Monday, May 14, 2018


Today, my friends, we are visiting Toni Spencer, who lives on the edge of a woods in Virginia, and blogs at Kanzen Sakura ~ South Meets East: Poetry and Musings - words of the seasons. Toni describes herself as a Southern girl with a fascination with all things Eastern. Her wonderful poetry often illustrates how East meets West. Let's dive in.

Sherry: Toni, we last spoke with you in 2015. Would you fill us in on what you have been up to since then? I know you have suffered some significant losses; I am especially sorry about the loss of your mother last year.  How are you doing? 

Samcat under the crepe myrtle

Toni: It has been a difficult time – taking care of my mother who died of complications of Alzheimer’s and congestive heart failure, and also my husband, who was in hospital recently from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve.  

After my mother had a series of seizures and small strokes, she went from the hospital to a skilled nursing facility, where she died this past June.  I have been grieving (intensely), and in one of my deep depressions.  But still it has had elements of joy in it, love, and of course, writing! 

Sherry:  Losing a mother is so hard. I hope your husband is recovering well. Goodness, you have been through so much! Toni, you recently wrote the most beautiful poem to your mother. I would love to include it here, if I may.


You died June 18. Every day I watched you dying – slowly and painfully. Every day I prayed for you to die while feeling sadness at losing you forever. You were silent by March. The vampire that sucked out your memories took away your life, your love – all except your knowing of me. Me you never forgot. In July I received your ashes. I sat in the car with the box holding your ashes cradled in my arms and wept. Then in the heat of summer I made the pilgrimage farther south – to the country cemetery where our ancestors lay under the big oaks and magnolia trees.

When we arrived at our hometown I rode you around the streets of your memories – past our old home place, past the high school from which you graduated. past the hospital where you gave birth to me. Then onward until we reached the country. At the cemetery I walked with you and took a trowel and in your mother’s grave I dug. I dug a deep hole in the brick hard red soil. sweat dripping down onto the earth like tears. At last I had the hole deep enough. I poured your ashes into the hole and placed a red carnation on top – your favorite flower. I replaced the earth and tamped it down. I tucked the earth around your ashes as I used to tuck you in for sleep. I built a small stone cairn over your resting place. Be at peace mama. I love you. And then the long drive alone back up north.

sweltering heat – I
buried your ashes in the red soil –
a lone cardinal sang

Sherry:  This is incredibly moving, Toni. Thank you for sharing it with us. I love the image of that lone cardinal.  What plans do you have for 2018? I saw on one of your posts about your plans to go back to university. What prompted these plans?

Toni:  My mother was an intense advocate for education.  I come from a long line of overly educated women!  

I decided that at 66, in order to honor my mother and myself, that I needed another degree. Not many people are aware that I have a BA, BS, MS, and PhD.  I decided to go for my MA and am now currently at work on it.  I’ve always majored in sciences and math but the MA is my love of poetry – so I am now enrolled in distance learning at Duke University – three hours south of here. I go down once a month to check in and to present work.  I expect to have my MA by the end of the summer.  It is intense but I am so glad I am retired!

Sherry:   Toni, good for you! That is a true achievement. In the busyness and demands of life, what does poetry do for you? As an outlet? A response to life? What do you love about haiku and Eastern forms especially?

Toni: Talking to a friend by phone, she mentioned that poetry is my happy place.  Indeed it is.  I use this as an outlet to clear my pipes, so to speak, and to get out emotions I otherwise keep tight to my chest.  I don’t put a lot of it out there.  I do blogpost on my own blog, dVerse Poets Pub, Real Toads, and of course, Poets United. 

Another of my happy places is the woods that surround our property.  There is a certain ancient oak which I climb on a regular basis and sit perched in a nest of branches being quiet, taking in the atmosphere and occasionally taking my violin with me to play and to entertain the creatures and the trees.  I think they enjoy it!  My playing isn’t that good, but the squirrels like it.

Sherry: I love the whole idea of you perched in that tree, playing violin. (I wish we had a photo of that to share. Smiles.) I am sure trees and creatures enjoy the music very much.

Toni: What I love about haiku and other Japanese poetic forms is the freedom from rhymes. I specialize in Japanese forms rather than eastern forms.  I admire people who can rhyme, but I can’t.  The brevity of haiku, the concepts of Japanese culture, the intense feeling of change and nature – they all appeal to me. I wrote my first haiku when I was six.  

When I was 11, I went to my grandmother who was cooking dinner and whined, I’m bored.  She left me in charge of dinner and left for a few minutes.  When she had returned from a brief trip to our library, she had two books:  the collected works of both Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot.  She says to me, I think these will keep you busy for a couple of weeks.  

I began writing poetry at that time. I became fascinated with Japanese Poetic forms and have written and studied them for over 50 years.  I add many references to Japanese culture and words in my poetry.  For example, the Japanese have over 50 words for rain – each word is unique and denotes a specific.  For example, “kisame” refers to rain that drips from leaves – the rain of the rain so to speak.  Many words denoting different types of silence – "chinmoku" refers to the silence between the notes.  

The contemplative nature of the forms, counting syllables, incorporating nature and change is vastly appealing to me and brings me a measure of peace.  I take the Japanese forms seriously and do not change anything about them.   I respect the forms and follow the rules.  Basho once said to learn the rules and forget about them. I think that means to learn them so well, one can write the forms without thinking – forgetting about them, not changing them.

Online, posting poetry and reading them, connects me to other people and the world.  I am a true loner and introvert and find more solace in nature, trees, and poetry.

Sherry: I think many poets are this way. I know I am. And I love the whole idea of "the rain of the rain". So beautiful.

Toni, do you have some poems you would like to share with us? And tell us a bit about each?

Toni: These poems were written while I was taking care of my mother and also a stray cat, injured, I called Nobody’s Cat.  They reflect my sadness, depression, and my grief over both the situations.  These were both published in the dVerse anthology, Chiaroscuro

the days have knit themselves
into a pattern of sameness –
an afghan in shades of grey.
like the winter sky and trees.
the elderly woman settles down to sleep.
the younger woman brushes the curls off
her forehead and whispers,
Sleep mama, sleep.

I found out today where Nobody’s Cat
goes after I feed him in the morning.
I looked out the back way and
saw him limping laboriously
over the back lawn
crawling under the potting shed.
Brown leaves curl back onto themselves
not showing his passing.

This haiku is about my flowering quince bush. The quince originally came over from England via cuttings nursed during the long ship trip, and then planted in the New World by my ancestors in very early 1700's, when they settled on the NC Coast. The quince is my personal symbol of survival, blooming where one is planted, and nurturing. Small birds and other creatures nest in the quince. The poems are haiku.

tiny red buds

sleeping in the cold –
sign of spring

sign of spring

blooming in spite of snow
flowering quince

Toni, age 6

Sherry: That is a bush with a ton of history. The story of its journey, along with the people who brought it, would make an amazing book. In this photo of you as a child, is that the flowering quince behind you?

Toni: Yes. That is one of several quinces birthed from the original. It is now about 8 feet high as I refuse to have it cut back.  There are also two Japanese plums beside it in my yard that my grandmother started. She was walking about the neighborhood and saw it in bloom. She asked the owner about it who obligingly dug up several shoots from it.  She planted them and they grew like gangbusters.

When my mother's middle sister married and moved to Denver, she took several shoots with her. My mother's baby sister took several when she moved to TN.  My mother sold our home, made and took cuttings and bulbs with her to VA when she moved here.  I in turn brought several shoots and a cutting of the quince with me along with a bushel basket of daffodils , narcissus, and iris and planted them here.  All of them so very old and from the home in England.  We love our old plants and bulbs! 

Sherry: It is truly wonderful to have plants with so much family history. Let's look at your poem about this wonderful bush.

The Flowering Quince

I am the flowering quince in my yard
Lovingly cut in an Englishman’s yard
and nurtured through the long trip
aboard a ship and then planted in Carolina soil.
Putting out roots and shoots and shared
among close friends to plant in their yards.
Moved about from place to place
still holding on to my roots
I am the flowering quince in my yard
Surviving through drought and snow
sheltering birds and small animals
drinking deeply of the wild submerged springs
and always looking up at the greyblueblack sky
Standing still in storms and sun
I am the flowering quince in my yard
dreaming beneath cold winter stars
watching them whirl in their majestic progress
praying to them and singing a silent song
that no one listens to
I am the flowering quince in my yard
displaying tiny red buds
hidden among the branches
Full of rose pink flowers
Full of spikey bitey thorns
Never bearing any fruit
Faithful in my cycles of bloom
and deep green leaves
I am the flowering quince in my yard

Sherry: I can see why you identify with this bush, Toni. We have to be as hardy and resilient as the quince, to deal with all life brings our way.

Toni: I am a chronic insomniac and frequently write poems about the night. I spend much time walking about at night, or sitting on my back porch, in all kinds of weather.

Night Curtains

Draw back the curtains of the night,
show us the stars and the glowing moon –
Let in the argent light.
Dance to the rhythm of the
speckled shadows –
whisper of the music made by the stars –
pulsing as sure as the blood
in your veins, beating slowly.
Draw back the curtains of the night.

Sherry: Thank you for these lovely offerings, Toni. Each one is so beautiful.

I know you have travelled to Japan, Europe, Canada and through the U.S. Do you have any plans for further travels? Somewhere on your Bucket List you have yet to see?

Toni: I think British Columbia would be on my bucket list, in particular the coast.  I think Tofino would most def be on my list!  smiles
Sherry: You would love it! I could show you all the best places! Is there anything else you’d like to share with Poets United?

Toni:  Thank you all for allowing me to privilege to post on Poets United.  You all are a gracious and accepting group of poets and talented as well.  I love poetry. I discovered TS Eliot and Emily Dickinson when I was 11.  I started reading poetry and I haven’t stopped!

Sherry : We are happy you are among us, Toni. Thank you for this wonderful visit, and for giving us the history of your flowering quince!

Do come back, my friends, and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. It is so lovely to visit with you, Toni, on this beautiful summer's day. Thank you so much for allowing us to catch up with you.

  2. Thank you for an enjoyable interview, Sherry and Toni! I love the photos of Samcat and six-year-old Toni. By the way, my quince has flowered this year.
    I now have an image in my head of Toni sitting in the branches of an oak tree playing her violin. I totally agree with her about on-line communities as connections to other people and the world, also being a bit of a loner and introvert, preferring the company of cats and trees.

    1. Hooray! Your quince bloomed! I hope it blooms for many years for you.

  3. Sherry, you are definitely the Queen of Profiles! This is another gem, and it's about one of my favorite bloggers. Toni is the only person who has been able to make me lkike their haiku--what does THAT tell you?!? I love the authenticity of hers, which shines through even to one who doesn't claim to be any kind of scholar on Eastern short forms.

    There's little doubt that Toni is a female samurai! One of the things I love about her is that she doesn't call dog turds roses, or say anything that isn't genuine. In her work she shares the pain that goes with engaging with life, a love of nature, and a knack for revealing the subtle and the meaningful in everything she writes about. You couldn't have chosen a more interesting poet to profile.

  4. Wow, I know I did a good job when I get a comment from Fireblossom. Thank you so much. I agree. Toni speaks with authenticity, and so beautifully. There is always that touch of Eastern romance and loss, that resonates so strongly. I LOVE the mental image of her sitting in a tree playing violin. Toni, I strongly suggest you have someone take that photo for your profile photo. You can still wear the big hat. Smiles.

    1. Thank you for this wonderful profile Sherry. I don't know about a pic of me in my tree. It is one of my sacred places and private. That black Stetson is one of my favorites!

    2. My mental image of it is pretty cute, anyway. I can work with that. Smiles. I'll bet your tree LOVES the music. They hear us, you, know. And scientists recently discovered they have a heartbeat, it is very slow, once every hour or two, and works to push the water through the tree's branches and arteries, the way our hearts push blood. Amazing, isnt it?

    3. I do know! One reason I love trees so dearly. Not only because of their beauty and how they enrich this earth but because of their heartbeat.

  5. What a nice surprise to find Toni featured here! Not only is her writing always beautiful and moving – and, as Fireblossom says, authentic – also we have become facebook friends. A quiz once identified us as secret twins; and indeed, although we are not outwardly much alike, it is amazing how many things in common have shown up in getting to know each other. A lovely feature, thanks to you both. I well remember the sad but magnificent haibun on the death and interment of your mother, Toni. It moved me just as much to re-read it here. And the other poems are all lovely too. I happen to think you write just as beautifully in Western-style free verse as in your beloved Japanese forms.

    1. Thank you Rosemary! High praise indeed from such a talented poet.

    2. I agree, Rosemary. Toni, I like your work in whatever form you use.

  6. Simply amazing, Toni, combining East and West so eloquently. An array of choice poems and thanks Sherry!


  7. Yes, thank you Sherry and Toni. The interview was wonderful. Loved getting to know Toni better. She touches my heart when I read what she writes. I had read the post that she was going back to school, and was wonderfing how that was going. Cats, poetry, the night and love...can anyone ask for more? I have always loved the quince as well...and the little girl she was in the photo.

  8. I think last week I left a comment on Toni's blog about her beautiful haiku on 'Kisame'. it was a new word to me and as it was quite hot it was something like a dream to me at the time. But now we're witnessing Kisame' all over. Love the scent of nature in your poems Toni. Enjoyed every word of the interview. You are a real achiever Toni. Sherry really knows how to draw a poet out. Thank you ladies :)

  9. That was a wonderful interview Toni. I enjoy reading about each poet each with their own story. Kisame. What a pretty word! I would love to use it.

  10. I am happy you are enjoying this feature, my friends. I certainly love bringing them to you, so we can get to know the poets behind the pen better, which then informs our understanding of their poetry.

  11. What a fascinating interview, Sherry. Beautiful poetry. And what an accomplished woman you are, Toni. Great job on this, Poets.

  12. Oh Toni I am so sorry to hear about your mother and husband. My dad had Alzheimer's so I know how hard it can be, and especially when a parent is ravaged by it. Your poem, At Rest, hit me hard and was so beautiful, as were all your poems. I love that you continually move forward and another degree is wonderful. Thank you Sherry for updating us, and it was great to catch up with you Toni!

  13. Sorry to get here two days late, Toni and Sherry! What a pleasure to read this now that I have time to rekax. I love Wednesdays and try to save them for poetry. I enjoy your short forms, Toni, and today fell in love with your longer poem and your relationship with quince!
    "I am the flowering quince in my yard
    dreaming beneath cold winter stars"
    My grandmother also had a quince bush, and I have fond memories of Quince jam--as many hard fruits as there were red blossoms. I took some of her lilac to remember her, but never got near the quince again. How lovely to have a spiritual place and sound another tree with your instrument. Peace to you, Toni, you have earned it after so much loss and illness. And lots of excitment and new travel too.

  14. Sorry am late to comment... love the Japanese references in your poetry Toni, I hope nature and poetry are helping you through these hard times of loss. Your tribute to your mother was beautifully poignant. Great to read this interview. Thanks Sherry.

  15. Having lost my mother to the long goodbye of Alzheimer's, I was incredibly touched by your words, Toni. All your poetry seems to speak to me. Thank you for sharing your talent. Blessings on ya!

  16. Wow, Toni, I am impressed with all of your degrees; and good for you for working on yet another one!!! I always love your poetry.

  17. I know this is late, Toni.. but hopefully not too late. Losing a mum is hard...but your words and your experience really brought it home to me. I lost my dad a few years ago...and it's still fresh on my mind. I like to think that these experiences bring out something new in our souls. What that is...I'm still trying to figure out.
    And if your layered poems are an indication...I think you may have found it.


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