Hongo makes switch from poetry to prose for `Volcano'

April 16, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Garrett Hongo was born in the back room of a general store built by his grandfather in Volcano, Hawaii.

His family left Volcano when he was less than a year old and Hongo grew up in South-Central Los Angeles. He attended what he described as ``fancy schools'': Pomona College, University of Michigan and UC Irvine.

The Japanese-American poet has published two collections of poetry, ``Yellow Light'' and ``The River of Heaven,'' which was nominated for the 1988 Pulitzer Prize.

He now lives in Eugene, Ore., and teaches English at the University of Oregon. Until last year, he was the director of the creative writing program there.

His task, he told a group of students and faculty at UC Davis last week, has been to make sense of the bare facts of his biography.

``The only way to cope was to write of my highly marginalized facts and events and create a land out of language,'' he said.

The result is Hongo's memoir, ``Volcano,'' which is being published by Knopf this spring. It will be in local bookstores in a few weeks.

Hongo, who has long dark hair and a mustache and looks like a Hollywood version of a Japanese-Hawaiian bandit, said he had no special curiosity about his birthplace until he was past 30.

``The process of going back and writing about it made it as much a home as anything else,'' he said. ``My residence is not on Earth but in language.''

He returned to Volcano with his wife and child for the first time in 1985. Seven more trips followed, including a year in 1987, a year in 1989 and six months in 1991.

``I wanted to know the place and tie my name to it,'' he said. He intended ``Volcano'' to be a book of sacred origins.

When he first returned to Hawaii and set foot in the village of Volcano he felt like he'd stepped back in time.

``If you're a jerk you ignore those feelings ... but as a stupid poet that's what you live for - the catch in the throat, the sneeze in the mind,'' he said.

Hongo said Volcano is like nowhere else on earth.

``I was teaching at a horrible place - University of Southern California - and was brought back to read in Volcano,'' he said.

``The mountain has a methane flame and a cloud of red and blue. You can stand two to three feet from it. There are some places on earth that grab you from the inside out and, man, it was really like that.''

Hongo was so overwhelmed by this experience that he didn't know how to write about it.

``I didn't have the language to write about the feeling,'' he said.

``I had to change,'' he added. ``I had to change what I was doing with language, which seemed incredibly puny even in terms of insight and ambition. I had to think differently and learn biology, rain forest ecology and geology. How can my poetry deal with it? It can't.''

Poets Alan Williamson, Gary Snyder, Sandra McPherson and Walter Pavlich sat in on Tuesday's discussion listening to Hongo describe his shift from poetry to nonfiction.

``I had to create another way to deal with this,'' said Hongo. He began modeling his prose on a type of Japanese essay from the 14th century, which he described as smaller units of narrative closer to his own practice as a poet.

``Trying to get there in prose having been trained as a poet was really hard,'' he said. ``This was really the blues.''

Hongo said he was looking for stories about his grandfather and father.

``The postmaster hadn't seen my father since 1951,'' he said. But when Hongo walked into the Volcano post office and asked for his mail, he was recognized as his father's son.

Hongo said he spent time in Volcano listening to the community's stories, waiting for them to come together in a base feeling. When that happened, he had his book.

But Hongo said he did not include stories of native Hawaiians in ``Volcano.'' That was a decision made out of respect, he said. ``I didn't want to push,'' he explained.

But as pre-publication reviews have started coming in, Hongo said he's being castigated for not including those stories, too.

``I'm not ready to do that yet,'' he said.

It was difficult enough to get his own family's multi-generational story told.

``I had to do a hang-out thing like anthropologists do,'' he said.

Hongo was asked about the difference between Volcano and Eugene in terms of community, a sense of place.

``In Eugene, I can go for weeks without seeing anybody but my wife and kids. Eugene is just an English department, not a village. I feel good (in Volcano). In Eugene, I'm working on it.''

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