At 1 p.m. on Friday, March 27, five Japanese American poets—Brian Komei Dempster, W. Todd Kaneko, Mia Ayumi Malhotra, Brynn Saito, and I—did not give a reading at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C. We did not gather before an audience to share and discuss our work, and the work of other Japanese American poets. We did not gather to discuss the literature of Japanese American incarceration. We did not gather to share stories about our families—our parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles and great-grandparents, nor to connect their stories to each other’s stories and to our work. We did not gather to talk about any of the things that often come up in conversations about Japanese American history and memory—silence and shame and trauma and racism and resistance and redemption and reclamation, i.e. FBI raids and disappearances and family separation and buses and trains and blacked-out windows and wind and dust storms and horse shit and barbed wire and guard towers and guns and protest and performances and dances and art-making and festivals and gardening and winter and spring and summer and fall and time and time and time and time, and so on, including the ways we have inherited these things, and how each of these things has evolved, under the pressure of our inheritance, into talismans, into mirrors, into matches we strike, over and over, against our skin, to ignite a spark—to illuminate, to set fire.
We did not gather before an audience to share or discuss any of these things, because there was no audience, because there was no reading/panel discussion, because there was no festival, because there was a global pandemic—because there is a global pandemic—which brought down with it large gatherings of people then smaller gatherings of people then even smaller gatherings of people then gatherings of people, and then people.
Of course I am only imagining what might have been shared and discussed. But it is important to imagine, because that is (I also imagine) what would have taken place if the five of us had gotten together: we would have imagined our family members’ experiences. We would have imagined by inhabiting, and we would have inhabited by speaking their experiences into the room, and setting those experiences, and our family members, into motion. Which is what we are doing all the time anyway. In our minds, and in our work.
Opportunities to imagine together are rare. We are most often imagining alone. (That is, anyway, how it feels.) Which creates an aura around what we are imagining—our family members, for example, and their experiences, in the past—an aura that is as luminous as it is obstructive. Like projecting old movies on the basement wall after everyone has gone to sleep.
To whom can we speak about what we are seeing in the images rippling across an old sheet?
Relationships can form feedback loops, and grow mold, especially when carried on in isolation. When those relationships are rooted in an ongoing conversation about history, history too can form feedback loops, and grow mold. The family member I have most firmly enshrouded in the luminous yet obstructive aureole of my imagination, is my grandfather, Midori Shimoda. I have been writing about him since 2001. It is now 2020. I told myself I was not going to write about him here, in this space.
Do you know the story of Izanagi and Izanami, brother and sister gods who created the islands of Japan? Or the part of the story in which Izanami is banished to the underworld, and Izanagi descends to rescue her? Or the part of the story in which Izanagi sets fire to a comb and shines the fire in Izanami’s face?
There is a basic deficiency—as well as an unconquerable loneliness—in carrying on conversations with a lone individual, especially when that individual is being made to represent history, and especially when that individual is dead. It is not the fault of the dead when history is reduced to a singular experience. It is, as is everything, the fault of the living. But the sympathetic living also do what they can with who is most readily available. Or seemingly so.
I do. My grandfather has always been nearest. And yet it took me a shamefully long time to see and move beyond my grandfather’s story into the wider, more complex, and more devastating story of Japanese American incarceration, including the part of the story that breaks out into the fat, fractured ellipses of the present. In order to see and move beyond, I needed—and need—other people, a community: of my grandparents’ generation, of my father’s generation, of my generation, including descendants of incarceration, like myself, and of poetry.
Sometimes I wonder where the ancestors gather. I am, in those moments, assuming a lot. Maybe I am wistful. Maybe sad. Maybe I am, underneath it all, estranged from what I believe to be an expression, or emanation—or maybe the organization—of the past, in the form of what is commonly, even conveniently, referred to as the ancestors.
Sometimes the sun sets purple. The sky is purple, I mean. Briefly.
The moments during which I wonder where the ancestors gather are immediately followed by the conviction that the definition of the ancestors is: wondering where the ancestors gather. Or, to say it another way, that the ancestors exist in the moments in which they are being wondered about, because those are the moments in which they are, consciously or not, being summoned, and set into motion.
But then that conviction is surpassed by the conviction that the definition of the ancestors is not that—not the wondering, not the questioning, therefore not the summoning—but the gathering.
There is something of Ch’ing-yuan Wei-hsin’s three stages of understanding the dharma in what I am trying to say: at first, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers, then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers, then finally mountains are once again mountains and rivers are once again rivers.
In another way, I used to think the ancestors were individual ancestors. As in, my grandfather, who is dead, is now my ancestor. But now I think that the ancestors are a collectivity, and that to refer to them is different than referring to, say, my dead grandfather. As I said, gathering. I guess.
I don’t know. I pick myself up. I put myself back down. In the basement, below the basement. Gathering is now as remote.
Sometimes I wonder if the best gatherings are those that do not actually happen, because those are the ones that exist—and are permitted to exist—entirely in the imaginations of those gathering, or not gathering, even as they are held in suspension. And sometimes I wonder how this might be related to imagining the days and nights of our family members, who spent years in concentration camps and prisons throughout the US. I do not mean the years though, but the days and nights, especially the hours, the minutes.
And sometimes, due to circumstance—the Covid-19 pandemic, for example—the living are put into something almost akin to the ancestor position, in which it requires imagination to summon each other, sometimes even ourselves, into the room.
Would it be blasphemous to say or suggest that there is, sometimes, something almost ancestral not only about the people in our lives from whom we are separated and held at a distance, but about the distance itself? And that to think of the people in our lives is to materialize distinct but ultimately fleeting and irrecoverable presences out of an auroral collectivity?
We exist, in these circumstances, as projections, wishes waiting to be fulfilled.
As former WWII prison sites are repurposed as migrant detention centers, ongoing patterns of brutality and exclusion rise to the surface of this country’s collective consciousness. The ruins of memory and history are alive. The stones, scattered through these landscapes, hold stories. How does poetry offer us a mode for summoning, confronting, and transmuting the energies of intergenerational trauma? As descendants of survivors of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans, these five poets will read from their work, reflect on the reverberations of historical injustice, and celebrate the resilience made possible by art and community. The session will close with an open discussion and an offering of writing prompts for excavating the layers of personal, collective, and ancestral memories.
Friday, March 27, came and went. Brian was in Mill Valley CA. Todd was in Grand Rapids, MI. Mia was in Burlingame, CA. Brynn was in Fresno, CA. I was in Tucson, AZ. I missed them, and missed not having had the opportunity to see what might have happened if we had gotten together. And yet I took solace in the fact that because we did not get together, what we each imagined was preserved, and therefore could, in that absence, keep growing.
And so I wrote to them to ask that question: how did you imagine it? And/or, because it did not happen, how do you imagine it now? I want to acknowledge my debt and my gratitude to Brian and Todd and Mia and Brynn, for—among so many things—their generosity in answering my questions and letting me share their answers here, with you. Here is how each of them responded, and how each of them so extraordinarily responds:
I Believe I Would Praise You
by Brynn Saito
for my fellow poets
In another world, we gather at a table in the middle of a forest — a summer farther
north — threaded together in another atmosphere.
Sheer bird-strength, webbed sunlight, water chuckling in the distance. Redwoods,
ancient and soft, rising and rising —
We take turns saying how we are. The answers lengthen our spines. Time stretches
into night; the night grows ears, grows eyes.
Each of us conjures: elders, ancestors, the unborn.
Each testimony is a bridge.
We take turns saying how we are.
We take turns saying how we are
We’re licked clean by starlight. Night folds into morning; dawn: a tender
The elders we’ve summoned through storytalk stand strong and invisible. They
circle us like orbiting songs, like Saturn’s trembling.
We can feel their nudging: Speak, they say. Grieve, they say.
Your presence is enough.
Your life is enough.
Your lives — Mia, Brandon, Brian, Todd —
Sakai, Shimoda, Ishida, Komei Dempster, Kaneko.
Saito, Mitsuo and Alma.
Saito, Gregg and Janelle —
Realists of a larger reality.
Our task: to survive. As they did, but differently —
Our offering: the energy of conversation, that magic. Word-swords softened by
light, lifting the canopy.
The earth shelters.
The silence is alive.
The silence allows for: the settling of minerals, a regeneration.
The silence allows for: conversion of soil, ghost transmutations — a mineral faith.
Will you meet me there?
Deep in the inner forest, where poem turns to river, where river thrashes sea caves
and enters the sea.
Lung of the opal world — will you meet me?
I am waiting.
We are waiting.
We were always waiting —
Notes on Dust, Gardens, etc.
by Mia Ayumi Malhotra
Say, Minidoka. Say, Heart Mountain. Say, words on the tongue of a famous person
(say, Maxine Hong Kingston) in a packed auditorium. Say, the sound of being heard.
I know, I know… Brynn said, when I saw her after the reading. This was last spring,
at a conference in Portland.
That’s how I imagined our gathering at Split This Rock: that feeling. The shaky
catharsis, the validation of hearing a private name spoken aloud. How it feels to
invoke the names of things that have not been invoked before.
But instead: COVID-19. Cancellations. Cessation of the world as we know it.
Along with everything else, the reality of our panel has dissolved into the lost,
quavery realm of what would have been.
We have become spectral in our own present—disembodied, ghostly apparitions.
Jittery pixels on a screen.
What was it like, the day after the Vanishing? Now more than ever, we can
imagine—whole neighborhoods silent. Empty storefronts, grocery aisles.
Overnight, every Issei and Nisei, gone.
Instead, dust. On the eyelashes, teeth. In the coils of the ear.
How I imagine our panel-as-past-as-speculative future—as sand, blown in through
the cracks in the floorboards, the walls, where too-hastily built barracks have
The planks were green. They didn’t hold the moisture. They left gaps for the wind
and desert. The swarm of history, seeping into the present.
Yet as the air settles, we stand—Hold This Stone—holding stories that make our
spectral selves feel solid again. Real.
Say, stones as medium, as ancient prayer sites. Say, stones used for divination, with
properties that allow us to pass between worlds.
The Sakuteiki, the world’s oldest known gardening manual, says that setting stones
is central to the art of gardening.
Says, when setting stones, first bring a number of different stones, both large and small, to the
garden site and temporarily set them out on the ground...
Says, keeping the overall garden plan in mind, pull the stones into place one by one.
Heeding this wisdom, we set our stones—our poems, our mediums. We labor in
the desert, a garden plan in mind. Cultivating life from dust.
Anyway, our bodies remember this landscape. It’s in our biology. At five months,
the ovaries of a female fetus contain several million eggs. Which is to say, our earliest
selves existed—spectral, unformed—in the bodies of our grandmothers, as they
gestated our mothers.
We, descendants. We remember because we were there, and, gathered, we evoke
what once was. To think of ourselves as stones—as history’s apparition, haunting
our collective future.
So here we are, gardening in the desert, like our ancestors—rock gardens, vegetable
beds. You can literally cut a succulent from its life source, and it will sprout a new
root system, an entirely new body—leaves, spines, crown and all.
Which makes me wonder: when and how will it happen? The slow process of
regrowth, as we learn to reinhabit our bodies.
What life will grow from this decay?
Hold This Stone
by W. Todd Kaneko
for Dempster, Malhotra, Saito, & Shimoda
To be together, the room says, is to be in
one place with our ancestors and our poems
about how we can never be in one place
with our ancestors. The stones are scattered
and the Earth knows how our families
huddled in American concentration camps
built to break us apart. To be together,
our ancestors say, is to be family, to see
the difference between our ghosts and shadows
of cattle unable to see their own bodies
in the dark. My father watches over my son
and me sleeping some nights, like the moon
is a stone, broken to dangle over this room
where my grandmother sits with your uncle—
they listen to each other’s hearts beating
in the words we have conjured, ripe from silence
for the echoes of skin. We are meant to be
together, say the cattle, to know sorrow
is a stone so easily crumbled, a meadow of stones
engraved with the names of the dead. We are
in this room where silence no longer holds
sway over every spectral conversation we have
about where we come from. Our ancestors
wax full, rise as they hear their names spoken,
faces lit by earthshine and memory of home.
We wear the same hides still, my father says,
but we don’t have to, and then he is gone.
by Brian Komei Dempster
It happened so long ago I say out loud. In places faraway from here.
My fifteen-year-old son Brendan responds to Lunch, bath, eat.
We think he understands many things we say.
Time to let out the dog out I say, and he opens the sliding door.
Follows my wife Grace into our backyard garden
as she plants seeds. We are making our own food so we can survive.
Inside, he throws shoes against our closed door when one of us retreats
into the bedroom, screams so loud we have to put on headphones.
I say, I know you are angry Brendan, hold up his red doll
with the orange hair, jagged teeth, and raging face.
I tell him, We’re stressed. On edge. More angry. The virus. It makes us stay inside.
We are terrified by the daily news. Asians, like us, here, in our own country—
getting bullied, beaten.
I don’t tell him we bought a Brooklyn Crusher bat. He looks up
when I tell Grace “Be careful when you go outside.”
I tell him, Your ancestors were targeted. Locked up, trapped like us.
He stands still when I speak out loud. Grips my arm
when he wants me to stop. Smiles when I fry his hot dogs
and broccoli, melt the tab of butter on top.
Many of them didn’t like to talk about it. There’s strength and pain in silence.
I lather shampoo into his hair, mint’s bite sharp against unseen corona.
I tell him, The five of us are poets who write about it—the harbor that shook,
the war that took them from their homes. Boxcars they rode, vast plains
that swept them up. Your daddy, Brian. Brandon, Brynn—their names sound
like our names, don’t they, Brendan? The other two are Mia and Todd.
We were set to fly through clouds. Be together. Then the virus came. Shut
the world down.
Water pouring over his head, suds carry away hidden germs and poison cells,
I tell him the camps where our families were locked up: Crystal City, Gila River,
Heart Mountain, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz. My grandfather, Ojichan,
with Brandon’s grandfather in Fort Missoula. Ojichan also in Fort Sill,
Livingston, Santa Fe.
Did they look past the rifle towers at the same cloud over the mountains?
Generations later, the five us retrace the paths, recast their footprints.
The shadows of their faces carved in granite.
I dry my son’s hair, say Grandmother was there as a baby. Topaz was the name
of her camp. All of our ancestors, parched in deserts.
I put on his diaper, Grace dresses him, we lock him in his tented bed
where he’s safe. Tan nylon barrack with black webbed windows.
I tell him, Your great-grandparents could barely see through the sand.
The flowers dried up there.
I tell him, Brendan, you are a sunflower. Your grandmother, Renko, is named
after the lotus. She was afraid while Grandfather was gone, miles away.
Some nights you wake up scared. Stay brave. We hear your cries. Her father
came back. She and her family rose from spring mud. Reunited in Crystal City,
they saw him for the first time in years.
I tell him, Even Mommy had a relative that was trapped like us. She died in Nanking.
I say, Like them, in confined spaces, we grow closer. Shape new gratitude. Discover
who we are.
I say, I will tell you a story a day to keep us alive.
I say our names to soothe him, My middle name is Komei. Yours is Cheung-Hong.
Mommy’s last name is Chow. Ours is Dempster. Grandma’s family, Ishida. The other poets
are Ayumi Malhotra, Kaneko, Saito, Shimoda.
I open our books of dark words, scan our strings of sound. Choose the ones
I think he’ll like. He touches the pages, sits cross-legged, closes his eyes.
I tell him, We are five strong. Rusted thorns bind us. We listen
to those who wanted to tell us, needed to speak before they died. We take
turns, share the chisel, break open the stone.
I tell him, Our ancestors couldn’t leave, Brendan. At least we can go outside.
He plants himself in his blue stroller roadster, kicks the footrests. Perched,
he waits. I wrap a bandana over my mouth, hold his chair’s foam grips, open
the front door, roll him into this new world on thick rubber wheels.
I don’t know how long this will last.
Streets half-empty, voices broken by wind. Neighbors and strangers
wave, float away. Film of yellow dust. Bodies erased. Families
blown apart. We bring them back from baked earth.
Hold them even if we can’t. Our ghosts don’t whisper. They speak
to us, horses and trains galloping through our blood.
 Eventually the sleepers will awake and invite us to join them upstairs, and when that moment comes, our identities will be defined by the effort it takes to pull ourselves away from the undulating shadows to join them.
 The phrase Hold This Stone was generated by Nikiko Masumoto, co-director, with Brynn Saito, of the Yonsei Memory Project, a California-based collaborative project connecting the WWII incarceration of the Japanese American community with current civil liberties struggles: yonseimemoryproject.com
 The question in the middle—how does poetry offer us a mode for summoning, confronting, and transmuting the energies of intergenerational trauma?—is the key/stone. It is not Can poetry, or How can poetry, but How does poetry, because poetry does, but how does it? The question is an invocation. To ask how poetry does something, i.e. how poetry offers something, is, itself, a summoning of the how, i.e. how does asking the question offer us a mode for summoning, confronting, and transmuting the energies of intergenerational trauma? from Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2014 acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
Images / Credits:
1. (an erasure of) Evan Johnson, Manzanar, California, December 1969.
2. Akira Kurosawa, The Peach Orchard, Dreams, 1990.
3. Kobayashi Eitaku, Searching the Seas with the Tenkei, 1880-90.
4. Dark violet, Hex color code #9400d3.
5. Akira Kurosawa, The Peach Orchard, Dreams, 1990.
6. (an erasure of) Evan Johnson, Manzanar, California, December 1969.
7. Evan Johnson, Manzanar, California, December 1969.
8. Robert A. Nakamura, Manzanar, California, December 1969.