“I don’t spend too much time on a poem in one day.”
Ordinary Misfortunes (Tupelo Press, 2017)
Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
An Ordinary Misfortune
Mine is the jam-packed train. The too-weak cocktail. This statement by an American man at the bar: Your life in Korea would have been a whole lot different without the US. Meaning: be thankful. This question by a Canadian girl, a friend: Why don’t you guys just get along? The guys: Japan and Korea. Meaning: move on. How do I answer that? Move on, move on, girls on the train. Destination: comfort stations. Things a soldier can do: mount you before another soldier is done. Say, Drink this soup made of human blood. Say, The Korean race should be erased from this earth. Tops down. Bottoms up. Things erased: your name, your child, your history. Your new name: Fumiko, Hanako, Yoshiko. Name of the condom: Charge Number One. Name of the needle: Compound 606. Salvarsan means, an arsenic to save. Ratio 291: 29 soldiers per girl. Actual count: lost. Lost: all. Shot, shot, shot, everybody. Give thanks.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?
Year Zero by Monica Sok, Sad Girl Poems by Christopher Soto, Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named by Nicole Sealey, After by Fatimah Asghar, and Fruit Mansion by Sam Wein are some of my recent favorites. I really love chapbooks for their focus. Not all poems in a given chapbook might have the same “theme(s),” but I enjoy seeing how the poet strung them together in the condensed space and how the poems still come in conversation with one another.
What’s your chapbook about?
In the core of my chapbook are poems that speak about the history of the Korean “comfort women” (a euphemistic term for sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial army), although not all the poems are about that history.
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?
I think the poem I shared above, “Ordinary Misfortune,” was the beginning of this chapbook. The poem is one of the many poems under the same title, and of course the title of the book itself is also the same. I wrote the poem after reading a history book on comfort women that said being forced or tricked into becoming a comfort woman was so common that it had become an “ordinary misfortune.” The phrase struck me because of how understatedly it was written, in juxtaposition with the painful accounts. So I wrote the first poem, and soon it became a series of poems that speak on various historical and contemporary violences against the body.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
One of the poems in the “Ordinary Misfortune” series—one that begins with “What is pressing”—was born out of my grandmother’s story. She tells me about her childhood and youth during the colonial period and the Korean War, and that particular story was about how many Korean women were raped and assaulted by American soldiers during the War. War isn’t just battles and bombings in the front lines but also what it does to lives seemingly in the margins of war and less documented. The story also reminds me to question how war histories are presented; it is easy to portray war as if it is a fight between absolute good and absolute evil, but it is always much more complicated. Oversimplified, nationalist, and uncritical views of war can perpetuate damages even after its end.
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
Sleep on it! I don’t spend too much time on a poem in one day. For me, looking at one poem or a part of it for too long muddies my judgment on it and can lead to me falling a bit out of love with it. When I come back to it after I let my mind rest or have it accept stimulations from other activities, I find that I almost always have something new to do for the poem, and it can really help the poem, even though the edit might not be a big dramatic change.
What are you working on now?
I am currently in the editing and proofing stage for my full-length collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, forthcoming from Ecco this fall.
How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?
Instead of trying to read and catch up on everything, discussing that issue with friends can be really useful—since it’s likely that I would have read something that my friend didn’t, and vice versa, we can exchange information on what we know and talk through our raw reactions.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Treasure everything you’ve written! I have poems that I wrote a long time ago that I’m embarrassed by, but often there is something I can salvage out of them. I might like a line in a bad poem from years ago. Sometimes old poems can function as a sort of a journal, too—I’ll read one and remember what I cared about at that time and how this poem became a launching pad for another one.
Emily Jungmin Yoon is the author of Ordinary Misfortunes (Tupelo Press, 2017), winner of the Sunken Garden Chapbook Prize, and A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco Books 2018). She has received awards and fellowships from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, the Aspen Institute, Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and elsewhere. In 2017, she received the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. She currently serves as the Poetry Editor for The Margins, the literary magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and is a PhD student studying Korean literature at the University of Chicago.