Over 50 books and 23 years later, Naomi Wakan retiring

Rachelle Stein-Wotten

Sounder News

Tuesday, March 28 2017

Writing over 50 books can teach a person a thing or two about expressing their inner machinations. Poet and essayist Naomi Beth Wakan knows from experience.

“I’ve learned how to be funnier and at the same time how to be sadder, and to respond to sadness and bitterness better,” she said of her oeuvre.

Nanaimo’s inaugural poet laureate and the Federation of BC Writers inaugural Honorary Ambassador, the 85-year-old has decided to ease up on publishing and spend a little more time tending to her 25 fruit trees on her Gabriola property where she lives with her husband, sculptor Elias Wakan.

“I don’t want to continue when I’m not really at my peak,” she said. “Some people...get a lot of praise and go on doing what they’re doing long past their peak. It’s more graceful to phase out and fade out.”

From her first book 23 years ago, the children’s book One Day a Stranger Came, to her final self-published volume, Back and Forth, and the just released The Way of Tanka from Shanti Arts, it’s been a winding road of exploration into different styles and topics.

Naomi Beth Wakan in her home on Gabriola Island, where she plans to spend more time, as she retires from publishing with two finals releases: Back and Forth, and The Way of Tanka. Sounder File Photo

Back and Forth records one year of correspondence between herself and her twin sister, a design historian living in London, England, her city life in deep contrast with Naomi’s rural homestead.

The Way of Tanka is the final to a trilogy that began with The Way of Haiku and Poetry that Heals and covers the origin and history of tanka in Japan and in North America as well as the craft of writing the five-line poetry form. She wrote it to pay homage to her teachers, many of them writers she brought to Gabriola for the pacifi-kana Haiku gathering.

There is no big secret to the proliferation of her writing. “A lot of people say they could have written these books and it’s true,” she admitted freely. “Anybody can publish their correspondence, but I did it,” by sitting down and writing every day, even when it felt difficult. “It’s bloody hard work,” she said, revoking any notion of an artist’s work materializing effortlessly. 

Her ‘retirement’ doesn’t mean she won’t find herself releasing work through a publisher - “I will continue writing poetry as it flashes into my head” - but it will come at a softer pace than her regular two books per year. “I am leaving a void for the moment. Rather exciting at 85, when everyone expects me to roll over into a seniors’ home.”

Reflecting on her accomplishments, which included running a publishing company in Vancouver for 10 years that churned out 23 titles, many for use in Grade 6 classrooms across the province, Naomi first noted what she was able to offer to others: empathy and support for fellow artists. “The only thing I mastered in my life is encouraging other people,” she said. As for her own progression as a writer, “I don’t think basically I’ve changed,” she said. “Once I found my voice it pretty well stayed that way. But over the years it got a little wittier and a little less witty. It’s enabled me to go to deeper extremes in thoughtfulness and funniness.” All the while she remained steadfast to her art. 

“I’ve never wanted to please the market,” she said. In the process, she just so happened to please plenty of readers.

Naomi is grateful to Phyllis Reeve and her now-deceased husband Ted, and their daughter Gloria Hatfield of Pages Marina & Bookstore where her two latest books are available along with many of her other titles. 

“I owe them a lot because it’s where I started my launches. They are so generous in supporting me and all Gabriola writers.”

She’ll continue to teach online courses through her American publisher, and expects to do the occasional reading and workshop locally. On April 9 she will run an ekphrastic writing workshop as part of the Isle of the Arts Festival. Registration is online at www.artsfest.artsgabriola.ca or in-person at the Gabriola Arts & Heritage Centre.

In related Naomi Beth Wakan news, this past Thursday, March 23, the City of Nanaimo unveiled the first addition to its Poetry Walk. 

As Nanaimo’s Inaugural Poet Laureate, Wakan had one of her poems become the first installment to the Nanaimo Poetry Walk outside the Port Theatre.

The Poetry Walk will capture poems written by the outgoing Poet Laureate every three years. 

This project is to highlight Nanaimo’s support for Poetry and the Literary Arts and also to reinforce the success of the Poet Laureate program, which began at the beginning of 2014.

Wakan said, “I am so delighted that the Culture and Heritage department has marked the initiation of the poetry walk, a set of paving stones each bearing a poem by a Nanaimo Poet Laureate as he/she completes their term. The whole idea of Nanaimo having a poet laureate can be credited to the Culture and Heritage department and certainly the response by the people of Nanaimo to myself, as the first poet laureate, has been wonderful.  Poetry may not give us our daily food, but it can certainly inspire us to celebrate our good times together and bear our sorrows by sharing our grief in the form of poetry.”