I Write, Therefore I am Korean

My second book, out now from Hanging Loose Press

My first book, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, took me about five years to put together. This second book, I Used To Be Korean, took a little bit less time. But, golly gee, book writing just takes a long time, huh?

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

mount

They denounced me to the FBI, so I would not grow smug, in

comfort

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

one of theirs, and they begin to carve the dates

Of Books & Shelves

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).

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At the Strand, October 2019

But seeing my first book of poems on the shelves of the Strand was a thrill.

Continue reading →

Skill, Will And Practice

I have been making literary products since my twenties.  Though I started writing poetry in elementary school, it wasn’t because I was engaging in a commercial enterprise.  I was writing these pieces because I wanted to make something.  I wanted to create.  Did I know back then that I was engaging in art making?  I think I knew.

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Hands create

Certainly I’d not thought to call poems “literary products” during all my years of writing,  but that’s exactly what they are, especially when you take the next step of trying to get them published in print or online.   This is my currency as a poet.

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Scarf 2012

I have been on chapbook and/or full manuscript duty for some years now.  My first book of poems took about five years to put together and I’ve been on this road since.  The mechanics of putting together a book is mysterious even though I’ve done it before.

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My aunt kniiting in the Bronx, 2012

If I were knitting or crocheting a scarf I could say the stitches are the foundation and you could say the loose pages of poems are the bones of your manuscript.  This is a fair analogy.   Though I haven’t picked up my knitting needles in some years, when I did I knew where the craft came from: a combo of skill, will and practice.  But is that all there is?  No hocus pocus from up high or down below?

I’ve been working on my second book of poems for over a year with a current chapbook on the side.  It would be more romantic to say that Athena shot me with her arrow of war power, but I won’t know until I finish the book.

 

Did I mention

I was borne from the ashes

of the Old World

honor and blood

was my civilization

my small nation

a kingdom of big egos

even our bastards

are royal…

–excerpted from “I Used to Be Korean” by Jiwon Choi

 

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

 

 

 

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”

A Book

In 2017 I published my first book of poems.
one daughter

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