Janice M Bostok: biographer Sharon Dean

Janice M Bostok’s contribution to the development of Australian haiku is immense. After learning about the genre from an American pen friend in the late 1960s, Jan created the first market for haiku in Australia by founding the journalTweed. 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 haiku 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 a Haiku Society of America Book Award in 1974 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 in the hills 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, raised 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.’

A few months ago, I finished writing Jan’s biography. Strangely, the submission of the work as part of a PhD in Creative Writing dovetailed neatly with the end of Jan’s life. The biography is called White Heron, but Jan simply called it ‘my book’ and insisted on showing her un-proofed copy of the manuscript to anyone who walked into her room at Murwillumbah District Hospital.

I’d never met anyone like Jan. Her life brimmed with paradoxes. On one hand, she craved attention; on the other, she longed to disappear. Some days, Jan told me she was convinced she’d lived a wonderful life; on others, she was adamant that there had been no end to her frustration and despair. Intensely shy in certain moments, she could nonetheless wisecrack her way through a haiku lecture like a seasoned comedienne. Jan loved diamond rings and shopping. She was also proud that her family tree ‘has always stood out in an open paddock, every branch laden with peasants and farmers’. She was the only person I’d met who’d tried resuscitating goldfish, and was so stubborn that at one stage in the 1980s (taking her cue from the American haiku writer Marlene Mountain) composed nothing but one-line haiku for five years.

Ultimately, however, I was fascinated with the intimate connection between Jan’s 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:

summer dusk
day lily petals fold
into night

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 deep 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.’

In September 2009, I travelled with Jan to Terrigal on the central coast of NSW for Australia’s first international haiku conference, the Fourth Haiku Pacific Rim Conference: Wind over Water. Convened by the then President of HaikuOz, Beverley George, the historic event brought together fifty-seven delegates from seven countries, and Jan was delighted to finally come face to face with haiku colleagues from all over the world, especially those with whom she had corresponded for years but had never met in person. From Jan’s point of view, the conference felt like ‘one big haiku family reunion’, and she later remarked, ‘There were those I knew closely, those who I knew a little, and those who were distant cousins, and I was the great grandmother sitting there waiting for the family members to come up in turn and meet me. From the delegates of the conference, it felt as though I received an informal thank you for my life’s work in haiku.’

Once we were back home, Jan said that the conference was probably the most important event of her career – and, due to her deteriorating health, the last public event she would attend. Unfortunately, she was right. For earlier this year, Jan was admitted to Murwillumbah District Hospital suffering from diabetes-related complications, and she died there, peacefully, on September 4.

On behalf of the Australian and international haiku communities, I offer condolences to Jan’s family, especially her sister Norma, daughter Vicki, son-in-law John, son Tony, and grandson Andrew.

$5 phonecard i hate it when there’s no goodbye
SHARON DEAN, September 6, 2011

(all haiku cited above are Jan’s)