A fourth-generation Japanese American, Garrett Kaoru Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawaii, in 1951. His parents are Albert Kazuyoshi Hongo, who died in 1984, and Louise Tomiko Kubota Hongo. Until he was six years old, he and his family lived in Kahuku and then Hauula on the island of Oahu. Hongo learned at this time to speak Pidgin English and Japanese. From the ages of six to eighteen, Hongo lived with his family in and around Los Angeles, where he began to experience the harshness of city life (in contrast to the easy rhythms of life on the island) and the prejudices and injustices of a multicultural society. He attended an inner-city high school, which was an integration pilot combining whites, Asian Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in the same classes. Some of his poems, “Morro Rock” in particular, evoke conflicts experienced for the first time in his teenage years.
Hongo’s beginnings as a poet came when he was eighteen and started writing love poems to a European American girl, celebrating a relationship that they felt pressured to keep secret. She awakened in him an intellectual camaraderie with “books about adolescent yearning and rebellion, about ’the system’ not understanding you,” notably William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1951), J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (3 volumes, 1954-1955), and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). His first serious poetry came when he was twenty and a student at Pomona College in Claremont, California. There, as a freshman, he read the early fiction of James Joyce, who made him aware of links between language and culture and the literary divisions of loyalty that an artist might feel. As a sophomore, he progressed to the poetry of Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats, whom he began to revere as sages who had reinvented English according to their own inner voices. He immersed himself in listening to the language of poets by attending actual readings by Philip Levine (who was to become a mentor), Gary Snyder, Seamus Heaney, and Galway Kinnell. He studied Japanese and Chinese formally, and, as Hongo himself relates, “practiced calligraphy every night, and, afterwards, my mind tight and cluttered with bristling ideograms, read the great translations of Tang Dynasty Chinese poetry by Pound, Arthur Waley, Witter Bynner, and Kenneth Rexroth.” Through this process, he began to have confidence in his own authentic voice, what he calls his “inner speech,” later encouraged by poet-teachers Bert Meyers, Charles Wright, C. K. Williams, and Philip Levine.
At the age of twenty, Hongo returned to Hawaii and began to try to reclaim that portion of his own past, his heritage. Here he discovered in a garage his father’s library, consisting primarily of works of realistic fiction, and he established a connection with his uncle, Robert Hongo, who was a novelist. The first “real” poem Hongo wrote was called “Issei: First-Generation Japanese American.” The poem relates an ancestral explanation of how he received his own middle name and thus reveals the close link between name and identity, between name and heritage. Writing the poem was a turning point for him, a moment that confirmed his calling. Hongo describes this experience in terms that represent the...
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