Language Is Never Static:
An Interview with Su Hwang

photo by Jeffrey Forston

by Michael Prior

Su Hwang was born in Seoul, Korea. In the 1980s, her family immigrated to New York City, where her parents ran a bodega in the Queensbridge Housing Projects; she later moved to San Francisco. Hwang now lives in the Twin Cities, where she earned her MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Currently, she teaches in the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and runs the organization Poetry Asylum, which she co-founded with Sun Yung Shin. Hwang is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the inaugural Jerome Hill Fellowship in Literature and the Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize.

Hwang’s debut collection, Bodega (Milkweed Editions, $16), recipient of the 2020 Minnesota Book Awards in poetry, poignantly considers how every interaction between people is freighted with history and tied to identity. The collection’s poems constantly return to the titular space—those small corner stores in New York City crammed with every good one can possibly imagine—where, between narrow aisles and across the counter, the tensions evoked by cultural difference, prejudice, and class simmer and sometimes boil over. “Instant Scratch Off,” “Graveyard Shift,” “Corner Store Still | Life,” and the title poem all explore these tensions, suggesting that the bodega is a politically-charged microcosm for life in the surrounding city, if not America as a whole.

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the onset of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. For an essay by Su Hwang written in the wake of these events, see here.

Michael Prior: The title poem of your collection shifts between vignettes that focus on the owners of a bodega, Mrs. and Mr. Kim; an employee, Raul; and two customers, Joseph and Sandy. The poem is written in the third person, and its perspectival oscillation seems almost novelistic—or at least a technique more easily identifiable with fiction. I read on your webpage that you were originally a fiction writer; how has that experience shaped your approach to not only Bodega’s individual poems, but also its structure overall? And how did you come to the bodega as a creative lens and structural conceit?

Su Hwang: Thank you so much, Michael, for this opportunity to talk about Bodega––it’s an incredible honor and delight.

I’m not sure I can honestly call myself a former fiction writer, rather I thought I had to write fiction to be considered a “legitimate” writer, so maybe it’s more accurate to say failed wannabe fiction writer. It’s become obvious (to me) in the last few years that I was attempting to work in the wrong genre all along. Not to say I’ll never attempt writing prose in the future, but I always struggled with the form, and it didn’t help that I lacked the discipline needed to write long narrative work on a consistent basis. I was restless and aimless, but one thing has remained consistent: my voyeuristic gaze. During pockets of inspired moments in my twenties and thirties, I started many “chapter one” folders on my computer, but soon abandoned them when I couldn’t get past a certain point in my next great American novel, constantly wrestling the obnoxious inner critic. I was living and working in NYC and Brooklyn on and off during that time, so most of my half-baked stories took place in quintessential spaces like a subway car, greasy diners, the Brooklyn Bridge, and yes, bodegas. Plot was my Achilles’ heel, yet I was pretty good at setting. I’m also a Libra, so it’s just in my nature to be relational––meaning, I’ll never stop contending with another, the ways in which we other, as well as my own otherness. I’ve always stored imagistic snapshots of the people and objects around me, and writing Bodega became an exercise to find the beauty of our collective smallness amid human hardships.

After attending my first AWP as a grad student in 2014, I left Seattle knowing the title of the book before writing a single poem. I got an intuitive hit during one of the “first book” panels and realized I could use this urban, communal space to serve as both metaphor and thematic backbone for what was to become my MFA thesis. And as a child of Korean immigrants whose parents owned a corner store, it’s also a setting I had to contend with in my writing. I didn’t know exactly what would come of the work, but I knew action and conflict were inherent in this egalitarian space where a rich white guy buying cigarettes could interact with an undocumented person of color sweeping the floor, or a college student cramming for exams could chat with a taxi driver starting his late-night shift while ordering coffee. In this place, anything was and is possible. Every interaction, conversation, observation involves at least two people, two perspectives, two histories––which creates immediate tension, a kind of narrative. I might suck at writing fiction, but I know that a good story needs to have a point of conflict regardless of genre. Fiction also allowed for the possibility for the collection to be populated by various speakers, shifting from numerous POVs, and the titular poem, which some have likened to a short play, was one of the first poems I wrote for the thesis.

In terms of structuring Bodega, I think my limited background in fiction hindered the ordering process to some degree. I was really concerned about preserving the narrative arc, so many earlier versions of the manuscript had a static, linear quality––like if this happened then this next thing must follow and so forth. Applying this logic to poetry doesn’t quite have the intended effect. Luckily, I had the privilege of having the amazing poet and fellow Milkweed Editions author Rick Barot offer his genius during the final revision phase. He instructed me to cut over twenty pages from the bloated manuscript and offered keen insights like imagining the collection as a house, and to enter and exit from different doors—namely, to start with “Instant Scratch Off” and end with “Sunchoke,” which were both buried in the manuscript. I had deemed them weaker poems, but once I bookended them like he advised, the rest of the manuscript sort of magically fell into place like some dark night of the soul. By visualizing the poems spatially and in conversation with one another three-dimensionally rather than sequentially, I was able to unearth the perfect, dynamic shape of the book. I’m forever indebted to Rick for offering me such an important key to the house of my first collection.

MP: The book begins with a letter to your parents, written in Korean; a note beneath the letter clarifies that it was translated into Korean by the poet Emily Jungmin Yoon. Could you speak to why it was important for you to position this letter as one of the first texts the reader encounters in the book? And does it, for you, relate to the book’s multi-lingual, multi-register poetics?

SH: Thank you for asking this, and a special shout-out to stunning poet Emily Jungmin Yoon for her time and labor in exquisitely translating the letter. Although I wish I could take credit for the letter’s impression and impact on the reader, the initial reason was pretty simple: I wanted to be able to communicate to my parents, for the very first time actually, the full extent of my feelings and thoughts in writing this book, and, well, being their daughter. I essentially lost my ability to speak and read Korean when we immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight years old, and my parents’ English, even now, is a work in progress, so we’ve never been able to truly express our deepest longings and fears. A lot of things have gone unsaid and will never be salvaged. I’ve joked that I didn’t want them to disown me once they got a copy of the book, but I carried a lot of anxiety and fear for many years and projected my own insecurities onto the whole enterprise. It’s never easy writing about family, and I certainly had no idea how they would respond to having the past drudged up in such a public, permanent way. I think this is a major concern for those writing about family and trauma––this inexplicable sense of guilt, worry.

The loss of language and the accumulation of missed opportunities due to miscommunication are major themes in the work, and I found it only fitting that I reserve this space solely for them. They sacrificed their own dreams and endured unimaginable suffering so my brother and I could have better lives, the least I could do was build a kind of monument within the book to thank them. It was also a letter to my extended family given the legacy of my grandfather and uncle’s work in Korean literature––I wanted a way to articulate that writing this book was an act of respect and love not only for our family but the greater diaspora. I realize now that this gesture takes on more import by the very nature of it being the first thing a reader encounters when opening up the book, but my initial motivation was completely personal. What still amazes me today is that no one at Milkweed Editions has asked to see the English version of the letter, and I really value the fact that they have honored my privacy and agency. Once I got the positioning of the untranslated translated letter approved, I realized it would act as a mirror, and the reader who cannot read Korean (like myself) can experience, even if for one second, what my parents or any immigrant continues to struggle with learning a new language while trying to survive in a country that never really welcomed them.

When I finally worked up the nerve and sent my parents a copy of the book several weeks after publication, they called me from their retirement community in Southern California, crying––proud. They were touched by the letter and in that moment, I realized that art can transcend trauma. It has to.

MP: The loss of one language and the struggle to claim another certainly haunts many of these poems. I’m thinking, too, of the intergenerational ramifications of moving to a country that presents itself as a place of welcome and “opportunity,” but whose realities starkly contradict this. Poems like “American Seismology,” “Migratory Patterns,” “The Price of Rice,” “Fault Lines,” and “Fresh off the Boat | Five Sonnets” movingly explore these traumas. In the latter, the young speaker’s parents have taken the family out to dinner at a chain restaurant; she “pretends” that her family is “royalty” until the illusion is shattered by her parents’ English:

Whenever they
asked waitresses questions in their broken
English, I’d sulk into my sticky seat—my
cheeks boiling, my claws grappling the air.

I can’t help but note how the line break after “broken” enacts the parent’s difficulties with English, the breaking of language also being the breaking of certain narratives associated with the “American Dream.”

SH: Yes, the breaking and reassembling of language as well as the flawed notion of the American Dream are major concerns of this collection, just as they have been in my life off the page. Haunt is a good word to describe it. There are so many gaps and fissures, claustrophobic fits and starts, fragments and erasures in the toll of our human stories, but how they manifested were the ways in which my parents bought into the promise of coming to America versus the reality of surviving here. I wanted the poems to enact the very issues they were trying to confront or interrogate whether through form, movement on the page, or poetic technique like metaphors and line breaks as a kind of molecular mimicry. And I don’t know about you, but nothing gives me more pleasure than a good, precise line break because you get more poetry bang for the poetry buck.

I also aimed to highlight the malleability and perceived fallibility of language especially in an immigrant household where our version of “Konglish” was the official Frankensteinian mode of communication. Oftentimes, my parents would speak to me in basic Korean and I’d respond in basic English and soon there’d be a mashup of the two to get our point across. In public, the shame of their imperfect English would puncture any semblance of normalcy or safety for a child desperate to “fit in—be non-other.” Assimilation can be a death knell for the mother tongue. In “Flushingqueens” and “Portrait of Ladymothering,” I intentionally put separate words together to create another word, however random or haphazard it may seem to the reader, because that was what it was like in my family. Language, for most of my childhood into adulthood, was at the surface level a kind of negotiation.

English is not my native language, but it’s the vehicle in which I have formed my hyphenated identity. I was eight when we moved to the U.S., so I was fluent in Korean but somehow lost it, and it’s always felt like a ghost language. I know it’s locked away somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind but I’ve never been able to access it, so yes, it’s another haunting. Growing up, I resented having to go to Korean school on weekends, which never amounted to much because my Korean never improved, but this sense of straddling two languages, two worlds has remained. What was then a burden feels like irreparable loss now. This is the trauma for the first generations of immigrants in any country––that constant vertigo of not feeling rooted anywhere, no longer there but not really here. Language, in this way, is temperamental, cruel even. I also wanted to explore my fascination with words that have no direct English translation, words that defy the language of colonizers. The “Han” sequence, “Wabi-Sabi,” and “Duende Essays” play on this idea that English is not the be-all and end-all of languages. Entire galaxies can be conjured by a word that only exists in this other language often deemed secondary to English, and I wanted to celebrate them through poetry. Yes, I realize I’m typing this in English and my book is written in English with Korean words spelled out phonetically in English, but it some small way, I wanted to honor these words that live separately from this predominant gaze, that language is never static or hierarchical.

MP: One of the poems I’ve been constantly returning to is your sestina, “Sestina of Koreatown Burning,” which deconstructs the media’s reinforcement of the model minority myth during the 1992 L.A. Riots. Form is the ultimate metaphor here, with the sestina’s cycling end-words—“glass,” “fists”, “against,” “live,” “shattered,” and “ground”— evoking the Riots. The poem movingly proposes solidarity between “Black and Korean lives,” rather than division. How did this poem find this form, and how were you thinking of the book’s formal texture as a whole? There’s a wide variety of things happening here, from sonnets to open field compositions.

SH: Bodega started out as my MFA thesis, and as a graduate student and a late bloomer relatively new to poetry, I was eager to try my hand at writing all sorts of poems, employing as much formal diversity as I could muster to flex certain poetry muscles if you will, and as a way to mirror the thematic concepts of the bodega onto the page. Just as someone can find a gamut of goods from sodas to a sewing kit walking the aisles, I wanted the reader to experience a slew of forms as they traversed the book, so as to mimic the sensation of being in a cramped corner store. Another motivation was to subvert the pejorative notion, perpetuated by mostly white poetry critics in recent years, that narrative poetry exploring “identity politics” by poets of color somehow lacks formal rigor, as if telling our individual stories seems frivolous or that it’s taking up too much precious poetry space. Fuck that. In a kind of protest, I wanted form as narrative to be one of the major threads in the book as a way to show that the two modes of writing aren’t mutually exclusive.

For me, each poem dictates the form they will eventually take as they come into being. I usually start a poem as a couplet, then it begins to take shape soon thereafter. As for “Sestina of Koreatown Burning,” I knew I wanted to write about the LA Riots since it was such a major event during my teenage years, and initially intended it to be a prose poem. But soon it became clear that the poem was reading more like a Wikipedia entry about the LA Riots than a poem about it, and realized I needed to focus on images rather than a factual retelling. Around that time, I was reading Jamaal May’s debut collection Hum and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, and I admired their incredible sestinas, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Adopting a formal application helped add much needed structural integrity to the poem and elevate it from a pedantic rant. The first line came to me as I set the scene, then the rest of the stanza followed. Once I typed out all the end words:

. . . glass
. . . fists
. . . against
. . . live
. . . shattered
. . . ground

. . . ground
. . . glass
. . . shattered
. . . fists
. . . live
. . . against

. . . and so on, it was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. I also selected some end-words that not only evoked key images but those that could take on more than one form (i.e. ground, foreground, grounds, grounding, grounded) so the lines had a little more flow. The general outline of the sestina came to me in one sitting, but I revised this poem countless times over a couple of years. I’m not sure I’ll write another sestina again, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart!

MP: I know you just got back from the book tour; has reading from the book changed your relation to it? And, it might be too soon to ask, but have you been writing anything new?

SH: First, I must profusely thank the Jerome Foundation and Milkweed Editions for making the book tour possible. Without their respective fiscal and administrative support, there would have been no way for a debut poet like me to fund such an endeavor. Although I was nervous going into each reading (and probably imbibed a little too much whiskey beforehand), I was incredibly lucky to have had incredible poets read with me, which helped dissolve any lasting anxiety. Everyone I met from booksellers to event coordinators to audience members were brilliant, kind souls. Another way I tried to ease some stress was to intentionally select cities where I have a network of good friends, so it was like a mini-homecoming in many respects.

What I couldn’t anticipate about the book tour was how I began to view the book as an organic, living thing, given how each reading had its own unique energy and direction. I found myself reading different poems, allowing me to plant myself in the present moment. In many ways it felt like an exercise in performance art, which was both terrifying and liberating in equal measure. It’s also interesting how reading from the book changes the conversation between poems. New orders were created, where in one reading I’d start with a poem from the second section and close with the opening poem, altering the relationship of the poems from the printed version. Pretty neat and totally unpredictable.

I’m learning there’s a lot of follow-up work to launching a book, so I haven’t had a lot of mental bandwidth to work on writing new stuff per se, but I am piecing some things together in my head and reading as much as I can. I started a strange, long poem at a writing residency during the summer of 2017 titled “Rooster,” and it’s unlike anything I’ve written before. I’m hoping it will serve as the foundation to my second collection, Roost—broadening the scope of my work beyond narrative and lyrical modes to interrogate metaphors of containment and long-held systems of oppression by looking at history from different cultural contexts. I’m envisioning a kind of textual collage of braided essays in verse to further investigate themes of madness, modern-day slavery through mass incarceration, prison abolition, borders, time, and witchery from a feminist, woman of color lens. We’ll see where this rabbit hole goes!

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