Poet #3: Lawson Inada

Lawson Inada

“The point is: Poetry happens – wherever, whenever it wants – and the poet simply has to be ready to follow through on the occasion. That’s the way I do it, and it’s always a wonder, a mystery, when it happens – something like a trance, a transmission, a ‘higher state’ while sitting in the state you’re in: you become a vehicle while awaiting your vehicle. It’s actually rather simple, ordinary, like the daydreams we all experience. Thus, it’s not big deal – I just happen to write mine down, as poetry.”
Lawson Fusao Inada, Preface from Legends from Camp

(photo © Richard Green)

While a junior in college, I had the good fortune to study poetry with Michael S. Harper, recent Frost Medal recipient, one-time poet laureate for Rhode Island, and the toughest professor on the Eastern seaboard. Professor Harper – who will get his own tribute on these pages soon enough – has a knack for introducing his students to poets they should know based on their expressed interests. He knew I was fond of jazz, basketball, and Japanese culture, so he insisted that I investigate Lawson Fusao Inada. Harper met Inada during their studies in Iowa:

“Inada, who had two roommates and was looking for more space and privacy, soon moved into the same building I was in, with no furnishing…  From his arrival I could hear his music collection through the walls of his apartment, and I could count on sophisticated and low-down programming from early morning to very late at night.  Lawson also received ‘care’ packages from home, Fresno, full of exotic delicacies from his parents; and he sometimes shared them…

“One day I was playing a record by Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue,’ and Inada knocked on my door to find out what I was playing.  I showed him the album.  So much did Lawson love the first side of ‘Kind of Blue’ he was afraid to turn it over and be disappointed; what he’d heard was side two of ‘Kind of Blue.’”

— from “Every Shut-Eye Ain’t Asleep; Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone” by Michael Harper

So in love with jazz was Inada that he spent some of his life as a bassist, this before Philip Levine got him more focused on his writing. “Listening Images,” a favorite of both Harper’s and mine, effectively conveys Inada’s passion for jazz:

Listening Images


Yes, clouds do have
The smoothest sound.


Hold a microphne
Close to the moon.


Rapids to baptism
In one blue river.


A hawk for certain,
But as big as a man.


Such fragile moss
In a massive tree.

The current poet laureate of Oregon is probably most well-known for his collection of poetry, Legends from Camp (much of which can be previewed here). Legends, winner of an American Book Award, is a remarkably accessible book that covers concentration camp life, Fresno, jazz, and many other things, and it’s full of “songs, paintings, photographs, prayers, and stories–that just happen to look like poetry” (Inada’s own words).

(photo © Tom Peck)

Some of the legends:

Legends from Camp (excerpts)

I. The Legend of Pearl Harbor

“Aloha or Bust!”

We got here first!

II. The Legend of the Human Society

This is as
as it gets:

In a pinch,
of your pets.

III. The Legend of Protest

The F.B.I. swooped in early,
taking our elders in the process–

for “subversive” that and this.

People ask: “Why didn’t you protest?”
Well, you might say: “They had hostages.”

VI. The Legend of the Great Escape

The people were passive:
Even when a train paused
in the Great Plains, even
when soldiers were eating,
they didn’t try to escape.

XI. The Legend of Shoyu

Legend had it that, even in Arkansas,
some people had soy sauce.
Well, not exactly our soy sauce,
which we were starved for,
but some related kind of dark
and definitive liquid
to flavor you through the day.

That camp was in the Delta,
where the Muddy Waters lay.

Black shoyu. Black shoyu.
Let me taste the blues!

Lawson Fusao Inada is an emeritus professor of writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, and the author of five books: Legends from Camp, Drawing the Line, In This Great Land of Freedom, Just Into/Nations and Before the War.

lawson-inada(photo © Michael Green)


One Response to “Poet #3: Lawson Inada”

  1. […] The Poetry Project Just another WordPress.com weblog « Poet #3: Lawson Inada […]

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