To Shape Full-throated Songs: A Tribute to Garrett Hongo

by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach


It feels like an insurmountable challenge to capture in words what Garrett Hongo’s mentorship and writing have meant to me, the ways they have shaped the poet and teacher I have become. The only way to approach this task, as I hope Garrett would agree, is through form. To use what I’ve learned about form from my very first semester at the University of Oregon when Garrett taught his infamous Forms Seminar, form to just barely scratch the surface of his influence. 


We begin with the basics, not even whole language, but the syllables that accumulate to song. Marianne Moore’s “the raw material of poetry in / all its rawness,” I first tasted when reading Garrett’s Yellow Light. His poems long to recover what is lost or forgotten by piecing together ancestry and the present moment. They demand every part of the word to matter. A fragment of memory becomes a syllable that binds with another and another to form the poetic line. This same longing to recover a familial history drove me to write, to study with Garrett, and ultimately, to learn from him how poetry holds the potential not only to remember what has been forgotten, but recover the pieces, the syllables, of even an unknown history.    


We all know how to hear, but Garrett makes us listen. Not just to the words, but to the music of poetry. “How many stresses, Julia?” he asked during the second class of my graduate career, having just read aloud lines from a poem or blues song I can’t recall years of schooling later, but whose rhythm I still hear echoing. “Ummmm. Ummm. Three?” I must have stammered. “Don’t think” he said, “Listen!” And so, I took my time, replayed the line in my mind, listened for the rises and falls of its song, and ever so quietly tapped my fingers on the underside of table at each stress. “Four, it’s four.” I corrected, and he nodded moving on to enchant and stump us with the next reading. 

This insistence on listening, on learning from cadences within lyric, is not merely to educate us on the poetic tradition, to make us feel it in our core, but even more, to train our ears to find our own music, to be able to recognize when our struggling lines first begin to sing. “If he broke me down,” said fellow poet classmate Paul Pickering, “and he did, utterly—he taught me to listen for my own song. To begin to dance with the feeling that I’d summoned.” Garret made us listen hard to the music of masters, so we could eventually find our own.


It’s not about the repetition of end words, Garrett explained, it’s about finding the right six to start. From his first phone call telling me I was accepted to the MFA to the voice message he left just months ago reassuring me of my future in poetry despite the hardships of the job market, as Garrett’s student, you feel, from the very beginning that you have been chosen. That you are meant to accomplish more than you know. His student Alycia Pirmohamed recalls, “In our final advisory meeting . . . Garrett told me that my poems were cygnets. Young swans . . . it made an ending feel like a beginning—like I had made something beautiful that would only continue to grow.”  

Garrett taught us it’s about the ratio of the chosen words, understanding their relationship and imbalance, which drive the literal and the figurative landscape, which abstract and which solidify. The relationships fostered in Garrett’s class, through our shared experience of its—at times unimaginable but always productive—rigor, are some of my strongest bonds to fellow poets. 

He taught us it’s most of all, about “the prima,” the catalyst word that moves all others, giving the poem its momentum, its variance within fixity. As his students, we were compelled to be that prima, to strive for constant motion of learning and creation, because as one of the initial chosen words, chosen minds, we all held the potential for spark. And Garrett never let us forget it, “You are all here for a reason,” he’d say, “We see something in you,” but it was on us to learn how to believe, to see this “prima” within ourselves.  

Metered and Rhyme Stanzaic

It’s all about time. Sound joining and severing temporality internal to the poem and outside of itself. “Garrett Hongo is not only a brilliant poet and thinker,” Keetje Kuipers said, “He has also been way ahead of his time, by decades, in consistently supporting, nurturing, and cultivating writers whose voices have long been marginalized. I’ve never encountered,” she continues, “a professor of creative writing, before or since, so intentionally committed to lifting up the voices of women, especially women of color. As my mother is fond of saying, ‘What a prince, what a prize.'” And as my mother said, “Your words and stories couldn’t do him justice, you have to meet him to understand.” 


In his essay, “On Whitman’s Leaves of Grass” from The Mirror Diary: Collected Essays, Garret writes, “I was trying to write a poem about the open road . . . I wanted a rhythm. I wanted a compositional structure. I wanted a musical rhetoric of form.” Not only did Garrett find this for himself, but he discovered a way to enlighten generations of students to music bound and made boundless by the form we’re all searching for, even if we don’t know it yet. Tina Mozelle Brazielle describes Hongo reciting poems in workshop: “As he read, our jaws dropped, our eyes widened, we breathed a collective ‘wow’ because the poem sounded so much better, but also so much more like itself.” He helped us find form that would set free the stories, the songs, we all carried, locked or hidden inside of us.

Metonymic Substitution

The image-chain. A revelation in semiotics. In the making of meaning. The excises we all struggled so hard to fulfill, but ended up failing. Not one of us wrote a successful poem on the first try in the seminar. “‘If you want truly to understand the way a poem works,’” Carl Swart recalls Garrett explaining in response to our feeble attempts, “‘Watch a spider build a web for at least several hours, ideally overnight.’” “I would spend late summer nights,” says Carl, “Watching the orb weaver that lived in the archway in front of my apartment do just that. It is slow work. Long work. The rewards don’t come immediately, and they seem never to come to the impatient.” But as Garrett’s students, we learned such patience, keen attention to every strand of image that fastens a web of meaning. And I, for one, have spent every poem since, trying to weave on the loom to which Garrett first opened our eyes and ears. 

Greater Romantic Lyric

The moral dilemma external to the scene, but internal to the subject is answered by counter landscape in memory: so we move from Eugene’s moss-laced branches and rain-soaked spring lawn to the courtyard tables of the Excelsior where Garrett helped me celebrate my acceptance into the Ph.D. program with a glass of Montepulciano and talk of its hints of cherry and pepper, cedar and earth, the nuances of Italian reds. Because where there is a mind who thinks deeply about the world, who tastes its every node, there is one who cares for it with even more depth. Garrett may be hard on us at first, but only because he believes in us, in poetry, and what we can accomplish with it. “He taught us,” says Rachel Swafford, “that poetry is an intellectual, rigorous discipline, but one that also demanded we reach deep within ourselves.” 

When Garrett first asked me what I wanted to do for our independent study, I spouted off something about Poetry of Witness, not knowing then what either of those words really meant. He corrected, “You mean Witness of Poetry by Milosz,” a book in which Milosz writes, “I have titled Witness of Poetry not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us,” stressing that the discipline of poetry is testimony, it is a higher calling akin to faith. Garrett taught me to expect, to demand, to settle for nothing less than this from the inseparable content and from my own work. I am so lucky to have been Garrett’s student, to continue to learn from the poet and teacher, and as his poem “Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi”sings, “[to] shape full-throated songs / out of wind, out of bamboo, / out of a voice / that only whispers.”

Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is the author of The Many Names for Mother, selected by Ellen Bass as the winner of the 2018 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry prize.