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Nanaimo poet laureate Naomi Beth Wakan says farewell

Naomi Beth Wakan celebrated three years as Nanaimo’s inaugural poet laureate earlier this month during a special event at the Port Theatre. Nanaimo’s new poet laureate and the first youth poet laureate will be appointed in January. - RACHEL STERN / The News Bulletin
Naomi Beth Wakan celebrated three years as Nanaimo’s inaugural poet laureate earlier this month during a special event at the Port Theatre. Nanaimo’s new poet laureate and the first youth poet laureate will be appointed in January.
— image credit: RACHEL STERN / The News Bulletin

When Naomi Beth Wakan decided to become a poet almost 25 years ago, she chose a mother and father poet to guide her way.

Polish poet and essayist Wislawa Szymborska became her mother.

“Her poems are very real and I like poetry where you know what is going on in it,” said Wakan. “She’s witty, but she’s also socially concerned.”

Poet Billy Collins became her father.

“Billy Collins, who was twice poet laureate to America, is very accessible and wonderfully witty,” she said. “I read everything they wrote and then one day I started writing Naomi Beth Wakan poems and I didn’t read them again, but they are still on my bookshelf.”

The 85-year-old poet said she started with shorter poems to gain discipline in using concise wording.

“I lived in Japan for a couple of years and I became fascinated with haiku because in haiku you have to pack a lot of information in a very small space and I am a very verbal person and I spill over to the ends of the universe,” said Wakan. “I started to think haiku would be a very good discipline for me to say what I wanted ... Haiku is poetry of the senses. I did write a book about how haiku and other Japanese poetry forms changed me, I hope for the better.”

Wakan’s three-year term as Nanaimo’s inaugural poet laureate is coming to an end. The new poet laureate and the city’s first youth poet laureate will be announced in mid-January.

During her time in the position, Wakan has changed the poetry landscape of the community. Wakan said three of her major successes achieved are the high school poetry competition, the Nanaimo Poetry Map and Poetry in Transit.

“So many people have told me how they have enjoyed reading the poetry while on the buses, and that involved a new bunch of poets too,” said Wakan. “I love to see people coming out who weren’t actually part of the poetry scene before, having the confidence to join the poetry gang and see themselves published.”

Wakan said the high school poetry competition allowed her to get to know young up-and-coming poets in the community.

“They were so proud of their efforts, as well they might be. It was great when even the least interested students found they could write and weren’t ashamed to express their feelings in poetry form,” she said.

A celebration honouring Wakan’s contribution to the city was held in early December.

“Many times when she reads her musings and her poetry it takes me off to a place where you close your eyes and you think about the words that she is expressing and it’s really quite wonderful to go into that place,” said Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay, during the celebration.

He said when Wakan reads her poetry, it’s like music, and it’s words and music that people like Wakan create that “really make a difference in your life.”

Wakan said poetry is an important art form in today’s society.

“With everyone tweeting away, people’s attention spans seem so short. The kind of poetry I write, often just three or five lines, can show them how they can condense their feelings and express them in a brief space,” said Wakan. “Communication seems so trivial and superficial most of the time, that encouraging people to write of their really deep and important ideas and feelings seems to bring a little thoughtfulness back into life.”

During her term as the City of Nanaimo’s inaugural poet laureate, Wakan was a prolific writer.

She published On the Arts, a collection of personal essays about art and creativity; Bent Arm for a Pillow, a selection of new and previously published poems; Naomi in Nanaimo and Naomi in Nanaimo Again, poems written during her first and second term as poet laureate and many other publications.

For more information about Wakan, please go to www.naomiwakan.com.

Wakan was also recently made the Federation of B.C. Writers’ inaugural Honorary Ambassador during her term.

arts@nanaimobulletin.com

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