Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Lawson Fusao Inada, Charles Mingus, and "The Great Bassist"

Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Lawson Fusao Inada, Charles Mingus, and "The Great Bassist"

Article excerpt

In 1971, Japanese-American poet Lawson Fusao Inada published his first full-length book, Before the War: Poems as They Happened, a revised version of his M.F.A. thesis, "The Great Bassist," which he completed at the University of Oregon in 1966. Although the collection's title had changed in the ensuing five years to reflect the era's social and political upheavals (Inada, Letter [to the author] 15 Jan. 2003), Inada employs the same geographical structure as his thesis, with poems that move from his childhood in California to his adulthood in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Oregon, and he includes approximately half of the same poems in slightly revised form, some changed from prose poems to more structured free verse. Another constant in both volumes remains the closing poem, "The Great Bassist," in which Inada aligns his poetic philosophy with jazz musician and composer Charles Mingus, whose autobiographically-based music, constant revision of earlier work, and political outspokenness mirrors Inada's early compositional method and poetic themes.

According to biographer Gene Santoro, Charles Mingus's music presents the composer's "autobiography in sound" more so than any other jazz performer's since such compositions as "Myself When I am Real," "Self-Portrait in Three Colors," and "This Subdues My Passion" centers the bassist's own moods and feelings as integral parts of his improvisational composing method, which served as the idea behind his ever-evolving Jazz Workshop (["Myself When I am Real": The Life and Music of Charles Mingus. New York: Oxford, 2000], 79). Although Inada was influenced heavily by such confessional poets as Robert Lowell and Denise Levertov (Letter), Mingus's autobiographical approach, which presented his split racial identity through the melting pot of jazz, allowed the poet to incorporate elements of his own ethnic heritage into his performance-based poetry. Like jazz, Inada's poems document "histories of racial trauma" (Chang [Juliana. "Time, Jazz, and the Racial Subject: Lawson Inada's Jazz Poetics." Racing and (E)Racing Language. Eds. Ellen J. Goldner and Safiya Henderson-Holmes. Syracuse: Syracuse UP: 2001. 134-54], 135). His imprisonment in the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, the current horrors of the Vietnam War, and the problems of living in the United States as an ethnic minority fill the pages of his first book. He compares himself to Mingus, "I am the Great Bassist: / music, life, are one" (Inada, Before [the War: Poems as They Happened. New York: Morrow, 1971], 122), since the poet's development of a poetic persona mirrors the musician's own attempt to invent "a character, a multi-layered collection of personalities [...] to improvise life as he did his music, to compose his history" (Santoro 38), which Inada's deft handling of autobiographical material well illustrates.

Although Inada never successfully learned to play the bass, selling his instrument to a schoolteacher friend in New Hampshire (Inada, Personal [Interview. 19 Sept. 2003]), he learned to unleash "that ache inside" all the same through writing poetry (Before, 122), an instrument that also allows for improvisation. …

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