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Bookstories 10: Naomi Beth Wakan’s Haiku—one breath poetry

libraryofbabelEvery book tells its story, but what of the other story, the story behind the book? Bookstories offers an opportunity to tell that story. If you have a story about a book or poem you would like to share, contact us and we’ll help you make it happen. Thanks for letting us know the rest of the story!


Leading a rather casual life whereby we seemed to change domicile and career frequently, it was not surprising to find my husband (Elias Wakan) and I in Japan, on the way to take the trans-Siberian railway to somewhere, or other. We were persuaded to stay a while and so I went to Korea to change my visa status and from travelers, we became, overnight as it were, ESL teachers.

Somehow in those first few weeks of our 2-year stay in Japan, we found ourselves in the home of a woman who owned a small bar. How this happened I can’t quite recall as we are almost teetotalers. It was not an uncommon occupation for middle-aged women and some of them became quite wealthy. In her home, we met her daughters, one of whom was a poet. She showed me her small book of small poems and this was my first view of haiku. I was immediately entranced (although I couldn’t understand a word) and suggested I translate her book. As this was during the first months we were there, it was a totally ridiculous suggestion on my part. However, such things have never impeded me in life and so I rounded up a woman who ran a small cram school and supposedly had mastered English and I got her to do an initial translation. How I knew how to whip these small poems into shape, I don’t know, but whip them I did.

The time went by and I forgot about haiku as we had acquired cameras in the land of cameras and were looking to changing our careers once more into that of photo-journalists. On returning to Canada, we started lecturing, and showing our slides of Japan in the BC schools, since Japan had just been introduced into the BC curriculum. Suitable material was scarce and so we asked each other “What does it take to publish a book?” We didn’t realise you had to get an MA from Simon Fraser University and beg grants from the government before you undertook such a venture. We were just curious about something we hadn’t explored. We began by inventing a publishing house which we called Pacific-Rim Publishers. Our first book on Japan was called Japanese-an appetizer, which was not actually a book on sushi making, but was an introduction to the Japanese language. It was only an introduction, because, although I had mastered 2000 kanji (Japanese pictograms borrowed from the Chinese) during my stay in Japan, my actual understanding of how Japanese worked was skimpy. The book sold well and we were encouraged.

About this time a small book of haiku found its way into my hands. It was by Winona Baker and was called Moss-hung Trees. I was totally enraptured and, remembering my attempts at haiku during our first weeks in Japan, I decided to explore haiku. My idea was that if you know nothing about a subject and write a book about it, the book will be fresh because you are not academically overloaded, or indeed limited in anyway in your take on the matter in hand. It was in this way that Haiku—one breath poetry got written. With the passion of a novice, I loved reading books on haiku and gathering material for the book. I selected aspects that appealed to me—the immediacy of capturing the moment, the absence of heated emotions and brilliant ideas etc. etc. We couldn’t afford an illustrator, so I quickly shifted gears, and from haijin, I became for a brief while, an artist. We ran off a thousand copies and with a captive market of BC schools who were fixed in the idea that haiku were 3-line poems of 5,7,5 syllables, I set out to change this limited attitude. The book became a Canadian Children’s Book Centre choice.

The book sold 2,000 in BC alone, when Heian International, in the States, bought the rights. Because of them the book was selected and included in a small, but distinguished group of books on poetry for young adults by the American Library Association. There it sat along with Allan Ginsberg’s Howl and Langston Hughes’s The Dream Keeper.

Heian closed and later Stone Bridge Press took the title over and it gradually faded from view. Last year it reappeared, for it was honorably mentioned in the World Haiku Club competition for books on haiku. About the book they wrote:

[One of the most important areas of WHC activities is children’s haiku or teaching haiku to children. The author is a British-born, naturalised Canadian artist, writer, poet and haijin, who has become a “child” again, having learned after so many years “…to unlearn a lot of things and recall that I was once an imaginative, inventive child who knew how to play. I tap my dreams for my writing, my island for the natural forms found in my artwork. But my island also is a background for my haiku and my life on it enriches my dreams. In this way all my creative works blend together… the essence being play. From play comes freshness, frankness and joy.” (quote from the author)

Which better person, then, is there to teach haiku to children, and perhaps more importantly to us adults most of whom have lost “the child in us” and busy theorising, pontificating, dogmatising and attacking (she even lived in and presumably loved Japan)? Her way of haiku seems more akin to Japanese haiku than most other western writers. I wish I knew the author before and asked her to play her part in WHC as she is the nearest personification of what WHC is all about. Perhaps, it is no surprise that this this little gem of a book has received the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Choice Award.]

Later I wrote a book The World of Haiku as a trade book using and developing a lot of the material I had first covered in Haiku—one breath poetry. I had, by this time written thousands of haiku myself and been tutored by leading haijin. I loved this book, but I must admit it didn’t have the freshness and appeal of Haiku—one breath poetry. I had grown up.

—Naomi Beth Wakan

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