By SOJI KASHIWAGI
Several people who have read Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s book of poems have commented that to hear the soon to be 90-year-old Nisei poet read his poetry aloud is a completely different experience than reading it from his book.
“I think a poem needs to be read aloud,” said Kashiwagi, a San Francisco-based writer who was recently in town to appear on a panel about “no-no boys” and renunciants in Torrance. “When I read it, I think the audience gets more meaning from the words. There’s emphasis on certain words, and there are pauses. The reader is not as conscious as when the writer actually reads it.”
Kashiwagi, who read two of his Tule Lake poems at the Oct. 27 panel presentation, will be returning to Los Angeles on Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Centenary United Methodist Church in Little Tokyo. Presented by the Grateful Crane Ensemble, the reading of his works will include poetry and prose from what very well could be the last man standing, as far as Nisei poets go.
“I don’t know of any other Nisei poets because of course they’re gone now,” said Kashiwagi, who is also an award-winning author, playwright and actor.
Featured works in the reading will take the listener on a journey through his life, beginning in his boyhood days in Loomis, Calif. and continuing through the years before, during and after World War II. His works also look back at his early years of marriage, starting a family, working in the San Francisco Public Library, his various hobbies and the walks he has taken along Ocean Beach, near his San Francisco home. He will also read poems about being in the autumn of his life, and the afterlife.
Accompanying Kashiwagi with jazz music on piano, bass and conga will be local musicians Scott Nagatani, Gordon Bash and Art Ishii.
His signature poem, “A Meeting at Tule Lake,” will also be included in the program. The poem, which he wrote on the bus to the second Tule Lake Pilgrimage in 1975, covers details about Tule Lake that are not often seen in other camp literature. It still stands today as an inspiration for younger generations to learn about what happened at Tule Lake, from someone who lived through it.
Like many Nisei, Kashiwagi did not talk about his camp experience until a group of Sansei college students asked him to speak at a forum about camp in late 1974. After this appearance, he was invited to speak again at the pilgrimage, where his reading went on to inspire a young Sansei generation yearning for the truth about what happened to their families in camp.
“These were college students from UC Berkeley and San Francisco State, mostly Sansei, but there were also quite a few non-Japanese in the group, about 100 of us altogether,” said Kashiwagi. “(Nisei activist) Edison Uno was there. (Nisei writer) Toshio Mori was also a guest speaker.”
Kashiwagi read the poem at this year’s pilgrimage in July and it has become a tradition for him to read it at every pilgrimage dating back ten years. Now new generations of Japanese Americans are hearing it, some 37 years after it was first written and read.
Kashiwagi remembered that it was back in the early 1970s when he first started to dabble in poetry writing. An author of several plays and short stories, he became inspired to write poems after reading several poetry books as a librarian in the literature department of the San Francisco Public Library.
“I was in charge of reviewing poetry books for the library,” he said. “As I read them, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I could do this.'”
His very first poem, entitled “Richard Brautigan,” was inspired by the San Francisco-based novelist, poet and short story writer who would often stop by the library to give away his poetry books. One such book included a packet of seeds. This memory inspired a poem. Many more followed after that.
Writing poetry is one thing, but being able to read his poems in front of a live audience is something that never gets old, he said.
“You can relate to the audience. I can sense the energy from the audience. It’s a relationship with the audience that makes it very exciting. The fact that they are there, they’re interested and they’re accepting it means that they are into the poem. They are participating with the poem.”
As an actor, Kashiwagi knows how to take words of a page and bring them to life on stage, dramatically. “I want people to experience the moment that I experienced in the poem. If they can experience that moment with me, then that’s the best thing that could happen.”
As a poet, Kashiwagi believes his job is to find meaning, essence and truth in whatever subject he is addressing. And from this truth, he says, people can gain a better understanding about themselves as people.
“If they are at all interested in who they are, learning our history and knowing the past from the people who came before them will give them an idea of how they came to think the way they think, how they react to certain situations. They can gain answers to those questions.
“It gives their life meaning. That’s important for anyone, to find meaning in life. Otherwise you’re just existing. I think we all want meaning in life. Knowing our history gives meaning to that person’s thinking, or feeling or doing, as to why they are the way they are.”
“An Afternoon of Poetry and Prose with Nisei Poet Hiroshi Kashiwagi” will take place on Saturday, Nov. 17, at 2 p.m. Centenary United Methodist Church is located at 300 S. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo, downtown Los Angeles. General admission tickets to the reading are $25, along with a newly added $20 rate for seniors (65+), students and groups of ten or more. For reservations, call the Grateful Crane ticket line at (310) 995-5841.