Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Muse: Oregon's Poet Laureate

Lawson Fusao Inada is Oregon's Poet Laureate. He was appointed to the position on February 17, 2006, and completed his term earlier this year. (Nominations for a new Poet Laureate were accepted until February 15, 2010. The selection may be announced this month. I will do a second post on Oregon after a new Poet Laureate is announced.)

Established by the governor in 1923, the position of Poet Laureate, originally a life-time appointment, is codified (Oregon State Laws, Chap. 122, Secs. 1-3; Statutes, 1994 Suppl., Sec. 357.925). The individual selected must have resided in Oregon at least 10 years and be a current resident; must be recognized as a poet who has published a significant amount of well-regarded work; and must agree to the appointment's terms and conditions. Self-nominations are not accepted. Once the position becomes vacant, the governor is required to make an appointment within one year; the person selected serves for two years. No Poet Laureate may serve more than two consecutive terms. Guidelines for the office specify that the Poet Laureate make six to 20 public appearances and readings a year and provide for a $10,000 annual stipend and up to $10,000 in additional funds to support work and travel across Oregon.

The state's first Poet Laureate was Edwin Markham (1923 - 1931). He was succeeded by Ben Hur Lampman (1951 - 1954), Ethel Romig Fuller (1957 - 1965), and William Stafford (1975 - 1990).*

* * * * *
. . . I was taken away with my family. . . My mind could not contain the chaos, would not retain the memory.
    However, I certainly do remember, and can still feel, the two events that were to happen shortly. . . 
    I got lost. . . I remained "lost" for the duration of all the camp years.
    I got shocked. . . I evolved from a robust child to a frequenter of infirmaries in the swampland of Arkansas, the windswept plain of Colorado....
~ Lawson Inada**

Poet Lawson Fusao Inada, emeritus professor of English at Southern Oregon University at Ashland, is Oregon's fifth Poet Laureate. A third-generation Japanese American, born in 1938 in Fresno, California, Inada, along with his parents and grandparents, was interned during World War II at three different locations in the United States. (He was one of the youngest Japanese Americans to be incarcerated in the camps.) At the war's end, he returned to Fresno, California, subsequently entering Fresno State University and studying with poet Philip Levine. He also attended the famous University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He received a Master of Fine Arts from Southern Oregon University (formerly, Southern Oregon College). Currently, he holds the Steinbeck Chair at the National Steinbeck Center.

Of his job as Poet Laureate, Inada told an interviewer, "I was busy, let me tell you. I traveled all around the state visiting schools, libraries and communities. The work and pleasure of it is in promoting poetry everywhere you go."*** Inada said that he met the guidelines for readings and appearances his first week on the job. In his first year, he attended more than 70 events.

Inada's Before the War: Poems as They Happened (Morrow) appeared in 1971, marking the first time that a major American publishing house had produced a poetry collection by an Asian American. His Legends from Camp (Coffee House Press, 1993) won the American Book Award and Drawing the Line (Coffee House Press) won an Oregon Book Award in 1997. 

What Inada experienced as a child while an internee during World War II is very much a part of his poetry. That poetry speaks movingly of loss, especially of identity, and also of reconnection. It does not speak, however, on an angry man's behalf; rather, it recapitulates life as it was, its hardships and yet its hopes. Inada tells tight matter-of-fact vignettes, haiku-like stories shaped by time in a particular moment in a particular place, though not the place he knows as home. In multi-part poems, as in Legends from Camp, he shares bits and pieces that in their entirety speak to trying to remember, trying to discern truth from fiction, trying to make sense of what happened without romanticizing it.

What Inada recalls in the simplest, most plain words can take your breath away, as here:

This is as
as it gets:

In a pinch,
of your pets.
~ "II. The Legend of the Human Society" in Legends from Camp

It began as truth, as fact.
That is, at least the numbers, the statistics,
are there for verification:

10 camps, 7 states,
120,113 residents.

Still, figures can lie: people are born, die.
And as for the names of the places themselves,
these, too, were subject to change:. . 
~ From "Prologue" in Legends from Camp

Inada uses repetition to great effect in his free verse, creating a rhythm along which memory flows.  

Let's have one more turn
around the barracks.
Let's have one more go
down the rows, rows, rows
Let's have on last chance
at the length of the fence—
~ From "XXV. The Legend of Leaving" in Legends from Camp

What I note especially in reading Inada's poems is an evocation (to me) of the German concentration camps, as in the last two lines in the excerpt above and here, too:

It got so cold in Colorado we would burn the world.
That is, the rocks, the coal that trucks would dump in a pile.
Come on, children! Everybody! Bundle up! Let's go!
But then, in the warmth, you remembered how everything goes up
In smoke.
~ "XXII. The Legend of Burning the World" in Legends from Camp

Inada's poetry is inscribed on stones at the Japanese American Historical Plaza in Portland, Oregon. The final stone bears this poem, which Inada said he chose deliberately to convey a sense of hope:

With new hope
We build new lives.
Why complain when it rains?
This is what it means to be free.

A devotee of jazz who often reads to musical accompaniment, Inada wrote this poem about five jazz greats, musicians and singers. Two lines each, they are perfect tributes.

Listening Images

Lester Young
Yes, clouds do have
The smoothest sound.

Billie Holiday
Hold a microphone
Close to the moon.

Charlie Parker
Rapids to baptism
In one blue river.

Coleman Hawkins
A hawk for certain,
But as big as a man.

Ben Webster
Such fragile moss
In a massive tree.
~ From Legends From Camp

In addition to writing and publishing poetry, Inada is a co-editor of Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese Internment Experience (Heyday Books, 2000) and a contributor to In This Great Land of Freedom: The Japanese Pioneers of Oregon (Japanese American National Museum, c 1993) and Touching the Stones: Tracing One Hundred Years of Japanese American History (Oregon Nikkei Endowment, c 1994). In addition, Inada wrote the introduction for Unfinished Message: Selected Works of Toshio Mori (Heyday Books, c 2000) and, with Jeffrey Chan, playwright Frank Chin and novelist Shawn Won, published Aiieee: An Anthology of Asian American Writers (1974). He was named Oregon State Poet of the Year in 1991, won the prestigious Pushcart Prize for poetry in 1996, and has received both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

Inada is the subject of a number of videos, including What It Means To Be Free. He also is part of the Voices Education Project.


All excerpts © Lawson Inada.

* The dates given here for the service of Oregon's Poets Laureate are those of the Library of Congress. They differ from the dates on, the official state site. Information on the nomination process for the appointment of a new Poet Laureate in 2010 is here.

* Excerpts from  "Godson" (i and ii) in Inada's Introduction to Only What We Could Carry.

*** Inada, quoted in "Wanted: Oregon Poet Laureate" in Ashland Daily Tidings, January 29, 2010.

See Oregon Poet Laureate for Inada's complete bibliography.

A number of poems can be found in full via Google Books previews of Legends from Camp, Only What We Could Carry, and Drawing the Line.

Inada's poem for Oregon marking the state's 150th birthday is "Saying the Name". (I was unable to find any text online.)

A video of a 2008 reading by Inada (he's a wonderful reader) is here, as is the audio of Inada reading his poem "Shadows". 

A video in which Inada speaks eloquently about his internment and about his poetry at the Japanese American Historical Park is here

A transcript of Inada's reflections on his internment during World War II is here.

Inada is the narrator of the PBS Specials Children of the Camps and Conscience and the Constitution.

All of Inada's books, including the histories to which he contributed, are in the collections of the Library of Congress.

The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center is here.

Another source of information on Inada, as well as links to various poems, is here.

Resources of the Oregon State Poetry Association are here. A rich list of links at PoetsWest is here; more  are here.

For other posts on state Poets Laureate, simply search on "Monday Muse".


Glynn said...

I could spend a week just exploring the links you have here. Great feature.

M.L. Gallagher said...

You are such a gift Maureen and the people and links we share create gifts that keep on giving!

I love this

Yes, clouds do have
the smoothest sound.

Thank you again!

Billy Coffey said...

I think I'm going to take what was once an uneventual evening and go through each of these links. Thanks, Maureen, for keeping me company tonight.

ficwriter said...

Lovely post. And I agree with Glynn. I've spent so much time perusing your site that I've gotten no work done today. But I've enjoyed every moment. Thanks, Maureen.:)