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Garret Hongo: On the New Audience for American Poetry

… The teachers told me I would read to an assembly made up largely of Asians and whites – about a hundred students, most of them juniors and seniors. The Asians were a mixture of Chinese and Southeast Asians, they told me, some of them Vietnamese, some Cambodians, a lot of them from Hong Kong too. Some four or five English classes were put together to make up the audience, and the students trooped in and took their seats, the whites giggling and self-conscious, the Asians largely silent.

I read my poems about the inner city and my poems about Hawaii – about my leaving there as a child, returning to it many years later as an adult, a poet, and seeking out the odd places, the plantation lands, the sugar mills, the canefield and graveyard where I might have played as a child, the rough seashore which was like kin. I read along poem about walking through the old Japanese cemetery in Kahuku on the plantation. I told them how it was placed on a promontory overlooking the sea, on a sandy point jutting into the ocean, how we Japanese and Filipinos and Chinese put our cemeteries there because it was the land given to us by the growers who needed the good land, the land that was arable, for growing the sugar cane and the pineapple. But what we didn’t know, what the growers didn’t know, was that the sea would come and take our dead from us then, in the periodic raids of rips and tidal waves from a swelling ocean. The Hawaiians knew this and took the bones of their dead to the high ground, to caves on the cliffs and rock mounds on the rainy plateau above the shelves of land between the sea and windward mountains. But we immigrants, we newly arrived laborers, placed generation after generation in the sand by the sea.

A tsunami came in 1946 and took over half our dead in one night. "Bones and tombstones / up and down the beach," my poem said. I told them of walking over the patchy carpeting of temple moss "yellowing in the alien earth," the stinging sandclouds kicked up by the tough, onshore wind. I recalled a story of a murder committed out of outrage and shame – it was an act of victimage committed within the community – and paid homage to it as part of my past. It was to the journey I paid homage, the quest and travail of it from an Asian past to our American present. And it was the journey’s remembrance – as shame and pride – that the poem was dedicated.

When I finished, I looked up. In the back rows was a Chinese girl, or maybe she was Vietnamese, dressed in a plain white schoolshirt and dark woolen skirt. Her hair was long and hung in two thick braids against her ears and jaws. Her eyes were shining. She wept, staring at me as if I were a statue. I averted my own eyes, glancing quickly across the row and throughout the assembly, and saw others weeping, too, wiping their faces. Some were embarrassed and gazed down at the floor or at their shoes. A few teachers nodded. I don’t remember anyone smiling. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before. It wasn’t somberness and it wasn’t catharsis or communion either. It was awkward. Emotional. Somehow out of keeping with a public high school in Los Angeles. Or anywhere else in America. It was perhaps ceremonial. I was surprised and a little unsettled by it, though it felt to me glorious.

… An Asian girl came up and asked me to sign her Pee-Chee. Then another had me sign a napkin. A few more had xeroxes of my poems. I signed them all. A boy with acne and hair cut close to his temples but thick with pomade at the top – a style then coming into fashion with urban rappers – asked if I’d be reading for "adults" any time that week. He wanted his parents to hear me, too. I phlumphered something about Pacific-Asian Museum that Saturday.

I had lunch with the teachers. They took me to the cafeteria, and we sat at the long bench tables I remember from my public school days. Over fish sticks or breaded veal and tapioca pudding, we talked poetry and the new Asian students. A youngish man dressed in brown tweeds with a light brown neatly trimmed beard spoke.

"I’ve never seen them respond like that," he said. "Never seen them act so openly, show emotion like that before. You really connected."

I was learning something, something new and strong. These children with so much passion, so much raw affection, were teaching me that I had an audience, that my experience and sensibility spoke for their experiences, that I could address a world of others like myself, of Asians newly arrived, of peoples wanting to make America their place, too. Up until then, I’d pretty much felt embattled as an artist and had taken that as part of my identity. I saw myself as an individual presence up against cultural indifference or mild hostility, particularly because of my subject – the history of the Japanese in America – was something I thought few cares about. Except for some wonderful exceptions, and most of these among my fellow poets, it had been so in college, and even more so in graduate school. I’d felt that, even if I was allowed a place in academe or the literary world it would be on sufferance, that no one was intrinsically interested in my obsessions, my passions. I thought of America as an establishment that was aloof from me. But after that assembly under the Los Angeles mountains, singing the Pee-Chees and napkins and xeroxes these teenage students had of my poems, I sensed that I was beginning to belong to something, to join in a throng of voices in need of their own singing.

When Walt Whitman, the great American poet of the 19th century, wrote his poems of robust American optimism, full of the democratic spirit and lust for challenges and union jobs, he shouted, "I Hear American Singing!" and announced a theme that characterized more than a century of our history. well, I look upon all of us here, now, we, the New Americans, among newly arrived peoples with their boat trails of memories from across the oceans, and, I think, I Hear America Singing too.

From Garrett Hongo, "America Singing: An Address to the Newly Arrived Peoples" in Parnassus 17:1 (1992), 18-20.

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