Looking Into the Meat of the Word: An Appreciation of Garrett Hongo

by Michelle Peñaloza

I had so much trouble writing this tribute.

How do you thank a man who still intimidates the hell out of you, to his face? That expressive, mercurial face which has prompted many a moment of fear, elation, shame, and pride in you?

How do you thank a man who’s a key player in making possible the exciting, ever-growing, hybrid, transnational, badass umbrella we invoke when we say “Asian American Literature,” with his work editing The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America and Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America, both groundbreaking in their content and scope? How do you thank this man, the first Asian American to run an MFA program, who through his own acts of nation-building through his body of work and in his vision and advocacy worked so powerfully against the oversimplified marginalizing and censoring of the individual artist and made possible the path you now walk?

How do you thank your mentor who’s taught you more about poetry than anyone else? Who has pushed and pushed you to push aside your flimsy doubts, your many excuses, to just be better? Write better, read better, think better, do better because you can, and, frankly, it’s unacceptable when you don’t. What’s an adequate way to show your love to your mentor, whose pride in you, when he shares it, makes your own heart swell with gratitude and pride? Who when he shared with you the proverbial, many-times-asked-of-him-by-so-many blurb for your debut full-length collection, wrote you an email that was its own ceremony and then gifted you a blurb so full of generosity it made you ugly-weep with joy, for you and your work having been seen and welcomed so fully by this man who has taught you so much?    

I don’t know that I can ever adequately thank Garrett—but here’s me, trying.

When I’m anxious about something I have to write, I often turn to the dictionary—looking into the meat of the word for the concept with which I’m wrestling, looking for some answers or some beginning. Two historical, secondary definitions for the word “tribute” are the “payment made by one state ruler to another, especially as a sign of dependence” and “a proportion of ore or its equivalent, paid to a miner for his work.” To be a former student of Garrett Hongo’s is to pay him tribute whenever you meet another writer, whenever you speak about writing, about poetry, whenever you teach, whenever you sit down to write—paying forward what he has taught you, your homage a marker of your dependence on his teaching which has ultimately borne you toward independence, toward your striking out on your own, built up by a foundation formed in your study with him of trying to ask the right questions and seeking your own, hard won answers. And, it’s not a huge stretch to say that to be a student of Garrett’s is somewhat like working in a mine—it is scary work, with the potential for many explosions, yet the reward, is worth your stumbling in the terrifying dark and you are made stronger and hardier for the effort of having survived.

In composing this tribute to Garrett, (or as I like to sometimes refer to him, GKH, as he is as legendary as RBG and the Notorious BIG), I thought another possible way to show him appreciation is to use his own words. Garrett is not a man who uses words lightly (he doesn’t really do anything lightly—does he? Was anyone else here also riveted by his quest, chronicled on Facebook, to find the right rug for his listening room?), so when his email greets you with “Aloha” and bids you farewell with “Mahalo” he houses his correspondence with you in ritual and ceremony—Aloha: may you be known and loved—framed by generosity and kindness—and Mahalo: with gratitude and esteem.

One can frame Garrett’s legacy in this way, too—powered by the values behind the words aloha and mahalo—so many people are deeply indebted to him for his poetry, essays, and memoir, for his work his editing rigorous, seminal anthologies to include and recognize that there is no-one-way to exist or write in an artist’s negotiations of culture and power; for his work fostering opportunities as teacher, program director, and mentor, and advocating, especially for voices marginalized by the mainstream and/or singular, political agendas.

Garrett has done for so many, as he describes in this passage from Volcano, what Bert Meyers did for him: “He could look into my eyes and see into the history I was not myself ready to address, to live by. He knew part of my story, the part no one else knew or seemed to want to know, and he said he would help me with it. He was telling me that. I followed him.”

Later in that same chapter, Garrett writes about a turning point in his study under C.K. Williams:

I was stunned. His approval was nothing I expected. Williams gazed at me with large, lemur-like eyes. They suddenly seemed to me the kindest eyes I’d ever seen. He fixed me to my seat. My blood seemed to be made of sand.

“If you can write like this, Williams snapped, “I don’t see why you waste your time writing all that other shit.” “What’s more, he continued, bellowing, “I don’t see why you’re wasting mine!”

With those words, Williams had fixed and inscribed a standard to my ambition, giving me a charge that, from that point on, became the center of my resolve. He recognized the poetry within me, telling me what my poetry was. He’d shared his judgement. It is the most valuable thing an artist has besides his passion, besides experience. He would accept none of the false words I had been typing and handing in each week. From me, he held out for a truth—that there is a world of feeling and specificities among the vast and monolithic Other of race in America. When I gave it, he gave back. It was a blessing.”

Replace “Williams” with “Hongo” and “gazed with large lemur-like eyes” with “widened his eyes over the top rim of his glasses” and you pretty much have a play-by-play of my own turning point in my study with Garrett.

A quality I greatly admire in Garrett, is the way he holds his intellectual acuity and magnanimity simultaneously; don’t get me wrong—GKH doesn’t suffer fools, has no patience for apathy or willful ignorance—but he is tender and full of sentiment beneath that gruff exterior. He is vigilant and he is rooting for you and he’ll tell you how pissed his is when you’re not rooting for yourself. Even as he might growl at you as he takes you to task, he is cheering you on, waiting for you to live up to what he’s been impatiently expecting from you. Garrett’s gifts to his students are multifaceted, but, for me, at the forefront of all of these is the gift of his rage—which manifests as a sustained and righteous focus, as motivation, as the essential ceremony of continuing a legacy he began: the assertion and sponsorship of the dignity, legitimacy, and potentiality of all our voices.


I began learning from Garrett well before I met him. He, along with Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin, were the first living Asian-American poets I ever read—not in middle school, nor high school, but well into college; this was before Kundiman, before the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, and before I ever imagined myself any kind of writer outside of my personal journal. Here I was in Middle Tennessee, the lone Asian American in all my English classes, reading their books and flipping to their author photos again and again—poem, photo, poem, photo. Their poems and their faces invited me into a conversation I didn’t know could include us. Their existence fueled my own insistence: I could, I would, write poems, too.

In The Mirror Diary, Garrett writes about the text which gives the collection its name:

 This was, quite simply, a profound rage for story, for a master tale that justifies, in the powerful way that literatures do, my own presence in my own time in history . . . With little direct knowledge, with almost nothing then available in the archive to study and learn from about we people who came from Asia to America, I fabricated my own legend . . . this invented archive and pioneer’s diary so that I could be, so that I would be worthy of the wisdom of a literature that spoke directly of my own people and not the gross uncouth, child-of-immigrants Caliban I was afraid I was without it. So, like a lonely child inventing an imaginary friend, I had my book, my ancestral literature after all.

What does it mean for your mentor to have performed this vital, lonely work? For me, it meant that the work to find my way toward my own validation of the confluence of global histories that made me possible, my own work toward my own legend was so much less lonely. It was work I did not, do not, do alone.

Earlier this year, I attended the Key West Literary Seminar and there met a fellow poet named Jacqueline Trimble. Within minutes of meeting, we learned we’d both had the honor of being Garrett’s students, something that bonded us quickly as we fell into an easy short hand in our conversation—about poetry, about what we’d recently read, about Garrett. She shared with me, almost immediately: “Garrett was the first person to take me seriously. He helped me to, he taught me to, take myself seriously.” We both went on for a while about the ways we both felt this being Garrett’s students, being women of color, even as the time we’d studied with him was some twenty years apart. It was a beautiful moment: in a landscape so far away from the ones in which we were his students (her in Missouri, me in Oregon), and so far from where we both live (me in CA, her in AL) through our gratitude for Garrett and his effect on our lives in poetry, we were transported back to those formative, life-affecting places and times. 

In the end, then, how do you give thanks to the maestro of tough love and infinite tenderness? You simply say it:

Thank you.

Michelle Peñaloza is the author of Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, winner of the 2018 Hillary Gravendyk National Poetry Prize (Inlandia Books, 2019). The proud daughter of Filipino immigrants, Michelle was born in the suburbs of Detroit, MI and raised in Nashville, TN. She now lives in rural Northern California.