Amy Uyematsu (left) and Naomi Hirahara

Poet Amy Uyematsu passed away on June 23 in Culver City after a two-year battle with breast cancer. She was 75.

Survivors include her husband, Raul Contreras; her son, Chris Tachiki; her mother, Elsie Uyematsu Osajima; and sister, Mary Uyematsu Kao.

A Sansei, Uyematsu was raised in Southern California by parents who were incarcerated at the Manzanar and Gila River (Ariz.) concentration camps during World War II. 

With wisdom, tenderness and clarity, Uyematsu’s poetry reflected on losses and joy, racism and finding beauty in the commonplace. Her last collection, “That Blue Trickster Time,” reflects on Manzanar and her Nisei parents, as well as the experiences of lockdown during the pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian racism.

In “Homebound Haiku,” Uyematsu penned a series of haiku  in spring 2020 that capture the feelings and fears at the start of the pandemic.

We need bigger masks

to hide our Asian faces —

we’re targets again

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

Uyematsu was the author of six poetry collections: “That Blue Trickster Time” (2022), “Basic Vocabulary” (2016), “The Yellow Door” (2015), “Stone Bow Prayer” (2005), “Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain” (1997), and “30 Miles from J-Town” (1992), which won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Her poems considered the intersection of politics, mathematics, spirituality, and the natural world.

Her work has been published in many journals and anthologies, including “The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America” (1993), “Twentieth-Century American Poetry” (2004), “What Book: Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop” (1998), “On a Bed of Rice: An Asian American Erotic Feast” (1995), “Sister Stew” (1991), and “Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond” (2015).

In 2012, Uyematsu was recognized by Friends of the Little Tokyo Branch Library for her writing contributions to the Japanese American community. She co-edited the seminal anthology “Roots: An Asian American Reader” (1971). Her essay “The Emergence of Yellow Power in America” continues to be used in many Asian American studies classes. Other essays include “Five Decades Later: Reflections of a Yellow Power Advocate Turned Poet” (“Flashpoints for Asian American Studies,” 2017) and “Back in 1969” (“Mountain Movers: Student Activism and the Emergence of Asian American Studies,” 2019).

Uyematsu earned a BA in mathematics at UCLA. She taught math for the Los Angeles Unified School District for more than 30 years before retiring.

She was a member of Pacific Asian American Women Writers West (PAAWWW), which performed at community events, including Day of Remembrance observances commemorating the incarceration of Japanese Americans and anti-nuclear rallies marking the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Other members who have since passed away include Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Emma Gee, Momoko Iko and Wakako Yamauchi.

Mystery novelist and PAAWWW member Naomi Hirahara posted on Facebook, “There are many photos of poet Amy Uyematsu and me, but this one, taken by Eric Nakamura in front of Giant Robot’s red door in 2015 is my favorite. That afternoon, we took a walk around Sawtelle, with Amy wistful of the old Japanese community that used to inhabit those streets.

“Her poetry is infused with the characters, environment and conflicts that marked Southern California and the whole nation in the 1960s and ’70s. (Oh, and we went to eat okonomiyaki and spoke about our respective trips to Japan!) She is one of my favorite L.A. poets, capturing a life that I connect with.

“And she was such an encouragement — if she was bewildered by my genre writing, she never showed it and kept saying that she could see my characters in a Neflix series. She helped me recast some translated poetry that we published in the book that I edited for the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation, ‘Green Makers,’ and, in fact, gave me some feedback about the epigraph that starts [the forthcoming mystery] ‘Evergreen.’

“Amy passed away on Friday after a battle with returning cancer that had invaded her bones. She battled enough to present at last year’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She is an inspiration and right now I don’t fully realize how much I’ll miss her.

“Last year poet traci kato-kiriyama organized a Zoom reading of Amy’s work. I couldn’t make it but prepared this roughly edited video (”

PAAWWW member and community activist Miya Iwataki wrote, “Accolades from far and wide are celebrating Amy Uyematsu. Long-overdue recognition is growing, and glowing with appreciation for her incredible collection of poetry.

“I want to talk about her other superpower. Amy Uyematsu, poetry Sensei. My poetry mentor who restored my joy of writing with her wit, wisdom and works. She challenged us each week with a variety of themes and tied them to works from well-known and obscure poets to broaden our writing reach. Like the Uyematsu camillias now housed at the Descanso Gardens, her deft care helped us grow and thrive. 

“Dearest Amy – Friend, Sister, Sensei, thank you. Please rest in comfort, harmony and peace.”

Activist Taiji Miyagawa wrote, “It’s not fun losing an artistic collaborator that shared creative goals of addressing intergenerational trauma and one of the very few people in the world willing to put up with my predilection for abstract expressionist music. I will strive to honor the important, creative gifts of her writing by continuing the ‘commitment to the cause’ with her spirit in my heart.

“Much love and condolences to Raul and all of Amy’s family. Thanks to UCLA for holding her writings.”

PAAWWW member Cecilia Brainard said of Uyematsu, “I had the privilege of spending time with her and sharing the stage with her in literary readings. She was gentle, soft-spoken, generous. I remember she would get her fine poetry published in the most unusual places, trade magazines for instance. She quietly took care of her family, taught, and pursued her writing career. Rest in peace, Amy!”

Writer/actor traci akemi kato-kiriyama said, “Amy Uyematsu — the People’s Poet Laureate of J-Town. Kristina [Wong] and I talked about making this happen from the community. I’m going to just start calling her this.

“‘30 Miles From J-Town’; ‘Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain’; ‘Stone Bow Prayer’; ‘The Yellow Door’; ‘basic vocabulary’; ‘That Blue Trickster Time’ … all classics. Amy, you are loved and respected by the countless many.

“I’d so looked forward to the reading and conversation we were supposed to have at the Central Library in May … I promise to transform this into a tribute for you.

“I treasure every moment, reading, conversation, message, card, letter between us … I am, we are simply devastated. Many many many dedications and furthering honoring to come …”

Diane Segel, formerly of Sierra Madre Playhouse, said of Uyematsu, “She was kind enough to do two things for the Sierra Madre Playhouse when I worked there. First, she was on a panel led by Naomi Hirahara for the programming associated with the play ‘Nothing Is the Same.’ She talked about growing up in Sierra Madre when prejudice against Japanese Americans was high. Next, she agreed to be one of our ‘Deck of Cards’ of ‘seniors’ in the lobby of the playhouse when we did the play ‘The Gin Game.’

“She was so kind and such a wonderful poet!”

Little Tokyo community leader Mike Murase recalled, “I first met Amy in our ‘pre-Movement’ days at UCLA when she was in Theta Kappa Phi sorority. But she wasn’t the first Uyematsu I met. Her mother Elsie (now 98) and I were tennis partners in a Nisei Week Tournament when I was still in high school.

“When we started Gidra [newspaper] in 1969, Amy wrote a seminal essay about ‘yellow power,’ which became widely read in the burgeoning ethnic studies courses at many universities. When I read ‘30 Miles from J-Town’ in the ’90s, I had told her she was my favorite JA poet. In 2017, we collaborated on a series of poetry readings by Asian American women at Far East Lounge.

“In between, we’d see each other at various community and movement events or we’d exchange emails from time to time or comment on each other’s FB post. She left a big hole in the hearts of many who knew her.

“Rest in peace, in power, and in poetry.”

Biographical details provided by the Poetry Foundation.

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  1. Thank you Amy for the opportunity to share your self with my late wife Yvonne and myself ! I will never forget!