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Verses Chronicle Tales of Asian-Americans : Award-Winning Poet Garrett Kaoru Hongo Is 'Committed to a Task of Enlightenment'

March 19, 1987|PENELOPE MOFFET | Moffet is a local writer. and

A well-dressed Japanese-American man is being photographed on the Redondo Beach pier. As instructed, he leans against a fast-food restaurant's takeout window and stares into a camera lens.

Several people at a nearby table call out joking questions. When they're ignored, one man shouts "Say cheese!" and another adds, "Say rice!"

That gets a reaction. "Watch it, man," the photo subject says immediately, not looking away from the camera.

The Taunting Continues

"I think you hurt him!" a woman exclaims, laughing.

"Say rice!"

"Watch it. That kind of thing can get you in trouble," the man being photographed says.

Later, poet Garrett Kaoru Hongo said he's heard too many racist jokes in his life to let the "say rice" remarks pass. "I don't like people taunting me," he said. "It's hard for me to back away from a fight" like those he faced while growing up and attending Gardena High School, "where we were one-third Japanese, one-third white and Chicano, and one-third black."

. . . Our school was

three thousand, urban, poor and


intermingled, bordered by two


a drainage channel and corridor

for power lines

with their monstrous platoons of

buzzing towers

approaching campus through

yellow smog.

Their lines emerged through the

inland distance,

across marshlands thick with

cricket pumps

and the junkyards along

Figueroa . . . .

--From "96 Tears," copyright 1985 by Garrett Kaoru Hongo

Racial relationships came up repeatedly in a recent conversation while Hongo, 35, an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri in Columbia, was back in Los Angeles for 16 days of poetry readings and visiting friends.

Over lunch in a pier restaurant, Hongo discussed his poetry, philosophy and life goals.

For a poet, "the hardest thing to keep alive is your talent and your faith in your own work," Hongo said at one point, and late in the conversation he sought assurance that the interviewer had liked his poems. Yet he also half-jokingly referred to himself as a "great" poetic export of Los Angeles, and said "there are some terrific poets from Los Angeles (but) none of us live here (now)."

However, Hongo said, "I have a very strong feeling I'd like to come back to Los Angeles and the West Coast. The West Coast is my (poetic) subject."

The author of "Yellow Light" (Wesleyan University Press, 1982), Hongo is completing a second volume of poems, "The River of Heaven," which he said Wesleyan may also publish.

West Coast Settings

Hongo's poems are narratives set in Los Angeles, Seattle, Hawaii and Japan. They address the poet's personal and family history and the interrelationships of Japanese-Americans with the rest of American society. In 1980 a group of the "Yellow Light" poems won Hongo a prestigious national award, the annual "Discovery/The Nation" prize.

Born in Volcano, Hawaii, Hongo moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was 6. In 1973, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in English at Pomona College, then won a one-year fellowship that paid for a year in Japan. Later he studied Japanese language and literature for a year at the University of Michigan. He earned a master's of fine arts degree in English from UC Irvine in 1980.

Hongo has also been a poet-in-residence of the Seattle Arts Commission, director of a Seattle theater group called the Asian Exclusion Act and an instructor at USC, UC Irvine and the University of Washington in Seattle.

He began writing poetry, Hongo said, because "more than anything else I wanted to belong to the history of Asians in America" by writing about 19th- and 20th-Century immigration restrictions for Asians and the relocation camps of World War II.

Hongo's parents lived in Hawaii during World War II and were not forced to relocate. However, Hongo's maternal grandfather "was taken away by the FBI and incarcerated for a while" because he was a leader within his Japanese-American community and was seen as a potential saboteur, Hongo said.

His study of history has taught him that even those who were not relocated suffered during the 1940s. All Japanese-Americans were victimized by the relocation in one way or another, Hongo said, and all Americans suffered from the government's action. "It made a travesty of the Bill of Rights (and reminded people that) everything could be taken away from us (by the government)--even our lives."

Faith Is Destroyed

Such knowledge "destroys our faith in justice and equal rights under the law. Doesn't it? And ultimately it destroys our faith in providence, in metaphysical justice, in metaphysical order. It destroys people."

Hongo plans to spend the next six months to a year in Volcano, on sabbatical from Missouri, finishing "The River" and writing prose about the volcano and about the "ghosts" of his ancestors, he said.

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