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 Sharon Suzuki-Martinez


An Interview with Sharon Suzuki-Martinez


                                                                 (photo credit: David Martinez)

Poets of color face a unique type of adversity in the Southwest.  Can you describe what you have encountered?  How has it hurt or helped your poetry?

Scholars have written about America’s anti-intellectual tendencies throughout history. Nevertheless, I am puzzled to live in a place where if people go to college: they tend to matriculate as conservatives, and then graduate as conservatives. One of my former co-workers, a redheaded ASU graduate, told me she “hated” to see people of color on TV, and made fun of my slight Hawaii accent. Research shows that the core conservative values are “resistance to change and support for inequality.” This culture of anti-learning and pro-stereotyping explains how people can assume I’m foreign (and insist Hawaii is a foreign country), believe Chicanos are drug-smuggling aliens, African Americans are born killers, and Native Americans are/should be extinct. Many Arizonans don’t even TRY to get to know individuals from other ethnic groups, or can’t see that stereotypes are proven wrong in chance encounters every single day.

Some people glance at my Pima husband, and my waist-length hair and assume I’m some sort of American Indian too. I’ve been mistaken for the Navajo Poet Laureate, Luci Tapahonso—not a bad thing! I prefer looking ethnically ambiguous even if it makes retail workers and the police more suspicious of me. Let me explain.

I’m still haunted by an incident in the early 90’s when I was a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I was at a conference geared for high school teachers and had just presented on teaching Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. I was the only Asian American in the room of White, Black, and Chicano women. Somehow, the group discussion exploded into the teachers angrily blaming Asian women for making things bad for all other women. As if their husbands were dicks because of me. They took the submissive, geisha stereotype as self-evident truth so they didn’t see themselves racists. They scared the f***ing hell out of me—flashback to nearly getting beaten up in the girls’ locker room in 7th grade. I don’t feel safe alone among strangers while being openly Asian in Arizona.

I am not sure how this racial climate has affected my poetry, but I constantly wrestle with cynicism (the enemy of creativity) and am mostly unknown as a Phoenix or Asian American poet. The great thing is I’ve never been pressured to limit my writing to Arizona or my ethnicity; I am free to go wherever I please in my poetry.

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

When my husband and I first moved from Minneapolis to Tempe in 2007, ASU poet Laura Tohe told me via email that the Phoenix metro area didn’t have a poetry community. That was confirmed when a local poets’ group with a website inviting new members ignored my attempts to communicate them. I was shocked by how different the literary scene was from Twin Cities.

Part of the impetus for creating The Poet’s Playlist was to create a poetry community not tied to a particular location. There are poets from all over the US and Canada talking about their poetry and sharing their favorite music on my website. That project has been as gratifying to me as belonging to Kundiman, which is also dedicated to connecting across miles through poetry (and fiction starting this year). 

That was a roundabout way to answer the question. Although I’m still an outsider, a lot has changed since 2007 and now the Phoenix poetry scene is on fire with more poets, literary journals, workshops, and many reading series. My favorite poetry series is the Tempe Poetry in April, but its future is up in the air. Other than that, there is ASU’s Virginia Piper Center’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Series, the Phoenix Poetry Series, Caffeine Corridor Poetry Series, Lawn Gnome Publishing Poetry Slam, Matador Open Mic Poetry, Balboa Poet House, Changing Hands Bookstore’s First Fridays open mic, and many more small open mics across the Phoenix valley.

How has social media affected your work?

It’s a strange time to be a writer. I might be wrong, but authors cannot afford not to have social media presence—no matter how seemingly counterproductive it is to their writing. But that makes Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Wordpress, etc. sound like nothing more than a necessary evil. I think connecting with your audience, or potential audience is always a good thing. Social media helps us remember the people we are writing for. Twitter, in particular, helps hone my ability to write succinctly and practice one-liners. The danger lies in missed opportunities, in not developing poetic tweets into poems.

Would you like to share a poem you’ve written while living in the Southwest?

Here is something partly inspired by a drive through Phoenix, during the height of the Ferguson protests. Thank you, Kundiman SW (Heather Nagami and Jane Lin) for your feedback and camaraderie!

Guns Save Lives

Says the sign at the bus stop, but

to follow the logic of, “Guns Don’t Kill

People, People Kill People,”

means guns don’t actually save People either.

(Unless Jesus is a pistol)

Guns can’t kill or save lives

because they are inanimate objects,

like pillows.

Pillows are innocent,

but also used by People to kill other People:

vicious sleeping or vegetating People.

(Flashback to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)

Perhaps we should content ourselves

with pillows instead of guns.

Let’s stockpile pillows

like we are hoarding puppies.

The fluffier

the better.

Sharon Suzuki-Martinez is a sansei Okinawan-Japanese American originally from Kaneohe, Hawaii who now lives in Tempe, Arizona. She is the author of The Way of All Flux (New Rivers Press, 2012), winner of the New Rivers Press MVP Poetry Prize. She created/curates The Poet’s Playlist. She has been a Kundimana since 2008.

Author Page

Tweeting at @SuzukiMartinez