Monday, November 30, 2015


This week, my friends, we are pleased to bring you an interview with Toni Spencer, who blogs at  kanzen sakura. Toni has a very interesting story, being a Southern belle with a love of all things Japanese. Pull your chairs up close. As this is the South, there is the scent of magnolias in the air, and we are on a wide covered porch, sipping sweet tea.

Sherry: Toni, you have one of the most interesting “About” pages I’ve ever read. Yay! Lots of directions to go in. First of all, would you explain a little about the meaning of the name of your blog, the fusion of Southern and the East?

Toni: I am a southern woman, born and bred in the South.  I love the Japanese culture and country.  The South part is posts about growing up me,  people I’ve met, Old Family recipes, Southern recipes, retro recipes,  food history.  The East part is Japanese poetic types, poems derived from Japanese concepts and aesthetics, Japanese recipes, prose about things Japanese (trips, incidents, a long relationship with a Japanese man – a modern “Samurai”.  The relationship ended years ago, but the effects and lessons learned from that still permeate my life.

Pink Sakura

Sherry: A beautiful love story scented with cherry blossoms. How lovely. I gather you fell in love with Japan as a child. Would you tell us a bit about this lifelong love, and your travels to Japan?

Toni: I have traveled to various cities while I was single, for both business and pleasure.  I consider the temple and Zen garden at Ryoanji (peaceful dragon) my heart home.  Recently I wrote a haibun about it.

Ryoanji Temple Pond
photo by John Lander

Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity. Khalil Gibran

A cold, wet day in Kyoto. I did not want to be here but since I was, I decided to go to Ryoanji, a few blocks from the hotel where I was booked. Because it was cold winter rain, I took a taxi instead of walking. The taxi driver was happy I was American. I sat in the back seat for the few moments it took. Several times I caught his eye in the rear view mirror, he always smiled. When I got out of the taxi handing him money, he waved it away. “American. Stranger. Cold.”..I could not in honor leave money after that. I bowed deeply to him as he drove off. I hoped he would look in his mirror and see.

I was alone on the viewing platform overlooking the dry garden. I stood looking in silent awe. On top of the wall was a row of sparrows. All fluffed out, eyes bright with curiosity, they watched this Western stranger move from one end of the platform to the other until I felt “right” and sat down. A few moments later, a young man came in and sat down close by. I glanced in curiosity and he smiled,. We sat there for an hour or so breathing in the perfume of the past, breathing out the steamy breath of the present. The breaths mingled with the cold air and became absorbed. The sparrows became restless, the air turned sweet. I knew that smell – snow! Soon snow flakes joined the rain. I sensed the young man was looking at me. He pointed up and around the garden – hatsuyuki – first snow, he said and sweetly smiled at the sky. It was time to go. Stiffly I began to rise and he put out his hand to help me. We walked in silence to the parking lot where I would summon another taxi. He motioned me to follow him and without fear, I did. With gentle courtesy he opened his car and brought out a thermos. He handed me the cap and poured hot tea into it. I sipped quickly, thawing. A taxi pulled in the lot, trolling. He hailed the taxi for me and put me in speaking to the driver. I gave the driver my hotel and was taken there. I paid him and went inside. I headed for a hot shower and room service. I blessed my new friends who gave without asking.

First snow and sparrows –
Strangers become friends beside
The peaceful dragon.

Sherry: You describe the place of your heart so beautifully, Toni. You wrote your first poem at age six – a haiku, no less!  Would you like to tell us the story about it?

Toni: Smiles.  It is a rather long telling but here is the link, if anyone is interested.  It is a rather funny tale.  Years later when I began to study Japanese poetry forms, I realized the poem was not a haiku but rather, a senryu – the unidentical twin to haiku.  But I still call it one as it was how I think of it.  The haiku is:

rain rain rain rain rain
ducks like rain but I do not –
rain rain rain rain rain. 

Sherry: It is a wonderful story, and it sounds like you were a remarkably precocious child. Tell us a bit about your childhood?


Toni: I grew up, the only child in a home of adults and teenagers, in the home built by my great grandfather’s father.  We were multi-generational,  ranging from my great-grandfather to me.  Relatives from the country were frequently visiting and staying for a few days. 

I was spoiled but not in the typical sense of being spoiled.  I was not given any “thing” because I wanted it.  Rather, because we were a family of odd folk – eccentric, not crazy because of being an “old” family – my precocity was encouraged.

 I realized at one point when I was just learning to write, that I could sign my name upside down, backwards, and both.  I began to write other words in that manner.  When I began formal schooling, which I hated, my first grade teacher sent a sample of that writing along with a note to my parents expressing “great concern”.  My mother returned the sample and the note with her response written on the note:  “Unless Toni misbehaves, don’t bother us with this sort of nonsense.”  All of my family members were avid readers, musical, my father rivaled my grandmother with his excellent cooking, we had a large kitchen garden which was often a playground for me. 

My next favorite was the small library.  I don’t know if they influenced my writing, but they did encourage me.  I discovered Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, and JD Salinger when I was 12.  They were the ones who influenced my writing/poetry.  And then I discovered Basho!  Happy day! 

Sherry: You have the makings of a Southern novel here. So interesting! 

Would you like to bring us up to date? What does your life look like today?    
Toni: I share my daily life with my husband.  We met on the internet.  Later bloomers, we married for the first time at a later time in life. One of the few things in which I listened to my wise mother was to marry a man 10 years younger.  My three remaining blood relatives – my mother and her two younger sisters – currently live in Tennessee.  My mother has Alzheimers.  I talk to her via phone several times daily and hope to plan a visit to her soon.  No critters. I had to put my cat down a couple of weeks ago and that was heartbreaking.

Looking for my granny

Sherry: Oh, I’m sorry, Toni. It is so hard to lose these beloved creatures. And it must be hard to lose your mother the way you are losing her, too. 

Toni: SamCat was rescued from a shelter. He lived the first four years of his life in a kennel and the last four with me. He was a smart, sweet, loving boy. He would always lie between my keyboard and the 'puter monitor while I wrote. His ashes are now in their container on my table while I write. I miss him dreadfully. I wrote a  haibun for him.

Family Pictures

I have a huge extended family in the “real world” and in the blogosphere.  In my blog, I often refer to them as “strangers who became family”.  I live in Virginia in a plain little brick rancher on the verge of a woods. I was taught fighting forms with a katana years ago, but because I am so short (4’10”), I cannot properly pull a katana from its sheath so I use instead the shorter sword, wakizashi,  which is about 8 inches shorter.  Her name is 南風 Minamikaze – South Wind.

 I practice my forms in all kinds of weather as a type of meditation.  I jokingly call myself onnabugeisha which means, female samurai.  I say that my life is guided by the 10 Commandments and the principles of Bushido.

Snowy Branches

Sherry: An intriguing combination. Write that memoir! I’ll buy it! I read you have gone back to school to study pharmacy. How is that going?

Toni: I am still studying.  I have changed hats frequently in my life as circumstances dictate.  At this point, I may decide  not to continue.  I am retired as of a year ago, and enjoying concentrating on my husband, family, poetry, cooking. 

Sherry: We wait so long for that luxury, don’t we? Would you like to choose a few of your poems and tell us a bit about each one?

Toni: I write mainly Japanese poetry forms.  The haiku are traditional, for which I am a stickler.  They have no titles.  1)  is a haiku I wrote this summer to express the grief myself and two other friends felt over the sudden death of a friend from COPD.

summer night is long –
dew falls but fades at morning –
grasses remember.

Sherry: How moving and beautiful. Sometimes, the simplest words carry the strongest emotion. You are moving through your losses with grace, Toni.

Toni: 2) is  a poem for the prompt of enjambment –

Autumn Light

Autumn is fall(ing) to sleep and
the creek at the foot of the hill is not
the gurgling child it was. Slower now
and grey around the edges. Stones left
behind from summer flooding dusty
and sad at being left behind. The frogs
have vanished and dragonflies
with-drawn to their secret blue cave in
the sky. Autumn is fall(ing) to sleep
withered sere leaves drift aimlessly
in the occasional breeze. Hum(ming) birds
have flown farther south to the land of eternal
jewels – treasures of another age –
placed carefully
in a museum of warmth and sun.
One night soon the stars will freeze in
the blackness of winter. Frosted morning grass
will crunch under my feet as I won(wan)der
shoulders hunched hands in my pockets
knowing going on without you is like
trying to thread a needle with one hand
with frozen fingers. Autumn is fall(ing) to sleep.

This poetic device was difficult to me until I wrote a tanka and then disjointed it.  I was extremely pleased, and intend to use this in the future.

Sherry: How lovely. I especially love your description of the creek as “not the gurgling child it was”. And your closing lines – the going on without the beloved, expressed so poignantly.

Green Forest

Toni:  3) is a haibun:

 Gold Day  

The afternoon he left was a golden roux of fading autumn sunlight, spicy oak leaves – bright yellow, still holding on to the tree, not yet ready to fall, and bitter salt tears – like the oak leaves – refusing to fall, refusing to join the earlier faded maple leaves on the lawn. Under the trees, quiet and still, I allow the knowledge of his leaving to permeate my being. I am still breathing. My heart is still beating. The sky is still ethereal blue with purest white autumn clouds wafting their way to the end of the horizon. Starlings lift from the telephone wires to follow the clouds. I realize, I will continue on my way – leaves will change color and fall, snow will cover the sepia winter landscape, cherry blossoms will bud, bloom, and fade, trees will leaf in explosions of green, leaves will change color and fall. Seasons and things will pass. Inside, my soul says “Oh!”  I sit as the gold day ends.

early leaf burning –
its incense drifts to heaven
autumn’s voice whispers.


I like this one because it is about when my relationship ended.  I think it is a lovely haibun,  and like many of my poems, the Japanese aesthetics of mujo, mono no aware, wabi sabi, chinmoku – often are the themes: transience, pathos at the passing of things, beauty in imperfection, silence.  Don’t get me started.  A friend and I often talked about these things from east coast to west, for 8 hours at a time or until our phone batteries died.


Sherry: It is breathtakingly lovely, Toni, the more so because of the awareness of the narrator of all that is passing, all that is to come. Absolutely gorgeous writing! I can see why you love the Japanese forms. The understated nature of the poems renders the material even more poignant. I am intrigued.

How did you come to the world of blogging, and how has it impacted your work?

Toni: A friend told me she had started blogging about food and sent me the link.  I read for a few months and thought, I can do that!  So I did.  My blog has evolved from being food-related to poetry.  I had stopped writing poetry and then, I began again.  I frequently walk around with poems in my head until I decide to write them down.  I am not one who feels I “have” to write/post every day.  If a prompt intrigues me, I will write.  If a poem wants to be written down, I write it.  I have a few followers and people with whom I am comfortable sharing my poems.  I don’t care if I am published.  I write for me and how it satisfies me.

Sherry: I feel the same way! I am more than happy that some people stop by to read my poems.  What keeps you busy when you aren’t writing?


Toni: Reading reading reading, cooking,  and in the summer and fall I can and freeze fresh produce, make jams, jellies, pickles.  I cook.  I take long walks and since I am insomniac, frequently walk about at night.  I have several poems written while walking in the rain or snow.  I continue to study Japanese culture and poetry and, my other pet interest, Victorian culture! I love reading historic mysteries – I watch for details that are correct or obscure.  I enjoy researching different foods, especially antique recipes.  I am a dull person!

 Sherry: I think not! People always tell me they are dull and have nothing to say. Then they knock my socks off with their interesting lives, as you have done. Is there anything you'd like to share that I didn't ask about?

Toni: I wrote J.D. Salinger on my birthday in November, having read Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. It resonated with me in a way no novel ever had.  I wrote to him of one section where Seymour was talking of how when he touched people, they left scars on his hands.  I didn't know where to reach Mr. Salinger so I sent to his publisher and asked that he get it. Amazingly, they forwarded it to him.  This letter from him was the result.  So reclusive was he, that he rarely corresponded.  For our 5th anniversary, my husband had it framed archively so the air would not get to it.  Of course, the letter had moved about with me in its envelope for years! 

Sherry: What a lovely story! This has been a wonderful visit. Thank you! In closing, is there anything you’d like to say to Poets United?

Toni: Thank you to all of you for gracious welcome to this wonderful and creative community.  Your comments and kindnesses mean a lot to me.  It brings to mind my blogging about the “kindness of un-strangers” and strangers who become friends who become family.  A most impressive and talented group of poets!

Sherry: We are happy you are among us, Toni. Thank you for this visit, and for allowing us to get to know you better. We look forward to reading many more of your beautiful poems.

Poets are some of the most interesting people around, are we not? I love reading the stories of the person behind the pen (or the screen). Always unique, always surprising. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. What a wonderful interview Sherri... Toni is so great to have among us in the blogosphere, and she is such an important part of why poetry can thrive... She always give such encouraging comments, and so observant, way beyond the normal: great job... As you know I think, that reading and understanding poetry is as important as writing... Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you Bjorn. I have tears now because of your so kind words.

  2. Thank you Sherry for interviewing me. You have done an excellent job of making me sound interesting! Now I am excited about who next you will interview and to find out about someone new.

    1. I'm happy you like it, kiddo. It was my pleasure. I will always think of cherry blossoms, now, when I read your poems!

  3. Oh my god! I can't thank you enough Sherry for taking out time and featuring Toni :D this is such a beautiful and touching interview! Its been a pleasure having you here with us Toni.. I for one was waiting endlessly ever since I read that you were about to be featured on Monday!

    I agree with Sherry when she says that you're not dull at all. In fact your interview makes me want to run halfway across the world to meet you! I mean the way you execute all those Japanese forms is amazing! I wish I could write a haiku or a senryu the way you do :D

    I love how you use the simplest of words and create such magic in your poems :D sometimes we don't need to do much except follow our instincts... isn't it? Like you I too first started blogging with several things to write about.. until I realized that poetry was the thing that I wanted to concentrate on.. if a prompt inspires me I dive right into it.. and if it doesn't then try as hard as I might... not a single word comes to mind.

    Hope you see more of you in the days to come :D you bring such a positive and loving vibe in the blogosphere. Wishing you loads of success and happiness.

    Lots of love,

  4. Thank you Sanaa. You are so kind in your words. And I really am dull..... You have your own style that you do beautifully. I mean, you sing!!! I couldn't sing if I tried. I may try it but people wouldn't be happy. I have found so many of us start our blogs on one track and then end up finding our true voice. I work very hard on my poetry. I look around and see something that sparks the "oh" in me and then walk around with it in my head, pushing and pulling it, guiding it and just writes itself! I will be around, most def. I used to get "virtual" visits from a dear friend. I'd take my laptop outside and we'd Skype, while I was sittng on my back steps at night. We would often just be silent and she would watch the snow falling, or listen to te crickets and cicada in the summer nights. If it was cold, I'd be wrapped in a quilt and I would take part of the quilt so she could see and would drape it so it was like we were wrapped up together. Such a precious soul. She died this past May and it has been lonely in this world without her. And she is one of those strangers who became a friend who became family. We need so much grace in this graceless world. Blogging is one way to help it become truth. Keep being you Sanaa. We need you and everyone else.

    1. It is very true that many people we meet online become very close and supportive. Grace, indeed. You had a very special friendship. You must miss her so much.

    2. No doubt there are some people who become as close to us as the air we breathe... your friendship with her was one of a kind.. and I can feel how much you miss her...Big hugs!

  5. O, wow, so interesting life and passionate writing. I love haiku form too. Always was wondering about different Toni's names....sorry about your cat...and mom's disease don't make life easy .....lots of thanks for all communication, comments from you...appreciate Sherry's feature here, in PU.

  6. Sherry, I am so happy that you featured our own Toni ~ I have been following her blog and poems for some time now and her Japanese poems are a joy to read ~ She also brought back my appreciation for the much-misunderstood haiku and other Japanese short forms ~

    Thank you for all the encouragement you and the rest of PU give us week after week Sherry ~

    1. You are most welcome, my friend and thank you for the appreciation. Smiles. Made my day!

  7. What a wonderful interview, Sherry and Toni. I enjoyed reading a bit more of your background, Toni. You definitely have worn many hats. Your haibun 'Gold Day' was so very touching, Toni. I can see that your heart is still very much in Japan & Japan and its culture and poetry seems to inhabit your soul. Smiles. I loved the story about the letter from J.D. Salinger. What an honor! And yes, DO write that memoir! It really has been a pleasure sharing poetry with you in the blogosphere, Toni. And, Sherry, you never cease to amaze me in the way you always find a way to bring out interesting things about poets' lives.

    1. It isnt me - it is that each person's story is so FASCINATING. Every time, there is something that amazes me.....invariably people tell me they are boring - well, you can see this is simply not true - about any of us. Smiles.

  8. The connection with Salinger is one of those rare, delightful encounters. Thanks Toni for sharing your poetry. Japanese poetry is deep and I believe takes a lifetime (or more) to master. Yours is profound.

    1. Thank you. I am still working on trying to master it.

  9. Fascinating...a great interview Sherry and Toni...wonderful to read.

  10. This interview makes me happy! It's a pleasure to read Haiku and other Japanese forms that center on nature and change and the surprise of it all. Thank you for talking more about your so interesting life. Thanks again, Sherry, for another great interview.

    1. I am glad it made you happy. Sherry has a true gift for these.

  11. Thank you Sherry and Toni for this amazingly engaging chat...I wanted to read more and more and felt it ended so glad to get to know you a bit more Toni...what an interesting life you have...we share the same height (4’10”), a perfect haiku height :)...enjoyed your poems immensely and looking forward to read more...

  12. I have been curious about you and your work - how unique..the name who have chosen to write under...what a rich and superb interview and poet/person you are! Thank you both..heart home is the one that counts...and i love your mothers reply to your teacher..and eccentric or creative ;)

  13. One of my favourite poets and Toni combines 2 extraordinary cultures in one creative mix. Fascinating to read her story and now to understand her poetry even more since this interview. Full respect Toni for your discipline of your martial art in all weather - my Tai Chi is like dragonfly skimming the pond surface.
    And thank you Sherry for teading the most interesting parts out of your interviewees

  14. Sherry, I think this is one of your most fascinating interviews yet! What a rich and wonderful life'; what great stories.

  15. This is indeed a great interview Sherry and Toni! Toni, you are special. You stand out being everything Japanese, name and writings to start with and knowledge. Having been long in Japan makes you unique with info on Japan. Others learn a lot about Japan from a non-Japanese which makes it educational and objective. Thanks!


  16. Toni, i read your post on how you wrote your first haiku at the age of six. it is indeed a good haiku and to read it at your friend's, and sensei's memorial makes it all that more appropriate and touching.
    you are one amazing woman! and the name of your sword is awesome!

  17. Thank you Sherry and Toni. I loved the post and about learning more about Toni. She is a very interesting person, I look forward to reading more of her poems.

  18. Toni is a fascinating woman--well, you are! <3
    I've never read any of her poetry which didn't move me. Her words may be spare but she knows how to make them count.
    Toni, you are full of delicious surprises and interesting talents. ;-)

  19. A delight once again is lovely to meet you Toni and learn more about your fascinating life and experience with Japan and Japanese culture. I agree, write that memoir! I look forward to reading so much more of your amazing poetry...and like Laura now I have an even better feel for the poet and her poetry.

  20. I'm so late to comment, but so glad I stopped by. Toni you're such an interesting person. I'm awed by your talent, your interests and your amazing life. I'm not one to adhere to forms, yet i once responded to a prompt (perhaps yours) and I thoroughly enjoyed writing a haibun. Thank you for bringing the flavor of Japan to us.
    Sherry, as always. a super interview. Glad I didn't miss it.

  21. Toni, I am so happy I found you~ Sherry, I agree she needs to write a memoir~ I love your honesty and your insight! Thank you, for sharing your world with us~ You are so, talented~
    Thank you, Sherry n' Toni~

  22. What a lovely interview. Nice to meet you Toni. Your haiku is lovely.

  23. Thank you, Sherry and Toni!! this was a joy!


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