Naomi Wakan chosen as Poet Laureate for Nanaimo

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Monday, October 28 2013

Naomi Wakan, 82-year-old poet extraordinaire of Gabriola, has been chosen as the Inaugural Poet Laureate for the City of Nanaimo.

“Inaugural,” she said.“There is something nice about that.”

Naomi explained the process was drawn out quite a bit. She first had to do an interview earlier this year and then six weeks ago the selection committee came to Gabriola to have afternoon tea at her home, Drumbeg Studio, on Mander Road.

“They were such a decent bunch and wanted me to be serious about it. I didn’t hear anything for about five weeks and suddenly I heard my name had gone forward to Council.”

She was approved at the City Council meeting this past Monday, October 21.

In terms of what her duties and responsibilities will be, Naomi said that hasn’t been completely determined.

“I think they would like me to be a cultural ambassador - I’m more interested in promoting poetry and writing creativity. I really like to encourage new writers and new poets.”

She has a support team who she has yet to meet, and who she said haven’t quite worked out an agenda yet.

“I obviously have to appear at some civic events. I would like to meet with writers in Nanaimo as much as possible. I’d like to do an anthology to encourage them. I’m interested in encouraging creativity - rather than be a figurehead.”

Naomi takes the fact that Nanaimo now has a Poet Laureate as a good sign for the region.

“Victoria has a Poet Laureate, Vancouver does too. It’s a sign that the Arts are encouraged and significant. One of my ideas was to have a young people’s anthology of poetry with Nanaimo themes and things they like about Nanaimo, and Nanaimo’s history.

“Of course all these things are so complex. It’s easy to have ideas, a little more difficult to put them into practice.”

She has treated the selection “as a recognition that I’ve worked hard as a poet. It’s nice to have been chosen.”

Naomi specifically recognized a few people in helping her career as writer and poet.

Ted and Phyllis Reeves, the former owners of Pages Marina and Bookstore, as well as current owners Gloria and Ken Hatfield, were at the top of her list.

“They’ve given such good support to me and other Gabriola writers. I think I’ve launched all my contract books with them. They are so generous with their support that it has made a difference.”

She also had nods to the rest of the Gabriola poetry community, specifically Gabriola poet Hilary Peach, who founded the Poetry Gabriola Society and spent so many years organizing the Gabriola Poetry Festival.

Naomi recently performed at the Poetry Gabriola Open Mic night at the Old Crow Café, and said it is a wonderful venue for getting to see the variety of poets on Gabriola.

“There are so many forms of poetry. Lisa Webster-Gibson [organizer of the open mic nights], she’s a performance poet. I’m more of a book poet. She’s a really good and upcoming performance poet.” 

Naomi started writing 20 years ago with, as she said, no real ambitions.

 “I just wrote.

“I didn’t start out wanting to do anything other than express what I wanted to say in poetic form. The fact this [success] came was a bit of a surprise. 

“As I tell my students in my workshops, if you write one page a day for a year, you have a book. 

“Every day I do something in the literary world. Everyone I meet I feel should be writing a book. I don’t know how people can live without writing. 

“I think they [the selection committee] liked that enthusiasm.”

One of her goals is to see if she can gather together the poets on Gabriola and in Nanaimo and present them to the public.

“These wonderful poets they may not know they have amongst them.”

She has a few concerns about her new position.

“I’m really worried I won’t write as much. But I don’t think I’ll be going over [to Nanaimo] every week. Maybe reading at some civic events and fundraisers. Literacy Central I think it’s called now. I’d like to support that kind of thing.

“I look forward to meeting other writers and other creative people in Nanaimo.

“It’s all new, and I’m the first one. I think it’s going to be a pretty, well, three-year guinea pig. We’ll sort out what works and what doesn’t.

“We’ll probably have a number of ideas we’ll pass on and give to the next [person] if I don’t die before my term is done. I am 82. I might be bouncy, but not that bouncy. We’ll see.”

Her two major poetry works are Sex after 70, published in 2010 and the sequel, And after 80, released earlier this year. 

Both are available at Pages Marina and Bookstore at the end of Coast Road.

One more person Naomi wanted to thank was Gabriolan Sonja Arntzen.

“She lives here on the island and is a scholar of medieval Japanese literature. She really is my teacher for some of the forms of poetry I like. I’m so lucky she is living here, she is very encouraging. She has given me a lot of support. We’re so lucky on Gabriola to have so many highly skilled and talented people.”

Naomi recommended islanders make their way over to Nanaimo to some of the poetry cafes held in the city.

“The very best one is Word Storm. They feature some of the very best poets from Vancouver Island and further afield. David Fraser and his team run this Word Storm and they have great poets there. They bring in these other poets which gives you a whole other aspect.”