National Poetry Month Spotlight: Larry Matsuda

**********Japan pushes eight feet closer to America,
**********shortens the day by 1.6 micro-seconds
**********after the 9.0 earthquake.
Sendai is a garbage dump cut by a neat road.
Pervasive stench of fish rotting
amid rubble, an odor tinged
with a peculiar ripe edge swirls.
CNN cameras never show arms
protruding from piles.
Behind thin flashlight beams,
the faceless 50 march into their radioactive tombs.
What are they thinking as they slog
towards molecular disruption and wander
the slow road to hell,
these men who look like me.
In the local high school gym,
old Japanese men and women
who could be my bachan and jichan
are ashamed of their torn straw slippers.
Silently they line up for water
and a bowl of hot ramen.
How to bear the unbearable
with dignity is their karmic message.
I pour a guilty cup of creamed coffee
and escape the CNN suffering with flick of a switch.
Lingering images remind me of atomic Hiroshima,
my grandfather’s home, where a road cuts
through stacks of charred and twisted bodies
and an eighty year old man pushes a wooden cart.
With each step in this wasteland his straw slippers flap.
After the quake, I join the Artists for Japan fund raiser
at Seattle’s KOBO gallery,  volunteers bound
by unspoken agreements. We are children of the same mother
who instinctively know how to behave,
the essence of being Japanese.
Before the KOBO doors open,
Junko leads a Japanese cheer—
clap three times in unison,
repeat the ritual two more times,
then cheer loudly.
Crowds stream through
and wrap around our bodies.
We unite in collective actions.
I feel sad amid the rush.
A whirlpool, my mind turns—
in America I am Japanese,
in Japan I am gaijin, a foreigner.
I vow to return to Fukushima,
walk places my friends cherish back in 1995.
I kneel and pray for those missing forever,
strike the temple bell.
Near the Fuji apple orchard
and house I stayed in years ago,
I will recall the faceless 50,
then pinch incense between
my thumb and index finger,
raise the fragrance
to my forehead and release powder
into a smoldering bowl of ashes.
Under a white surgical mask,
I am no longer gaijin
I am Japanese.
Watashi wa Nihonjin desu.
My roots sink deep into Hiroshima radioactive soil.
I am the faceless one who returns to mourn.
(Note:  bachan is grandmother and ji-chan is grandfather.)
Q: Where is your favorite place to write?
A: I write in my office with the television playing. It keeps me company and I also watch it while writing.
Q: Do you remember the first poem you read that really blew your mind?
A: “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas was the poem that truly moved me especially when read out loud.
The poem is a villanelle–for many years my specialty was writing comic villanelles until I committed the sin of having animals talk in my poems.
Q: What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you in the last 12 months?
A: I had the opportunity to talk with Holley Farmer in Seattle.  She danced with the late Merce Cunningham and spoke of movements that evoked memories of him.  It made me realize that dance and poetry are as John Lithgow (2007) defines poetry, “the captured moments that connect us through our senses and memory”.
My poems in A Cold Wind from Idaho explore memories and the psychological effects of the World War II incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in 10 US concentration camps. In May of 2011, six of my poems will be interpreted in dance at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
Larry Matsuda was born in the Minidoka, Idaho War Relocation Center for Japanese during World War II. He is a career educator and lives in Seattle, Washington.  His first book of poetry entitled A Cold Wind from Idaho was published by Black Lawrence Press in July 2010.
(Photo by Tara Gimmer.)