Poet leaves his mark across Oregon

After two terms as Oregon's poet laureate, Lawson Inada feels he has established a pattern — traveling across the state to plant seeds of poetry — that will remain for all future holders of the honor.

An author or contributor to more than a dozen books or volumes of poetry, Inada was named to the post in 2006. He was the state's fifth poet laureate since 1921, but the post had been left unfilled for many years and, until he took the title, it was honorary, without much teaching and no funding.

"It was fun," said Inada, now retired from Southern Oregon University, where he started teaching in 1966. "I functioned as kind of an ambassador and teacher, like the 'Music Man.'

"It had been defunct so long, it felt like I was the first one."

With a modest, $10,000 annual budget and plenty of publicity, Inada began getting numerous requests to speak and conduct writing workshops, duties that took him up and down the Interstate 5 corridor and to out-of-the-way places such as Lakeview, Bandon, Hermiston, Ontario and Wagontire.

"Sometimes I think I was the first person to appear in many of these places," he recalled.

Born in Fresno in 1938, Inada and his family were placed in internment camps along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans for the duration of World War II. He described the experience in several of his books, including "Legends from Camp" (winner of the American Book Award), "Only What We Could Carry" and "Drawing the Line."

"I saw my role (poet laureate) as serving to renew interest and to raise the profile of poetry in the state," he said, "going into underserved or nonserved communities, making presentations to elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, libraries.

"I would share the work of other poets, then my work, and works from other languages and other Oregonians. I would try not to talk at them. I was like a musician going out there, trying to awaken interest. There's a lot going on in Oregon regarding poetry. I was trying to jump-start communities."

Now 70, Inada said he still writes poems, noting that "it doesn't take that much time. When the emotion hits me, when the poem comes up to me and tells me to write it, I jot it down."

He said he still uses a typewriter, not a computer.

"I'm not a Luddite," he joked. "I use a TV remote and play cassette tapes and CDs, but I don't quite trust the computer as a forum for poetry. When you type, you have time to reconsider things. I like the hands-on feeling. I use a pen, too. I don't e-mail. I know sometimes I'm making people use a stamp and an envelope."

Oregon's poet laureate title was revived in 1996 by the Oregon Cultural Partners, a group of organizations including the Oregon Historical Society, the Oregon Heritage Commission, the Oregon Humanities and the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, all funded in part by the Oregon Cultural Trust.

Oregon Cultural Partners has issued a call for nominations for the next poet laureate, starting in March. The deadline is Feb. 15. The nominations should come from "qualified Oregonians," including poets, writers and educational and cultural leaders. Nominees must have been residents of Oregon for at least 10 years, have a reputation for excellence in their field and have a significant body of published work, according to www.culturaltrust.org.

The post is for two years, with an option for a single two-year renewal. Inada said he advised the cultural trust to limit the award to one term, to share the honor among more poets.

The poet laureate receives a $10,000 honorarium, with activities and travel supported with an additional $10,000. Nominations, with cover letter, biography and three published poems, may be sent to: Oregon Poet Laureate, Oregon Cultural Trust, 775 Summer St. NE, Suite 200, Salem, OR 97301-1280.

As for the qualities that should be sought in the state's next laureate, Inada said, "It should start with the poetry itself and go from there to the other things, like being widely published and recognized."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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