Tab

I met Tab in the fourth grade.

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Tab and Jiwon

Our birthdays are three days apart and we grew up three blocks from each other in the part of Manhattan set aside for poor and colored people.  But one fun fact: Our stretch of blocks was rated one of the top ten worst neighborhoods by our precinct cops, on the scale of drive-bys and drugs we got a big “A”!

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I baked these cupcakes

We were a combo Judy Blume and Walter Dean Myers novel: Increasing our busts in the ghetto.  I even wrote a children’s book about me and Tab for one of my graduate classes, inspired by one of the few children’s books that features a friendship between a black and asian child: Bebop-a-Do Walk by Sheila Hamanaka.

As an only child with parents who were struggling in deep water, my friendship with Tab was an act of grace.  Our friendship didn’t stop me from being a spaz in social settings and super awkward about most things, but in a lasting way it helped me become better suited for the world ahead.

It’s who we breathe, in, out, in the sacred,

leaves astir, our wings

rising, ruffled––but only the saints

take flight.

––excerpted from ‘In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being’   

by Denise Levertov

 

 

 

I Had a Food Blog in Brooklyn…

It is so pleasureable to write about food.

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Drool

I started a food blog in 2012, writing mostly about Korean food.  I will tell you that the best Korean food you’ll eat is the food you make at home.  I learned how to make it from my mom and aunt.   Before being admitted into a nursing home, they used to live on their own in the Bronx where they were sometimes cooking the basics: noodles and soups.   But when they both came down with dementia, they just kept burning their pots and pans, and once my mom set an electric kettle on the stove and nearly burnt their building down.

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Toss your noodle

I like my food blog and can’t bring myself to dismantle it, but over these months I have noticed my posting has slowed down (but certainly not my eating!)  It feels like the beginning of the end…but I want to remember everything.

 

We’ve been cooking

cassava for hours

while the men drink beer

and skin all they can grab

 

tonight it’s rat

turning over an agitated fire

spitting out sparks

and ire

 

good eating for the emperors

and empresses

of Mozambique.

––Jiwon Choi, “To Eat.” Rigorous. 2017

 

 

James Beard & The Fu Manchu Syndrome

I’m not Chinese, but what the fuck James Beard?

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Which one is more fucked up than the others?

Why did James Beard and Alice and Martin Provensen think it was okay to fall into the lazy foot steps of stereotyping and demonizing a whole demographic into Fu Manchu?  Oh, with a foreward by Mark Bittman no less.

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What the fuck, James Beard?

Hey, I like fancy food just as much as the next person–who doesn’t want to eat raspberry and rhubarb together?  But why is his estate allowing these outdated racist images to remain in his book?  Like, doink, this is not the 1950’s.

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Inscrutable!

Though?  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s most likely due to our narrow-minded and ignorant Orange-American president that it feels like we’ve been set back 60 years so we might as well be in the fifties with all of its backward notions and nostalgia about things that ‘never was’ the way you thought it was.

Dig?

“Chinaman”!
“Laundryman”!
Don’t call me “man”!
I am worse than a slave.

Wash! wash!
Why can I wash away
The dirt of others’ clothes
But not the hatred of my heart?
My skin is yellow,
Does my yellow skin color the clothes?
Why do you pay me less
For the same work?

––excerpted from “Chinaman, Laundryman” by Hsi-tseng Tsiang

 

Genesis

Old poems are where new poems come from.

                                                 ––Jiwon Choi

 

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Genesis

While rummaging through folders of old poems, I found the genesis of a current poem I wrote about my mother, and her diagnosed dementia.  Most of the work that I generate about my mother is not for public consumption, with the exception of the published pieces that hopefully provide a little insight.

This ‘mother’ poem was the spawn of two poems I’d written back when it became clear that there was something wrong with her mental capacity.    Both poems work to piece together bits of what I know and imagine of my mother’s childhood.

 

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Parent One: The Law of Gravity

 

 

She was diagnosed with this affliction back in 2011.   But I suspect that there was something wrong with her way before.  I am certain she had a strain of PTSD that was neither diagnosed nor addressed while I was growing up with her.

Both of my parents had it.  How could they not?  They’d lived through a war, had their family members sent to work camps, killed or drop dead from disease.

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Parent Two:  Knowing This is the End

I probably have it too.  Though I don’t dwell on it too often, it’s good to be aware of one’s fault lines and where they be.  I am not immune.

The poem these two old ones birthed has been published in the current issue, #109, of Hanging Loose Magazine:

…so what I have always known is true––you were a mother made up entirely of memories…

–from You Live in the Space Behind Your Eyes

Incidentally, this issue also features two remarkable poets who I just found out about: Jose Angel Araguz and Carole Bernstein.  They are worth a read.

 

 

 

My Last Day

Coming and going.

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Last Day, September 1974

Here I am on the last day of living with my aunt and uncle and cousins in Seoul.  I had been living with them after my parents emigrated to the US and decided to send me back when they realized they couldn’t take care of me and themselves at the same time.

This was the day I was leaving my favorite cousins and a life of being connected to my Korean skin.

How many times do I have to say “goodbye?”

Skin remembers how long the years grow

when the skin is not touched, a gray tunnel

of singleness, feather lost from the tail

of a bird…

––excerpted from “Two Countries” by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

 

 

 

 

 

Immigrant

I ain’t your f**king model minority.

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Most generalizations about the Asian immigrants are flawed. New stereotypes, like ”hard-working” and ”obsessed with education,” fail just as badly as old ones, like ”inscrutable” and ”clannish.” Still, as you travel around the country meeting the new immigrants in their homes and on the job, a sense quickly emerges that, despite the problems that bedevil them, they comprise a powerhouse of drive and ambition that is likely to have a broad impact on the life of the country.

–NY Times Archive, (5/9/82). “The New Asian Immigrants.”

The plight of the immigrant in America is centuries old.  Remember the Middle Passage with its forced and brutal migration of black people into the Americas where they would become chattel and spill their blood for generations of seemingly lazy and entitlement-obsessed white people?  There are some people who want to forget the four hundred years of slavery and violence against black people, the genocide of Native Americans, and the ongoing war against poor and colored people, but that trick is getting old. Just because you don’t want to talk about it doesn’t mean these issues go away.  Things will get worse.

I know Society is super eager and excited to put the burden of “model minority” on my shoulders, but Society must shove it.  I am not going to play the “other” for Society’s sake. I don’t care that Society cannot find its place in time unless it subjugates and co-opts my identity.  I claim the right to be an asshole as much as any colonizer (without the plantation and slaves of course).

Oh to be an asshole, let me count the ways:

  • don’t hold the door for the old person behind you
  • fuck saving a seat for your lame-ass friend at the bar
  • eat the last hammantaschen
  • don’t compliment anyone on their hair
  •  don’t move to the middle on the subway
  • don’t give up your seat for the old or pregnant on the bus
  • tell your friend he’s fat
  • lock your sister in the bathroom

My list could go on.  But really, isn’t this just the normal stuff we do to each other?

1970’s

I don’t know why I’m wearing gauchos with a blazer.  This seems wrong.

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Best dressed in Central Park

But no big surprise because the Seventies strikes me as being about misguided choices, especially the decision to emigrate to the US from my first home, Korea.

There are a bunch of old photos of me in a crowd of somber looking grown-ups at the airport.  I am with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and there’s my grandmother who had already said so many goodbyes looking tired and dazed.  She knew what was coming.

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Departure

The Seventies were a hardship for my parents and they sent me back to live with one of my father’s older brothers who had three children.   Maybe I could have just stayed on as his fourth.  It seems a betrayal of sorts to say so, but my parents could not handle the burden of a child while trying to turn their Korean life into an American one.

You’d think I’d have written more poems about this time in my life by now, but I haven’t.  It’s a dilemma for sure.

When you became American you watched that movie thinking you were Dorothy but no, you were the house torn from its foundation and the years you spent trying to fit in were the flying monkeys.

–– excerpted from “In Korean Years” by Jiwon Choi

In The Country of Memory

I used to live in Korea.   I was about two years old and living in my uncle’s house. My parents were not with me because they had just started their hustle in New York and they sent me back to Korea so that I could be cared for my aunt and uncle.  I lived with them for about three years before reuniting with my parents in New York City.

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I remember

But four decades later, part of me is still there.

As a writer, I dwell in what Ted Kooser calls the “Country of Memory,”:  “We each have our country of memory always within us, always open to exploration, and we hold this for most of our lives.”  Essentially, this is where your nostalgia and sorrow are alive and well, waiting for you to come by for your daily dose of sad memories and regret.  This is where I come for my Father memories.  He passed away in 2006 so this is all I got.

The surface of memory is like one of those Advent calendar with lots of little flaps under which you can see things.

––Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

You will find that my first book of poetry, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, opens a lot flaps, especially the father ones.  It makes sense that I would write about my father, as our relationship was difficult at times.  But I didn’t realize how much I would miss him until it was too late.

 

Back to 1951

My father is forgetting my face as he lies dying

in the company of parrots in bright eye shadow and lips

like Christmas.

On a battery of wings, surrounded by a halo of flies,

he is lifted back to 1951, seventeen and hiding in the mountains,

living off bitter roots and small snakes,

giving the Red Army the finger.

 

He stayed there long after soldiers went back to their farm

and factory lives

while I tried to fit inside his tin can of a heart:

 

thou shalt not smoke

thou shalt not skip breakfast

thou shalt not end up an old maid . . .

 

Did Confucius say headstrong daughters must assume the venerable position?

 

Do it anyway: kowtow and contemplate remains of flesh and bone

melting into silt and soil.

––Jiwon Choi, “One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons”

Thanks, But No Thanks

I’ve been having my work rejected by various poetry journals and publishers for a long time.   And I don’t keep a list of all my rejections, as it whiffs of being a bad sport––plus I don’t keep that much paper in the house!  Also, think about all the booze I’d have to drink to dull the pain.

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Driven to gin

Case in point, I have a poem that I’ve been working on for over a year, and it’s going to get the gold medal in the “consistently rejected” category.  The most recent NO THANKS came from Calyx:

Dear Jiwon Choi:

Thank you for your recent submission to CALYX. We’re happy to let you know that “Existence” was among the small group of submissions held for final consideration by our editorial collective. However, our editors ultimately concluded that your submission was not right for us at this time.

They went on to offer feedback on another poem that I’d sent in, of which I was appreciative because most places don’t bother to extend themselves this way––usually you get a form letter and “buh-by.”  But I’m still not sure what about this poem was “not right” for this journal at this time: Theme, length, tone?  All of the above?

I could ask them, but part of me doesn’t want to know.  Poetry is subjective and our connection with it is visceral, which can make it tricky to explain why we like the poems and poets that we do.

Thanks, but no thanks.

 

 

A Book

In 2017 I published my first book of poems.
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I’d been sending in my poems to some journals and getting some results.   As you active writers know, sending in poems is a full time job in itself, so I was doing my best to curate the list, keeping in mind where I would like to see my work.  Sure, Poetry and The New Yorker, but I don’t have three extra decades to wait for that to happen.   It’s okay to be practical and realistic:  Painted Bride Quarterly because they  publish Yusef Komunyakaa, one of my favorite poets, and Hanging Loose Press, because one of the first poetry books I’d ever owned was published by them.  It was Paul Violi’s Likewise.   And because both institutions have been around for decades, HL for 50 years and PBQ for almost as many.

After they’d published a handful of my poems, an editor from Hanging Loose emailed to say they’d consider a manuscript for publication if I had one.  Oh, I had one.  I’d been schlepping it around town, editing on the subway and the occasional bar, for some five years.

It was a relief to see my many loose pages gathered and bound into a real book.  I am a creature of book habits and so there was a keen joy in reading my work in book form.  I will admit, I felt validated.  But this relief is fleeting and soon you look to your next fix, dare I say it, a second collection?!

And thanks to PBQ for posting a nice announcement about my book when it first came out:

PBQ