Legends From Camp (Lawson Fusao Inada)

Technically, this book is a collection of poems. However, it’s more than that. It’s broken down into five different parts, each of which has its own cover photo and (prose) introduction. Each section revolves around a different theme, and within that section there are poems and short segments of prose. Inada has no rigorously-set style or form that he sticks to, but instead he varies from section to section. The third part (entitled “Jazz”) has the most definitive style, as its name implies. He takes his inspiration from jazz music, which contributes to both the content and the form of the poems in this section. Of course, you can see the influence of jazz music in other poems as well, but none so strongly as those in this section.

Another interesting thing about this collection is Inada’s focus on the intersections between different ethnicities. He grew up in Fresno, California, and he makes a point to bring up the fact that the biggest racial divide is the one between “affluent white” and “other” several times. At one point, he writes, “Fresno doesn’t mean much. Unless you happen to be of Armenian, Chinese, Japanese, Pilipino ancestry. Unless you happen to be Hmong–and 30,000 Hmong moved there recently. Unless you happen to be German, Italian. Unless you happen to be Chicano, African American, an Okie–then Fresno rings bells in your family. Unless you happen to be one of many “people of the land” (33). This idea comes up again and again throughout the collection. Inada also spends a significant amount of time linking the Japanese who were interned during World War II and the Native Americans (it’s the seizure of land and rights that makes this a strong connection, as well as the fact that many of the Japanese internment camps were apparently on American Indian reservations).

This collection started out exploring Inada’s past, and his life in the internment camps and Fresno. It moves mostly chronologically throughout his life, ending up with his life in Oregon (where he’s been a professor since 1966) and his performance poetry. The sectional divisions allow him to change the style and theme of his poems significantly as he progresses through his life. In some ways, the poems from the end of the collection don’t seem very related to the poems from the beginning of the collection…which makes sense, since they cover parts of his life from at least 20 years after the early parts of the novel. I like the way the collection evolves, and it’s interesting to experience highlights of his life through a variety of styles and forms.

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