David Mura will be celebrating the publication of his new book of poetry, The Last Incantations
, on Friday with a reading at the Loft. The evening will double as a memorial for his late Aunt Ruth, who was a huge inspiration to Mura. Since her birthday was on March 28, Mura wanted to celebrate her life, especially as his other Aunt Ruby honered Ruth's wishes not to have a funeral last fall.
"I want to dedicate this reading to my Aunt Ruth, to commemorate her passing and her life and her gifts to me," Mura says. The reading will include performances by several of Mura's friends and collaborators, including Alexs Pate, Ed Bok Lee, Bao Phi, and Julianna Pegues. Before the event, we chatted with Mura over email about the new book, as well as his thoughts on poetry and writing.
It's been 10 years since your last book of poetry. What brought you back?
I've been writing poetry all that time, so I never left. But I've also been working on essays and fiction, including a long novel set in China in the 1930s. I didn't gather the poetry to form a collection until a couple years ago, when Parneshia Jones, the editor at Northwestern University Press, emailed me and asked if I had a manuscript.
Do you prefer prose or poetry better? Does one inform the other? Did Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire in some ways influence this work?
My first love is poetry. At the same time, The Last Incantations runs through a variety of forms, including formal rhymed verse, blank verse, prose poems/fragments, and performance monologues. I subscribe to an aesthetic of many gods, many voices. There's a prose section in one poem that originally came from a discarded version of Famous Suicides. There's also a long poem based on the life of the sculptor Isamu Noguchi; parts came from an earlier version of the China novel, which takes off wildly from an event in Noguchi's life (the warlord of Manchuria supposedly asked Noguchi if he wanted to be a general in the warlord's army).
In this work you talk about your own identity but also reference other cultural identities as well. Is that something you have tried before? How is the process different when you are observing others rather than mining your own experience?
In many ways, as a poet, I've always been interested in character monologues and writing about other people. Over the years, in my own life and in the Twin Cities, the complexity of our racial interactions and demographics have increased. Each summer, I teach at VONA, which is a conference for writers of color taught by writers of color, like Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, Patricia Smith, Suheir Hammad. I have friends, colleagues and students who come from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and I'm constantly realizing how much I don't know about different cultures and histories and peoples, and that I have to keep pushing myself beyond my own Japanese American background and identity.
My writing is part of that push. I'm interested in the connections that can occur between people of different backgrounds, and also how we can misperceive each other. That's there, for example, in the monologue "Kick Push," where an Asian American kid talks about his relationship with a Somali American girl.
You are dedicating this reading to your Aunt Ruth. What was she like?
Friday's reading features other writers you have collaborated with before. Could you speak to your relationship with these other writer/performers?
: My Aunt Ruth was the one person in my family who talked to me about the past, about my grandparents and her family's life in L.A. before the war, about the internment. Without her stories, I wouldn't have been able to become the writer I've become, wouldn't have understood our family and the past of the Japanese American community in the way I do now.
Ruth was also a free and independent spirit, a lover of the arts. She worked for a Broadway producer for a while, met Katherine Hepburn, watched Eugene O'Neil direct The Iceman Cometh. She hung out in the Village, went to parties with people like e.e. cummings; she knew Noguchi. She told me after the war she went to Communist parties because they were the only integrated parties in New York after the war. She lived for 30 years with a Japanese woman, my Aunt Baye, and Baye's father had been a governor of Manchuria -- that's connected to my interest in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and my China novel.
Alexs Pate, the novelist, is my best friend, and we've worked on various projects together over the years, including the performance piece we did about Afro-Asian American relations. He and I teach a workshop on writing about race at the Stonecoast MFA program.
I've known Ed Bok Lee, Juliana Pegues, and Bao Phi since back in the day with the Asian American Renaissance. They were all in their early 20s then, and it's been bracing watching them mature as artists and, in Juliana's case, as a scholar. We have an amazing Asian American artistic community here, with a strong activist tradition. All four of us worked in the Don't Buy Miss Saigon Coalition.
Can you say more about the Asian American Renaissance?
The Asian American Renaissance was a community based Asian American arts organization that started in 1992 with an Asian American arts conference. At that conference, on my front porch, Rick Shiomi and Dong-il Lee started a conversation that led to the founding of Theater Mu. AAR held classes; published a literary magazine, The Journal of the Asian American Renaissance; held a series
of cabarets; presented films, theater, and dance groups; conducted an Asian American celebration with dragon boats; and so forth. We presented some of the first work by artists like Bao Phi; Juliana Pegues; Ed Bok Lee; Kathy Haddad, who started Mizna, the first Arab American literary journal; Mai Neng Moua, who started Paj Ntaub Voice, the first Hmong American literary journal; Ken Choy; Sherry Quan Lee; Katie Leo; Andrew Kim; filmmaker Mark Tang; Wing Young Huie. I'm not sure when the AAR ended, but it was about five to seven years ago.
You were very involved in the recent protests over Miss Saigon at the Ordway. What's going on with that now? How do you see your role as an activist and that of being an artist work together? Are those two roles ever in conflict for you?
The Don't Buy Miss Saigon Coalition is connecting with Asian Americans in other cities where Miss Saigon is coming. Our video of our activities comes out on April 28. We're also setting up a toolkit for anti-Miss Saigon activism. Finally, we've been actively involved in recent conversations in the community about racial equity in the arts. Our community needs large-scale structural changes in that area, to really rethink how arts institutions like the Ordway don't serve all populations equally. As for me, there is sometimes a conflict of time between my own art and my activism, but I get so much spiritually and intellectually from the work, and it keeps me in touch with what is happening in our community. In that way it grounds my work as an artist.
What's up next for you?
I have a book of essays on race at a publisher, and I also have a book on creative writing. Last year I published a novella, A Halo of Fire, with the local online journal Revolver, and that's part of a larger collection I'm working on. I'm trying to decide now whether I need to revise again the China novel I've been working on for more than 10 years. Sigh.