January 21, 2024
An Interview with Frances Kakugawa
Regarding Her Books Can I Have Your Pearl Bracelet? and
Wordsworth the Haiku Teacher
Interviewed by Leonard Chan
For those of you who are new to our newsletter, Frances Kakugawa is a frequent contributor to our newsletter and has even done poetry readings and poetry workshops for us in the past (including a poetry lesson she gave for us when we rebooted the newsletter in May 2020). We first interviewed Frances in January 2009. Her most recent contribution was as a co-interviewer in January of last year when we interviewed poet Amy Uyematsu.
In 2022, Frances’ beloved Wordsworth children’s book series was turned into a musical and was performed at the University of Hawaii, Hilo (Wordsworth the Musical). In addition to being an author and poet, Frances was an educator and a care giver for many years, and still works with people to teach them poetry, including even at her local mall where her friends have fondly dubbed her the Arden Fair Mall Poet Laureate.
With her new book “Can I Have Your Pearl Bracelet?,” Frances Kakugawa has cemented her place as my favorite living poet.
Hello Frances. I am so happy to be communicating with you for this interview.
Your book is a wonderful thank you to and remembrances of so many people, places, and things that have inspired you, influenced you, and made you who you are. Are there any inspirations, people, or places that you wish you could have gotten into “Can I Have Your Pearl Bracelet?” that didn’t make it? If not, could you describe a few of your favorites from the book so that our readers can get a sense for what the book is about?
Yes. This is what comes with publishing one’s work. The stories or ideas keep coming, so soon after the manuscript went to the publisher, more stories came to mind. This may be why there is almost never “my last book.” A few of my favorites are Dead Poets Alive, Cow 1 is Not Cow 2, and Breaking the Ice.
In Dead Poets Alive, in remote Kapoho, it was poetry that gave me identity and permission to be honest about the use of language. They taught me to use expletives in my writing. In the Cow 1 story, it was S I Hawakawa who taught me how racism and other forms of prejudgments occur because of our lack of information, and in Breaking the Ice, one stranger in Las Vegas helped me loosen my cultural webs that can be stifling at times.
When did you get the idea for your book? Was it something you had in mind for a long while? I imagine that you’ve been journaling throughout your life and have plenty of notes to draw upon. Is this correct? I’ve never kept such notes and I was trying to think of the people and things that were an influence on me, but am having a hard time doing it right now – at least not as thorough of a job as you have done.
During the pandemic, I told myself to do something worthwhile. With this came too many birthdays and I felt my own aging process, so I thought I should write one last book. I have not done journaling. Somehow it was easier to preserve my thoughts and experiences in poetic form. All my stories come from memory. During my earlier years as a teacher, I did jot some anecdotes down, thinking I would write a book someday. They were used in my Teacher, You Look Like a Horse.
Correction, I was cleaning out my office and found about five journal books. I did keep a daily journal on my visits with my mother at her nursing facility. I also found snippets here and there about significant events that happened. So I did keep journals not daily but only to record significant events. One is on hearing Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata speak in Honolulu.
In the chapter “Last Star Laughing,” you said that given a choice on how you wished the end of your life would go, you’d like advance warning – time enough to do certain things like burning your journals and box of love letters. Is that what you’d really wish to do before going?
That’s a romantic scene of the perfect dying scene where I can use humor as my parting words. I was afraid of dying when I was young, but now that I’m in the last decade or so of my life, dying has become another process of my life. More than burning old love letters, it’s more of saying good-bye to you before I leave with humor.
Is the point of keeping journals merely to take notes on life for your public writings and not meant to be seen by others? I sometimes wonder about the point of journaling and diaries. Some notables have taken the path of having their journals and diaries destroyed after they passed. What would people like Anne Frank have preferred for the fate of their diaries? Do some people really wish for their notes to survive them or would they prefer that they never are completely revealed? Perhaps this is why I’ve never kept a journal or diary. Do you recommend it and what do you think we should do with the journals of those that did not have a chance to decide on the fate of their life’s notes?
I believe there are two types of journal writers. Authors who keep journals must have that little seed that they may be published someday. They are basically authors. The personal journals may be more private. I’ve met many who kept journals to leave to the next generation, a family heirloom. Would I recommend journals? Journals are one way of preserving one’s life. There are other forms of art. Even poetry. In my book Teacher, You Look Like a Horse, I include a how to write journals chapter. If we just use journals as a record of events only, it doesn’t bring in the writer. The writers’ thoughts and perception of each event being recorded makes the journal of value.
While we’re on the subject of life note taking, you’ve interacted with a lot of caregivers of people with dementia through your poetry workshops. I think we’ve discussed the benefits of writing and, more specifically, poetry writing on depression and stress reduction in our other interviews.
I’ve used poetry writing in all of my work with caregivers. There is such a difference between free writing in journals and poetry writing. Often, we keep a log of events that happened on a particular day in journal writing. In poetry writing, we are faced with many decisions on how to preserve that particular event. When I first found my mother’s incontinence on the bathroom floor and in my panic, got down on my knees and used my toothbrush to scrub the floor, I said, “Maybe there’s a poem here.”
In that moment, I was no longer a poor caregiver scrubbing bm off the floor. I was a poet caregiver thinking of images and words on how to write that poem. Do I write of poor me or is there something else? I chose glamour which is titled A Red Feather Boa in my caregiving books. And that glamour became my new reality. Perhaps if I had used journal writing, I would have logged in the experience as just a description of that morning.
Poetry writing gives voice to caregivers and when they share their poetry, they are part of a community of caregivers. And think of this, from the saddest or most stressful situation, when one can say, “Hey, I got a poem out of this,” one becomes a poet. Poetry writing allows us to recreate the realities of caregiving into one of compassion and dignity.
Do you see journaling and other similar writings as also a way of preserving something of who we are (not just us, but all of those we encounter)? I see the point of “Can I Have Your Pearl Bracelet?” as your way of doing just that. It’s a wonderful tribute to your friends and relatives, the places you’ve been, and to yourself. Discuss the importance of journaling as a memory device – for preserving something about who we are and the people around us. I think about the generations of people that have been forgotten through time with nothing more than maybe a name to indicate that they were here. The genealogy show, “Finding Your Roots,” may give people false hopes that you can learn so much about your family’s history. In reality, we’re fortunate just to find a name and some dates, much less truly knowing who they were.
I’ve suggested a very personal and simple way of preserving stories of our ancestors. I regret not having questioned and explored my grandparents’ lives. My parents were story tellers so I grew up with their stories. For parents and children, I have offered this:
On each of your birthday, ask one gift from your parents and grandparents. IF you are 10 years old, ask your parents and grandparents to write a memory from when they were 10. And you write something significant that happened to you during your 10th year. And each year, you and your family write this gift. And a caution: Do not only write of the good things that happened. Parents and grandparents, be human. IF you stole something and were caught, write about that. We don’t want to come out as saints but as real human beings. As one writer said, if you had a perfect childhood, don’t become a writer.
In your latest children’s book in the Wordsworth series, “Wordsworth the Haiku Teacher,” you wrote yourself into it. I was surprised and enjoyed it immensely. I sort of related to Wordsworth and how you taught me just like you taught him – maybe not through a formal class or workshop, but in our interviews and correspondences. Was this book partially for all of your past students and friends? When and how did you come up with this ingenious plot for this book?
When I wrote my 4th Wordsworth book, I had an idea that my last Wordsworth book would have me in it. At that time, I didn’t know how I was going to do this so I inserted a pen with my initials FHK in it. Back to haiku, I feel that the haiku has been westernized from original form. Often I see less than the 17 syllables, no concrete images, use of metaphors, and personification of nature. So being rebellious, I wrote this book.
I used the letter as a way to get me into the story because having a human in the world of mice would not work. There is no reason or rhyme, at times, how things evolved. They just do if we leave our antennae out.
Wordsworth also makes an appearance in “Can I Have Your Pearl Bracelet?” Your interaction with Wordsworth kind of reminds me of “The Tao of Pooh” where Winnie the Pooh breaks the third wall and has a running conversation with the author. Have you read that book?
I brought in Wordsworth as a voice to tell some of my stories because I began to feel the stories were too “I oriented” and Wordsworth could help take away some of this ego-based stories.
Winnie the Pooh is one of my favorite books. Yes, I’ve read “The Tao of Pooh” and “The Te of Piglet.” I used Pooh last week in my poetry writing support group to a caregiver who was frozen in all her “what ifs.” Pooh and friends were planning a picnic and his friends were worried if it rained. Pooh simply said, “What if it doesn’t rain?”
“Can I Have Your Pearl Bracelet?” is much more than just a remembrance of people and places, it also contains a lot of your learned wisdom and philosophy on life. From a stranger dining alone at a restaurant, you learned to be bolder; from a visiting professor, S I Hayakawa, you learned not to prejudge; from a dying student, you learned that even a short life could have value and meaning, even for those who knew him. There’s much more. There are nuggets of wisdom throughout the book – the accounts you give and the poems used are like parables. It’s pretty subtle and not at all like Jesus preaching to his disciples. This intent is even described on the back cover of your book, so we shouldn’t be surprised. However, it doesn’t really read like a book on life’s lessons. I can’t think of a question for this, so I’ll just say bravo, well done.
If I may say something, think about this, many of the lectures and reminders we say to children or to elders are totally useless. Wordsworth and I use stories to teach just as my parents did.
Have these latest two books gotten the attention they so justly deserve?
Thank you, Leonard for your generous thoughts. The Haiku book has turned people of all ages into haiku poets. In some households, both adults and children are communicating through haiku. I continue to receive haiku from readers of all ages. I’m in touch with two 12 year olds who are determined to become poets like Wordsworth.
Readers are asking for more Pearl stories. Some say these stories are the most biographical sketches written than my two Kapoho books. You are right, I wanted my message to be on the humanities. With technology, we are becoming more robots than human and I hope, like Wordsworth, my stories and poetry can help retain our humanity.
What’s next for you? I think I read that you haven’t ruled out another book. Do you have any ideas for the next one? Have you ever considered doing a novel? I’d bet you’d be good at that too.
I’m a lazy writer, Leonard. A novel would be too difficult.
Here’s something fun. The titles of my books have made such a difference. Readers send me gifts relating to the titles. After my “The Path of Butterflies” poetry book, I received so many gifts in forms of butterflies. I have enough Wordsworth ornaments to adorn a Christmas tree. I have received a few pearl bracelets. So how about “Can I Have Your Diamond Bracelet” next?
Seriously, I’m thinking of Wordsworth Book of Poetry. Or many more short stories.
On the bracelet, that pearl bracelet was stolen at Macy’s jewelry. I gave it to one of the saleswomen to have it restrung. She never returned it, quit the job and I never heard from her.
One last thing, could you pick a poem that you’d like us to use for our January poetry newsletter.
I looked for a more positive one. This is the best I can do.
The Autumn Moon Hangs
I am a poem
And I am ageless.
When I was one and twenty
I spoke of lingering sunsets into night,
Envying that solitary bird flapping vigorously,
Racing the sinking sun at end of day.
Decades and one later
I am still poem.
I am that sunset, sinking into the sea.
That golden leaf, waiting for that last final breeze.
I am that Autumn moon hanging
Over crayoned fields, now free of summer harvest,
Waiting for the last flight home.
I am still poem.
I am ageless.
Poem copyright © by Frances H. Kakugawa
Thank you very much Frances. Good health and happiness for you and your loved ones in 2024!
Copyright © 2024 by AACP, Inc.