Poets We Lost in 2021

December 21, 2021


Poetry Off the Shelf: Poets We Lost in 2021





Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf. I’m Helena de Groot. Today, Poets We Lost This Year.


Janice Mirikitani was born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California. When she was just one year old, she was forced out of her home, together with every other Japanese American, by executive order. Her family was sent to Arkansas, where they were imprisoned together with about 8,000 others in cheap barracks with the innocent-sounding name, The Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center.


After three years, when the war ended, they were released. And from then on, in the Mirikitani household, what happened to them was never talked about. And that was not the only thing they didn’t talk about. When Janice Mirikitani told her mother that she was being sexually abused, there too, she was met with disbelief and then silence.


But Janice Mirikitani found ways to speak her truth. She wrote poetry. And later, at Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, she helped others speak their truth: homeless people, the LGBTQ community, people with HIV and AIDS, women who dealt with domestic abuse and sexual violence, everyone. She ended up marrying the pastor of Glide, the Reverend Cecil Williams, and together, with a big group of volunteers, they made Glide the heart of the Tenderloin, with 2000 free meals a day, a free legal clinic, a childcare center, a place where people in need could find healthcare, therapy, shelter, and community.


On July 29, Janice Mirikitani died unexpectedly. She was 80 years old.




What you’re hearing is an excerpt from the memorial service, with Janice Mirikitani reading her poem, “Who Is Singing This Song”.




I talked to someone who knew Janice for more than 50 years, her friend and colleague, editor, professor, and writer Russell Leong.


Helena de Groot: So, can I ask you how you met? Like, who were you at the time and what did it mean to meet her?


Russell Leong: Well, I was born and raised in Chinatown. And I think in my late teens, I used to go to a place called the Kearny Street Writers Workshop. And that was on the bottom of the International Hotel, a building that was for low income Filipino and Chinese migrant workers and immigrants. And the Kearny Street Workshop was a kind of a collection, hodgepodge of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, some Vietnamese, Korean young writers, women and men. We got together in the basement and read our so-called poetry. But we drank a lot of cheap wine, so I can’t really remember whether the poetry was good or not.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Russell Leong: And we ate, of course, take-out food. Now, the Kearny Street Workshop and the International Hotel is about two blocks away from City Lights, which is interesting. City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Beats. But there was a, you know, a kind of a distance. This kind of gap between the hipsters of City Lights and North Beach and Chinatown. Anyway, Janice, I think she was a few years older than most of us. She used to come down to the Kearny Street Workshop. And one of the big events was in 1972. It was a foggy night at UC Berkeley’s Cellar Back Hall. We were doing the first reading of poets of what we called the New Asian Nation. The term New Asian Nation reflected the political thrust of the times, including a movement by some African Americans, toward establishing a Black Nation. Now we were all basically in our 20s. Of course, we always had to have flag jackets because that was, you know, sort of the Che type of look or the revolutionary type of look. And Janice was one of the stars, because, as I said, she was a few years older and she’d been reading before us. And also, you know, she was, you know, quite beautiful and passionate, and a good reader. She did not have those tinny, high voices. She had I think what you call a contralto. It’s somewhat of a lower voice.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Russell Leong: And so, when she read, it came across, you know, somebody who actually has this passion and could actually articulate it.


(EXCERPT FROM Janice Mirikitani at the San Francisco Public Library PLAYS)


Janice Mirikitani: Now, some of the girls at Glide taught me this rhythm, and it’s very complex.




Now you said you were not going to laugh at me. Sophisticated ladies. Check it out. Well, my name is classy and I’m more than fine. You can don my number, baby, any time. We got hips to move and our body grooves, we got boys to jump when we tell them to, we can rock the ocean, we can roll the sea. But when you mess with my man, you be a boxin’ with me. Sophisticated lady. Check it out.




Russell Leong: With the Kearny Street Workshop, of course, we were poets who also read. And we were trying to figure out what the world was all about. Remember, it was the late Sixties and Seventies. So we actually were pretty supportive of, you know, the new China, decolonized nations in Africa and Asia. You know, it’s interesting. It’s pretty recent that many African and Asian nations actually were decolonized from the British, from the French, from the Dutch, and so forth.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Russell Leong: And people don’t really realize, it’s really a 20th-century thing. It’s not like centuries ago. And along this line also, of course, we had internal movements for social justice. We had the Black Power movement, Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, and so forth. So we actually believed that poetry could make a difference.




Helena de Groot: The foundational experience of her life was that of her very earliest years, when she and about 120,000 other Japanese Americans were rounded up, without having committed any kind of crime, and sent to internment camps in remote locations of the United States.




Janice Mirikitani: I mean these, I’m talking about American citizens who had their land stolen from them, who had their possessions taken away, who had three days to pack and take only what they could carry, who were put into detainment centers like, you know, horse stalls, like racing tracks, before they were shipped or bussed or trained to different locations, 10 different camps throughout the country.




Russell Leong: I mean, the camps were very crowded. I mean, they were basically wooden barracks with very thin walls and you could hear your neighbors, and it was a community, but yet a forced community.




Janice Mirikitani: My mother did not speak of it for 42 years.


Mark Oppenheim: 42 years.


Janice Mirikitani: Yes. I mean, every time I’d ask her about what happened—because when we left the camps, I was about four years old, so I had very little memory. And when I would ask my mother in later years, “What happened? How did you feel? What was that like?” You know, she would just change the subject.




Russell Leong: A lot of Japanese Americans did not want to talk about it.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Russell Leong: It’s just like, you know, if I ask my parents, you know, “Did you experience erasure, they would say, “Well, no life was, you know, this was difficult and that was difficult,” but they wouldn’t use those sort of big words. And also, after World War II, whether you were Chinese, Japanese, if you were Asian, you were kind of suspected of being the enemy anyway. You know, people really couldn’t—


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Russell Leong: And so, actually, you wanted to get back into ordinary life, raising a family, working a job, and so forth. And you don’t want to kind of burden your children with it. And also, when you are put in the camps, even if you are completely innocent, you feel a little bit … maybe ashamed that you are stuck in there. And when you come out, you’re not about to, like, tell people. And you wanted to save your children from that kind of agony and that kind of experience. So, you know, her mother did not really talk to her about it until much later.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Do you know how that silence influenced her?


Russell Leong: You know, I could surmise and, you know, that’s just because, you know, I’ve kind of known her 50 years. I would say that the silence is not only personal, but institutional and social. So, for instance, there are many silences. One is the silence of the camps. You know, you’re not supposed to really speak out. People who said, “No, I shouldn’t be in the camps,” they were called “No-no boys”. You know, they were sort of seen as pariahs, because they refused to sign these sort of loyalty oaths. So that’s one kind of silence. Another silence, of course, is I think she was sexually abused as a young woman, and you had to remain silent. I’m sure if you go and tell your parents about this kind of abuse, your parents will say, “Well, keep silent, because that person is not a bad person, and you’re just imagining things” or whatever.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Russell Leong: That’s another kind of silence. And of course, there’s the silence of society about who you are, your history. After all, when Janice was going to school, I don’t think there were many textbooks which talked about the history of Asians in America, much less contained poetry or literary works. So, there is that kind of silence. Also, the silence of society. They don’t recognize you. They don’t hear you. And then later on, of course, when she was working, doing the transcriptions and working with Glide, there’s the silence or the blindness that’s turned to people who live in situations like the Tenderloin. You know, especially in the ’80s, things like HIV, AIDS, and drugs, they are kind of interconnected. And of course, it’s just seen as, oh, these are marginalized people, it’s basically drug dealers or gay people or people of color. These were kind of like the bad victims. And so, there are all these layers of silence. And then, what do you do about it? You have to speak.






(EXCERPT FROM Janice Mirikitani at the San Francisco Public Library PLAYS)


Janice Mirikitani: I came to poetry when I was eight years old. I wrote to save my own life, to control on the page the chaos I felt around me. In grammar school, my first poem was about the circus. I wrote about the tightrope walkers and trapeze artists. Circus acrobats walked in mid-air, a miracle of balance and grace, flying and catching without a trace of fear, with only what seemed a thread, they hung onto life as they swung over the teeth of tigers. I would be frightened to fly. In fact, couldn’t try with my words in a sky of Shh, don’t tell. Don’t cry. That’s not quite the poem I wrote at eight years old. It was a long time before I could talk about the childhood abuse, because I wanted to be acceptable. So I suppressed my shame and into silence. I did not know I needed to give heed to that eight-year-old girl’s voice until I came to work at Glide, and I heard the voices of children. Another little girl from the Tenderloin who played with matches, who set her house on fire. And when they rescued her, she had been left alone by herself. On her tiny back with welts from whippings, still ripe and red. She was, in her darkness, setting fires, fighting to not extinguish her light.




Helena de Groot: When she started working at Glide, in 1965, she did not yet know that she’d help transform Glide into the beacon of social justice it is today, or that Glide would transform her in turn. She started in the most inconspicuous of ways, as a temp worker, when she was 24. Her job was to sit at a desk with headphones on and transcribe interviews with victims of police brutality in the Tenderloin, most of whom were people of color, gay, or both. That experience of just listening made a deep impression on her. And it changed how she wrote poems. Just take this one poem I asked Russell Leong to read. Mirikitani wrote it during another war, the Gulf War, in 1991. And she was one of the people manning the emergency phone lines Glide Church had set up to offer support and information to kids of draft age. The poem is titled “Progeny”, and it’s about a mother who calls Janice on the hotline.


Russell Leong:


(READS “Progeny” by Janice Mirikitani)


She called on the Gulf War Crisis Hotline,

I answered, wanting to be useful.

Going mad, she said.

My tomatoes are rotting in my refrigerator.

Such a waste, says she.

They’ve turned off my electricity.

She is furious at inconsiderate people

who steal her SSI checks from her mailbox,

leave their dogs unleashed

to piss on her stairs.

Without the rain, the smell rises up

like a disease.

In drought, the ants

are bold in their search for water

and blacken her shelves.

She weeps.

I ask if she is alone.

NO I AM NOT ALONE, she screams.

A thousand ants seek out my tears.

My son is in the Persian Gulf.

Unheard of for five weeks.

He enlisted when he turned eighteen.

And why not? No jobs here.

Enlist. Travel. Be among a few good men.

Such a waste, said she. Food rotting

in a poor refrigerator.

And the people, she rages, drive too fast,

waste gasoline, bullets, burn up rubber,

and why won’t it rain?

She tells me

she lost her husband to Vietnam.

Oh no, she says, not over there.

He was not a military casualty

with the telegram and the flag folded

like a pastry turnover,

or his name on that Black Wall, where she

could mourn nationally.

No, he left into the emptiness of his eyes,

mad night sweats, and finally

to the friendly fire of heroin.

And my son, she said,

was taught how his father, a patriot,

was a loyal American,

among a few good men,

so my son could follow in his footsteps.

Such a waste, she weeps.

These tomatoes rotting

in my dark, hot refrigerator.


Helena de Groot: Thank you so much. Yeah. I love this poem. I mean, I just love how careful she is as a listener, you know, like, I can feel her affection for this woman through the poem.


Russell Leong: Yeah, I mean, maybe, as you said, because she was transcribing when she was young. You had to listen and train your ear to listen, because you can’t be a good poet without being able to listen. It’s not just like, you writing. So I think Janice, a lot of her poetry is a dialogue. It’s a dialogue with another person, a listener, a relative, a lover. It leads to a kind of awakening like, her being in the Tenderloin, working there every day. As she got to know, I would say, I would just say sort of the map by heart, and by the map, the m-a-p, I mean, kind of like the map of history, the map of geography, the map of gender, the map of love. Because, you know, for her, you know, love is a very important power, and with love, you can actually transcend your circumstances and also you can use it to build community. I mean, one of her books actually, of course, was called, the later books, was called Love Works, published by City Lights Books. So “Love Works” of course, is kind of a pun, right? I mean, you know, works of love, but love, love works. I mean, so I think despite a lot of the grim topics and subjects she writes about, in the end she does believe in in the power of love.


(EXCERPT FROM Janice Mirikitani at the San Francisco Public Library PLAYS)


Janice Mirikitani: Love struggles for what is real and what is authentic. Love ignites our tongues and our hearts with joy and drives us to find the justice in our actions. And finally, love accepts us for who we really are.




(EXCERPT FROM Janice Mirikitani at the San Francisco Public Library PLAYS)


Janice Mirikitani: When I first came to Glide almost 50 years ago, I was broken. I was a person who was in complete denial. And I would never, ever speak, because I was so filled with shame and humiliation, being an incest survivor of 11 years of childhood abuse, and being a battered woman. And I, you know, I felt without any self-esteem, never believed by my family, and really, really felt humiliated by a population of people who continue to reinforce the worthlessness of women, and women of color, specifically. So, when I came to Glide and Cecil said, “I love you unconditionally,” it was quite a beginning of transformation for me.




Helena de Groot: And at Glide, it seems like she was pretty busy, right? I mean, it seems like a more than full-time job. So, what do you think kept her going back to poetry over and over again? What did poetry mean to her?


Russell Leong: Well, I think it’s her own private space that no one could take away, nobody could corrupt, nobody could tamper with. And, you know, she would sit on the floor or, you know, on the bed or something, and write in her longhand. So she had these yellow kind of legal notebooks. And this is the private space above all. I mean, it was apart from her work, apart from her family, apart from her spouse, even apart from her daughter, apart from, you know, even her close friends. I mean, this was her, her space. Nobody could take that away. In a way, even if somebody tried to take a poem away from her, hell, she, it’s memorized, whether literally or in her heart or in her brain. He just couldn’t take it away. Even people who harassed her at the camps, other things, people who tried to say bad things about her or whatever, but they couldn’t take the poetry away.


Helena de Groot: And is there one story that you think of where you go like, “Oh, that was so Janice,” or Jan, as you call her?


Russell Leong: Hmm. Well, there’s one anecdote but it’s kind of connected with my mom. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Uh-huh!


Russell Leong: I think I was speaking at Glide Church, and Janice, of course, and Cecil were there. So I thought my mom should go and just experience Glide Church with the kind of multiracial and multiethnic, multigender. Well, my mom was already in her late 80s, my mom and her best friend. And so I actually hired a limo to take my mom and her girlfriend to Glide Church. And Janice had a space reserved for my mom, and these are these two old Asian ladies. And going to this church, and everyone’s clapping and singing these soulful songs, gospel songs and so forth. And Janice was up there and smiling. And I was so happy that, you know, my mom in her later years and her friend were able to go to a place like Glide, because it’s some place they wouldn’t go by themselves. So that’s just a small thing, but.


Helena de Groot: That’s beautiful. What did your mom or her friend, what did they say afterwards? Did they like it?



Russell Leong: (LAUGHS) I think they were surprised I could speak, because they see me as this kind of silent, somewhat shy person.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Russell Leong: And so when I was on stage with Janice and Cecil and all them, I was like, speaking too, and kind of performing. So I think they were surprised that, “Oh, something comes out of his mouth,” you know?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Russell Leong: You know, that’s partly due to people like Jan because she, I think with her example, people are not afraid to speak, and they could break the silence, whatever silence they had to break. So that’s, I think, part of her, part of her giving to other writers and poets, too. She let them speak and wanted them to speak. And not just like professional poets or whatever, but just anybody who had something to say.


Helena de Groot: But do you know, because I’m trying to just get a sense of how she did that, you know, because I think it’s such a rare trait that people are truly not judgmental, so that all sorts of different people feel welcome and safe to speak their minds or speak their hearts. What would she do that made people feel so safe?


Russell Leong: Well, for instance, Glide Church, they always had like, daily food lines, like, meal lines. And she would walk down that line and address people by their names, like, “Oh Carl, how is it? Have you guys been able to find a room yet?” Or, “Marie, the baby has really grown up since I last saw her.” She would address people by name. And I think people really appreciated it. They might be poor, they might be in the food line. But you have this woman who’s very caring and would call you by your name, no matter what circumstances you were in. And a lot of these are street people, and they come and go. You might see them, and then you might see them six months later or a year later. But she knows their name and their story.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Russell Leong: And I think that, you know, when they were raising money and dealing with the big wigs and institutions, the corporations, I’m sure she was the same way. She remembered their names and their stories.




Helena de Groot: Janice Mirikitani was the author of more than four collections of poetry, among others, Awake in the River from ’78, Shedding Silence, from ’87, We the Dangerous, from ’95, Love Works, from 2002, and Out of the Dust, her new and selected, which came out in 2014.


Together with the Reverend Cecil Williams, she cofounded Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, and the music you’re hearing is “I Surrender” by the Glide Memorial Church’s own Glide Ensemble.


Janice Mirikitani died on July 29, at the age of 80.


Russell Leong was a longtime editor of Ameriasia Journal, an adjunct professor of English and Asian-American Studies at UCLA, and the founding editor of CUNY Forum: Asian American & Asian Studies. He and Janice Mirikitani were friends for over 50 years.


Before you go, I wanted to share a few words on love from another poet who died this year, just last week, actually, bell hooks.


bell hooks:  We’ve always thought of our heroes as having to do with death and war. And, you know, when we think of Joseph Campbell and the whole idea of the heroic journey, it’s rarely a journey that’s about love. It’s about, you know, deeds that have to do with conquering, dominating, what have you. And so, part of what I wanted to say to people is that, living as we do in a culture of domination, to truly choose to love is heroic. To work at love, to really let yourself, you know, understand the art of loving.




Helena de Groot: bell hooks was a transformative feminist, activist, and critic, who broke the all-too white feminism of the day wide open. She was a writer and professor with over 30 books to her name, including three collections of poetry: And There We Wept, from ’78, When Angels Speak of Love, from 2005, and Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place, which came out in 2012 and won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s Best Poetry Award. bell hooks died at her home in Berea, Kentucky on December 15. She was just 69. The loss of her passing and her gifts to us will undoubtedly reverberate for a very, very long time.


Some of the other poets who died this year are Lawrence Ferlinghetti in February, Adam Zagajewski in March, Al Young in April, Saadi Yousef and Stephen Dunn in June, Jean “Binta” Breeze and Eloise Greenfeld in August, and Etel Adnan and Robert Bly in November. To find out more about any of them, please check out the Poetry Foundation website.


The music in this episode is by Todd Sickafoose and Eric van der Westen. I’m Helena de Groot. See you next year! And thank you for listening.



Remembering the life, poetry, and activism of Janice Mirikitani, plus a few words on love by bell hooks.

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