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Garrett Hongo


Garrett Hongo
Coral Road
I keep wanting to go back, across an ocean, blue-grey and uncaring,
White cowlicks of waves at the continental shore, then the midsea combers
Like white centipedes far below the jetliner that takes me there.
And across time too, to 1920 and my ancestors fleeing Waialua Plantation,
Trekking across the northern coast of O`ahu, that whole family
                                                                            of first Shigemitsu
Walking in geta and sandals along railroad ties and old roads at night,
Sleeping in the bushes by day, ha`alelehana--runaways
From the labor contract with Baldwin or American Factors.

My grandmother, 10 at the time, hauling an infant brother on her back,
Said there was a white coral road in those days, pieces of crushed reef
Poured like gravel over the brown dirt, and, at night, with the moon up,
As it was those nights during their flight, silver shadows on the sea,
It lit their path like a roadway made of dust from the Ocean of Clouds.
Michiyuki is what they called it, the Moon Road from Waialua to Kahuku.

There is little to tell and few enough to tell it to--
A small circle of relatives gathered for reunion
At some beach barbecue or Elk's Club veranda in Waikiki,
All of us having survived that plantation sullenness
And two generations of labor in the sugarfields,
Having shed most all memory of travail and the shame of upbringing
In the clapboard shotguns of ancestral poverty.

                                                                    Who else would even listen?
Where is the Virgil who might lead me through the shallow underworld of this history?
And what demiurge can I say called to them, loveless ones,
                                                                        through twelvescore stands of cane
Chittering like small birds, nocturnal harpies in the feral constancies of wind?

All is diffuse, like knowledge at dusk, a veiled shimmer in the sea
As schools of baitfish boil and revolve in their iridescent globes,
Turning to the olive dark and the dropoff back to depth below,
Where they shiver like silver penitents--a cloud of thin, summer moths--
While rains chill the air and pockmark the surface of the sands at Sans Souci,
And we scatter back inside to a humble Chinese buffet and cool sushi
Spread on Melamine platters on a starched white ribbon of shining cloth.


A Child's Ark

Hot Los Angeles summer days, late ‘50s, a seven-year-old
Shut in the tiny, midtown apartment on South Kingsley Drive,
I'd flip on the TV to the black-and-white game shows,
Re-run comedies and half-hour detective dramas,
Seeking company, avoiding the soaps, news, and cartoons.

One of my favorites for a while was a show called "Kideo Village,"
In which kids would wend their way through the attractive curves
Of a gamepath spooling through the sound studio and its faux lampposts,
Small minimalist archways, doors, pushcarts and streetstands
Set up and interspersed along the telegenic route--
A bakery, a toy shop, the ice cream parlor, etc.
The tragedies strewn in the way would be a bookstore or piggy bank--
For one you'd have to lose a turn and stay inside to read a book,
For the other, you'd give up spending for a certificate of virtue.

The glory was a pet store of fluffy animals--
Nose-twitching rabbits bearing sachets of cash around their necks,
A dog hitched to a wagon filled with sacks of stage gold.
Wealth was the message, the child contestants obliged
To exercise the right energy and enterprise
To run themselves briskly through the board's intricate arrangement
Of pleasure, danger, and delight without risk,
Their assignment to luck into opportunities
That would set off crescendos of bells ringing,
Video paradisos of lights flashing through the transparent lucite
         under their feet.

Yet it was splendor and the minute articulations of a fantasy village's architecture
That mesmerized me, that a child could skip along in a moment's time
Without having to be put in a car or be handled by adults,
To a candy store, movie house, or shop full of cream puffs.
Glee and surprise were everywhere just on the next luminous square
Around the looping turn on the glittering gameboard.

When the power went out one day, or perhaps when the show was canceled,
I got out scissors, paper, and pens, Crayolas arranged in stick puddles
On the dingy, carpeted floor of the apartment's living room,
Mapping out a village of my own on wax paper from a kitchen drawer.
I found empty green stationery boxes my mother brought home from work,
Tore the labels off, drew on them, marked rectangles for doors;
I cut windows, made folding blinds, used the leftover cutouts
To make counters and tables, a long, folded cardboard flume
For water to run in a sluice.... the tofu-maker, the rows of shacks,
A union hall where my uncles would gather, my aunt's gas station
On the highway, clear glass medicine bottles for pumps,
The peaked roof of Kahuku Betsu-In, the barber's, the butcher's,
The Chinese Association...

           This was the village we left behind--
And our apartment, the scatter of debris on its floor, my child's ark
           of the lost world.


Bugle Boys

As I am Kubota's voice in this life,
                                        chanting broken hymns to the sea,
So also am I my father's hearing,
                                55 now and three years shy of his age when he died,
My ears open as the mouth-shells of two conchs, drinking in a soft, onshore wind.

In the fall of '63, at the end of our first year in Gardena, south of L.A.,
                                electrician that he was, he built his own home hi-fi--
Speakers out of parts from Scandinavia, an amp kit ordered through the mails,
The glittering turntable, brushed gold aluminum, a drivebelt, and an inboard motor--
Each component meticulously laid out on a bedsheet soon after it arrived,
Jigsawed cabinet boards with serrated edges, yellow capacitors and rectifiers black as tar,
                                shining and glossy as acquarium fish under living room light,
And the miniature crystal towers of vacuum tubes,
          steel pins scaly as aged platinum,
Erector sets of grey plates and haloed getters intricate as space stations
          under sparkling glass.
In shapes like Coke bottles, potato mashers, and--my favorite--the tiny rockets
                                                                                              with arrowed heads
He called "Bugle Boys" for the labels of white-line cartoons,
          anthropomorphized tubes
          blowing trumpets stamped on each of their sides.
"They make electric sound come sweet," he said, "Like no can b'lieve..."

He'd spend evenings in the garage, soldering circuitry and studying schematics--
Blue zigzags and squiggles on grey paper that folded like army maps--
            checking his work.

Once the speakers were set in their walnut cabinets
and the amp out of its gold-mesh cage,
He asked me to listen while he balanced the stereo channels--a marvel--
And swapped input tubes, pulling pairs from the sagging pocket
                                                                                    of his aloha shirt,
The glass of them making a gentle clatter like tea or sake´ cups
As they knocked softly together when he dipped and swirled his fingers in,
          pulling them out like fancy fish from a bowl.

He couldn't hear.
                         Or, rather, he couldn't quite hear, losing it from a lifetime
                                                                         of cumulative, small misfortunes:
A fever as a child in McCully, guns and canons while away at war at seventeen,
The job holding down a jackhammer, the job under jet engines at Kane`ohe Marine Base.
I knew every reason, though he never gave one himself.

                                                                                  "Sit here," he'd say,
Pointing to the carpeted floor in front of the beige sofa we never used.
He'd throw me a zabuton to sit on, tell me to concentrate,
And I'd hear measure after measure of Big Band tunes filling the room
Like airy clouds of brass cotton lofting around the lamps, ashtrays,
           and coconut curios around me.
"American Patrol," "Ciribiribin," and "Shake Down the Stars" took turns
With lush vibraphones and strummed ukes--50s hotel music from the Islands.

"Tell me whatchu hearing," he'd say, and I would, my father taking notes,
Smiling over our evenings of pleasurable work, string basses and horns in my ears,
Kickdrums and toms reverberating through the floorboards,
Sinatra swaggering a tune, just behind the beat.

What did I know of travail or passion then? My father trying to beat the clock,
Hastening to hear or not hear each spinning A-side he ever danced to
              at the Black Cat in Honolulu
Before the world closed its cave of cotton around him,
Cymbals become a silent splash of metallic light, snare rolls a strobe of sticks
              with no sound,
A song only a murmur without scale,
                                                     and music a birthplace he could never return to.

"No ka ipo lei... manu," sang the Sons of Hawai`i, and so I said they did,
My father jotting it down, Bugle Boys jousting in the pocket of his shirt.


          -from Coral Road, Knopf 2013, selected by Guest Editor TR Hummer       


Poems - Prompt - Bio - Reviews - Interviews

In Garrett Hongo's "A Child's Ark," Hongo explores a TV game show and his relationship to it as a child. Have fun with this one. Think back to a particular game you enjoyed as kid. It could be a board game, a game show, a video game, that game of hide-and-seek when you received your first surprise kiss (not auto-biographical on my part at all!), a sport, the last time you played baseball or the most memorable World Series game you ever watched, a mind game your evil older sister played on you when she wanted her way (again, not auto-biographical on my part at all...), any sort of game you can think of.

Describe the game and show the reader how you related to it. Did you play it? Did it play you? Was it a game you enjoyed, a game tha hanuted you, a game in which you always played the villian? Is the game just a game or is it a metaphor for something deeper? Enliven the poem with rich imagery and metaphor. Be imaginative. Perhaps parts of the poem should take on the bahaviro of the game itself. Keep the poem to one page like Hongo, and enjoy!


Poet, memoirist, and editor Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawai’i, in 1951 to Japanese American parents. He grew up in Hawai’i and Los Angeles, and earned his BA from Pomona College and his MFA from the University of California-Irvine, where he studied with the poets C.K. Williams, Howard Moss, and Charles Wright. His collections of poetry include Yellow Light (1982), The River of Heaven (1988), which received the Lamont Poetry Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer, Coral Road: Poems (2011), and The Mirror Diary (2017). His poetry explores the experiences of Asian Americans in Anglo society, using lush imagery, narrative techniques, and myth to address both cultural alienation and the trials of immigrants, including the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as well as the anti Japanese sentiment today. Because he delves into history and his own memory to express the bitterness of prejudice, Hongo’s poems frequently take the form of character studies and anecdotal first-person narratives. As Hongo told Contemporary Authors: “My project as a poet has been motivated by a search for origins of various kinds, a quest for ethnic and familial roots, cultural identity, and poetic inspiration—all ultimately connected to my need for an active imaginative and spiritual life. One might get at these through religion or the contemplation of moral and socioeconomic problems, but for me the way has led to the study of and the desire to contact, through the writing of poetry, those places and peoples from which I’ve been separated by either history or personality… I write to be a voice that I can listen to, one that makes sense and raises my own consciousness. And I write for all the people who might want the same thing, no matter what race, class, or nationality.”

Hongo’s style—particularly his use of descriptive lists and repetitious word order and phrasing—has invited comparison to 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. The dramatic power of these devices is matched by Hongo’s sense of purpose: “I’m committed to a task of enlightenment,” the poet told the Los Angeles Times, “of bringing the stories I know to the so-called ‘legitimate culture.’” Hongo’s language has been described as elegant and lyrical in both his poetry collections and his prose memoir, Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii (1995). As in his poetry, Hongo’s memoir connects with his family’s past by recreating the Hawaii and California of his father and grandfather. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sigrid Nunez placed Hongo in the broader poetic tradition of Yeats: “Hongo takes to heart Yeats’s assertion in his Autobiography that the poet who wishes to create a work that will last must first find metaphors in the natural landscape he was born to. This will give the reader some idea of the scope of Hongo’s ambition. And indeed this book’s greatest pleasures are its descriptions of that ravishing land of rain forest and live volcanoes.”
Hongo has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the editor of the acclaimed anthologies The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (1993), Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir (1994), and Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America (1995). He is currently Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon where he directed the Program in Creative Writing from 1989-1993. He lives in Eugene with his wife and children.


A Review of Garrett Hongo's Coral Road, by Josh Kalscheur first published at Devil's Lake

Garrett Hongo, a Japanese-American born and raised in Hawai'i and California, has turned the geographical and cultural landscape of his past and present into nearly thirty years of poetry (and prose – a memoir, Volcano, was published in 1995). Yellow Light (1982) and the Lamont Poetry Selection River of Heaven (1987), his first two collections of poetry, move seamlessly in landscape from Hawai'i to Los Angeles, Japan to the American Pacific Northwest, from urban to rural, from peace-time to war. Through documentary-style description, loping and sonorous rhythms, and Whitmanic line-lengths, these two collections address issues of racial and ethnic injustice, displacement, loss and coming-of-age. Coral Road, his most recent volume, continues in this same vein as it moves the reader from cane plantations, where Japanese people were forced to work during the 1930s, to a detention camp in Arizona, to a World War II soldier in Italy, to Hongo's current home of Oregon. No matter the landscape, in this new collection Hongo wrestles with his present and how it relates to his past and the past of others.

Split into five named sections, Coral Road is organized by historical voices and situations. The first section, also named Coral Road, follows a speaker who is looking back on the Hawai'i of 1919-1920, when twenty Japanese laborers fled their work on cane plantations, fueling a strike. This focus on history and recollection marks much of the book, as sadness, helplessness, and cultural displacement inflect nearly all of these poems. This theme of displacement is emphasized by the use of both Hawaiian and Japanese language, as well as the occasional use of broken English (the frontispiece, "An Oral History of Blind Boy Liliko'i," is the best example). A real highlight in this section, "Pupukea Shell," follows a speaker, presumably Hongo himself, who recalls a Shell gas station (off of Kamehameha Highway in Hawai'i) from his childhood, and its many associations, both familial and otherwise.

When I see it these days, boarded up and rusting,
                The window glass of the office spiderwebbed with cracks,
The pumps gone like pulled teeth and the timbers and underside of the awning
Blackened with mildew and spotted with blooms of a brown, fungal scourge,
I remember that a pair of lovers met there once – a shopgirl and a dark local boy
                With long, black surfer's hair reddened by the sun.
[Hongo p. 16]

The final two lines of this excerpt show Hongo at his strongest – simple, clear, and narratively driven. This more objective approach helps make concrete the varying landscapes through which the reader travels.

Aptly named, the second section, "The Wartime Letters of Hideo Kubota," consists of epistolary poems whose speaker, a Japanese-American named Kubota, is detained in Leupp, Arizona during WWII. The recipients of each letter are poets, ranging from Pablo Neruda and Miguel Hernández to Charles Olson and Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz. "Kubota Returns to the Middle of Life," addressed to the aforementioned Różewicz, effectively intersperses phrases from Różewicz's "In the Middle of Life."

This is a man this is a tree this is bread,
You have taught me. People nourish themselves in order to live.
And I ate what was given for the sake of returning to the midst of life,
So I could talk to the water, so I could stroke the waves in the lagoon with my hand,
So I could converse with the river running through our village
Past cane fields down to the fishponds and out over the reef.

continue reading at https://english.wisc.edu/devilslake/reviews/2012_hongo.html


                  read a review here                   

                  read a review here


A Conversation with Garrett Hongo, Lantern Review

LR: As a longtime professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon, what has the relationship between academia and poetry been like in your life?

GH: Academia has provided a space for poetry, actually. We can pursue it seriously this way—in formal classes and workshops. I didn’t fully and consistently connect with my own poetry until I got to an MFA program—at Irvine—where I studied with C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Howard Moss. They each gave me something different that I desperately needed—C.K. a big push and a challenge, Charles subtle and constant support and a craftsmanlike approach in answering my own inspirations, and Howard amazing formal wit and geniality in working with my own poetic structures. Since then, as a teacher myself, I try to do things similar for my own students. The poetry workshop has been a haven, though, a place to put the busyness of the world aside and concentrate on poems, poetic thought, the imagination. Academe has been the environment that has supported this most consistently for me.

LR: In your writing, geographical and cultural landscapes have inspired both poetry (e.g., Yellow Light, The River of Heaven, and Coral Road), and prose (Volcano: a Memoir of Hawaii). How do you switch gears from one genre to the other?

GH: It’s not easy, actually. I took years and years to find the prose style for Volcano. I wanted a dense, even a cadenced prose like Melville’s in Moby-Dick, a storytelling one like Thoreau’s in Walden, and a “poetic” one like Emerson’s in his essays. My other models were Kamō-no-Chōmei’s hojōki (translated by Oliver Sadler as “An Account of My Hut”), a kind of Book of Job in Japanese, tsurezuregusa by Yoshida Kenkō (meditations on life and aesthetics translated as Essays in Idleness by Donald Keene), Petrarch’s “The Ascent of Mount Ventoux,” and Yasunari Kawabata’s izu-no-odoriko (The Izu Dancer), a kind of Japanese La Vita Nuova.

You notice only the Kawabata is contemporary? It’s the flaw of the book for general audiences, I suppose, but I wanted to see if I could create a prose that was like poetry. The poet Mark Jarman in The Southern Review likened the book to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which was a huge compliment and another book in the back of my mind as I wrote. It indeed was about the growth of my own poetic mind, to see if I could, like a python, dislocate my poetic jaws and swallow a huge and gorgeous landscape, all those ostensibly non-poetic subjects like geology, volcanology, rain forest biology, oral family histories, and local talk story. I’d felt my own poetry too confined to take on that Volcano world, so I turned to prose, but not a prose of reportage or standard non-fiction. It had to have the weight of meditation, aimed for the capture of fleeting insights and inspiration like poetry.

After I turned the manuscript in, I was working on revisions and edits with my editor Sonny Mehta. He wanted complete concentration on the project, so we met in his suite at the Bonaventure Hotel in LA for two whole days. The first thing he said to me was “Garrett, now I know why you took so long to turn in this book. It’s not prose, is it?”

It took me a long time, though, to come back to poetry, as my inner identity and voice had been completely altered by the experience of having written Volcano. Some count it as a 23-year long “absence” or silence between The River of Heaven and Coral Road. Chronologically, I suppose it was. But really, what I was doing was adjusting to the new thing I’d found and staying silent about other things I found completely unpoetic in my life—the loss of my first marriage, raising my sons as a bachelor father, accommodating to the quiet regional life in Eugene, Oregon. When I did adjust, when I found a new life with Shelly Withrow, I spoke again and out came Coral Road, which I think is a natural progression from the lessons of Volcano and The River of Heaven, a natural extension of the prose and poetic voices in both.

I’m working on three projects now—one a book of non-fiction about my audio hobby; a new book of prose poems about Los Angeles; and an extended narrative work about a Nisei G.I. at the tail end of WWII and thereafter, studying painting in Florence, Italy. Of the three, only the audio book might actually be in “prose.” The others are very poetic.

As far as landscapes go, they’re a trigger for me, a big part of the magic, if you will, of falling in love with things and speaking poetically about them. I can’t be happy unless landscape is in there. I’m kind of a landscape painter in that sense, like Paul Cézanne or any plein air painter. I love description and can’t write without it. That’s why you see landscapes, cityscapes, and seascapes in my work all over the place. It’s how I start the work of seeing, of being in love with a subject, of being loyal to its feeling...

continue reading at http://www.lanternreview.com/blog/2012/04/10/a-conversation-with-garrett-hongo/

              listen to an interview here                

              read an interview here                     

              read an interview here                  



Click here to buy Coral Road

Garrett Hongo

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