JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, another of our profiles of American poets, Oregon’s poet laureate Lawson Inada. He’s a third-generation Japanese-American who was interned during World War II. He spoke to us at Portland’s Japanese Garden.
LAWSON INADA, Oregon’s poet laureate: I was just a regular kid before I was put in the camp. I went into the camps when I just turned four. I came from just a regular little neighborhood. And the next thing I know, I’m living in a fairgrounds, imprisoned, without anything.
I gradually took on that refugee look, deteriorated look. And my uncle was in the U.S. military, and so he came on furlough to visit us. He took some photos of us. I think the photograph says a lot.
I love the way that, just by accident, he was in the picture of me, with his uniform on. You could see it in the shadow. It was very, very strange, very ironic that we would be imprisoned whereas my uncle was free.
He brought me a cowboy belt. In essence, he told me, “You’re not a prisoner or an internee. You’re a cowboy.” I wore that belt every day for about three or four years.
The Japanese-American Historical Plaza here in Portland, the city just wanted to have this commemorate the former community. You have these short poems engraved on these stones, and the stones speak for themselves. It’s like little voices, talking stones.
I like the fact that, all right, I have words here, but I’m not reading to people. It just fits in, you know what I mean? People just go by here.
A woman came by with a stroller, and she changed her baby on my poem. She changed the baby’s diaper on my poem. I thought that was — now that’s what you call useful poetry.
This is a poem by an elder woman. Her name is Mrs. Shizawe Iwazuki.
Rounded up in the sweltering yard, unable to endure any longer standing in line, some collapse.
The camps happened just like that. And so people from here were shipped out to Idaho.
Black smoke rolls across the blue sky. Winter chills our bones. This is Minidoka.
And Minidoka was the internment camp in Idaho. You see, it was like a prison, is what it was. And the soldiers would be up there with their rifles.
There was no official welcome back, so people were just released from camp and came back, and there was a lot of animosity.
Going home, feeling cheated, gripping my daughter’s hand, I tell her, “We’re leaving,” without emotion.
This is trying to re-adjust to coming back home to Oregon. And it wasn’t easy, because everybody had to start — restart, start again.
We’re on the site of the former Japanese-American community, which was considerable and which is no longer here anymore, just never recovered after World War II.
Just over there was our old community, echoes, echoes, echoes.
I wrote this one because I wanted to end on a hopeful note.
With new hope, we build new lives. Why complain when it rains? This is what it means to be free.