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.