Frances Kakugawa is an author and poet of over eight books. Her most recent work includes Mosaic Moon: Caregiving through Poetry, Teacher, You Look Like a Horse: Lessons from the Classroom, and two storybooks Wordsworth the Poet, and Wordsworth Dances the Waltz.
Frances currently lives in Sacramento, but will be making a special appearance at our poetry event in San Mateo on January 17, 2009.
Here is our interview with Frances Kakugawa.
Tell us about yourself - where did you grow up and what was it like?
I was born and raised in Kapoho, on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was a plantation village. We had no electricity or a water system. Every house had an outhouse. We played until sundown with homemade toys and games. It was a good place for dreams. We were the true country bumpkins. Everything changed when an eruption destroyed Kapoho.
What happened to you and your family, and the rest of the people that lived in Kapoho after this devastation?
The Red Cross helped residents relocate to another town. They opened up state land and had a public auction with set prices for evacuees. We escaped to our aunt's house in Mt. View (Hawaii), later rented a house for about a year until we were able to relocate to a new town. The Red Cross took whatever was left of our house (It was pretty intact, the earthquake had left a crack beneath our house) and relocated it for us in our new place in Pahoa.) We still return to funerals of people who once lived in Kapoho. I wrote a few poems on Kapoho: Once There Was a Kapoho and Outhouse are two of them.
Tell us about some of the influences that laid the foundation for your career as a teacher, poet, and author.
Four major events influenced me: The bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima (both sides of my grandparents families were killed), learning to read in first grade and overhearing a conversation among the elderly Japanese. "The 2nd Kakugawa girl isn't going to amount to much, she's not too bright, that one." I needed to disprove them and this dream became one of forgiveness because whenever I felt I was being unfairly treated, I said to myself, "That's okay, someday I'm going to be a writer."
For those that have not read your memoir Teacher You Look Like a Horse! Lessons From the Classroom, tell us about the intriguing title and some of the lessons you learned.
I was teaching Kindergarten. The French braid hairdo was the fashion that year. I got up early one morning and did my hair in a French braid. I felt very Parisian and chic in my French twist until a Kindergarten student ran into the room, stopped, looked at me and said, "Teacher, you look like a horse."
I learned the value of respect and human dignity from early life and never let this go. In this book I give actual classroom stories to show how children best learn.
How long have you been teaching and what have you taught?
I retired from teaching in 1995 and became a caregiver for my mother. I started out as a Kindergarten teacher, taught first, third and sixth graders and ended my career as a curriculum writer, a district and state writing teacher and a lecturer for the University of Hawaii. I started out as a Kindergarten teacher because I avoided all math courses since that was one of my downfalls and my one and only college degree reads: Pre-School Primary Teaching diploma. You can say I kept silent and did what I could do. What I'm doing now with caregivers or with people of any age or interest was what I did in my career…giving writing and poetry workshops.
If it's not too personal, tell us a little bit about your Alzheimer's care giving experience.
I became the sole caregiver for my mother. I have four other siblings. Like many families, we ran into family problems because of disagreement on how my mother should be cared for. Finances became a problem so I took my mother from the Big Island to Honolulu and cared for her there. I gradually found myself being the spokesperson for caregivers and especially for the ones afflicted with this disease.
How did you get started with the poetry workshops for Alzheimer and other long-term illness caregivers? Tell us about the making of your book Mosaic Moon: Caregiving Through Poetry. How did you come up with the idea for the book and was it difficult to get people to reveal their personal stories and works?
It evolved very naturally. When I found how poetry was helping me rise above the burden of caregiving and turning me into a compassionate caregiver, I volunteered to lead a poetry writing support group for caregivers at the Hawaii Alzheimer's Association. I wanted others to experience the wonders of writing and how it could bring dignity back into caregiving. People began writing at the first session and never stopped. I'm on my 3rd support group in Sacramento and the story is the same, they write immediately and never stop, exploring all honest feelings and experiences.
Writing forces us to find my true voice and often this voice is one of compassion and love.
Were you a little like your character Wordsworth the mouse in your series of children's storybooks - did you get started writing poetry at an early age? Did you learn then about the powers of poetry? Wordsworth's poetry was the salve that provided comfort for both his grandmother and friend's illnesses, and was also the thing that chased the rainy day blues and fears away for his friends. Did you experience something like this in your early poetry writing days?
Yes, I would say Wordsworth is autobiographical.
I began writing poems when I first learned to read in first grade. Like Wordsworth I was viewed as being different and a bit strange. But the love for writing, especially poetry, made everything manageable. Details of what I experienced are found in one of my short stories.
At such an early age, did you have any formal help in getting you started with poetry or did it just flow naturally out of you without any prompting or guidance? Being from a small town, did you even have access to poetry books?
No, I have no formal training. In fact, my teachers from grades 1 - 6 were non-college grads; they were high school grads from the village. They read to us a lot. The bookmobile came once a month. So writing was naturally developed by reading books. In fact, I never did take any writing courses in college. I was afraid some professor would tell me I was no writer and no one was going to interfere with my dreams. I'm sure I would have become a better writer with formal training.
You mentioned earlier about the destruction of your hometown by a volcano and the bombing of Pearl Harbor - did your writings help you cope with these events? Do you have any of these early poems that you could share with us?
What these events did was to influence the person I became where human dignity was of such importance. And this became part of my writing.
I had written Wordsworth the Poet for a writing contest, this was in the 70's. It won a prize. At that time a publisher wanted to publish that book, he even had selected the illustrator. I was thrilled. We met over lunch and when I saw the publisher treat the waitress with such indignity, as though she was beneath him merely because of her work, I had to make a decision: do I let a publisher who shows no respect for others, publish Wordsworth the Poet? I took the manuscript back the following morning. Thirty years later, he was published by a publisher who stood for everything that first publisher was not.
My earlier poems were lost during the evacuation. I had them all in a shoebox. I recalled a few lines and used them in Wordsworth the Poet.
I have a few poems on the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima that I can share: One is:
Under the rising sun
The enemy came
Wearing my face.
In Wordsworth Dances the Waltz you were able to broach a difficult subject matter in a children's book - that being the topics of people with dementia and helping their grandkids learn to cope. How did you come up with this idea and was it difficult to convince your publisher that this was a subject matter that needed telling in a children's story?
I knew this needed to be explored when I discovered how many people say, "I don't visit them since they don't know me anymore." Many viewed communication as being possible only through language and body language. Children are not involved with the problems of the elderly. I feel it's the adults bringing on this fear of the elderly. I felt this fear of the elderly or the fear of aging is part of our culture and maybe the next generation will embrace aging. When my publisher first heard my first Wordsworth story, he asked for a series. He has two more stories in his hands.
What are you currently working on? Can you give us a preview of your upcoming projects?
My 2nd caregiving book called A Caregiver's Voice: Breaking Silence Through Writing will be out next summer or fall. Included with the poetry are comments on what I had learned about caregiving. I include poetry from five other caregivers. I feel this is a more advanced look at caregiving than Mosaic Moon, simply because I have grown.
I'm working on a collection of short stories on growing up in the islands, from being called Jap to following that dream to become a writer.
I also hope to have another book of poems published. I had four book of poetry published earlier and would like to add a fifth book to that collection.
Thank you very much Frances. We look forwards to having you at our poetry event.