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

Put Your Game Face On

Constructing identity via found objects. Does that sound like your life?

Your face reveals so much: What is my face saying to you?

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…

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

 

Emerging

What does it mean to be an emerging writer? Is it that when you are new and full of hope?

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Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool

And when is it that you can stop “emerging”?  And who gets to decide?

I’m almost fifty, do I have enough time to evolve from my emerging status?  When can I shed the husk of amatuer?

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Max Beckman: “Woman with Mandolin in Yellow and Red”  (1950)

I talked to my publisher Bob Hershon who’s been publishing and writing for over fifty years about the plight of the emerging writer and he expertly noted that the moniker “new writer” is the better description.   With a fifteenth collection under his belt, I can’t disagree.

But how can one be a new writer in their fifth decade?

I am writing my second collection of poetry and I am slow going.   The first one took me over five years.  And I’m super proud of my work, but it doesn’t make writing the second book any easier––layers of complicated feelings and memories that works as the cruxt of your work, but often the obstacle of your progress.

Can you get out of your way?

It is yourself you seek

In a long rage,

Scanning through light and darkness

Mirrors, the page,

Where should reflected be

Your eyes and that thick hair,

That passionate look, that laughter.

––excerpted from “Man Alone” by Louise Bogan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing While Colored

I’ve been submitting my work to Rigorous, “a journal edited and written by people of color” for a little over a year.  It’s an online magazine with the flexibility and expansiveness to accept not only written work, but visual, audio and video arts.  So smart.

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Current issue of Rigorous

I’d not really considered submitting my work to a journal dedicated to writers of color and I wonder why.   Because it’s important this community we are creating through the simple act of creating and sharing our art.  As writing poetry is such a solitary craft, as much of art is, I find a sense of gratitude for this cohesive network of writers.  Sure it’s through the Internet, but it’s there.

In the January 2017 inaugural issue, one of the editors, Kenyatta JP Garcia, wrote of his affinity “towards the experimental, speculative and slipstream” in art, but that he’s mostly seen it done by “white folks”:

We rarely see the brown and black alternative approaches to art but it’s not for lack of trying. Most of us have been taught to ‘work twice as hard’ and many of us took it to heart…While not every piece is overtly political, every time we as the marginalized create something we are being political. Our arts speak of our experiences and worldviews. It speaks from a perspective that has been minimized and silenced. The act of creation is a push back against a system that has historically ignored us.

The act of creation is a push back against a system that has historically ignored us.

He continues to say that we need community and a support system in this “new era of American policy.”   This policy of Trump that we must resist and help dismantle.

St. Eugene of the Color Blind

What ever happened
to that that light-skinned girl
your brother was dating?
The one your father used to call
“the Mulatto” and we were too dumb to be
embarrassed for him, for us
because that was the eighties and we
were in high school and doped up
on wine coolers. Your mom liked to
comment on her good manners, not like
your Canarsie floozies who hogged the chairs
in the kitchen and mooched all her Shasta.

You liked to say Eugene was color blind
like you were bragging about it
like he was the only one in the clan who
could be that way

but he broke up with her
after all that
when it was clear it was going to be
a hassle every time
to get through checkpoint Charlie
down by Breezy.

He wasn’t better than us
just opposite:

a hypocrite.

      — 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”