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.
Winter/Spring 2023 Issue 46.2 can be found on Project Muse. Print copies will be available soon and mailed out to our subscribers!
Winner of the 2020 Fiction Prize selected by Lucy Tan:
“The Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel” by Leah Fretwell
Lucy Tan says, “’The Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel,’ a story about the frailty of all we hold near in the face of death–whether it be religion, blood connection, or the stories we grow up telling ourselves. Here, horror is mixed with strange tenderness and humor, and the story’s fractured form captures truth about the human spirit and the way we grieve. This is the work of a writer with incredible heart and surprising range.”
Leah Fretwell’s fiction has appeared in Inscape and online at the Southern Humanities Review.
Runner-Up of the 2020 Fiction Prize selected by Lucy Tan:
“A Few Perfect Innings” by Ryan Lackey
Lucy Tan says, “‘A Few Perfect Innings’ is an inventive and powerful story about rage, obsession, and inheritance. I was drawn in by the intimacy and specificity with which this author crafts characters and their psychologies. I also admired the way suspense builds beneath carefully managed voice and tone.”
Ryan Lackey is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. His writing has appeared with Literary Hub, Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, Chicago Review, and elsewhere. He tweets @rlackey15.
“The Blackberry Flu” by Hailey Foglio
“Atargatis” by Banah Ghadbian
“Color Theory for the Currents at Night” by Claire Oleson
“Clean Slate” by Tara Ramirez
“Water Day” by Manisha Sharma
“The Lightning Jar” by Emily Woodworth
Winner of the 2020 Poetry Prize selected by E.J. Koh:
“For My Own 34th Birthday” by Maria Picone
E.J. Koh says, “‘For my own 34th birthday’ is a disentanglement of the politics of belonging and the everyday trauma of un-belonging. ‘No in-between,’ as in, the unbearable, generational suffering that divides women and countries and language. This winning poem translates the untranslatable; and it refuses any one answer.”
Maria S. Picone (she/her/hers) writes, paints, and teaches from her home in South Carolina. Her publications include flash fiction, CNF, poetry, translation, visual art, and hybrid work. Her writing has been published in Kissing Dynamite, Emerge Literary Journal, and *82 Review, among others. She has work forthcoming in Whale Road Review, Parentheses Journal, Moonchild Magazine, and others. A Korean adoptee, Maria often explores themes of identity, exile, and social issues facing Asian Americans. She received an MFA in fiction from Goddard College and holds degrees in philosophy and political science. You can find more on her website, mariaspicone.com, or Twitter @mspicone.
Runner-Up of the 2020 Poetry Prize selected by E.J. Koh:
“The Fire Consumes, The Fire Produces” by Caroline Chavatel
E.J. Koh says, “The Fire Consumes, The Fire Produces” begins: “I dig my own grave daily.” The ‘I’ is a mythology that guides the reader closer to themselves. There is magic here in the simultaneity of opposites, the reversal of perceived differences, and the ecosystem of everyday things and their inner lives.
Caroline Chavatel is the author of White Noises (Greentower Press, 2019), which won The Laurel Review’s 2018 Midwest Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in Sixth Finch, Foundry, Poetry Northwest, AGNI, and Gulf Coast, among others. She is an editor at Madhouse Press and co-founding editor of The Shore. She is currently a PhD student at Georgia State University where she teaches and is Poetry Editor of New South.
“Consume (Mad Study IV)” by Rob Colgate
“Mother and Son as Oyakodon” by Michael Frazier
“Second Movement: The Boy y El Hombre Que Se Comió El Relámpago” by Saúl Hernández
“Rocket Ships” by Yuki Jackson
“River” by Cindy Juyoung Ok
“An American Self-Destructs into the American” by Jenifer Sang Eun Park
“Inlet” by Ilari Pass
“How to Resurrect a Chicken” by Danni Quintos
* * *
Thank you all again for your wonderful work. Be sure to keep an eye out for our Winter Issue 44.2 to read these winning works!
*Banner art: from Gabriel Silva’s “Gold 1”, which appears in Issue 42.2 of Cream City Review.
Christine Robbins writes about her poem “Wake.” You can read “Wake” in Issue 42.1 of Cream City Review and by clicking here.
A few years ago, the poem was two stanzas and less than a page long, with a uniform left margin. It was titled “If we’re saved by what we can’t leave.” We keep a flock of pigeons in a loft behind our house, and if they are released too early in the spring, they become meals for the hawk and peregrine falcon. The poem was about these birds and the tension between being responsible for others’ safety, but also for their freedom, and possibly even their joy.
I have a fair amount of angst around “keeping,” but my concerns were more submerged in this earlier version. The poem expanded to over four pages with more white space, shorter lines, and a back and forth swing to the stanzas. I had been playing with a form that would allow room for two voices, or the braiding together of two or more poems that felt somewhat flat to me, as this original did. But the right justification of alternating short stanzas evolved into a much-needed space for my own voice to contradict itself.
This form became so compelling to me that I haven’t used another since. I think the stanza movement provides room for something unwieldy to drop into the poem and maybe alter the meaning of a word as it’s approached from a different angle. Also, the original version felt more like an artifact – the lines were the result of a creative process that happened elsewhere, and this poem documents the process on the page. It’s messier, and I hope it has more of a pulse. It’s also more vulnerable – I’m leaving more of myself on the page. I think the poem gains urgency in the process, and I want this, but it also engages more of what I’m only on the edge of understanding myself, and the diminished control feels riskier to me.
I find the idea of decomposition compelling, and the poem circles this concept – as organic matter, but also as the concept of un-writing. A being can never un-be, and words can never be taken back – not really. I am aware of my ambivalence for declarative sentences, but I’ve also been thinking about how urgent they can be in a political climate that continues to threaten the existence of so many people. I tend to claim questioning as a stance, or even an essential part of who I am, but that can be taken too far. I also need to know what I can definitively say, and it is important to me to stand behind those whose lives are at risk. When we are not safe, we need to know who is with us. I am also watching for the “I,” and aware that everything I see in others comes through my filter and I am accountable to this lens.
For the last eight years, I have had progressive trouble with my mobility and speech. It is probably not surprising that my lines have grown shorter as my capacity to physically and verbally move across space has diminished and become more halting. I am aware that the poems I’ve written recently are almost all long. If I have the floor, I have a lot to say. But it is also relevant that I don’t know why I have this trouble – I don’t have a diagnosis, and this contributes to my desire to look at language from different angles. My own language is altered from a speech disorder, but language itself might alter my perspective, if I ever learn the word I do not yet know. And since I do not have certainty (and really, do we ever?), could I wake up tomorrow and run? Will this unnamed thing kill me? Is it all in my mind?
One thing is certain: I do not want to waste time. Which means, I want to be accountable to the people I love, and in a smaller way, to this world of people. I want to write what I’m compelled to write. I want to be free to name my own mistakes. I want to be awake.
In addition to Cream City Review, Christine Robbins has been published in journals including Beloit Poetry Journal, The Georgia Review, New England Review, and Poetry Northwest. She was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and she lives and works in Olympia, Washington.
This year’s Cream City Review Summer Prize in Poetry will be judged by the poet and memoirist E.J. Koh. In this micro-interview conducted by Editor-in-Chief, Su Cho, E.J. discusses moments of surprise during her writing process, what makes a poem memorable, and what she’s working on now. Read on for the full interview.
E.J. Koh is the author of the poetry collection A Lesser Love (Louisiana State University Press, 2017), winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize for Poetry and the memoir The Magical Language of Others (Tin House Books, 2020). You can learn more at www.thisisejkoh.com.
1. I’m so glad I got to see you read from your memoir, The Magical Language of Others, at Boswell Books in Milwaukee this year! I couldn’t help but notice that you opened your talk with a very generous explanation of 잘 부탁합니다 (jal butak hapnida) and how your poetry collection A Lesser Love opens with “Showtime,” which also summons this phrase of goodwill and trust. You say, “This translates into, Please be kind to me / but it suggests: // Even if I shame myself, / please be kind to me. This might be a selfish question, but what made you choose the formal phrasing instead of the informal?
My spoken Korean tends to be formal. Korean was the language for home, church, and times with my grandmother, who brought me along on visits with her friends in Milpitas, California. My mother would laugh because I sometimes use phrases that are now out-of-style or might date me to the time when my parents immigrated to the States. My Korean is, in some ways, trapped in time.
2. I’m always taken by the voices in your poems—as though their footsteps walk with me through the book. There’s such an alluring inhabitance of the places we explore. I feel like everything is watching, alive, and demands urgency. Could you talk more about voice, and how you cultivate it in your poetry and/or prose? Is there a difference for you? I’m particularly struck by the last poem “Alki the Town of Dreams” and the couplet “As casual as a bird sailing into its fullest wingspan / towards me, as if he’d been there since the beginning.” Can you talk about this presence in the book? Was it something consciously woven into the book or did it come naturally?
I read the poem aloud as I’m writing it. If you sit by me, you can hear me say each word. The practice of reading out loud has been with me since the beginning. The voice a reader hears is the voice I’m speaking through. If you asked me to write quietly, poetry or prose, it would be difficult. I imagined my work to be read the same way—to be spoken into a room, connecting acts of writing and reading intimately.
3. It was really nice to see how the themes from A Lesser Love resonated through your memoir, The Magical Language of Others. The complexities of belonging, maintaining relationships, and grappling with the tethers of life were comforting and eye-opening for me. So much of it is navigated through language, translation, and interpretation. You so generously outline it for the reader in the memoir—were there moments you felt protective of your knowledge and/or experiences?
I feel open. There are things left unsaid or stretches of quiet. My hope was not to keep the reader out but to allow for possibilities. Fluidity rather than stiffness; where things could’ve gone right, not only where they’ve all gone wrong.
4. Were there moments of surprise and delight while you wrote A Lesser Love and The Magical Language of Others?
The poetry book and memoir were published close together. In that time, I reunited with my family in Seattle. I fell in love with somebody. I started a family. I focused on my mental and physical health. I began rock climbing. I started going into the water. I was writing and reading, gently. What surprised me was how I learned to take care of myself. How I learned the books could take care of themselves without me.
5. What are you working on now?
A novel is coming. I’m curiously walking along the path of fiction. I’m reading, writing, and researching. Listening, watching, asking questions. I love the making of a book.
6. And lastly, what makes a poem memorable to you? In your own writing process, how do you determine if a piece of work is ready for the world?
To see if a poem is ready, I look at how I am in the world. The poem itself can be written without end. But I ask if I can let it go. Sometimes, I’m not able to. It’s not done with me. The poem has to change me, and I have to accept that change, then show it through the evidence of my life to say that I can move on.
Submissions to the 2020 Summer Prizes in Fiction & Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for the full guidelines!