Firstly, I would like to thank rob mclennan for this opportunity to talk a bit about my process when writing poetry. How do I craft a poem? It begins with an image. Even as a child, some images would intrigue me and I’d imagine a story or scene using that picture. I’d race up the stairs to my room, grab a notebook and pencil, hop on my bed and scribble down my thoughts while thinking about a particular image. Back then, my poems rhymed but not so much now.
When I lived in Japan over a decade ago, I wandered Matsushima, a beautiful place in the Miyagi Prefecture where the haiku master Basho had travelled and while I was there I found a papier-mâché of the famous poet. Sitting next to this sculpture, I felt inspired to write a series of poems about Basho that would later appear in my collection A Samurai’s Pink House (Inanna Publications). I also saw a red bridge in Matsushima and another poem came about. Then I lifted up a kokeshi in a shop and studied the details of the handmade wooden doll. I went to a small and lovely restaurant and in between bites of grilled beef tongue and rice I composed poems containing kokeshi dolls and beef tongue too! White ribbons on a tree at a shrine. The hem of a kimono lightly brushing against the earth. Someone spreading open indigo curtains of an entrance to a sushi restaurant. A child holding a persimmon in her small hands. All of these images stirred in me the desire to create poetry when I travelled across Japan.
I suppose like cue cards aiding a speaker, images in my surroundings encourage me to write. Conflicts in the world can also motivate me to find a way to understand the loss, the heartache and the situation. In my poetry collection Turkish Delight, Montreal Delight (Mawenzi House), the conflicts in the Middle East inspired several poems and I tried to imagine what it would be like for someone living through wars and chaos and the yearning to move to a new land and once in that place, the longing for the old country.
Images and empathy coexist while I’m creating poems or fiction. My poems are often prose-like and the two genres form a medley. As a child, I always composed poetry by longhand in a notebook (well, given that I grew up in the seventies and eighties and I didn’t have a computer or typewriter, this was the only way I could write). Although computers and other technologies exist today, I still write poetry longhand. The feel of holding a pen and moving it along lined pages brings me closer to my idea and the characters in the poem. When writing the first draft, I never interrupt myself or hold back. Only after the entire draft is completed do I start striking out words. I read the poem aloud and try to hear the line-breaks as if they are pieces of wood being chiselled by a carver. I close my eyes and envision the image that guided me to start a poem in the first place. An initial draft is written from that image and from my heart too. I don’t let the inner editor enter this space. Only after creating a draft do I invite the editor to glance at the pages in my journal. I sit in my solarium, sipping green tea, and begin the process of chopping, carving and finalizing something that is hopefully as moving to others as it is to me.
Sonia Saikaley was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada to a large Lebanese family. Her first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. She has two poetry collections Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter and A Samurai’s Pink House. She is currently working on a novel called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street. A graduate of the University of Ottawa and the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa. Her novel The Allspice Bath was recently published by Inanna Publications.
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