Friday, March 03, 2006

Lawson Inada Starts a Renaissance

Lawson Inada, born in Fresno, California, spent part of his childhood in concentration camps for Japanese-American during World War II in Arizona and Colorado. After the war, he finished high school in Fresno, living in the poor neighborhood of Japanese-Americans, blacks, Chinese, Armenians Filipinos, Okies, where he grew to love black music and became friends with Chicanos and blacks. He enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley where he spent much time listening to jazz greats in San Francisco. Jazz is a major subject of his poetry and inspiration for his style. Returing to Fresno, he studied with poet Phillip Levine at California State University at Fresno and published in an early anthology of Fresno poets.

Inada's first book of poetry Before the War: Poems as They Happened (1971) was a pioneering book of poetry in the United States published by an Asian American. In 1974 he as well as three other Asian-American writers--playright Frank Chin, novelist Shawn Wong, and Jeffrey Chan--published Aiieee: An Anthology of Asian American Writers., this first anthology edited by Asian Amerians including a reconstruction of their own literary history.

Inada continued to produced pioneering work when he published in 2000 Only What We Could Carry: The Japaense American Internment Experience. His second book of poetry is Legends from Camp, which won an American Book Award. Literary critic and novelist Shawn Wong says that "if there were such a position as Poet Laureate of Asian America, Inada would be unanimously elected to the post." After teaching at a college many years in Southern Oregon, he was elected Poet Laureate of Oregon, but California claims him also.

Inada has redefined America as neighborhood he grew up in Fresno, with its mix of blacks, many different Asians, Chicanos, Middle Eastern and poor white. He defines jazz as America's greatest contribution to the world. He uses the repetitions and rhythms of jazz in his poetry, and often reads accompanied by jazz musicians. He's a poet close to Whitman in his musiciality and his seeing America as many up of different voices singing varied songs. Inada has defined Asian-American poetry as directly within the most vital current of American poetry.

Inada like many other Japanese-American writers has found internment an major inspriation of literature. This literature is similar in some ways similar to huge outpouring of Jewish writing about Holocaust. In Lawson's poem "IV. Legend of Lost Boy" from his book Legends from Camp he begins discussed how the boy "had another name, a given name--/at another, given time and place--but those were taken away." In these repetitions Inada describes how the boy in losing his home in internment lost his name.

Those loss of identity occurs in the 2nd stanza when all marks of identity--the boy's dog, the road he lived by, the food, his house--were taken away. Repetitions continue of of the all these things taken away in stanza two and then the "The boy was taken away" in stanza three. In the boy's new home in the fairgrounds, the counters of identity--houses, trees, streets--are missing in stanza 6. Inada recates the confusions of the initial stage of intenment where the boy in following a big water truck finally losings his way completly.

What helps the boy finally is Old Man Ikeda founds him and "bawled him out." One other interned person connects with the boy, gives him a name "Lost boy," walks him through the camp to his mother. Then his mother "called him/"Lost Boy." Finally, with this reconnection to the community of other people--Old Man Ikeda, his mother--Lost Boy "thought he was found." Inada teaches that the community of others helped those lost or despairing, reintegrating them back into the human family. The larger Japanese community began caring for its members, helping them deal with the hardships of camp. The repetitions throughout the poem give it a musicality, as if Inada played a sad song ending in a touch of hope.

Inada's work is similar to Tadeusz Rozewicz, the Polish poet who stunned the literary world with his stunning poetry about World War II in Poland published in English translation in "The Survivor" and Other Poems. Inada like Rozewicz in dealing with brutality during World War II avoid the "traditional" resources of poetry--metaphor, simile, irony, symbolism--instead turning to repetitions and facts in what Polish critics have called "the naked poem." While critics have hailed Rozewicz as creating a special genre of Polish poetry, American critics have only begun to see how Inada uses jazz poetics to create a new American poetry of Asian America.

Since Aiii, many other anthologies of Asian-American literature have been published. By the 1990s antholgies focused just on poetry: Garrett Hongo's The Open Boat: Poems From Asian America (New York, Anchor Books, 1993); Walter Lew's Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (New York: Kaya Production, 1995); and Eileen Tabios' interviews with Asian American poets in her Black Lightening: Poetry in Progress (New York: Asian American Writers Workshop, 1998). Lawson and his colleagues who published Aiieeee have indeed begun a renaissance in Asian-American literature. Inada's poetry breaks paths in creating a new American literature.

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