Times Colonist

Blooming late

70-something Naomi Wakan has many an encouragin­g word for others who want to take up their pen and write for the first time as they retire from other careers

- KATHERINE GORDON

Perhaps it’s because I’m a writer that my favourite poem by Naomi Beth Wakan is this one: One does not write / because the goldfish play / at the bottom of the waterfall; but because not everyone / can see them. It is a concept captured to perfection in just 21 words, typical of the utter mastery of the form by the prolific 74-year-old haiku and blank verse poet, author and workshop teacher.

Wakan has written or co-produced more than 30 books including children’s educationa­l tomes and collection­s of inspiratio­nal quotations. Haiku — One Breath Poetry PacificRim, 1993) was selected by the American Library Associatio­n and is now a standard introducto­ry text for composing haiku. Wakan’s helpful guide to getting started as a writer after 50, Late Bloomer: On Writing Later in Life (Wolsak and Wynn, 2006) has been received with enthusiasm nationwide. But it is her poetry that sets her well apart from the ordinary.

A member of Haiku Canada, Wakan hosts a national meeting each July at her home on Gabriola Island, a festival of haiku creation set among and inspired by the festive perennials and fruit trees in her garden. Wakan describes haiku as the poetry of sense, a short descriptio­n of a scene or a moment, and gardens supply ample fodder for such moments: Snow still here / in the half-opened white crocus / a sleeping bee.

“You mustn’t think when you write haiku,” she insists. “Only the very young or the very old can do it well, because anyone in between tries to be too clever. Haiku doesn’t need intellect, it needs feeling and seeing.”

Wakan also strives for simplicity and an absolute honesty in her work. An advantage of being older, she says, is that you can tell the truth “because you no longer give a damn.” That’s clear in her searingly candid and often outrageous­ly funny blank verse about love and sex. From “Sex After 70”, in Segues (Wolsak and Wynn, 2005): 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.

Her age is important, and comes up often in the conversati­on. Wakan came into her own as a poet and writer in her 60s, and credits the strength of her voice and her abilities as a poet to her advanced years. “I wrote the odd poem in times of dire distress as a young housewife, but nothing more than that. And I wasn’t encouraged as a child.”

Born in London, England, Wakan started off her working life with a degree in social work from Birmingham University. After immigratin­g to Canada in 1954 with her husband and two children, she took a job as a psychother­apist in Toronto, specializi­ng in early childhood trauma. But in the mid1970s, aged 40, Wakan threw off the shackles of both her unsatisfac­tory marriage and her working life and began travelling. Soon after, en route to a Buddhist workshop in the Himalayas, Wakan spotted a “very good-looking young man” on horseback. They met again in Mexico two years later, and have rarely spent a day apart since.

A book publisher, sculptor and photograph­er, her new husband Elias agreed with Naomi that they should have the same last name. They also agreed that it should be entirely different from their previous names. Hence “Wakan,” a Sioux word meaning creative energy.

“We had a lot of things in common,” reminisces Naomi. “We especially shared a complete lack of money.”

Their precarious finances did not deter the couple from spending the next 20-odd years travelling and trying new adventures. In the early 1980s, they dug an undergroun­d shelter house in Ontario, where they lived for several years on an annual income of less than $1,000. A subsequent trip to Japan, where the couple spent two years teaching English, proved most formative in the writer’s work. Wakan launched herself determined­ly into learning the Japanese art form of haiku, setting herself the goal of translatin­g a book of Japanese poetry. Haiku quickly became her favourite poetry form.

By 1986, the Wakans were back in Vancouver, selling slideshows on Japan and producing books through their small press, Pacific-Rim Publishers. In 1996, they escaped the hurly-burly of the downtown life and moved to Gabriola Island, where Elias could return to his sculpture and Naomi pursue her writing without interrupti­on.

In the decade since, she has continued to produce prolifical­ly, and at an age when many are content to put their feet up, she has no inclinatio­n to stop working. Following up on Late Bloomers is a book tentativel­y titled Compositio­ns, a collection of essays discussing the writer’s life. Wakan loves to encourage others, especially older would-be authors, to take up the pen. She runs regular workshops on creative writing for emerging writers over the age of 50. “It takes enormous discipline to write a book. But the whole thing is just to stick at it.”

As for Wakan herself, that’s not a problem. “I feel like I came into my voice fully only when I reached my 60s. Now I write because there is nothing else I want to do more. I’m going to write until I drop.”

Naomi Wakan will speak at next weekend’s literary festival and will read at the Planet Earth Poetry event at the Black Stilt, 103-1633 Hillside Ave., April 20 at 7 p.m.

Late Bloomer writing workshops ($50) are scheduled for today and April 22 on Gabriola Island, and additional workshops for groups in Victoria can be scheduled by arrangemen­t. For more informatio­n or to order books call (250) 247-0014 or see www.naomiwakan.com. A selection of Wakan’s books is available at Munro’s Books in Victoria.

Katherine Gordon is a freelance writer living on Gabriola Island. She is the author of three 80,000word books and in awe of anyone who can capture a concept in just

21 words.

 ??  ?? Naomi Wakan will offer insight and encouragem­ent at next weekend’s Pacific Festival of the Book.
Naomi Wakan will offer insight and encouragem­ent at next weekend’s Pacific Festival of the Book.
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