In an interview, Hongo once said of himself as a poet that “I live on the earth and in the sky.” Many issues inform the style and content of his rich writing. Some of his Hawaiian ancestors worked on plantations, cutting sugar cane and stoking vats in the mills; others were professionals. Hongo’s own educational background includes a year of study in Japan and graduate school work as a student of Japanese language and literature. He translated his early poems into Japanese, and he has remarked that he sometimes still thinks in Japanese. On the other hand, his experiences growing up in a U.S. West Coast multiethnic community and performing poetry with a jazz trio have equally influenced his writing. His returns to Hawaii have deepened his appreciation of his familial roots there.
Connecting with ancestry is an important venture for Hongo, who uses as one central image in his poetry an old man who eventually turns out to be the poet. The wizened Asian man is mythical and elemental; he seems to hang over Hongo’s consciousness as a shadow or an alter ego. He has suffered and is wise, and he is the essence that impels Hongo to live sympathetically and to write well. Some of Hongo’s poems contain only vague resonances of the old man; poems such as “What For” seem to speak with the old man’s voice, expressing a longing to become “a doctor of pure magic” and heal his father’s pain. Another poem, “Roots,” identifies more directly the old...
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