An Interview with Heather Nagami
Briefly describe your journey to the Southwest and how this place has influenced your poetry.
Like many Japanese Americans, my great-grandparents came from Japan in the early 1900s and settled in California. I’m yonsei (fourth-generation), and I grew up in Southern California, where there were many others like me. I never wrote a poem about my race until I came to Tucson for graduate school when the abundance of cultural ignorance made it impossible to avoid. After completing the M.F.A. program and living in the San Francisco Bay area for a couple years, I moved to Raleigh and then Boston. I returned to Arizona because of my husband’s work, and I found myself compelled to write about race again.
Although I’ve met some wonderful people and have some amazing friends here in the Southwest, I’ve never been so often disappointed in people as I am here. In Arizona, you can be friends with someone for years and then feel stunned when she dresses up in yellowface for Halloween. In Arizona, you can think you know someone and then find yourself at dinner bewildered as he mocks Chinese accents. You can work at one of the top 10 charter schools in the country and still hear “That’s your English teacher? Does she speak English?” It’s the type of ignorance that’s neither hateful nor grave, yet I find it very hurtful. And in this way, Arizona reminds me that there still is work to be done. I have a unique voice, a voice that some don’t even realize or recognize exists, and I need to speak.
How has your Kundiman experience changed your life as a Southwesterner?
When I went to the Kundiman retreat in 2013, I felt like I was with family. Kundiman saved me then, and it saves me today. The fellows, the faculty, and the administrators all helped me remember who I am—someone who thinks poetry is possibly the most important thing in the world: it’s transformative, it’s political, it’s powerful and empowering. Kundiman reminded me that I’m not a freak: I’m just an Asian American poet. We see things that others don’t. We hear things that others don’t hear. And this is a gift.
After the retreat, I came back to the Tucson area and formed my own Asian American writing group. I also organized a Japanese cultural event, a mochitsuki, an entire festival centered around my favorite Japanese food: mochi. This is when I found out that in Arizona, you can celebrate your culture and a food that many have not heard of at all, and nearly 400 people of all ethnicities will come and celebrate with you.
What have you been working on lately? Do you want to share a poem?
When you look in a mirror, whom do you see? As a person who is very sensitive to how others see me, one image from the novel Jane Eyre has remained with me throughout the years: Jane is looking into a mirror in the red-room, and she sees both a fairy and an imp. I always took the image of the imp to mean that how she saw herself was partially derived from how her abusive aunt saw her.
Living in the Southwest, I find myself constantly at odds with how others see me, even when it seems positive. For example, I’ve met people here who think I’m really funny, like lough-out-loud-really-loudly funny. And while I’d like to think that’s true, I’ve realized a large part of their amusement comes from the fact that I’m not the stereotype they expect me to be—someone who is up-tight, boring, and without emotions; someone who doesn’t have a strong enough command of the English language to express sarcasm or irony; someone who is demure; someone who doesn’t say “like” and “you know” so many times.
C. Aurantium, the serial poem I’m currently working on, addresses these issues by, in a sense, ignoring them. In my daily life, I have accepted that I must explain myself to an audience who is comfortable seeing only a stereotype, but when I write poetry, I get to make the rules. I get to be the self, not the other, the center, not the marginalized. And when I look in a mirror, I see myself, my family, and my ancestors, including my poet ancestors.
The rule for this poem is that there is only one audience: poet and activist Mitsuye Yamada. It’s a tribute to her, a kind of thank you letter. It’s also an act of protest; I will only explain myself enough for Mrs. Yamada to understand, not anyone else. And while I say I’ve written these poems specifically for her, I would love for them to be read widely. There is something special to be learned in overhearing conversations, something unique that cannot be explained except by experiencing it yourself. Here is the title poem from the piece:
I wanted to call this poem “Kagami”
thinking mochi would enter
your mind, as it does mine.
Kagami mochi: mirror mochi
when I look
in the mirror
I see you
I wanted to call this poem “Daidai”
thinking family would enter
your mind, as it does mine.
Daidai: generation to generation
when you read
in these lines
my promise to you
But I didn’t like how dai sounds like die
nor how Kagami rhymes with Nagami.
I wanted to say thank you
but could barely find the words.
C. Aurantium: daidai
when we look
in the mirror
Heather Nagami is the author of the book of poetry Hostile (Chax Press). Her poems have appeared in Spiral Orb, Shifter, Antennae, Rattle, and Xcp (Cross-Cultural Poetics). Heather received a B.A. in Literature/Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an M.F.A. at University of Arizona. She has taught at Northeastern University, Pima Community College, and BASIS Oro Valley.