Poet Laurel Nakanishi reads from “Ashore”

Nakanishi, bebind a podium, smiles at the audience in the foreground
J Frank / The Mossy Log

Alumnus returns to LC for book talk, describes drawing inspiration from Hawai’i, environment, heritage

Poet Laurel Nakanishi ’06 read to an audience at the Frank Manor House on March 6 as part of Lewis & Clark’s spring reading series, in which the school invites published authors to read and discuss their work, field questions and in Nakanishi’s case, sign books. 

Attendance was required for members of Mary Szybist’s Poetry 201 class, who have been reading Nakanishi’s book “Ashore,” which was recently awarded the Berkshire prize from Tupelo press. Szybist introduced Nakishami in a long, somewhat perplexing speech. Szybist spoke quietly and very slowly, in a manner which left students remarking among themselves on the strangeness after the reading.

Once Nakanishi took the stage, what was being said became easier to follow. Nakanishi herself completed her undergraduate degree at LC and began with an anecdote from her first ever poetry reading, in Frank Manor House, as a senior in Szybist’s class.

“I was so nervous that I pictured myself passing out into the fireplace,” she laughed. “I could feel the heat on my back the whole time, I was shaking.” 

Nakanishi, who was born and raised on the island of O’ahu, Hawai’i, has lived in the continental U.S. and Nicaragua as well, but her work remains rooted in the landscape and culture of Hawai’i. 

American poet Campbell McGrath praised “Ashore,” stating that he hopes it beomes required reading for poets.

“Compassion for human suffering, profound engagement with the natural world, humility in the face of the sacred: these are the hallmarks of ‘Ashore’, a document of lyrical witness steeped in the language, history and mythology of her native Hawaii,” McGrath said.

Standing in front of the fireplace at Frank Manor house, Nakanishi spoke with the soft, open A’s of a Hawaiian accent, taking me back to the trips of my youth, visiting my birthplace — the warm strength of the islands’ cultural ideals of generosity, respect and connection to nature.

Her poetry, too, had a quiet strength. With a few lines, she evoked sweeping landscapes and portraits of generations while looking with striking honesty and straightforwardness into the daily existence of their inhabitants. Her verses demystified Hawai’i, turning it into a living, breathing place of schoolchildren and hot asphalt, anxieties and desires.

After sampling from “Ashore”, Nakanishi read some unpublished poems from her current manuscript. Since giving birth to her first child, she said, she has found herself writing nothing but “sappy love poems.” She was warned throughout graduate school to steer clear of sentimentalism, but with the birth of her son she decided to embrace the sappiness. 

Nakanishi contrasted personal sentiments with descriptions of modern climate change horrors and environmental disaster. These anxieties about the world’s future, she explained, had come to the forefront of her mind as a mother and became intertwined with her love for her son.

Finally, Nakanishi answered a few questions from the audience, many of which were related to format. She makes use of blank space in different ways, she said, to evoke imagery and associations related to her subject.

Letting the lines of Nakanishi’s poetry wash over me like waves on the shore, and hearing her thought process about each piece, was an enriching way to spend a Monday evening.

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