Garrett Hongo 1951–
(Full name Garrett Kaoru Hongo) American poet, editor, memoirist, and dramatist.
An award-winning poet, Hongo is an important voice in post-World War II Asian American literature. Ethnic considerations are constant elements in his work, as he explores the experiences of Asian Americans in Anglo society and seeks to come to terms with his own identity in American culture. Delving into history and memory to express the bitterness of prejudice, Hongo frequently employs character studies and anecdotal first-person nar ratives to express his thoughts. Of his creative impulse he has stated: "My project as a poet has been motivated by a search for origins of various kinds, quests for ethnic and familial roots, cultural identity, and poetic inspiration, all ultimately somehow connected with my need for an active imaginative and spiritual life."
Born in the village of Volcano, Hawaii, Hongo was raised on the North Shore of the island Oahu and later in Southern California, where his family moved when he was six. He attended a racially mixed high school in a workingclass Los Angeles neighborhood, where he was exposed to the urban street life and cultural alienation that color his work. Hongo subsequently studied at Pomona College and graduated with honors in 1973. A fellowship enabled him to spend the following year in Japan writing. Upon returning from abroad, he enrolled in Japanese language and literature classes in a graduate program at the University of Michigan. While there, he won the university's Hopwood Poetry Prize. Prior to completing graduate studies, Hongo moved to Seattle, where he worked as poet-in-residence for the Seattle Arts Commission and founded a locally based theater group. His play, Nisei Bar and Grill, premiered in 1976, and two years later he co-authored a volume of poetry entitled The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99 together with fellow Asian American writers Alan Chong Lau and Lawson Fusao Inada. Hongo returned to graduate studies in 1978, this time at the University of California, Irvine. In 1980 he received his M.F.A. degree. That year Hongo also was selected one of four winners in the annual Discovery/ The Nation poetry contest and has since received numerous awards and fellowships. In the following two decades, he has taught at several universities, served as the poetry editor of The Missouri Review, and edited influential volumes of Asian American poetry and essays. Hongo is presently a professor at the University of Oregon.
In Yellow Light, his first book-length volume of verse, Hongo presents images from his childhood and family life growing up in a multicultural Los Angeles neighborhood. Some of the poems are portraits of difficult lives, depicting dispossessed members of the underclass, or lonely, isolated individuals of foreign descent suffering oppression and discrimination in American society. In other cases Hongo has commented on trials endured by immigrants, including the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the anti-Japanese sentiment they suffer today. When the poet shows assimilation having been achieved, it is often at the cost of estrangement from cultural history. In more personal poems, Hongo explores the origin of his creativity and his need to express himself in verse. He also seeks connection with his Japanese heritage, but recognizes that he has been considerably shaped by American pop culture. In his second book of poetry, The River of Heaven, Hongo continues to combine personal memories with observations about individual lives and the significance of cultural bonds.
Hongo has been praised for his powers of description and the depth of feeling conveyed by his verse. Commentators find that despite taking on subjects such as victimization and prejudice, he successfully avoids moralizing or sentimentality. Comparing Hongo's style to that of Walt Whitman, critics have noted that both poets celebrate their creative urge and the feeling that they are linked to their surroundings and history. Furthermore, Hongo frequently utilizes literary devices typical of Whitman's poetry, such as long, flowing lines, descriptive lists, and repetitive use of phrasing and word order. Diane Wakoski, in reviewing Yellow Light, highlighted perhaps the most important quality of Hongo's poetry when she called attention to the "enthusiasm" and "spirit of life" evident in his verse.
The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99 [with Alan Chong Lau and Lawson Fusao Inada] (poetry) 1978
Yellow Light (poetry) 1982
The River of Heaven (poetry) 1988
Other Major Works
Nisei Bar and Grill (play) 1976
The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America [editor] (poetry collection) 1993
Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America [editor] (essay collection) 1995
Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai'i (memoir) 1995
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SOURCE: A review of Yellow Light, in The American Book Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, January-February 1984, pp. 4-5.
[In the following, Wakoski lauds Yellow Light as "one of the most exciting books of poems I have read in recent years."]
In the spring of 1963, Gilberto Sorrentino, primary book reviewer for Kulchur magazine, reviewed my second appearance in print, a book called, as a joke by its editor LeRoi Jones, Four Young Lady Poets. In his review, Sorrentino said,
Diane Wakoski is the least interesting of the four poets presented…. Essentially, this is middle-class poetry … Miss Wakoski's poems are disguised in the "modern" trappings but she is as superficial as Edward Albee, another middle-class product.
Of the three other poets, Carol Berge has gone on to become an interesting avant garde fiction writer; Rochelle Owens, an impressive avant garde playwright; and, until recently, Barbara Moraff had more or less disappeared from the literary world, to my knowledge not having published any books for the past 10 years. For better or worse, I have published 13 collections of poems, numerous small press "slim volumes," and a bit of writing on contemporary American poetry.
I have begun my review with this painful memory, never quite healed, to say that I vowed when reading that unthinking and...
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SOURCE: A review of Yellow Light, in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 123-25.
[In this review, Uba asserts that the "principal concerns " of Yellow Light are "the quest for a personal identity and the desire to build and retrieve a collective identity by sifting through the past."]
A few years back a popular weekly newsmagazine ran an article on Japanese Americans, treating them as an American success story. The article was headlined—"Outwhiting the Whites." Garrett Kaoru Hongo's book of poetry, Yellow Light, demolishes the onesidedness of such headlines and grapples with the underlying problem toward which they unintentionally point: the problem of an ethnic group whose own identity remains ill-defined.
Not that Hongo merely trumpets the familiar tune of ethnic pride. Rather, he excels at balancing a passionate interest in ordinary working-class people performing ordinary activities, with a deep-felt concern over what they are often the unknowing victims of. In the title poem, "Yellow Light," for instance, an unidentified Los Angeles woman returns with a load of groceries to her "neighborhood of Hawaiian apartments, / just starting to steam with cooking" but fails to observe the "war" being waged between the "dim squares" of kitchen light in the barrio and the "brilliant fluorescence" emanating from the wealthy Miracle Mile...
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SOURCE: "Voices of Democracy," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXI, No. 10, 13 June 1988, pp. 15-16.
[In the following review, Pettingill maintains that the poems in The River of Heaven are Hongo's "elaborate ritual of atonement for leaving behind his culturally ambiguous background."]
Each year the Academy of American Poets sponsors the publication of the Lamont Selection, a promising writer's second book of verse. The latest to appear is Garrett Hongo's The River of Heaven. The author, of Japanese descent, was born in Volcano, Hawaii. The exotic places he describes—seedy Chinatowns, Pacific ports with their international jumble of peoples and customs—might sound, in paraphrase, like backdrops for Mr. Moto or Charlie Chan. Yet they are really nothing like that: "I have no story to tell about lacquer shrines / or filial ashes, about a small brass bell, / and incense smoldering in jade bowls." Hongo's tale, in fact, concerns what it feels like to grow up as the child of unassimilated immigrants, to be soaked with values incompatible with those of one's ancestors, yet not fully accepted by the new culture.
Given Hongo's themes, it is understandable that his method has been powerfully shaped by the poetry of Philip Levine. The old saw that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery never seemed more applicable. Not that Hongo lacks a distinct voice. Rather, Levine's style has...
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SOURCE: "Passionate Virtuosity," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 149-57.
[In the review below of River of Heaven, Schultz admires Hongo's "rich vocabulary and undulant syntax, " which "hold his stories of loss and remembrance in a secure, distinctive music. "]
Like [Philip] Levine, Garrett Hongo, in The River of Heaven, attends with care to those excluded from whatever the American Dream has become in the 1980s. In "The Underworld," he recounts watching a movie—a slapstick come dy—in the old Orpheum in Los Angeles, and listening to the chatter and laughter of "the shimmering, mingled throngs of the poor" who take "a common pain or delight in, just once, / another's humiliation." Hongo has even dedicated a poem, "Choir," to Levine, but here a difference between the two poets is apparent. Hongo, the younger poet, seems less alone, less embittered than Levine does in his newest book. The central moment of "Choir" is the poet's recollection of singing in his junior high hallways with a makeshift quartet: himself, "a black kid, a white one, and another Japanese." The "black kid" taught the group "Summertime," and "Together our voices made a sound none could make alone, / 'Harmonics,' Harold said, a tone from the choir itself…." Such moments of connection, usually achieved through storytelling or music, buoy this poetry, lending it a sweetness even as it...
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SOURCE: "A Vicious Kind of Tenderness: An Interview with Garrett Hongo," in Poets & Writers Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 5, September-October 1992, pp. 37-46.
[In the following conversation, Hongo discusses the craft of writing and the role of his family history in his poetry.]
[Alice Evans]: At a craft workshop recently, you talked about how important it is for the individual to act as a witness to history. Witnessing appears to be a primary directive in your work. How would you describe the poet's role as historian, from both a broad view and a personal one?
[Garrett Hongo]: As poets we need to portray the events of the world from our own point of view. We need to be attached to the events of the world in our own lives. Sometimes history passes us by and we don't know it. I believe that poets must speak as witnesses to historical events. I don't believe in [the official version of] American history; I believe in what we've witnessed as the travesties in American history.
I try to be faithful to the history of Japanese in America and write from it, and I've made it my responsibility to know everything that I can about it. It's like Czeslaw Milosz says about Lithuania: "If there is no singer there is no history." That's how I go into the world: if I don't write it, it's not going to get written, and I don't want people to stop that. I see that the person in my way...
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SOURCE: "The Volcano Inside," in The Southern Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, April, 1996, pp. 337-43.
[In the review below, Jarman calls Volcano "a remarkable, profound, and haunting book. "]
When the poet Garrett Hongo was six years old, his parents, both descended from Japanese immigrants and like himself natives of Hawai'i, left the islands and moved their family to Los Angeles. It was the late 1950s, for immigrants a time of great promise—a promise that American history has shown was not an illusion. The prospects were especially bright in Los Angeles, for even then that amazing incorporation of cities, spread over two vast, linked areas, the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley, was a site of unique multiculturalism. Los Angeles included the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in North America (after Mexico City), and the second-largest Japanese population in the United States (after Honolulu). Hongo grew up within and surrounded by communities noted for their ethnicity. His high school in Gardena, a city with a predominantly Japanese population, represented the African, Asian, Anglo, and Hispanic peoples of greater Los Angeles, a rich flood that filled the grid sprawling between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
It is clear from Volcano, a Memoir of Hawai'i, a remarkable, profound, and haunting book, that Hongo missed nothing of L.A.'s...
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Hai-Jew, Shalin. Review of Volcano. Northwest Asian Weekly 14, No. 23 (9 June 1995): 15.
Recounts Hongo's search for "personal peace" in his memoir.
Review of Yellow Light. Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 May 1992): 9.
Praises the "full poetic arsenal" Hongo displays in this collection. "By discovering his family" in these poems, the critic observes, "the poet discovers himself. And through him, a vivid sense of the Japanese-American past and present emerges."
Moffett, Penelope. "Verses Chronicle Tales of Asian-Americans." Los Angeles Times (19 March 1987): V 1, 19.
Biographical sketch and interview with Hongo.
Moyers, Bill. "Garrett Kaoru Hongo." In The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, pp. 201-15. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Interview addressing the sources and inspiration for Hongo's works and the practice of poetry in modern America.
Oyama, Richard. "You Can Go Home Again: Writer and Poet Garrett Hongo Reclaims His Birthplace and Heritage in Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii." Asianweek 17, No. 3 (8 September 1995): 13.
Characterizes Hongo's memoir as "a beautiful song of place, history, and...
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