Poet Amy Uyematsu was a friend and colleague of mine for 30 years. Her sixth and last book: “That blue trickster time“Release was originally planned for fall 2022 but has been pushed back to March of this year. “When I found out in May 2021 that I had stage four cancer, I asked the publisher if they could move the production date,” she told me. “You were kind enough to do that. The title comes from a sentence in the book’s final poem – “those blue trickster days” – and unfortunately that title would take on a far more serious meaning than I ever expected.”
According to her husband Raul C. Contreras, Uyematsu died last Friday at the age of 75 in Culver City after a two-year battle with breast cancer. She is also survived by her son, Chris Tachiki, and her mother, Elsie Uyematsu Osajima.
Recently, with poet and Cal State Los Angeles professor Michael Willard, I had been trying to arrange an in-depth interview with Amy about her work and career as a poet, but Michael and I ran out of time. Luckily, Amy has been interviewed elsewhere, and some of these conversations are as well Available online. Los Angeles has lost a major poet, one whose verses expressed the experience of Asian Americans, long denied presence or representation.
I had already reflected on the power of poetry in the life of this city. Last month, Willard and I interviewed Amy’s colleague Russell Leong at his home in Los Feliz. He told us about the genesis of one of his poems. During the 1992 riots/rebellion, when UCLA was canceling classes and shutting down shop, Russell quit his job as an editor there and headed home. As he drove along Santa Monica Boulevard, he saw women thronging at every bus stop: the housekeepers, cooks, and janitors of Beverly Hills, waiting to catch buses eastbound to the other side of town. But the buses stopped running. Russell packed as many women as possible into his car and drove them home.
I remembered that April 30th vividly myself—looking out the window of my mom’s house in east LA and seeing columns of black smoke rising over a paralyzed city. My poems from those days were published along with Russell’s in a special issue of High Performance magazine. These facts of life are not found in the machismo of movies or in news media headlines; If there are “more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in your philosophy,” then they are found in poetry. As William Carlos Williams famously put it, “It is difficult to get news from poetry, yet miserable people die every day for want of what is found there.”
In 1989, Michelle T. Clinton, Naomi Quiñonez, and I edited an anthology called “Invocation LA: Urban Multicultural Poetry,” the first of its kind about Los Angeles, collecting poetry by writers ranging from machinist poet Fred Voss to ranging from the late Akilah to Nayo Oliver and Wanda Coleman, from organizer and poet Deena Metzger to Harry Gamboa Jr. of the famous artistic group Asco – as well as Russell Leong and Amy Uyematsu.
When I was releasing my second and third books, I invited Amy to read with me at both release parties. She had done important work for years and published in the magazine “Asian American Movement”. Gidra and Associate Editor of Roots: An Asian American Reader (UCLA, 1971) when I was still in high school. Amy once remarked to me about her own work, “I know it’s kind of dated or something, not as experimental or avant-garde as your work.” I told her she was one of the most important poets in town. She was like an aunt or older sister and I invited her to read at my book launch readings because compared to her I was just a kid with a lot to learn.
Amy was involved in the early days of the student-led Asian American movement at UCLA and remained politically active when she married and had a son and participated in the activities of the Pacific Asian American Women Writers collective called Cantaluz in the 1980s West 90s. I didn’t know the details, but I knew her life wasn’t easy: Divorce and raising a son as a single mother; She embraced Buddhism and found a time and place for her role as a poet. Amy taught math in the Los Angeles Unified School District for more than 30 years.
After all, I also taught English composition and literature at LAUSD for 34 years, so I knew life as a poet was a struggle. Working full-time, raising a family, and writing and publishing books? “That’s like icing on the cake,” Amy said. She may have used the old-fashioned phrases like “icing on the cake” and “yellow power,” but by the ’60s she had risen and to me she was a veteran. I had nothing but respect.
Nor was Amy resting on the laurels of the work she had done decades earlier. In 2005 she published a book of Zen-influenced poetry, Stone Bow Prayer. with Copper Canyon Press, one of the largest poetry publishers in the United States. “The Yellow Door” followed in 2015, “Basic Vocabulary” a year later. And finally, That Blue Trickster Time, one of my favorites, which I gave away to friends—particularly to avid readers who didn’t read much poetry.
Life in a city as diverse and colonized as LA is often obscured by garish surfaces, and sometimes the most meaningful meanings lie – to use Ralph Ellison’s term from The Invisible Man – “on the lower frequencies” that our poets follow. I remember this poem where Amy drew a parallel between the 1992 city and 1871 LA:
Riots in LA, ca. 1871
Invisible story for this one
all too visible Chinese
17 to 20 immigrants were hanged
at 3 locations in the city center
Wong Chin ran a business
Ah Long made cigars
Several chefs including
Tong Won, also a musician
A victim discovered
without his pants
and his finger is missing
for his diamond ring
The mob of five hundred
includes women and children
of the ten who stood before the court
none were sent to prison
A forgotten mass lynching
too insignificant to mention
in year-end recaps
No trace of these brutal facts
By 1876 the front page of the herald
contains the charter of the Anti-Coolie Club
a who’s who of prominent citizens
Membership is only fifty cents