New state poet laureate appointed

After 15 years without a state poet laureate, Oregonians once again have their very own resident poet.

On Feb. 17, Lawson Inada was named to a two-year appointment as Oregon’s fifth poet laureate.

Upon appointing Inada, Governor Ted Kulongoski remarked, “Lawson Inada is a beloved teacher and someone who involves people in reading, listening and writing poetry.”

His appointment caps a several-year selection process that began when Oregonians began to clamor for a new state poet. First lady Mary Oberst responded by creating a committee of writers, poets and cultural leaders to identify an official laureate.

Senate Bill 1018, introduced during the 2005 session, spelled out the qualifications for the laureate-to-be. According to the bill, the position would honor resident poets “who have been responsible for capturing the beauty and spirit of Oregon through the medium of verse.”

Oregon’s incoming laureate would be an Oregon resident and would have lived here for 10 years. He or she would be well known, highly regarded and have a significant body of published work.

Ultimately, public nominations were solicited and work from eight nominees was considered for the post.

Oregon’s statewide cultural agencies, the Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Council for the Humanities, Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Heritage Commission and the State Preservation Office designated new funding from the Oregon Cultural Trust to support a $10,000 annual stipend for the laureate.

Inada will serve a two-year term, with an option for a second term.

Additional funds – up to $10,000 per year – will support Inada’s work and travel around Oregon. Modern laureates are traditionally given free rein, and encouraged to use the position’s time and financial support to put their own ideas to work.

Born and raised in Fresno, Calif., Lawson Fusao Inada is a third-generation Japanese-American. During World War II, he was held in a Japanese internment camp with his family, first in a holding site at the Fresno County Fairgrounds and then in camps in Arkansas and Colorado. The experience was formative in Inada’s life and later became the subject of many of his poems.

He also wrote about the experience in an autobiography, “Legends from Camp,” for which he won the 1994 American Book Award.

Inada studied writing and poetry at the University of Iowa before moving to Oregon and settling in Medford. He is professor emeritus in writing at Southern Oregon University, where he has taught since 1966 and is considered an important figure in Asian-American literature and cultural studies.

“Lawson Inada is a fine poet and an excellent choice to be Oregon’s new poet laureate,” said Michele Glazer, assistant professor of poetry in the department of English at Portland State. “I think it’s good that Inada lives in southern Oregon, since historically most of our poet laureates have, I think, been from the Portland-Metro area.”

Inada was named Oregon State Poet of the Year in 1991. He has won the Oregon Governor’s Arts Award (1997), the Oregon Book Award (for “Drawing the Line,” 1997), the Pushcart Prize for Poetry (1996) and two poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1972 and 1985). He is co-editor of "Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers."

Inada credits jazz as a major influence in his writing, and as a voice to the rhythm that flows throughout his work.

“I hope that our new poet laureate will not only encourage and promote the many able poets writing around Oregon, but will also bring back to poetry those readers who have abandoned it, as well as seeking out new readers who thought it had no place in their lives,” said Judith Barrington, Portland poet and memoirist.

The laureate position also comes with a few requirements, and one is that Inada give up to six public readings in urban and rural settings across the state.

“Of course we’d like to have Lawson Inada come to PSU, read his poems, talk with students,” Glazer said. “We have a small but active graduate program as well as a good deal of interest in poetry among undergraduates.”

The post of American national poet laureate was created in 1937. Originally called “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress,” the title was changed to poet laureate in 1985. The current U.S. poet laureate is a Nebraskan, Ted Kooser.

Thirty-seven states also have state poets laureate. Oregon established a laureate position in 1923, and has since had four appointees: Edwin Markham (1921-1940), Ben Hur Lampman (1951-1956), Ethel Romig Fuller (1957-1965) and the widely adored William Stafford, who served for 15 years, from 1974-1989.

What will it mean to have a poet laureate in Oregon?

“Having a poet laureate is a way of supporting the importance of poetry as an art; an art which is ignored by too many people,” Barrington said. “The origins of poetry lie in giving praise to the world and also in mourning its tragedies. Poems are noticeably more appreciated at times of great stress, they bring comfort to people who are afraid and give voice to our losses. Nobody can deny that these are such times and I believe that serious poetry worthy of the tradition can become much more central to the lives of Oregonians.”