By Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: Paper Pavilion (White Pine Press, 2007) includes much obliquely and directly articulated thematization of adoption’s contexts as effacement, as a profoundly sad absence: “Father’s name: No Records. Mother’s Name: No Records./ Father’s residence: No Records. Mother’s Residence: No Records” (“Face Sheet,” 65). For an infant, born in Korea in 1970 or 1976 or whenever and whisked over to the U.S. at a very young age, this seems to involve a pre-emption of the forming of cultural location in a motherland rather than the cultural dislocation experienced by someone a bit older. First, am I on the right track? And if so, how do your various formal choices reflect effacement, absence, pre-emption?
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs: Yes, you are noting some of the cultural particularities of transnational adoption that are tricky and challenging! From the very beginning of the book’s conceptualization eight years ago, I realized that I would need to depart from conventions of cultural dislocation and minority identity, because I am not a native speaker as in Chang Rae Lee, an author whom I very much admire, and nothing is known for certain about my background. Yet at the same time, I wanted to enact the kind of loss and longing that some of the post-war Korean adoptee Diaspora feel and that appears in world literature as far reaching as the Book of Exodus (Moses, perhaps the first Biblical adoptee, named for his adoptive mother’s act of adoption, “I drew from the river.”) to C. Collodi’s Pinocchio, which is predicated upon a puppet’s search to become a real boy. This desire—emerging from effacement, absence, and pre-emption—has less to do with curiosity about one’s identity and more to do with our profoundly human need for narrative: Where do I come from? Who am I? As Horace in Ars Poetica says, “Man can do nothing without the make believe of a beginning,” the act of imagining one’s beginnings makes possible other actions. So while writing the book, I was conscious of the fact that my questions were shared by, or at least emerged from, a transnational diasporic community, which has roots in the Korean War, and that these questions were not ours alone. Questions of home, origins, nation, community, kinship, history, art, language, as well as my interest in a variety of voices (not just my own) led me toward the epic as a way to enact the overall thrust of the book—it occurs in medias res, in the midst of a war that has never officially ended, in the middle of an adoptive landscape, in the middle and repeating that middle again and again without a beginning. Though longing for a narrative is palpable, it’s not the form of the book, which within an epic frame employs the lyric in a variety of forms that begin from uncertainty grasping after fact only to be thwarted—a kind of positive capability!
TF: “Homage to the DMZ” is a remarkably cogent and imagistically intense response to an exceedingly tangible, horrible “trace” of the Korean War and its continuation. Could you talk about that poem in light of what you’re saying about the book’s big questions?
JKD: Some poems teach you how to write them. This one did, and its lessons for which I’m grateful were over the course of many years. During my studies in Pittsburgh, I read Thomas Park Clement’s The Unforgotten War, an autobiography beginning with his earliest memories as a young boy surviving air raids during the Korean War. In thinking through a Diaspora’s orientation toward history, I realized that within a Diaspora, there are multiple ways in which the war, as an unspeakable, affects memory. What we are unable to remember, cannot or refuse to remember, what survives as a rumor or trace that we carry in our names (misspelled as Rhee, Lee, Ree or Li or renamed as Connor or Lisa), or what is lost and irretrievable due to bureaucracies or fear of information that might put pressure on an adoptive bond can nonetheless trigger a lyric, particularly if the I/persona is seeking to become more manifest, more present in the midst of forces stationed at the 38th parallel that continue to this day to sever kinship bonds (busses of relatives who have not seen each other since the Korean War meeting at the DMZ for an hour to reunite, birth families coming together on talk shows with an adult adoptee to do the same). Because of this division—be it the DMZ or even an ocean separating one from a birth family—there is, of course, the argument that one no longer has a right to claim those who have relinquished him or her, or that because of a lack of memory or experience, one’s bonds have been dissolved. I knew that in writing “Homage to the DMZ” I was transgressing this argument, which is western in its view of kinship and perpetuates the myth that children arrive to an adopting nation tabula rasa and therefore without context. To pay homage is not the same as to remember (of course I cannot), but rather to acknowledge in a felt manner why I cannot remember. A lack of information is also an inheritance, and embodying it fully means going back to the Korean War, which triggered adoption in the first place.
TF: Wasn’t the Korean War triggered by the emergence of the Cold War—that is, the U.S. and the Soviet Union essentially created a civil war through their incursions into Korea’s political life? Aren’t you in the position of being the citizen of a country that helped create the situation that sent you to the U.S.? And does this, perhaps indirectly, come into the poetry?
JKD: Oddly, the Korean War paradoxically is remembered in the U.S. as the Forgotten War, though it set the stage for Vietnam, which is seared in a generation’s memory and sense of itself. Poets—such as Phillip Levine, C.K. Williams (in his earliest work), Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and many more—responded to the challenges that you’re asking about with respect to Vietnam, and we see poets now grappling with the same question: How to take language back from its misuses—war being the most devastating, if there is a hierarchy—to restore it in the way only poetry can in order to forge peace, not merely to cease fire and partition an ancient nation? How might poets—how might people—take silence back from complicity or terror in its original sense, and allow it to be a generative gesture, one that gives form and connects? How to refuse this institutionalized aesthetic of despair and death? The intolerable situation of being a citizen of a super power is that wars are waged in your name and that others—incursions, covert operations, maneuvers intending to deter, even cultural genocide in, for example, Tibet—are prosecuted without full disclosure or transparency. Poetry has the power to rename, to give witness, to ignore, and to forget—as well—the most awful yet painfully subtle language that has been introduced to our vocabulary—the final solution, for example. What we choose to forget, inasmuch as what we choose to remember, is also a response to pain. In writing through this forgetfulness—both a U.S. one with respect to the Korean/Forgotten War and the Korean one that emerged through much greater poverty and was therefore forced to place me at the orphanage’s gate—I do not feel torn. It’s always a fear, I think, on the part of the U.S. to wonder whether its immigrants are truly loyal, and this xenophobia shows in tying eligibility to U.S. soil. That’s why naturalized citizens aren’t allowed to run for president, why adoptees are prohibited from sponsoring their birth parents’ immigration to the U.S. (another yellow peril race quota), and in poetry, why some fellowships—such as the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship—stipulate that only those born on U.S. soil need apply. It’s interesting to think that our current poet laureate, Charles Simic, can’t be president or receive some of poetry’s most prestigious fellowships, yet he may be the U.S. poet laureate.
TF: If Keats’s negative capability entails the acceptance of uncertainty, then how does “grasping after fact” in “positive capability” manage the negativity of the thwarting?
JKD: If a lyric is a moment recollected in tranquility (or an emergency as Frank O’Hara suggested) among its many definitions, then for an author writing from the position of Diaspora, it is an unspeakable moment re-collected in relative security. Seeking to grasp after a possible fact, to collect them for some kind of syntax only to witness the syntax break apart due to the pressure of infinite possibility is a crippling experience and an artistic challenge. So the act of this breaking becomes the poem, otherwise there is no language, no voice. This process is most apparent in my poem, “In Medias Res,” which emerged during my reading of Henri Michaux. It builds chronologically then reaches a breaking point (“Every device wants a vertebrae and a staircase to descend with applause for small accomplishments.”) in order to descend toward zero, which I imagine is the ineffable hollow of my birth mother’s ear. The poem always goes back to silence in my context, but that silence is not the same as the first. As I say in “Elysian Field,” “You still afraid of absence and myth/ my silence does not mean that I’ve disappeared” (92).
TF: After such a sustained encounter with the ineffable, with the descent “toward zero” that much of this first collection entails, I imagine that the poems that are following must be a distinct departure. What can you tell us about your next full-scale poetic project?
JKD: Just where can you go afterward, right? I’m actually returning to the beginning before the beginning, as it were. The poems that I’m presently writing are obsessed in a secular way with the opening lines of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said…” Before this “then” exists an entire world, one that’s neither primordial nor unformed. It has dimensions—length (face) and depth (deep)—shape (waters), and movement (“wind from God swept”). So the earth had a form, though the writer says it’s “a formless void.” Therein lies a contradiction, one that I want to know more about and that I think has something to with the act of creation, itself. From contradiction, something else emerges. Perhaps someone lost the war, and a new order emerged? I’m not sure, but why must creation be predicated upon a world falling and then God said…? In the U.S., hunting has long been a metaphor for our national identity—not just whale hunting, but also our present hunt for darkness, for the architect of terror. Like many poets right now, I’ve turned toward the epic out of necessity, but I feel uncomfortable with the role of witness. War, after all, created my life as a transnational adoptee, sent my adoptive father to Vietnam and stole his youth, and currently recruits my students on campus. So I don’t feel an epic distance. I suppose the next book, which is swirling around in my head, is asking about the nature of creation as connected to epic violence, and it’s reaching into Ur texts such as the Genesis story and Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well as foundational ones for the U.S. like Thoreau’s papers praising hunters. However this second book turns out, it will seem disconnected from Paper Pavilion, even though it will be a continuation of the first book’s obsessions yet in different forms.
TF: In Paper Pavilion how would you characterize the task of addressing different readerships? (The titles of one set of poems, the “Letters to Oklahoma,” explicitly raise this issue.) For example, do you feel that the Korean American reader is solicited differently than the Korean one or a reader born in the U.S. who is not Korean, or that an adoptee is approached differently than someone raised by his/her own parents?
JKD: The set of poems that you point toward definitely has a reader in mind—the austere emptiness and largesse of Oklahoma sky. In Oklahoma, conversation about the weather is sincere and always animated, because as the saying goes, “You never know what you’re going to get!” So the persona is trying to read the sky reading the persona. Frankly, I don’t see myself as a facilitator of dialogue across cultural tribes demarcated by the DMZ, U.S. regional and state lines, ethnic categories, or kinship bonds. If the book accomplishes this ambitious agenda, then it has done more than I would’ve hoped for. My intentions were far more modest. While writing the book, I realized that I was using languages—Italian, Spanish, Korean, English, Japanese—and idioms within English in order to get to the language that the book required to enact its search in the direction of home. Yet given that all of these languages make this search possible, it’s clear that home is everything and everyone, not one place that we’re able to retrieve and identify or one person. I wanted to write from identity as an assumption, not toward identity as a question. My question ending the first poem is, “While they remain, how may I begin?” So how does one move in the direction of home? This question, I feel, is universal yet has permutations that complicate what home is and what it means. Whose homes are destroyed so that others may be built? After the levees broke, whose homes are being rebuilt while others are left to dilapidation? While the soldiers in Iraq remain, how might the U.S. begin to grieve for its dead? It’s my hope that I’ve phrased the particular in such a way that all readers might be able to connect their variations to the larger questions motivating my book. I suppose audience, for me, is open-ended. I think at times we choose audiences in order to get to a language that may speak to everyone, yet to begin with this intention oftentimes sands the rock too smoothly such that it leaves no impression in the hand that grasped it. We all want that impression, I think. We want to look at our hands in awe.
TF: You started as a Miltonist, and it turns out you wrote your own version of Lycidas. But you are a woman writing a poem about a male student who died young—one, who unlike Edward King, seems to have killed himself. How would you assess the influence of gender differences in the contrast between your Lycidas and Milton?
JKD: Milton, as you mentioned, was an early influence on me, specifically his vigorous line containing the cosmos—angels, devils, God, Satan, spheres, nothingness—and all the vegetation and animals you might imagine including the human and every sense of time imaginable—chaos, creation, the fall, the apocalypse, and redemption. Yet prior to becoming the blind seer and our Homer in English, Milton was a fair-haired youth studying the classics at Cambridge and good friends and honorable rivals with Edward King, a poet whom we no longer remember except as Milton's Lycidas. King’s schoolmates and friends mourned his death by shipwreck (off Ireland’s coast, I think) and wrote a collection of poems in classical languages plus English, and Lycidas was Milton’s contribution. I am certainly no Milton, nor is my poem for Daniel part of a larger work gathered together to bury a friend whose body will never be found. It was found, but by whom, I don’t know. Whoever it was told someone else, and word traveled from Oklahoma to Pittsburgh and then to me. This word triggered the poem, as well as the awful revelation that a poet—one with such intense promise—had died from sorrow. It’s a poem for a young poet, who was an Army ranger and experienced terrible events many of which were covert operations during the 90s. Daniel and I were not rivals either. Instead, we were both circumstantially connected by way of landscape (Oklahoma), the same teachers and workshops, a deep love for poetry, and—though we never talked about it, yet I read it in his work—a high-stakes search for a language that was necessary, truly necessary. So we admired one another from a distance, one that I didn’t attempt to shorten. Daniel was not well liked due to his effusive excitement about poetry that, at times, created an awkward impression. Regardless, I failed Daniel as a friend. Or maybe that’s bunk, because Daniel failed himself, and that’s the bottom line. I’m not sure, but what I do know is that Daniel’s manuscript, Red Cracked Earth, is beautiful, hard-earned work. I hope not to have failed his poetry or the process by which he created it. So in writing “Elegy for Daniel,” I sought to do what only a poet can do for another, which is to remember the fellow poet’s vision in a poem. The poems written now for soldiers who are returning from Iraq—whose bodies have been burned or damaged in some other violent way, or for those who have not returned because their bodies are missing—are perhaps all attempts to come to terms with that violence. Daniel’s poetry, for me, is among the very best which includes [Sigfried] Sassoon, [Yusef] Komunyakaa, and, most recently, [Brian] Turner. I suppose it’s tempting to think of myself as a woman burying a soldier, but in life that wouldn’t be true nor in the poem. I wish I could mythologize him, but that’s just not my style.
TF: As we can see from “Libretto” and “The Hidden Aria,” opera is very important to you, and “Painted Fire” is an ekphrastic poem about the work of the Korean painter Ohwon, who was the subject of a movie, and of the kisaeng (women artists) who, in essence, collaborated with him. Could you speak about your sense of the presence of opera and visual art in your poetry?
JKD: From opera, I learned how a single voice might reach through a spectacle of sound, light, costume, movement, and staging to touch a person standing in the very back of the auditorium. An aria, I think, has this power, and an aria is foremost the human voice singing in a moment of intense feeling and revelation. The poem, “Libretto,” that you mentioned draws upon my experience seeing and listening to opera for the first time as a child growing up in Oklahoma and mistaking Cio-Cio-San, the soprano in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, as a kind of birth mother, but realizing my error is driven by longing. Of course, much has been written about this opera in terms of identity politics, but for me, the opera’s power lies in its intimacy, not so much in its spectacular presentation. This intimacy is both the danger and the beauty of opera. The intense vulnerability of Puccini’s sopranos all dying in the most violent ways possible—Tosca leaping to her death, for instance—reveals the quality of this song (it's all or nothing, right?) and provides bread and butter for many an opera house.
The image is oftentimes the site of enactment within a poem such that lines, at times, string together images in elliptical exhalation or break apart for ecstatic fragments that almost sound like Middle English to my ear. The image in visual art—its very composition as shown in brush strokes, knife or handle scrapes, drips, sprays, tape, shadow, among other possibilities—defies what we’re able to do on the page as poets, but nonetheless instructs us to think beyond representation or even enactment. We might think instead in terms of experience—textures, absences, apertures, disjunctions, rubbings, and collage—so that how we create the image, or even how the image evades our creation, acts as a kind of knowing. While writing Paper Pavilion, I lacked received or inherited images—my mother’s face, my father’s hair—and so was conscious of the process of creating yet tearing apart images that were speculative, inauthentic, and provisional—my mother’s face, my father’s hair—such that after ruining these images only an absence remained, and it had a truth to it. The process of ripping the image in half therefore made possible a kind of knowing, or felt insight. I suppose Cio-Cio-San is such an image, but still her voice, her song.
Thomas Fink’s fifth book of poetry, Clarity and Other Poems, was published by Marsh Hawk Press in Spring, 2008. A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism. In 2007, he and Joseph Lease co-edited “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics. Heather McHugh and David Lehman selected his poem, “Yinglish Strophes IX,” for The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). His paintings hang in various collections.