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Lawson Fusao Inada is a Japanese-American poet and editor. In addition to creating several adaptations of Mother Goose rhymes, he has written extensively about his experiences in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Inada spent a significant part of his childhood as a prisoner and was one of the youngest Japanese Americans in the camps. The poet has been recognized by the president of the United States and was a guest at the White House as part of ”A Salute to Poetry and American Poets.” He is the recipient of the American Book Award and the Pushcart Prize for poetry.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Executive Order 9066
After declaring war on Japan, in an atmosphere of World War II hysteria, President Roosevelt authorized the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, dated February 19, 1942, authorized the transport of these citizens to hastily organized assembly centers governed by the military in California, Arizona, Washington State, and Oregon. The rationale behind the order was that Japanese immigrants—most of whom were not United States citizens simply because the government at the time refused to allow Asian immigrants to obtain citizenship—would be likely to spy on American military activities and report back to their native country. In addition to Japanese immigrants, however, the government also forcibly detained many children of immigrants who, because they were born on United States soil, were fully American citizens in the eyes of the law. Although it is not well known, the same executive order, as well as other wartime orders and restrictions, was also applied to smaller numbers of residents of the United States who were of Italian or German descent. While these individuals suffered grievous civil liberties violations, the wartime measures applied to Japanese Americans were worse and more sweeping, targeting citizens as well as resident aliens and uprooting entire communities.
Becoming a Jazz Poet
Lawson is a sansei—an American-born grandchild of Japanese immigrants to America. He was born in Fresno, California, in 1938. In May 1942, his family joined over a hundred thousand other Japanese Americans in war relocation camps where they were confined for the duration of World War II. After the war, Lawson played bass and followed the jazz of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday. He also attended Fresno State, where he began his studies with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Phil Levine, who introduced him to writing.
Inada’s first volume of poetry, Before the War: Poems As They Happen (1971), was published by William Morrow. This made the poet the first Asian American to have a collection of poems published by a major New York publishing house. In this work, the writer reflects on his feelings of dispossession and traces themes from his childhood before and after his imprisonment. The poems have been applauded for the way they connect personal and social history, along with images of family, and for their tough, unsentimental language.
Legends from Camp
In 1993 Inada published Legends from Camp, a collection of poems that reflect on life in the World War II internment camps. With his firsthand experience, Inada ”carries a reader into a child’s world behind barbed wire,” as R. C. Doyle explains in Choice. The collection was well received and earned Inada an American Book Award in 1994.
Divided into five sections, Legends from Camp begins with Inada’s time in the internment camp, then moves to ”Fresno,” ”Jazz,” ”Oregon,” and ”Performance.” As Andrew J. Dephtereos writes in a review for American Book Review, the collection creates ”a decidedly personal history of Inada, told in chapters that represent significant stages in his persona’s life.” Inada’s poems embody his conviction that poetry must be accessible to all readers, not just to those who are most knowledgeable about the genre. ”Poetry happens—whenever, wherever it wants,” Inada asserts in the preface to Legends from Camp, ”and the poet simply has to be ready to follow through on the occasion.”
The Writing Life
Since the publication of Legends from Camp, Inada has continued writing poetry and teaching. An emeritus professor of writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Inada has written several other poetry collections and served as editor of three important volumes, including the acclaimed Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese-American Internment Experience (2000). In addition to these individual publications, Inada has written critical introductions to a number of works, including John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957), and his work has appeared in The Best American Poetry. Inada is also a contributing editor for the Northwest Review and was the narrator for the PBS specials ”Children of the Camps” and ”Conscience and the Constitution.”
Inada’s work has been the subject of a documentary titled ”What It Means to Be Free: A Video about Poetry and Japanese-American Internment,” and an award-winning animated film adaptation of Legends from Camp made in collaboration with his son, artist Miles Inada. In 2004 he was one of only 185 artists, scholars and scientists chosen from a nationwide pool of applicants to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2006 Inada was named Oregon’s poet laureate.
Works in Literary Context
Much of Inada’s poetry is referred to as ”jazz poetics,” and he admits to being strongly influenced by jazz music and musicians. As Juliana Chang observed in her Modern American Poetry essay ”Time, Jazz, and the Racial Subject: Lawson Inada’s Jazz Poetics,” ”His jazz poetics of repetition and improvisation enable restagings and re-workings of a troubled past.” Chang also added that while Inada is not the first Asian-American poet to use jazz characteristics in his poetry, his poetry ”stands out in its consistency and depth of engagement with jazz.”
Jazz poetry is simply poetry informed by jazz music—that is, poetry in which the poet responds to and writes about jazz or uses the same compositional structures as the music. Jazz poetry, like the music it reflects, encompasses a variety of forms, rhythms, and sounds. Beginning with the birth of blues and jazz at the beginning of the twentieth century, jazz poetry can be seen as a constant running through the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Generation, and the Black Arts Movement—and it is still quite vibrant today. From early blues to free jazz to experimental music, jazz poets use their appreciation for the music to inspire their poetry.
Not only the music but jazz singers and musicians make frequent appearances in jazz poetry: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker are just some of the primary muses for jazz poetry. Reviewing Legends from Camp for Amerasia Journal, Lonny Kaneko explains that Inada creates work ”built for the listener’s ear, aware, like jazz, of the need to capture in sound the spirit of his theme, of letting it build and reverberate in repeated phrases, little riffs and refrains that play through the poems.” In doing so, Inada not only pays homage to an art form he reveres, he makes his poetry accessible to a range of readers, not just those familiar with the genre.
Works in Critical Context
Inada has been called the ”father of Asian-American literature” and a ”poet-musician in the tradition of Walt Whitman.” The recipient of many awards and honors, Inada writes poetry that resonates with emotion, personal reflection, and lyricism. Hewing to the notion that poetry should be accessible to all, his language is often plain, which allows his stories to be easily digested. Despite his sometimes solemn subject matter, his poetry is known for having an uplifting, joyful quality.
Legends from Camp
While a critic for Publishers Weekly finds Inada’s work to be ”unsophisticated in tone, technique and conceptual structure,” Jessica Grim of the Library Journal judges the book to be ”playful, full of life, and easy to understand, even when the subject is somber.” R. C. Doyle comments that the powerful ”Camp” section ”will add a fresh dimension to a growing body of literature that remembers, humanizes, and shares the Japanese-American internment experience for new generations.”
Drawing the Line
In 1997 Inada published Drawing the Line, a tribute to his ancestors who survived the camps. The title is taken from a story about Yosh Kuromiya, the collection’s main character, who created a line drawing of a nearby mountain in an attempt to use art as an escape from the daily indignities and labor of the camp. Rapee Malinee Thongthiraj, a critic for Amerasia Journal, notes that in these poems Inada seems to be ”facing the memories of his personal and collective past, [creating] his own strategy of survival and resistance by re-envisioning American history and producing poetry that can move and stimulate us all.” Thongthiraj also comments that these poems force the reader to ”capture the emotions deep within ourselves.” Booklist contributor Patricia Monaghan writes, ”Despite its often somber subjects… this is a joy-filled book. This joy arises in part from Inada’s irrepressible wit—a sort of slanting regard for the world that shows its peculiarity and loveliness at once.”
- Baker, Houston A., ed. Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literature for Teachers of American Literature. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1972, pp. 197-228.
- Chow, Balance. ”Asian-American Poetry.” In Critical Survey of Poetry: English Language Series, Vol. 2, revised edition. Edited by Frank N. Magill. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1983, pp. 3913-3919.
- Review of Before the War. Kirkus Reviews (November 15, 1970): 1275.
- The Academy ofAmerican Poets Web site. ABriefGuideto Jazz Poetry. Retrieved October 13,2008, from http:// www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5660.
- Oregon Poet Laureate official Web site. Biography for Lawson Inada. Retrieved October 13, 2008, from http:// www.oregonpoetlaureate.org/lawson-inada. html.
- Pacific University Asian Studies Web site. Memoirs of Lawson Fusao Inada. Retrieved October 13, 2008, from http://mcel.pacificu.edu/as/students/ jintern/interview.html.
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