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…

I Used to Be Korean

Me and mom (circa 1974) taken at the Rudy Castilla Photo Studio

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.

Leaving Time

I am stuck in time. I am out of time. I am nothing but time. Kimpo Airport circa 1971.

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.

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in weakened broth

— from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab-Nye

I Am Four

I am a teacher of four year olds.  It has been my favorite age to teach ever since I started on the early childhood path, as far back to 1987 when I started as an intern at the Columbia Greenhouse Nursery School.

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Happy Birthday Jiwon

Our body holds memories of what happened to us when we were young, albeit some are murky and forget about chronological order.  But they are evidence of what we were going through at the time.   Living with my aunt and uncle, I felt powerless and lonely for my parents,  and though my cousins tried to comfort me, it was not enough.

Even as a little kid you know you’ve got little power to change your circumstances and that’s what really sticks in your craw, and what you remember most about being a child.

 

My life suffocates
Planting seeds of hate
I’ve loved, turned to hate
Trapped far beyond my fate

–Excerpted from “Harvester of Sorrow” by Metallica

 

 

 

 

 

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