Interview // A Singing School: A Conversation with Garrett Hongo

Interview conducted by Mark Jarman in December 2019

Could you talk about your experience in the theater in Seattle?

Thatʻs funny. My old friend Frank Abe was just here—perhaps a year ahead of you at UCSC. Frankʻs had a lovely success with his book John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy, about the first Japanese-American novelist. He was at UO to visit an Asian American literature course and we took the opportunity to have a reunion. Frank was a lead actor in my theater company back in the 70s, the Asian Exclusion Act, playing the lead in my unfinished play “Nisei Bar & Grill,” serving as acting coach and stage manager for our production of The Gold Watch by Momoko Iko, a play about the wartime evacuation of Japanese Americans in Washington. I recruited him away from the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco after heʻd finished training at A.C.T. down there.

I got a job to be Director of the Asian Multi-Media Center in Seattle in 1976. It was a shell of a non-profit community arts agency that had lost 90% of its funding and had been pared down to a loyal bookkeeper, a couple of part-time instructors, and a building for offices, classrooms, and equipment for a photo lab and silk screening. Nobody really wanted the job, but I saw an opportunity to use the tax-exempt status to revive its theater group, a thing called T.E.A. or the Theatrical Ensemble of Asians, a name that turned my stomach. I renamed the group The Asian Exclusion Act, after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888 that barred Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. and other such laws of the early 20th century. The name provoked a controversy even within the organization, whose board thought it too “in-your-face.” But thatʻs what I wanted–to make a statement, produce plays by Asian American writers (who believed in me and offered me their scripts) that had political and cultural force. In two years, we produced Frank Chin’s The Year of the Dragon, Wakako Yamauchi’s And the Soul Shall Dance, Jeffrey Paul Chan’s Jackrabbit, Mel Escueta’s Honey Bucket, Momoko Iko;s The Gold Watch, and my own “Nisei Bar & Grill.” I recruited actors from everywhere—Amy Hill from my Japanese language class, Stephen Sumida from the Ph.D. program in English, Bea Kiyohara from the university Counseling program, Norman Kaneko from Taki Kimuraʻs kung-fu studio, Taki Kimura himself (who became the movement coach), John Yamane from the Law School, and about a half-dozen from the old troupe—Maria Batayola, Richard Eng, Judi Nihei, and Ken Mochizuki among them. I brought in two Chinese American grad students, Gilbert Wong and Jan Locke, who were studying set design and costuming in the Theater program. Some of the actors had appeared in high school productions, but hadnʻt acted as adults, there not being any opportunities for Asians in the theater just about anywhere. Having zero background in theater myself, I just followed my instincts and convinced everyone we could do it. I read a few books, watched Frank Chin direct, observed Lloyd Richards (director of A Raisin in the Sun) and Mako directing, and took it from there. My confidence was I thought I knew how to raise money from grants, and I did. It was both a fervent and a fraught time and, as was my habit back then, I created as much resentment as well as artistic success and, after almost three years, resigned over a dispute about funding. All the office and professional staff walked off with me.  

But, for three years, it was an exultant experience, putting Asian American bodies and voices on-stage, filling the theater with words written by Asian American writers on subjects that mattered to us—stereotyping and discrimination, the Japanese American internment, our histories of itinerancy as farm workers, builders of the railroads, commercial fishermen, shopkeepers, hotel cooks and cannery workers. I’d say it was a training ground for my commitment to Asian American themes the watershed of my artistic confidence.  

It was good to see Frank, talk about the old days, his current projects about internment camp writing and wartime resistors, and my old play, which I never really finished. Derek Walcott heard about it back in the late 70s and sent me a message through C.K. Williams to send it to him for a workshop production at Yale, but I knew it wasn’t ready—that I wasn’t ready for that kind of serious artistic attention, so I buried it all these years. Frank Chin had directed the first production and re-conceived it more as a farce than a tragi-comedy, had me re-write it that way, which wasn’t my aim, and I didn’t want the script shown to the great Derek Walcott as a farce. I hope to finally get back to the play, use it to describe the sorrow and grit among the Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) artists I met when I was young—the comedians Jack Soo and Pat Morita, jazz singer Pat Suzuki, song and dance man Yuki Shimoda (the actor who played Sakini in the Broadway production of Teahouse of the August Moon), historian Yuji Ichioka, and writers Wakako Yamauchi, Jon Shirota, Milton Murayama, and Momoko Iko. I conceive of it now as a kind of script like the film Awakenings from the book by Oliver Sacks. How artistic pursuit awakens each of them from the psychic malaise and personality disorders caused by racism, discrimination, stereotyping, and marginalization. At the core of it is a thesis on self-hate that I derive from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. 

I’m inferring that when you finished in Seattle, your next stop was UC Irvine and its MFA program. How did it feel to return to Southern California, where you grew up, especially after such a rich and varied experience in Seattle? And also, since you entered the MFA program at UC Irvine in poetry, how did you find the transition from producing and directing plays to being part of a poetry workshop?

It was joyous returning to SoCal after 5 years away—a year in Japan, a year in Michigan, and almost three in Seattle. For one thing, the light in the early fall was magical, especially as I started out staying at playwright Wakako Yamauchi’s house in Gardena (my own hometown) in the back by the swimming pool, in a room she called “the cabana.” I felt as though I were inhabiting a painting by David Hockney and, though I tried writing about it, it was a dismal failure—as C.K. Williams, my workshop teacher pointedly said at the time! I was reading Diane Wakoski’s SoCal poetry. She’d grown up in Whittier, you know, among orange groves, and had published a good book entitled Smudging, after the oilsmoke process growers used to combat frosts back in the day. The poem indeed was “derivative” and prolix too.

It took me a while to find my legs at Irvine as I commuted from Gardena more than a month into fall term before I found a place to live on the beach in Newport Beach—the house, as it turned out, owned by a Philosophy professor from Pomona College, where I’d gone for my B.A. Many coincidences! Newport was an alien world to me, though, not because it was a beach town, but because it was so homogenously “white”—even the groceries in the local markets were invariably limited to . . . a kind of invincible monoculture of blandness, to my mind. Whereas in Gardena I could get any kind of fish, Asian foods, a wide variety of produce; in Newport Beach all I could find were green tomatoes, brown potatoes, and red meat. I ended up buying rice in Gardena and lugging it south, buying fish from the pier and the day skiff fishermen, getting produce from Mexican markets in Costa Mesa. It was an adjustment after multicultural, abundantly “Asian” Seattle—no doubt. I wrote the poem “Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?” in response to that and what I’d felt was the white-centeredness of the MFA workshop at the time.

The aesthetic among most of my peers, with the notable exception of Yusef Komunyakaa, was fairly simplistic and restrictive, privileging 3-degrees of separation American Surrealism, bucolic imagery, or plain, unadulterated male snark. I wasnʻt “pleased” to be there, per se, though I had an elegant situation on full fellowship with no responsibilities except to write and attend two classes, one the workshop. So it was a fabulous opportunity to explore, focus on my writing, interrogate myself against my own ethnocentric assumptions as well as inquire after the culture of default white centrism. C.K. Williams was relentless in his critique of my fucking around, dismissive of all I brought in for the first six weeks or so, calling it “shit,” and it was. Finally, I broke through by writing something from my own urban experience riding a bus from Gardena to Watts in South Central while I was a young teen. It was the poem “Stay With Me” that I collected Yellow Light, my first book, and it represented having dug into myself in terms of experience and an aesthetic, a loyalty to my urban roots in LA, and a hope for something that might bring grace to that horrendously compressed, pressurized, racially boundaried experience. It was about a black teen offering sympathy to a white woman he finds crying on a bus. The workshop hated it, called it all kinds of sentimental. But Williams shut them all up and called it “the real thing.” And he told me to quit fucking around doing anything else.  

That was it. That and studying with Charles Wright were the most inspiring, confirming experiences I had at Irvine.  

By contrast with C.K., who was imperious and demanding (he was writing Tar), Charles was aloof, even diffident as a teacher. He said very, very little, but his presence was immense. His eyes were on the Eternal, writing The Southern Cross at the time, and everything he said emerged from that quiet, steady, soulful work he was doing. He spoke in proverbs, pithy wisdoms, gentle gibes at times, and always with regard for what he felt were the beautiful and spiritual things we were trying to bring into our poems, pointing out the graceful, most affecting lines, throwing a light on ours, as it were. But he could also be suddenly passionate. I remember the workshop attacking me for that “Garlic?” poem and Wright defending me vociferously. A guy was saying Iʻd “gone too far” with my “fake Surrealism,” describing how pears had hips. “THEY DONʻT HAVE HIPS!” the guy shouted. Then CW shouted back, “Oh, yessss they do!” And that was it. He’d shut the shit down.  

Of course, that wasnʻt all. Charles taught a course in poetic meter and form, introducing us to the way heʻd been schooled in those by Donald Justice at Iowa, using examples from the canon and the contemporary, asking us to write such poems of our own, checking our meters and rhymes and syllabics and such, holding our work as though they were nested eggs against the candle of traditional prosody and pronouncing them “live” or “dead,” in a way. He read with an amazingly meticulous ear, showing us—well, showing me, actually—the differences in styles of scansion. I remember him charting Gerald Manley Hopkins on the board one day—an amazing map of accentuals Hopkins had dubbed “sprung rhythm.” Charles did the same with “Sailing to Byzantium” by Yeats. With Canto IV by Ezra Pound. And I had it. I somehow got the sense of the living language of poetic literature in my ear, my sense of poetic sound from those days onward. it was like a lightbulb went on in my head. Working with Charles was like that—a kind of laconic mystery in the things he said, like a fucking koan, and then, all of a sudden, it penetrates you. “Many are chosen. Few are called,” heʻd say. And “It ends before it ends, you know?” At the age of 43 when he was my teacher, it was like he was Methuselah in terms of wisdom.  

As far as the transition from producing plays and directing them to being in an MFA workshop, I confess, it did feel a little “dinky” at first. But Yusef was there producing an amazing poem every week and I caught on to the brilliance of my teachers—C.K., Charles, and then Howard Moss, another great ear and a man so sublimely gentle in ways both ethical and social that I felt tutored by a fucking angel. He helped me with my long poem about the Japanese American internment during WW II, showing me manuscripts of his work with Robert Lowell on his translation of the Oresteia as an example of how formal structures could tease things out from your initial lines that otherwise might not occur to you. It was a revelation. Then you yourself came my second year, of course, and had our backs that entire time, which we needed, as Charles went on sabbatical and, other than you, we had amateurs teaching the workshops in his place. 

In the years that followed, I took amazing classes in literature and critical theory from Frank Lentricchia, Murray Krieger, Albert Wlecke, Harold Toliver, and Robert Montgomery and sat in on a seminar run by Edward Said and Paul de Man. But, for poetry, all I needed was that first year with Williams, Wright, and Moss. I had geniuses for teachers at Irvine.  

As we have talked off and on about your putting together a selected or a collected poems, I have had a chance to look back at your books of poetry, Yellow Light, The River of Heave, Coral Road, but also your prose, in particular Volcano and The Mirror Diary, and think about the sense of identity that emerges from all of them. But my question isn’t simply about the creation of a persona. It has to do with the assembling of a history. Much of your poetry seems to be a search for a lost or fugitive history and, to return to your background in drama, a cast of characters who can act or re-enact that history. Does that seem accurate to you?

Yes, that is so. The instigation, from late childhood when I first began reading stories like “The Pearl” and “The Leader of the People” by John Steinbeck, then his and Faulknerʻs novels along with Bernard de Votoʻs histories of the California and the West, was this great absence of Japanese Americans from that literature. If I took that history as my own, then Iʻd have subsumed four generations of my Japanese American family, three of them on Hawaiian plantations, within the larger history of Westward conquest and national expansion, and erased my family and people completely for having adopted a centrist story that excluded them.  

I think it was during my junior year in high school that I began thinking about this erasure and how little there was to do about it. There were absolutely no books that told our story. No books about our immigration, no histories of the Japanese American internment during WW II, no films, poetry, or fiction. Stereotypes and caricatures of Asians were all there were in American culture at the time—Mickey Rooney in buck teeth and taped eyes gooneying at Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanyʻs, the Cartwrights’ comical cook Hop-Sing in Bonanza, buck-toothed Marlon Brando as Sakini in Teahouse of the August Moon. For most Americans, being Asian was buffonery, a less-than, and without the dignity I witnessed in my own grandfatherʻs bearing. In college, I studied Modern Irish literature, particularly Joyce, Yeats, and Synge, and felt a powerful hankering for histories, places, and stories of my own people like they had of theirs. Sent by Yeats, Synge went to the Aran Islands to learn of its culture. But, for me, there was no Yeats to give me an assignment. So I studied Japanese and Chinese literature and thought that might fill some of my need. I spent a post-graduate year in Japan, studying Buddhism and traveling through the countryside. That gave me an alternative aesthetic and literary tradition, but it too was silent about my own immigrant people.

In my essay “The Mirror Diary,” I confess that I invented a journal kept by my maternal grandfather, a shopkeeper in Lāʻie village on Oʻahu. It was during my freshman year in college, I think, that I thought this up—that there was a diary that chronicled the daily life of plantation people and recorded the terse eloquence of my own ancestor writing in Japanese. And that my language studies were about learning how to read it, that it would then inspire me, knowing the uncelebrated history of my family, my own people.  

I kept at this conceit a few years until, as the years went by, I filled in the ghostly outlines of this proposed story with narratives that I’d begun gathering from reading Asian American historians who had started to publish, oral histories of the plantations and working people of Hawaiʻi, oral histories of Japanese American farmers, railroad workers, and fisherman on the Continent. I found studies written by sociologists and psychologists. I found dry historical studies that bored me. But then I began to meet scholars like Franklin Odo and Ronald Takaki, who were gathering the facts of our cultural and material histories. I found the poetry of Lawson Fusao Inada, the first Japanese American poet to publish a book with a New York press. I read Michi Weglynʻs history of the evacuation and internment during WW II. I found a compendium of oral histories of Japanese in the West. I began to scratch together my own stories, partly based on facts, but a lot of it based on imagination, surmise, guesses about our history.  

You must remember, however, that I was also immersed in two local cultures within Japanese America—rural Hawaiʻi and Gardena, near Los Angeles, a town populated with more Japanese Americans than anywhere except Honolulu. I had an inner personal confidence because of that, a strength of community that translated into my own literary convictions early on. I also had inspiring college teachers like the poet Bert Meyers, jazz critic Stanley Crouch, and literary scholar and novelist Darcy OʻBrien who endorsed my searching, who never made me feel it was absurd to want to make myself into a poet, who defended me to their colleagues and introduced me to their own peers and elders.  

By the late 70s, when I arrived at UC Irvine and met you and Charles Wright, I had begun to forget about my grandfatherʻs diary that I had invented, a necessary fiction of my earlier imagination, and had started to compile the fragments of family narratives along with the Japanese American historical record that was coming to be known. But I hadnʻt the language yet, the song I needed in my heart to write the poems I wanted for myself. Working with C.K. Williams, Charles, and you is how I got that, finally. And the cast of characters, as you say, began to emerge around that same time—the voice of Kubota based on my maternal grandfather came to me, then a Japanese Hawaiian blues musician, shopkeepers, caneworkers, conmen, and gamblers too.  

I could make the argument that each of your books has foretold its successor, almost as if Yellow Light looked forward to The River of Heaven and The River of Heaven to Coral Road. I know you have been putting together a new book of poems or what may be a new section of a selected. Many of the new poems that I have seen remind me of the Kubota sequence in Coral Road, but why not give readers a sense of where your poems have been going and are likely to go? I also haven’t asked about the big audio book and this might be a place to talk about what it will look like.  

The new work is more various and personal than I think I’ve allowed myself to be in the past. There are indeed two more “Kubota” poems in the voice of my maternal grandfather—a continuation of the series I began in Coral Road about the injustice he felt having been arrested and incarcerated during WW II. I wrote them outraged with what was going on with immigrant detention at our border with Mexico and the whole vilification of immigrant peoples during this current administration. There is also an eclogue in the voice of someone who feels betrayed by a superpower ally, displaced by military invasion of his traditional homeland. I wrote that in response to the abandonment of our agreements with the Kurds in Syria. But there are other poems in homage to my African American mentors—Robert Hayden, Stanley Crouch, Michael S. Harper, Al Young, and Derek Walcott. Along with Charles Wright, they were among the first elders in poetry to recognize me, affirm that I had my own voice and something to say with it. Though not collected yet, I’m also at work on poems for three Asian American women mentors. Finally, there are numerous poems of personal life—my life as a father, my grieving for my mother and father, travels through Europe, my affection for and loyalty to the Hawaiian landscape where I was born and to the Los Angeles cityscape where I grew up. Two themes predominate, I think, a wonder at the physical beauty of the world and a wish for justice and a righteous amity among peoples. I’m collecting most of these in a large selection of new poems for The Ocean of Clouds: Poems New and Selected.  

For most of the past six years, however, I’ve also been at work on a book-length work of non-fiction based on my love of recorded music and also on the history of acoustic and electronic amplification. The work partly consists of memoir chapters about having heard and been fascinated by different sorts of music throughout my life, how they mark specific periods and transitions from childhood to maturity. I write about being at La Scala for a performance of La Bohème, about the jukebox in my grandmother’s diner in Hawaiʻi, about listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones while living in a monastery in Kyoto, about jazz and cocktails, poetry and the blues. These chapters are complemented with long, essayistic non-fiction pieces about things like the megaphone and the Greek theater, the lyre and resonator guitar, the Aeolian harp, hog-calling and operatic singing, the phonograph, vacuum tube technology, the invention of stereophonic sound, and the electronic amplifier. I’m calling the work The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo.  

In both works, I think I’ve also a preoccupation with style—a density of imagistic language, an openness and sensitivity for the lyric turn in a piece of narrative, and an affection for the elaborate rhetorical figure at times. It probably doesn’t matter to those primarily interested in subject and theme in literary writing, but, for me, a striking poetic diction and an elaborate syntax are almost the main points of what we do. Music in language, as it were. The arte of Englyshe poesy, as George Puttenham called it during the Renaissance. 

We’ve talked mainly here about your career as a writer, but an important part of that career has been as a teacher and as the founder of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon. You spoke movingly about this legacy at the AWP Conference in Portland in 2019. Would you talk a bit about how your teaching career has related to your writing career and your own relationship with your teachers and mentors? I think it would be an appropriate way to draw the interview to a close.

Itʻs a cliché of our profession that the teaching of poetry goes hand-in-hand with writing it. I don’t believe that’s at all the case, alas, much as I’ve invested in both and willingly. Teaching has been in and of itself an entirely separate enterprise and effort, and I perhaps overly invested in it, as I’ve since childhood thought it a noble thing. My maternal grandfather, Hideo Kubota, engrained within me a deep respect for educators and education, seeking himself to establish a free school in the canefields in Hawaiʻi where he lived and worked as a village storekeeper. He sponsored many schoolteachers to come over from Japan, therefore, and, at the onset of WW II, was then arrested and incarcerated for his efforts, suspected of bringing enemy aliens to the country for Fifth Column activities—truly absurd. In a sense, Kubota gave his life to build a school. When I was a child, he always said, “Get good education. Learn speak good English. You tell my story.” And I’d always thought my purpose was to execute that injunction—to learn eloquence and practice it in order to redeem his life. But, unconsciously, instinctively, over many years, it became my ambition to build a singing school, to use a phrase from Yeats. To make it free and afford aspirants the opportunity to learn the art of writing. Elder poets constantly warned me against it—that it would ruin my poetry, steal time away from writing, alter my brain chemistry and make me a mediocre artist. Perhaps so. But I stuck with it, myself not knowing the reason. Philip Levine said “It was like watching Aguirre, Wrath of God all over again, only without Klaus Kinski in a conquistador’s outfit, but Hongo the Mad with notebooks and pencils.” He was right, actually. I was obsessed. Over the course of four years, I raised an endowment thanks to the generosity of an alum and established the MFA program as an independent university department here at Oregon. I dreamed it all up from scratch, actually, tossing aside the existing palimpsests, and structuring the curriculum, the close mentorship of students by faculty in conference hours, the dreaded MFA exams (borrowed from Charles Wright’s canny teaching), and thesis hours. I persuaded the administration to add three new faculty lines and hired T.R. Hummer, Chang-rae Lee, and Dorianne Laux. Later came Peter Ho Davies, Reetika Vazirani, and Ehud Havazalet. It was all a monument to Kubota, my grandfather.  

Teaching itself has been enormously gratifying, as I’ve had students both brilliant and dedicated over my thirty years here at Oregon. I can’t name them all, but most indulged my difficult ways, my love of the canonical tradition, my post-colonial analysis of it, and my post-structural critique of culture. I am not a natural teacher, as many will tell you, but I work hard to present a responsible report on the canon from the Classical to the contemporary and ask students to respond to it with their own creativity. I think my foundation is the liberal arts approach I learned and flourished under at Pomona College, where I had brilliant and dedicated teachers. But I combine that with my MFA education at UC Irvine where I was stirred from a strange creative slumber by the fierce and demanding teachings of C.K. Williams, then the deeply meditative ways of Charles Wright, steeped in knowledge of the tradition and free as a jazzman in his responses to it, and, finally, the insights of Howard Moss, deft and supple in prosodic awareness tied to the lyric impulse. These three each taught from their love of poetry and their learning, every insight roused directly from both. I hope I learned to do that from them. But I enjoyed a brilliant education in literature and philosophy at UC Irvine. I had Frank Lentricchia in Modern poetry and critical theory, Albert Wlecke in British Romanticism, Harold Toliver on Milton and the Metaphysicals, Murray Krieger on the Renaissance lyric and then critical theory from Aristotle onward, and Edward Said, Frederic Jameson, and Paul de Man as eminent visitors. I’ve ignored none of them, and their instruction, I hope, lives in my own.