RAFU STAFF REPORT
A poet’s audio obsession, from collecting his earliest vinyl to his quest for the ideal vacuum tubes. A captivating book that “ingeniously mixes personal memoir with cultural history and offers us an indispensable guide for the search of acoustic truth” (Yunte Huang, author of “Charlie Chan”).
Garrett Hongo spoke at two launch events for his latest book, “The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo” (Pantheon), on the weekend of March 19-20. Saturday’s event was a private gathering for his friends at the Miyako Hybrid Hotel in Torrance (he grew up in Gardena). Sunday’s public event was at Skylight Books in Los Angeles.
Among those joining Hongo at the Torrance event was fellow author David Mura, a noted poet “The Last Incantations, “Angels for the Burning,” “The Colors of Desire” and memoirist (“Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity,” “Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei”).
At Skylight, Hongo appeared in conversation with novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen (“The Sympathizer,” “The Committed”), professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and comparative literature at USC. He is also the author of “Chicken of the Sea,” a children’s book written in collaboration with his son, Ellison.
Hongo’s book tour also included City Lights Book Company in San Francisco (in conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston), Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle (with Frank Abe), Princeton University (with Gish Jen), Powell’s Bookstore in Portland (with Luis Alberto Urrea), Free Library of Philadelphia (with Major Jackson), House of Records in Eugene, Ore. (with Greg Sutherland), and Pomona College (with Prageeta Sharma).
Hongo’s passion for audio dates back to the Empire 398 turntable his father paired with a Dynakit tube amplifier in their modest tract home in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. But his adult quest begins in the CD-changer era, as he seeks out speakers and amps both powerful and refined enough to honor the top notes of the greatest opera sopranos. In recounting this search, he describes a journey of identity where meaning, fulfillment, and even liberation were often most available to him through music and its astonishingly varied delivery systems.
Hongo writes about the sound of surf being his first music as a kid in Hawaii, about doo-wop and soul reaching out to him while growing up among Black and Asian classmates in L.A., about Rilke and Joni Mitchell as the twin poets of his adolescence, and about feeling the pulse of John Coltrane’s jazz and the rhythmic chords of Billy Joel’s piano from his car radio while driving the freeways as a young man trying to become a poet.
Journeying further, he visits devoted collectors of decades-old audio gear as well as designers of the latest tube equipment, listens to sublime arias performed at La Scala, hears a ghostly lute at the grave of English Romantic poet John Keats in Rome, drinks in wisdom from blues musicians and a diversity of poetic elders while turning his ear toward the memory-rich strains of the music that has shaped him: Hawaiian steel guitar and canefield songs; Bach and The Band; Mingus, Puccini, and Duke Ellington.
And in the decades-long process of perfecting his stereo setup, Hongo also discovers his own now-celebrated poetic voice.
Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawaii, and grew up on the North Shore of Oahu and in Southern California. His most recent books are “The Mirror Diary: Selected Essays” and “Coral Road: Poems.” A regular contributor to the “SoundStage! Ultra” blog, he lives in Eugene and is distinguished professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon.
Visit his website: www.garretthongo.com