Commentary, Interviews

Interview // The Only History I Can Claim: A Conversation with E.J. Koh

by Jake Uitti | Contributing Writer

Seattle poet E. J. Koh writes with both a delicate and brutal hand. Whether staring into the eyes of a loved one or a murderer, her work is unblinking. Her poems mine dichotomies in homes and languages, shedding light on her own difficult childhood, during which she was separated from her parents for nine years. Koh, who didn’t speak until almost five years old, now wins awards for her poetry and adoration for her translations. A Korean-American, Koh grew up with immigrant parents and when she talks about her history, she does so with a voice saturated in reflection and interpretations. We wanted to catch up with the author to talk about her recent collection, A Lesser Love (Pleiades Press, 2017), to see what she’s working on now and to glean a few insights into her illustrious creative process.

When did you discover your ability to notice well? 

I think the honest answer is that I did when other people noticed that I was noticing. I was very young, and it wasn’t praised. Not, “Oh my, what a keen eye.” It was along the lines of, “That’s really weird, that’s very strange.” I think noticing was discouraged. It was more, “Why can’t you be normal, why are you so distracted?”

I didn’t speak until I was much older than other children. I was almost five when I started talking. My parents were concerned and worried about it. It was strange to them that I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t articulate, and I couldn’t focus on things. Today, there are support groups and systems if your child is having trouble. But when you’re my parents, you’re low-income and your kid is not doing something when you’ve sacrificed so much, it can be terrifying. There’s no way to know what to do and you experience grief about it.

So, I had a mix of it early on. Adults around me saw it as harmful, as a bad thing. And that’s how I came to realize it. But it wasn’t until adulthood that I thought, “Wow, this doesn’t have to be something that’s distraught or a pain point.” I didn’t value noticing. It’s not necessarily unique to notice, I think a lot of people do that. What is unique is realizing that it’s of value.

Did you find an explanation for why you didn’t speak as a young child?

I’m trying to write about it now. It’s hard to describe. But one thing I’m sure of is that I have memories from before I was able to speak. Recently, I’ve had a chance to talk with my parents, to seriously recall on my muteness. In early childhood development, if you can’t speak at around three, it’s a warning. A child psychologist told me it’s quite alarming.

But what I recall is being at home and my parents speaking Korean. They were upset that they couldn’t speak to me. My grandmother was speaking Japanese and she was raising me because my parents were working. But outside, everyone’s speaking English. Then, I lived in an area where Spanish was prevalent. There was Spanish, English, Japanese and Korean and none of the words pointed to the same object, despite everyone’s ease about it. Every signifier was different. This tension and anxiety for words—I recall that anxiety for words.

My mother is not a native speaker, so I would go to school and bring cards home of words and my mother would try to tell me it’s “Ehpl” when the word is “Apple.” She would cry so hard. The inconsistencies, the high-risk of what was around me impacted what I could understand, how I was willing to partake in the exchange of language, communication, and expression.

Throughout many of the poems in A Lesser Love, you weave in ideas and references to death, many of which seem rather gruesome. In your day-to-day, how often do you think about death?

That’s a theme that I’m wrestling with. Death was not estranged from my everyday life. It was a constant, a part of Korean culture. It’s in everyday conversation, this concept of dying, it’s in many Korean metaphors. It might be in the way you describe how good a thing is. Similar to English, like, “To die for.” In Korean, there are metaphors and similes, ways to describe that are palpable this way—death is in the language, it’s part of the psyche. It’s not something that terrifies as much as reminds us of the value of the present.

But yes, parts of me were scared. I also grew up in a Catholic household. That part of death—the torture, the suffering, the blood and gruesomeness, the nakedness—that did terrify me quite a bit. And when I went to school, during my teenage years, they put up these gruesome images and we learned about the heaviness of death. To me, there was also lightness to it left unexplained.

You display such a capacity for sadness in the book, especially in the middle “War” section. And often it’s sadness born from what people in power do to those not. Was it hard to mine this dynamic?

Imperialism, colonialism, militarism. The “War” section was difficult. There were poems that I wasn’t sure of including. I’m thinking of those poems and I’m thinking of “South Korean Ferry Accident.” These poems of great tragedies. It’s always on my mind, how to write about an event that a people experienced without fetishization, without assignment, without turning that event and catastrophe into something more or less than what it is, but I am trying to go there and approach as humanly close as possible without bringing harm.

But I think that harmlessness is in tension with what David Eng says, “The mother has history but no memory and the daughter has no history but has memory.” I think that’s true in that me being here—I feel a disconnect from history. What is my history? I depend on my mother’s memory, because my mother has history: she was born and raised in Korea. And for me, I have to make an effort to go backward and follow the traces of her history because that’s my history. Her history is the only history I can claim. And that’s really interesting, perturbing.

That’s why I repeatedly go back to comfort women, Korean women, Korean women feminism. I go back to “Han,” which, loosely translates as ineffable sadness. And that sadness is epigenetic, it’s intergenerational, it’s passed down. There is a part of their trauma in my body. So, I feel responsible for it, an urge to go back into it, and always find my way, move towards release.

In poems like “Antti Revonsuo” and “South Korean Ferry Accident,” you reference the idea of “Americans.” How has the meaning of that word impacted you over time?

In “South Korean Ferry Accident,” the line is, Americans would have jumped. It means anyone living in the States would have jumped. And I think that echoes a freedom that exists here that still is not accessible in the minds of children abroad. I think what was powerful was that I didn’t say that, that came from my mother’s mouth. If I had said that, it would have been different. It would have been more flippant, much more precarious and not something I would be able to write gracefully. It means more that my mother said, “Americans would have jumped.” In a time when she experiences a tragedy in her country, I think that’s powerful.

In “Antti Revonsuo,” the “Americans dreaming” line—I read these things in a book about dream meanings and what’s interesting are the national boundaries in dream meanings. Even with dreaming, which is universal, is also national. Nationality is human-made. It’s a pronouncement made by a people. To say that an American would dream about waking up nude and that means something different to how a Korean would dream about it. Or, if you’re Chinese and you dream another way—there’s a cultural and national intersection.

There’s a line in the poem “Inferno,” where you say, “If we can prove hell, we can want heaven.” It points to an idea regarding our capacity for hard-earned ignorance. What about this idea interests you?

That poem I wrote when I was doing a lot of research into Dante. And there was a moment when something clicked. We’re sitting there and striving and arguing for something horrific and maybe something that’s wrong and painful, to learn that the source of that action or that argument is the desire for love—the desire for compassion or peace—that really changed the argument for me. Because then we’re not talking about what we’re talking about. And I think that, in a way, points to the title of the whole collection, A Lesser Love. There were forms of love that I received that others might not call love. Growing up, I spent a long time alone and now in my adult life I’ve managed to be among a lot of wonderful people that I admire who agree that any parent would not have allowed that to happen. Any actual parent would not leave their child behind in another country for a long period of time. But to me that was, there was love there. However, a lesser a form of love. However, diminished it may have been to others.

What I needed to do was understand even lesser forms of love as still love. It really is up to me to see that. To accept that and accept it as love. And I think I had to do that over and over again. That was my lesson with this book. And even with that poem, we all want the same thing and no matter what harm or what we’re doing right now. I was learning what it means to look beyond. How do you love people that other people don’t want you to love? How do you do these things and when do I say, “Who cares?” Anything we talk about—even hell—points back to the possibility of love. That’s what unites us, what binds us together.

After you write a draft, how do you edit it before you know it’s done?

Before this book, I would write a poem and I would rewrite it again and again. 10-15-30 times. I would just rewrite it until I thought every single word or line was something you couldn’t argue with. I wanted to arm my poems. I wanted to give them the opportunity to defend themselves. I was militaristic in how I went about writing and editing my poems. They were in a way an ensemble that I mobilized and put out in the world to fend for themselves. I think we do that a lot when we raise children, and there are other similar analogies.

But much of the later poems in that book function differently. ¾ of the way through, I just stopped doing that. As the book goes on, I was learning in real time. I’m making these things and I’m learning the lessons with the poems as I go along with them. As you go into the latter portion, the poems get messier and take more risks and become more vulnerable and some are overly sentimental. I changed. I decided I didn’t want to mobilize. Especially after the “War” section. I saw the pain in being armed, in defensiveness. These things are never productive. They should take risks, they should be completely vulnerable and open. And if they go out that way, that’s okay. And I have to practice trust. Someone will take this poem and they’ll figure it out.

Some of these poems I wrote in one draft. “Clearance” in one sitting. “Beyonce” I wrote in one sitting. “The Wind,” too. Some of these poems I wrote so quickly. “Alki Town of Dreams,” that was one poem I wrote before I even moved here. I was in such a dark place and I wanted to write what I envisioned what my future might be like. A future that I wanted. The way I write now is similar to the latter half of the book. I allow the words to lay, I let them be alone.

What are you working on now and HOW are you working on it?

I’m working on an experimental memoir that includes translations of my mother’s letters that she wrote to me during the time we lived apart. You see a sort of mothering across long distances. It’s called “How to Age with Grace.” It’s based on one of my mother’s letters she wrote to me about a book she read with the same title. She says in the letter she wants me to teach her how to do this. At the time, I’m 15 and she’s writing me from South Korea. She’s in a place where she needs my help. There’s space in the Korean-American experience for satellite families. The adoption narratives and parachute kids and satellite families are consequences of our world economy and what happens with capitalism and how those things change the dynamic of the immigrant narrative structure, especially in families. I’m learning as I go, really.

In all of my Poetry Northwest interviews, I ask the author for a writing tip or trick. Do you have one you can share?

One that was important for me to realize was that on the actual page, during the writing of poems or stories, I’m careful not to categorize. To say, “This is my immigrant family” or “This is strictly a Korean thing.” Because I think the dangers of that is you introduce a box, a border, a dark line around your experience and it can create division where you want to create universality. It comes down to leaving room, having space for others’ stories. How much space am I leaving around my work for others? As a translator, that’s something I’m wary of—whether something is culturally specific, or something is universal. So even if we talk about genres and subjects, on the page, the best thing to do is just describe and show the scene and to leave it up to the language and not call it one thing or another. That’s something I didn’t know for a long time.

Aside from being a poet, you work as a translator. Besides the literal turning a word from one language to another, what goes through your mind as you translate?

When I translate Korean poetry into English, or my mother’s letters from Korean to English, I want to keep the Korean intact. So that when you read the English, it doesn’t feel like you’re reading English necessarily. There’s a fine balance and every translator makes their own choices about this. I can still make it accessible, readable, but the astute reader should be able to hear Korean. To notice, that’s an interesting way to say something, that’s an interesting tone or color of the word, that repetition, rhythm, or percussive, primal element. I’m thinking of the words just as you’d think about music. Even sentence structures, long waves of crescendos, decrescendos. You’re reading it in English, but I want you to hear Korean behind it. I want to maintain that, I want to protect that. For me, it’s to honor both languages. That’s how I respect both of them. I never want to neglect one language or keep it hunched behind the other. Both need to be on the page and I need to be the person that gives them room, gives them space to be there together.



E.J. Koh is the author of A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize. Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Boston ReviewColumbia ReviewLos Angeles Review of BooksSoutheast Review, World Literature TodayTriQuarterlySeattle Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2017 ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship and is co-translating Yi Won’s books When They Ruled the Earth (1996) and The Lightest Motorcycle in the World (2007).

Jake Uitti is a Seattle-based writer who loves Tony Bennett, Amy Winehouse, and The Black Tones. His work has been featured in the Seattle Times, Washington Post, and The Monarch Review.