Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo's Quest for Artistic Perfection
Story by By Cole Sinanian
The professor and poet, whose art explores natural beauty and repressed emotion, is recognized for a lifetime of achievement

Garrett Hongo’s writing is rooted in beauty and emotion. The creative writing professor is a master of translating feelings from his past into vibrant literature.

In Kahuku, a Hawaiian town on the north shore of Oʻahu where he spent his early childhood, Hongo was surrounded by beauty on all sides: breathtaking vistas, lush forests and rain-drenched volcanic peaks blanketed in green moss, the deep blue hues of the Pacific. This primeval paradise was his playground — the red volcanic dirt his sandbox, the soaring basalt cliffs and rolling cane fields the backdrop to his jungle gym.

Treasured memories of the islands are a common thread in much of his writing. Even now, decades later, the sights and smells of his childhood aren’t far from reach.

“I can go back to each of those places,” Hongo says. “That feeling for the landscape was always in me. It’s been in me since I was a kid.”

Garrett Hongo facing the ocean at Kawela Bay, Hawaii​​​​​​Garrett Hongo gathering inspiration at Kawela Bay, Hawai’i. Oʻahu's north shore, where the poet spent his childhood, is widely regarded as one of the earth's scenic treasures.

Hongo is the 2022 recipient of the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, a lifetime achievement award presented by the Sewanee Review, America’s oldest continuously published literary quarterly. Past recipients include esteemed writers Gwendolyn Brooks, Wendell Berry, and Louise Glück.

As the first University of Oregon faculty member to receive the award, Hongo joins an elite list of writers distinguished for their contributions to modern literature. From the New Yorker to the Los Angeles Times, Hongo’s work has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and literary journals. The author, poet, essayist, Pulitzer Prize finalist and jazz aficionado effortlessly dances his way from poetry to prose and back again, carving himself a rarified spot among the contemporary literary masters.

Hongo was born May 30, 1951, to third-generation Japanese Americans, in the back room of his father’s general store in Volcano, a village on Hawaiʻi, or Big Island. His family moved to Kahuku shortly after, where they lived until Hongo was six. They then moved to Gardena, a city in the South Bay region of Los Angeles County that was one of the area’s few Japanese American enclaves in the wake of World War II.

Kahuku Sugar Mill, Kamehameha Hwy, Kahuku, HI, USAOnce a key segment of the Hawaiian economy, sugar plantations employed many immigrant workers, including members of Hongo's family. By the close of the 20th century, the islands' sugar industry collapsed due to competition from developing countries with lower labor costs.

On his mother’s side, Hongo descends from two generations of sugar plantation workers. Their lives were punishing and physically demanding, mostly devoid of outward expressions of joy or sorrow. This demeanor persisted in Hongo’s home, where his family members bottled up their emotions, showing only blank, stoic stares.

“They showed no feelings,” Hongo says. “Whether pride, joy, or sadness, you did not show it. There was no space for reflection.”

But as a child in a world of overwhelming beauty, Hongo craved a space for quiet reflection. When his emotions became too palpable to repress, he’d retreat to secret hideouts, afraid he’d let slip a hint of his internal ecstasy and face repercussions. At times he’d sing to himself in a bamboo thicket near the family home, or play marbles alone by a fallen eucalyptus tree between a grove of sea grapes and the Pacific Ocean.

“I come from an affectless, unsentimental people,” he writes in his 2022 memoir, The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo. “When I screamed for joy as a child, I was hushed if not struck. When I wept for the beauty I saw in the landscapes and seascapes that surrounded us, I was mocked by cousins and uncles.”

Now, Hongo’s writing is a counterweight to the stoic environment in which he was raised. The emotion in his poetry comes from his fierce drive to give life to the unacknowledged feelings of his youth; he turns inward to express and reinhabit the emotion he was once denied. By writing these feelings down they are given witness — immortalized in language.

Book cover with Hawai'ian rainforest.

Book cover with stone monuments in Hawai'i

Book cover with painting of koi.

But Hongo is careful to make the distinction between his art and therapy. Writing, for him, is not a coping mechanism; the memories he writes about are not traumas.

“Seeing those things as flaws is a way of thinking I dislike,” he says. “It was never therapeutic.”

Rather, Hongo likens his practice to hana, an aesthetic principle dating to 14th-century classical Japanese theatre that describes a dancer’s perfection of their craft. In hana — which means “flower” in Japanese — perfection is a dance between the artist’s internal feeling and the external factors that influence that feeling, like his family or environment. Only once the dancer clears the path from emotion to expression does the flower blossom in full.

“What you’re creating is a pathway for the expression of the universe,” Hongo says, “rather than closing it.”

It took him seven years to write his 1995 book, Volcano: A Memoir of of Hawaiʻi, an ode to his homeland. Capturing the beauty of the rainforests of his birthplace wasn’t simple, and Hongo wasn’t satisfied until he perfected in writing the way he felt among them.

“That feeling for the landscape was always in me. It’s been in me since I was a kid.”
Garrett Hongo, Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences
Book cover with speaker cones and vinyl Lp.

The same is true for The Perfect Sound. As a lifelong music lover, Hongo took ten years to compress his unbound love for sound into a single book.

Though music can channel emotion without words, both music and literature are, at their core, expressions of feeling. In his view, all art is the afterglow of what’s born in the subjectivity of human consciousness. While the final product may never quite achieve the depth of emotion that inspired it, the closer the artist gets, the closer the flower to full bloom.

“I fail a long time before I succeed,” Hongo says. “But I want the flower. I want hana.”

Cole Sinanian is a staff writer for College of Arts and Sciences Communications