10 Questions for Amy Uyematsu
- By Abby MacGregor
lately I feel I belong
to a mind so big—
many calling it sacred
—from “The Older, the More”, Winter 2018 (Vo. 59, Issue 4)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
As a college senior, I was lucky to be in UCLA's first Asian American Studies class, “Orientals in America,” during the spring quarter of 1969. I wrote a term paper, “The Emergence of Yellow Power in America,” which led to a job with the new UCLA Asian American Studies Center that opened that fall. I attached three poems to that term paper which ended up being published in the movement newspaper Gidra. Those short poems expressed some of the profound transformations I was undergoing much better than the yellow power essay. Little did I know that nearly five decades later I would still be writing poetry.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
During my early Asian American “movement” years, I was inspired by Asian American poets like Lawson Inada, Janice Mirikitani, and Al Robles. Writers of color, both within and outside the U.S., have influenced me the most—especially women poets like Lucille Clifton, Linda Hogan, Cathy Song, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marilyn Chin; my two favorite international poets are Pablo Neruda and Rumi. I studied for fifteen years with Zen poet Peter Levitt and briefly with Japanese American playwright Momoko Iko.
What other professions have you worked in?
Right out of college, I worked for the UCLA Asian American Studies Center for five years as Publications Coordinator. I was also a high school mathematics instructor for the L.A. Unified School System; I retired after teaching thirty-two years. Currently I teach a creative writing class in Little Tokyo.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I read an article about “panpsychism”—the idea that the universe may be capable of consciousness—and the poem evolved from this idea. It clicked with my own thinking that there is stone mind, tree mind, etc., not just human mind. If I were younger, I don't think this poem could have emerged. Key to my own understanding of mind and awareness is getting older and being grateful for whatever light and beauty comes my way.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Japan, imagined, often influences my writing. I believe in something I call racial memory, because I often write from a place that feels based in Japan, the older Japan of my ancestors, and while I don't speak Japanese and have only visited there a few times, it is present in many of my poems.
Los Angeles, the actual city where I was born and raised, has also been a big influence—whether I write about Little Tokyo, neighborhoods I've lived in, high school students I've taught, the homeless we see too often now from downtown to the ocean.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Soul & funk along with straight ahead and Latin jazz. Although I don't listen to music while I'm writing and editing, I do listen to it on my daily walks—sort of aN R&B walking meditation—and maybe that rhythm and energy gets into some of my poems.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Nothing other than taking quick notes when I think I'll be writing about something I've seen, heard, imagined—I will jot down a few words or phrases in my journal or any scrap of paper if I'm on the move. Sometimes I'm stopped at a traffic light and will scribble a word or two so I won't forget.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Usually I bring new work to the small writing group I've belonged to since around 2000. We are four women, one now living in Washington while the rest of us remain in LA. We call ourselves “the noodlettes” because we love to meet for lunch and have ramen.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I think I'd like to work in the visual arts. As a hobby, I do collage notecards, often using origami and chiyogami paper. I've always loved Japanese woodblock paintings and if I were younger, I'd like to learn how to make lithographs.
What are you working on currently?
I am always working on new poems. Currently, I just finished my sixth manuscript and hope to get it published.
AMY UYEMATSU is a sansei (third-generation Japanese American) poet and teacher from Los Angeles. She has five published collections: 30 Miles from J-Town; Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain; Stone Bow Prayer; The Yellow Door; and Basic Vocabulary. She was a co-editor of the widely used UCLA anthology, Roots: An Asian American Reader. A former public high school math instructor, she currently leads a writing workshop at the Far East Lounge in L.A.’s Little Tokyo.