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!