Annie Kim’s first poetry collection, Into the Cyclorama, won the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and will be published this month by the University of Southern Indiana. Kim’s poems appear in journals such as Mudlark, Ninth Letter, Asian American Literary Review, and DMQ Review. She works at the University of Virginia School of Law as the assistant dean for public service. An excerpt from her poem “Postcolonial Album: 1980” can be found here. It appears as part of the Longer Lyric feature in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Postcolonial Album: 1980”?
I wanted to write a poem about my childhood in Seoul. Nearly ten years and a million drafts later, I think I can safely say that childhood was complicated. Here’s the short version: I was a Korean kid, in Korea, but basically living like an American because my father worked for the US military. I ate Oreos and Wonder Bread. I have vivid memories of watching The Empire Strikes Back on the big screen at Yongsan Army Base, where my sister and I attended a Department of Defense school.
So I wanted to write about this dissonance at the heart of who I was. As children, I think we’re acutely aware of race and class differences, but we haven’t drummed up theories yet. What we have are facts: Johnny doesn’t have a toilet; Annie has a VCR. Writing this poem, ultimately as a long sequence, let me shake all these crude, incongruous facts onto the table, so to speak, and start creating piles that made sense to me.
How do you feel your movement between poetry and prose changes the content of your poem? In particular, what motivated you to begin and end this piece with a sijo?
As a fan of classical music over the years, I’ve come to believe that music works by building tension and releasing it, creating loud moments followed by quiet ones. Contrast. Poems work this way too, especially long ones. In “Postcolonial Album: 1980” I very much wanted to build up contrasting textures, tones, and viewpoints. One way of doing this, as you’ve suggested, is to juxtapose verse and prose. So one section in the poem might feel urgent and clipped, while the next one feels more like prose, taking more time to say things. This alternation lets the poem cover a broader range of emotions, I think, and gives the reader breaks in between. The one true prose section in the poem, describing a trip I took to Japan, ended up being the last section I wrote. Prose gave me the room to lay down a narrative scene for the adult speaker that I couldn’t have written in verse.
The sijo you ask about is a traditional, three-line Korean lyric form based on a strict syllable count. You can’t fit many English words into a sijo. Writing an English sijo is an act of translation, a deliberate artifice, or what Roland Barthes called “pointing to the mask.” Distance comes with the territory. It feels right to me, then, that a sijo opens the poem with the adult speaker struggling to enter her memories, and a sijo takes us out by recalling the child’s sensations on leaving her country.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
In the early days I hated everything I wrote. I worked slowly, one line at a time, one poem at a time, deleting, deleting, deleting. Everything had to be perfect. Now I tend to work on multiple pieces at once, all in different stages of imperfection, and I let drafts sit around for a long time so they can become strange to me. I try to be messy. I abandon whole poems or paste lines that I like into a Word file that I call my sketchbook. Sharing drafts with friends and reading their work-in-progress is also a big part of my writing life that I didn’t have the confidence to do before. Getting older is nice in this way: you just don’t have the same energy for self-criticism that you did when you were young.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Any writing advice, I think, has the potential to be both brilliant and catastrophic for the same person at the same time. One of my early teachers told me, for instance, that my poems needed to embrace more raw, ugly material. Totally true. But for the next six months I wasn’t happy until every poem ended with a spectacular downer that made me want to crawl into a dark hole.
The best advice that’s stuck with me over the years is to listen for the next line. Don’t try to think about what comes next. Forget about content. What’s the shape that your ear wants to hear? Follow that.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m close to finishing a draft of my second manuscript. It’s a book-length poetic sequence written in two voices—one that’s autobiographical, one that’s in the persona of an eighteenth-century castrato opera singer who is friends with the composer Domenico Scarlatti. Bringing these two narratives together throughout the book is kind of a challenge, as you might imagine. Sometimes I feel like a closeted fiction writer, asking questions like “why should I care about this character?” But writing a sequence this long is teaching me lots of things, including being patient with my process. That’s always a good lesson for a writer to learn.