Monday, January 22, 2018

#4 The Fourth Installment of the New CRC Blog Series: BACKSTORY OF THE POEM . . . Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

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***This is the fourth in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  Links to other BACKSTORY OF THE  POEM features are at the end of this piece.

Backstory of the Poem
“Modern Matsushima”
by Sonia Saikaley
Twitter: @SaikaleySonia

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form?
In 2007, I went to Japan to teach English through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. I read about the three most scenic views in Japan and one of them was Matsushima, Miyagi. It was about twenty-minutes away from my new home, so
in August of 2007 I hopped on a train and headed there. One of the first things I saw in Matsushima was a papier-mâché of the Japanese haiku master Matsuo Bashō. I had a photograph snapped with Bashō. After I walked around the area with many tourists and took in more sights before crossing a bridge and resting there for a while. I pulled out my journal from my backpack and started writing this poem about Bashō and Matsushima. I wondered what he would think about all the frenzy going on in a place he once wandered centuries ago. I came back to
Matsushima a few more times and attended an outdoor oyster festival with food vendors, bought some kokeshi dolls and thought more about Bashō. I added these scenes to the poem when I got back to my quaint apartment in Shiogama. A year later, I returned to my home in Canada and rewrote the poem until it was in its final form, so in a way the poem travelled with me. It was conceived in Matsushima, developed in Shiogama and birthed Canada.

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detail.
I was standing on the long red bridge in Matsushima leading to one of the islands. With a slight breeze and the beauty of the bay surrounding me, I wrote parts of this poem. Other people were crossing the bridge and stopping to pray and I wondered if Bashō had perhaps rested here too. Matsushima Bay is a stunning area with lots of greenery and natural beauty. Gardens, temples, flowers. After I crossed the bridge, I wandered along the walking trails, with cicadas singing in the trees. I stood on a hill that overlooked the bay. From this standpoint, I could see the other islands. I gazed at the cluster of pine trees and the water that seemed to change from blue to green
as sunlight glittered over the bay. The sky was a brilliant baby blue with seagulls soaring above. Everything was so peaceful. Walking some more, I stopped at a temple and prayed. I was so grateful to have had this chance to be in this beautiful country and to share in its history, which included Bashō and his haiku. As I walked, I thought more about my poem. Much of my writing process includes stepping away from the actual writing and thinking and processing scenes in my mind. Out here on these trails, I was able to envision the tranquility of this beautiful place and contrast it to the “rows of spectators”, “zealous travellers” and “souvenir shops” surrounding the papier-mâché of Bashō and I thought how did our modern society take over such natural beauty. 

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?)
It took about six drafts to complete. Oh, I wish I still had those initial drafts. I wrote them in a journal. When I write poetry, I prefer longhand over typing on a computer. There is just something very special about the stroke of a pen on paper. That physical act of creating a poem makes me feel closer to the images. I do still have some journals during my time in Japan, but unfortunately, the one containing my drafts with pen markings for this particular poem was lost when I moved homes.

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  And can you share them with us?
Most of the lines in the rough drafts made it in the final version, but some words were chopped and carved and some lines were split into breaks in order to make the poem more concise, more powerful.  

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?
I hope readers take from this poem that sometimes we have to slow down and appreciate the beauty around us like Bashō did on his travels across Matsushima and other parts of Japan. Modern life sometimes forces us to move fast, sometimes too fast, and I hope this poem is a reminder that life doesn’t have to be so complicated. There is simplicity in the beauty around us be it a park we pass or a sunrise or sunset we might witness on our daily commutes. If we stand still for a second and take in our surroundings, we can find so much beauty and peace. Just like Bashō did.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why?
He blinks and murmurs,
I once roamed the islands of Matsushima.

I find there is such sorrow in these lines. Is Bashō blinking and lowering his voice because he is holding back tears? Does he not like what he sees of modern Matsushima? I tried to imagine what it would feel like for someone of another century or another generation to witness change. Of course, we must adapt to change but in the process we sometimes lose something and this can produce sadness or longing for a previous time in our lives. When I look back at my own life, I sometimes long for my childhood where life was simple and both my parents were still around. The progress of age is inevitable and this involves losing
family members and the life we had with them. In these lines, Bashō longs for that period in his life when he was in Matsushima mesmerized by its beautiful nature. It is natural to reminisce and long for the past but it is also important to move forward with what is in our present lives. We can look back either with fondness or sadness but then we have to keep moving forward and learn to accept change.

How has Basho influenced you as a poet?
I must confess that prior to my Japanese experience, I was not familiar with Bashō. I read about him shortly before my journey. In Sendai, I found a translated copy of his haiku and was quickly drawn to his moving and powerful poetry. His haiku inspired me to learn more about this art form and to attempt to write them. Some haiku are included in my latest poetry collection “A Samurai’s Pink House”.

Have you ever visited Matsushima? And if so can you describe your experience that is not covered by the poem?
Through my time on the JET Programme, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Matsushima on several occasions. I experienced the oyster festival in the winter, the cherry blossoms in the spring, the brilliant coloured leaves in the fall and the heat and humidity of the summer. One thing Miyagi prefecture is famous for is beef tongue. I am not a fan of this meat. I still remember my mother disguising the tongue she’d make for my family and me since it reminded my parents of their Lebanese village. My sisters and I didn’t enjoy eating this dish, so when I found out that beef tongue was a delicacy in Miyagi, I was hesitant. But since Japan was an adventure, I decided to give beef tongue a try. At first, I thought I’d choke on the tongue because it was a bit rubbery and tough but it turned out to be delicious. It was easier to eat with rice and salted cabbage with cucumbers. Ah, what we will do for adventure! I’ll remember this the next time my mother makes her tongue dish.

Has this poem been published before? And if so where?
“Modern Matsushima” was first published in Autumn Sky Poetry DAILY 
and is part of Sonia Saikaley’s latest poetry collection “A Samurai’s 
Pink House” (2017, Inanna Publications

Anything you would like to add?
Many of my poems explore being an “outsider” in a foreign land and also in one’s homeland. Marginalized people are predominant characters in my work. In “Modern Matsushima”, Bashō is an outsider in a way, “a relic from the past” yet it is important he is given a voice. Our world is full of diversity and this is what makes life intriguing. 
For the last few years, I have been working on a novel set in Beirut and a mountain village before and shortly after the start of the Lebanese Civil War of 1975. It focuses on a young woman struggling to find her independence while maintaining a close bond with her family. It also involves a family secret. My writing often concentrates on balancing two sides. For instance, in my forthcoming novel “The Allspice Bath”, the protagonist wavers between two cultures, her Canadian side and her Lebanese side. It is not always easy finding a balance but it is possible without denying a part of yourself altogether. 

Modern Matsushima

Snowflakes melt in pots
of steaming miso soup floating
among seaweed
the colour of emeralds,
and rice paddies.
Rows of spectators
wander across Matsushima.

I wait in line for oysters,
grilled corn on the cob.
Beyond the crowd
of people and food stalls,
Bashō sits
alone on a bench surrounded
by souvenir shops,
his gaze on a cluster of kokeshi dolls.

May I take a photograph? I ask.
His mouth curls, No photographs, please.
I sit and watch his eyes dart over
travellers flashing cameras in his direction.
He blinks and murmurs,
I once roamed the islands of Matsushima.
Then stiffens like a papier-mâché sculpture,
a relic from the past, he closes
his eyes and prays.

Sonia Saikaley was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada to a large Lebanese family. The daughter of a shopkeeper, she had access to all the treats she wanted. Her first book, “The Lebanese Dishwasher”, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest.  Her first collection of poetry, “Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter”, was published in 2012 and a second collection, “A Samurai’s Pink House”, was published in 2017 by Inanna Publications. She is currently working on a novel called “Jasmine Season on Hamra Street”. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa. In the past, she worked as an English teacher in Japan. Her novel “The Allspice Bath” is slated for publication in the spring of 2019 (Inanna Publications).

001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018 
Arya F. Jenkins “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph, “History Abandoned"

012 March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s (It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

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