A Poet’s Roving Thoughts: An Interview with Naomi Beth Wakan by Robert Epstein
(First published here by kind permission from NeverEnding Story contributors, Naomi Beth Wakan and Robert Epstein )
Naomi Beth Wakan is an eighty-eight year old haiku, senryu, and tanka poet who has been writing for many years. She is the Inaugural Poet Laureate of Nanaimo, BC, and the Inaugural Honorary Ambassador for the Federation of BC Writers. Naomi has published over 50 books, including the ALA selection, Haiku — One Breath Poetry (Heian International). Her trilogy, The Way of Haiku, The Way of Tanka, and Poetry That Heals (Shanti Arts) was completed in 2019. She is a member of The League of Canadian Poets, Haiku Canada and Tanka Canada. She lives on Gabriola Island, British Columbia, with her husband, the sculptor, Elias Wakan.
Before we talk about aging and your interest in it, I am wondering if you could briefly recount for readers how you found your way to haiku and its related forms all those years ago?
When I was teaching English in Japan (in my sixties), I came across haiku and such a condensed form of poetry interested me. When I returned to Canada and was teaching about Japan in the schools around Vancouver, I could see that the students were interested in writing haiku. I knew little about the subject and so started reading any book on Japanese poetry forms that I could find. I could see that the often stated 5,7,5 syllable lines wasn’t really the essence of haiku and wanted to know what was. I decided to write an introduction to haiku for myself, as a beginner; one that would also help my students. Thus Haiku — One Breath Poetry came to be. It sold surprisingly well and was chosen by the American Library Association in their poetry for teenagers section. Nothing like going where angels fear to tread.
How has your haiku, senryu, and tanka changed or evolved over the years?
In Poetry That Heals, I describe how writing those forms intensely over a number of years changed me. I began with writing only haiku (as well as my free form poetry). Writing only what my senses recorded (although emotions and ideas were somewhere behind the words) required I become more aware of my body cycles, the rise and fall of the day and the passing of the seasons. This awareness kept me firmly grounded. After some years, I yearned to be able to introduce my feelings and ideas overtly and so moved to tanka. Luckily the scholar of Japanese classical literature, Professor Sonja Arntzen, lived on Gabriola, the little island to which I and my husband had moved, and she became my tanka guide. I had joined Haiku Canada as a way of linking up with other haijin and found myself volunteered as the West Coast representative. I had no idea what a representative’s function was and so decided I would initiate an annual gathering of haijin on my island. This began as a one-day event and, over the years, grew to three days as we opened the event to outsiders on the third day. Thus we spread the good news that haiku (and tanka) were wonderful ways of recording the moment (haiku) and telling of the past and our hopes for the future. Some of the finest haiku and tanka writers in the world, such as Jim Kacian, Michael Dylan Welch, Carole MacRury, and Amelia Fielden shared their expertise at this annual gathering, and thus, like a s poilt child, I brought my teachers to me.
You are adept at writing tanka as well as haiku and senryu. Do you decide which form of poetry to use or does the poetic insight determine the mode of expression?
As I came to accept my aging, I started to explore my past, draw up some ledgers in order to see what yet needed to be done before I kicked the bucket. Tanka is the perfect form for nostalgia as it seems to be always like an old sepia photo, yearning for times that never were. Tanka was a form used for corresponding in the Heian period and so Professor Arntzen and I decided to write a book of tanka where we responded to each other’s words, Double Take (Modern Tanka Press). We enjoyed the process so much that we followed up with another book of response tanka, Reflections (Pacific-Rim Publishers). I had become more centered in my years of writing haiku and now I wallowed in the freedom to present my ideas and allow my emotions full expression in my writing of tanka.
I have the impression that Buddhism and Taoism occupy a special place in your philosophy of life. I am wondering if they inform your poetry in any way and, if so, how?
As a former Buddhist, of course my years of meditation are reflected in my poetry writing. I think that the idea of the middle way, allowing many sides of any issue to be explored has strongly influenced my writing. Sometimes I seem to allow the pause in haiku, or the move in tanka from outer to inner to give me the space to modify anything that has gone before. I have become a .’maybe’ poet, always questioning and full of doubt that the whole picture can ever be presented.
In the process of editing a haiku anthology on aging, I had the pleasure of making your acquaintance. Not only have you written a good many poems on aging, but a few years ago you published your own nonfiction book on the subject, A Roller-Coaster Ride: Thoughts on Aging (Polar Press, 2012). I am wondering what prompted you to write this book?
My publisher prompted me, as publishers always seem to be asking for the next book, before the previous one has gone to press. Although I often write about things I know little of in order to learn more myself, I also thought I should write about something that I did know something about and that was aging. I had had a mastectomy and was slowing down from my usual frenetic pace and I needed to explore what was next on my plate – aging and dying, so why not write a book about it?
I greatly appreciated your genuineness and emotional honesty in A Roller-Coaster Ride as well as your sense of humor, which is sometimes irreverent. You do not seem like someone content to simply fade away on the margins of life. Why is it important to live your life out loud (to quote Émile Zola)?
I was a second twin (two hours delay between us). I must have thought I was forgotten as I lay alone in my mother’s womb, enjoying the large space I now had since my twin had been born, but, at the same time missing her terribly. When I was eventually dragged out by forceps, I barely whimpered. So always there has been a need to be noticed, yet, at the same, time, not noticed too much. I have enjoyed such success as I have had in the writing world, but also have felt terribly shy in any limelight that has flashed on me. My stumbling birth, the only real trauma of my life, has marked me with an urgent need to make my mark, however faint it may have been.
If you could distill in a few words or reflections what you have learned about aging through self-observation and experience, what might you say?
If you don’t bend, you break. If you persist in needing to be thought young and glamorous, you’re in for a sad old age. I embraced my early grey hair, accepted the occasional hair on my chin, and loved the branding I got by accident as “that lovely old biddy from Gabriola.” This came to me when my printer in Nanaimo had to send one of my jobs down to Victoria for perfect binding. He had started his e-mail to the other printer with “I have this lovely old biddy from Gabriola . . .” and, by mistake he sent the e-mail to me. I laughed a lot and sent it on to my publisher who was delighted and asked if she could use it in promoting me. I agreed. It wasn’t demeaning as some of my friends thought, for I knew my space as a middle-of-the-road writer and was content with it and could easily afford to laugh at myself and all the posturing I might have done to even get that far in a writing career. When I became the Inaugural Poet Laureate of Nanaimo and the Inaugural Honorary Ambassador for the BC federation of Writers, of course, my branding became a little more dignified. Being able to make the best of whatever comes your way, dealing with it creatively, has always been my modus operandi, and that, of course, also means considering the restrictions that old age is putting on me. For example, as I’m more and more restricted to the domestic hearth (I no longer drive, or fly) I have decided to make an art of domesticity and so wrote an essay promoting this art form and got it accepted by a magazine, thus publicly giving an example of how difficult times can become positive ones. Of course there are terrible situations that can never be transmuted in this way, so I am not making light of what is often an impossible task. In Buddhism such transformation is the essence of Vajrayana, the practice of transformation.
Is there anything else on the theme of aging––or dying, for that matter––that you might like to share?
As my little island of Gabriola is a ‘retirement’ island, I check out the obituaries in the local paper every week. “If they can do it, I can” I tell myself and go about weeding and messing in the kitchen calmly. Other times I freak out with the realization that I am soon to disappear. It’s a roller-coaster sort of thing. I was brought up in the Coney-Island kind of town of Blackpool, in North-west England, where the roller coaster was a dominant sight. Maybe that’s why it has seemed a good metaphor for my life.
I would like to invite you to share with readers some of your own haiku, senryu, and tanka on aging that you have written.
at this age
when I have the urge
to try something new
I pause and realize
I have already done it
“After thirty a man wakes up
sad every morning.”
I am taken aback . . .
how did he know my secret?
how we want
to encapsulate life
dip it in formaldehyde
pin it in a box so it will stay
as we want it forever
my life’s theme
“I’m going to die”
played in tremolo
first variation in fortissimo
“Tomorrow, not today”
past images cling . . .
a schooner painting hung
over a distant fireplace
a friend’s death . . .
the maple leaves are falling
too early this year
saying “sorry” before bed
I remember my mother
all I see through
are two young girls
swinging dangerously high
the day after he died
she wore his woolen sweater
the edges unravelling
I don’t know if you care to answer this question, but I would be interested to know how you wish to be remembered.
I have dilettanted through a number of creative outlets in my lifetime, but the only one I have half succeeded at was my ability to encourage others in their creativity. So, I would like to be remembered for all those successful artists and writers that I have helped on their way either with a small pat on the back, or a more vigorous kick in the pants.