Poetry in the Age of Trump: A Discussion with Chiwan Choi
An interview with one of America's greatest living poets, Chiwan Choi.
Chiwan Choi is a one of our country's greatest living poets.
I'm not saying this lightly. His work has an immediacy of a cereal jingle and also the permanence of haunted childhood memories.
Don't take my word for it. The New York Times recently featured a poem from Choi's third book, The Yellow House (2017, Civil Coping Mechanisms). His other books include Abductions (2012, Writ Large Press) and The Flood (2010, Tia Chuca Press).
It is staggering to know that English is Choi's third language, after Korean and Spanish, learned during a brief stay in Paraguay. Perhaps this in/adaptability of language and culture has instilled in his work a multifaceted quality that reveals more with each reading.
I recently caught up with Choi at a barbecue place in New York City.
By Ed Lin
GR: The spoken word is much older than the written word. By the time Gilgamesh was chiseled into tablets, language was already millennia old and that story was, as well. What do you think is more powerful: the written word or the spoken word?
CC: I think that's sort of a false division, because when I do a reading from my book, is that a written word or a spoken word? I can't imagine people way back when not finding a way to track it as they were creating their piece before they spoke in front of you. There must have been some recording method, even if it's some sort of memorizing technique or whatever to be able to perform long pieces. So when I read from my book in front of people, it's spoken, and if I read it many times I could probably read it without even looking at the page. At that point is it the written word or the spoken word?
GR: Do you always have the book in front of you even if you don't need to read from it?
CC: Yeah, I wanna say the words I wanna say. It's not because I feel like I should look at the page. I don't wanna mispeak.
GR: Do you feel that once it's written, a poem changes? That you find another aspect to it?
CC: All the time. Like I said, I always have the text in front of me, but I'll find myself changing a line before or during a reading just to see how it reads if I say those words instead of what's already there. It's not just about trying to make it better, it's about what feels right at the moment or what I want to test out.
When you see your book, and you look at the words on the page, it's like, "Oh, my god, it's so perfect, my book!" Then there's the shame of, "Why did I put down that word, I had one shot to put this on the page and I put that word!"
GR: There are those poets who endlessly revise their work, from the reader's point of view, without hearing the words read, how are these revisions really different? Especially if the changes are rooted in the performance, the live reading.
CC: Right. Well, with individual poems, I won't reedit and republish. But because I've been working on longer pieces, I will publish excerpts from what I'm working on and those do change as I go. I won't change a poem that I've published. Not because it's perfect, but because I've moved on.
GR: Let's talk about The Yellow House, your new book. I've heard about poets working for years on a book of poetry and an equal amount of time finding a publisher, but I've never heard of signing a contract for a book before it was written, which is the case with The Yellow House. Did you already know you had these poems in your head?
GR: But you were confident you could pull something together?
CC: Well, yeah. [Civil Coping Mechanism's Publisher-in-Chief] Michael [Seidlinger] messaged me and said, "Hey, I've read Abductions. I love it. Want to publish your next book with us?" I was like, "Yeah, OK. But I don't have a book yet." He was like, "I know." I said, "So it could be anything? Poetry? A novel?" He was like, "Yeah!" It was a situation where a publisher was like, "I love this guy's writing and whatever he writes next, I'm sure I will love."
GR: Did you have an artificial deadline set in your head or did you keep writing until it felt right?
CC: I wrote for a few months and then we talked. When he had a publication date, I said, "If you want it out that day, when would you need it by?" Then he gave me a date and I tried to shoot for it. It wasn't a concrete thing, though.
GR: Did you change the way you write poems because you knew you had a deadline?
CC: Uhhhhhhhh.....noooooo......I want to say "no," but I already changed before that. Because I was writing stuff on Facebook, and I think that was setting myself up to get to a place. And then I think that even with the last book, even though there were individual poems, there was one narrative. I just took it a little further. They are sort of individual poems but they're not. I removed all the titles so it's like a single book-length piece, even though it's not a strict narrative.
GR: Would you say that the political circus that was the last election cycle weighed on your mind as you were writing?
CC: Toward the end, yeah. I finished writing The Yellow House around August, when things were getting heated. I never thought about politics in the writing of it -- actual details about the politics -- I've always absorbed it as a personal narrative. The election impacted the poems in that sense. Specifically, it made me look even more closely at the dynamics between mom and dad. I'm constantly looking at the dichotomy between them. At times I wonder who had the most influence on me, who led the family, things like that. This past year, I really started thinking, wow, all these years, it was my mom that was the strength of this family. And it really clarified for me this past year. My dad was the yeller, the one who was doing things, fixing things, but mom was always the strength of the family.
GR: Was there anything that caused more doubt for you?
CC: I'm writing this essay for this pamphlet series, something about trauma. That became really confusing to me. Is trauma something that gives us identity? Or is it something that we're trying to get rid of? That got super confusing because I was thinking about my parents so much and they make sure to tell you all the stories and they do that so you carry on that fucked-up thing. Especially for Korean folks, it becomes a weird sense of connection and pride. Han.
GR: The trauma, the chosen trauma.
CC: Yeah! That really messed me up.
GR: Remember the Chilean miners who were trapped underground? They were all rescued, but after that experience, they became extremely depressed even though they were celebrated all over the world.
CC: Trauma is a weird thing. As I'm writing this essay, I'm starting to think, are my parents telling me the stories so I can fix it, or so I can carry it with me? Especially since I'm not gonna have kids, what am I supposed to do with it? The choice is to die with it, or fix it in some way to return to them. Am I supposed to say, "Here, I fixed it, you don't have to feel any of this anymore"? Or am I supposed to say, "Let's multiply it so we can feel it together"? What is my role?
GR: Regarding the past, if you had a choice, would you rather travel into the past or the future?
CC: I'd go into the past. There are certain things I want to experience again so I can pay attention to it more. I don't know about fixing mistakes, but I want to see what was avoidable.
GR: Speaking of mistakes and bad choices, white American culture has been about putting up walls and keeping people out. How can that be resolved in our national psyche?
CC: We have this mentality that's been about closing the door behind us. Like, let's keep getting to the good stuff and close the door behind us so no one else can have it.
GR: You always need someone to carry the water, though, right?
CC: Even then...
GR: What do people see in their pets?
CC: For me it's been a lot of things. The fact that my dog is happy proves that I can be good to something. Those things that aren't tangible in our faith, our spirituality, are embedded in our pets. "Ah, my dog understands! My cat is magic! I was sad an my pet knew!"
GR: Will you always write poetry?
CC: Yeah. I've been writing more essays in the last few years, but it's not my thing. I like poetry. I feel more one with it than I ever have. I always thought of it as a thing I was attempting to do but now I really feel that it's an extension of me. A big part of the way that I communicate.
GR: When you famously quit writing poetry, did it feel good or did you know immediately that it was a mistake?
CC: It felt good but I was curious how long I would last. I think at that point I had to tell myself I wasn't coming back but I'm sure deep down I knew. It was multiple things. I had burned out on readings and the book business was really weird to me.
GR: But all those things are still factors.
CC: They're still factors. You know, having a book come out at this time is just so weird. I don't know how to feel about it. "Hey, there's a Nazi in the White House, but here, buy my book!"
GR: I've been reading about "resistance" and I've come across the term "Massive Resistance," which is how the South opposed integration of its schools by closing all the white schools. It was like, "You can't integrate our white schools because they're shut down." It was a burn everything strategy.
CC: Right now, the strategy is, "We don't want all these poor brown and black people getting health care, so I'm gonna kill my health care, too. They won't get a free ride!"
GR: Let's talk about ghosts. That book that you wrote and burned, does it still exist somewhere?
GR: Has it occupied any part of your mind?
CC: I do think about it a lot but I don't know what actual thing was in the book. I remember bits of it. I can't remember the actual words but I can remember ideas that were in there.
GR: You wrote this book knowing you would burn it after people only heard it. And I'm sure not everybody made it to all the readings.
CC: There were a couple people who came to four out of the six readings. It was like this weird act of resistance. How do I keep my art from being appropriated, weaponized, and used against me and my people? By destroying it. I'm going to eat this piece of paper! You'll never get it from me! The poetry world it feels so small and insignificant but there's so much drama in it. Race, gender, elitism. All kinds of shit going on. And I see even writers of color, their work being used against other writers of color, and I don't want that to happen, so one way to do that is by destroying my work.
GR: Cut to: You in The New York Times Magazine.
CC: Right. I was curious, but I never asked what was going to go in there. They got the whole manuscript and they picked up what they wanted. That was a weird thing. Yay, New York Times, but what does it mean? What are the implications? How does this hurt me? What do I lose? All those things.
GR: You came up through classes with Jack Grapes. How does it feel now that you're a teacher and mentor to poets?
CC: I feel in over my head at times. I feel like I know how to help someone but I also don't know how to "teach." I would read all these things that Jack told me to read and I would copy the poems. That was an exercise because you can't really copy it because you have your own voice.
GR: What are your favorite toys?
CC: I think my favorite toy I ever had was The Six Million Dollar Man. You push the button in his back and his arm went like this. He had a hole in his head and a see-through eye that you could look through. We were living in Paraguay and my dad brought it back from the U.S. Had like a red jumpsuit.
GR: The show was on in Paraguay?
CC: Yeah. There were only like two channels. We had "The Hulk," "The Six Million Dollar Man," and I think "Charlie's Angels" was on. Oh also "Bionic Woman." Lotta ABBA concerts.
You can follow Chiwan Choi's activities on Twitter.
For more info on where to get Chiwan's books, click here.
Ed Lin, a native New Yorker of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, is the first author to win three Asian American Literary Awards and is an all-around standup kinda guy. His books include Waylaid, and a trilogy set in New York’s Chinatown in the 70s: This Is a Bust, Snakes Can’t Run and One Red Bastard. Ghost Month, published by Soho Crime in July 2014, is a Taipei-based mystery, and Incensed, published October 2016, continues that series.
Ed resides in Brooklyn and has been a long-time contributor to Giant Robot.