“The foundations upon which my poetry is built”: A Conversation with Laurel Nakanishi – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Laurel Nakanishi is a poet, educator, and author of the book, Ashore. She was born and raised in Kapālama on the island of O‘ahu, Hawai‘i. After many years of living away (in Nicaragua, Japan, and the U.S. continent) she now teaches creative writing to young people in Hawai‘i public schools. www.LaurelNakanishi.com

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your prize-winning collection, Ashore, just launched from Tupelo Press.  What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

Laurel Nakanishi: What an interesting question! As readers, we arrive at any book with a set of experiences and knowledge that is completely unique and from which we make meaning. I’m fascinated by the resulting conversations that might emerge. I hope that readers hold a similar sense of curiosity as they approach the work. This Ashore looks closely at our relationship to the natural world, especially the islands of Hawai‘i. It is just one offering, out of many, that seeks to portray an experience of Hawai‘i counter to the tourist industry’s glossy depictions of white sand beaches and friendly locals.

KMD:  I’m impressed by the nuanced discussion of place in Ashore—a rarity in contemporary poetry.  In what ways is writing about place an inherently political gesture?  What is the relationship between writing, place, and social justice? 

LN: In writing, there is always the act of selecting. As I write, whether I am aware of it or not, I am focusing my attention on certain details and ignoring others. What I choose to see, how I portray what I see, and to what end are all informed by my perspective. And because I can never suss out this perspective from the person I am and how I am situated in the world, writing is always a political act. Writing about place is a particularly weighted gesture because the ways in which we occupy space are so politically wrought. When I write about Hawai‘i, my birthplace and home, I try to draw focus to the many branching stories of this place, including Native Hawaiian familial ties to the land, settler cultures, ecological abuses and resilience, and the impacts of the tourism industry. I mention this not because I am especially virtuous, but because I have been formed and informed by these issues and the depth and breadth of stories here in Hawai‘i. In honestly trying to reflect my home, I hope that my poetry begins to address social and environmental injustices.

KMD:  Your gorgeous book includes a poetics essay at the very end.  Why did you feel that this piece was important to include? 

LN: I love the notes section of poetry books. Even in their briefest iterations, I find it fascinating to learn about the texts, communities, and ideas from which the poet drew their work. The lyric essay end notes in my book, originated in a longing for the space. Many of the poems of Ashore are in conversation with stories, ideas, and histories that may be unfamiliar to readers, especially those on the continental US. The lyric essay form gave me the space to explore some of these sources and point readers to the wealth of texts already written about Hawai‘i. It felt important to me to honor the people and traditions that have shaped my understanding; these sources are the foundations upon which my poetry is built. 

KMD:  What advice do you have for writers who are interested in blending verse and essay forms? 

LN: There is such a gorgeous world of hybrid forms out there! I would recommend for folks to explore different mentor texts. A great place to start is The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay – both edited by John D’Agata. 

KMD:  You are also accomplished as an educator, and have extensive experience mentoring students of diverse age groups.  What has teaching opened up within your creative practice? 

LN: I am so fortunate to learn from students in public schools across O‘ahu in my job with the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. I am continually renewed by my students’ fresh approach to language, cultural insights, enthusiasm and earnestness in their writing. Over the past ten years, I have also taught poetry and creative non-fiction to students in Missoula, Miami, Portland, and Nicaragua. In each place I teach, I am fascinated to learn more about my students’ lives, communities, and relationship with their home. My work as an educator has deepen and broadened my understanding of the world in ways that I am still discovering. 

KMD:  What are you working on?  What can readers look forward to?

LN: I am currently writing a book of prose about the Shikoku Henro – a Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan. This is a pilgrimage that my grandmother made three times in her lifetime, and which I walked over the course of two summers. In the book, I explore the pilgrimage’s history (over 1,000 years old!) and culture, along with my personal adventures along the 700 mile route.