The beginning of this month I went to UCLA for a panel on political prisoners of the Dirty War of Argentina of the 70s and 80s, and the art and writing that came from experiences of unlawful imprisonment and torture, but political prisoners are not always in other countries. Here is a touch of WWII history and an annotation of the book May Sky. If it sounds on the academic side, it's because I stole parts of this entry from my grad school critical paper on Japanese internment and witness poetry.
A Little History:
On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day the U.S. declared war on the combined Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which declared the Western states under martial law allowing for, according to Anita Haya Patterson––author of “The Resistance to Images of Internment: Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes,”––112,000 Japanese Americans, two-third of which were born in the United State, to be unlawfully and forcefully evacuated from their homes and imprisoned or “relocated” in internment camps. Relocation, as described by poet and historian Violet Kazu de Cristoforo in her book May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow, was inhumane: “The internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast involved a process by which they were registered, numbered, tagged with shipping labels, and placed aboard buses, trains or trucks for shipment, under armed guard, to temporary location euphemistically called ‘Assembly Centers’” (51). Such descriptions of the “process” are chilling considering the migration of a population of a people has the sound of a package being sent through the mail.In camps, life was not nearly as dire as the concentration camps of Europe that occurred at the same time, but human rights still were not protected by the law as stated in the U.S. Constitution. People were not directly mistreated with torture or death, but they did face certain injustices such as racial prejudice, unlawful imprisonment, and the loss of individual freedoms. Considered enemies of the state, Japanese Americans throughout the Western states were unjustly imprisoned in camps created out of makeshift bunkers and at times housed in horse stalls usually located in desolate areas. In the Rohwer Concentration Camp, for example, which was located near Little Rock, Arkansas where weather conditions were extreme, barracks were described by de Cristoforo as, “tar paper covered, hastily erected structures with ill-fitting doors and windows which did not close properly. As well, there was no running water and no coal supplies for heating stoves” (62).
May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow:
May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow as compiled, translated, and prefaced by Violet de Christoforo is a book that combines history, poetry, culture and human rights, and tells the story of Japanese internment not through photos, facts, or essay, but with a hefty collection haiku written by those inside internment camps. Why haiku? In the introduction from a volume of haiku collected at Rohwer Concentration Camp in September 1944, the poets describe the phenomenon: “In order for us to transcend our condition we must immerse ourselves in nature, and be grateful to find happiness in the life of haiku poetry” (qtd in de Cristoforo 89).
In many poems there is a definite immersion in nature. This haiku by Reiko Gomyo, written while she was imprisoned in at Rohwer uses nature as a symbol for her oppression:
are dense (qtd in de Cristoforo 197)
Or this haiku written by Neji Ozawa while interned in Gila Indian reservations sanatoriam (where the title of the book is taken from) where the sky is a sense of hope:
From the window of despair
There is always tomorrow (qtd in de Christofor 223)
Or this haiku by Kazue Matsudo, interned at Tule Lake:
Like minded people gather
new shoots sprout from pine tree
early summer day (qtd in de Cristoforo 205)
What I find intriguing is how important the imagination becomes when faced with such harsh realities, and that while some of these poets were poets before and after, others may have never picked up a pen or a brush before, but are suddenly drawn to art as a form of coping and survival. Or as de Cristoforo says, "Like a comet, some of the wartime haiku writers emerged only momentarily from obsurity, flashed across the literary firmament and, when war ended and infamous concentration camps closed, vanished into oblivion" (30).
Another book on poetry from Japanese internment: Camp Notes and Other Writings by Matsuye Yamada.
For more on poetry as survival: Poetry as Survival by Gregory Orr.
For more on witness poetry from civil rights violations around the world:
Against Forgetting edited by Carolyn Forche, with an excellent essay on poetry of witness.
For essays on poetry and politics: Praises & Dispraises by Terrence Des Pres.