David Mura on The Last Incantations



David Mura is a contributor, advocate, and advisory board member of Apogee. He is a poet, memoirist, novelist, playwright, critic, and performance artist. Mura’s most recent work is the poetry collection The Last Incantations. He is also the author of three other books of poetry: After We Lost Our Way, The Colors of Desire, and Angels for the Burning. His prose work includes the memoirs Turning Japanese and Where the Body Meets Memory, and the novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire.


Crystal Kim (CK): As Creative Nonfiction Editor of Apogee, I read and immensely enjoyed working with you on Bondage & Liberation for Apogee’s Issue 3. It was exciting to dip into your writing in another form—poetry. How does your new collection of poetry, The Last Incantations, differ from your previous books?

David Mura (DM): In my earlier books, particularly The Colors of Desire, there was a significant focus on my identity specifically as a Japanese American and on the history of my community. I was trying to transfer and reflect some of the discoveries I’d made in my memoirs. In a way, I had to write those memoirs to create an intellectual, cultural and historical context for the poetry, a context the culture at large had not provided me. Part of this work was a generalized framework coming out of the Japanese American mainland experience and the effect—particularly the psychological effect—of the internment camp upon the first and second generations who were interned and upon the third generation who were not. Then there was more specific work, which partly came out of my own life experiences, exploring the relationship between race and sexuality. Certain poems in my earlier collections for me filled in historical gaps; I wrote about aspects of the Japanese American experience that I felt there needed to be poems written about. But at this point I feel I’ve pretty much covered the experience of say, the internment camps, in my poetry.

In this new collection, The Last Incantations, there’s much more formal variety than with my earlier work, not just in a mixture of formal and free verse, but also performance pieces, prose poems, poems using all sorts of linguistic forms, from haiku to e-mail to fiction fragments to quotations. There’s also more of a focus on connections between different communities of color, often starting with individual relationships, whether it be my friendship with fellow poets of color or poems about two people of different races and ethnicities connecting in a relationship, whether sexual, friendship or political. In this way the figure of the Japanese American human rights activist, Yuri Kochiyama, who passed away recently, looms large for me. There’s a poem about her in the book:

Song for An Asian American Radical: Yuri Kochiyama

I open the door
and there she stands hectoring me

about Malcolm X.
Says impatiently there’s no time

for sumiye or sake,
exigencies of meter, rhyme.

She’s so tiny, I’m so
unknowing, the fractions enormous,

all those years of fires
in Philly, Detroit, Oakland, Harlem, Watts.

Behind her the night
stalks its stars beyond history

and I know if I shut
this door each time she vanishes farther

till nothing remains
but silence and sleep.

Reader you may think
in the end I’ll let her in.  Don’t

count on it.  That’s
why she keeps knocking

night after night.

After she left the camps, Kochiyama lived most of her life in Harlem and was part of the African American community. She was friends with Macolm X and was present at the Audubon Ballroom when he was assassinated and cradled his head in her arms after he was shot. She worked tirelessly for causes like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Puerto Rican independence, the rights of political prisoners, and reparations for the Japanese American internment, and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her work as part of the “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize.” For me she set an example of the need for Asian Americans to connect with other communities and their causes, to see how the conditions and issues facing people of color can bring us together.

CK: Do they always bring us together?

DM: No. At the same time, coming together is not always easy. The prose poem/performance piece, “Kick, Push”, explores a complicated relationship between two teenagers, a Chinese/Filipino American and a Somali Muslim American, and there I’m examining the difficulties and barriers that crop up between people of color. A portion of that poem also reflects the tensions here in Minneapolis between the Somali American community and the black community, tensions that stem from complicated differences between these two communities.

CK: Your focus on connections between different communities begins with the very first poem, “South Carolina Sea Island”. The poem begins with descriptions of the landscape and of your two sons. It then slowly unravels to what seems like the center of the poem: history. When you are writing, do you know what shape the poem will take from the very beginning? Or does the writing take you toward the meaning of a poem?

DM: Oftentimes I’ll begin simply playing around with language or playing around with a certain subject or theme without any definite idea concerning what the poem will ultimately be about. Long ago, my approach to poems was shaped by Richard Hugo’s book on writing, The Triggering Town. There Hugo talks about how a beginning poet starts with a conscious idea of what she wants to say and then tends to say it over and over. Hugo maintained that the triggering subject is often not the real subject of the poem, and that the poet discovers the real subject through the writing. For Hugo, this discovery of the subject often took place through pursuing associations of sound; that is, by letting the language of the poem be created more from following the dictates of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, half rhyme and then letting your mind follow the associations that arise from the vocabulary that such techniques bring up.

So while I don’t recall the exact origins of South Carolina Sea Island, my guess is that I did probably start with a description of my boys going crabbing, and that started my remembering stories I’d read or heard about the Gullah people and how slaves hid on some of these islands after escaping. And from there the language and images took off. I do recall that in its first draft this poem was written more in a free verse block in lines that were probably more six beats while the final version of the poem is in loose iambic and quatrains. That’s a way I sometimes work—from free verse to something a bit more formal. Such revisions help me to be more succinct, to cut unnecessary verbiage, and to find a more structured framework for the poem.

I often tell my students that writing is a chess game between your conscious and unconscious mind.  Your conscious mind must make the first move, but you have to let your unconscious mind make the next move. Sometimes you want to cheat and have your conscious mind take over, but in the end, the unconscious mind is far more creative and original. The technique of sound association helps me access the unconscious mind. Another way the unconscious mind speaks is simply through the quality of language. In my revisions, I’m constantly cutting away language of secondary intensity or quality. In that cutting, I’m not thinking about what I—that is, my conscious mind—might have wanted the poem to be about, but simply where the language is working. I let that guide me to where the poem wants to go.
Hugo made the point that you don’t have to consciously steer a poem to your obsessions or your key themes (for me these are often concerned with race and history). Those obsessions and themes are so much a part of you the poem will find a way to them. But again the links created by your unconscious are far more inventive and insightful than those created by your conscious mind.

CK: You spoke earlier about having more formal variety in The Last Incantations. Part Five is composed of one long piece, Isamu Noguchi: Fragments from an Unwritten Memoir, which enfolds many different sub pieces and forms. Can you tell us more about the writing process for Isamu?

DM: I’ve been working on a novel based loosely on a character like Noguchi for more than a decade.  During its many revisions, the focus and setting of the novel shifted several times. It now centers on a character like Noguchi who falls in love with the bastard daughter of a Chinese warlord. Eventually he ends up working for her warlord brother, who is the ruler of Manchuria at the time when the Japanese invade Manchuria. Like Noguchi, the character has a Japanese father and an Irish American mother and is bicultural and biracial and speaks several languages. He comes to China in the early 1930s and discovers his mixed identity makes him a valued asset to the warlord and other forces in China during that period.

The Noguchi poem comes in part from some of the early drafts of the novel, which focused more closely on the actual historical artist and his experiences in Paris, America, and Japan. The exploration of a happa identity is something I’m very much interested in, given my children’s mixed race identity and the mixed race identity of many of their peers.  The poem is about Noguchi himself, and not a fictional character, though there are points in the poem where I’m clearly imagining Noguchi’s life in ways that go beyond the facts of his biography. As I worked on it, the poem eventually evolved into a mixture of prose and poetry, and this mixture allowed me a wider range of focus. It made it easier for me to explore the different stages and locales of Noguchi’s life, and the extraordinary variety of people he came into contact with, from Constantin Brancusi to Buckminster Fuller to Arshile Gorky to Martha Graham to Frieda Kahlo to Noguchi’s wife, the Japanese actress Shirley Yamaguchi (in the poem Noguchi sees her after their divorce kissing a white guy on Hawaii Five-0). Though it’s not perhaps widely known, Noguchi spent some time at the Poston Internment Camp and was investigated by the FBI for organizing the Nisei Artists and Writers for Democracy.

CK: Writers are always influencing and being influenced. Your sons are often present in your poems in this collection. As a father, how have you seen your work influence your children? What differences and similarities in taste do you and your now grown children have in terms of the poetry you read?  

DM: Only my middle son is really interested in poetry. He reads Asian American poets like Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi. He’s been heavily influenced by hip hop and spoken word. While I listen to hip hop and I try to keep up and while I have done spoken word, both are not worlds I’ve grown up in. They aren’t at my fingertips, deep within my bones. Then too, unlike him, I’m a creature of the Anglo-American tradition. That’s deep within my bones. As my good friend Garrett Hongo observes, some of that knowledge, alas, is pretty rare these days. I first got the idea of being a poet when I was in an English Lit class and was asked to do imitations of Spencer and Pope. I got an A and the professor held up my imitations to the class as an example. I don’t imagine many young poets these days get their start doing imitations of Spencer and Pope.

CK: It is interesting that you began with Spencer and Pope because your writing delves so deeply into issues of race, gender, and sexuality in ways that go beyond the ‘typical’ Anglo-American tradition.  How do you think the issues facing writers of color have changed during your career?  

DM: Some of the issues are still the same. There’s still ways in which literary standards and practices reflect a racial bias that the dominant white literary culture either ignores or refuses to deal with. All of this recently came out, for instance, in the furor over Junot Diaz’s essay, “MFA vs. POC,” about the experiences of students of color in MFA programs.  The essay was first written as an introduction to the anthology, Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop, and then was republished on the New Yorker website. Junot’s article referenced his experiences and those of other students of color, and I feel it also reflects my own experiences and those I’ve heard from hundreds of students of color. It’s really amazing to me how ill-equipped intellectually and culturally many white writing professors are in their ability to contextualize and evaluate the work of students of color. I mean, I could draw up a basic reading list that almost any recognized writer of color is familiar with, and yet, if you read, for example, the literary essays of a David Foster Wallace or a Jonathan Franzen, the references to writers of color will be almost as rare as a person of color in a University of Alabama sorority or fraternity.

At the same time, the work of writers of color keeps getting better and better. There’s a lot of groundwork that’s been laid by previous writers of color; the newer generations of writers of color have learned from these writers and built upon the previous work. Certainly, writers of color today feel less of a burden to be “representative.” It’s no longer like when Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior came out, and certain Chinese Americans expressed outrage that the work didn’t reflect their own personal experiences. Similarly, in China Men, Hong Kingston felt she had to put in a timeline of Chinese American history, and she later said she did that so no Chinese American author would have to do that again.

We live now in a far more racially complex society than when I grew up, and that society is connected globally in ways that weren’t possible back then. Writers of color may have something of a head start in depicting that world, but in a way, we all have to run to catch up with the present, much less prepare for the future. Growing up, I could hardly have imagined that one day I would be talking to my happa son about his relationship with a Somali Muslim girl and questions concerning Islam. I could not have imagined that I’d have friends with backgrounds connecting them to the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Nigeria, Palestine, Sri Lanka, or students from Ghana, Kenya, India, Colombia, Thailand. For the past twelve years, I’ve taught at VONA/Voices Writing Workshop, and every year my teaching is also an education for me, and I have to scramble and work to know enough to be able to understand the contexts from which the work of my students emerge. It’s hard to believe that it was not more than two decades ago when Said’s Orientalism and then Culture and Imperialism came out, and yet it’s hard for me to imagine my literary world without the post-colonial framework he and others helped construct.

Unfortunately, when students pass through MFA programs with a myopic and monocultural and monoracial lens, they can get a distorted picture of both where American literature and global literature are moving. That’s why we need institutions like VONA and Cave Canem and Macando and Kundiman, and why we need publications like Apogee. If you’re a young writer of color you need to realize that your audience is the future and what that means both in terms of the changing demographics of America and in terms of the global village we all now inhabit.


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