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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Lawson Inada
(b. 1938)

Lawson Inada is third-generation Japanese American, born and raised in Fresno, California. These autobiographical details are highlighted in Inada’s volume of poetry Legends from Camp: Section 11 is titled “Fresno” and consists of poems that pay tribute to this agricultural region of California; Section I is titled “Camp,” referring to the author’s boyhood experience of internment during World War II along with other Japanese Americans. In his autobiographical recountings, Inada mentions going to the University of Iowa to study writing, then moving to Oregon. He has taught at Southern Oregon State College since 1966.

For both historical and aesthetic reasons, Lawson Inada is a significant figure in Asian American poetry and literature. He was one of the co-editors of the landmark anthology, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, and has participated in efforts to recover writing by earlier Japanese American authors such as Toshio Mori and John Okada. Legend has it that at a time of emerging Asian American consciousness but few visible Asian American writers, Frank Chin and his friends happened upon the book cover of Down at the Santa Fe Depot (1970), an anthology of Fresno-based poets. Struck by seeing an Asian face in the group photo of the poets, they discovered and contacted fellow Asian American writer Lawson Inada. Inada’s collection Before the War: Poems as They Happened (1971) was one of the first Asian American single-author volumes of poetry from a major New York publishing house.

Inada’s poetry stands out in its consistent engagement with jazz. Before the War begins with a whimsical portrait of a Japanese American figure playing “air bass”; includes tributes to jazz musicians and singers such as Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday; and ends with poems written for Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. Riffing on the term “bluesman,” Inada calls himself a “campsman,” suggesting that his blues derive from Japanese American internment. He describes his project as “blowing shakuhachi versaphone” and cites jazz as the strongest influence on his writing. Leslie Marmon Silko calls Inada “a poet-musician in the tradition of Walt Whitman and James A. Wright."

Inada won the American Book Award in 1994 for Legends from Camp and was named Oregon State Poet of the Year in 1991. He has received a number of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and has performed his poetry in concert with numerous musicians. His poetics of performance posits his art not as an object that transcends time but as a process that shapes time. Calling live performance his favorite form of “publishing,” Inada appropriates the value that is ascribed to a finalized, written text for a mode that is oral and dynamic.

Inada’s poetics suggest that there is more than one way to tell a story, that many stories are embedded within a given story or within what we know as history. This multiple sense of time implicitly critiques the notion of a standard time or history that is equivalent for all subjects. Poems such as “Instructions to All Persons” and “Two Variations on a Theme by Thelonious Monk” shape time and history as variable and layered. “On Being Asian American” refers to an echo generated by the actualization of the racial subject. We can see a poetics of the echo in the repetition enacted in this poem as well as in the poems “Instructions” and “Two Variations.” This repetition is what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls "repetition with a difference”: a non-linear, non-teleological aesthetics of change.

In the Heath Anthology
Instructions to All Persons (1992)
Kicking the Habit (1992)
On Being Asian American (1992)
Two Variations on a Theme by Thelonius Monk As Inspired by Mal Waldron (1992)

Other Works
Before the War (1971)
Legends from Camp (1993)

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Lawson Fusao Inada | Three Poems
Texts of Flying By The Seat, Eatin' With Sticks, and Somebody's Been Messing With My Money!.

Modern American Poetry
Criticism, historical/cultural context, and some primary texts (an essay and poems).

Secondary Sources