Su Hwang Q&A

April 25, 2022
Su Hwang isn't afraid to work on a poem for years.

“I subscribe to the notion that writing happens by osmosis, like when listening to music or reading or communing with nature or art. Observing and taking mental snapshots are critical elements to my writing process. Drafting usually happens when I hear the first line  — sometimes walking the dog, sometimes in the shower, for example — then the poem starts to take shape over a period of time. I tinker with it, sometimes for years, until I feel like the poem is done. I liken my process to sculpting marble: starting with an unformed slab then chiseling and whittling away until the poem that wants to emerge, emerges.”

Your grandfather was a renowned literary figure in Korea. Did his legacy create pressure for you?

My grandfather remains a larger than life figure in my life — I only saw him once after my family immigrated to the United States in 1982 when I was eight years old, before he passed away in 2000 — but I don’t think I realized how important he was in the context of modern Korean letters — post Japanese occupation — until I visited Korea in the summer of 2015 on a travel grant to his literary museum and outdoor park called Sonagi Village, which is based on the title of one of his most famous short stories, built in his honor outside of Seoul. None of the exhibits were translated into English, so I couldn’t fully comprehend it all, but to be in that space and see the breadth of what was on display made me deeply proud and truly in awe.

I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge his very long shadow as an aspiring writer, but I believe my active and annoying inner critic would’ve been a part of my internal makeup with or without my grandfather’s legacy. When it comes to writing, I’m a perfectionist, often to my detriment. It’s also a strange dynamic: as a daughter of immigrants making ends meet, no one here really knows or seems to care who my grandfather was, and my parents didn’t necessarily encourage the arts. They definitely didn’t push it, and would have much preferred if I had set my sights on something more practical, secure. Things are better now, but there were many years when my parents wondered what the hell I was doing with my life.

You started out writing fiction before switching to poetry in your mid-30s. What was that moment like when poetry clicked for you?

Hindsight is 20-20, but it was definitely surreal, and to be honest, a sweet relief. I struggled with writing for so long because I was working with the wrong form the entire time, so when poetry found me, it was like everything clicked into place. Maybe the best analogy is begrudgingly taking classical piano lessons for decades only to find out later that you can shred on an electric guitar and rock n’ roll is in your soul. I was really close to giving up the writer’s life, and even started thinking about applying to graduate school for social work before a series of serendipitous events pointed me down this path.

You’ve said that writing for you is 25 percent inspiration and 75 percent revision. Do you have rituals?

I’ve had my share of gift poems, those that come out fully formed in one sitting, but these are quite rare, and the majority of my time is usually spent in deep revision. I wish I had rituals to help me write, but there’s no rhyme or reason to my process. I kind of go with the flow, and don’t necessarily write every day. In fact, I subscribe to the notion that writing happens by osmosis, like when listening to music or reading or communing with nature or art. Observing and taking mental snapshots are critical elements to my writing process. Drafting usually happens when I hear the first line — sometimes walking the dog, sometimes in the shower, for example — then the poem starts to take shape over a period of time. I tinker with it, sometimes for years, until I feel like the poem is done. I liken my process to sculpting marble: starting with an unformed slab then chiseling and whittling away until the poem that wants to emerge, emerges.

You’ve said that literary academia is an extension of white supremacy and empire. What can poetry lovers do to encourage greater representation of BIPOC authors?

The easiest way to amplify and support BIPOC authors is to buy our books, or check them out of the library, and/or attend readings and literary events, and share with your circle of friends and family. There’s nothing more meaningful than getting a reading recommendation from a trusted source or gifted books, in my opinion. If you have a social media platform, posting your favorite books or pieces of writing is also effective in getting the word out and introducing more people to new, underrepresented voices. And for those in positions to teach, featuring living poets in school curricula is also invaluable to greater representation.

You started Poetry Asylum with fellow poet Sun Young Shin to create diverse platforms outside privileged spaces to experience poetry. How is that being received?

When we first got together in late 2017, we hosted several events and collaborations that had a fair amount of support and enthusiasm from the community, but the pandemic has since halted most of our efforts. We are still metabolizing the trauma of the last few years — Trump, Covid-19, rise of anti-Asian violence, etc. — and our limited bandwidth is focused on personal creative projects. As of now, we are using the Poetry Asylum social media space, however sparingly, to promote virtual collaborations and amplify the work of other BIPOC artists and groups.

I love your poem “Sestina of Koreatown Burning,” which examines media coverage of the 1992 L.A. riots. You infuse your work with social commentary and your voice rings out like Claudia Rankine. Who do you read that inspires you?

It was a tough poem to write. I wanted to address the “riots” directly in the book, but my first few drafts read like Wikipedia entries rather than a poetic examination. I eventually decided that employing a traditional poetic form would help create a kind of container for the images and ideas I wanted to express; sometimes literary parameters can be freeing. The cycling repetition of the sestina felt like it would work well with the content, so I drafted the poem in an afternoon, but revised it for over two years.

To be looped in with someone like Claudia Rankine is a tremendous honor. My reading list is ever-growing-evolving, but the remarkable poets that immediately come to mind are Tracy K. Smith, Patricia Smith, Sonia Sanchez, Joy Harjo, Solmaz Sharif, John Murillo, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, and locally, Sun Yung Shin, Douglas Kearney, Danez Smith, and Michael Kleber-Diggs, just to name a few.

Is it true you can find the best sandwiches in New York at bodegas?

It’s been many moons since I’ve lived in New York, and there are lots of places where you can get amazing sandwiches these days, but I still have fond memories of getting the best breakfast sandwiches at my local bodega when I lived there in my 20s. Bacon, when I used to eat meat, egg and cheese on a roll with a cup of coffee was my go-to morning ritual for many years. Bodegas are like fingerprints, each one is unique, so one may offer amazing sandwiches, and another, not so much. J

What is next for you?

I was recently promoted to Outreach Manager with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, so I will continue to amplify our students’ voices with this small but mighty organization. As for my own writing, 2020 was a difficult year for obvious reasons. Besides writing one essay after George Floyd’s murder that was anthologized in There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love, edited by Tracy K. Smith and John Freeman, I couldn’t bring myself to write anything else. Luckily, I had a creative burst last summer and have been steadily writing and revising since, so I’m currently working on my second poetry collection titled Roost. It’s a radical departure from Bodega in terms of content and style, but I’m excited by the trajectory of these poems, and inspired by all the random rabbit holes.

Photo by Jeffrey Fortson