Profile: Lawson Inada September 2006

You’ve probably seen Lawson Inada’s poems, though you may not be aware of it.


Sure, I go to school

Same as you,

I’m an American.


Those lines, inscribed on a stone in the Japanese-American Historical Plaza in Portland’s Waterfront Park, capture the essence of Inada’s mission: to establish connections that bring us together even when we may not be aware of the links. As a Professor at Southern Oregon University, an editor, Guggenheim Fellow and poet whose Legends from Camp won the American Book Award, and as Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Inada seeks to bring together people of varied race and ethnicity, to help them connect with individual histories and desires, to recover what may have been forgotten or denied.

For Inada, that includes the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which he spent in camps in Arkansas and Colorado, the multi-ethnic community in Fresno, Calif., where he grew up and the wisdom of tribal traditions.

Inada, now 68, first found his connections to the fabric of American life in jazz.
It was something we could share, he writes. It felt like citizenship.
And he’s never let go of the music and all it embodies. An enduring philosophy of adaptability, ingenuity, creation, he calls it: the perfect model for the outsider in America. We hear jazz in the rhythms of his verses. He’s often collaborated with jazz players, because music makes poetry more accessible, he says. So Sentimental Journey, his upcoming concert of poetry and live jazz, Saturday, October 14, should offer a good chance to appreciate Inada’s art and social mission.


Poet on the Job

I want to fit in with you guys, he says at rehearsal. I want to make it like I’m a member of the quintet. During a break, he asks the musicians where they grew up. He’s going to use the information in a poem he’s writing for the concert. We want to make it everybody’s sentimental journey, he says.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, 311 Oakland Avenue! Inada jumps up, nods his head, and soon bassist Andre St. James and clarinetist Larry Nobori are talking about shared streets and mutual acquaintances. Inada laughs in delight. The conversation becomes jam session.

Because he asks people about their past and shares his own, they open up, relax, and may even find some poetry in their world.

I welcome the opportunity to take poetry beyond the usual venues. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable on campuses and in coffeehouses, know what I mean? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, he adds, a rhythmic coda to the sentence that leads to the next thought:

It’s a plan he’s just proposed to the Northwest Business and Cultural Association. I’ll come by wherever you work, he tells them, and meet with some folks. First we’ll do some talking and then some writing low-key, non-threatening.

Down-to-earth, glad to meet you. Inada doesn’t need to be the star.

I was invited to do a reading in Klamath Falls, he says, so I asked a journalist there, Do you know any people interested in doing a workshop in the afternoon, that might lead to something we can all do together in the evening? I’m a visitor,’ I said, what can you tell me about this place?’ And it was really nice. The public could relate to it because people they knew were expressing things about the region.

When you express yourself, you empower yourself.


Recovering the Past

Inada’s personal history has equipped him to bring people together and, in the process, help them discover the function poetry might play in their lives. The son of a dentist and a teacher, both of whom were born in the U.S. and, with more than 120,000 other persons of Japanese ancestry, imprisoned in camps, Inada has taken the camp experience in my hands and held it up to the light.

What did I find? Aspects of humanity, the human condition.

Not a marginalized people but the story of Americans. It has inspired his work, and he thinks the approach will work for others, too.

I started working with the Japanese community, he explains, and realized they’ve been writing Oregon poetry ever since they got here, except it was written in Japanese. What else is there that didn’t get into books? I’m meeting with different communities pan-Asian, Latino, African-American, Swedish — to find out more about Oregon’s poetic heritage, trying to look at things from another angle.

That angle and the $20,000 annual budget provided the state’s poet laureate for the first time have allowed Inada to travel, listen and truly become what he’s always aimed to be: a community poet.

It’s a privilege, actually, to be asked to contribute … and be granted a functional, responsible role in society, he says.


Sure, I go to school

Same as you,

I’m an American.

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