by Hyejung Kook
First appeared in The Ellis Review 2018.
Hyejung Kook’s poetry has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Hyphen Magazine, and Pleiades. Hyejung was born in Seoul, Korea, grew up in Pennsylvania, and now lives in Kansas. She is a Fulbright grantee and a Kundiman fellow.
Hyejung and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour. We wanted to know more about her and her writing, so here is our interview with her.
Q~Tell us a little about the poem we’ve included. Is there a backstory you want to share?
A~I’m so grateful to The Ellis Review for publishing “Not This.” The poem grew out of two different pieces I wrote while participating in the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project back in 2015, which involved writing thirty poems in thirty days. I usually write slowly, so the pressure cooker of having brand new drafts shared daily on the Tupelo 30/30 website was both terrifying and generative. The first piece was an erasure of a poem by Margaret Rhee—the gorgeous phrase “the precarity of the line” comes from her. The second piece was called “Not this but” and had “whatever is rising” as the first line, but the imagery was rather diaphanous, full of sleet and unpruned wisteria and birds and the moon.
Revisiting these drafts, I realized they had the feel of an exercise rather than necessary utterance. When I tried to dig deeper, I found myself grappling with personal loss alongside the many recent killings of people of color—the murder of indigenous women and black folx like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, as well as the shooting death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla at a Kansas bar just half an hour from my house. Nature imagery still permeates “Not This,” but with violence as well as beauty, tenderness matched with fury. In retrospect, I was also channeling some of George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous and his preoccupation with multitude, justice, and clarity. This was a challenging poem to write, but it also opened up spaces of possibility for me—this is my first poem to engage more directly with current events.
Q~How would you describe your style?
A~Poetry happens in a moment of collision between myself and the world. On occasion, I strike sparks. If I’m lucky, I have words at hand for kindling, but still I’m scrabbling, reaching for anything that might sustain the flame, and anything goes, stylistically speaking. Some of my poems are strongly narrative; others revel in fragment and elliptical movement. I’ll go months avoiding first-person and then embrace it wholeheartedly. Poetry as distillation. Poetry as outpouring. I’m drawn to the freewheeling, associative mode of renga, each verse linking only to the previous, as much as I am drawn to the complex code of rules that dictate the appearance of motifs and seasonal references in a classical renga’s hundred verses. I struggle to describe my style since the formal aspects of my writing continually shift from poem to poem.
Writing poetry for me is a mode of exploration, of reaching out and often struggling to find out even what it is I’m grasping for. I’m often guided by the physicality of language when I get lost–the sound of the words, the cadence of the line, how the text exists on the page as a visual field. I know I value openness. I want the reader to have a place to enter into the work. I once heard a poem described as a full and laden table except for a single empty seat–that’s the space for the reader to sit down. I love that image, the idea of the reader sitting down and partaking, of us somehow going from strangers to friends at the table of poetry.
I suppose my style is mutable, musical, and open-ended.
Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene? What’s it like?
A~I moved to Kansas City about seven years ago and had my children soon after, so I am not as involved in the local scene as I’d like. But, I discovered a wonderful community of KC-area poets thanks to Jenny Molberg, who teaches at University of Central Missouri, where she also directs Pleiades Press. Last winter, I met Jenny when she read at The Writers Place, and she generously invited me to join a monthly gathering of women-identifying/non-binary poets for brunch. The group keeps growing and currently includes Jenny Molberg, Marianne Kunkel, Micah Ruelle, Bridget Lowe, Ruth Williams, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Traci Brimhall, Luisa Muradyan, Elizabeth Barnett, Erin Adair-Hodges, Maryfrances Wagner, Melissa Fite Johnson, and me. It’s been such a gift to get to know these poets and their poetry and have regular, engrossing conversations about poetry, publishing, motherhood, and more.
What I know of the KC literary scene, which is quite lively, comes from the New Letters literary events calendar and the collective knowledge and activity of the brunch group. I’ve learned about local venues and literary magazines and reading series and even a poetry festival just trying to keep up with what everyone is doing. And next year, I hope to do a joint poetry reading with Marianne Kunkel we’re calling “Writing the Woman’s Body.”
Q~Who was your poetry first love?
A~My first poetry love was Edgar Allan Poe. I was in seventh grade, and I had picked up a collected Poe while waiting for my sister to finish her piano lesson. I was mesmerized by the compelling music and meter of his poems, especially lines like “And the silken, sad, uncertain, rustling of each purple curtain,/Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before” from “The Raven” and many passages from “The Bells,” including “What a world of merriment their melody foretells!/How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle/In the icy air of night!/While the stars that oversprinkle/All the heavens, seem to twinkle/With a crystalline delight.” I had enjoyed learning and reciting poems for three years in grade school, but Poe was the first poet I memorized for the sheer joy of having his words in my mouth and ear any time I wanted.
Q~Who are you reading now?
A~I’ve been reading poetry by Jennifer Chang, Danez Smith, Ada Limón, Fatimah Asghar, jos charles, and Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. I just started Alexander Chee’s collection of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Before bed, I re-read a little fantasy or science fiction to unwind—lately it’s been Ilona Andrews, Lois McMaster Bujold, or Robin McKinley. And, since I have two toddlers, I’m always reading children’s books. Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson and Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson are two in heavy rotation I’ve been enjoying. I used to love devouring whole books in one sitting, but I no longer have that kind of time. I miss the marathon reading sessions, but there’s also pleasure in reading multiple books at once, which lets me more easily make connections between writers.
Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?
A~Submit your work often and thoughtfully. I used to think that writing poetry and submitting poetry were two entirely different animals, but I realize now that they’re more of a two-headed beast. Last year, I tried for a hundred rejections, and while I came up short (the actual tally of poems submitted was around sixty), I received more acceptances than I had the previous five years combined, largely because I started to treat submitting work as part of creative writing rather than separate from it.
What does that look like for me? I resubmit to journals, especially if I received an encouraging rejection. I find new places to send by looking to writers I love, learning where they’ve published and what journals they support. I follow the oft-stated advice to read the publication, which introduces me to new, exciting writers I can learn from as well. Thinking about whether/which of my poems fit with a given journal gives me a better understanding of the aesthetic and thematic concerns of my work. (See above difficulty in describing my style.) Even perusing the submission guidelines, while not exciting, serves as practice in close and attentive reading. And, always taking the time to reconsider a poem before submitting has led to fine tweaks as well as wholesale revision. This way, the time spent preparing a submission—reading the journal, choosing poems, reexamining them—never feels wasted, even when a poem is rejected over and over.
Submitting poems went from, “Ugh, I’d rather be writing” to “Wow, look at this amazing poet I’ve never read before,” and “Hey, I just made this poem of mine so much stronger.” Each rejection still stings, but instead of taking it as a definitive assessment of my work, I try to embrace it as part of the process of becoming a better poet.
Q~Is there any online resource you would like to recommend?
A~Keeping with the theme of submitting work, I’ve found ENTROPY’s Where to Submit feature to be a great resource. Every couple of months, they collate an updated list of places to submit: presses; chapbooks; journals + anthologies; residencies, fellowships + other opportunities.
For a model in how to keep track of submissions, I recommend looking at Todd Dillard’s detailed, illustrated explanation of how he stays organized using an Excel spreadsheet here. I use Excel, but his method is far superior because of the way he organizes the data allows you to unleash the power of filters—be still, my Virgo heart.
Q~There are lots of publications out there. What is a literary gem you feel deserves more attention? Why will we love them?
A~I love Glass Poetry Press. Editor-in-chief Anthony Frame runs the Glass Chapbook Series as well as Glass: A Journal of Poetry, a monthly online publication. Anthony is deeply committed to nurturing an inclusive poetry community and publishing underrepresented voices and a diversity of aesthetic styles. Both the series and the journal are fee-free submissions. One dollar of each chapbook purchase goes to social justice organizations; this fall, donations are going to the Trans Women of Color Collective. And the poetry he publishes is stunning. You can really feel how each poet has gone through the crucible of their experience to bring something essential and beautifully crafted into the world. The journal also includes reviews, interviews, special features, and Poets Resist, a current events poetry series curated by guest editors. I’m so thrilled that my newest poem, “The Day Dr. Christine Blasey Ford Testifies Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I Teach My Daughter the Names of the Parts of Female Anatomy,” appears in the Poets Resist 2018 Midterm Elections Special Feature, which came out on election day and includes Yanyi, Luther Hughes, Sage, Sumita Chakraborty, and Lynn Melnick, among others. You can read the issue here.
Q~That sounds amazing. Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?
A~You can find a full list of my publications at my website which includes links to poems in Memorious, Verse Daily, wildness, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and The Indianapolis Review, among others, and an essay on motherhood and poetry in The Critical Flame. You can also connect with me via social media. I’m most active on Twitter. While I have an Instagram account, I haven’t been using it much yet.