Interview with Hyejung Kook

Poems2go Interview Feature: Hyejung Kook

Interviewed by Sarah Kirstine Lain


          Hyejung Kook’s poetry has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in PleiadesPrairie SchoonerThe Indianapolis ReviewTinderbox Poetry JournalHyphen Magazinewildness, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Other works include an essay in The Critical Flame and Flight, a chamber opera libretto. She is a Fulbright grantee and a Kundiman fellow. Follow her poetry at and on Twitter @hyejungkook.

          SKL: I want to start by thanking you for participating in the Poems2go project; I feel so grateful for the opportunity to share this conversation with you. I was drawn to your poem, Blue Fly, in part for its meditative simplicity, and in part for its duality, which is so present throughout your work. Can you tell us more about the fly, what led you to write this piece, and the specific character qualities you chose to focus on?

          HK: Thank you so much for reprinting “Blue Fly” and inviting me to take part in this conversation. I don’t typically write odes to insects, but in April 2013, I took part in a postcard poem exchange and used cards illustrated with vintage educational charts as inspiration. I’m usually a slow writer, but this was poem twenty-one of thirty written in about a month. Trying to write daily poems about animals, plants, and random miscellany sometimes felt very workmanlike but also led to real and unexpected inspiration, as in the case of “Blue Fly.”

          Choosing this subject was a challenge since most insects make me shiver in disgust. But I see poetry as a way of expanding my perspective, which is not always a comfortable process. To that end, I often do research while drafting. I learned adult blue bottle flies have beautiful color and wings; they drink nectar and pollinate flowers. Their larvae are essential for us to not be overwhelmed by decomposing animal and plant matter. Since blue flies are very quick to lay eggs in carcasses, the age of the eggs and larvae can be used to estimate time of death in humans. I realized my revulsion had a lot to do with fear of my own body’s decay and that I needed to write a poem which named and honored the full range of a blue fly’s attributes, from “white wriggler” to “teacher/of non-attachment.” I love the precision of scientific diction, and so “poikilothermic” (having a body temperature that varies with the ambient temperature) demanded an appearance. The short lines were a result of the postcard’s physical constraints as well as the poem’s internal requirements.

          SKL: You recently received a Kundiman fellowship, and I love this revelation: “In Kundiman, the singer who expresses undying love for his beloved is actually singing for love of country.” Has your work as a Kundiman fellow drawn you toward Korea, and if so, how has this affected your writing?

          HK: My parents and I moved to the U.S. when I was a baby, but we periodically went back to visit family, so I was connected to and writing about Korea before my first Kundiman retreat in 2009. However, for years, I resisted thinking of myself as an Asian American poet for fear of being solely defined by that term. I would write about Korea but wouldn’t write about my own immigrant experience because I didn’t write Asian American poetry; I simply wrote poetry. After attending the retreat, I realized I had actually cut myself off from a fundamental aspect of my being as well as a supportive and diverse community. So although Kundiman didn’t draw me toward Korea, it did transform my relationship to my Korean American identity and help me see how I had ignored an entire avenue of exploration in writing.

          I once believed I didn’t write political poetry either. After all, I didn’t engage with political issues directly or obliquely. I had long considered my writing only through an aesthetic lens, shaped by a childhood love for poetry’s music and studying mainly Western canon into my twenties. Taking an Asian American literature seminar with Yunte Huang and reading poets like Kamau Brathwaite and Myung Mi Kim with Forrest Gander during college were the exceptions rather than the rule. I favored (and still do, to some extent) a poetics of distillation, fragmentation, and elliptical movement. When I wrote about the personal, I tended to get even more fragmented and minimize using “I.” I would write about the body but not about my own body.

          Conversations with my Kundiman family and reading much more widely have helped me viscerally understand that all writing is political—it emanates from a specific body that has a relation to the polis, and that relationship is complicated and often contentious. The idea that poetry is not political reveals a privileged sense of art and self that is in itself deeply political. To think writing in the public sphere could exist in an apolitical vacuum was naive, as was to think effacing my Korean American identity was somehow freedom when it was actually diminishment. So I am deeply grateful to Kundiman for helping me perceive essential aspects of the personal and the political in my poetry.

          SKL: One of your recent projects included the Migration Postcard Poem Project, part of the Poetry Coalition’s “Because We Come From Everything: Poetry and Migration.” I see postcards as a token of place, a gesture to say: I am thinking of you. Can you talk a bit about your migration postcard in the sense of “to/from?”

          HK: I really feel what you are saying about postcards as “a gesture to say: I am thinking of you.” While they are certainly a token of place (and physically postmarked with a date and location), what I find most compelling about postcards is the gestural movement, the clearly directed flight of energy—an “I,” here, is speaking to a “you,” out there. All poetry has a speaker and a reader, of course, but with postcard poems, they become very embodied. I feel the poems are imbued with the intimacy of second-person address even when the voice isn’t second-person.

          It occurs to me that although I stopped avoiding the topics of immigrant experience and identity after attending Kundiman, I didn’t try to write that much about them either until this project. The very first poem I wrote, “Yunggimun Fragment,” was inspired by the earliest extant Korean pottery, which dates back to roughly 8000 BCE. And while the piece starts with brief descriptive phrases—“Neolithic, the earliest traces/of continuous habitation”—it closes with “where did you come from/what did you carry.” I’m addressing shards of pottery, but I’m also addressing myself, and this sort of shift happened more than once. Thus the poems became a way of exploring where I come from, where I am, and also where I might be headed, even as I was addressing other people and objects.

          A huge part of where I was and still am writing from is being a mother. My son is four, and my daughter is turning two in a few weeks. Last month at AWP, fellow poet and mother Mia Ayumi Malhotra and I were discussing how “in the body” motherhood makes you feel. Almost all your energy is devoted to these small creatures that need you with great physical intensity. They need to be fed and cleaned and held, and they are all over you all the time. So unsurprisingly, I wrote these poems more plainly from and also to my body.

          Other things I wrote to included the infinite, birds, visiting the DMZ, the sun and moon, the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju (who wrote during the Japanese occupation), quicksilver, an electron, my children, and the wheel of existence. I wrote to the physical recipients of the postcards, all Kundiman fellows, some of whom I have met, many I have not. And I was also writing to a larger readership with an exciting and terrifying immediacy, at least for me, because part of the project was sharing the poems on Tumblr and Twitter. (You can find them gathered together here.) My poems usually stay with me a long time before finding their way into the larger world. “Blue Fly” is a case in point: three years passed between its writing and its first publication in Lotus Magazine, a print zine run by Carrie Chang, then two more years before appearing in Poems2go.

          SKL: You and I have something in common: we both began writing and memorizing poems at the age of twelve! I still have poems memorized from my earlier years, and they often surface in my mind at necessary moments, drawing me into a deeper sense of self. How has that early experience of poetry been an anchor for you?

          HK: My fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers all required reciting a poem every month which led me to read a lot of poetry. I usually plumbed the first three volumes of my Childcraft books where I found poems by Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot alongside Jack Prelutsky and Elizabeth Coatsworth, but I also read other anthologies and collections. I quickly learned poems with clear meter and rhyme lent themselves toward memorization; the music would help carry me through when I was losing track of the words. Memorizing didn’t come easily to me. I would read a poem aloud over and over for days. I would write the lines out by hand. I would wander around, muttering lines under my breath. These are all things I do to this day when I’m writing. And after twenty or so recitations, in the winter of sixth grade, I decided to try writing a poem of my own. “Snow falling like feathers” is all I can remember from my first poem—simple, but I did create a simile and use alliteration.

          Just the other day my son was telling me he didn’t want to go to school, and one of my childhood favorites, “Sick” by Shel Silverstein, came to me. These opening lines are unforgettable: “‘I cannot go to school today,’/Said little Peggy Ann McKay./‘I have the measles and the mumps,/A gash, a rash, and purple bumps.’” We respond to their rhythm and sound even if we know nothing about scansion. Part of the poem’s delight is how Silverstein uses perfect rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter except for the penultimate couplet, just as Peggy Anne learns her long list of ills is unnecessary:

My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,

There is a hole inside my ear.

I have a hangnail, and my heart is—what?

What’s that? What’s that you say?

You say today is…Saturday?

G’bye, I’m going out to play!

          We feel the interruption of the meter and how it emphasizes the drama of the moment. I also love the richness of the poem’s alliteration and the virtuosity of its catalog. Somehow I’ve digressed into a close reading of Shel Silverstein, but I think you can see how the power of musicality and clear structure has stayed with me. If not for needing to memorize poems like this one, I might not have read so much poetry and then been inspired to write my own. The practices of memorization still linger in my current writing practice. And since poetry came to me as sound in the ear and mouth as much as words on the page, exploring the sound and physicality of language has been essential to my poetry, occasionally, I suspect, to the detriment of sense.

          SKL: I’m enthralled by your sense in musical duality in poetry. In Memorious, you write, “I have been attempting to translate my love of polyphonic music into poems which I call ‘inventions.’ We can deal with multiple lines of music much more easily than multiple lines of overlapping poetry, so I have been composing inventions for two voices.” Can you tell us about some of the voices you write in, and why you paired those voices together?

          HK: Invention No. 1 in a minor” was the very first invention poem I wrote, and I’m really grateful to Rebecca Morgan Frank for publishing it as well as the Think Music essay you just mentioned. In this invention, I wasn’t trying to write in entirely different voices or distinct personas but instead focused on the interplay of two separate narratives, both relayed in first-person. In Bach’s two-part inventions (which inspired mine), a musical subject appears in one voice, played by one hand, and a countersubject is taken up in the other voice, played by the other hand. Then the subject and countersubject switch hands repeatedly and are further developed, along with shorter musical motifs, before both hands resolve into unison at the end. While I didn’t exactly transpose the musical structure onto the poem, you could say the goldfish is the subject, the ocean is the countersubject, and motifs of child and salt and body are explored before the near unison of the last couplet. I’m especially drawn to moments of slippage, where the thread of one voice slides into the thread of another, moments of overlap where we struggle to understand, and the effect of repetitions both close and distant.

          I always read aloud while writing, and I try to hear the overlaps inside my head, but these poems don’t come to full life until I have the chance to read it with another person. “Invention No. 9 in f minor” is forthcoming in the Spring 2018 issue of The Indianapolis Review, and a couple weeks ago, I recorded the piece with my poet-friend Micah Ruelle. It was my first time to experience and hear the poem the way it’s intended, which is always thrilling and also a bit awkward. On top of trying to read our own lines well, we had to listen to each other in order to come in at the right time. We had to determine a reading speed that felt comfortable for both of us and match the volume of our voices, and in the beginning, we were focused on just not messing up. But with continued practice, we started to hear ourselves and each other better. We found that taking a slight inhalation just before the start of overlaps created the space to come in together, and we both started nodding slightly, visually cuing each other the way musicians do when playing a duet. I even found a necessary revision when we couldn’t get in sync after a dozen run throughs. What also became really palpable when reading together is how line length on the page and the time to say the line often do not correspond, since the physical space a word occupies and the space in time are different, and furthermore, words elide and catenate and connect in various ways that change their speed. I can indicate when to start a line or phrase together, but there’s no knowing where the overlap will end until I hear the words being spoken aloud. The experience of two voices reading together really brought forth the materiality of language and the intimacy of shared breath and speech.

          Right now I have nine inventions in varying degrees of completion, and about half of them are in the mode of different narratives rather than differentiated voices, including “Invention No. 4 in d minor” (Beloit Poetry Journal, Vol. 64 No.1), “Invention No. 7 in e minor,” and “Invention No. 3 in c minor,” though in the last, one voice is decidedly more conversational in tone. As I keep writing them, I’m pressed to attempt new things. “Invention No. 9 in f minor” has one voice focusing on Teresa of Avila while the other is more emotive and in first-person.

          I have a draft with one voice written in imperfect Spanish while the other voice is the English translation. I’ve tried my hand at translating from Spanish, Korean, and Anglo-Saxon, and I’m engrossed by how translating requires you to bring the qualities of one language into another, and so I wanted to elucidate the Spanishness of Spanish and the Englishness of English with this invention. When the voices are staggered, the Spanish and English behave like glosses for each other. We notice cognates and both similarities and differences in syntax. When they overlap fully, in the style of simultaneous translation, meaning becomes mostly obscured, and the words approach pure sound.

          In my latest invention, I am consciously trying to use two different personas: one voice is a version of my grandfather, and one voice is a version of myself, and I’m putting these voices together because he passed away five years ago, and this is a way for me to speak to the dead. I haven’t been able to get this poem right yet, probably because I know how far it is from his real voice and how far it is from truly speaking with him.

          SKL: I was deeply drawn to many lines in your essay on absence in The Critical Flame. One line that stays with me is this: “We may will a thing with all our power and still fail to bring it into existence.” How would you expand on your experience of the battle between will and failure as an artist? What have you learned from it?

          HK: I want to believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way. But I keep encountering how effort isn’t enough—for example, the way the latest invention poem keeps resisting me. Will suggests mastery and knowledge, yet often what guides me forward is an embrace of not-knowing. In The Critical Flame essay I talk about being “bewildered yet rapt, using all my wits to try to make sense of what I’m perceiving.” Sometimes when I think I know what I want to write about, I can’t reach what I truly need to write. I think I’m writing a poem about a tea ceremony, but if I focus too intently on the tea, how can I discover I’m actually trying to write about my grandfather’s stroke? The opposite of will isn’t failure, it’s surrender; and bewilderment, not-knowing, puts me in a state of attentiveness and receptivity, a kind of surrender to the world because my own resources are not enough.

          When we talk of inspiration, it’s almost always external—a gift from the Muses, a divine breath, a draught from a fountain. We can’t create wholly inside ourselves with our will and knowledge alone. It requires openness as well as effort. To the world. To not knowing. To other ways of knowing. Sound not sense. Sound becoming sense. Letting language take over. Getting out of the way of myself. Striving without expectation. That openness, though, can be frightening. What will we allow in? What will be revealed to us, perhaps about us? I’ve long been fascinated by D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.” The speaker imagines himself carried by the wind, then as a fountain, when suddenly he interrupts own his train of thought:

What is the knocking?

What is the knocking at the door in the night?

It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.

Admit them, admit them.

          What will come through the open door? Harm or angels? We aren’t meant to contain such multitudes. Or are we? Maybe the muse is the world, and art is what happens when we let in its strange angels, when we risk possession. Maybe that’s why breath and water permeate the imagery of inspiration. Because we need to take something into ourselves in order to create, derived from the air and water necessary to survive but somehow transformed. So that we too may be transformed.

          Sometimes this searching and vulnerability can bring me to what I didn’t know, to the poem I needed to write. And sometimes, I still fail. There’s so much pressure to be productive. There’s a feeling that work isn’t valuable unless it produces a tangible result, with the more painful corollary that we ourselves aren’t valuable unless we are being productive. But I believe that the energy we spend even when we fail to bring something into existence is still part of poiesis, of making. With every attempt, we get a better idea of the possibilities of language, ourselves, and the world. We may not see the result in our unsuccessful poems, but the work will manifest eventually. One day, a poem will seem to leap fully-formed onto the page, almost effortless, a gift from the Muses, but in truth, the work will have been done, days before, years before, in all those failed attempts, coming to fruition at last.

          SKL: Another gorgeous line from your Critical Flame essay states, “The master maker must descend before he can create.” Where have you descended, and what did you find in those spaces?

          HK: In the essay, I’m discussing “El Hacedor” (“The Maker”) by Jorge Luis Borges. The master maker is Homer, and the spaces he descends are hillside, memory, blindness, and death. The first important descent for me was also into memory. The simple act of remembering is creative. Each time we recall a memory, we are writing and rewriting that memory. To remember is an instinctive making that we all do. For the stuff of poetry, I went purposefully into re-collection, literally gathering again my impressions. Writing “snow falling like feathers” for my first poem was slow and deliberate. I recalled a recent, gorgeously snowy day. I thought of how the snowflakes drifted and was reminded of seeing feathers fall slowly through the air, so I put them together and created my first simile, at least the first that I can remember.

          I can’t help but think of Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that comes from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” We go from calmly thinking about a remembered emotion until we somehow “produce” the feeling anew. It may not be the original emotion, but it is “kindred” and real, and this kindred, produced, but truly existing emotion is what spontaneously overflows to make poetry. And poiein, the etymological root of poetry, means “to produce.” In any case, I feel resonances with the paradoxical combination of real and constructed, of deliberate recollection and uncontainably overflowing. Descending into memory has taught me about the madeness of experience but also about the possibility that these creations, especially poetry, can have a vitality and reality akin to our actual lives.

          The second profound descent for me was loss. When I was nineteen, my maternal grandfather passed away. As a child, I wrote in a mode of music and exploration. After his death, I wrote from grief and necessity. I’ve come to recognize I am a fundamentally elegaic poet, writing out of a constant awareness of death. Not that I’m in a perpetual state of mourning, but death is the essential space out of which I create. To quote myself again, I “make against the unmaking of things, the knowledge that the body fails.” The two miscarriages I had before my son and daughter were born gave me a deeper understanding of the body’s failures as well as loss. But this knowledge, especially coupled with motherhood, has made me want to sing the body even more, as in “homage to my breasts,” a poem partly inspired by Lucille Clifton’s brilliant “homage to my hips.” Before my losses and having children, I didn’t have the courage to write so directly about my body or to riff off such an iconic poem.

          And so, although loss leads to elegy, it also leads to praise and wonder. To a blue fly. To bewilderment. To my body which has carried four children. Knowing death’s inevitability has led me more urgently in the search for clarity, for truth-telling, for naming. Poetry as magic, a speech act, an utterance that makes a thing Real and lasting by saying it. Poetry lets us bring back that which is gone. Poetry lets us open to the moment that is here. Poetry lets us make ourselves and our world anew.