My father used to be a dentist in Korea.
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 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
for how quickly they get hoarded
and become the present
if you’re not careful
–excerpted from “Forever Schedule” by Jiwon Choi
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.
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.
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.
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
–excerpted from “I Used to Be Korean” by Jiwon Choi
What does it mean to be an emerging writer? Is it that when you are new and full of hope?
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?
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