Interviewed by Leonard Chan (LC) and Frances Kakugawa (FK)
Amy Uyematsu is an award winning poet. Her latest book “That Blue Trickster Time”is her sixth published collection. Her other poetry books include, “Basic Vocabulary,”“The Yellow Door,”“Stone Bow Prayer,”“Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain,” and “Thirty Miles from J-Town.”
Amy Uyematsu was the first Publications Coordinator with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center during the formative period of Ethnic Studies at UCLA and other colleges. She later spent 32 years as a high school math teacher.
LC: Welcome Amy Uyematsu. I’ve asked poet Frances Kakugawa to assist me with this interview and I furnished her with a copy of your book.
FK: What a beautiful collection of poetry.
LC: I believe Florence Hongo (head of AACP) has been a fan of your poetry and has made a point to carry your books. This was my first chance to read one of them. Thank you very much for sharing a copy with me.
After I read your bio, I began to wonder if you and Florence crossed paths. You both have common histories that go back to the beginning of the Ethnic Studies Movement in the late Sixties and Seventies. Did you meet back then? What was your connection with AACP (JACP for Japanese American Curriculum Project back then), if any?
I never had the pleasure of meeting Florence, though it sounds like we were both part of the ethnic studies movement of the late 60s/ early 70s. Was she active in the Bay Area?
Back then I didn’t have a connection with AACP.
LC: Yes, Florence was active in the Bay Area, but she and JACP (Japanese American Curriculum Project, AACP's original name) did a lot of traveling back then.
(Read more about how we got started at The Beginning of Asian American Curriculum Project.)
Tell us a little bit about your activist and artistic activities during that time. Did you start writing poetry around then? You hint at it in your poem about poet Lawson Inada (Dear Lawson) when you said he gave you “homework” to write poems with loaded words.
In the spring quarter of 1969, I took the first Asian American Studies class offered at UCLA. It was titled “Orientals in America” (the term “Asian American” was still not in use), and our instructor was activist and scholar Yuji Ichioka. For that course I turned in an essay, “The Emergence of Yellow Power in America,” for my final term project. After the essay I also included three poems. The newspaper Gidra started that same spring, and there was always a page of poetry. Many movement activists were inspired to write poems in those days. I guess that included me.
I was hired by the newly formed UCLA Asian American Studies Center in the fall of 1969 to do research and t.a. our introductory class. It was around 1970-1971 when Lawson Inada was a guest speaker for our class; I went home and did the assignment he gave the students – to write poems with the word prompts like “Asian” and “media.” For several years I wrote poems, sporadically, but didn’t take writing classes until the 1980s when I became a single working mom.
LC: In your poem “36 Views of Manzanar” you’re able to describe the experience and the place with a minimalist approach using a poetic form. Some full memoirs can’t seem to capture what you did in this 18 page poem. How did this poem come about and how did you write it?
I’ve been a longtime fan of woodblock prints. Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” has inspired several poems connecting Japan to my own Japanese-American history. Some years ago I thought I’d like to write about Manzanar, where my father’s family was imprisoned, using the idea of “36 Views” as a framework. I think it allowed me to talk about different aspects of camp, including things I’d heard from my dad and aunt. The Uyematsus were originally assigned to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. My father was able to make a deal with his Nisei friend Paul Bannai, who was already on staff at Manzanar. Grandpa Uyematsu agreed to donate cherry trees and wisteria plants to Manzanar in exchange for his family going to Manzanar, which was much closer to Grandpa’s nurseries (that were located in Montebello, Sierra Madre, and Manhattan Beach). The 36 views format allowed me to bring in diverse aspects of the camp experience – some based on research I was doing or stories I stumbled upon (like learning about the Manzanar internees who would escape the guards to go fishing or my chance meeting with a nisei who was a deejay at Manzanar).
LC: In your poems “Are We Becoming More Visible” and “Pandemic Postscript: Or Are We Too Visible Again” you have them back to back with notes saying that the former was written in January of 2019 and the later was written in April of 2020. It’s interesting how pre-pandemic we were clamoring for more exposure and when the pandemic was in full swing your poem asks the question about whether our visibility was making us easy targets for our leader(s) and their hateful followers. Do you have any further thoughts on this matter now that we are almost three years into the pandemic? What is the right amount of exposure and do you have any ideas on how we can stem the tide of hatred against AAPIs?
The ‘yellow peril’ idea has been a repeating pattern in our Asian American experience. Whether it was the anti-Chinese sentiment of the 1800s or anti-Japanese hostility after Pearl Harbor, racists have condemned all Asians based on our appearance with no regard to the fact we come from different Asian countries with different cultures and languages. When Trump blamed Covid on Chinese, there was immediate violence against Asians, and unfortunately, thousands of innocent Asian Americans have been attacked both verbally and physically throughout the pandemic. Racism and hatred toward AAPIs is part of the larger racist environment in this country; one thing I feel people of color can do is show support for each other and to be even more sensitive and aware and to educate members of their own group about fighting against systemic racism, whether it’s directed against Asian Americans or other minority groups.
FK: It takes poetry to tell this story of your becoming. I kept thinking a prose narrative would have weakened the impact of each story you told. Your simple but powerful style made me walk on sharp seashells, leaving puncture wounds and at other times, they were waves gently coming in to shore.
We, who write poetry, often use this genre to release, make sense of, to reinvent the realities if they are too harsh, to reflect, and to make decisions on how to see our final truth. Did you find this to be true in recording your history?
Yes, I find this true. When I wrote that yellow power essay as a college senior, I was going through deeply personal changes about my identity as well as my understanding of the socio-political system of capitalism. Some of my feelings (a lot of rage) could best be expressed in a poem. At least for me, poetry allows me to share feelings in a way that an essay or short story can’t. As my world view has changed and become more spiritual with age, I find myself writing more poems about nature and spirit. Recurring themes in my poems are Asian American history and issues, motherhood, contemporary culture and politics, and stones/pine trees/nature.
Over the years I realize how grateful I am for poetry and the community of poets I’ve come to know. Through poetry I can make connections with the world as well as connections with myself. I think poetry has helped me to become more aware and appreciative of life.
LC: After learning of your background as a math teacher, it made me wonder about whether it was just your day job or if there was some greater connection of science and the arts. I was educated to be a scientist, started off my career as a software engineer, and then eventually began working with AACP where I’ve done more writing than I ever imagined I would do when I was younger. So I have some interest in learning how artists such yourself become an artist. Tell us a little bit about your life’s journey and the possible connections you see between mathematics and poetry.
I began working as a math teacher when my son was a toddler – yes, it was my day job. But I wasn’t yet writing until the 80s, when I began to take creative writing classes. I was lucky enough to meet Zen poet and teacher Peter Levitt and studied with him for fifteen years. Around the mid-80s I found myself writing a whole bunch of poems – largely around my experiences growing up as a Japanese American in Sierra Madre, a conservative white suburb next to Pasadena.
Around the 90s math poems began to emerge among my writings. People who would meet me would often say how can math teaching and poetry go together. I think there are similarities in both. Math tries to get things down to their essence, in as concise yet elegant way as possible. For me this feels very similar to writing poems.
FK: Writing in poetic form somehow allows us to present our experiences, feelings, ideas, and thoughts into aesthetic form in their conciseness, their acute images and use of select language. And this you have done so successfully. If I were to capture this entire collection with one image, it would be a bonsai.Years of toil, from its young limbs to this solidified form… yet an artistic gift to the eyes of the beholder.
If you had a class of young people facing you today, what would you say to them about this collection and about writing poetry?
Oh, my paternal grandfather, Francis Uyematsu, would appreciate your bonsai image. He was a gifted nurseryman. He took juniper pines and shaped them – sort of like bonsai, on a bigger scale. One of his pines was right outside my bedroom window.
This book is my sixth collection. I think it reflects the perspective of an older woman of color. The first section has pieces about getting older. The second section focuses on Asian American themes – not only historical poems, like my long “36 Views of Manzanar” poem, but also more current poems dealing with the current surge of violent acts against Asians during the pandemic. In the third section I wanted to present more contemporary topics.
As far as what I’d say to a class of young people who might be interested in writing poetry, I’d encourage them to write from their heart. To read other writers – poetry, fiction, essays, any writing forms that interest them. Perhaps, to try to paint a picture with words. When I’ve taught creative writing, I’ve urged students to discover and express their own individual voice.
LC: Thank you very much for this chance to interview you. Do you have a poem or poems from this latest collection you’d like to share with our readers? You’re also welcome to submit a new poem to mark the beginning of 2023.
I’d like to share these poems: “Pandemic Postscript: Or Are We Too Visible Again,” and “The Suitcase.”
According to Asian American Pacific Islander Equity Alliance, there were over 10,000 hate incidents between March 2020 and September 2021 – these included everything from verbal harassment to property damage and physical assaults. These Asian hate crimes have continued into 2022. I wrote this first poem in April of 2020.
Or Are We Too Visible Again
- April, 2020
This season Asian Americans are the targets—
the president pointing his finger at China
but no difference if we're Chinese or Korean,
Japanese, Pilipino, Vietnamese, Hmong—
Because in a country ingrained
in white privilege, slavery, genocide
we get the dubious and ever-changing
honor of being invisible, a model minority,
Or “Yellow Peril” scapegoats—
“It's your fault!” “Go back to China!”
Calling Covid-19 the “Kung-Flu”
is enough to incite the mob.
We are warning each other
to take extra precautions
when riding the subway
or going to the market—
Don't be surprised if a non-Asian
curses, pushes you, spits in your face—
one woman taking her trash out
is doused and burned with acid
Actor John Cho reminds us
we belong here “conditionally”—
the masks worn for this pandemic
not nearly enough to protect us.
—a Manzanar tale
In 1945 Dad and Grandpa
get a travel permit from Manzanar
officials to visit Star Nurseries,
the business Grandpa starts
back in the 30s and flourishes
even in the Depression years.
They take a bus bound for L.A.
Stopping in the small town
of Mojave, Dad tells
Grandpa to stay on the bus—
knowing the war is still
being fought and how
dangerous it is for them—
but Grandpa gets off anyway.
Like many issei, Grandpa
is short—5'2” at the most—
not exactly threatening,
but as he walks downtown
the cops arrest him, put
Grandpa and Dad in jail
to spend the night.
Around 2 AM FBI agents
pick them up and drive
them to Fresno, never
suspecting the hatchet
Grandpa packs in his suitcase,
the hatchet not so unusual for
this gifted plant grower.
Dad recalls how dark it is
on the winding mountain roads.
Already nervous, he starts to panic
when one of the agents turns on
the light inside the car, looks
hard at both of them
sitting in the back seat.
Dad warns Grandpa, speaking
in Japanese, “Don't do anything
to make them suspicious.”
The FBI never inspects the suitcase.
Once in Fresno, they are questioned
then put back on a bus to L.A.—
Grandpa's hatchet in tow.
Poems from That Blue Trickster Time © 2022 by Amy Uyematsu
You can read more of Amy Uyematsu's poetry in AACP's January 2023 Poetry Selection
Copyright © 2023 by AACP, Inc.