A Conversation with Don Mee Choi
Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and the recipient of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award. She has received the 2012 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Kim Hyesoon. More of her translations can be found at Action Books, Tinfish Press, and Zephyr Press.
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LR: Before you published The Morning News Is Exciting, you were known as a translator of Korean poetry, having translated the work of three Korean female poets and published those translations in The Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women. Do the techniques you employ in your translation work play a role in how you write your own poetry, and if so, how?
DMC: There are a few overlaps. I think the primary one is that there is the process of translating my own voice, which is in Korean as well as English and sometimes all mixed up, depending on what memories I am tapping into. My English was strange for a long time. I’m sure it still is. When my younger brother was growing up in Hong Kong, he spoke Korean, English, Cantonese, and Japanese all mixed up together. He and his Japanese friends communicated perfectly in this mixed-up language. They were too young to censor themselves. The same thing was going on in my head except that I was older and knew how to censor myself. I only freely talked funny with my sister and a Chinese friend who also knew how to talk funny. At school, I wore my uniform and memorized and recited things perfectly that I didn’t understand at all. I always failed because that funny voice inside me always butchered my English. So translating and writing is like this for me. I wear my school uniform and try to memorize and recite poems perfectly, but I always end up butchering them. My primary technique for translation and my own poetry is failure.
LR: Of the poetry you have translated, which particular writers or works remain the most resonant and influential for you?
DMC: All three poets in Anxiety of Words—Ch’oe Sûng-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yôn-ju—had impact on me deeply. It was very emotional for me to learn about their work, interview them, and translate them. It didn’t involve just knowing the language or culture. It was a difficult and painful process of sorting out my own dislocation, understanding how my own displacement has been translated by others and represented in the official narratives of power. So I understood and still understand my translation and writing work as a decolonizing act. Kim Hyesoon’s work never fails to excite me as I continue to translate her latest work as well as her older work. She is categorized and referred to as one of the “1980’s poets,” yet she remains prolific and brilliant, continuing to break down, subvert, or invert literary expectations and boundaries that contain and regulate women in South Korea.
LR: Almost all of the poems in The Morning News Is Exciting are annotated at the end of each section, specifying the particular texts or forms they reference. How do you envision the relationship between these notes and the texts of your poems? What is the difference in your process between translation and writing that is based on another text?
DMC: For me they both involve displacements. When I began translating, I thought of how we used to buy large blocks of ice during summer since a refrigerator was still a luxury item back then. A block of ice is tied up with straw that also functions as a handle. I thought about how even a transparent item like ice has such specific cultural context and how it would be perceived in its new place amongst perfectly shaped fridge-made ice cubes. A bulky ice block would be just wrong amongst clean, straw-free ice cubes. When I use another text in my writing I am also displacing it to see how wrong it could be and to see if any new connections can be made in its new geography. In “Twin Flower, Master, Emily” I displaced Dickinson’s lines. Emily got dispatched to the DMZ of the Korean peninsular. I think I was wrong, to begin with, because I was Korean, but when I first came to the States, people constantly tried to correct my English spelling and pronunciation. My British English was wrong because it was uttered from a mouth attached to an unexpected face, a wrong face. So naturally I have become intrigued with displaced things—things that are wrong. And translation is in a perpetual state of being wrong because it isn’t the original. But as you can see, not all originals are considered perfect. Some originals are plain wrong to begin with.
I decided to keep the notes on the same page as the poems because while I was writing, it helped me to have the texts that I was using for my poems close by just like when I am translating. So mostly it was out of habit, and the habit of having to answer where I am from all the time. Now I answer even before I am asked.
LR: The trauma of ongoing war permeates the poems in The Morning News Is Exciting, as in “Diary of Return,” in which horrific descriptions of abuse by American forces in Korea ground the poem in bodily pain—particularly pain inflicted on the bodies of women of color. Also in that poem, you draw from theoretical explorations of linguistics and power. How does your knowledge of critical theory enable you to engage with the power relations inherent in empire and war on a creative level?
DMC: I returned to South Korea in 1999 after a very long absence because my father who had filmed and witnessed the beginnings of the 1980 Kwangju Uprising believed that we could never return because of the political repression. He believed South Korea would always be under a brutal military dictatorship. In 1999 I stayed in Seoul for about a month, then visited a few more times to meet with the poets I was interested in translating. But during my first visit, I didn’t have the courage to contact the poets (Ch’oe Sung-ja and Kim Hyesoon), so I spent my time meeting with several activists through my former professor, Margo Okazawa-Rey, and got involved in the International Women’s Network Against Militarism, which is made up of women from the Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, South Korea, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. It was traumatic for me to meet and listen to the women in prostitution at camp towns near the U.S. military bases in South Korea. And the experience of walking around the camp towns at day and night itself was also traumatic. I was home and not at home at the same time—home was a neocolony. I’ve read short fiction about camp towns translated by Bruce & Chan Fulton in Words of Farewell and other contemporary Korean writers who depicted the lives affected by the American military presence and I’ve listened, read, translated talks by Korean feminist activists in the women’s network. But all this didn’t quite prepare me for the actual experience of talking, sitting, and eating with the women in the camp towns. I’m talking about the mere trauma of witnessing, not the trauma of someone who had suffered the actual violence and exploitation. This kind of trauma is forever present and open, I think. You sit down after lunch with a survivor and suddenly you are next to an abyss, a wound of immense psychological and physical pain and even death. One woman I met in the camp town of Camp Casey was beaten to death a couple of months after I had met her. I translated the report of her death like I mentioned in the poem. Trauma is so visceral and this kind of state can also take place at a creative level. I think that was what I was aiming for in writing this particular poem. Critical theory can be a form of trauma or witnessing a trauma—I think Cesaire and Fanon were able to achieve such effects in their creative as well as critical writings. So after my visits, I felt compelled to write a couple of papers about decolonization and translation and submitted them for publication. Anonymous reviewers commented that my understanding of oppression was not nuanced enough, that I didn’t understand what Said meant by exile, that they didn’t understand why I had to talk about my own experiences, or that I needed to do a literature review on translation theory. One thing I’m always clear about is that I can’t waste time. I decided to extract some passages from my papers and rewrite them as poems and that is how “Diary of Return” ended up where it is now.
LR: In the fragmentation of grammatical structure in your writing, there is a sense that it is impossible to represent the unified voice of an entire culture, or indeed, of any collective group, through the singular “I.” How do you view the relationship between this fragmentation and the presence of empire as a continual hostile force in your poems?
DMC: Sorry, I am running out of time. Would it be alright if I just cut and paste a portion of what I wrote for “Evening Will Come,” Issue #11 in The Volta?
Is it not drama? Whether manegg is a count or non-count noun is not parent to me, which is to say, I am in trance, transparent, phonically speaking. Let me put an end to grammar of obedience and colonialism with fetal ontology—that was my intention, eggbition. Event very parent. Correct me if you wish. I am kind of late sing-along. My tongue is forever attached to nipples. Incubate me, terminate me. Frammar, grammar’s fetality is a production against trauma.
LR: Which poems in The Morning News Is Exciting were the most challenging for you to write, and why?
DMC: I think “Instructions From the Inner Room.” I began writing the poem in 1998 and didn’t finish it till about 8 years later. It began as a very personal poem about my sister’s mental illness. Her madness could easily have been mine—we just had different ways of coping with homesickness, racism, being separated from family, and other anxieties related to living elsewhere. So I was really writing about myself. It was challenging because I had nothing glamorous to write about, definitely no successes that are usually associated with hard-working immigrants. I only had shameful failures and crazy stuff. I showed the drafts to my dissertation adviser, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and she advised me that it was OK to take time with it. So I left the poem alone for a while. Then I returned to it a few more times and even applied for a writing residency and a small writing fellowship based on this poem. I proposed in my applications that madness was a form of resistance. My proposal didn’t go very well, of course. Then as I was finishing up Anxiety of Words, I re-read some of the traditional letters/songs written in vernacular Korean that women passed down to their daughters. About the same time, my yet-to-be husband lent me Marina Tsvetaeva’s The Ratcatcher (trans. Angela Livingstone). I became absolutely thrilled with the book and finally knew what I wanted the poem to be—not a proposal but an instruction. A couple of years later it got accepted by Feminist Studies.
LR: In addition to being an award-winning poet and translator, you are also a full-time GED instructor. How do you balance the demands of your teaching job with your writing life? What are some of the practical measures you take to make space for poetry?
DMC: I don’t balance things well at all. I only compartmentalize various aspects of my life to make myself believe that I have them all under control. I also fool myself into thinking that I can write in my head and jot down a few words on sticker notes to remind myself what I had written. So I end up bringing several sticker notes from work to home and I do the same at home—from living room or kitchen to my tiny writing room. I only get to write when I am not translating, and I do one of the two on Saturdays. Not for a whole day though. My writing energy only lasts 4–5 hours. When I feel a bit more balanced, I can also write during my workdays for about 30 minutes before going to work. If I can do this on top of writing on Saturdays, I feel as if I have a modestly decent writing life. But overall I feel very embarrassed about how little I write, that I am just faking at being a poet.
LR: If one of your students wanted to become a poet, how would you advise him or her to proceed?
DMC: Reading never fails to engage me with writing, so I would say read.
LR: Can you tell us about the projects you are working on now?
DMC: I am working on my second book called Hardly War. It’s about all the wars my father has seen as a wartime photographer during his lifetime. I am writing poems as well as a libretto called “Hardly Opera” based on my father’s notes, interviews, and photographs. This project was inspired by a performance I saw of Heiner Goebbels’s Songs of Wars I Have Seen (2010) based on Stein’s texts from Wars I Have Seen. I am also working on a series of poems called “Petite Manifesto,” which explore some more of my failures as an immigrant, translator, and debtor in the context of the recent financial imperialism. Gulliver and Betty are two main characters so far.