WAKAN, Naomi




Author Tags: Poetry, Publishing

In 2013, Naomi Wakan was appointed the first Poet Laureate of Nanaimo. A verse by the inaugural poet laureate was installed outside the Port Theatre in the spring of 2017, the first stone in the city’s new poetry walk. As a poet laureate, Wakan initiated a Poetry in Transit program (poems gracing Nanaimo buses) and created the Nanaimo Poetry Map and a high school poetry competition.

Born in London, England, Naomi Wakan was introduced to works of George Bernard Shaw and the Fabian socialists by her older sisters by the time she was seven. She graduated with a degree in Social Work from Birmingham University. She immigrated to Canada in 1954 and brought her family up in Toronto. She worked as a psychotherapist, specializing in early childhood traumas. She came to Vancouver in 1982. She remarried to the sculptor, Elias Wakan, and travelled extensively including living two years in Japan, a stay that began with a two-week holiday. During their two years teaching ESL in Japan, they took 6,000 slides. Upon returning to Canada, they were pleased to discover Japan had been introduced into the B.C. Ministry of Education Grade 6 Curriculum. They developed a series of slide shows on Japan and Peru, also a Grade 6 subject. The couple formed a small publishing house, Pacific-Rim Publishers, to produce educational books, many of which Naomi wrote and illustrated. Their first title was Food in Peru with a print run of 100 copies. It eventually sold 1,000 copies. They produced 23 unsubsidized titles, the last being Telling Tales on the Rim. Wakan and her husband moved to Gabriola in 1996 and opened a studio, Drumbeg House Studio, where he makes wood sculpture and Naomi Wakan paints, writes and does fabric art as a member of Gabriola Fibre Artists. Wakan has moved from writing books geared to children to books for adults, including Haiku - One Breath Poetry. Her essays and poetry have appeared in Resurgence, Geist, Room of One's Own, Kansai Time Out and Far East Journal. Her advice to emerging writers past the age of fifty, Late Bloomer: On Writing Later in Life, was followed by personal essays about her literary life, Compositions: Notes on the Written Word, and a summary of her reading habit over the course of one year, Book Ends: A Year Between the Covers (Poplar Press, 2010).

With more than 30 books behind her, at age 80, Wakan released a collection of often humourous essays, A Roller-coaster Ride: Thoughts on Aging (Wolsak and Wynn 2012), in which she considers subjects that include death, retirement homes, elder abuse and what to call people after they're past retirement.

[photo © Beverly Deutsch, 1980]

CITY/TOWN: Gabriola Island

DATE OF BIRTH: July 20th, 1931

PLACE OF BIRTH: London, England

ARRIVAL IN CANADA: 1954

ARRIVAL IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: 1982

EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: Artist and fabric work

BOOKS:

Images of Japan (Pacific-Rim Publishers, 1989)
Japanese--An Appetizer (Pacific-Rim Publishers, 1990)
Inca Scrapbook (Pacific-Rim Publishers 1991)
Reading About Japan (Pacific-Rim Publishers 1992)
Haiku - One Breath Poetry (Pacific-Rim Publishers 1993)
Puzzling on the Rim (Pacific-Rim Publishers 1993)
One day a Stranger Came (Annick, 1994)
Telling Tales on the Rim (Pacific-Rim Publishers, 1995)
Healing Bag (Lightsmith Publishing, 1998)
They Came from China (Pacific-Edge Publishing, 1999)
Haiku Bag (Lightsmith Publishing 1999)
Memory bag (Lightsmith Publishing, 1999)
Musicworks, Gardenworks (Artmonsky Arts, 2002)
Drumbeg Park (Pacific-Edge Publishing, 2004)
Segues (Wolsak & Wynn, 2005) - poetry
Late Bloomer: On Writing Later in Life (Wolsak & Wynn, 2006)
Compositions: Notes on the Written Word (Wolsak & Wynn, 2008).
Book Ends: A Year Between the Covers (Poplar Press, Wolsak & Wynn, 2010).
Sex after 70 and other poems, Bevalia Press, 2010. 978-0-9782868-8-0
Reflections: response tanka, (with Sonja Arntzen) Pacific-Rim Publishers, 2011. 978-0-921358-25-1
On Poetry (with David Fraser), Ascent Aspiration Publishing, 2011. 978-0-9736568-9-3
Think Colour, (with Ruth Artmonsky), Artmonsky Arts, 2011. 978-0-9551994-8-6
Nostalgia & The Attic (with Alice Rich). 2011, 978-0-9865253
A Roller-coaster Ride – Thoughts on Aging (Hamilton: Poplar Press, 2012). $19.95 ISBN 978-18949876-4-6
Naomi in Nanaimo (2014)
On the Arts (2016)
The Way of Tanka (2017)

Plus the 'Work' Series - Loveworks, Artworks, Designworks, Foodworks, Bookworks

[BCBW 2016] "Poetry" "Publishing"

A Roller-coaster Ride: Thoughts on Aging (Poplar Press / Wolsak & Wynn $19.95)
Review (2012)



Born in London, England in 1931 as Norma Rudd, Naomi Wakan was introduced to the works of George Bernard Shaw and the Fabian socialists by her older sisters by the time she was seven. She graduated with a degree in social work from Birmingham University and immigrated to Canada in 1954, having married and become Norma Deutsch, raising her family in Toronto where she worked as a psychotherapist, specializing in early childhood traumas.

She came to Victoria in 1982 after having divorced and married her second husband, the sculptor, Elias Wakan. They chose their own names when they wed; Eli became Elias, and Norma became Naomi. The couple travelled extensively and lived for two years in Japan, a stay that began with a two-week holiday. During their two years teaching ESL in Japan, they took 6,000 slides. Upon returning to Canada, they were pleased to discover Japan had been introduced into the B.C. Ministry of Education grade 6 curriculum. They subsequently developed a series of slide shows on Japan and Peru, also a grade 6 subject.

Their small publishing company, Pacific-Rim Publishers, began to produce educational books, many of which Naomi wrote and illustrated. Their first title was Food in Peru (1988) with a print run of 100 copies. It eventually sold 1,000 copies. They produced 23 unsubsidized titles, the last being Telling Tales on the Rim (1995). When the Wakans moved to Gabriola in 1996, Pacific- Edge Publishing took over distribution of their Pacific-Rim titles. On Gabriola they opened Drumbeg House Studio, where Elias makes wood sculptures and Naomi writes and edits.

Naomi has since moved to writing books for adults. Her advice to emerging writers past the age of fifty, Late Bloomer: On Writing Later in Life (2006), was followed by personal essays about her literary life, Compositions: Notes on the Written Word (2008), and a summary of her reading habits over the course of one year, Book Ends: A Year Between the Covers (Poplar Press, 2010).

With more than 40 books behind her, at age 80, Naomi has now released a collection of often humourous essays, A Roller-coaster Ride: Thoughts on Aging, in which she considers subjects that include death, retirement homes, elder abuse and what to call people after they’re past retirement.

On Gabriola Island, Naomi Wakan maintains her self-image as the “bouncing, precocious, naïve, imaginative kid” she has always been. In her garden, she has waited to take her place as a senior, elder, crone even “lovely old biddy” (as she once overheard herself described) but it hasn’t happened. At the beginning of her new book, she explains: “I do not seem to have moved into the calm and wisdom that people promised me old age would bring. My life is more like a roller coaster. Some days I feel totally part of the universe. Life seems interconnected and meaningful and the words flow from me as if coming from a deep source.

“Death slots in naturally as all things come into being and pass away. Other times everything falls to pieces. The world outside seems menacing and fearful and death a losing game… Many of my friends have not matured noticeably in the years I have known them; I really have not done much in the way of maturing myself.”

Wakan’s work portrays a life continuing to be well lived, as evidenced by her most notorious and very funny poem, “Sex after Seventy.” Similarly, A Roller-coaster Ride is not a book about being old. “I did a lot of research for the book,” she says, “then tore it up and threw it all in the air, realizing I was not any kind of an authority on aging and shouldn’t pretend to be one.

“I wanted to fill A Roller-coaster Ride with all the things I love to do best that have taken me so happily into old age—my poetry, my personal essays (reaching towards belle-lettres) and my love of reading and reporting what I read when I find bits I want to share. I don’t have much wisdom, myself, but have a quick eye for others’ wisdom when I read it.”

In this roller-coaster of brief chapters, with poems scattered throughout, she addresses the “small and personal,” with no big dramas and a lot of questions, confronting head-on the expected questions such as memory vs. nostalgia (her mother rearranging the family album, herself associating memories with poems and colours), generational warfare (with a nightmare image of young folk attacking a retirement home), ageism (which she challenges indignantly—“Why can’t the elderly be allowed anger?”), health and medicine, (“Preventive medicine is wasted on the very old anyway and makes the young into invalids”), loneliness and euphemisms (“I swear that I will cry if I hear ‘passed on’ one more time!”).

With common sense and humour, she does offer a few suggestions—she would hesitate to call them advice—supported with checklists and appendices. Only in her final chapter, “Hank’s Wake,” does she allow herself to approach the elegiac in her contemplation of friendship and community.

With the success of her poetry collection Segues (2005), Wolsak & Wynn realized Naomi Wakan’s energy could not be contained within a single genre, and, after 25 years of publishing mainly poetry, the imprint initiated Poplar Press to accommodate Wakan’s essays for Bookends – a year between the covers (2010).

When Wakan told me the working title of her thoughts-on-aging book, Licorice and Lavender, I sighed and accepted the implication: we who are no longer young, faintly floral scented, lightly tinted, are nostalgic for the carnival candy of our childhood. At the same time, I was not sure Naomi fitted the image; I hoped I did not. So what a relief to find that somewhere along the way, Naomi and Wolsak & Wynn scrapped candy and flowers, and went for the carnival itself. The title became A Roller-coaster Ride: Thoughts on Aging. A black roller-coaster ups and downs its way across the cover with lots of pink, a sunset or a rainbow, and careens on through the book in the slightly dizzy design of the chapter headings. If life is a cabaret, why shouldn’t aging be a ride above and below and above and below … the amusement park?

Besides her trade-books, she brings forth a steady flow of chapbooks and other slim, and not-so-slim books, some in cooperation with other writers and artists. She contributed to five titles in 2011, Nostalgia & the Attic, collaborating with the artist Alice Rich; Reflections with the scholar of Japanese mediaeval literature, Sonja Arntzen; Tidepools: Haiku on Gabriola with participants in the haiku weekend which she hosts annually; On Poetry with Nanaimo poet, David Fraser; and Think

Colour with her twin, Ruth Artmonsky, in celebration of their 80th birthday. She also contributes regularly to Senior Living Magazine, Canadian Teachers Magazine blog, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. Wakan has four more books in the works: an introduction to haiku, a collection of quotations about healing, a series of essays on creativity and art forms, and Some Sort of Life: a fictional autobiography. 978-1-894987-64-6

Phyllis Reeve writes from Gabriola Island

[BCBW 2012]


The Way of Tanka
Review 2017



The Way of Tanka
by Naomi Beth Wakan
Brunswick, Maine: Shanti Arts Publishing, 2017. $20.00 / 978-1-941830-60-4
Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve

*

Born in England in 1931, Naomi Deutsch come to Canada in 1954 and worked as a psychotherapist in Toronto. She and her second husband Elias, who married in 1977, together chose their surname Wakan, a Sioux word meaning “creative spirit.”

She and Eli, a wood sculptor, came to B.C. in 1982 and founded Pacific Rim Publishers in 1986 in Vancouver before moving to Gabriola Island ten years later.

Reviewer Phyllis Reeve considers Wakan’s latest book, an exploration of tanka, a Japanese poetic form consisting of five lines. – Ed.

*

As the Inaugural Poet Laureate (2013-2016) of the city of Nanaimo, Naomi Beth Wakan pushed poetry beyond the libraries and cultural venues to streets and buses and parks and the chambers of the city council. With an eye to the future of poetry, literacy and the human race, she encouraged the establishment of the position of Youth Poet Laureate. Her collaborator Sonya Arntzen calls her an “inspired provocateur of writing in others.”
This how-to book is also a how-it-was book, teaching readers the way of tanka by inviting them to join her own progress along that way. It serves as an anthology of tanka by numerous devotees, including but not predominantly, herself.

Wakan came to poetry late in life. Before that she was a psychotherapist, a publisher and writer of educational books for children, and a painter and fabric artist. She and her husband the sculptor Elias Wakan lived for two years in Japan, and the books from their Pacific Rim Publishers introduced English-speaking children to the stories of other cultures. The hint of Japanese influence stayed with her as she moved to writing poetry for adults. She became a practitioner and teacher of haiku, hosting workshops and contributing on an international scale. More recently, she found her way to tanka.

Haiku is known to most readers of poetry as three-line poems “consisting of two or more everyday sense images juxtaposed in a way that not only define the moment, but define it so penetratingly that each image is augmented by the other.” She has treated haiku exhaustively in previous books, especially The Way of Haiku (2012).

Her chapter “Tanka compared with Haiku” in the present book explains tanka as “five-line poems that move from image to image, idea to idea, feeling to feeling, yet the whole five lines flow together seamlessly to present a strong statement of humanity’s place in the universe, even though the poem may be intensely personal.” The five lines follow a pattern: short, long, short, long, long. To clarify the distinction, she offers an example of each on a similar topic. First, a haiku by Devar Dahl:

empty cabin/ the beached canoe/ fills with leaves

Then a tanka by Christopher Herold:

in the morning fog/ we slip our oars and drift/ between loon calls/ all that's left of the world/ the warmth of our bodies.

Wakan elaborates:

The haiku speaks only of images: an empty cabin, a canoe filled with leaves. Yet, on consideration, it is clear to us that this haiku clearly speaks of the impermanence of things, using just those images with no overt indication of this inner idea. The tanka also has strong sense images: the drifting boat, the loon's call, but it allows itself a comment that directs our thoughts to the high value of human contact in a cold world.

Wakan calls herself a “poet of the domestic scene.” It suits her to begin with something in her everyday existence. Here is one of her “Skylight tanka,” celebrating our new skylight, handily situated about the daybed:

high winds -/ at the blink of an eye-lid/ a new set of clouds/ move swiftly across the skylight/ restless skyscape, restless me.

She recalls a comment once made of her poetry, that it is really prose until you come to the last line.

There is nothing new about this sort of poetry in the English language. The early modernists who called themselves Imagists learned from Japanese poetics. If none of the tanka quoted by Wakan attain the impact of William Carlos Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow or Ezra Pound’s petals on a wet black bough, most approach an intensity and focus worth striving for.

As a mentor, Wakan has felt moved to offer a way “to bridge the gap between what people wanted to express and what they were able to express, the chasm between inner and outer lives.”

The Way of Tanka begins with a selection of fifty tanka. Only after readers and would-be writers have digested these, does the instruction begin. Chapters address the uses and varieties of tanka, love tanka, nostalgic tanka, witty tanka, response tanka [two poets carry on a conversation in alternate tanka], ekphrastic tanka [tanka describing another work of art, e.g. a painting], tan renga [first three lines by one poet, last two by someone else] and tanka as self-expression.

A section on “Japanese sensitivities” examines to what degree English language tanka can emulate the Japanese, what can be learned and retained, what needs to shift to something different but also valuable. The book concludes with Tanka Exercises for the initiate.

It is almost alarming to think of so many people writing tanka, and so many tanka. Samuel Goldstein, whom Wakan dubs the “godfather of tanka written in English,” writes as many as twenty a day. The tanka act as a kind of diary. She has misgivings: “As a personal essayist, I know the danger of recording one's life as one is living it.” But she decides tanka are “the perfect poetry style to release our true voices and real feelings.”

Much of Wakan's insightful instruction in the way of tanka could benefit anyone feeling their way into the reading and writing of any sort of poetry. The discipline involved in a tanka, like that in any traditional form whether it be sonnet or villanelle, can calm the poet’s eye lest it roll too far in its fine frenzy. That said, most readers of this book will have dabbled in haiku and be ready to move on -- or to move back and forth, depending on the day and the mood.

I think Naomi Wakan, inspired provocateur and mentor, would encourage every reader to try, even for the benefit of themselves alone.

she tells us / how she tells us / I can / and so can you / but I'm not sure

*

Phyllis Parham Reeve has written about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications. Recently she wrote the foreword to Charlotte Cameron’s play, October Ferries to Gabriola. She is a contributing editor of the Dorchester Review and her writing appears occasionally in Amphora, the journal of the Alcuin Society. A retired librarian and bookseller and co-founder of the bookstore at Page’s Resort & Marina, she lives on Gabriola Island, where she continues to interfere in the cultural life of her community. More details than necessary may be found on her website: https://sites.google.com/site/phyllisreeve/

*

The Ormsby Review. More Readers. More Reviews. More Often.
Reviews Editor: Richard Mackie
Reviews Publisher: Alan Twigg
The Ormsby Review is hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn.

--

BC BookWorld
ABCBookWorld
BCBookLook
BC BookAwards
The Literary Map of B.C.
The Ormsby Review