Garrett Hongo has authored several collections of poetry since the 1980’s, the most recent of which is 2011’s Coral Road. A book of essays, The Mirror Diary, was released in 2017. Hongo’s poem, “A Garland of Light,” centers SR’s Summer 2019 issue. We asked Hongo about his teacher Robert Hayden, to whom the poem is dedicated, and the specter of literary inheritance, among other things.
SR: In “A Garland of Light,” Robert Hayden, to whom the poem is dedicated, reads Keats with a graduate student. I see a trace of autobiography here, in part because the poem is written with that authoritative first-person pronoun. What does it mean to place these two great poets, one born more than a century before the other, in conversation?
GH: Well, it’s all autobiography except the passages from Keats and Hayden. Hayden taught me how to read poetry not only out loud, but with savor, patience, and sentience, appreciating not only the words but the cadences, phrasing, startling insights, and rhetorical complexity and density. It was a lesson in “acting,” although not in the theatrical sense, but in terms of inhabiting not just the sensicality of the poetry (difficult enough sometimes), but its emotions, rhetorical flavor and flourishes, and its “essential modesty” I think Hayden’s phrase was. He meant not to overdo it, like an actor might.
Hayden, I think, was trying to give me a gift. I’d proposed studying a range of things, most prominently African American writing of the 60s, but he just said “We shall read Keats.” I’d not studied Keats very closely at all and thought it a lack, so I agreed. I’d actually have agreed to study penguins if he’d proposed it. And it wasn’t me who placed these two in conversation, it was Hayden who placed me in conversation with him and Keats. And that final realization did not hit me until nearly forty-five years later! What it means is that he’d ushered me into the entryway to two of the loveliest and fiercely beautiful poets in the language—himself and Keats. It is like hearing Haydn and Hindemith in music. You feel the sweep, not only of their beauteous phrasings, but of how a tragic loveliness persists in the culture and finds its poets.
SR: “A Garland” seems to me an echo of one of Hayden’s most famous poems, “Middle Passage.” The two exhibit certain architectural affinities; both begin in transit (Hayden’s “Sails flashing to the wind like weapons,” your “long walk / past the antique earth colors of ruins at the Forum”), and end with a mixed form of grace (Hayden: “Voyage through death / to life upon these shores”; Hongo: “a garland of light on the swells of a fountain”) In what ways—overt, covert, or otherwise—is this poem an homage, or speaking through, to Hayden?
GH: It is a poem of gratitude and homage to Hayden. The similarities you point out are perhaps merely structural, especially as one cannot compare the Middle Passage to a stroll through Rome—
hardly apt. But my poem is an itinerary, a poem that describes a route through space, taking up the casual tourist’s experience of walking through Rome to the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and Keats-Shelley House only to find he is confronted with a bolt of lightning from the past—Hayden’s lesson to me all those years ago a mirror of Keats and Charles Cowden Clarke, reading poems together in an arbor. It's exactly what Hayden had me do in his garden.
SR: Literary inheritance was a complicated thing for Hayden, an African American poet writing on the heels of and in many ways responding to the time-haunted Modernists. How does your own sense of literary inheritance complicate this poem?
GH: Along with asserting ethnic identity and insisting upon the acknowledgment of suppressed histories, the movements that empowered people of color too often carried within their messages strong nationalistic imperatives that “canceled” what was perceived as the culture of the master. For Hayden, this was a terrible burden, as African American poets of his own generation and younger condemned his personal style and his poetry as “like the white man’s,” a fact I was ignorant of until he told me one day in the Hopwood Room in Ann Arbor. I'd invited him to read with Etheridge Knight, Leslie Marmon Silko, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge at the Trotter House, the African American fraternity at the University of Michigan. It was a reading I organized, sponsored by “The Third-World Alliance” of students of color. The English department would have never done this, and we all knew it. Hayden declined, saying, “I’m afraid I must decline your kind invitation as you would not receive the audience you’d hope to were I at the podium with you.” I was shocked. I asked what he meant. Hayden said, “Have you heard the phrase Uncle Tom? I'm afraid I am persona non grata at the Trotter House.” I was aghast, till I spoke to my first poetry teacher, Bert Meyers, back in LA. Bert told me the history behind this censoring of Hayden, Melvin Tolson’s condemnation of him at a conference of black writers, Don L. Lee’s/Haki Madhubuti’s condemnation, even Gwendolyn Brooks’. This pained me deeply. Hayden offered to attend but said he would not read. When he came, walking in a few minutes late after the crowed had already gathered, he entered with his wife and was about to take up center seats in the second row, where I’d reserved seats for them. Before they sat down, as they were moving through the aisle, the other poets, led by Knight and Inada, rose to give him an ovation. The entire audience rose too and applauded as the Haydens sat down. In acknowledgment, Hayden only nodded, but it was very moving.
My sense of occupying literary space is perhaps similar to Hayden’s, if I may say so. I’ve studied the Anglo-American tradition extensively, knowing the literature back to Medieval times. I count the Renaissance lyric, the greater Romantic lyric, and the Modernist poetry of Yeats, Stevens, Frost, Eliot, and Pound as part of my own cultural inheritance as a poet. But I also have studied Chinese and Japanese literature, African American literature, poetry in Spanish and Polish, and count them too. I know Asian American history, the oral history of Japanese in Hawai’i and in the internment camps. I grew up among blacks and Japanese during my adolescence. I write from all these and renounce none of them.
Back when I started, the poet Michael S. Harper told me, “Youngblood, you’re gonna get it from both sides,” meaning I'd be criticized for being “ethnic” by the white literary establishment (I was, especially for having published a long poem on the Japanese American internment) and for being “literary” and having “white values” by movement-oriented cadres, and I was. I think I still am. And, as Vito Corleone says, “I don't apologize.”
As for my inheritance complicating the poem, I’m not sure. I’d say it “informs” the poem and opens reading Keats, Hayden, and myself into integrated histories, cultural hybridities rather than situating us as performative of nationalistic, centrist, or ethnic exclusions.