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Appreciation: Janice Mirikitani

by Paul Wilner

Janice Mirikitani, former San Francisco poet laureate and Glide Foundation co-founder, touched many lives through her writing and her work at the church.

February 4, 1941 – July 29, 2021
Poet. Warrior Princess. Crusader.

Janice Mirikitani was a force to be reckoned with. She survived the internment camps her Japanese American family was sent to during World War II, as well as sexual abuse from a family member, and managed to carve out a full life that merged political passions with her ardent literary voice.

She was co-founder, with her husband, the Rev. Cecil Williams, of Glide Memorial Church and Foundation, where she ran programs for abused women and recovery efforts for the addicted and offered an open door to the homeless, often forgotten, denizens of the Tenderloin. In 2000, she was named San Francisco’s second poet laureate, succeeding Lawrence Ferlinghetti. City Lights Books put out Mirikitani’s poetry collection Love Works, during her tenure as laureate; two earlier volumes, Awake in the River and Shedding Silence, will be re-released by the University of Washington Press in December.

Mirikitani is fondly remembered by those who came up with her in the heady times of the ’60s and early ’70s. “We were both part of the Third World Women’s Collective,” notes poet-novelist-playwright Jessica Hagedorn, whose work appeared in Time to Greez! Incantations from the Third World, a 1975 anthology edited by Mirikitani. “She was beautiful — and knew it! But she was also tough. She didn’t just share, ‘Oh, how I’ve suffered …’ She lived the life she wrote about and dealt with whatever traumas she’d been through with positive work in troubled communities.”

In 1981, Mirikitani penned Breaking Silences, which addresses her mother’s decision to testify about her WWII internment before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, after remaining silent for 40 years:

There are miracles that happen
she said.
From the silences
in the glass caves of our ears,
from the crippled tongue,
from the mute, wet eyelash.
testimonies waiting like winter.

 

Poet-artist Russell Leong, who directed Why Is Preparing Fish a Political Act?, a documentary about Mirikitani, and also edited her collection Out of the Dust: New and Selected Poems (2014) for University of Hawaii Press, praises her work with the anti-colonialist New Asian Nation movement, recalling a speech she gave at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall in 1972. “Working with marginalized groups not in the mainstream was a way of putting together the different strands of her identity,” shares Leong, adding that Mirikitani never lost her sense of humor. In a tribute he wrote for the International Times, Leong quoted an email she’d sent him about surviving the pandemic: “What a year. Cecil and I have been in lockdown for 10 months. It’s time to have the baby.’’

Nevertheless, she kept things in perspective and focused on the bigger picture: “It’s been rough and wearing, but we have to count our blessings, working with those who are losing homes and in dire need of food for their families.”

She died as she lived. Fighting for others, giving her all. As she wrote for her inaugural address as poet laureate: “Poetry has been for me the language of my definition, and my liberation, although it has not always been so. … For me, poetry should be accessible, connecting our human experiences, steeped in the struggles that define us. Poetry gives form to the power of imagination and speaks as the conscience of real life.”

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