Jiwon Choi is an early childhood educator, poet, and urban gardener. She is dedicated to making and eating her own Korean food, and published her first collection of poetry, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, last year.
I lived on 107th street with my parents until 1992. We were the only Koreans on our block. Where were the others?
I am reading Louise Bogan’s bio again, connecting with the turmoil of her young life. She recalls her mother as being unhappy and ready to take it out on her family. Her mother had relations with other men while exacting inappropriate feelings from her son. I understand being raised by a mother mired in an unrequited life, but I wish I could extricate myself from her long tail of dissatisfaction and chaos.
I wonder at how people put out all their volumes and collections. I am amazed at the speed of their output and it brings me to wonder about my snail’s pace. I do honor and respect my output for what it is: I am a preschool teacher who up ’til last July was trying to take care of my Old Ladies. But they are both gone now and “every day is like Sunday; every day is silent and gray.” That should leave me more time to write, you say? Well, in theory, yes it should. But it’s not working out that way.
I think about Harley Elliott, a poet whom I trust to set me straight on the way of our finite human condition. I do mean the way we deal with being alive and how we make the most of our time on earth. Harley has published 11 books of poetry with two books out in 2020!: The Mercy of Distance (Hanging Loose Press) and Creature Way (Spartan Press) so he must know about finding the way to more writing.
I think of Bob Hershon who wrote about fifteen books throughout his writing life. His work is a body of knowledge connoting confidence, a savvy outlook on life with little second guessing. I admire that kind of knowing. Bob’s way of seeing the world. You may not be born with it, but it can be borne within you. It’s been almost two weeks since Bob passed and I am just coming to terms with knowing that we won’t be hanging out in his backyard, sipping on reasonably priced wine whilst ducking wayward acorns from those sassy Boerum Hill squirrels.
I know I will honor his memory and legacy by writing as much poetry as I can.
In memorium, Bob Hershon, poet, publisher, friend and eternal student of the School of Keep On Keeping On:
A Bad Dinner
by Bob Hershon
They gave me a bad dinner, not to make me a stranger –Betsy Sheridan’s journal
They pelted me with rocks, not to take their love as my due
They burned my poems and papers, not to permit my self-love to
They denounced me to the FBI, so I would not grow smug, in
and take their good will as a given
They pulled out my eyelashes, so I would not blink in amazment
They blew their noses in my socks, so I would not strut
They carved my name on a headstone, not to forget that I was
Constructing identity via found objects. Does that sound like your life?
The work to create your own sense of self that does not rely on other peoples’ ideals and ideas of you is tricky. How do you tell your own story of your vibrancy, agency and boldness without getting mixed up in stereotypes and misinformation?
Note: this DIY face portrait exploration is an ongoing project I am doing with my class of four year olds. We gather appealing found objects aka loose parts, draw and cut out our face shape, and then arrange the objects on our face canvas to create a portrait of ourselves. No glue needed.
Start with a canvas of your own making and then build from there…
I forget that my mom used to perm my hair when I was little. She might have done it especially for this photo, taken at a real life studio across the street from our old apartment building on 107th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
The last time I tried to perm my hair, I might have been in college and realized just how straight my hair was because there was barely a ripple in it when I was done with all the rigamarole.
I have long ago come to terms with my long, straight, black hair, and I thank my ancestors for their generous gift every day.
The year we left Korea for America, my parents were counting on things being better in the West. Korea was twenty years out of war when we left, but the economic troubles flattened out a lot of families. I look at me at barely three here and know we were also one of those flattened families despite having taken a plane to the “promised land.”
I did not have the same urge for going that captivated my mother. I know she was doing her best for her family when she relocated us, but I wonder at all the things that were lost. I was listening to some guy on the radio bulldog-ishly say his father would tell people over thirty to stop opining their childhood. Of course, his father doesn’t know what he’s talking about while, at the same time, he probably does. But it’s not up to anyone to tell us when to get over our crap. Plus our crap is what fuels our creative energies. I know my muse is not some angel in gossamer, no offense to Clio, but my muse is a bloody, hairy stump under my bed.
Last month I was in the hospital a lot. Not for myself, but for my Old Ladies. Not because they had covid-19 at the time, but one for sepsis and the other who was refusing to swallow.
Old Ladies: Aunt & Mother ca 1970’s
The Old Lady refusing to swallow was my mother who after two weeks of getting fed through a nasal gastric tube had to have a feeding tube put in. The refusing to swallow apparently is a symptom of dementia. The other Old Lady, my aunt, is back in the nursing home and seems to be beating the odds (this is where I knock on wood). The nursing home where my aunt resides is reporting six deaths due to the virus, but from what I can tell from our Facetime chats, she has not succumbed to it.
I am not sure how long I can keep from succumbing to a dementia of my own. A dementia brought on by the stress of making life-changing decisions for other people on top of the guilt that has been gnawing away at me since I took over the Old Ladies’ care back in 2011.
But I don’t want to let them down.
There are people who I know are dead
and people I suppose are dead
and people who I fear are dead
and dead people long forgotten
and dead people who never leave
excerpted from “There Are People Who I Know Are Dead”
Cocktail party (my dad is the dude second from right)
I remember my father telling me there was a conspiracy against him getting licensed to be a dentist in the U.S. and I thought he was crazy. But the more I understand of the seventies and immigrant discrimination, I don’t think he was crazy. Do I have proof that New York University conspired to keep my dad from passing his exams and getting his license to practice? Not exactly. But maybe the truth is somewhere in between conspiracy and institutional xenophobia.
We got to NYC when Nixon was still in office and the war in Vietnam was alive and well. Enter us Korean immigrants into this mix for one fucked up cocktail of Yellow Peril and xenophobia.
I wish my dad would have returned to Korea way sooner than he did. He could have just returned to his dentist life and my mom could have stayed in New York. What did she thnk she was going to find in America? I wonder if the allure of America is just a gimmick. A trick to bring in the gullible. Perhaps it’s not an equitable promise for all who heed her siren song?
Amidst the racist rants of “Go back to your country,” I sometimes wish we had.
we, the living
have this compulsion
to walk backwards into the past
as if the past has been waiting all this time
at the kitchen table
for our return
but the past has things to do
a forever schedule of sorting and erasing memories
I don’t consider myself a person of a giddy nature. By now, I am of a pretty hearty nature, reasonably practical and sane (though can dabble in whim and fancy on occasion, prone to candy shopping and kitty Instagramming).
At the Strand, October 2019
But seeing my first book of poems on the shelves of the Strand was a thrill.