Poetry Today #3: Being and Kindness

Ruben Quesada
January 7, 2020

Poetry Today is a series dedicated to learning about the characteristics of poets and poetry from writers who have published a collection of poetry, full-length or chapbook, within the year. This series is a celebration of poetry and its readers by those who are writing poetry in our time. Readers gain insight into composition and style.

“I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you’ll make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.” – Neil Gaiman, 2008

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Su Hwang Fall 2019 headshotSu Hwang is a recipient of the inaugural Jerome Hill Fellowship in Literature, and her debut poetry collection Bodega was published with Milkweed Editions in 2019. Born in Seoul, Korea, Su was raised in New York then called the Bay Area home before transplanting to the Midwest, where she teaches creative writing with the MN Prison Writing Workshop, and is the cofounder, with Sun Yung Shin, of Poetry Asylum. Su currently lives in Minneapolis.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

Just as time is not linear, my path to poetry has been chock-full of twists and turns, but the dead ends and detours have led me to where I am today, and I could not be more grateful. Perhaps being a late bloomer to poetry (getting my MFA at 41, publishing my debut collection at 45) and experiencing a kind of spiritual awakening this year have offered me some meaningful ways to separate awareness from egoic thinking. I am still a work-in-progress, but what I would tell my younger self is the same as what I would tell my present and future selves: remain humble, be kind (to yourself and others), and savor each moment because the highs and lows hold invaluable lessons for our soul’s growth, because yes, life is short, and all we have is the present moment. That being said, I realize hindsight can be a useful tool for those newer to the journey, so I would also tell my younger self to be less afraid to be heard. Be louder and prouder––our voices matter. And if someone projects their negativity or ignorance on you, wish them well and let them go.

It is also important to realize being a poet is just one aspect of our being-ness. That sounds pretty woo-woo but fuck it. There is no one right way to get anywhere in this crazy world; we are all on different timelines with unique missions. Sure, getting my first book published was a major personal milestone, but my life did not suddenly become something else upon its publication. I still have to wake up every day and deal with my shit, do the dishes, take out the trash, figure out ways to pay the bills––never mind fight racism and resist the patriarchy! It is like that Zen proverb: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Honor your authenticity while remaining open-minded and curious––humans will never know everything, so all we can do is create (in whatever form it takes) to express our awe and perhaps at times, our utter disbelief. Never stop learning, listening, observing, revising, and reading––not only to heal our wounds, but to find greater compassion for the human condition and understand how the hell we got to where we are, which is both exquisite and terrifying. And as for my relationship with reading, I view it as fuel: writing without reading means running on empty in my opinion. The more I read, the more I expand my mind and heart, and the more ideas I have to work with in my own writing. I’m currently consuming several books: a few recently published poetry collections, a couple of astrology books, and finishing King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild––an incredible work! There is so much to be gained in this mutual exchange of giving and taking because reading is not a passive activity by any means––it is completely active, full of power and knowledge.

ON STORYTELLING

Storytelling has and will always remain the primary mode of communication between individuals, communities, cultures, ideologies, etc. It is human to want to have some sort of mental, emotional, physical exchange with another. Heck, even trees communicate with each other via the air and root systems (dubbed by scientists as the “wood wide web” –how cool is that?). To be living is to be relational. Humans have found meaning by connecting through stories, myths, metaphors, archetypes, images, and the stars for thousands of years, so I don’t think this innate desire will ever change, but like any other art form or discipline, poetry cannot remain static in our growing consciousness. I’m a Luddite in many respects, so I’m certainly not the person who should speak to how this will look in our digital age, but I do think we need to reimagine how we can break barriers with poetry and technology on a global scale. How can we improve how poetry is taught and accessed / made accessible beyond the white academic gaze? Poetry doesn’t live in some ivory tower. I think it’s important to be more inclusive, more radical––we need to reimagine who gets to sit at the table going forward. Hint: everyone!

As a child of Korean immigrants and a woman of color educated during the 1980s and ’90s, I was taught the white literary canon as a finite compendium, and American poetry certainly felt off-limits for a variety of reasons that are thankfully being worked through by younger generations of QTBIPOC writers. How can we say this very exclusive set of mostly dead, cishet white male writers is the gold standard when white supremacy has silenced, erased, and pilfered from so many marginalized voices through colonialism, subjugation, and outright terror for time immemorial? We need to champion voices from every corner of the world. We need to properly fund and elevate the art of translation, and teach living poets consistently from an early age (so undergrads don’t name Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Edgar Allan Poe as their only poetry signposts), pay our teachers a fair and just wage, get rid of standardized tests, and build curriculums around creativity rather than a one-size-fits-all model. The list goes on and is long.

ON READING

I confess I did not read a lot of poetry before my mid-thirties because, as I mentioned, I wasn’t taught poetry in a comprehensive way and the stuff I was exposed to just didn’t resonate with me. It wasn’t until my MFA program that I started reading poetry in earnest. I double-majored in English Literature and Art History in undergrad and thought I was going to write the next great American novel, so my reading list was mostly limited to fiction and nonfiction and issues of The New Yorker when I rode the subway to work. There were also many productively unproductive years working a series of odd jobs from the Guggenheim to chichi restaurants, doing the east and west coast move a few times, waking and baking, and generally having a blast without much literary or professional aim. Fast-forward to the fall of 2013: in “Reading Across Genres” during my first graduate course, poet, professor, and mentor Ray Gonzalez assigned Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York, translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White, and introduced us to duende. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to the work and was dazzled by its stunning audacity! No doubt Lorca was the initial spark for me to start conceiving of Bodega as my thesis, and I dedicated the poem “Duende Essays” to Lorca and Ray Gonzalez as a nod for the inspiration.

Lorca’s Poet in New York chronicles the Spanish poet’s first and only trip abroad before his assassination six years later. I was struck by his lush, prismatic images and acute social commentary as an outsider observing otherness and the complex, insidious ways in which we detach from one other despite his limited English. It’s both alarming and not at all surprising that his poetics from 1929-1930 dealing with themes of alienation, racism, homophobia, anthropocentrism, rampant corruption and indifference in the name of industrialization and capitalism still ring true today. I was mesmerized by how he captured the surreality of New York City––the monstrosity and minutiae of urban life while longing for the pastoral. The work wrestles with desire, death, love, queerness, inequality, fear, and isolation in a way that feels authentic, innovative, timeless. Lorca was killed before Poet in New York was published, so the book offers an elegiac thread for a poet whose life was cut short at the height of his powers, and is a stark reminder that poetry is deemed dangerous in many parts of the world and countless lives have and continue to be lost in the pursuit of truth and justice.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL 

Poetry in its purest form is music by way of language, an alchemical process between morphology and stirrings of the soul. Music has universal healing properties and poetry can yield the same potency if tapped into the higher octaves of imagination and inspiration, that liminal space between the logic of human perception and the sublimities of our natural world. But poetry also needs to be grounded in the practical, the quotidian, and I think there is an urgency to bring about unity consciousness in our fractured world.

I wholeheartedly believe in poetry’s function as a vehicle for political and social change, particularly abolition. I’ve been teaching with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop for the last few years and I’m so incredibly honored to be working with our amazing students––some of the best poets and humans I know! I’ve witnessed firsthand how writing can save lives amid the relentless cruelty of the prison industrial complex, designed to further oppress and erase marginalized voices. I’ve turned to James Baldwin, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and many others for guidance. I co-founded Poetry Asylum––a feminist poetryship as I like to call it––with Minneapolis-based poet, educator, healer Sun Yung Shin in response to Trump’s election and the persistent need to create diverse platforms to bring poetry to marginalized communities. For me, poetry isn’t just about publishing poems in journals but rather poetry in action through activism and protest.

ON READERS

When it’s just you and the blank page for all those lonely years, I think writers imagine a direct channel to a reader, however hypothetical, because you have to nurture some optimism and faith that someone, anyone will care about what you have to offer. It’s only in the last year I’ve come to understand the enormity of the literary ecosystem, from editors to publicity and marketing to printers and distributors to booksellers and reviewers involved in the manifestation of a finished book. Now that I’m a little less naïve about the entire process, I’m just blown away by it all. The idea that some stranger would buy my book in another city and actually take the time to read it is crazy to me. That intimate contract between the writer and reader is never ever guaranteed, so I have immense gratitude to anyone who has spent time with my book. Thank you, thank you!

One of the reasons why I wrote Bodega was to chronicle that period in American history, to honor the immigrant experience of my parents and those who have been and continue to be rendered invisible or unworthy or expendable. I hope the book offers a lens through which the reader can feel seen or accounted for, or perhaps learn something new about someone else’s perspective or lived experience. If anything, I hope readers will feel more empathy for a stranger during those mundane, seemingly inconsequential exchanges that can sometimes be fraught with misunderstandings or fear because of social conditioning or cultural biases or sheer laziness. I wanted the poems in Bodega to showcase that, through our many differences, we are in fact the same, so if I can add a little more compassion and peace in the world then my small contribution will have been well worth the effort.

ON BORDERS

Borders are malevolent human constructs and a means to create hierarchies; yet geography is how we feel rooted in this life, so place is inextricably linked to identity––both perceived and embodied––even though we are all byproducts of movement, migration. Place is a major aspect of Bodega, but the concept of place has always felt like a moving target for me as a child of immigrants: not really here but no longer there. Even before I wrote my first poem for the collection, I knew I wanted to employ the metaphor of this urban, communal space to explore the different themes of race, identity, im/migration, family history, etc. Like subways, NYC bodegas are egalitarian in that they are a great equalizer where you can have a wealthy banker standing next to an undocumented worker, a taxi driver, a college student, a retired firefighter of all races, ages, origins––a public setting imbued with tension and possibility. And just as bodegas run the gamut of wares sold, I wanted to mirror that sense of congestion and variety with the formal choices I employed in the collection, thereby creating movement within and across the pages both literally and figuratively.

Last but not least, I have to give a huge shout-out to poet Rick Barot for his genius and generosity. I was lucky enough to have Rick offer keen insights about how I should structure the collection, and I can honestly say without him, Bodega would have been a different (lesser) book. By the time we spoke, the manuscript had become bloated with twenty extra pages and split into five sections. I knew it was a hot mess but after so many iterations, I was stuck. He asked me to consider the collection as a house then challenged me to think about entering and exiting from different doors, which was the key to the overhaul that got me to the final version. I’m forever indebted to Rick for helping me unlock the doors to my first book, and I cannot wait for his highly-anticipated collection The Galleons forthcoming with Milkweed Editions in February 2020 to grace our world.

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Yanyi_Publicity_Photo_Credit_Michelle_Meier

Photo by Michelle  Meier

Yanyi is a writer and critic. In 2018, he won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, awarded by Carl Phillips, for his first book, The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press, 2019). His work has been featured in NPR’s All Things Considered, Tin House, Granta, and A Public Space, and he is the recipient of fellowships from Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Poets House. Currently, he is poetry editor at Foundry and a poetry review editor at Public Books. Find him at yanyiii.com.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

“Wherever you were
I knew it and saw you moving. I was waiting
for you to get to work.”
—Frank O’Hara

There is a particular kind of loneliness that crosses borders, bodies, generations, and languages: perhaps it is the only thing these crossings have in common, because this loneliness is borne by them. I do not speak of temporary loneliness, the kind that is grown out of; the kind in context as a rite of passage. What I mean is being ejected from your origin without any means of returning to it, a condition of permanent exile. Before understanding it, you feel it, and cannot explain. This is that loneliness.

You will try to use art to write away exile. You will try to collect, in writing, the totality of a nation, a home. But art is not a nation. It is diaspora. Rich with time, languages, sensibilities, contexts. Which means you are a point of origin, not a castaway, and you have work to do. Write to me as I write to you, still. We are each other’s contemporaries.

ON STORYTELLING 

We are mired in our present and accountable to it. Nothing is off-limits; nothing is an exception to the context in which it’s made. I don’t believe in “must” but I believe in “has,” “does,” “will,” and “maybe”—art is capacious enough for all kinds of projects, all kinds of play. The best of it is descriptive and not prescriptive of an age.

ON READING 

The Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali (1997). It’s a model of lyric writing in service of memory—memory of politics, history, and war, emerged from the profound and violent silences therein.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL 

This is not a literary work, but the artist Agnes Denes has a work called Tree Mountain, an ecological remediation in which 11,000 people planted 11,000 trees on a huge manmade mountain in 1992. Here is an art piece which involves both duration, others, and the environment. It brings up so many questions for me—when art crosses the landscape, blends into it, adds to it again, it takes on its material function. Likewise, conception is personal. But that is as far as the personal goes.

Language, like the earth, is impersonal. We eat from it, we release into it. One may use language every day but one does not always feel in it—and it is the poet’s responsibility to press and fold the language to hold all in which one feels in this epoch and not another. Language is a landscape; the land will always be used but a poet is both working the language and working themselves; is transforming the means through which anyone can renew themselves—Blasing’s “communal personality.”

There is no utilitarian reason to feel in one’s language—but a language that can feel is that much closer to holding the present’s person. The poet emerges from some vantage point, always, which is why we need everyone. Words and phrases fall away and what’s persevered—well, preservation happens with human breath. The language is made in its enactment. At the center of poiesis is the person who speaks. The idea that poetry is information—one writes to preserve; one speaks to enact—that is a myth. The preservation is in the act. It is not that we acquire language, but that language requires us. A poet can write what wants to be said. That is the social function of the poetry.

ON READERS

Thank you. I hope the book offers a voice to be with when the reader cannot be with themselves. Or a reflection of themselves that is familiar, and worthy of love.

ON THE PERSONAL POLITICS 

My childhood impression of poverty was being surprised, constantly, by shame. Shame makes it hard to show up, for fear that it will meet you. Being shamed around the personal is a particular beast. When someone calls my work too personal, I wonder what it is that makes it too specific, too unrelatable, too irrelevant, too far from someone’s life. And I think about what it is about their life that makes my life too far for them. It seems a veiled critique using aesthetics as cover for disengagement.

Or if your concern is your privacy, I wouldn’t worry at all. There is a difference between our writing for ourselves and our writing others read. I will always know what I mean. I will never know exactly what another person thinks I mean. When I say “mean” I should say “feel”—I write poems from how I feel. A reader will feel differently, though a gifted writer can hope a majority of the time that an approximate may be reached across many someones else.

I pour myself into my work but a reader who doesn’t know me can’t know me through my work. They can only know themself, and how the work makes them feel. The things we feel (or don’t feel) are riddled with experiences that emerge from where we land in a spectrum of endemic inequalities. That’s why I find it ridiculous whenever someone shames a piece of art for being too personal—first, because the point of language is to know ourselves, and there will never be people who do not hope for this; second, because language that exists for feelings that do not exist in us may be—or always will be—needed by future versions of us. It is not my failure when a reader does not understand this.

I never worry about whether I am being too autobiographical. What I write is not my life, and I’m not giving anything away by feeling and then talking from it. It has altogether become another object.

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