Lawrence Matsuda can deliver a devastating emotional blow with a few words.
In his debut collection of poetry, “A Cold Wind From Idaho,” Matsuda begins with his family’s experience before, during and after time spent at Minidoka, the World War II southern Idaho concentration camp for Japanese Americans which later became known as the town of Hunt, Idaho. Matsuda was born in the nearby town of Eden while his family was incarcerated.
The cornerstone of Matsuda’s collection comes with the second poem, “The Noble Thing.” Before the war, his father, Ernest, owned Elk Grocery on Seattle’s First Hill. During World War II, he and wife Hanae lost the business, their home, were incarcerated and had a stillborn child. When the Matsudas returned to Seattle, Ernest Matsuda lost his job as a janitor at the downtown Earl Hotel due to a bleeding ulcer. As for mother Hanae:
Depression took Mom away
like invisible armed guards. She was
a stranger — a stick-like figure with arms
and legs poking out of a white smock,
pacing the sidewalk next to the Western State Hospital turn-around.
Dad never talked about it, none of it.
I never heard him say the word Minidoka…
Gaman, “endure the unbearable with dignity.”
That Japanese term, “gaman”, the cultural curse of a tradition which mandates that an individual suffer in silence, figures prominently in “Cold Wind”.
“When I read my poems at the Civil Rights Symposium which was a part of the 2010 [Minidoka] Pilgrimage, many of the Japanese in the audience were crying,” Matsuda said. “One told me she never cried for Minidoka for over 60 years and when she heard the poems – there was an outpouring of sadness. Another told me that, after the first four poems, she wanted me to stop because she felt like it was a punch in the gut.”
Matsuda’s poetry collection becomes more eclectic when recounting a 1995 visit to relatives in Hiroshima including a cousin, 15 years-old during the atomic bombing, who lay trapped for days under rubble.
There are also odes to the legendary, all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team of World War II and, conversely, a series of poems about Lt. Ehren Watada, the Japanese American Army officer who refused to be deployed to Iraq (Ehren traded steel swords/for a blade of bamboo,/unfit to commit hara kiri/and disembowel himself).
Matsuda also recounts post-9/11 experiences; offers tributes to personal friends; includes a paean to a Seattle International District landmark in “Higo’s Five and Dime”; and also has poems, among others, about slaughtering his first chicken as a child and visiting Paris during the outbreak of the war in Iraq.
After returning from the Minidoka camp, Lawrence “Larry” Matsuda grew up near the International District and later on Beacon Hill. During his 27-year career with the Seattle School District, he started out as a language arts and literature teacher at Sharples Jr. High School (now Aki Kurose Middle School) and later became principal of elementary and middle schools. He went on to fill District administrative positions, including assistant superintendent, until retiring in 1993.
Matsuda, 65, said he knew about the camp experience since he was very young.
“I became very conscious of Minidoka when we said the flag salute in kindergarten – the ‘liberty and justice for all’ part really stuck in my throat,” he said. “When the teacher asked us where we were born, all the Japanese kids said ‘Hunt, Idaho’ to the point that it became a joke and other kids laughed.”
During the course of his life, “the Minidoka experience morphs over time,” Matsuda said.
“At one time, it simply was what happened. As I grew up, I realized how much of that experience was embedded in racism and discrimination. How greedy people profited from the misery of the Japanese.”
Matsuda became interested in poetry after participating in a poetry workshop taught by Nelson Bentley – “a wonderful teacher and great human being” – at the University of Washington. Two- to three-years worth of writing ended up in “Cold Wind.”
“Very little has been done about the evacuation in terms of the emotional and psychological costs of the event – depression, suicides, desire to become 110 percent American. Poetry conveys the emotional content of the event and provides a more complete picture of what happened.”
Lawrence Matsuda will read from “A Cold Wind From Idaho” along with Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, author of “Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps” at the Bainbridge Library on Oct. 10, 2 p.m.; and solo at Elliot Bay Books on Oct. 29, 7 p.m.