“My poetry collection can’t begin to present a political solution, but it can imagine against death and create a language of dreaming.”
Notes from a Missing Person (Essay Press, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
While searching in the United States and South Korea for my Korean family, I wrote Notes from a Missing Person during 2008-14 in chunks never expecting them to cohere into a book of any sort. As I tracked down Korean-language documents that hopefully would provide more clues about my family’s whereabouts, I relied on translator-allies as well as my basic knowledge of Korean developed through self-study. I realized that the process of reading these documents (e.g. the adoption agency’s intake report) misused them because social workers designed the narratives to orphan a child in order to make her or him adoptable. So I looked for slippages, errors, silences, erasures—moments where the orphan fiction ruptured or seemed murky, signaling a potential site of investigation and speculation.
Reading my adoption documents for search clues required a radical act of imagination. My chapbook stages this process. But I didn’t know that that was what I was doing while writing it. The work terrified me because it was unlike anything I had written before, and the language was messy, tentative, and not identifiable as either poetry or creative nonfiction. But I continued, allowing the writing to pile up.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
“Fetish Mothers” is the chapbook’s center. I wrote it with the Korean language support of Mads Them Nielsen–a fine poet, excellent Danish translator of Korean contemporary poetry, and a Korean adoptee who has lived in Seoul since the late 80s. Along with a grant from the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network and the Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association’s assistance, I learned about the social and legal contexts of unwed mothers and their families. This research informed the craft and much of the content of “Fetish Mothers.”
I remember rewriting the English that I had inherited as an adopted person and mastered as a graduate student in order to translate what and whom I felt and imagined in my clumsy Korean. I remember surrendering to this messiness, this hot mess, this flawed and fragile language fraught with errors. If I hadn’t given myself permission to do that, I wouldn’t have been able to persist toward completing “Fetish Mothers” let alone a chapbook.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I’m grateful to the Danish artist Jane Jin Kaisen for granting me permission to use “No. 31” and “No. 53” from her (Before and After Series) for the chapbook’s cover art and front matter. Residing in Copenhagen yet exhibiting worldwide in Asia, Europe, and North America, Jane and her partner Gus Sondin-Kung are producing visionary video art and documentary films about suppressed Korean histories, biopolitics, and U.S. militarism. Because Notes stages a subversive act of reading, it begins with disorienting how a reader sees an image on the page, and that’s what Jane’s art powerfully performs. How might negative space contain a name?
What are you working on now?
I’ve completed a full-length collection that expands the chapbook’s concerns with adoptee birth family search and reunion, translation, biopolitics, and militarism to include reconciliation and peace on the Korean peninsula as both a kinship matter inasmuch as a geopolitical one. The book opens with a letter that can’t be translated into Korean because it admits that the persona traveled to North Korea without her South Korean family’s knowledge. Travel to the north is prohibited and punishable by prison per the ROK’s National Security Act of 1948. Technically, the Korean War continues because the United States and the DPRK have yet to sign a peace treaty officially ending it. So as a consequence, reunification can only occur as a momentary and individual event between missing relatives from the north, south, or overseas diasporas. There is an urgent need to imagine what a peaceful reconciliation might look like. The oftentimes racist red scare imagery representing North Koreans in western media intended to topple the regime doesn’t allow the reader to access the complexities of Korean history and to feel empathy for Korean families forced to cast each other as monstrous enemies on both side of the DMZ. My poetry collection can’t begin to present a political solution, but it can imagine against death and create a language of dreaming.
Without stopping to think, who are poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least, your clothing, to take with you at all times?
I admire tattoos and think that they’re beautiful, but they’re not for me. I just couldn’t commit to one image for a lifetime without wanting to revise or erase it for something else or nothing at all! And I tend to wear all black all the time… So that being said, some poets–off the top of my head–who I return to again and again for nourishment are: Lisa Lewis, Lynn Emanuel, Tim Z Hernandez, Larry Levis, Adrienne Rich, Myung Mi Kim, and Kimiko Hahn. I revisit Toni Morrison’s novels whenever I feel tempted to explain rather than enact. Poets who I’m reading right now whose work I will continue to follow are Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong, Kristin Naca, Chris Santiago, Lee Herrick, Molly Gaudry, and Sagirah Shahid.
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is the author of Paper Pavilion, recipient of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award; Notes from a Missing Person (Essay Press 2015); and Song of a Mirror, finalist for the Tupelo Snowbound Chapbook Award. Her work has appeared recently in Blackbird, Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, Crazyhorse, Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, and Poetry International. She has received grants from the Daesan Foundation, Intermedia Arts, and Minnesota State Arts Board. Currently, Jennifer is associate professor of English and program director of Race and Ethnic Studies at St. Olaf College. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
I can see the conversations around this table, the frayed gray fabric, split orange foam, the cooler’s cloudy plastic, and water damage stains on the ceiling because the building was hastily constructed (as were all offices during the 70s). You would’ve been childbearing age—anywhere from 18 to 45—and capable of working in one of many light industrial factories constructed during Park Chung Hee’s regime when South Korea engineered its economic miracle on your back leaning over a steady conveyer belt of t-shirts, tennis shoes, toys, tooth brushes, combs, and plastic mirrors crated for export. Your hands rush to keep up with the manufacturing speedway toward South Korea’s revolution from an agriculture-based nation to an economic tiger. You’re a farmer’s daughter from Jeolla-do or Gangwon-do or maybe one of Seoul’s own simply wanting to earn some money for family back home still squatting in an unheated room to shower with a hose. So when the social worker asks if you would sign here, you watch your hand move knowing that you will say nothing to your father or mother who take the money to buy food and encourage you to eat well.
You eat in silence that night. You feed us both with your grief.
What am I saying? I can only describe a researched context, a slanted shadow. I can only speculate and dramatize because I can’t find you. Is this a fetish or a document of desire? This is not your body. This is not mine. This is my tongue—meat flapping inside my crushed mouth. The military meat that Korea imports from the U.S.—spam/variety meats/mad cow/neo-liberal trade—ends up in budae jigae, a stew of scraps.
____ 님이 가족찾기 하고 있는 중인데 혹시 (입양) 서류를 볼 수 있을까요?
____ 님이 가족찾기 하고 있는 중이라 자기 서류를 보고 싶은데 갖고 있나요?
Can we see ____ documents? Do you have ___ documents?
I don’t want constellations.
Which story is mine? Which story is yours?
Mapping and re-centering.
My documents are your documents, aren’t they? The words that took me from you had to admit first that I belonged to you—that you’re woman’s flesh, not a social artifact—even as they erased your name. I don’t know your name. I only know this body that came from yours. I only know this page. I try to rewrite this language that took my body away from your body knowing that I will only clear this page of fetishes you would never use for yourself—birth mother, gift giver, social artifact, dead memory, trace, smear, signature, ___, n/a, unknown, even mother. No, Omoni, you wouldn’t have been dressed like these, and if I push through your skirts, I find blankness, this smoothness that is not your face.