According to a report from the California Department of Justice, hate crimes against Asian Americans in the state increased by 177.5 percent from 2020 to 2021. This epidemic of hate is nothing new to Japanese American poet Amy Uyematsu, whose new book, That Blue Trickster Time, came out in March.
“All of my books have included poems dealing with racism,” Uyematsu says. “This latest book included poems written during the COVID pandemic, with thousands of incidents of anti-Asian hatred, ranging from verbal assaults to physical violence.”
Uyematsu has flown below the radar for decades, despite the fact that she’s published since the 1970s, winning awards like the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. With the publication of her sixth book, it’s a perfect moment to reflect on her considerable contributions to the Asian American movement.
Uyematsu was born in Pasadena in 1947. Her grandfather was an influential flower farmer before his properties were seized and he was interned with other Japanese American citizens during the Second World War. Her father’s family was held in Manzanar, the first internment camp, opened in March 1942. Uyematsu’s poem “36 Views of Manzanar” is a sweeping 18-page piece describing the camp through her father’s, grandfather’s, and aunt’s eyes: “Aunt Mare remembers / dirt piling up in the windows / and having to go outside / to shake sand out / from the bedding.”
In the spring of 1969, Uyematsu was in the first UCLA Asian American studies class ever offered. Taught by groundbreaking academic Yuji Ichioka, the class was titled Orientals in America, because, Uyematsu explains, “the term Asian American wasn’t in use yet. Yuji is actually credited with coining the term.”
“Every class session was standing-room only—not only with enrolled UCLA students, but also community members,” she recalls. “Many of us were beginning to develop our self-identity as Asian Americans, rejecting long-held stereotypes from the majority culture, being inspired by the Black Power movement, reclaiming our true history, culture, and values from our own point of view. It was an exciting time—radical and liberating.”
It was for that class that she wrote the essay “The Emergence of Yellow Power in America,” one of the first times the term Yellow Power appeared in print. She had no idea just how influential it would be. It first appeared in Gidra, a revolutionary Asian American newspaper published from 1969 to 1974, and was later picked up by the Los Angeles Free Press, a legendary underground weekly.
Uyematsu worked for UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center from 1969 to 1974, coediting Roots: An Asian-American Reader with Franklin Odo, Eddie Wong, and Buck Wong in 1971. Along the way, she crossed paths with influential leaders like Yuri Kochiyama.
When her son was born, Uyematsu left UCLA and eventually became a high school math teacher. She continued to write with Pacific Asian American Women Writers West, a group that featured poets, screenwriters, and fiction writers. Her first public reading was in 1985, and she began appearing at venues like the Women’s Building, the Venice Sculpture Gardens, the Midnight Special Bookstore, the Sisterhood Bookstore, and the Valley Contemporary Poets Reading Series.
In 1992, her first book, 30 Miles from J-Town, was published. She describes it as “my response to the racism I’d experienced growing up in Southern California.” Poet and playwright traci kato-kiriyama considers it a classic: “Ever since I read Amy’s 30 Miles from J-Town, and all of her published writing since then, I’ve been inspired by her fierce tone, her keen eye.”
In the mid-1990s, Amy toured colleges and bookstores with a group of female L.A. poets, including Gloria Alvarez, Pam Ward, Nancy Padron, and Jiseh James. Called Cantaluz, the collective’s name means “to sing light” in Spanish.
“Amy often stole the show, leaving audiences breathless, blown away by her cool demeanor contrasting a never-saw-it-coming, Ali punch,” says Ward. “Her personal/political work is easily poignant today. I remember that she would book us scandalously large gigs on college campuses where audiences visibly gasped, and we still got paid. You can’t help but love a chick like that.”
I first learned of Uyematsu in the early 2000s from her poem “The Ten Million Flames of Los Angeles.” Published in her 1998 book, Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain, it ruminates on the 1965 Watts uprising and the citywide one in 1992 following the Rodney King verdict, somehow finding hope: “Though I ready myself for the next conflagration / I feel myself giving in to something I can’t name…. I’m starting to believe in a flame / which tries to breathe in each of us.” The poem doesn’t shy away from L.A.’s history but instead proposes another way: “I smile more at strangers, leave big tips to waitresses.”
In That Blue Trickster Time, Uyematsu reflects on how she started, paying tribute to one of her great influences, Japanese American poet Lawson Fusao Inada. Born in Fresno in 1938, Inada was the fifth poet laureate of Oregon and remains active. Uyematsu’s poem “Dear Lawson” begins: “Did you know you were the very first / poet I ever heard? Round about 1970— / UCLA, early guest speaker in / Asian American Studies—you / were one of us—angry, young, militant— / and yet you weren’t.”
The poem celebrates Inada and thanks him: “You even gave us homework— / write poems using loaded words / like ‘media,’ ‘Asian,’ “identity.’ / I went home and did just that— / been writing poems ever since.”•