Three or More Questions With Garrett Hongo

Stephen Novotny

Garrett Hongo is the author of three books of poetry, three anthologies, and Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai`i. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Georgia Review, APR, Honolulu Weekly, Amerasia Journal, Virginia Quarterly Review, Raritan, and the LA Times.  His latest book of poetry, Coral Road, was published by Knopf in Fall 2011. Switchback recently had the opportunity to speak with the award winning poet and essayist when he visited the USF campus. 

Switchback: To what locality do you identify your writing? I.e. how does your work fit into or become a part of the regions where you've lived or been, and so on?

Garrett Hongo: I constantly find myself having to counteract what pop and postmodern culture provides me as scenic and narrative identities, backdrops for the play of consciousness, yet these manufactured things have the appeal of mass (mis)recognition, visual referents others can attach to a story I'm telling, in prose or poetry, about the past and its places. And I am likewise constantly inspired by the great works of literature not to give in, to find inspiration in the humble regions of my own memory, in a homebound ethicality, in the sere commonplaces of mild existence. I have Walden as our American version of the great Japanese eremitic zuihitsu (poetic essay) tradition practiced by Kamo-no-Chōmei, Yoshida Kenkō, and Matsuo Bashō. And I know that, like them, I write from lost places, neighborhoods I have been taken away from I feel a need to return to.

I write from Kahuku, the plantation village on O`ahu in Hawai`i where I grew up as a child, remembering its Buddhist temple, tofu makers, rows of shotguns, and sandy village square, remembering the fields of sugar cane, the tractors and trailers hauling burned and cut cane down the Kamehameha Highway to the smoking mill at the center of everything. I write from the rocky beaches and sandy promontories where the separate graveyards were for Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese workers. I write from the blossoming plumeria trees, from the ironwoods by the beaches, and my memory of streetvendor calls and my grandfather singing in Hawaiin and Japanese as he washed dishes for his roadside café. I write from this world I left at the age of six, returned to when I was ten, that was lost to everyone as a re-capitalized Hawai`i turned itself away from sugar to embrace tourism.

I write from the small tract home my parents bought for us in Gardena, near Los Angeles, its symmetrical grid of suburban streets, its corner gas stations and liquor stores, the barbed wire around my high school, the razor wire around wrecking yards and auto shops, the tiny Japanese okazuyas and gaudy poker parlors, the rat-nests of palm trees, and the long, cooling, fog-banked and wind-tunneled seaward-bound road at the center of town. I write from my memories of all of us in high school--black kids bused in from Compton, Chicanos from "The Tracks" near Gardena Boulevard, and us Buddhaheads from all over town, worried dress and the latest dances, worried about cool and avoiding addiction to glue and Robitussin even as we hoped we were college-bound. I write about the summer evening Festival for the Dead at Gardena Hongwanji and the intimate spaces for dinnertime cooking my mother and grandmother made, my father watching football and boxing on the TV, exhausted after work and stymied by his social isolation. I write from people who work and want better for themselves and their children.

And I write from what was an intellectual native ground--my years away at Pomona College, where I studied literature, languages, and philosophy and was allowed to develop my deep love for learning and reflection. I found "the better nature" of literary practice there, sponsored in my soul a feel for the finish of language, the finer tone of contemplative emotions. What was better than reading Keats and Kawabata in the mornings, hearing a lecture on jazz operas and Moby-Dick by the fiery and signifying Stanley Crouch, browsing through the home library of the poet Bert Meyers and listening to him hold forth on the Spanish civil war and the last poems of Miguel Hernandez? What was better than reading A Primer of Tu Fu late at night, having a cup of burgundy, and practicing ideograms until I fell asleep over the smearing ink on the soft, absorbent pages of my copybook? A rhyme from Yeats runs through my head as I walk across the yellowing grass of the college soccer field. In the distance, I see the moon ascend over a snow-streaked Mt. Baldy, and I feel a studious complacency rousing into passion in the late spring twilight.

Volcano, the little village where I was born on the island of Hawai`i, is, finally, the first lost neighborhood of my soul. I did not grow up there in that preternatural rainforest and sublime volcanic landscape, but I moved back many times these last years, writing from the ache of my love for that place. It exceeds all the praise and lyric description I can muster.

Poet, take nothing from this world but awe and a longing to return to the magnificent beginnings of first things.

SB: I feel like you touched on many of your influences in the last question, but could you select one or two books/authors that have affected your work? How have they changed your vision of what writing can be?

GH: When I was young, it was important that I'd read writers of place and a people. In this sense, John Steinbeck was enormously important--his novels and short stories about his ranchers and farmhands around Salinas, the Mexican Americans in Monterey, and the great landscape that surrounded them. His work inspired me to think about my own people--sugar cane laborers and shopkeepers on the North Shore of O`ahu--and to seek out, for most of my adult life, stories about them. I'd say Robinson Jeffers was important to me too--for his landscape poetry, for the one narrative poem of his I liked, "Roan Stallion." And Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley and the great film John Ford made of it--about Welsh coal miners. James Joyce too--Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Notice how all these influences are narrative? It wasn't until later--college and my twenties--that lyric poetry became as strong an influence. Coleridge's "conversation poems," Wordsworth's The Prelude, and Pound's Cathay were the books for me. Pound for imagery and plain statement, integrity of the line, and what Japanese aesthetics has called sabi--a kind of esthete's sadness mixed with joy that I think the dominant feeling in my own poetry. It's in Wordsworth and Coleridge too, oddly enough. Among my elders, I'd have to say Philip Levine was an early influence and inspiration. Anthony Hecht, Derek Walcott, and Charles Wright are the poets I feel I'm most in conversation with, though. Hecht for his brilliant narrative work and psychic toughness, Walcott for just about everything including that great Caribbean voice of Shabine in "The Schooner & Flight," and Charles Wright for elegance of mind, imagery, and phrasing. Even Hecht and Walcott are narrative poets, though, aren't they? And every one of them superb rhetoricians.

Finally, I'd have to say that Dante and Virgil are much more on my mind lately. At first, through Charles Wright, but, more and more, I've been thinking about Dante all on my own. I read him early--freshman year in college, then a senior seminar--but his work has stayed with me and taken on more dimension and meaning for me as I've gotten older. I think in terms of the scenes in the Commedia all the time these days. They mediate my understanding of my own memories and experiences, my encounters with greater things. Virgil, though, roots me on earth, I'd say, among people, in earthly places and doing earthly work. I teach them both in my own seminars and it's helped coming to grips with them, enlarging poetic practice and poetic mind. But Dante more than Virgil. His questions, his insights, his scenic imagination.

SB: Given that you used to direct the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Oregon, in what ways have these influences and life experiences (of the first question) helped shape your pedagogy?

GH: Administrative work and accomplishments have to be their own reward, as the only practical result besides the good works is the opportunity to do MORE administrative work if you're successful!

I got out of it as, for a number of years after I'd stepped down, the only opportunities that came my way were either to direct other writing programs elsewhere or to become a dean! Nothing worse for a poet.

As for my life experiences in Kahuku, LA, and Volcano--I've no idea what to say, except that I know that a poet can come from anywhere. if I can have become a poet, anyone can, no matter the background. Before a few of us started showing up, was there an Asian American poet? It was an idea my undergrad professors scoffed at, some of my grad professors (not poets) did too. But the poets and writers always encouraged me--Bert Meyers, Stanley Crouch, Darcy O'Brien, Donald Hall, and Robert Hayden....

As for pedagogy, I'd say my undergraduate liberal arts training at Pomona College shaped me as much as anything--the rigor, the intense reading, the being called upon to think on my feet in front of the professor and the whole class. And my classes with Charles Wright in Poetic Meter and Form, with Frank Lentricchia in Modern Poetry, with Murray Krieger in the Renaissance Lyric, with Albert Wlecke in the Romantic Lyric, with Harold Toliver on Milton. I derive from my teachers, though I'm not much like them personally. Likely I'm more like Bert Meyers, my undergraduate poetry teacher, who insisted on depth, wit, total recall of the reading, and eloquence in speaking about it all. He loved poetry and he insisted that, if you were to speak of his beloved poetry, you spoke of it with love too.

SB: And what are your opinions about teaching Creative Writing in an academic setting?

GH: I really like the academic setting of the MFA for teaching poetry. It's the best. I get to work with serious young people, teach the texts I think could benefit others from my views about them, and, best of all, keep learning myself! I think my appreciation for poets as varied as Dante, Virgil, Theocritus, Milton, Ann Bradstreet, Phyllis Wheatley, and Thomas Gray has improved considerably because I've kept them on the reading list for seminars I teach through the years. And I've deepened my knowledge and familiarity with my own "standards"--Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, Shakespeare, Sidney, Yeats, Stevens, and Frost. In terms of student poetry, I think the poems I see in workshop are among the best being written today (only don't tell them that, please). I enjoy working with my MFA students immensely.

SB: Also, since you mention A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, what is your advice to a young writer?

GH: Find a teacher. I had no idea how important that was, even though I had a great, inspiring teacher in Bert Meyers as an undergraduate. Once I got to UC Irvine, though, working with C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Howard Moss changed my life. They demanded my own complete seriousness about my own work and that was something I was still afraid of doing when I arrived--for a number of reasons. But those teachers confirmed in me the best I had to give and insisted I give it to EVERY poem and I did it! Though I would have never believed I could when I started out being their student. C.K. was imperious, exhorting, inspiring, and demanding as hell. Charles was gentle, distant, and astonishingly acute in being selective in his praise, but, when you hit it, there he was and he lifted you up, quietly. One of the most supple and acute minds for nuance, form, rhetoric, and structure around anywhere. And he's never not been there like that for me since. A lifelong apprenticeship and friendship with Charles. With Howard Moss, I met one of the most nimble and genial intelligences about the tradition and contemporary form. And a gentleman. He showed me how he worked with Lowell on Lowell's translation of The Oresteia by way of encouraging me to flesh out and perfect one of my first long poems--about the internment of Japanese Americans during WW II. Later, during a luncheon conference on my manuscripts, just under an awning by the vendors across from our classroom building at Irvine, he asked for one of my workshop poems, saying, "Will you send me this?--at the magazine, please." He meant The New Yorker, and damn if it didn't change my life.

Teachers can see through to the best you have to give and the generous ones tell you you have to give it and all the time. That's what I learned from those three at Irvine.