You old-timers like fo’ complain.
No mo’ moi nowadays, no mo’ papio
No mo’ nothin’.
from “No Mo’ Fish on Maui,” Barry Masuda
My mom grew up in Hawai’i, a Nisei (second generation Japanese American) whose first languages were Japanese and English. She remembered being outside the morning that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, people screaming and running for cover when the airplanes banked and the morning sun illuminated the red disc of the rising sun on their wings. After marrying a Hoosier Nisei, she raised her children in Ohio. Long-distance phone calls were special occasions in those days; late at night, I remember her talking to family members in Hawai’i, the soft inflections of her speech shifting slightly, moving into Japanese, into Pidgin English. For most people, home is not only a place, it’s a manner of speech.
The poetry of home, or leaving home, or not knowing one’s home, then, is also a way of speaking, and the deep listening in the night for familiar voices.
so we talk into the night
until the star spangled banner
fades from view and
a white blip burns
the heart of the tube
from “living in the world,” Alan Chong Lau
Familiar sounds. Smells. The invocation and evocation of hands, faces, voices of people who don’t appear in American magazines, on television, who aren’t the ones who come to mind when we say “American.” Where is Asian North America except for here in the US and Canada? The Pacific Islander Americans, navigating impossibly long distances in open canoes, arriving later by boat and airplane, raising their kids, working, arriving. Asian immigrants, arriving, planting familiar foods.
Your hands that understand taro
learn limits whose gestures
become far islands
from “Taro,” Shirley Ancheta
There’s been plenty of suffering to go around, of course, but poetry and art is okay with all that. The stereotype of the silent and submissive Asian is, like all stereotypes, only as real as is allowed by lack of examination.
But I exhume my past
to claim this time.
My youth is buried in Rohwer,
Obachan’s ghost visits Amache Gate.
My niece haunts Tule Lake.
Words are better than tears,
so I spill them.
from “Breaking Silence,” Janice Mirikitani
And Hawai’i, we discover, is a lot more than surfboards and tiki torches.
Ho'opuka e ka la ma ka hikina
Me ka huaka`i hele no Kumukahi
Ha'a mai na 'iwa me Hi'iaka
Me Kapo-Laka i ka uluwehiwehi
Ne'e mai na 'iwa ma ku'u alo
Me ke alo kapu o ka aiwaiwa
Rise, O sun in the east
With a procession going to Kumukahi
Dancing are the beautiful ones with Hi'iaka
And Kapo-Laka in the verdant grove
Moving ahead are the dancers toward me
And to the sacred presence of the divine
from Ho'opuka E Ka La (Rise, O Sun),
17th century, anonymous
When I began publishing poems under the name “Patricia Y. Ikeda” in the late seventies, I’d never heard of “APIA poetry.” I was fortunate in having mentors when I was an undergraduate at Oberlin College, poet professors who instilled in their writing students the ethos, “Write about what you know, not about what you don’t know. Write about your grandma and grandpa. Show, don’t tell. Delete philosophizing; it’s boring.” We were, in many ways, following the trail of American imagist poetry established by William Carlos Williams, whose iconic wet red wheelbarrow and white chickens and plums cold from the icebox could well have been haiku, and the patient faith of Elizabeth Bishop in showing things as they are, as they unexpectedly are when we look closely:
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
from “The Fish,” Elizabeth Bishop
Asian Pacific Islander American poetry has come a long way since the 1970s. The Internet makes everything easier and faster and more accessible. Print on Demand (POD) seems made for volumes of poetry if you want something made of paper that you can hold in your hands. Words are better than tears, and being seen and heard is better than being invisible and silenced. May the month of May continue throughout the year.
Patricia Y. Ikeda appears in the documentary film Between the Lines: Asian American Women’s Poetry, “rare interviews with over 15 major Asian-Pacific American women poets.” Her work has appeared in Asian North American poetry anthologies such as Breaking Silence and Premonitions, and she is the first recipient of the Ragdale Foundation's Alice Hayes fellowship for work on a social-justice related writing project, which supported her work on a book-length collection of autobiographical fiction with the working title, Elegy with Blue Shirt, Tie and Gun and Other Stories. She lives and works in Oakland, California. See www.mushim.wordpress.com