Offen Poetry Prize Reading by student Emily Yoon, 2.8.17


First let me thank you for coming out on such a cold evening. I’m here to introduce Emily Yoon. “Beauty is difficult,” writes Ezra Pound throughout his piece in _The Cantos_. Emily Yoon’s poems stand in the fire, water, and flood of that difficulty, of that beauty. Whether she’s remembering the misshapen sounds of English language acquisition in primary school or reshaping interviews of women forced into prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, Yoon embraces the abjection of this difficulty, of these historical wounds, without offering the reader spectacle, or re-describing the horrors and traumas for our fetishistic and readerly delight. Rather the poems recalculate and rearticulate the hard-fought territory that beauty must trudge across. And on the day of the, I’m going to say this name wrong, Gwangju Earthquake, September 12, 2016, the speaker of the poem declares that they wanted the day for love and gratitude. But something is shouting, The end is coming, the end of the world is coming. Yoon sits there and concomitantly forces us, the reader, to sit there in the desire for something like love, while the end of the world is coming. We too must face the difficulty of being betwixt, in between, of having to straddle our lives and our deaths, our security and its imminent violation. Yoon’s ability to situate herself in multiple worlds in her poems does not merely reside in aesthetic contemplations, but she also embraces the cosmopolitan orientation, the orthography of being a world citizen, of residing in an America that is rampant with police brutality while simultaneously visiting loves ones in Korea. It is this embracing of difficulty that consistently surprised and engaged me in Yoon’s poems. But Yoon’s poems are more than just powerful in their embracing and wrangling with the political. They are also profoundly rigorous in their engagement with the long tradition of poetry. She definitely moves meditations between tercet strophes and nonce forms. Her poems do not take language for granted. Often they query and disturb the stability of languages’ ability to point, to gesture towards, some secure or firm resting place of meaning. Emily Yoon was born in Busan, the Republic of Korea. Since the age of ten, she has lived in Victoria, Canada, Philadelphia, New York, and currently she lives here in Chicago. She received her BA in English and Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry, at New York University where she served as the Ward Editor for Washington Square Review and as a Star Works Fellow. She serves as Poetry Editor for The Margins, the literary magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and is a Phd student studying Korean literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Please join me in welcoming Emily Yoon. Thank you, Roger for the very kind words. I’m honored to be here and share space with everyone, especially Roger, one of my favorite poets, and I’m sure he will be one of your favorite poets after this reading. So I have ten minutes. I think I’m going to read about seven poems. I wrote this poem about a couple years ago after hearing about the sinking of Ferry Sailor in Korea, which was carrying mostly high school students. It was capsized and the government didn’t respond quickly enough to rescue those people and most of them are still underwater. And people are still protesting the incident today. News There is an article on how to eat an apple. But I am eating a pear and thinking pear in Korean is a homonym for ship or boat and stomach, how heavy sails is sink, how Seoul means ‘beyond the world’ and homonymous with the passing time, or life. It carried mostly young students on a school trip told to eat in the stomach of Seoul while the captain and crew fled Divers pulled bodies, find a boy and a girl strapped together by life, Koreans wear yellow ribbons, unburied the young dead from the salts of too quick passing life A letter pasted on a bottle atop the walls of their high school reads, I have loved you for a year So are, How did I love at seventeen. Loll the clot in my stomach Watered with tears, the pit grew, vines around my veins, and I coughed petals I surrendered and cried, I love, I love, and lived. I am sick of the smiling slices of pear The right way to eat an apple is, Top to bottom, swallow everything Waste nothing, except seeds A homonym for apple is Apology I am sorry, I say to the pears’ core, to the seeds in the sunken belly I’m working on a series of poems, all titled _An Ordinary Misfortune_. A lot of them are about the comfort women issue in Korea. I also draw from the experiences of my grandmother who lived through the colonial era and also the Korean War. And it’s a lot of women were under threat by, well, they were afraid of getting raped by the American soldiers who are there to be allies. So the first poem I’m going to read is going to be about the comfort women issue told from the voice of a former comfort woman. An Ordinary Misfortune Hunting ground with nice ghosts Clubbed raw, my body ground down You think a former comfort woman would hate the Japanese. I don’t. I hate men and I hate sex I hate the sight of my son-In-law who lives in this house. I’ve been living in a robbed house My room became unfit for children. How could I put a child in a haunted place? Nothing can grow in this blubber and blood. My husband found lovers somewhere else I found my daughters somewhere else I love them with the longing of a house no one occupies They sometimes put their hands on its creaking walls and say, What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Every door is closed Seventy years and no one knows No one who knows my past is alive Girls at the comfort stations, we were all children then An Ordinary Misfortune What is pressing? What is pressed? For who? My grandmother, a woman, a team Her father presses the gates shut Presses her into a crate, the crates into a shed, she unfolds by morning, binds her chest She walks on women An American soldier sees her and yells, Stop over there, in Japanese, the language they both learned When she runs she is unmistakeably woman She falls, he laughs What is a body in a stolen country, or whose What is right in war? What is left in war? War hasn’t left Korea. I have. I fold. I give up myself to you Which one of you said, Let’s have raunchy Korean sex, to me. Which one of you didn’t Do you represent America to me, that those soldiers to her. We didn’t fear war. We feared the allies, she said. I lived in New York for two years to do my MFA at NYU. Of course I spent a lot of time in K-Town, And one time I was walking and this musician, I guess, yelled something to me in Korean. He wasn’t Korean, but he strung together some words that he had learned, And it came out to be, “Hello, Miss Pretty Bitch.” So I wrote a poem about that. “Hello, Miss Pretty Bitch.” The street drummer calls out in Korean, no doubt thinking it a compliment, a pleasant surprise, cinched with red ribbons for Christmas, but they select theaters will Gift us with _The Interview_, a comedy in which two American journalists ignite Kim Jong Un’s face Freedom has prevailed, the film star Seth Rogen says about the release The same was thought at the time of Korea’s release from the Japanese empire Though then the Korean War happened and compared to war, what’s so bad about a movie Anyway even war can be funny, and now a drummer in New York says you got a smile that could light up the whole town Though I’m not smiling Thinking about villages and cities of what became North Korea set on fire Sending puddles of twilight into sunless skies as the flames had stabbed, but his freedom of speech prevails Freedom always prevails which is why we get to see two Americans incinerate a Korean face on Christmas Hold our popcorn and chocolate bars and laugh as the dictator explodes in tune to a pop song, laugh as American soldiers would laugh at Korean children chanting “Hello, hello, give me chocolate with wartime thunder.” Laugh as they choose which face to light up I’ll finish with three of my newest poems. So I moved to Canada when I was ten, almost eleven, and I was made fun of a lot for pronouncing things wrong, or not knowing words, all that jazz, and one of the cruelest people in my class, in my French class, his name was Spencer Crane. I still remember. Yeah, he harassed me every day and tried to pair me up with this Chinese Canadian boy in our class, and it’s pretty awful, but I got a poem out of it. Bell Theory When as a child I was laughed at for my clumsy English I touched my throat. My throat said ear when my ear said year, and year after year I pronounced something wrong and other throats laughed Bells Vibrated in their mouths Elevator Library I learned to speak again with my eyes how to read the English names of flowers, how to say azalea How to say for forscythia Say instead golden bells, say I’m in ESL. In French class, named Cring called me Bell. Called me by my Korean name Pronouncing it wrong, called it loudly, called attention to the alien in me I touched the globe moving in my throat, a hemisphere sinking He called me across the field lined with golden bells. I wanted to run and be loved at the same time by Cring, as in ring of people Where are you going, we’re laughing with you The bell in our throat that rings with laughter is called the uvula, from uva. Grape A theory Special to our species, this great bell has to do with speech which separates us from animals They looked at me and said, Just curious, do you eat dogs, and I wanted to end my small life Be reborn a golden retriever of North America, lie on a field lined with golden bells loved Today in a country where dogs are more cherished than children An Oregon Senate candidate says no to refugees, says years ago Vietnamese refugees ate dogs Harvested other people’s pets Harvest as in harvest grapes Harvest as in harvest a field of golden rice as they do in rice countries, as they do in people eat dog world Years ago 1923 Japan, the phrase, Gyugo en kojit sen, was used to distinguish Koreans from the Japanese 15 yen 50 sen To distinguish the Koreans who use the chaos of the Canto Earthquake to poison waters, set fire A cruelty special to our species How to say Gyugo, how to say Kojit, how Gyugp Sounds like ‘die’ in Korean, how Kojit sounds like ‘lie.’ Lie, lie Library, azalea Library, I’m going to the library, I lied years ago on a field lined with forscythia Time, in Wales Our legs with yellow skin, next to one another Couched, spread, I think of beached whales, the arcs of their bellies clean and gleaming A whale would lie in the shape of something cold, the body sipping itself like a drain Gravity sucks a whole whale onto sand You study Korean whispering, Muro de da, muro de da Meaning, literally, water rises, but really meaning to improve or rise in sap In springtime trees Come spring it will be your birthday. We will have seaweed soup, supply our blood with oxygen, Do you know that Koreans do that because hundreds of years passed, they saw whales eating seaweed after giving birth You cross your legs, their hair black and coarse like my father’s and my Grandfather’s, an ocean away, and do you know that whales have hair Perhaps the sign of their past when they walked the earth Summer of twenty-eight Years past your father crossed the same ocean to bring you to America where you would grow up speaking a language Different from mine. Do you know that whales too detect where one another comes from through song The music of your Korean says Muro de da, Muro de da Water rises. Whales die in this year’s hot winter Your father has told you of the summer, the dank heat Your foster mother ran after you asleep and in your father’s arms Wailing your name You will not be called by that name the next day and years will pass by But when you’re ten you will write about that story and spell Whale as the animal whose breath is a distance Spouting steam, the great animal that becomes crushed by air and sprayed with words, man’s faults And so perhaps the world will end in water Taking with it all loving things, only grace, only song, only buoyancy You rise now, whispering Bu dur lee da Bu dur lee da Meaning literally to raise water But really meaning to bring water to a boil. On the day of the Gyeongju Earthquake September 12 2016 All I want to think about Is love and gratitude. On the escalator in Busan Station Having put you on the train back to tower Avoiding the eyes of the doomsayer on the staircase Next to my descending steps as he screams death upon those who don’t accept God The end is coming so come to church, or the earth will split open to swallow you and you won’t be saved He spits a different miracle on each face God slits the sea down, the woman behind me, flame bursts into the world and water feels it, then overflows It is not that I don’t fear water and fire It is not that I don’t believe in God We already kill and die with water and fire An ocean away the police will shoot Parents crush her and Keith Lamont Scott and it will not be the end And here Beng Nambi will die from a water cannon and none of this was for not believing in the right power which is God The doomsayer says, We must surrender, and he is sure of this Across the station, windows of love motels light up, bend in, as lovers enter the room empty for empty Into each other The end of summer is coming. I have now walked far away from the man It is not that I don’t believe in God. For once all I want is to think about love and gratitude Thank God for all our lives When the earth begins to tremble I look back to the station already emptied of your train No one will die from this, not today, not today but people embrace touch each other by the wrist, by instinct The man stands alone, like me, his arms lifted. Perhaps in surrender. Perhaps in gratitude. Thank you.

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