I went to the third of this semester’s poetry Saturday University at Vanderbilt on March 23rd, where Garrett Hongo read and answered questions about poetry. The first two sessions were with Thomas Lux and Stephen Dobyns, and my notes for those are here: Notes from Thomas Lux; “The words go just so far, then you come to meet them.” (Stephen Dobyns).
Below are my notes from Garrett Hongo’s session, somewhat cleaned up for public consumption:
Tells story about his family & birth and how post office manager told him family stories when he went back to Volcano (Hawaii) as an adult; read “Volcano House” (“there’s all kinds of quaint Oriental shit in there” he says about it). Talks about his brother, about finding out family stories from his aunties, being told stuff like his grandfather killed his aunt because she slept with somebody in the cane fields: “I don’t know if they’re true, but they sound like they’re true. They explain the violence of families.” Read “Aubade, Kawela“; “Bugle Boys.”
Q: so musical, what does it look like on the page?
Long lines (he shows us).
Q: why lines and not paragraphs?
“Martin [Rapisarda, the associate dean for Arts & Science at Vanderbilt, who introduced him] alluded to the corrections I made about my influences.”
The line derives from Wordsworth. The measure is a line but the stophe is a paragraph. You have to have 3 lines going:
2. Measure/meter – breath line
3. Then the strophe
Together they make up the logic, the music, the sequence of the poem.
You have a verse paragraph which has within it the line, the breath line and the strophe.
A verse paragraph model, not plainly said. I don’t say things plainly; I don’t like to. When I write, I don’t really write in a way to the audience, but I write to honor the ancestors and the canon. These things really live for me. I can feel the movement from Theiclydes to Virgil like some guys feel the trading of a player from the Red Sox to the Yankees.
Q: balance of high diction with accessibility?
I love to be read by common readers. There’s a democratic principle involved that I don’t want to make it difficult or obscure or put a kind of intellectual border guard at the door to the poem.
But I trained in semiotics and linguistic theory. I think that so called language poetry is bankrupt. I want to write so my father or my brother could have read it.
Stylistically though, no. My work is a combination of developed aesthetic and the ambition to reach the faithful, the common reader.
Q: how you pulled thought processes from different languages and traditions into a whole?
It’s all English, even pidgin.
Tells story about seeing a play as a teen by Derek Walcott with Elizabethan English in Caribbean accent. Whole play was like music to him.
Reads to us from oral history of Hawaiian musician (I’m too interested; I forget to take notes).
I think all languages are inside of us, it’s just accessing them. I’m learning Italian and when somebody talks to me in Japanese, I’ll answer them in Italian.
I’ve scripted out my next three books. I know what they’ll be about.
I don’t do drafts. I do takes. I try it this way and then that way.
Q: have you acted?
I ran a theatre company for three years. I like the theatre, but the problem is this: we were producing plays by Asian-Americans and it was hard because there were so many cross-currents of what I’d call subjugation. Most of my actors were bourgeois, and they worried some of the plays would offend their parents or the community; once we had a bomb threat, because somebody thought we were making fun of Chinese people, so they were afraid, and I had to pick them up by the lapels and shake them. Some of them are successful actors and they play these slant-eyed buck-toothed characters because they have to make a living, and I just left because I wouldn’t do that.
Tells story about writing comedy and hating it, deciding to write poetry.
Poetry is a special place in the mind. Different for each of us.
Q: could you talk about the internment?
My family was not interned, per se. There were three imprisonments:
The first roundup, journalists, Japanese language instruction, professors, etc, including my maternal grandfather who was considered a hard case because his English was good for Hawaii but not for the FBI. They thought his night-fishing (you light torches, put them in the sand, it attracts the fish) was signaling to the enemy.
The second was the entire community (film Snow Falling On Cedars shows it).
The largest one was 120,000 people, all Japanese west of I-99. Officially apologized for by Reagan.
The internment was like a natural disaster in that it was a complete destruction of whole communities.
Mainlanders and Japanese-Americans from Hawaii didn’t get along. When they saw the fences and guards, after that there was no fighting between them.
To come back from that, the kids wanted success and security above all. It made for a kind of monolithic resolve among my generation of mainland Japanese-Americans.
Q: how you work with the past and memory? Dealing with the tension between getting it right and being happy with what you get?
Trained in oral history. That helps. There was a shape to the way folks told stories, a dramatic shape, that gave me a way in. When I do research, I try to work to the point where I internalize the data so I can put it together in an emotional plot like an old-timer telling a story.
Most of my books I think about for years, living with the stories, and then I can write most of the book in a few months, work on it afterward but most of it done in a month or two, but only after years of thought.
Q: talk about starting poetry workshops?
My refuge, a place where only poetry happened.
Poetry workshop comes from the actor’s studio model, mutual critique from the whole workshop with the teacher at the end. Can go wrong, with it really being a salon for the faculty.
Q: writing for aesthetics vs validation through publication?
Poetry is very different – it’s the most non-capitalized of the writing arts. You don’t get money. It has to do with song and tradition.
Here’s a story: I’m in Seattle doing theatre stuff, and I got flown down to do a meeting with Touchstone. Bill is very preoccupied – he says we’ve got this story about a white man who marries a Japanese woman before WWII, and leads a rebellion out of the internment camps. I said, after I write this story, where could I live? He says fine it’s your funeral. Ten years later, I’m having dinner with Maxine Hong Kingston and (I missed name) and they say he asked me to write that too! They found somebody to do it and the Japanese American League picketed the opening.
The body of knowledge is controlled by power. Truth is constructed according to how it flatters the body of knowledge. Stereotypes. Poetry is like another system that’s another kind if jurisprudence – I’m free to do what I think is the truth.
It sounds idealized, but it’s not capitalized, so it’s not controlled.
Q: how does Jack Su fit into this?
He loved music. He wanted to keep playing it. He wanted to keep his band together. A lot of people hated him for that, for pretending to be Korean to avoid internment. Had something of his humanity he wanted to uphold. Not disgraceful. Jack was just a guy who needed music and took it as a higher calling. I never interviewed him so I don’t know what he would have said. Pat Suzuki, a lounge singer, told me a lot of these stories, which is how I know a lot of this stuff.
The new generation doesn’t have that reverence to the elders. They don’t think in terms of why people did things, but it was important to me.