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Nanaimo’s Poet Laureate

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Naomi Beth Wakan is not one to sit on her laurels. For many, the words “poet laureate” conjure an image of a florid aging Roman in laurel crown, toga and sandals, decorated silver cup of wine in hand, launching forth extemporaneously to an adoring audience of lounging young men and earnest young women, swooning to fan the heat of his poetic passion. In the long history of poet laureates, dating back to the ancient Greeks, the idea of the triumphant poet – comfortable, celebrated and feted – is a recurring theme.  This image needs adjusting, however, when considering Nanaimo’s thoroughly modern poet laureate. Slim, straight and steely, but with an unmistakeable twinkle, Nanaimo’s first ever poet laureate, Naomi Wakan, is a mixture of intensity and reserve, intellect, piercing wit and dogged determination. She could write a book about how to succeed as a writer, and she possibly will. In keeping with tradition, Nanaimo’s poet laureate is expected to have an established body of work, to write poetry to commemorate community events, and to promote the writing of poetry and other literary endeavours. Wakan is well suited to the position. She has published over 50 books on a wide range of subjects, including works of poetry, essays, educational material and memoirs. She is also an award winning haiku poet. It was through living in Japan, and a long apprenticeship of studying haiku, that she eventually learned to write them and later, tanka and renku.  This was a life-changing journey that she describes in her upcoming memoir, Poetry that Heals. Wakan’s literary success is bolstered by her many other skills. Entrepreneurial, organizational, teaching, and speaking skills are all part of her lexicon for success. For years she has been giving poetry and writing workshops, and has been instrumental in organizing haiku and other poetry events. Notable too is her willingness to take risks and to make sacrifices in order to live fully the life of a writer. Her husband, sculptor Elias Wakan and she, for example, moved to Gabriola Island 18 years ago, not to retire or take it easy, but to explore the potential for a simpler way of living. There, they continued, for a while, the small educational publishing company they had started in Vancouver, Pacific-Rim Publishers.  Then they settled down – Eli to work on sculpture and Naomi to write essays and poetry.

Photo by Sharif Kishawi

In fact, this remarkable 83 year old is showing no signs of wanting to retire from literary or civic life. She writes every day, will be putting out three books this year, and is embracing the post of poet-laureate in the spirit of public service. She maintains a busy schedule, doing readings at libraries and public events, writing poems about Nanaimo, giving workshops, and exploring and generating new opportunities for promoting writing and poetry in Nanaimo, such as a monthly poetry column in the Nanaimo Daily News. She takes a special interest in promoting the writing of other Nanaimo area poets, and is writing a series of 12 columns about Nanaimo poets for the magazine What’s on Nanaimo, building up to the Cascadia Poetry Festival at Vancouver Island University next spring. Wakan likes to encourage people of all ages to express themselves in poetry and prose. This year, she has presented to teenagers on the publishing process, and she very much enjoys working with groups of seniors, discussing their lives and encouraging them to believe that their ideas and experiences are worth recording. Her memoir writing workshops have been very well-received. If you ask her what it takes to be successful as a writer, Wakan will tell you that ideas, creativity and persistence are all essential, and beyond persistence – a fair amount of good, old-fashioned grit. Wakan also believes, through her own experiences, that success in writing is accessible to all who make the commitment. “I am not a poet of excesses; my choice is usually the middle way. My favourite position is on the fence of ‘maybes’. I am not aiming at perfection for myself, nor enlightenment or any other of those extremes – far too nebulous and exhausting. Idealism has a high failure rate. I am on about empowerment, not defeat.” No laurel crown; just a simple gardening hat, sleeves rolled up for the hard work of cultivating the poetic imagination and producing opportunities for others, powered by grit, and oh yes, that twinkle. Watch out for Wakan and her good works, and prepare to be delighted. For a full list of Wakan’s books in print, public appearances, readings and workshops, go to Poetry that Heals comes out in August, and watch out for Naomi in Nanaimo, the book she has written as poet laureate, in November. Her memoirs, Some Sort of Life are now available at the Nanaimo Museum or directly from her website.  


Deborah Graham
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  1. Glad you found the site, Lynne. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this Deborah. I didn’t know the website existed until I went looking for information on Naomi Wakan.

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