Interview with Heather Nagami


An Interview with Heather Nagami


Briefly describe your journey to the Southwest and how this place has influenced your poetry.

Like many Japanese Americans, my great-grandparents came from Japan in the early 1900s and settled in California.  I’m yonsei (fourth-generation), and I grew up in Southern California, where there were many others like me.  I never wrote a poem about my race until I came to Tucson for graduate school when the abundance of cultural ignorance made it impossible to avoid.  After completing the M.F.A. program and living in the San Francisco Bay area for a couple years, I moved to Raleigh and then Boston.  I returned to Arizona because of my husband’s work, and I found myself compelled to write about race again. 

Although I’ve met some wonderful people and have some amazing friends here in the Southwest, I’ve never been so often disappointed in people as I am here.  In Arizona, you can be friends with someone for years and then feel stunned when she dresses up in yellowface for Halloween.  In Arizona, you can think you know someone and then find yourself at dinner bewildered as he mocks Chinese accents.  You can work at one of the top 10 charter schools in the country and still hear “That’s your English teacher?  Does she speak English?”  It’s the type of ignorance that’s neither hateful nor grave, yet I find it very hurtful.  And in this way, Arizona reminds me that there still is work to be done.  I have a unique voice, a voice that some don’t even realize or recognize exists, and I need to speak.

How has your Kundiman experience changed your life as a Southwesterner?

When I went to the Kundiman retreat in 2013, I felt like I was with family.  Kundiman saved me then, and it saves me today.  The fellows, the faculty, and the administrators all helped me remember who I am—someone who thinks poetry is possibly the most important thing in the world: it’s transformative, it’s political, it’s powerful and empowering.  Kundiman reminded me that I’m not a freak: I’m just an Asian American poet.  We see things that others don’t.  We hear things that others don’t hear.  And this is a gift. 

After the retreat, I came back to the Tucson area and formed my own Asian American writing group.  I also organized a Japanese cultural event, a mochitsuki, an entire festival centered around my favorite Japanese food: mochi.  This is when I found out that in Arizona, you can celebrate your culture and a food that many have not heard of at all, and nearly 400 people of all ethnicities will come and celebrate with you.

What have you been working on lately?  Do you want to share a poem?

When you look in a mirror, whom do you see?  As a person who is very sensitive to how others see me, one image from the novel Jane Eyre has remained with me throughout the years: Jane is looking into a mirror in the red-room, and she sees both a fairy and an imp.  I always took the image of the imp to mean that how she saw herself was partially derived from how her abusive aunt saw her.

Living in the Southwest, I find myself constantly at odds with how others see me, even when it seems positive.  For example, I’ve met people here who think I’m really funny, like lough-out-loud-really-loudly funny.  And while I’d like to think that’s true, I’ve realized a large part of their amusement comes from the fact that I’m not the stereotype they expect me to be—someone who is up-tight, boring, and without emotions; someone who doesn’t have a strong enough command of the English language to express sarcasm or irony; someone who is demure; someone who doesn’t say “like” and “you know” so many times.

C. Aurantium, the serial poem I’m currently working on, addresses these issues by, in a sense, ignoring them.  In my daily life, I have accepted that I must explain myself to an audience who is comfortable seeing only a stereotype, but when I write poetry, I get to make the rules.  I get to be the self, not the other, the center, not the marginalized.  And when I look in a mirror, I see myself, my family, and my ancestors, including my poet ancestors. 

The rule for this poem is that there is only one audience: poet and activist Mitsuye Yamada.  It’s a tribute to her, a kind of thank you letter.  It’s also an act of protest; I will only explain myself enough for Mrs. Yamada to understand, not anyone else.  And while I say I’ve written these poems specifically for her, I would love for them to be read widely.  There is something special to be learned in overhearing conversations, something unique that cannot be explained except by experiencing it yourself.  Here is the title poem from the piece:

C. Aurantium

I wanted to call this poem “Kagami”

thinking mochi would enter

your mind, as it does mine.

Kagami mochi: mirror mochi

     when I look

     in the mirror

     I see you

I wanted to call this poem “Daidai”

thinking family would enter

your mind, as it does mine.

Daidai: generation to generation

     when you read

     in these lines

     my promise to you

But I didn’t like how dai sounds like die

nor how Kagami rhymes with Nagami.

I wanted to say thank you

but could barely find the words.

C. Aurantium: daidai

     when we look

     in the mirror

     your legacy

Heather Nagami is the author of the book of poetry Hostile (Chax Press).  Her poems have appeared in Spiral Orb, Shifter, Antennae, Rattle, and Xcp (Cross-Cultural Poetics). Heather received a B.A. in Literature/Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an M.F.A. at University of Arizona. She has taught at Northeastern University, Pima Community College, and BASIS Oro Valley.

Interview with Jane Lin


An Interview with Jane Lin


What has been the SW’s biggest challenge to you as an Asian American and a poet?

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and as far as I know, there’s nothing special happening in Los Alamos except for the usual federal holiday closures. I’m not surprised. The US Census Bureau website reports only 2.5% of New Mexicans are “Black or African American alone” and in Los Alamos only 0.7% compared to 13.2% nationwide. When a black friend visited me in New Mexico for the first time, he said he would feel uncomfortable living here.

There’s a different kind of diversity here. New Mexico is known for its pueblos and Native American artists. With its Spanish colonial history, nearly half the population is Hispanic. Scientists come from all over the world to work at the two national labs in the state. Which is not to say that diversity means equality. But in my mind it helps when you’re not the only minority.

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the grand jury verdicts disturbed me greatly though they had little impact at the time on my remote mountain town. That disconnect challenges me. I could easily keep my head down and ignore the rest of the world, we are that isolated (there’s a reason why Oppenheimer picked Los Alamos for the Manhattan Project). So I make a conscious effort to be informed and stay connected. At the same time, it’s easy to feel helpless. Which is where poetry comes in. It’s a medium that allows us to respond to the myriad experiences of life including tragedy and injustice. When we share our poems, we participate in the conversation.

Months before Ferguson, police shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man camping in the hills of Albuquerque. It was videotaped by police camera. People protested it as the latest in a series of fatal shootings. This month, Albuquerque made CNN when the DA filed murder charges against the two police officers involved. New Mexico is part of the national dialogue after all.

It surprised me when people said they couldn’t understand the response to Ferguson. How often are we frustrated when the systems meant to help us fail us instead?

After the Verdict

Because my mother preferred to help than be helped,

she kept her cancer secret.

Which is to say I tell myself today, do not despair

though our country remains unchanged after each shooting.

We all have our ways of coping.

My fumbling, stumbling out of silence.

Which is to say, dear reader, I don’t want to go it alone.

My mother had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Which is to say there is nothing right about children shot dead.

The circumstances of her death, their deaths,

fill me with anger and grief.

Black lives matter. As in equally, yours and mine.

How has your Kundiman experience changed your life as a Southwesterner?

I was lucky to meet Arthur Sze not long after moving here in 1998. Previously I lived in New York and California. Perhaps because of his long established presence in the area and many years of teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), I never felt unusual as an Asian American poet in New Mexico. He was in fact the first poet laureate of Santa Fe. I have always felt respected and treated for who I am as an individual by other people here. Though I have to admit that an Asian American artist in Sante Fe told me someone mistook her for me!

What Kundiman gave me last summer was a door to a larger community which made me feel less isolated. This very blog allows me to participate still. The diversity of the fellows, faculty and staff and their art expanded my vision of not only poetry but of life. And most of all, I have found connection with my fellow Kundiman Southwesterners Heather Nagami and Sharon Suzuki-Martinez even though they are 500 miles away and I’ve never met them in person! Maybe that’s the magic of poetry and of Kundiman - we can celebrate both difference and commonality.

What is the poetry scene like where you live? Where’s the best place to go for a poetry reading?

Los Alamos has a great public library which hosts Quotes: The Authors Speak Series highlighting New Mexican writers. Unquarked, a new wine tasting room, plans to hold monthly poetry readings.

Down the hill, Santa Fe is home to the Lannan Foundation which hosts an inspiring array of writers and cultural thinkers in its Readings and Conversations series at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, a beautiful restored theater down the street from the 400-year-old Santa Fe Plaza. A few blocks away is a terrific bookstore called Collected Works which hosts the Muse Times Two series curated by Dana Levin and Carol Moldaw. This series pairs a regional poet with a nationally known poet.

There is always something going on in Santa Fe, not to mention Taos and Albuquerque. Other SF venues include IAIA, Santa Fe University of Art and Design, Teatro Paraguas, and op.cit. Teatro Paraguas specializes in bilingual theater, and it is a real treat when they produce performances of Spanish-language poets. Also, IAIA has a low-residency MFA program, and you do not need to be Native American to apply!

Talk about the most inspiring place in or near your home. Send a picture.

Los Alamos sits at the tail end of the Rockies. I can walk a few blocks from my house and be in a canyon or on a mountain trail, but my favorite is Deer Trap Mesa. I drive 10 minutes past houses, park at a dead end. The asphalt crumbles past a guard rail. Dirt gives way to tuff, volcanic ash become rock. Quickly the land narrows, drops off into canyons on either side. Scrambling down to the right would reveal small shallow caves with sooted ceilings. I pick my way forward along a fragile path – grooves first shaped by the footsteps of Ancestral Pueblo people 500 to 800 years ago. Down there is a rectangular hole – an ancient deer trap. Up again the finger mesa continues, widening with scrub, grasses, low-lying cacti. This is high desert. The path winds among junipers and pines hiding the view until I come out at the tip. Suddenly I can see for miles—valley, mesas, Taos, Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the tremendous sky.