Beth Skala

family reunion
cherry blossoms open
each conversation

Beth Skala
Nanaimo, British Columbia

This is now the fourth time a poem of yours has won as best British Columbia poem for the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival’s Haiku Invitational—you won before in 2011, 2016, and 2017. What keeps you writing cherry blossom haiku, and what keeps your poems fresh?

A unique feature of the VCBF’s Haiku Invitational is its annual theme. Composing a poem that conforms to the theme while still referencing cherry blossoms is a special challenge. The theme makes me consider a familiar topic in a new way. Every year the ground rules change. Every year the contest theme opens my eyes to a new interpretation of cherry blossoms.


What was the inspiration for your winning poem?

Shortly before VCBF announced its 2019 theme of “reconciliation,” my cousin tried to organize a family reunion. She envisioned the sixteen surviving first cousins all attending with spouses. I began to hear comments from the cousins along the lines of “If so-and-so’s there, I won’t go.” Sadly, only six cousins attended the reunion. As I began working on my entry for the Haiku Invitational, I thought of my cousins and wished we had had a neutral starting point to bring us all together. Perhaps next year I will invite them to British Columbia to view the cherry blossoms.


Describe the moment when you first learned you had won—now for the fourth time. Was winning this time different at all?

Yes, winning this time was quite different. I entered only a few poetry contests this past year and did not publish any poetry at all. Winning in 2019 was a validation that although my writing efforts recently have been in other genres, I still have what it takes to write a good haiku.


What advice do you have for others learning to write haiku, and for those who might enter the Haiku Invitational in the future?

Go to the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival website and read the winning poems, the suggestions for writing haiku, and the judges’ comments. Search other haiku websites and study the instructions and samples of well-written haiku. Play with the haiku you find online. Can you improve upon them? Could a different word here or there change the meaning of the haiku or add depth? Your analysis of others’ haiku will help you discover what makes a winning poem. Most important, of course, is to practise, practise, practise. I do not write one or two haiku for the contest. I write a minimum of twenty-five (and have written as many as eighty-seven) before selecting the poems to enter in the Haiku Invitational.


Please tell us more about yourself, and what you’ve been up to in the last few years.

Since 2017 I have spent a great deal of time doing family history research. I have traced my German grandmother’s family back to the 1400s and my Polish grandmother’s family back to the early 1700s. The grandfathers have been more elusive, but I’m working on them. Most of my writing has revolved around this research. I have written two chapbooks for the family. One follows the lives of three of my mother’s great-aunts, and one describes the early life and immigration of my German grandmother. A third is in the works, centred around the house that was in the family for ninety-seven years. In 2018 I wrote a story (about my aunt’s first job) for the Nanaimo Family History Society’s annual writing contest. While receiving first prize was exciting, I was even more thrilled by my family’s response to the story. Many cousins said they had never heard the story before, and they were delighted to learn more about their parents’ birth family.


Describe some experiences you’ve had with cherry blossoms or other experiences with nature in springtime. How do you move from experience to poem?

When the cherry trees begin to bud where I live in Nanaimo, British Columbia, it is a promise that spring is coming. Sometimes we have snow after the blossoms open, but it never lasts. As a gardener, I look to the cherry blossoms to cue me that it is time to buy a new pair of gardening gloves and to watch for warmer days so I can get outside and start the spring garden clean-up. Moving from experience to poem does not happen in a straight line. Often I will write a list of words that express the emotions that an experience brings up. I may write a few paragraphs about the experience, particularly relating it to other times I felt the same way. I may brainstorm random words that pop into my head around the experience. And sometimes I don’t take any of those preliminary steps, but just plunge right in. I never write one poem and say, “There, that’s done.” I write another and another and another. I rewrite the early attempts, substituting different words here and there. Is there a stronger verb? Are there too many words? In the case of haiku, I am always looking for a way to convey my point more succinctly. With so few words, it is an additional challenge to create haiku that can be read with more than one meaning. And then I take my poetry to my writers’ group for honest feedback. Further revisions often follow.