Cream City Review intern, Hazel Reese Ramos, recently connected with Bo Hee Moon to discuss her new poetry collection and themes of identity, hunger, and the connections that nourish us. Her poems “Generosity” and “Korean Little Girl” appear in our Fall 2022 issue, published under her previous name.
Bo Hee Moon is a South Korean adoptee. Her poems have appeared in Cha, Gulf Coast, The Margins, Salt Hill, Tupelo Quarterly, and others. Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs, published by Tinderbox Editions, is her debut collection of poems.
Note to the reader from the poet: In the interview, I move between describing my experience as the poet and the poetry itself.
Hazel Reese Ramos: I really enjoyed your collection Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs. The cover art depicts a rabbit, your zodiac sign, in red ink along with golden stars, and you mention many astronomical bodies throughout the poems. There are, for instance, stars in “An Adopted Korean Girl Imagines Her Birthmother at a Seoul Fish Market,” the moon in “How to Love an Adopted Korean Girl,” and Venus in “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Book of Shadows: How to Clear a Creative Blockage.” What is the significance of your zodiac sign in relation to the content of your poems? How do these celestial bodies represent you as an adopted Korean girl?
Bo Hee Moon: I am happy you mentioned the cover art! Nikkita Cohoon designed the cover of the book, and it was a joy to work with her. The rabbit is my Korean zodiac sign and appears in my poem “How to Love an Adopted Korean Girl:”
Ask her if she sees the rabbit.
there are two ways
of looking at almost everything.
This poem is about the emotional connection I feel with my birth mother, despite the distance and her death, and it is about my vulnerability as an adoptee. The rabbit is also tied to folklore. The National Folk Museum of Korea has an exhibition called the “Special Exhibition to Mark 2023, the Year of the Rabbit: Here Comes a Rabbit,” which says that “Everything from Goguryeo-period tomb murals to Joseon-period poems, folk paintings, and oral literature suggest that Korean people of yore believed a rabbit to be living on the moon.” My zodiac sign represents my longing—my longing for safety, for connection, and for a genuine understanding of my roots.
Imagining what my birth mother saw when she looked up at the sky, I also explore what may have been obscured from her sight when I ask:
in my poem, “An Adopted Korean Girl Imagines Her Birthmother at a Seoul Fish Market.” There is so much that she could not have predicted, such as who my adoptive family was, what my life would be like, and the kinds of challenges I would face. As I imagine my birth mother, there is the desire to know what my birth mother truly felt.
In my late twenties, I returned to South Korea to volunteer at an orphanage, visit my birthplace, and ask questions about my adoption. When I visited the adoption agency in Seoul, I received my birth time. Although adoptees’ records often contain errors and even fabrications, if they are available at all, it was meaningful for me to have my birth time. A birth time is helpful when casting an astrological chart. Astrology is complex and can be interpreted in many different ways. Venus appears in the poem you mentioned, and it reflects a path opening. There are no blockages which is reflected by “Venus has stationed direct.” It also makes me think of how our Venus placement can shed light on what we value, and I have often wondered if my birth mother was alive—what would she teach me to value?
HRR: All the poems in this collection are short-lined couplets with a quiet and somber tone. What is the relationship between the sound and form and the content of your poems?
BHM: The form and lineation reflect my desire to purify a poem to its essence. While in the revision process, I often ask certain questions—Is it true? Does it feel complete? Can I be more clear? Shedding the unnecessary aspects of a poem is connected to the content of the poem. Removing the embellishments and persona forced onto the speaker is a part of her purification process as she seeks to come into contact with her true self. In some ways, “An Adopted Korean Girl” is a fantasy, a carefully constructed figure who meets the needs of her adoptive family. By naming the abuse and exploitation, there is a process of removing the artificial and what is untrue and does not belong to her. The poetry reflects an internal process of discovering the speaker’s personal truth as she contemplates her heritage, her birth mother, and her origins. Some questions continue to recur in my writing and my life, including where do I come from? What does it mean to be a Korean adoptee? As I contemplate these types of questions, I focus on getting to the heart of the matter and coming into a deeper level of understanding. The sound reflects the music of my internal world and the rhythm that is created between what is spoken and silence.
HRR: I noticed your poems have an anti-fairytale feel to them, yet they still seem very dreamlike and even nostalgic towards Korea—a place you mentioned you have little recollection of. How does this style represent your feelings towards Korea, as an Asian American woman living in the Midwest? Has it changed since you first published the collection?
BHM: The dreamlike quality of my poetry suggests I am trying to access a way of understanding my roots through a nontraditional venue, such as through dreams. Many avenues have been blocked from me, such as records and information about my birth mother and my birth family. I am also trying to access my memories. I was adopted when I was three-months-old and came to the US. An article in The Scientific American discusses how infants can form memories. Vanessa LoBue says, “Within the first few days of life, infants can recall their own mother’s face and distinguish it from the face of a stranger.” Charged with emotional energy, dreams can be non-sequential and symbolic.
Before my trip back to Korea, I received a phone call and learned of my birth mother’s death. Once I was in Seoul, I walked upstairs at the Bongeunsa Temple, past two women talking, and began sobbing. My birth mother was dead, and I was back in my homeland, completely grief-stricken. The dreamlike quality of my poetry allows me to draw connections between things that may seem unrelated but are related to me, such as my grief, rebirth, the jellyfish floating in the COEX Aquarium—and how during the time of writing this collection, I grew into becoming my own mother, which means I am flawed and sometimes fail at being a good mother to myself. I included dream-like imagery and a meditative thread in my poem “An Adopted Korean Girl Visits the COEX Aquarium, a Temple, and a Korean BBQ in Gangnam.” Prior to the trip, it was difficult to fathom what returning to Korea would reveal to me and what I would feel once I was there. My birth mother and birthplace are a part of me—though I may sometimes feel disconnected and far away, I have not completely forgotten. By including elements, such as the Korean language and Hangul, cities, and imagery related to Korea in my poetry, I am expressing my need to honor my birth mother and my heritage.
Growing up in the Midwest, I was one of the only Asian girls in my classes and neighborhood. As a Korean adoptee-girl, I often felt removed from my country of origin. In my poem “Luck of the Rabbit & Blood Type AB,” I say that when “I found a baby rabbit / near the childhood fence, / I thought my mother would save it.” This poem reveals the precarious and vulnerable position I held within my adoptive family. Determined to survive, there were many times I felt that I was waiting for the opportunity to leave, not necessarily Illinois, but I was waiting for the chance to be free of abuse. The anti-fairytale feel emerges from the truth of my experiences as a Korean adoptee, dispelling the fantasy that I would be loved and protected by my adoptive family. Since my first collection, my writing style has changed in a subtle way that is difficult to explain, and I may be able to speak more about it once I have finished my next collection.
HRR: In poems such as “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Good Luck” and “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Imaginary Chuseok Korean Moon Festival Tradition,” you reference not only traditional Korean foods, but also the theme of hunger. How does hunger connect to your experiences as a young woman?
BHM: Nourishment and hunger are themes I explore in my poetry. In my poem, “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Appetites: Table for 1—Dinner in Rural Arizona,” I am investigating what it is like to have a big appetite as a young woman. In the collection, my hunger is often insatiable, because I grew up with substitutions rather than real nourishment. The lines:
I’ve got an
refer to the hunger I feel for reconnecting with my birth mother and the Korean culture. The lines “bellyful / of shame” relate to how my birth mother may have felt when she was pregnant with me and could not hide the pregnancy. She was an unwed single mother and most likely ashamed. In this poem, I touch on how my birth mother and I are similar—both females with appetites and hunger that cannot be hidden. I investigated how shame is a result of societal oppression that punishes women for our natural desires and our need for nourishment.
When I visited Korea, I was interested in the food: the traditional treats at a tea ceremony, green onion pancakes after a hike in the mountains, sweet red bean filled pastries and slices of Asian pear. By sharing meals, I learned more about the roles certain dishes play in the culture, like what is considered “health food” and what is celebratory food. During my travels, I was thankful for the food and the generosity. However, the food was not all the nourishment I needed. My heart and body ached—my birth mother was dead—and I was left with my feelings around my adoption and the beginning of my life on earth. I meditated on what it was like to be given up for adoption as a newborn, to be born in the Junnam Maternity Clinic, and to be taken to an orphanage in Seoul. In my poetry, I continue to be interested in discovering what truly nourishes me as a Korean adoptee and as a woman.
HRR: In your thank you letter at the end of the collection, you write, “and thank you to all the little girls who deserve to be seen, to be safe, and to be heard.” Has writing helped you feel safe, seen, heard? When did you start writing?
BHM: I began writing my collection about ten years ago. During this writing process, each poem revealed itself to me and guided me on my journey as a Korean adoptee. Through writing, I uncovered my truest desires and needs—which illuminated, for me, the importance of returning to Korea and my birthplace. During this time, I had an exceptional therapist who inspired and encouraged me to be brave as I healed from the past. Writing this collection allowed me to see the girl I once was and what I survived.
Within the poetry community, there are inclusive spaces that are transformative and empowering. When I read at the “Growing from Our Roots Showcase: An Asian Debut Authors Showcase” (an offsite event at AWP in Philadelphia), which was organized by Susan Nguyen and Joshua Nguyen, the kindness of the audience was significant. Afterwards, during the book signing, I connected with some of the women who were in the audience—they were incredibly supportive and loving, and we had quiet conversations about poetry. Those seemingly small moments of connection and tenderness are something I treasure.
I loved attending the showcase in Seattle and powerful panels at this past AWP like “The Writing Lives of Roe v. Wade,” moderated by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs; “Memory that Pricks the Skin: Five Asian Women Poets Writing About History,” moderated by Marianne Chan; and “Adoptee Representation Is a Human Rights Issue,” moderated by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello. As an Asian American woman, these experiences made me feel like I am a part of something larger and surrounded by radiant poets, writers, and artists.
There is a bright constellation of adoptee poets—last year, I was on the poetry panel with Mary-Kim Arnold, LM Brimmer, and Lee Herrick, which was moderated by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, at the Adoptee Literary Festival. This festival was founded by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello and Alice Stephens and offered a range of dynamic panels. It was fascinating to hear how our experiences as adoptees have been similar and different. Additionally, I am continually inspired by the works and positive energies of other poets. I am moved by brilliant, shimmery poets like Lee Herrick, Su Hwang, and Sun Yung Shin; who radiate warmth and supported the launch of my book. Writing and sharing my poetry in an atmosphere that is supportive, rich with diverse perspectives, and uplifting has helped me to feel seen. Similarly, I hope that readers feel a sense of connection through my poetry. Thank you so much for your generous reading of my collection and for your thought-provoking questions.
Hazel Reese Ramos is currently a junior at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee majoring in English. She recently started an internship with Cream City Review and hopes to become an editor after she graduates. Outside of class, you can find her working at the Milwaukee Public Market. In her free time, she likes to read the latest romantic comedy with an iced matcha in hand.