Saturday, July 4, 2009


[Albert Saijo at 71, 1997]

“Star-crossed sideshow (misheard for Saijo)”: I remember reading that phrase at a Van Gogh's Ear launch in Paris, off the Champs Elysee in November 2002, after saying it alluded to the poet Albert Saijo. After the reading, a man came up to me and handed me his address; said he'd known Saijo's sister when she was Lew Welch's secretary. A couple of years later I handed the address to Albert as he sat beside his wood-burning stove in the cottage he had built himself. The cottage sits near the end of a rutted road in the rain forest that surrounds the active volcano, Kilauea.

The “sideshow” I alluded to was that of William Shawcross, whose book on the Nixon administration's murderous policies in Cambodia I was reading at the time. We would adopt our son Sangha the month after that poem was written. But unintentional allusions are as powerful as intended ones, and seem every bit as striking when the author has some years in which to become the intentional reader of her text. So it seems to me, rereading this memory card, that Saijo's treatment as "sideshow" to official narratives of Beat poetry (or any other kind) needs to end. He has a rightful place in the literary history of the last half-century. (His wife has said that Saijo is often asked to speak to graduate students who want to write about his work, but he turns them away.) There are recent mentions of Saijo in important books on Gary Snyder by Timothy Gray, and on Modernism and Asian-American poetry by Josephine Park. But still.

In Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim: Creating Counter-Cultural Community, Timothy Gray makes the point that counter-culture was not cross-cultural: “Rarely did their [the Beats'] journeys into that space include conversations with Asian-Americans. Indeed, for all the talk about Asian religion and philosophy during these years, Albert Saijo (whom Kerouac disguised as the 'hepcat' George Baso in Big Sur, and Welch once referred to as a 'very swinging but repressed little Jap, really beautiful . . . with the open little moon face of the children of his race') and Shigeyoshi Murao . . . are the only Asian-Americans to receive much mention in the literature and popular accounts of the Beat era” (168). I will leave that language to speak for itself.

Saijo read at the University of Hawai`i Art Auditorium with Gary Snyder and Nanao Sakaki in 2000. Their approach to reading was dynamic, as they sat facing the audience, calling and responding to each other's work rather than reading from a fixed menu. The event called up all that is best and most problematic about the Zen tradition of American poetry (with Sakaki as spiritual cousin), its reverence for the earth, its reverence for a decidedly male tradition of poetry-making. Snyder was especially problematic on that score.

I forget exactly when my husband Bryant and I first visited Saijo on the Big Island. It must have been not too long after we were married in 1998, because we knew him before we adopted Sangha, and then Radhika, and took them to meet him. So it was the late 1990s. We visited, and talked for hours about things Albert should have known nothing about, but strangely did. He abhorred the internet, but not in knee-jerk fashion. So, while he didn't have a computer, let alone an internet connection, he had read computer magazines and knew whereof he disapproved. He talked about the internet, as he did so many things, conceptually. On a later visit, we noted that he had acquired a laptop—a relative had sent it to him, he said. For a time, he even had an email address that we knew, but it lapsed. Bryant speaks of Saijo as a man who is always present, always engaged, always sitting in his chair beside the stove, as the large windows let the rain forest into his cottage. "He belongs there," Bryant tells me.

Saijo is a peaceful man, though one senses a peacefulness that has been hard earned. The "author's note" to OUTSPEAKS is acrid in its references to President Roosevelt, who was responsible for imprisoning his family, and then drafting him into the segregated army. In his poem, “January 16, 1991,” titled after a date we know as the beginning of the First Gulf War, day after Martin Luther King's real birthday, Saijo writes:


(My students always thought the caps meant he was shouting; he says he always liked the big print books for people who can't see well, all I can say is that his voice was soft but carried weight.) In this passage, the lack of a television cannot save Saijo from witnessing--even participating in--the violence he would see there. Actually he would not have, as the Gulf War was pre-cleansed by the US government and media. Without ever playing a video game, however, Saijo would have understood what had happened, as military power postured as play, inverting the expected movement from war to war-game.

As a teenager, Saijo spent years in an internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. I find a photograph of him as a very young man, inspecting a camp newspaper, as another teenager turns the mimeo machine:

He spoke of that time as awful and yet strangely liberating to a teen allowed to wander the camp, set free from the usual ties of family and community. When I told him, circa 2004, that I was writing about internment poetry for a conference in Maine, he offered to send me writing by his mother, Misa Saijo, who had been an important haiku poet on the west coast. A large manila envelope arrived some time later, filled with manuscripts. In the short essay I wrote, I noted that she had written about almost everything except internment. No. She had written of that, too, but her internment writings had been lost, leaving her autobiographical writings with a significant gap.

Here, from my essay, which ended up in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry:

The papers Saijo sent me, in a large manila envelope, offered an initial clue as to what was to come in my research on internment camp poetry. The writings by his mother, Asana Miyata Saijo (pen name Misa Saijo), are all from the 1930s and the 1950s and 1960s. There are no camp poems from the 1940s in the small collection. One essay tells a funny story about ticks in the camp, and concludes with the following lines: “How bathed in nostalgia are the memories / of that long ago camp life” (1956, Los Angeles), which hardly seems a final word on such an experience. In the short biography of the mother by her son, running just over 30 pages, printed (in the capital letters Saijo uses for all his writing), this absence is clarified. “HER HAIKU SOCIETY FLOURISHED AS THERE WERE POETS FROM ALL PARTS OF THE WEST COAST IN HEART MOUNTAIN – UNFORTUNATELY ALL HER WRITINGS FROM THESE CAMP DAYS WERE LOST IN THE MOVES MY PARENTS HAD TO MAKE AFTER LEAVING CAMP – HEARTBREAKING.” Saijo’s barely suppressed conflation of the name, Heart Mountain, with the “heartbreaking” nature of his mother’s loss, speaks volumes about the silences that surrounded the internment camp experience and its poetry for decades after they were closed by the US government. [end of quotation] Like many internees, Saijo fought in World War II in Italy. I like to imagine that he crossed paths with my mother, who was in Italy then, and who owned boots given her by "one of the Neecy boys," as she called them. I'm not even sure she knew that the word was Nisei.

Those big capital letters do appear loud on the page when set into type. In their original form, they were not “set” but “pencilled” into letters that illuminate (in the many senses, textual and otherwise, of that word) the words. Juliana Spahr reviewed OUTSPEAKS for Tinfish 6 (1998), and noticed how much was lost in the transfer from handwriting to type in the Bamboo Ridge volume: “since I am a text fetishist, I can't let this review go by without complaining just a little. Saijo writes a visual poetry of scribble and revelation in different colored inks. There is an interesting reproduction on the cover and there are tantalizing black and white glimpses of the visual poems through the book but the book itself presents word by word translations of these poems. Saijo, I want to argue, is a new Blake and his readers deserve an illustrated edition. His manuscript pages are beautiful because they are messy yet readable” (Tinfish 6, 53).” Spahr writes about Saijo's participation in the tradition of Blake and Emerson; to that I would add Dickinson, especially in manuscript. While Dickinson's writings were not bardic, like Blake's, like Saijo's, her sense of paradox, alive in the scribbled forms of the handwritten words themselves, resemble his. Where she said "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” he writes: “HERE IS A BOMB—IT IS MADE OF WORDS—READ IT & IT GOES OFF IN YOUR HEAD & BLOWS YOU AWAY” ( 77). Dickinson writes of herself as reader; Saijo of us as readers. That shift of address marks over a century of attrition on many assumptions, one of them being the ability of the poet to operate as a free agent. That they have both come to be associated with volcanoes is appropriate. Dickinson never saw one, but understood volcanic power; Saijo lives on top of one.

Saijo, like Dickinson, seems a solitary figure. He moved to Volcano in the early 1990s with his wife, Laura, and by the time we knew him, could not be teased out of his cottage. He would have us over and make us lunch and coffee and we would talk, but it was always in his space. He was quoted in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1997, about the time his book was published and his life became more public for a while, as saying: “All you can do is do something with your personal life. Ask yourself how you are supporting what is happening out there and how can you take energy away from this madness.” When I asked two years ago if I could publish one of his books in manuscript, he declined. He was not interested in publishing any more; he was interested in writing. While I hope his later work finds a home soon (in its original handwriting), I respect that sense of privacy, that sense that the work is what matters, that the personal is more than solitary, and that readers ought not be a poet's first priority.

For, while it belongs in literary histories, Saijo's poetry does not reside in a particular time or category (he is not exclusively a Beat poet, or a Bamboo Ridge poet, though he is of course both of those). He is also a contemporary poet whose work crosses--transgresses--many boundaries, whether ethnic or temporal. Saijo's poems concern the particular lacks we now face head on due to our ravaging of the land, air, and the moral environment. And his voice is pitched to speak to readers beyond our time, as well. When I googled "Albert Saijo" I arrived at an odd map that claimed to tell me what authors other than Saijo a reader of his was likely to read. Walt Whitman was virtually alone on the map. Like Whitman, who still speaks to ferry-riders in Brooklyn, Saijo will continue to speak to anyone who cares to listen. His concerns will more and more be ours, and we ought to cup our ears, the better to hear him. His work is urgent.



[photograph of ohia lehua taken on the Kilauea Iki trail, July 3, 2009]


Richard said...

Hep cat walks alone
Albert Saijo smelling rain
listen: birds and wind.

Dogs howl tonight in moonlight
full moon wobbles as it wanes.

Anonymous said...

This might just spawn off a side-discussion or left to rot in the margins. The more fundamental question about classifying poetry with race/religion/nationality divides. As an Asian American, I have had great discomfort letting my work carry a tag like that. Race-tagged literature in America today tends to vilify the grand notion of a melting-pot in the first place, I think. Secondly, a very large percentage of such literature does not seem to carry any real language or cultural experience to qualify for such a genre. A great deal of Asian American literature coming from second generation Asian Americans contain very little Asia in them. Very few of them can read or write in their mother tongues, are grossly unaware of the intricacies of eastern languages, cultures, literary heritages, are hardly aware of the new writers of their country or language of origin. Why safe-haven the work as "Asian-American" or "Jewish American" etc. ? Unless an ethnic literature attains a common culural consensus, like lets say, African American literature, is it wise to continue to categorize literature by race/religion/nationality and not by language alone ?

That's the central question for me.

I keep looking for Asian American writers who can write in Asian languages or in both languages but hardly find anyone.

Aryanil Mukherjee

susan said...

Aryanil--thanks for your comment. Timothy Yu's new book takes this question on to some extent, as well as reasons why there may not be an Asian American culture in the way there is an African American one. And I should have added that among the things Albert has studied is Asian languages; he had a long conversation on one of our trips there with Zhang Er on Chinese poetry. You might also look to someone like Sawako Nakayasu who writes in English and translates from Japanese. Or Walter Lew, who has studied Korean literature and written pretty extensively on it.

E. J. McAdams said...

I had never heard of this poet before and bought a copy of his book OUTSPEAKS because of your blog and the link to Juliana Spahr's review. Thanks, I am excited for its arrival.

E.J. McAdams

susan said...

EJ--you might also find an early book by Saijo to be of interest. It's called _The Backpacker_ and is a guide to walking in the wilderness (so called!). The art is by his older brother, Gompers. I just got it on-line. Very practical, but also includes Saijo wisdom in it.

susan said...

Aryanil--also try Don Mee Choi, Barbara Jane Reyes, Yunte Huang, Craig Perez (from Guam) and others who do have linguistic reach. Oh and Steve Bradbury is a marvelous translator who lives in Taiwan (just to mix identities!)

susan said...

Thanks, Kev. Actually, it's Sakaki, so I'll correct it now.