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Nikkei Uncovered: a poetry column

Circles, Cycles, Commemoration

This month, as we commemorate EO 9066, we thought it fitting to honor one of our longest standing and veteran poets, Mitsuye Yamada. At 95 years of age, she has been published for several decades and is still going. Here, she shares with us some previous work as well as a new piece from her forthcoming book, FULL CIRCLE. Enjoy the poetic fire of the great Mitsuye Yamada...

—traci kato-kiriyama

* * * * *

Mitsuye Yamada was born in Kyushu, Japan in 1923. She grew up in Seattle, Washington.

In 1942, when Mitsuye was 17, her family was among 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to concentration camps for the duration of the war. She received her BA from the New York University, and her MA from University of Chicago, and an honorary doctorate from Simmons College.

She has lived in the Midwest, New York, and California. She taught English, creative writing, literature and Asian American Studies at colleges in Southern California.

Camp Notes and Other Writings, a combined edition of her first two books, was most recently published by Rutgers University Press in 1998. Her writings focus on her bicultural heritage, women and human rights. Her work has been translated into several languages and she has given readings and lectures across the United States. She is the founder and coordinator of MultiCultural Women Writers. Mitsuye was a subject of Mitsuye and Nellie, Asian American Poets, a documentary that aired nationally on PBS.

In addition to her work as a writer, Mitsuye has dedicated her life to human rights. She coordinated a local chapter of Amnesty International and served on the AIUSA board of directors for six years. She also worked with Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience.

Mitsuye, at age 95, will release her latest work, Full Circle, New and Selected Poems, in June, 2019.

Some of Mitsuye’s thoughts on her new book:

Full Circle is an eclectic collection of some old and new poems. It offers a wide range of subjects from childhood memories, family stories, friendly or unfriendly encounters, thoughts captured at specific moments in time, responses to what is happening, and various other subjects.

Many of these poems seem to focus on my relationships with my family. My parents had always taught my brothers and me to move forward in life, no matter what obstacles are placed before us, I continue to hear their admonitions and put them into writing. Each of us are keepers of our unique family histories. Writing them down in whatever form you choose is a way of keeping your family lore alive.

Also you might say I'm quite opinionated, and can't help responding to whatever that is going on around me and tend to express these thoughts in poetry. At my present advanced age, I decided it is about time I published another book.”

The Watchtower

The watchtower
with one uniformed
in solitary
confined in the middle
of his land.

I walked towards the hospital
for the midnight shift.
From the rec hall the long body
of the centipede
with barracks for legs
came the sound of a
live band playing
Maria Elena
You’re the answer to my dreams.
Tired teenagers

leaning on each other
swayed without struggle.

This is what we did with our days.
We loved and we lived
just like people.

* This poem is copyrighted by Mitsuye Yamada (1973)

The Night Before Good-Bye

Mama is mending
my underwear
while my brothers sleep.
Her husband taken away by the FBI
one son lured away by the Army
now another son and daughter
lusting for the free world outside.
She must let go.
The war goes on.
She will take one still small son
and join Papa in internment
to make a family.
Still sewing
squinting in the dim light
in room C barrack 4 block 4
she whispers,
keep underwear
in good repair
in case of accident
don’t bring shame
on us.

* This poem is copyrighted by Mitsuye Yamada (1973)


See the dark shadows on the full moon?
Try squinting and look hard Father said
you will see a rabbit pounding mochi
with a mallet into a wooden usu
Yes yes I see
the white rabbit with a pink nose.

One hundred years ago
Father heard the rhythm of mochi tsuki
from across the ocean and followed
the full moon promising great things to come
Hope in abundance with celerity.

My father
born in the Year of the Rabbit
would welcome the masses
carrying bags filled with
now pushing our borders
shadows on the full moon.


* This poem is copyrighted by Mitsuye Yamada (2019)


© 1973, 2019 Mitsuye Yamada

eo 9066 Mitsuye Yamada Nikkei Uncovered poet poetry

About this series

Nikkei Uncovered: a poetry column is a space for the Nikkei community to share stories through diverse writings on culture, history, and personal experience. The column will feature a wide variety of poetic form and subject matter with themes that include history, roots, identity; history—past into the present; food as ritual, celebration, and legacy; ritual and assumptions of tradition; place, location, and community; and love.

We’ve invited author, performer, and poet traci kato-kiriyama to curate this monthly poetry column, where we will publish one to two poets on the third Thursday of each month—from senior or young writers new to poetry, to published authors from around the country. We hope to uncover a web of voices linked through myriad differences and connected experience.

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