Inaugural Nanaimo poet laureate Naomi Beth Wakan is about to wrap up her three-year term. The city has not found anyone to replace her yet – perhaps not surprising because while Naomi may be an octogenarian, she is a dynamo of style and energy and will be a hard act to follow. Thanks, Naomi, for setting such a high standard and for your dedication to making poetry a regular part of civic life in Nanaimo – from the city council chambers to school classrooms to the sidewalks, where thanks to you there is now a poetry map of the city. Thanks, Eli (Naomi’s sculptor husband), for taking time away from your own art to ferry Naomi to her many official appearances.
On a monsoon Saturday recently, I was lucky to make it to the Nanaimo North library to hear Naomi give her last formal reading as poet laureate. I was early and Naomi thanked me for attending, expecting that I would be one of five or six given the pouring weather. Wrong! The room soon filled up with around twenty people – a big crowd for such a day. Naomi made a few remarks and read some poems. Here are some highlights from her prepared notes and reading:
Naomi: I have two new books out this year and I’d like to read a bit from both. It does seem that I write prolifically, but at 85, I need to cram in as many words as I can until I feel I have said everything that I want to say. My twin sister, also a writer, calls it “Sandbagging Death”.
The first book, “Bent Arm for a Pillow” takes its title from a Confucius quote – With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bent arm for a pillow—I have still joy in the midst of all these things. . .
The book contains my most reproduced poems as well as a few from these three years as Poet Laureate of Nanaimo and new poems from the last two years. . . Here are a couple from my frequently published section:
How to write a haiku
Details confuse me,
so when I see a rose,
although I do not know
its pedigree, I write down ‘rose.’
And when I cut it,
I do not know whether
I should cut it on a slant,
or straight, or under water twice,
so I write down ‘cut.’
And when I put it in a vase,
I do not know whether it is raku
or glaze or, perhaps, good plastic,
so I write down ‘vase.’
And when I see two red leaves
on the earth beside the rose bush,
I do not know from which tree
they have fallen,
so I write down ‘red leaves.’
And as I set the vase
and the leaves on the table,
I write down
rose just cut
beside the vase
two red leaves
And although I do not know
the details of what I have just done,
the sadness of it all
cracks my heart open.
Used as the title for an earlier book of poetry, the next poem is entitled “Sex After 70” (no need to get excited, because it is actually about the perils of publishing).
Sex after 70
I sit across
from my publisher
who cuddles his coffee
and explodes with “What!”
“I’m writing a book on haiku”
I repeat calmly.
“On haiku!” his face red.
“Why can’t you write
something people want to read
like Fishing on the West Coast?”
“Or Sex after 70?” I counter.
“Yes, Sex after 70,”
his eyes switch from
exasperated to hopeful,
“Now there’s a promising title!”
We both fall silent.
I imagine he is weighing up
the odds of me being informed
on the subject, while I
do a quick survey of
a possible table of contents.
Sex and osteoarthritis—
the joints locking
in positions unheard of
in the Kamasutra.
Choices—orgasm or muscle cramp;
whether to allow myself
the pleasure of orgasm
or go into the pain
of a concurrent foot cramp.
Whether to focus on the vagina
and the blissful dissolving
or on the foot and get that spasm
dealt with and those
toes straightened out.
Decisions, decisions and
before I know it I am
thinking of nouns—
those nouns of haiku,
and how each noun
condenses a universe
and packs a wallop,
and how two, or three nouns
together, if carefully chosen,
can tumble you into the void
and to Universes beyond,
and how the pause, the pause
at the 5th or 12th syllable,
opens so many possibilities
to dwarf all orgasms, or cramps
come to that, and transforms
dark crows on bare branches
into cockatoos on plum blossom.
“I’m writing the book on haiku”
I firmly address my publisher
across the steam of his coffee.
He sighs, takes a sip and asks,
“When’s the first draft ready?”
Now for a couple of poems I wrote as poet laureate: Try to imagine writing 3 poems on the same topic for each of my three years! I had to do that at least for three occasions. Here’s a poem I wrote about when I first heard I had been selected:
Me and Alice Munro
We had both decided,
(that is Alice Munro and I)
that it was time to put down our pens,
cease the flow of words
that previously had come endlessly . . .
put it all to an end, when suddenly,
almost without warning,
and yet vaguely expected,
we both get a phone call.
Her’s is from Stockholm, while mine
is from Nanaimo,
(a little closer to home, I must admit).
Nevertheless, we both hear a phone ring.
Alice’s call is to announce
that she has won a Nobel prize,
while mine is to announce
my poet laureate-ship of a small city.
A slice more modest I must admit,
yet still an honour, although
with an honorarium 1,000th the size.
But let’s not dwell on such sordid matters
as that, let’s just say that we,
(Alice Munro and I) have lived out
similar triangles, similar in angles,
but with sides not to be compared.
My tiny-sided triangle, though similar
to Alice’s, reflects my comparative talents.
I have always sat comfortably with small,
knowing it is similar to large, but
sufficient in itself.
Many poets, especially new ones, cling to each of their words as if they were golden. I have never done that and have a fair estimate, I think, of what is good and bad about my poetry. Here is a poem about a certain lack in mine. The poem is called “Lacking Duende”. Duende is associated with the cry of the flamenco singer and the blood and death of the bull ring, so no wonder I lack it:
It’s not that I have
any problem with creativity—
my ideas come fast and furious,
linking in strange and exotic ways.
It’s just that they do not
penetrate the bone to the marrow.
The soil I plant them in
is not sprinkled with blood . . .
My writing is of familiar ground
that lacks the suffering of the outcast,
the sorrows of the diaspora.
My words may circle
on the edge of the devilish,
but never plunge into the Hell states.
They lack the grit of downtown,
or the roughness of wilderness.
I tell the tales of a small-town girl
tinged with the longing to be noticed . . .
but not too much.
At my age, the presence of death
may shadow my every line,
but it is of death delayed,
not death imminent.
Not the kind of death a samurai
confronted as he stepped from home
not knowing for sure whether
he would ever return.
Yet still, my poetry is not without redemption.
I seek to find duende in the everyday—
a ball of twisted twine,
a worn-down kitchen spoon,
the many-times turned pages
of a beloved book.
And when I write of love,
although it is not of passion,
at least I remind that it can
never be truly happy.
As to quests and ventures,
I speak of them as futile, rather than heroic,
the grail always just beyond my reach.
I may have somersaulted the bull’s back
in my “maybe” lines, but,
I have never closed in for
the final stabbing.
There will be a farewell party for Naomi Beth Wakan in Nanaimo on the afternoon of December 10 at the Port Theatre. The new poet laureate and Nanaimo’s inaugural youth poet laureate will be introduced. It’s a free event. Time TBA. See you there!
Ann Graham Walker