Writeliving Interview – Garrett Hongo

It is a pleasure to kick off the Writeliving interview series with esteemed writer, editor and professor Garrett Hongo.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Three poets–my teachers, Bert Meyers, whom I studied with as an undergraduate, and Charles Wright, who was my MFA teacher at UC Irvine; then, from reading and study, Derek Walcott, who was an early inspiration and continues to be.  Beyond these, I’d say the playwright and short story writer Wakako Yamauchi, who basically brought me along as a young writer, mentoring me about Japanese American history from her perspective as a Nisei who was a teenager in the camps, and who gave me an emotional relationship to it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I usually don’t know what I’m doing for a while.  Then, I write a kind of “breakthrough” poem that serves as a kind of polestar of feeling, style, or emotional center.  It was thus with the last two books of poetry and my memoir, VOLCANO.  I say “poem” for VOLCANO too as there is a poem that is at the book’s core.  Basically, I write poems directed towards that seminal poem that acts as a sort of polestar for the entire book’s composition.  For THE RIVER OF HEAVEN, it was “The Legend.”  For VOLCANO, it was the poem “The Unreal Dwelling” from THE RIVER OF HEAVEN.  For CORAL ROAD, it was “Elegy, Kahuku,” the final poem in the published book.

These set the tone for the work, the emotional center, and ask of me lyric and emotional questions which then the other poems address.  I think a good, long while, as I said, and many ideas that came to me earlier then emerge as part of the creative responses to the core poem’s questions.  I wrote “The Wartime Letters of Hideo Kubota” and “The Art of Fresco” sections of CORAL ROAD to address how two different generations of Japanese Americans experienced the same historical event–WW II–one as a DOJ detainee in Arizona and the other as an American soldier in Italy.  I wrote the other two sections–“Coral Road” and “A Map of Kahuku in Oregon” as my own personal responses to the immigration history and my feelings of descent and legacy from all these histories.  Some want to know about style, voice, the so-called “craft” issues.  These aren’t that much at issue for me, as I’ve practiced poetry for a good while now and have a lot of those things worked out.  In essence, though, I’d have to say that I think I’ve developed a style that takes narrative structures derived from the historical archive of dramatic monologues (mainly in English, but also in translations from Dante’s Italian, Virgil’s and Ovid’s Latin, and the Japanese of Zeami Motokiyo).  It also derives its imagistic style from Pound’s Chinese and Anglo-Saxon translations in CATHAY.  The long line I worked at a good, long while and might have affinities with the verse paragraph of Wordsworth, the conversation poems of Coleridge, and Derek Walcott’s iambics.  It’s more vague to me how I came up with it, but it’s not Whitmanic as so many critics have claimed.  My teachers have helped me develop an ear–all of them–but I think the style and voice are all my own.

What did it take to develop this style?  Many years of practice so that it’s how I “hear” any poem I compose.  It’s the muse.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Well, nothing out of the ordinary, I guess.  My father was always supportive of whatever I wanted to do, but my mother was dead set against my doing anything except pre-med or pre-law as an undergrad, dead set on me going to UCLA.  I wanted to go to Pomona College, its private tuition paid for by the California State Scholarship Commission, a program created by then-Governor Pat Brown, Jerry Brown’s father.  I needed room and board somehow.  My mother refused to cover it.  We had a fight, etc.  In the end, she said “Not one red cent,” but my father turned around and signed over his BMW to me.  It was an unusual car then and his pride and joy.  I drove it for a summer, sold it, and I had my room and board for the first year.  After that, I supported myself through a summer job that my mother helped me get!

Pomona College was the beginning of my writing dream, really.  It was there I first heard living poets–Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks, Diane Wakoski, and others.  I studied literature and art and East Asian languages.  Without it, I doubt I’d have been able to have the dream at all.  When I graduated, I won a fellowship that gave me a year of wandering around Japan, writing poetry.

Later adversities were also substantial–economic, cultural, social–but nothing as clear-cut as my mother refusing to pay for my college education. So, in a way, it wasn’t so much that I prevailed over adversity, but that my father did.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I’m a dedicated audiophile and music lover.  My wife says I’ve spent more on stereo gear than I would have on a midlife Beamer.  She’s probably right.  I’m into vinyl, have a collection of over 2,000 LPs, and have a turntable with two arms–one for mono and one for stereo LPs.  I play mostly classical and opera, but also 50s/60s jazz and 60s/70s rock.  I write reviews, travel articles, and audio show coverage for two audio magazines.

About the author:

Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawai`i in 1951.  He grew up in Kahuku and Hau`ula on the island of O`ahu and moved to Los Angeles when he was six, much to his everlasting regret.  He complained so, when he was eight, his parents sent him to live in Wahiawā and Waimalu with relatives who hated him so much, they stuffed him on a plane back to L.A. within a year.  His schooling was at Gardena High School, Pomona College, and UC Irvine.  He directed the Asian Exclusion Act from 1975-77.  He has taught at USC, Irvine, Missouri, Houston, Vanderbilt, and Oregon, where he directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1989-93. Author of three books of poetry, including Coral Road  (Knopf, 2011), Hongo has edited anthologies and also published a book of non-fiction entitled Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai`i (Knopf, 1995). Not among the falsehoods on his resume are fellowships from the NEA, Rockefeller Foundation, and Guggenheim Foundation, and the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He is presently completing a book of non-fiction entitled The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo.  He lives in Eugene, Oregon, where they call him, among other things, Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.

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