(Originally posted 4/17/11 in Southern Oregon Arts)
On Tuesday April 12th,Southern Oregon Arts first tweeted the invitation to come to Southern Oregon University’s Friday the 15th reception for former Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Inada. The Mail Tribune article from March 25th linked from that tweet simply stated, “Former Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Fusao Inada will be honored with a poetry event in his name Friday and Saturday, April 15 and 16, at Southern Oregon University…. The opening reception Friday, April 15, at SOU’s Schneider Museum of Art, is free and open to the public.”
I arrive early to the event on Friday, quickly noticing the age disparity between myself and my fellow attendees. Indeed Inada himself approaches me soon after seating begins and asks, “Are you under 35?” When I reply in the affirmative, he continues, “What are you doing here?” But it’s clear from the broad smile on his face and the playful glint in his eye he’s delighted to see everyone, from new faces such as mine to a number of wiser folks who knew him when he began teaching at SOU in 1966.
The reception begins with a brief greeting from Dr. Diana Maltz, SOU Department Chair for Language Literature and Philosophy followed by an introduction for Inada by Filipino-American poet Rick Barot, a professor of poetry at both Warren Wilson College and Pacific Lutheran University. Barot speaks to Inada’s inspiring and transporting poetic voice as well as his incredible life story which includes a childhood spent partially in Japanese-American Internment Camps during World War II. Barot reads “The Legend of Targets” from Inada’s collection Legends from Camp “The soldiers shot, and between rounds, we dug in the dunes for bullets. It was great fun! They would aim at us, go ‘Pow!’ and we’d shout ‘Missed!’’ Barot points out how, through these lines, Inada artfully translates humanity’s simultaneous atrocity and absurdity, but also how this skillful poet manages to more than capture a moment in history, somehow making it hold still to be explored and realized by his reader.
When Inada steps up to the mic, even after such a grand introduction, he remains humble remarking how honored he is to be asked to speak and sparing no praise for his “supporting cast” Todd Barton (SOU Music Instructor and Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Composer in Residence) and Terry Longshore (Associate Professor of Music and Director of Percussion studies at SOU). Inada and Barton begin with a Shakespeare-inspired, conversational piece “As you Like It.” Call and response between Inada’s spoken verse and Barton’s wooden recorder flute loop back through the speakers to create improvisational medleys and conversations. Listening feels very much like talking a walk through the park with good coffee and a large group of good friends. Just as Barot promised in his introduction, Inada transports the audience into his moment.
As the next piece “Fresno” begins, I fear it will be lost on me. A native East-coaster, I’ve never been to Fresno, though I see a number of experienced heads in the crowd bobbing, and I hear knowing laughter from many who have known that city. But then Inada diverts the poem into the national parks near Fresno and I’m right there with him again. I don’t need to have been to Yosemite itself. Growing up, I sat around campfires in dozens of this nation’s parks. And then Inada diverts again, tugging me along (in a direction my own family would never have gone), choosing the city over the campfire. It’s a testament to his mastery of this craft that I follow him eagerly, now laughing and bobbing my head with the rest of the crowd as Longshore illustrates Fresno through chaotic synthesized sound.
When Inada announces “Tolman Creek Road” will be the final piece of the evening, it seems so soon, such a brief time we’ve been here, too early to be finishing. But no time for mourning, we’re already running with the waters of Tolman Creek, musing and laughing with Inada at the absurdity he reveals through the juxtaposition of Taco Bell with the Universe itself. Inada flirts with paradox since everyone sitting in the audience has seen a Taco Bell with his or her own eyes and yet (just as Barot described it) through Inada’s verse, Barton’s musical swirls and loops and Longshore’s melodic percussion, the Universe seems the “real” tangible thing with Taco Bell becoming abstract and far away. What part of Earth, of the Universe, isn’t flowing in the water molecules of Tolman Creek? The entire audience is flowing with it as Barton plays the last notes.
I find Barot accurately described several of the most unique qualities about Inada’s voice. Taco Bell and the Universe is just one example of how this poet spins together his words in such a way that his message, beautifully and simply woven, inspires both despair and elation. His verse is mortally and undeniably serious while simultaneously self-aware of its own absurdity. Inada’s is poetry that laughs at itself. The austere school teacher and the class clown live together (as one even!) in his words. Barot also acknowledged how ordinary and simple Inada’s lines can sound. He described it as deceiving since what sounds simple actually contains layers of meaning and meticulous crafting. It’s that intangible and ultimately indescribable quality to Inada’s work that make him great. Poems from other authors, seemingly more witty and pleasing to the ear, have fallen far short of moving their audiences as far. His verse is the plain-faced prima ballerina who outshines all the prettier dancers behind her as soon as the music begins and her feet start to fly.
Throughout the evening I watch Inada greet people he remembers as well as those he’s never met. Everyone gets a smile, a handshake a sincere welcome. Many have taken classes from him. Some worked at the university when he started in 1966. An SOU librarian from the late 60’s recalls for the crowd when Inada brought his class over to her building for the first time. For these few moments on the evening of Friday, April 15, 2011, young and old flow together, (much like the waters in Tolman Creek) creating our own Universe around and through the masterful artistry of Lawson Inada.