At a glance, Shizue Harada’s life story is one that many Nikkei will find familiar: She immigrated from Japan to the United States in search of a better life, was incarcerated in a wartime American concentration camp, was a wife, mother and grandmother, and for many years worked as a seamstress.
Harada documented a number of these experiences and more in her poetry, which received multiple prizes. She was given the pen name “Sanae” by her senryu teacher.
Senryu, like haiku, is written in 5-7-5 format.
Prior to Harada’s death in 1997, she read some of her poems in basic Japanese and used her broken English to explain her words to her daughter, Aiko Uyeki. Uyeki and her daughter Amy Uyeki began rewriting the senryu in English.
A number of these poems inspired Amy to produce an exhibit of paintings entitled “Voice and Image.” These images, and others, appear throughout “SANAE, SENRYU POET, Her Life in 5-7-5: The Poetry of Shizue Harada” alongside Harada’s work.
Harada’s writings depict some milestones in her life: leaving her family in Ishikawa Prefecture on Honshu, sweeping the always dusty floor of her so-called home in an incarceration camp, and later, recalling the atomic bombings of Japan while receiving her $20,000 check following the passage of the Civil Liberties Act.
Her poetry is at its best when she captures life’s everyday moments just as they are: beautiful, painful and complex. She devotes multiple poems to aging and receiving care from those she once looked after, but even at age 80, she was determined to “strive to start anew.”
The Uyekis (with the help of Japanese speakers and others) in turn handled Harada’s poems, translating them into English and then rewriting them into the 5-7-5 senryu format, with tenderness and love.
The Nichi Bei Weekly interview with Aiko Uyeki and Amy Uyeki follows.
Nichi Bei Weekly: When and why did you decide to do this book?
Aiko Uyeki: This book project has been on my mind ever since her death in 1997. Originally, I wasn’t thinking of a book, but a collection of her poems, just to have them in one place. I recognized that my mother had wisdom gained from her experiences that she expressed succinctly in her poetry. She had won several prizes for her poetry and I thought her words were worth preserving.
NBW: How long did the process take, from creating the initial concept, to seeing your book finally published?
Aiko Uyeki: I proposed this idea to my daughter, Amy, at the beginning of 2009. We wanted to use Amy’s images that accompanied many of Sanae’s poems as artwork for the book. We approached a few publishers, who weren’t publishing any poetry during this recession, so we decided to take another route. We were able to get a grant from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA), which paid for publication of the book. Amy created more artwork in the winter of 2010, I compiled the poems and we added commentary, which was completed by March of this year. Then Amy designed the book and layout and it was sent to be printed in Hong Kong. We got it back in early June, so the whole process took about a year and a half.
NBW: What were some of the challenges and successes you experienced as independent publishers?
Aiko Uyeki and Amy Uyeki: Neither of us likes to do publicity! Nor are we comfortable public speakers. So we’ve had to operate outside of our comfort zone.
The unexpected pleasures have been the embrace of the book by people of all backgrounds. We had a successful reading and senryu writing workshop and senryu written by our readers have been pouring into our Website. The end result has been very gratifying.
NBW: Is there a specific poem that you find best reflects Shizue and her work?
Aiko Uyeki and Amy Uyeki: I think all the poems reflect her philosophy, but she had a strong Buddhist faith and accepted aging and infirmity and the inevitability of her death. So maybe this poem reflects Shizue, especially in her later years:
I can’t interfere
With the flow of the river;
My life floats onward.
NBW: Did you learn more about Shizue, as well as yourselves throughout this process?
Aiko Uyeki: I think the most important thing we learned was how Shizue’s faith in Buddhism helped her throughout her aging. I learned that even in my early 80s, I was not too old to attempt this project. This goes back to my mother, who was always open to learning, even at her advanced age of 94. She was still writing poems.
Amy Uyeki: I learned that putting out the personal is a connective force, even though it may be difficult for someone who likes to be more private. We’ve had such a nice response from readers connecting with the poetry who have been inspired to do the same thing with their families and loved ones.
NBW: Do you have any final words that you would like to share about Shizue and your book?
Aiko Uyeki and Amy Uyeki: Bilingual readers may have a different interpretation in reading the poems than how we interpreted them, but we tried to capture the essence of Sanae’s thought.
The Uyekis will hold a reading at the Japanese American National Museum, 369 East First St. in Los Angeles, on Nov. 6. The reading will be accompanying visual images called haiga, and will be followed by a workshop that explores the medium of senryu. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.
To learn more about “SANAE, SENRYU POET, Her Life in 5-7-5: The Poetry of Shizue Harada,” e-mail email@example.com or visit http://web.me.com/amyuyeki.art/7/Order_Information.html.