neil nakadate writing
ames, iowa | interviewed 2-11-2002

biographical sketch | artist's statement | interview clips

neil nakadate

"Autumn 2001: New World Order"

three poems

"Target: 10/07/01" (mp3): LISTEN (1:37/664KB) | READ
"Time and Place: 11/11/01" (mp3): LISTEN (1:33/640KB) | READ
"The Air We Breathe: 12/01/01" (mp3): LISTEN (1:02/424KB) | READ

"Autumn 2001: New World Order"

"Target: 10/07/01 "

Imagine 28 televisions in two eye-level rows,
identical sideline-to-sideline pictures
in a redundant loop of rappers, video games,
and HBO, plenty of ego, eros, accessories,
and attitude in sharp focus and living color.
In the middle, disconnected from the in-store tape,
one fugitive unit offers a snowy image
and static from Afghanistan,
night-vision penumbras in milky green.
Something glows, expands, can almost be felt
from here. A young woman name-tagged
"Kerrie" wanders over, wiggles the antenna,
ponders the bad picture, shrugs
and goes off to ring up phone cards
and DVD's. She doesn't see a bearded man
in turban and camouflage fatigues
making oddly-expressionless threats
in an English that doesn't fit
the movement of his mouth.
Pre-recorded in broad daylight
in some country that has
no name, he is saying
something like, What you see
is what you get.

Kabul is ten hours ahead of Minneapolis,
nine ahead of NYC. Imagine that.

"Time and Place: 11/11/01"

At almost 88 my father finds the times
confusing. Not the wake up, show up on time
times, though he sometimes loses track of lunch
because my mother is no longer here
to make sandwiches and soup, but the times
he's going through now. It was confusing this fall,
a whole week without baseball, commercial
television without commercials, and
real-time coverage of stuff you'd rather not see,
beginning with those planes and buildings. Time was
when he knew exactly what was up and how
to act—Why wait to be drafted when you can
just sign up to get in Hitler's way?—and he's got
the hardware to prove it, a Silver Star
and enough German shrapnel deep inside
to set off an airport warning,
in these nervously calibrated days.

Newspaper maps sit neatly folded on his desk,
a good sign my brother says, that Dad's not disengaged
from everyday life. But they are only cartographies
of confusion for a world that has changed too much.
Names have been altered and the old boundaries
are hard to find, and some countries aren't even
there. "I can't find Taliban," he says,
"on any of these maps."

"The Air We Breathe: 12/01/01"

My daughter, who is twenty-
something but still looks sweet
sixteen is in the Big Apple,
taking on life, breathing in death.

Wood metal stone glass
clothing paper snapshots blood
and bone have turned to dust
and smoke. It's not Auschwitz
exactly, but the stubborn haze
and nagging smell are unusual
even for New York.

As the digging continues
spontaneous fires flare,
even after many days—
the spirits of the anguished
drawing air at last.
At Ground Zero
everyone coughs.

My daughter says that
even in a city of millions
it is hard to take a new job
without wondering
why it opened up.

copyright © 2001 Neil Nakadate | All Rights Reserved


interview clips (mp3 audio & text)

Writing: listen (0:22/149KB) | read

October 7 (Bombing of Afghanistan): listen (0:60/408KB) | read

The Poems: listen (0:35/239KB) | read

Artist's Voice: listen (0:32/218KB) | read

Role of Art: listen (0:60/408KB) | read

Other people enjoy working with paint or with clay, and I enjoy working with words. Sometimes it's a reward after a day of doing all kinds of things that I am obligated to do, and then I take a little time and write. I almost always have enough energy to do that, even after kind of a demanding day, so that must mean something.

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October 7 (Bombing of Afghanistan)
I think we'd all expected something, and it was just a matter of time. My first thought was, not that this was going to finish anything, but it was just going to extend it or keep it going, create more hostility and resistance and propaganda, and everything that goes with something like that. I listened to the radio for awhile, and then I had something that I had to go pick up at the store. And I walked back to the electronics department to get the batteries, and that's when for the first time I saw a television with evidence of the bombing on the television screen. Target has an in-store network, as it were, that constantly replays the advertising for the products that they sell in the store—CDs, and videos and so on. One of the sets in the store had been disconnected from that system, and set up so that it could actually receive broadcasts. And that triggered that first poem that I wrote.

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The Poems
The things that the poems express, reflect a kind of ambivalence about the meaning of the bombing of Afghanistan or the disorientation that I think of my father feeling. And the feeling of vulnerability, particularly of the innocent, that was in my head when I wrote about my daughter being in New York. Well, those are all feelings that maybe a lot of people have. And I felt that that was my way of beginning to get a handle on my own feelings in a concrete way.

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Artist's Voice
Whether you're an artist or not, you have a right and a responsibility to voice yourself in this country. And I think particularly if you're an artist, and you're aware that there are many places in the world where artists can't do this, then you have a kind of an obligation to not waste that opportunity, that right, that privilege. Right after that, in my classes, I mentioned to students that it was a good opportunity for us to take a close look and articulate what it is that we really believe in—what really matters, finally, to us.

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Role of Art
Art gives us alternative ways to understand our experience. When things are very confusing, it's important to have alternative ways of examining the problem or the dilemma or the feeling. And it's often that alternative point of view that gives us a way to begin to get a handle, and to kind of start moving beyond the immediate emotions. And I think, at that point, there's as much need for art as there ever is.

By contrast, some people might say, Well, we don't have time for art at moments like this; it's a frill, it's a whatever. But I think by the nature of art and artists, it's exactly the time when they have to continue to do their work. It's not like being a firefighter and going into a life-threatening situation, but writers, or painters, sculptors, go where it's very hard to describe that feeling, and they find a way to do it. That's where they go. And so there's a need for it.

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biographical sketch

Neil Nakadate was born in East Chicago, Indiana in 1943. His grandparents on both sides immigrated to the U.S. from Japan. His mother, whose family was taken to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho during World War II, was allowed to leave to marry in Indiana. During the War, his father served for two years and nine months as a combat surgeon with the U.S. Army 17th Airborne in the European Theatre. Neil is the oldest of four children.

He earned a B.A. in English from Stanford University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Indiana University, Bloomington. He has been teaching college English since then, first at the University of Texas, Austin, until 1977, then at Iowa State University, Ames.

He has written and published academic works throughout his teaching career, including the book Understanding Jane Smiley (University of Carolina Press, 1999). More recently, in the last four years or so, he began to write creative work as well, mostly poetry, which he has also published.

He raised his three children after his divorce in 1980, and continues to teach at Iowa State.


artist's statement

The three poems—"Target," "Time and Place," and "The Air We Breathe"—were written separately and intended to be able to stand on their own as responses, at different moments, to the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. But I also realized that they constituted a record of my responses (and responses to others' responses), so in that sense the three poems can also be taken together as a loose sequence, moving through the fall. In other words, keeping track of our and others' responses over time is one of our strategies for understanding what these events mean to us and for beginning to move "beyond 9-11."