Emily Jungmin Yoon. Photo courtesy of Emily Jungmin Yoon.
On the phone, Emily Jungmin Yoon is gentle. When we spoke, she was situated in a café on the campus of the University of Chicago, where she is at work on her doctorate. There was the usual ebb and flow of people in between classes, and at a certain point she moved tables to get away from the background commotion, politely apologizing for the noise. Yet quietude is not a word one would use when describing her debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species. In her poems, Yoon unflinchingly illustrates the horrors suffered by Korean “comfort women” and grapples with trauma both experienced and inherited. As Bk Fischer wrote, “Retelling the testimonies of the ‘comfort women’ forced into prostitution for the Japanese Imperial Army, Yoon takes up the charge of amplifying the voices of an often-overlooked history.”
That there exists a disconnect between her tone and her content is an observation Yoon has heard before. “I’ve been told, tonally, my poems have been kind of quiet,” she said. “I don’t disagree with that, but I do suppose I compensate for it—to get the effect that I want, I have to use stronger language, more grotesque vocabulary and diction to bring out the horror of these stories.” Yoon was born in Busan, in the Republic of Korea. She balances the personal inherited trauma against a respect for her historical subjects. When I asked when she learned the history of comfort women, her reply was straightforward: “I’ve known it as long as I can remember. It is very much present in our collective memory. In Korea, it is something very immediate and urgent. There is a protest every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy asking for the recognition of their history.”
Yoon moved to Canada as a girl, then came to the United States for her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania. After that, she went on to do an M.F.A. at NYU, and then her Ph.D. The academic rigor of Yoon’s career thus far is exemplified in the extensive research behind A Cruelty. She is also currently at work on a translation project, as well as serving as poetry editor for the online magazine The Margins, a fledgling venture headed by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She is young, for someone so accomplished, midway through her fourth year of doctoral work and still in the process of shaping her dissertation proposal. In the meantime, she’s teaching, making the switch in the spring from a teaching assistantship to teaching courses of her own: advanced Korean and a poetry workshop.
When did you stop writing in Korean and begin writing in English?
I moved to Canada from Korea when I was around eleven. I started journaling in English because I wanted to practice the language and because I felt really shy, since I couldn’t talk to anyone. Journaling was also a way to write down everything that I couldn’t say to other people. I started writing creatively in English in high school because I was taking classes in Anglophone culture. There wasn’t really a conscious decision to shift from Korean to English, it was just the environment I was in. I do think that in the future I could pick up writing in Korean again. It’s a little daunting because not everyone who speaks Korean feels comfortable writing poems in Korean, and that’s the same for all the languages, right? It will take a lot of practice to get my own natural rhythm writing in verse. I will just have to read a lot more and write a lot more before I can create something that I can proudly call a poem in Korean.
Do you sit down to write every day whether or not you’re feeling inspired?
Oh no, that never works for me. It’s too stressful. I’m still working on this, but I try not to measure my productivity according to how many words I write or how many poems I write. I really respect people who can write every day. But I’m just not happy with what I produce, even though I know maybe I could come back later and salvage some of it. I usually decide on a day or a time of day to write, and usually I go back to a poem that I love, the poems that made me realize why I fell in love with poetry in the first place. I have a little collection of those poems that I always read. I go back to Li-Young Lee’s Mnemonics just for the way he plays with language. I read Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song for the incredible storytelling that she does in the little space of a poem. I return to that magic and hope to be enraptured again. Usually that works for me, creating that feeling of also wanting to do this, wanting to be a part of this enchantment.
Your poems in A Cruelty Special to Our Species are examples of very thorough research. A lot of history is packed in there. How do you balance the two things, factual history and trying to think about the person as an individual with an emotional landscape?
I understand that I can never really be in their emotional or psychological state because this is an experience I’m never going to have. I have to approach the poem with the awareness of my privileged knowledge, looking back at their story. And there’s a comfort in doing that. I guess the best place to really get even a tiny bit closer to what they have felt is acknowledging what Korea as a nation has gone through, the ramifications of imperialism, and how it is still very much alive in our current memories. The people who went through the colonial period and the Korean War and everything that came after, the bloody history of Korea, they’re all still alive and their stories are still being found. I’m the one who inherited them. Thinking about what that inherited trauma is and how I’m going to go back to talk about their history, it’s always a complicated question. I’m always going to wonder what the best way for me to talk about them is. I think the poems were kind of born out of that struggle. I do believe that every poem is a question rather than a solution. That’s how I’m feeling at the moment.
The poems about comfort women are all prose poems of about the same length, but the collection has poems in varied forms. Do you have a favorite form or style you like to work in? Are there any that are particularly challenging?
I wouldn’t say I have a favorite form. I usually do work in regular free verse with line breaks. The prose poem form that I used in the “Ordinary Misfortune” poems was a conscious decision in order to question what it’s like to poeticize these stories. I think the form of a prose poem questions the boundary between what’s poetry and what’s not. I also thought it was fitting, because I wanted it to look more matter of fact and I didn’t want there to be calculated breaks. It was hard to make formal decisions for the “Testimonies” section of the book, all the testimonies of the women, because I wanted to show that yes, these narratives have been turned into poems. It’s not a copy and paste. I wanted to gesture toward asking, What is the role of poetry in me telling these stories? What is the poet’s burden rather than the historian’s burden? I think the form could imply that I’m asking these questions. But I also wanted to make it clear that these words have been somehow rearranged formally, though not changed as in changing their stories. I wanted to have the reading of the poem be a little bit uncomfortable.
Do you feel distant from the subjects of your poems or do you feel close to them?
I felt like I was becoming closer to my poems as I reached the end because the book wasn’t a conscious calculation. I didn’t think, Oh, I’m going to structure my book this way. I wasn’t even sure it was going to be a project book, which is what a couple of people have identified it as. But I found myself writing more and more poems about tenderness and about my personal history. Maybe that didn’t come through very clearly because a lot of those poems are still kind of cynical and about this ugliness rather than beauty and love or whatever. But I felt that by the end I was gesturing toward some kind of tenderness, even as I was writing poems about awful things that humans do to one another and to the world. I found myself leaning toward looking back with tenderness on my own history even if that history was painful.
There’s a very beautiful poem about your grandmother and peaches. I love that one.
Thank you. That’s one of my tenderest. It’s kind of like Li-Young Lee’s Mnemonics, again. At the end there was a line that says memory is sweet—even when it’s painful, it is sweet. I think that is something that must have been on my mind, maybe because that poem is always on my mind. Because I think the poems I wrote about my grandmother, my boyfriend, and about my younger self all carry an invocation of a lost something or a distance from something that is still wrapped in tenderness.
I want us to talk briefly about the two poems that are in The Paris Review’s Winter issue, “Litany for the Green” and “Decency.” Cruelty is almost entirely interested in women figures, but these two poems are focused on male subjects, your grandfather and an ex-lover. “Litany for the Green” is composed entirely of questions, and you said earlier that poetry for you is more an act of asking questions than finding answers. Did you set out to write the poem in this form?
That poem was a result of a workshop where the prompt was to write a poem of questions. I had been thinking about my maternal grandfather a lot. When I was born, he was the oldest person I knew. But when he passed away he wasn’t yet sixty-five, which now I realize is actually quite young. I started thinking about that and how memory functions in telling the stories of my past and perhaps fabricating them. I used to live with him until I was in kindergarten and so I went back to these memories of everything that we did together, in awe of how vivid they were even though I was only three or four. I remembered that he took me and my sister to graves for fun, and realized how weird that is. These are all questions: Was this real? Why did he do this? Was he really old at all?
Working out memory through writing is so strange because you’re confronted in a very different way by the question, Was this real?
We can be manipulated into something, manipulated into creating memories that weren’t there. At a certain point, in certain situations, maybe it doesn’t matter. For me, these memories, whether they happened or not, are very real in how I preserve him in my life. Some things did happen: he did take me to the graves. My mom remembers, I broke my arm there once. How do I recall the moment when I loved someone for the first time? I think he was the first person that I loved. I loved him more than my parents. And maybe I felt someone loving me in a real way. I spent more time with my him and my grandmother than with my parents. These memories serve to remind me of that again, of that tenderness.
If poetry exists to ask questions, can it also help us find answers? Or is it just a way of interrogating?
I think just presenting the question can be worthy on its own. Saying that a poem always remains a question means that there will always be an infinite number of answers. Once there is an answer, the value of the question is a bit exhausted. But if a poem is constantly asking and constantly garnering different answers, different solutions, it remains something very fruitful. I think there can be many different answers to one poem, one question. That is what I aim for.
Lauren Kane is the editorial assistant at The Paris Review.
Read Emily Jungmin Yoon’s “Litany for the Green” and “Decency” in the Winter issue.
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