Emily Yoon started writing poetry in high school, a few years after her family arrived in Canada from her native Korea in 2002. She’d always loved writing—at seven she dashed off a novel in Korean with “uncanny resemblances to Harry Potter,” she recalls jokingly—but poetry offered an especially important refuge as she navigated adolescence in a new country and language. 

“Poetry is a space where different ways of using language are celebrated and embraced,” Yoon says. “That’s one of the reasons I could really turn to poetry—I could manipulate language and no one saw it as broken or wrong.”

Today Yoon is a third-year graduate student in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, with plans to focus on contemporary women’s literature in Korea, and the author of two collections of poetry, Ordinary Misfortunes (Tupelo Press, 2017) and the forthcoming A Cruelty to Our Species (Ecco). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry magazine, and elsewhere. She is also the poetry editor for The Margins, the literary magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.

Yoon’s poetry incorporates contemporary and historical social issues, such as immigration and the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, alongside her own history. That broad focus is important to her, Yoon says: “As a poet who shares my work, I have responsibilities beyond my own personal sentiments and experiences.”

How has your poetry changed from when you first started writing?

In high school, poetry functioned as a way for me to come to understand my own identity and write in a way that other people thought was beautiful and accessible. It was a kind of kaleidoscopic mirror that I created for myself and I could always have. So that sense of personal attachment to the art form was important to me. Now I feel that poetry really has the power to amplify voices that are not just mine—other people, other experiences. And it’s become more difficult for me, because I also don’t want to appropriate, and I don’t want to pretend like I know everything about everyone else. So that emotional and philosophical struggle has come to haunt me. Every year I realize that poetry is really difficult—back when I was 15, it was purely enjoyment.

Why did you decide to start a PhD program?

I had always wanted to do an academic program in literature. When I was in the MFA program at NYU, and even before that, I knew my writing was invested in meditations on my heritage and Korean language. My family is still in Korea, and I use poetry as a way to bridge that physical gap. The idea of going to graduate school started with this maybe inane thought that I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the things I wanted to talk about and the things that are important to me. I thought that my poetry would be in conversation with what I learned here, and that maybe I could gain inspiration from all of this.

How have you balanced your graduate work and your poetry?

When I started graduate school, I was hoping that my poetry and my academic work would be in conversation. It turned out that was really hard work! But as time went on I realized that academic and creative writing are not that different in the way that they both try to rearticulate the mechanics of the real world and theorize our existence, and to throw the audience into a productive struggle. Now that I’m in my qualifying exam stage and reading about feminist theory and Korean literary history, hopefully the insights I gain from those readings will throw me into a more philosophical meditation on what it means to be a feminist writer and what these Korean feminist writers did in their literature—and how I can connect that to my own writing.

How do you think bilingualism has shaped your work? 

I still feel comfortable speaking Korean, but I feel more comfortable writing in English for both poetry and academic work, because I think I’m more attuned to the poetic and academic vocabulary and rhythm in English. But I try to incorporate Korean sometimes if I think the sound of a word is particularly beautiful or there’s an idiom that doesn’t translate. So even though my poems are in English, sometimes it’s a way for me to think more about my intimacy with Korean.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten about poetry?

I’ve gotten a lot of good advice. I’m remembering something the poet Jericho Brown said: When you’re writing a poem, be your ultra-self. What would a better, improved, super version of you say? You have to be yourself, but also look at yourself from somewhere else in the room and have that kind of confidence going into the line. And I think that’s really good advice for someone as timid as I am about sharing my poems.

Another good piece of advice from my peers and professors is that it’s OK to be patient. Your work or your worth as a poet is not measured by your productivity or how many poems you generate.

How much do you worry about writing accessible poems? Does it bother you if a reader says they don’t understand your work?

Someone might say something like, “I don’t really get what’s going on in this poem because of the language,” or, “I don’t really get what’s going on in this poem because of knowledge that I don’t have access to.” 

So these are two separate problems. The one about language—you know, there are poems I don’t get either, but I still enjoy the music of the language. Sometimes that invites me to a second reading or a third reading, and every time, the poem reveals something new. There’s value in admitting, “I don’t get this,” and then bringing yourself to face the poem again.

The second problem, the problem of prior knowledge—I think that’s easily remedied. You know, your Google is the same as mine when you go and type in “Korean War” or “comfort women,” and it’s not like you have to do extensive research to get it.

But I sometimes appreciate those comments because, one, I think it’s hard to admit that you don’t understand something. And two, it gives me a sense of what people in general know and don’t know. I think it’s helpful to realize and understand that.

You can’t know everything about the world, but the information or the history in this poem or another poem is still part of your life. Even though you may not have personally experienced it or your family might not have experienced it, it’s still part of the historical world and your reality. And I think that might help people approach the poem in a different way—seeing that even though it may not be your problem, it still matters.

It seems like there’s always debate in the American poetry community about whether poetry is or should be relevant to people’s lives. Where do you come down?

Conversation and questions about the relevance of poetry, the importance and the difficulty of poetry, have always been a hot potato. I’m really interested in those conversations. I think it’s indicative of the status of poetry. People feel pressured to put poetry in a certain realm of understanding—if someone’s style of writing is too easy, then they’re like, “This is poetry?” It’s only good enough for poetry when it’s too difficult. And then people complain it’s not accessible.

There’s a lot of stress put on poetry as a genre, but I also think the last few years have been really exciting for poetry. A lot of poets of color won major prizes and a lot of them have been active in other parts of their communities, working with youth and working in other types of media. I think that’s a good sign of where poetry is headed and that it’s becoming friendlier.

I was thinking about Instagram poetry, which I know some people hate, but it’s certainly very popular.

That’s one of the things about poetry that works for a lot of people—its conciseness, and someone else saying something about their own feelings and the reader thinking, “I feel this too,” whether it be something from yesterday or from thousands of years ago. My feelings for Instagram or Twitter poetry aside, I think it can be a useful tool for people who don’t feel comfortable with other poems. If that helps them realize that poetry can be a good thing and that poetry can be interesting and fun, and if that compels them to seek out more poetry, I think that’s good.


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