Thanks so much for Ottawa author & poet Sonia Saikaley for this great interview about new book of poetry, A Samurai’s Pink House .
In the summer of 2007, I left a secure job and life in Ottawa to teach English in Japan for a year through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. I experienced many things in Japan from eating beef tongue and intestines to wearing a beautiful kimono. I travelled to several different places in Japan and on these journeys I brought my journal, jotting down my experiences as well as writing some poetry, many of which would later become part of A Samurai’s Pink House. One of my favourite places in Japan was Matsushima where Matsuo Basho travelled. As I took steps along the pathways and bridges of Matsushima, I imagined Basho walking in these areas. It was quite a beautiful and magical place with such history and mystery. I went to hot springs, to towns where kokeshi dolls were made, to a castle town with a Samurai’s residence, to shrines and temples. Across from my apartment building stood this old pink house. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night and glance out my apartment window, mesmerized by the mystery of that old house, which appeared to be abandoned. However, I could see shadows and I imagined that it once belonged to a Samurai, perhaps a female Samurai, and maybe it was haunted by this powerful spirit.
I had heard amazing things about it like the generosity of its people and the beauty of its land.
MO: The power of identity and transformation runs through many of your poems, but specifically, “The Kabuki Actor” and “The Last Female Samurai,” in which a noticeable shift takes place. How do see the power of travel being transformative? Who were you when you left for Japan and did you return changed?
SONIA: Travelling can transform you, for sure. And this transformation doesn’t only take place after travelling to some exotic country. It can be very local too. For instance, spending a weekend in a quaint town can transform you by offering you peace and solitude or camaraderie with the locals you might meet. Transforming is a sort of travelling because you can’t help but change, move forward, and, hopefully, in the end become a more understanding and compassionate person. When I left for Japan, I must confess that I wasn’t very adventurous. I was serious and quiet. I didn’t take many risks in my life. I was comfortable with routine. Making that decision to leave a secure life in Ottawa turned my world upside down, but in a good and life-changing way. I definitely returned changed. Well, I certainly changed physically as my family can attest to. They still recall how lean I had become when they first saw me at the airport. Ah, all that healthy and smaller portioned Japanese food and long walking commute contributed to that! But more importantly, I had changed spiritually. I became more determined, more disciplined, and braver. Well, after eating intestines and chrysanthemum salad in Japan anyone would be braver! And to think I was a picky eater as a child. I admire my mom for coming up with inventive, and somewhat deceptive, ways to get me to eat Lebanese dishes such as stomach, tongue and kibbeh nayeh (raw meat). Without knowing it at the time, I guess all those meals were preparing me for my adventure in Japan!
Readers should be given the opportunity to come to their own conclusions.
MO: Your poems demonstrate a fluid blend of the philosophical with the tactile. From “Cupid’s Aim”: “What made her / write words as tender as fresh picked berries / juice slipped into the corners of the folded letter”, nuances of crimson, innuendos and backlight. What is the importance of leaving some interpretation to the reader?
SONIA: I think it is very important for a writer, especially a poet, to leave some room for interpretation. The words used in a poem or story should be powerful but not so overbearing that the writer is telling the reader everything and not allowing him or her to feel their own experiences through the narrative. Readers should be given the opportunity to come to their own conclusions. We all share similar feelings of grief, happiness, sadness, anger and so on, but how we express those feelings is very different. Subtlety isn’t always easy but I think for a poem to be truly poignant, there has to be less movement on the part of the poet and more understanding on the part of the reader.
MO: Your work evokes a strong sense of duty, such as marriage in “The Obedient” or motherhood in “Shielded Memories”. Why do you think that it’s important to speak to this obligation that women have, especially in 2017?
SONIA: I believe many women have a tremendous sense of obligation and duty whether it’s making sure the children are happy and successful (whatever success might be to you) or ensuring the household is functioning despite the loads of laundry piling up! Although the poems you refer to deal with women during an ancient time period, this theme of obligation and duty is still very much present in modern life. Women are almost expected to sacrifice their own needs for the sake of family even in this day and age where a lot more women are working outside the home and in demanding jobs. Just like men are taught that they should be able to support a family financially, the sense of obligation is often instilled in women if not directly but indirectly. It is also important to recognize the struggles many women endure. On the outside, some women might appear they have everything together but they could be struggling silently. We all make sacrifices for the people we love. But can we find a balance between fulfilling our own dreams while still helping our families? I certainly believe it is possible and millions of women can attest to this, whether they are famous writers or professionals or stay-at-home moms who are making a huge difference in their own ways. It might not be easy, but it is possible with encouragement and faith.
It is also important to recognize the struggles many women endure.
MO: Your poems starring the poet Bashō speak to his essence beautifully. How do you see his influence in Japanese culture translating today, and worldwide?
SONIA: Before I went to Japan, I knew nothing of Bashō. I discovered him when I visited Matsushima, a breathtakingly beautiful place in the Miyagi Prefecture. This group of islands was very close to the town where I was living and working. In Matsushima, I had a photograph snapped with a papier-mâché of the Japanese haiku master. I found a translated copy of his haiku and I was taken by his poetry immediately. I think his influence in Japanese culture is still boundless because his haiku capture the beauty of Japan and all its nature has to offer. You don’t have to live in Japan to understand the impact of Bashō’s simple yet powerful haiku that, in a way, are gentle reminders that life doesn’t have to be so busy, so rushed. We can slow down and appreciate the beauty around us – be it a gorgeous sunrise or sunset or a fellow human exchanging a smile with you. Reading Bashō is a lesson in patience, humility and respect. We must respect the earth and our fellow human beings. In his haiku, Bashō turned the ordinary into extraordinary with just a few strokes of moving words. We can learn a lot from reading his work because he teaches us to stand still and observe life around us and to remember that we are all connected regardless of social status or cultural differences.
She removed the man’s yukata, / heavy makeup / until he was as light and sad / as a kokeshi doll…”
MO: There is a delicate sensuality running through your poems, as well as themes of love and of desire. “Listen to the world this way; / eyes shut tightly, feet slightly apart,/ arms open as if embracing gods, a beloved, or a banana tree.” Which is your favourite sensual scene from one of your poems, and why?
SONIA: “She removed the man’s yukata, / heavy makeup / until he was as light and sad / as a kokeshi doll” from the poem “Geisha Meet Onnagata”. I find this scene so touching because it shows the man’s vulnerability and this vulnerability is necessary when opening up to another person. By removing the man’s summer kimono and heavy makeup, the woman sees who he really is and in turn he feels free to be himself. There is such longing in these few lines, too. And, of course, sadness. But sharing one’s sadness with another can be very healing.
MO: Time plays an important role in your work, and season-hood. We see cherry blossoms, say goodbye in “Another farewell”, and notice that “back home trees do not weep pink, but fling gold, crimson and orange on paved streets.” How many hours a day do you write, and how many seasons does it take for you to complete a book of poetry?
SONIA: Mo, I love how you think in terms of seasons! I am very disciplined when it comes to my writing schedule. I wake up at four in the morning (luckily, I’m an early bird!) and write for about an hour or two before my day job. I also write for about an hour in the evenings if I don’t have other commitments that day. On the weekends, I write more, sometimes up to five hours. The first draft of a poetry collection can be completed in four seasons, winter being my most productive season because it can be so darn cold in Ottawa! The rewriting might take a couple more seasons. Autumn is a lovely time for introspection and some of my best ideas come while taking long walks and shuffling fallen leaves.
Autumn is a lovely time for introspection.
A Holy Scroll
Despite his advanced thinking in a time of hierarchy
the ruling class of samurai and lords,
Bashō chose to travel across Japan
in simple Buddhist robes.
Haiku blossomed in his mind
on thin sheets while he sat under cherry trees,
strolled through rice fields,
hid from bandits behind mountains,
who’d once stolen his ink and tip,
leaving him unscathed
with a sheaf of rice paper.
What was it that protected him
that time bandits ribboned
through the mountains, stole
just his ink and tip? Had they heard him beseech the plump moon
under the arm of a banana tree
mistook his words
as Zen chants, a holy scroll,
mantras, best left in the hands
of the creator?
We are social beings and we need contact despite language and cultural barriers and other obstacles.
MO: “A solitary life / in japan / communal sashimi tray.” How important are the tensions of loneliness to you in A Samurai’s Pink House?
SONIA: Loneliness is a prominent theme in my collection. Packing up your life and moving to a new country can result in tremendous loneliness, especially in the beginning when you are trying to establish a place for yourself in a different setting. It is not easy starting fresh with little or no contacts. Your whole support network is in another place and loneliness can set in. Several of my poems in A Samurai’s Pink House describe loneliness because it can be a very debilitating feeling. I felt lonely at the beginning of my journey, but then I eventually met others who became my friends and their presence in my life lessened my loneliness and made me feel alive again. I am so grateful to the kind people who helped me when I lived in Japan. We are social beings and we need contact despite language and cultural barriers and other obstacles. A Samurai’s Pink House tackles loneliness by showing something everyone has had to endure at various stages in their lives. But despite suffering loneliness, you can overcome and keep moving forward. Eventually, loneliness dissipates and friendships gather.
MO: Do you consider yourself a travel writer? What advice would you give young writers ready to set off on a literary pilgrimage?
SONIA: No, I wouldn’t consider myself a travel writer. But if I were to think of the term in the broad sense of the word, I would say ‘yes’ since my stories are often set abroad, for instance, in Japan or Lebanon. I might physically be in Canada but my mind is faraway in a foreign country taking in the sensual details of that place. My advice to young writers planning a literary journey would be to observe, to participate and to learn as much as you can from the locals. It’s great to meet other foreigners but broaden your experience by befriending people of that country. Be open, be patient, be accommodating, be giving and, above all, be brave. And, of course, make sure you have lots of good pens and journals to jot down all your words and memories! You never know when those ideas will materialize into a book.
Form is actually a combination of shape, character and trial and error.
- MO: Most of your poems are free verse, but “In the Milky Way” changes form and is set as a prose poem. For our poetry lovers, is form for you dictated by shape, character or trial and error?
SONIA: Form is actually a combination of shape, character and trial and error for me. Sometimes a character comes to mind first and this dictates if the poem will be free verse or prose-like. Other times, I just write as much as I can then start chopping and carving the words until something poetic emerges. “In the Milky Way” I wanted to have a big run-on sentence to show the excitement leading to the shocking, yet hilarious, ending of the poem.
MO: Is there anything else you’d like to share with Cargo Literary readers?
SONIA: I want to thank Cargo Literary readers for entering this interview and I’d like to thank you, Mo, for your generous time. For the last seven years or so, I have been working on a novel set in Lebanon during the Civil War of 1975 and, speaking about seasons, the story is called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street. Hamra Street is a vibrant area in Beirut and I hope someday readers will journey with my characters in this novel to Lebanon and share some good conversations while sipping coffee or arak at an outdoor café on Hamra Street. Shukran, thank you!
Photographs courtesy of Sonia Saikaley