeen year old, she settled in Melbourne, where she met her future husband, Romanian migrant Silvester Bostok. After the early years of their marriage in the Victorian sawmill town of Cann River, Silvester and Jan bought a banana plantation at Dungay, a small farming community outside Murwillumbah in northern NSW. For the next thirty years, Jan helped her husband work the land while nurturing her haiku practice.
During this period, Jan also adopted a neglected child, gave birth to a disabled son and battled diabetes. In 1978, she made an overseas pilgrimage to visit some of the world's leading English-language haiku writers. All the while, her relationship with Silvester was passionate and complicated; after divorcing him in 1981, she married him again in 1986. But throughout Jan's adult life, regardless of the challenges she faced, she consistently sought refuge in haiku, a 'way of seeing' she would eventually come to describe as her 'religion'.
As Jan said toward the end of her life, "I gave up my family's religion and I took up haiku as a religion. Haiku gave me a path that connected me to the sacred mystery in every moment. It calmed me, and the sharing of it was very healing and cathartic, as proven by the warm and wonderful reaction of readers from all over the world. I'd feel people supporting me, even if I'd never met them.'"
As Jan's biographer, I was fascinated with the intimate connection between her life and haiku, a connection that would become movingly apparent to me following a 2008 trip to Japan, where I occasionally bought bottles of chilled green tea from vending machines. One day in Kyoto, I was surprised when a machine dispensed to me a bottle featuring one of Jan's haiku. The poem was printed in Japanese characters, and the accompanying translation read:
day lily petals fold
Aware that the flowers of most day lily species have a relatively brief lifespan – in that they open at sunrise and wither at sunset – I admired the ephemeral quality of the image. Months later, however, on hearing Jan explain that she'd written the haiku in memory of her first child, a son who had died at birth, I gained a greater appreciation for the poignancy of her art.
People often told Jan they adored her work because she wrote of experiences they themselves had had, but hadn't been able to put into words – especially words that spoke so concisely and resonantly, and also with such lingering depth, warmth ... and often, humour.
no money for the busker i try not to listen
seven calories per stamp
i write too many letters
Jan's empathy with animals is also prevalent in her haiku. As a child, she taught a crow to talk, and as a young woman, she bred Welsh Corgis, ran boarding kennels, and hand-reared a range of creatures – from kittens and poddy calves, to hermit crabs and axolotls. It's a conservative estimate, but I'd say that at least one-third of Jan's haiku feature animal protagonists.
morning flying ant wings on the cat's whisker
only wishing to rescue it moth's down sticks to my fingers
Ultimately, however, Jan felt that it was her connection with the land that gave her work its distinct Australian feel. "I was born in a particular area, and my father taught me all about the birds, animals, plants and weather in that area," she once said. "I've observed the land all my life. The Japanese haiku masters demonstrated that haiku is the experiencing of life – here and now, with every breath we take. I admired that philosophy and adapted it to my own experience living in the bush in northern NSW. As a result, my haiku reflect my life and experiences, especially in terms of my emotional responses to nature."
Janice M. Bostok and biographer Sharon Dean at the 4th Pacific Rim Haiku Conference, Terrigal, NSW, Australia 2009, - photo courtesy of Sandra Simpson
Poetry vs. Poultry
"In 1971 I was being published overseas. Still no one that I knew had heard of haiku. I remember attending a mothers club meeting at the local school. To break the ice we were asked what our hobbies were. When it came my turn I thought that there was no point in saying haiku, so I said poetry instead. Simple enough, I thought. There was dead silence. Then a voice from up the back of the room said: That's breeding chooks, isn't it?"
- Janice M. Bostok
from deep within
the rooster crows —
dark night ducks' dim whiteness afloat on the dam
of the wonga-wonga pigeon
echoes in my head
wind blows a glimpse of ducklings through the reeds
the door half open
for the cat
back in the hills a pocket filled with mist
early spring mist —
in the valley the clatter
of milking pails
When Life Leaves – Janice M. Bostok
There's a different couple in the old Graham place you say as we drive home from town i wonder where the other lot went
Who knows they move about like gypsies i answer
pelts jacaranda blossoms
against our windscreen
Look out they've got a dog
A half-grown black cattle pup lopes out of the gateway onto the roadside
It'll stop you say not going fast but not attempting to brake either as it keeps running it's tongue lolling to one side with what seems like a silly grin of greeting on its friendly face as it appears almost determined to run straight under the wheels of our 4 wheel drive
above the cane fields
flatten the crop
Before you stop I'm out of the vehicle and by the pup's side
It lies calm and still as it looks up at me our eyes meet shiny and bright in recognition before the life slowly drains away and they glaze over in finality
The woman screams you've killed my bloody dog i only got it yesterday you've killed my bloody dog
She almost throws down a girl toddler she'd been carrying in her arms
The child panics begins to cry and cling to her legs but she pushes her away standing alone over the dog
a gust of wind
whips her skirt
about her legs
A young man comes out of the house
Take the kid inside he says quietly
No she screams they've killed the bloody dog
Without saying more he picks up the child and carries her indoors making soothing sounds to comfort her as he walks
the door slams
one hinge rattling
We continue the drive home in silence the woman's high pitched voice ringing in my ears her accusations become my own
By her rebuke i now know that the light from those brown eyes will continue to follow me
I can't stop thinking about the child will she always remember that day will she come to know as i have that life leaves the body through the eyes
the 4 wheel drive
"The persistence in continuing to mirror Japanese haiku can be clearly seen when writers stubbornly use cherry blossoms and Buddhist temples in their Australian haiku. The English language is a beautiful language. We should be using it in exciting and modern ways. We write haiku about kookaburras, kangaroos, rotary clothes hoists, holdens, akubras, and the mountains and terrain of our own country. . . .We do not claim to write Japanese haiku." – Janice M. Bostok
bushfire country all the brick chimneys standing
amongst the graffiti
a tiny violet
traffic delay a truck load of pigs amuses for a while
all the pedestrians
at the rim
of the barrel
the incessant spinning
of rotary clothes hoists
envelope my thumb slips open the seal of his tongue
Tweed : Australia's first haiku journal3 – Sharon Dean
In her late twenties, Jan found respite from the challenges she faced as a parent by corresponding with other writers interested in Japanese literary genres. One such writer was William J Higginson, the American poet, scholar, translator, publisher and charter member of the Haiku Society of America (which formed in 1968, the year before Jan first heard of haiku). Higginson became Jan's mentor, and when he started publishing Haiku Magazine in 1971, Jan felt inspired to do something similar in Australia.
Jan had been interested in creating a magazine since first learning about haiku and realising there were no specific markets for the genre in Australia. In 1972, she launched Australia's first haiku publication, Tweed. Initially, Jan tried placing a call for submissions in various Australian poetry journals, but the editors refused to run her announcements on the grounds that haiku wasn't 'serious poetry'. Eventually she gathered support for the project by informing her pen friends of her intentions and also by advertising in the Australian Women's Weekly.
Jan produced one hundred copies of the first issue of Tweed, which she mocked-up by hand on the farm at Dungay, and had printed at The Daily News in Murwillumbah. Tweed was released quarterly. Later in life Jan would marvel that she'd not only had the audacity to start a magazine, having had no previous experience in publishing, but also that she'd managed to keep it running for almost eight years.
Jan mainly worked on Tweed late at night when her three children were asleep, but was rarely able to tend to it during the day. No matter how tired she was, she persisted in staying up late to work on the magazine – usually in the old bathroom shed at the back of the farmhouse, which she had converted into an office by covering the bathtub with planks of wood to create a practical work surface. She listened to frogs croaking as she typed haiku, brushed flying ants from her papers as she designed layouts, and became accustomed to the sound of possums thumping across the corrugated iron roof as she cut and pasted the various elements of the magazine into place.
Proud to be the only person in Australia publishing haiku, Jan was excited when contributors submitted work that heightened her awareness of the natural world – an awareness that, in turn, would reinforce her determination to approach life mindfully.
even the dog
(John Wills in Tweed, 1975)
Initially, Jan's toughest editorial challenge was to convince contributors there was no need to write haiku in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. She also had to repeatedly advise writers to avoid antiquated poetic phrases such as "harbinger of spring". As she would say decades later, "In the early days of Tweed , it seemed that every second person was submitting haiku about the 'harbinger of spring' and I thought, oh, if only I could find that harbinger of spring, I'd shoot the little begger."
At first, Jan received plenty of submissions from America and England but nothing from Australia. When work from Australia finally started trickling in, she noticed most of the submissions were rhyming haiku or poetry that was closer to free verse than anything else – poems that were written, she suspected, by poets who hoped Tweed would become another general poetry market. She often found herself writing carefully phrased rejection letters to authors of such lines as:
nature's teardrops fall
watering flowers with love
raindrops from above
Later in life, Jan would discover that during the time she was publishing Tweed there were a number of talented writers in Australia – including Norman Talbot, Bob Jones, John Turner and Andrew Lansdown – who enjoyed writing haiku. On learning that those writers had submitted their short poems to mainstream poetry journals rather than specialist haiku magazines, she would feel different to them in the sense that she had set out from the beginning to specifically become a haiku writer rather than a mainstream poet who occasionally wrote haiku.
Late in 1975, Brian Joyce, a good friend who had helped Jan edit numerous issues of Tweed, gave Jan a copy of Robert Gray's Creekwater Journal (1973), his first collection of poems. This quickly became her favourite book of poetry. Later in life, she would say that Gray's work was "a beacon on my path" and " the only Australian poetry that influenced me". Whenever Jan read Creekwater Journal she would return again and again to a sequence of twenty-seven short, haiku-like poems.
Freewheeling on a bike –
the butterflies of sunlight
all over me.
"At last," she thought, "I've found a fellow poet who understands the freedom I felt as a bike-riding teenager! This is pure haiku spirit."
Most of Gray's short poems reminded Jan of familiar experiences. Some brought back memories of her train journeys north from Sydney.
The train's halted
Nowhere. Small birds whirling up
From the dry grass.
Some resonated with her life at Dungay – one in particular reminding her of the deep and hollow sound of the logging trucks that took the back road over the mountain at night.
4a.m.; the Milky Way
Is blown along, high over the forest
A truck changes down.
When Jan met Gray in person in 1976, she asked him why he didn't call his short, haiku-like poems haiku. Gray said he believed that by labelling them, he would limit them, and besides, he didn't use season words like the Japanese haiku writers did. He also felt that many of his short poems were based on imagined, rather than real, experiences.
Jan was delighted when Gray sent her some of his haiku-like poems to publish in Tweed.
A bare rope clothesline
fluttering its hairs
More than thirty years later, Gray would recall that his meeting with Jan had been a pleasure, and he would still feel the same way about not calling his short poems haiku.
"I'm not limited by the haiku technique. My short poems are images that exude a feeling. Besides, there are so many misconceptions about haiku. People think that haiku is like a Valentine's card, that it's rather sweet. . . but it's actually tough, it's actually quite strong."
(Gray in conversation with Dean, 2009)
In 1976, Jan received a phone call from another Tweed contributor, Gerard Smith. Gerard was working on an Honours degree in English Literature at the University of Queensland. He wanted to help Jan raise the standard of Tweed. Jan was happy to accept Gerard's offer. "I've never been able to spell," she told him. "Welcome aboard."
Jan appointed Gerard associate editor of Tweed. A patient teacher, he taught her a lot about writing. The pair worked together on the magazine on the nights that Jan and her disabled son Tony stayed in Brisbane (so that Tony could attend the Preschool for the Deaf). Over the next couple of years, Tweed became so popular that at one stage it boasted more than five hundred subscribing contributors, including the acclaimed Australian poet Dorothy Porter and many prolific American haiku writers including Robert Spiess, Anita Virgil, Leroy Gorman, George Swede, LA Davidson, Virginia Brady Young, Michael McClintock and Cor van den Heuvel.
after the shower –
listening to my
(van den Heuvel in Tweed, 1975)
One of Jan's most satisfying Tweed-related moments was when she published the work of Marcella Caine, the American pen friend who had introduced her to haiku.
Would I have known him
if I'd passed him on the road –
Bashō – trudging by?
(Caine in Tweed, 1978)
By the late 1970s, Jan was corresponding with many of the early haiku writers in America. Several were her mentors, and most were contributors to Tweed. When Jan told Gerard she wanted to travel overseas to meet her correspondents, Gerard became so excited at the thought of his friend's impending trip that he helped her plan every detail. It was a huge loss to Jan when Gerard died in a car accident in 1978, only a week before she left Australia.
Epilogue – Janice M. Bostok
the curve of his neck manly even in childhood
i look at my son a rosebud that didn't unfurl plucked too soon perhaps a bud which cannot blossom one who is in this world but not of this world one who could not enter freely and happily into his life one who does not hear the wind but feels it buffeting his body roughly never gently as we who hear it whispering on summer evenings my son will never be able to love a woman as other men may do he will never hold his child in his arms and know the wonder of creation my son will forever be a rose bud tightly furled layer upon layer of frustration unable to expand his mind to experience our world as we have done
evening rain stepping stones slowly darken
"I fell in love with haiku. I had never read poetry quite like it. For example Bashō's
placing my feet against the wall
how cool it is
There was no posturing, no pretence, no ego waving! This was real life. This I could relate to."
–Janice M. Bostok
the lake's surface
pitted by insects
water stillness the mirror image's join undetectable
1. Janice M. Bostok to Lorin Ford, August 2010.
2. 'Small Poems from a Large Life' by Sharon Dean is an abridged version of a tribute published on the HaikuOz website on September 6, 2011. A similar version of this article – pitched at a more general audience and entitled "Catching the essence of life in a single breath" – appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 14, 2011, and is available at: http://www.smh.com.au/national/obituaries/catching-the-essence-of-life-in-a-single-breath-20110913-1k7nt.html
3. 'Tweed : Australia's first haiku journal' by Sharon Dean is an abridged extract from White Heron: The Authorised Biography of Australia's Pioneering Haiku Writer Janice M Bostok.
All of Janice M. Bostok's work, including haiku, haibun, quotations and graphics from her website, are reproduced in A Hundred Gourds with the permission of the copyright holder, Jan's daughter, Vicki McLeod. Haiku all from Amongst the Graffiti, Post Pressed, QLD, 3rd reprint, 2005. Haibun 'When Life Leaves' first published Stylus Poetry Journal; also published Haibun Today, Dec. 2007. Haibun 'Epilogue' first published Stepping Stones, Post Pressed QLD, 2007; also published in Haibun Today, Dec. 2007. 'Small Poems from a Large Life' and 'Tweed : Australia's first haiku journal' © Sharon Dean, 2011. Colour photos © Sandra Simpson, 2011.
Janice M. Bostok's website: http://members.dodo.com.au/janbos/