Panax Ginseng: The Shallow Underworld of This History

Panax Ginseng is a monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring the transgressions of linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those which result in hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the congenital borrowings of the English language, deriving from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” and the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” The troubling image of one’s roots as a panacea will inform the column’s readings of new texts.


Literasians Panel (Photo credit Elezanbee Vue)


For APIA Heritage Month, the SOMArts Gallery in San Francisco ran an exhibit from May 3-25 curated by Jennifer Banta: “The Future Is NOW: Asian America On Its Own Terms.” I parsed the exhibit’s title as a reconception of time (“future,” “now”) through geopolitical space (“Asian America”) and voice (“its own terms”). There were two art installments in the exhibit which I regarded as conceptual centerpieces. The first was “Are we there yet?” by Truong Tran: a small, woven boat suspended over a blue panel with “Are we there yet?” repeated across it in a splash of font sizes. The woven boat here is a ruralized image of the refugee immigrant (i.e. “boat people”) juxtaposed to the refrain of the suburban child in a car’s backseat—two generations of passengers condensed into one locus of space and voice. Across from this piece was another, “Red Lips” by Su-Chen Hung: a pool of water gurgling from a covered and endless source, rippling outward from beneath red tasseled “lips.” In this post, I’d like to show the engagement with “now” to be a convergence of past, present, and future all at once by looking at a literary panel held in the gallery space, and by considering the work of two poets recently featured on the LR blog, Garrett Hongo and Andre Yang.

The panel was titled Literasians and took place on May 24th. Kartika Review editor-at-large Christine Lee Zilka moderated a discussion between Sandra Park, Aimee Phan, Lysley Tenorio, and Andre Yang. Though the art fixtures were not commented upon directly, they were very present as the event’s backdrop. The panel’s description, “writers converging on the APIA literary continuum,” was in line with the thematic use of spatialized time, with “continuum” referring at once to a linear series and a dimensional whole. The panelists spoke on one end of the gallery while the water bubbled from “Red Lips” on the other end. Lined up behind the writers was “Most Wanted” by Taraneh Hemami, a series of face portraits elevated and blurred. And even farther back was a timeline chronicling APIA art exhibits shown at this site since 2002. All this contributed to making the space one of historical synchronicity.

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A Conversation with Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo was born in the back room of the Hongo Store in Volcano, Hawai`i in 1951. He grew up in Kahuku and Hau`ula on the island of O`ahu and moved to Los Angeles when he was six, much to his everlasting regret. He complained so, his parents sent him back when he was nine, where he lived in Wahiawā and Waimalu with relatives who so hated him, they stuffed him on a plane back to L.A. when he was ten. He grew up fighting from then on, all the way through Gardena High School, where he encountered Shakespeare, Camus, and Sophocles in English classes. They convinced him to try higher education, so he went to Pomona College, managed to graduate, still fighting, and found poetry there under the tutelage of Bert Meyers. He wandered Japan, Michigan, and Seattle thereafter, supporting himself through wits and lies, directing the Asian Exclusion Act from 1975-77, becoming poet-in-residence at the Seattle Arts Commission in 1978. He then gave up wit and went back to graduate school at UC Irvine, studying with the poets Charles Wright, C.K. Williams, and Howard Moss, all of whom averred he deserved hanging. Hongo has subsequently taught at USC, Irvine, Missouri, Houston, and Oregon, where, fool that he was, he directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1989-93. He has written three books of poetry, including Coral Road (Knopf, 2011), edited three anthologies of Asian American literature, and published a book of non-fiction entitled Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai`i (Knopf, 1995). Not among the falsehoods on his resume are two fellowships from the NEA, two from the Rockefeller Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He is now in semi-retirement and fights no one, having lost all his teeth and suffered from tapioca of the hands. He plays with his daughter, scolds his two grown sons, and loves his wife Shelly Withrow. He is presently completing a book of non-fiction entitled The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo. In Eugene, where he lives, they call him, among other things, Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.


LR: As a longtime professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon, what has the relationship between academia and poetry been like in your life?

GH: Academia has provided a space for poetry, actually. We can pursue it seriously this way—in formal classes and workshops. I didn’t fully and consistently connect with my own poetry until I got to an MFA program—at Irvine—where I studied with C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Howard Moss. They each gave me something different that I desperately needed—C.K. a big push and a challenge, Charles subtle and constant support and a craftsmanlike approach in answering my own inspirations, and Howard amazing formal wit and geniality in working with my own poetic structures. Since then, as a teacher myself, I try to do things similar for my own students. The poetry workshop has been a haven, though, a place to put the busyness of the world aside and concentrate on poems, poetic thought, the imagination. Academe has been the environment that has supported this most consistently for me.

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