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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Garrett Kaoru Hongo
(b. 1951)

Garrett Kaoru Hongo is a prolific and accomplished Asian American poet. His poetry is characterized by striking images and unexpected, luminous lines. He has a special talent for close observation, an eye for the telling detail, and an ability to make the mundane beautiful, as in the vivid food images of “Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?” In dramatic monologues, such as “The Unreal Dwelling: My Years in Volcano,” he gives voice to figures from his familial past or from a communal past. Of his writing, Hongo has written, “My project as a poet has been motivated by a search for origins of various kinds—quests for ethnic and familial roots, cultural identities, and poetic inspiration....I find the landscapes, folkways, and societies of Japan, Hawaii, and even Southern California to continually charm and compel me to write about them and inform myself of their specificities.”

Born in Volcano, Hawaii, Hongo moved as a child to Laie, to Kahuku, and then to California—the San Fernando Valley—where he and his brother were the only Japanese in the public school. His family finally settled in Gardena, a Japanese American community in South Los Angeles adjoining the black community of Watts and the white community of Torrance. Hongo graduated from Pomona College, then traveled in Japan on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. He returned for graduate work at the University of Michigan, where he won the Hopwood poetry prize and studied with poet-professors Bert Meyers, Donald Hall, and Philip Levine. Later, he earned an M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine. He taught at various universities, including the University of Missouri, where he was poetry editor of the Missouri Review. He is presently professor of English and creative writing at the University of Oregon.

Hongo has produced three volumes of poetry. The first, a joint publication with fellow poets Lawson Fusao Inada and Alan Chong Lau called The Buddha Bandits down Highway 99 (1978), is a tripartite work of youthful exuberance. Hongo’s contribution to that first volume, “Cruising 99,” is included in his second book, Yellow Light (1982), from which most of the poems in the anthology were taken. Yellow Light won the Wesleyan Poetry Prize. The River of Heaven (1988), his third book of poetry, was awarded the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1987 by the Academy of American Poets and two years later was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. “The Unreal Dwelling: My Years in Volcano” comes from this collection. In 1995, Hongo published Volcano, a poetic memoir exploring in greater depth some of the themes he had introduced in his poetry: his continuing search for family history and his rediscovery of the land of his childhood.

Hongo has also contributed to the Asian American literary/historical/critical opus by compiling and editing three significant anthologies. The Open Boat (1993) showcases the poetry of thirty-one Asian American poets; Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994) collects stories, plays, and memoirs of Wakako Yamauchi; Under Western Eyes (1995) assembles personal narratives by Asian American writers. Hongo’s description of the Asian American poets he has gathered together in The Open Boat applies equally to his own poetry: “We come to consciousness aware of the history of immigration and the Asian diaspora, singing from the fissures and fragmentations of culture in order to bring about their momentary unity in the kind of evanescent beauty that the figure of a poem makes.”

Amy Ling
University of Wisconsin at Madison

King-Kok Cheung
University of California, Los Angeles

In the Heath Anthology
And Your Soul Shall Dance (1982)
Off from Swing Shift (1982)
Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic? (1982)
Yellow Light (1982)
The Unreal Dwelling: My Years in Volcano (1985)

Other Works
The Buddha Bandits down Highway 99 (with Alan Chong Lau and Lawson Fusao Inada) (1978)
The River of Heaven (1988)
The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, ed. (1993)
Wakako Yamauchi: Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994)
Under Western Eyes, ed. (1995)
Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii (1995)

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Hongo makes switch from poetry to prose for `Volcano'
An article for the UC Davis newspaper by Elisabeth Sherwin.

Modern American Poetry
Provides criticism and interview excerpts.

NPR's Anthem
In a radio interview, Hongo reads Mendocino Rose, and Volcano House.

The Academy of American Poets
Offers a biography, three texts, and links.

Secondary Sources