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Baker-Gard, Freiling, Takikawa — Touchstone Distinguished Books Honorable Mention 2023

Shelley Baker-Gard (Translator), Michael Freiling (Translator), and Satsuki Takikawa (Translator) are the recipients of a Touchstone Distinguished Books Honorable Mention for 2023 for the volume They Never Asked (Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, 2023)


Commentary from the Panel:

 

even autumn

comes on command here —

assembly center

~Jōnan

 

It seems fitting to open with a moment of reflection by one of the poets featured in this collection of senryu written by incarcerated Japanese-Americans during World War II. These poems date from 1942, when Executive Order No. 9066 enabled the US Army Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) to incarcerate over one hundred thousand US citizens.

For Jōnan and the other poets showcased in They Never Asked, the locus for this collection—of both human beings and creative output — was a complex of converted animal stalls in a livestock exposition hall that Jōnan mentions in his poem. It was officially known as the WCCA North Portland Assembly Center, established by the Wartime Civil Control Administration, and located in Oregon.

They Never Asked excels on many levels. As a treatise, it’s an impressive addition to the scholarly canon of primary source research into haiku and related genres. While these poems were written in Japanese, they were filtered through an American/Western sensibility to varying degrees. We are offered a captivating view into discreet moments that help express the lineage and evolution of senryu outside of Japan.

Poems appear in kanji and rōmaji with English translation and are accompanied by detailed translation notes and both literal and contextual commentary. These gestures serve to enhance the accessibility of these poems for a broad readership.

Also included are biographies of the poets whose work is represented, along with descriptions of their communal senryu writing practice that endured despite periods of incarceration. From journals hidden out of fear of persecution, a richness of experience was excavated decades later — poems resonant with themes of connection, confusion, resolution, doubt, as well as longing for loved ones.

 

across the wall

we exchange greetings

in our own dialect

~Jōnan

 

no matter what

father has already written

his final will

~Mokugyo

 

my daughter —

I watch more closely now

since it happened

~Jōnan

 

We can imagine a sense of striving to form community, to prepare for the unknown, to bear witness to traumatic events — ways of being, ways of survival. These poems are a small sampling of some 450 senryu written during two weeks in August, 1942. By the end of the month the journal in which these poems were recorded tragically ends as residents began to be shipped off to other incarceration camps located in Wyoming, Idaho and Northern California.

The editors of They Never Asked chose non-euphemistic language to describe what gave rise to these poems. The unadorned framing of incarceration defines the context here, not evacuation, or relocation. The choice allows compelling juxtapositions and contrasts to emerge.

 

trusting events

to take their destined course

I will let it be so

~Goichi

 

forgiven

for my insistence —

so grateful

~Kahō

 

Another facet of this outstanding compilation deserves mention, and that is an essay contributed by Fay Aoyagi. In her “Reflections on First Person Experience in War Haiku,” she opens an inquiry about if/how one should write haiku/senryu in response to war. Is war a universal experience even if we have not personally participated in an armed service? Do we inherit our forebears’ experiences of mass conflict and violence so that something of these harrowing events becomes part of our own DNA? Opinions will surely vary but Fay’s discussion of authentic response is an important invitation for us all to consider.

At least one thing is clear. They Never Asked is an exceptional offering that affirms an essential and timeless truth about the power of creative expression to lend resilience, strength and hope during circumstances of extraordinary human suffering and adversity. That senryu can serve as a conduit for such dire experiential moments is a testament of expansion and nuance to the haiku genre as a whole.


See the complete list of winners of both Individual Poem Awards and Distinguished Books Awards in the Touchstone Archives.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. A commemorative and thoughtful collection. Humbling to know they were able to write even under such circumstances.

  2. I was brought to tears by this description and the poems mentioned. What an act of love and clarity to preserve the poems and highlight the atrocity of their creation.

    I’ve been lucky enough to hear Internment Camp survivors speak and to go to Manzanar. Very little has been as powerful a reminder of how easily it could all happen again.

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