He has an office, we all do. Our glass sliding doors all face inward toward a little garden and an open roof. We can spy on each other—who’s yawning, who’s eating, who’s figuring out the new registration program. This is how I know that he hunkers down in the afternoons in his dimly lit 6’ x8’ space, books shelved to the ceiling, posters blocking out most of his glass door. Sometimes, I catch him in the mailroom chatting. Always a smile. Always a twinkle. Smiling like he just pulled a prank, twinkling like he knows so much more than I do.
This is the Lonny Kaneko I’ve known for the past 13 years, my colleague at Highline College. He’s been teaching college students for a lifetime, since his start at Highline in 1966. In half a century, he’s led students into the realm of creative writing all while mentoring other writers and continuing his own creative work.
Although Lonny has written in almost every genre, his new work is a collection of poetry, Coming Home From Camp and Other Poems. Some of these poems were published in his 1986 chapbook Coming Home From Camp. Of this, Lonny says that “the book is a wonderful opportunity for the poems to have a home. They’ve been disappearing a few at a time. When a computer goes down or some change in program happens, I will remember a poem and be unable to find it. So this set of poems will thankfully have a home.”
Lonny credits his publisher, Jean Davies Okimoto, with providing the opportunity to bring these poems together. As Lonny notes, “There are poems from or about every decade of my life in here (and there are a number of them).”
Given the title of the book, many of the poems revolve around Lonny’s experience of spending some of his youngest years in Minidoka, one of the incarceration camps that people of Japanese ancestry were forced to relocate to during World War II. When reflecting, Lonny has this to say:
“The camp experience is buried within us; we can’t rid ourselves of the memories and the effects it had on each of our lives. And of course, it affects people differently, but it shapes how we see ourselves and how we think others see us … I started writing with a sense of anger.”
When asked whether anger is still his motivation to write, Lonny identifies his earlier poems as having more of a political purpose, while his later poems are “more focused on telling the moment within a poem and understanding what’s happened.”
Lonny’s new book reveals the anger and then the understanding. “There are a lot of poems about loss—of friends and self. Maybe it’s a sorting out, of finding a place for these events in life. Stuff from the past keeps reappearing in the poems, like little movie clips that won’t go away,” he says.
In addition to poems about the incarceration, other poems focus on family, divorce, even baseball. He repaints Seattle’s alleys and lakes, reseeds abandoned farms, retells stories of Asian American figures like legendary bookstore owner David Ishii and the writer Frank Chin. Lonny describes his writing today as a means of “trying to create something from the voices of others … it’s some combination of what I know, who I am.” He also says, “I think that my language choices, automatic responses, clichés are from that ‘other’ [Nisei] generation. And I’ve grown up with a lot of the old values, but have seen and experienced the changes that have happened—huge changes in cultural responses—visiting and revisiting stereotypes.”
However, the poems come together as an epistle to his parents, reverent and full of empathy. Lonny conjures his parents to remind us of the camps and the losses that our country exacted on its own citizens.
When speaking of his parents’ reactions to the incarceration, Lonny shares that he grasped his mother’s anger about the incarceration only later in life: “My father was one who went along, supported [the] JACL and his buddy Clarence Arai, who had an important hand in organizing the group in the 1930s. So for her to say anything was kind of a surprise, though I guess it shouldn’t have been, and I’m sure as I think back that it must have been eating at her for decades.”
In a poem that seems to hint at his mother’s life after camp, he writes that the woman’s hair is “a thinning testament/to that life islanded against the world.”
I sometimes imagine the idyllic life that Lonny now has on Vashon Island. From the top of Highline College’s campus, the eastern side of Vashon winks across the water. Even at work, Lonny can look out on his island, an actual life islanded against the world. He says, “When you live on an island, you live in a self-contained world, where you need to be able to sustain yourself.” After I mention the irony of his living on an island after his forced removal to the isolated Minidoka, Lonny indicates that Minidoka was actually a very social place. His neighbors in the camp “were as close as any of those in any hotel, apartment building or duplex, except that [they] were all there for the same reason, had a common history, and even had known each other in their previous lives.”
It is easy to connect with the poet and his poems, as if we all share a common history of love and loss, family and strife, joy and so much heartbreak. This collection brings the breadth of Lonny’s work together, and perhaps a bit of his life:
This getting to the bottom takes
lots of effort. Hands and knees gritty
and marked, I pause to survey the work
and change they have wrought in me
The boy from Seattle, who was forced to Minidoka and returned in poverty, who wrote out his anger and offers his gift of writing to thousands of students, who can see his island from the place where he works, has gotten to the bottom of all things. Coming Home From Camp and Other Poems is a place to read what endures after all the gritty work, to glimpse the changes wrought in the life of that smiling, twinkling man, Lonny Kaneko.