Poet, memoirist, and editor Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawai’i, in 1951 to Japanese American parents. He grew up in Hawai’i and Los Angeles, and attended Pomona College and the University of Michigan for his BA. He earned his MFA from the University of California-Irvine, where he studied with the poets C.K. Williams, Howard Moss, and Charles Wright. His collections of poetry include Yellow Light (1982), The River of Heaven (1988), which received the Lamont Poetry Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer, and Coral Road: Poems (2011). His poetry explores the experiences of Asian Americans in Anglo society, using lush imagery, narrative techniques, and myth to address both cultural alienation and the trials of immigrants, including the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as well as the anti Japanese sentiment today. Because he delves into history and his own memory to express the bitterness of prejudice, Hongo’s poems frequently take the form of character studies and anecdotal first-person narratives. As Hongo told Contemporary Authors: “My project as a poet has been motivated by a search for origins of various kinds, a quest for ethnic and familial roots, cultural identity, and poetic inspiration—all ultimately connected to my need for an active imaginative and spiritual life. One might get at these through religion or the contemplation of moral and socioeconomic problems, but for me the way has led to the study of and the desire to contact, through the writing of poetry, those places and peoples from which I’ve been separated by either history or personality… I write to be a voice that I can listen to, one that makes sense and raises my own consciousness. And I write for all the people who might want the same thing, no matter what race, class, or nationality.”
Hongo’s style—particularly his use of descriptive lists and repetitious word order and phrasing—has invited comparison to 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. The dramatic power of these devices is matched by Hongo’s sense of purpose: “I’m committed to a task of enlightenment,” the poet told the Los Angeles Times, “of bringing the stories I know to the so-called ‘legitimate culture.’” Hongo’s language has been described as elegant and lyrical in both his poetry collections and his prose memoir, Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii (1995). As in his poetry, Hongo’s memoir connects with his family’s past by recreating the Hawaii and California of his father and grandfather. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sigrid Nunez placed Hongo in the broader poetic tradition of Yeats: “Hongo takes to heart Yeats’s assertion in his Autobiography that the poet who wishes to create a work that will last must first find metaphors in the natural landscape he was born to. This will give the reader some idea of the scope of Hongo’s ambition. And indeed this book’s greatest pleasures are its descriptions of that ravishing land of rain forest and live volcanoes.”
Hongo has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the editor of the acclaimed anthologies The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (1993), Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir (1994), and Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America (1995). He is currently Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon where he directed the Program in Creative Writing from 1989-1993. He lives in Eugene with his wife and children.
Asian Exclusion Act (theater group), Seattle, WA, founder and artistic director, 1975-77; Asian Multi Media Center, Seattle, executive director, 1976-77; University of Missouri, Columbia, assistant professor of English, 1984-89. Seattle Arts Commission, poet-in-residence, 1978; University of Southern California, Los Angeles, visiting assistant professor, 1982-83; University of California, Irvine, teaching assistant, 1980-82, visiting poet, 1983-84; University of Houston, visiting associate professor, 1988; University of Oregon, Eugene, associate professor and director of creative writing, 1989-93, professor of English, 1992-93, professor of creative writing, 1993—. Jury member, Pulitzer Prize committee, 1990; Los Angeles Times Book Award poetry committee, 1990, and chair, 1991; National Book Award, 1994, Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, 1995. Consultant to Vanderbilt and Wesleyan university presses.
- (With others) The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99, Buddhahead (Mountain View, CA), 1978.
- Yellow Light, Wesleyan University Press, 1982.
- The River of Heaven, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
- Coral Road: Poems, Knopf, 2011.
- (Editor, author of introduction) The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, Anchor Books Doubleday (New York City), 1993.
- (Editor, author of introduction) Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir, afterword by Valerie Miner, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York City), 1994.
- (Editor, author of introduction) Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America, Anchor Books, 1995.
- Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii, Knopf, 1995.
Also author of a prose memoir, Volcano Journal, essays on Hawaiian subjects titled Letters from Paradise and a play, Nisei Bar and Grill. Contributor of poems and essays to journals, including the American Poetry Review, Antaeus, Crazyhorse, Field, Ploughshares, Tri Quarterly, and New Yorker. Former poetry editor of the Missouri Review.
- Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 22, Gale, 1996.
- Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press, 1996.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Gale, 1992.
- Hongo, Garrett, Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii, A.A. Knopf, 1995.
- Antioch Review, spring, 1983.
- Hudson Review, spring, 1989.
- Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1987.
- Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 23, 1995.
- Tribune Books (Chicago), July 16, 1995.
- Washington Post Book World, June 25, 1995.