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Nikkei Uncovered, A Poetry Column: Year-Ending

Tamiko Nimura and Amy Uyematsu

By Amy Uyematsu, Tamiko Nimura, and traci kato-kiriyama

As we survey the past year of lockdowns and quarantines that started here in the States by mid-March 2020, we take stock of a wide spectrum of revelations and experiences over the last twelve months. From new personal practices and experiments in the arena of safer-at-home, to illness and loss, further exposure of inequities and suffering, uprising and reckoning, community unlearning and building – we share the works of two artists who give us a glimmer of their lives through poetics about this last year, oriented to the pandemic. Veteran author Amy Uyematsu returns to the column with just a few of her many poetic contemplations from over the past year, and Tacoma-based writer and public historian Tamiko Nimura shares with us a piece from last March and a fresh reflection one year later… enjoy.

— traci kato-kiriyama

Homebound Haiku

Unstoppable spring

burst of green on bare branches

virus without bounds

Which is scarier

bullets, viral pandemics,

a mob ruled by fear

No time to prepare –

a self-absorbed president’s

lies and excuses

Pandemic or not –

the White House sees dollar signs

downplays human life

Still taking our walks

we are struck by the orange

of this spring’s poppies

Now that you stay home

I am cooking up a storm

our waistlines thicken

Is it only me-

the clouds are more beautiful

a stranger’s smile too

What deadly choices –

not enough ventilators

who’s more deserving?

The streets so quiet

no children at the playground

but the bluest skies

How to stay healthy –

Netflix, old books, new poems

sustain that deep breath

No more Zumba class –

so last night I shut my door

cha-cha’ed my heart out

A two-month lockdown?

Grandpa confined at Gila

three relentless years

I used to teach math

but it took a pandemic

for graphs to take hold

Exponential curves –

once incomprehensible,

now daily fixtures

These are the hard facts –

I’m older than 65

may not make the cut

Left in plastic bags

on the streets of Ecuador

unthinkable end

Find a way to smile

look at something beautiful

all the while grieving

The cruelest spring –

we watch the rising death toll,

cherry blossoms too

*This poem is copyrighted by Amy Uyematsu. It was first published in “Eastwind ezine” (April 4, 2020).

In the Eighth Month of Quarantine

— Now the time has come

There’s no place to run

Chambers Brothers, 1968


in this blur

of hours

no special

calendar dates

a few weeks

from fall

I have all

my life

to gaze

at this

shuttered light

the play of

afternoon shadows

and retreat

to the drone

of a summer fan


I’ve had close calls

the scariest

a cancerous tumor

in my right breast

I even convinced myself

I was ready

in my early sixties

not knowing

I’d say hell no

a decade later

how different the view

with two grandsons


now this feeling of being

trapped against our will


choking for air


police brutality

a planet on fire

this furiously uncertain now

*This poem is copyrighted by Amy Uyematsu (2020).

When All They Can See Is Our Eyes

More than 3,000 hate incidents directed at Asian Americans nationwide have been recorded since the start of the pandemic…

—CBS News, 2/25/21

Sixty years ago I knew the danger

of walking past white kids my age

who would sneer and glare

and pull up their eyes –

still so young, I

was relieved if they didn’t

also yell “Jap” or “Chink”

In World War II propaganda

Americans were told

how to differentiate

loyal Chinese citizens

from treacherous Japanese

like my California-born parents

locked up in camps

“How To Spot a Jap,”

a U.S. Army pamphlet

in comic book style,

explaining that “C’s eyes…

have a marked squint”

while “J has eyes slanted

toward his nose”

In 2020 the pandemic

brought our eyes

to the forefront again

as President Trump kept

blaming anyone Asian –

proclaiming the “China virus”

or even “kung flu”

No coincidence

we soon became scapegoats

strangers yelling

“Go back to China”

when we’re Korean

“Infecting and disgusting”

though Pilipino or Thai

In 2021, covid still raging,

a Sacramento teacher

lectures via Zoom –

“If your eyes go up, you’re

Chinese” she gestures,

“If they go down,

they’re Japanese”

As the racist bullying

now escalates to our elders

a grandmother assaulted

and robbed at an ATM

an 84-year-old fatally

smashed to the ground

by a 19-year-old

To those who insist making

“slanty” eyes is harmless fun –

“Can’t you Asians

take a joke?” –

whether Miley Cyrus

or Houston Astro

Yuli Gurriel

No such thing as

a little racism – so-called

innocent teasing

and taunts transform

in an instant to

this all-too-familiar

avalanche of hate

Where attacking us for

our Asian eyes

is as American as

“Japs Must Go” signs,

slanted vagina insults,

the Chinese Exclusion Act

as far back as 1882

*This poem is copyrighted by Amy Uyematsu (2021).

Bad Poems

March 2020, for Abby

I knew it was getting real

when I started writing bad poems—

in my dreams, even worse.

Me, the fallen-away poet,

who left the laser precision,

the X-ray vision,

the truth-telling lighthouse of poetry.

I thought I’d broken free to roam

into acres of meadows in prose,

wandering essayist streams,

wide open prairies of fiction,

horizons like novels.

But, no. I slept. I dreamt. I was writing bad


in Times New Roman no less—

even worse, I confess,

with those magnetic poetry kits.

I was writing poems,

trying to assemble words into dutiful


and I knew they were bad.

Even magnetic, the words did not move.

When I woke up, I knew that poetry

was calling me back.

It wasn’t just the music.

It wasn’t just the rhythm.

It wasn’t just the image.

It was the power of poetry’s intention,

of poetry’s insistent attention.

My bad poems were telling me

that it was time.

The pandemic, then the panic erupted, went

endemic in my dreams.

If I couldn’t let them out,

the stories I was telling

would not move,

would not go viral,

could not become


One Year Later

March 2021

One year later

I am dreaming in


I am teaching.

(I no longer teach.)

There is a country club

off campus,

there is a classroom,

gray carpet,

white walls,

white lights that buzz.

I have forgotten

the lecture I’ve written.

I have sent my husband

home for notes.

I do not even know


I was teaching.

The students

are lounging on couches,

blankets pulled over

their faces.

Once retrieved,

my notes

do nothing

for memory.



at them,

I do not


the words

I have written.

I cannot speak.

The next night

I am missing.

Parties, and readings,

and meetings, and gatherings.

Epic Asian American potlucks.

I am telling my mentor

all of this,

how much

I am missing.

We’re sitting,

facing each other.

A picnic table,

sunlit green trees.

“Then write,” he says.

“Would you like to write

for an hour? With me?”

Above us,

the branches are stirring.

A wind is picking them up, gently,

letting them down, gently.

Then I am running

down wooden stairs

for my wide-lined notebook,

waking up to see.

*These poems are copyrighted by Tamiko Nimura (2021).

Amy Uyematsu is a Sansei poet from Los Angeles. She has five published poetry collections with her latest manuscript, “That Blue Trickster Time,” due out in 2022. Amy co-edited the widely-used UCLA anthology, “Roots: An Asian American Reader.” A former public high school math teacher, she currently leads a writing workshop for the Far East Lounge in Little Tokyo.

Tamiko Nimura is an Asian American writer living in Tacoma, Washington. Her first book is “Rosa Franklin: A Life in Health Care, Public Service, and Social Justice” (Washington State Legislature Oral History Program, 2020). Her second book is a co-written graphic novel, “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration” (Chin Music Press/Wing Luke Asian Museum, May 2021).

traci kato-kiriyama is a multi-disciplinary artist, writer/author, actor, arts educator & community organizer in Los Angeles. She edits the “Nikkei Uncovered” poetry column on Discover Nikkei, where this column first appeared.

Editor’s notes. “Variety” magazine (Mar. 23) reports “3,795 incidents submitted to Stop AAPI Hate between March 2020 and February 2021.” Readers impressed with Amy Uyematsu’s haikus might try writing their own (see Calendar, p. 4, Haiku contest).