Old Asian American Poets Never Die

I grew up at a time when the internment of my Japanese American parents and grandparents was not given a single line in my history textbooks. Or the term "Asian American," must less "Asian American poetry," didn't even exist. We were called "Orientals" back then.
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I'm a true child of the anti-war, black power sixties, so when I think of my writing influences, it's impossible to separate poetry from politics. Maybe if I had not grown up in a white racist suburb of LA, my poetry influences would not be writers like Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks, whose strong political views infuse their writing.

I grew up at a time when the internment of my Japanese American parents and grandparents was not given a single line in my history textbooks. Or the term "Asian American," must less "Asian American poetry," didn't even exist. We were called "Orientals" back then. Lucky for me, in the late sixties college students began to demand ethnic studies courses all across the country. At UCLA, the best class I took was "Orientals in America," in my senior year 1969. The students, mostly young Japanese and Chinese Americans, crowded every class, cheering, raising fists, and in my case going home and pouring out poems. How liberating it was to release our pent-up anger for decades of racial discrimination and injustices. On a big white-majority (at that time) campus like UCLA, we finally had a home in activist-scholar Yuji Ichioka's class; Ichioka is credited for coining the term "Asian American."

Poetry seemed to be a natural by-product of those turbulent times. Young radicals like myself were hungry for anything we could read about our own histories and sought identities not dictated by mainstream stereotypes and distortions. Movement newspapers and magazines, such as L.A.'s Gidra and New York City's Bridge, regularly featured poetry alongside articles and editorials. The first Asian American literary journal, Aion, was founded by two poets. UCLA's Roots: An Asian American Reader, once the major anthology used by early Asian American Studies classes, included a good sampling of poems calling for political protest and "yellow pride."

By the early 1970s, UCLA and other colleges on the West Coast had Asian American Studies programs. In 1972 I heard my first live poet, Lawson Inada, when I was a teaching assistant in UCLA's "Asians in America." Inada, a fellow sansei (third-generation Japanese American), had just released his first book, Before the War, by New York publisher William Morrow in 1971. The back cover photo showed a don't-mess-with-me Inada, cool in his heavy jacket and beret, who in this earliest collection of poems could denounce the "E.H.W." (Eternal Honkies of the World), pay tribute to jazz heroes like Mingus and Miles, and fire us up with lines like "Think Yellow!" and "with liberty and chopsticks for all." When Inada spoke to our class, he even gave a poetry homework assignment: write anything you can about buzzwords "America," "media," "Asia," "woman." Inada became the first of many non-white poets who inspired me.

Janice Mirikitani, a San-Francisco-based sansei, was also an early influence in what might be the first generation of Asian American literature. The former San Francisco poet laureate, Mirikitani's poems rip apart age-old stereotypes of Asian American women and also challenge them to speak up, break away from "practices" like using scotch tape and eye liner to create rounder eyes, pay homage to women who've survived war and abuse.

By the 1980s, Asian American poetry was blooming. Garrett Hongo's Yellow Light, Jessica Haggedorn's Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions, Cathy Song's Picture Bride (which received the Yale Young Poet's Award), Li-Young Lee's The Rose, Marilyn Chin's Dwarf Bamboo were just a few of the potent collections published in that decade. Some carried on a political activist tone, continuing to "right" history and tell our true stories; while others were much more personal and didn't particularly write about Asian American themes. And going into the 1990s and beyond, the steady emergence of new Asian American poets within the national poetry scene has continued in ways we'd never had imagined.

Maybe because it was in those exciting "yellow power" movement years, when I was in my early 20s and got my first taste of what some may call poetry by people of color, that I still regard June Jordan, Linda Hogan, Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Juan Felipe Herrera, David Mura, to name just a few, as the writers I keep returning to. Within the Asian American literary movement, my heroes and favorite teachers are the "old guard" -- starting with that first time I heard Lawson Inada to when I waited in line to shake Li-Young Lee's hand and couldn't get a word out of my mouth when it was my turn to greet him to a 1969 Gidra poem's opening line, "I hate my wife for her flat yellow face."

Amy Uyematsu is the author of The Yellow Door.

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