David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is the cross genre writer and artist, a writer of poetry, prose hybrid and multimedia works, Mary-Kim Arnold. Arnold has a BA in English and American Literature and an MFA in Fiction from Brown University. She also has an MFA in Poetry from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. After working in the world of nonprofit administration, most notably as Director of The Rhode Island Council of Humanities, Arnold now teaches in the nonfiction writing program at Brown and in The Newport MFA low residency program. Arnold succeeded Roxane Gay as the Essays Editor at The Rumpus and now serves on their Advisory Board. She is also the Special Projects Editor for Essay Press and she co-chairs the Board of Directors for the feminist art collective, The Dirt Palace. Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, The Georgia Review, Hyperallergic, Tupelo Quarterly and elsewhere. She’s also the author of several early touchstone pieces of hypertext fiction, hosted at Eastgate Systems and for a time played base in the band WORKING. Mary-Kim Arnold is the Author of Litany for the Long Moment, a book-length experimental memoir, an extended lyric essay, and a work of image text about her failed search for her Korean birth mother. Litany for the Long Moment was winner of the 2016 Essay Press prize, honored by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association named A Best of 2018 by Entropy Magazine, included in the NPR Code Switch 2018 Book Guide and was a finalist for the 2018 Chautauqua Janus Prize for Formal and Aesthetic Innovation. She’s also the author of the chapbook from Artifact Press, Between Night and Night, and was co-editor of the anthology Mixed Korean: Our Stories. Mary-Kim Arnold is here today on Between The Covers to talk about her latest book, her poetry collection from Noemi Press called The Fish & the Dove, a Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection. Publishers Weekly says in its starred review, “The Fish & the Dove interrogates identity and received modes of storytelling. A series of linked lyric pieces unfolds into fragments and visual experiments with gray scale, palimpsest, and erasure. For Arnold, the question of who has the agency to chronicle—and erase—history looms. Arnold proves as self-aware as she is subtle, gesturing to the performative quality of her language, and reminding the reader of its politically charged intent. This book is a rare achievement, and Arnold is an exciting voice in contemporary poetry.” Brandon Shimoda adds, “The shadow cast by the reflection, and the feeling, of looking into a mirror at oneself not only with one’s own eyes but with the eyes of another, especially the compounded eyes of many uninvited others—all threatening to disappear, but not leave—is long, bottomless, and engulfing. And yet in it exists The Fish & The Dove, and the vigilant, avenging poetics of (Saint) Mary-Kim Arnold. I feel, reading this liberatory book, the shattering of that precarious mirror, and, in the reconstitution of its shards, the reclamation of the life—the lives—it held under, faring forward.” Finally, Diana Khoi Nguyen says, “In The Fish & The Dove, Mary-Kim Arnold’s lyrical scope sweeps across intersecting terrains, moving through time to capture the history of occupation and legacy war in Korea, through the delicate tethers between biological mother, adoptive mother, motherland and daughter, and through the permeable membranes which exist between person and place; here, we follow an adopted Korean-born speaker from ‘American Girlhood’ through womanhood and motherhood, witnessing what it means to be a woman in this world. ‘No war is forgotten to those who lived through it,’ Arnold writes, and with this fiercely tender offering, she lays bare multiple wars: ones between countries, in memory, within a family, as well as the ones between women and men. Through persona and self-portraiture, as well as found language, Arnold has masterfully crafted a searing account of personal history unflinchingly situated within fraught contexts. ‘[T]ime is a robe stitched through with ash’ that Arnold keeps ‘trying to shake off.’ And it is an astonishing sight to behold.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Mary-Kim Arnold.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Thank you so much for having me, David.
DN: When I think about this introduction and look over your career, one that includes poetry, prose, image text, hypertext, video, visual art with both fabric and Korean paper making techniques. It’s obvious to me that there’s something that attracts you to a cross genre and multimedia creations. It turns out you’ve actually thought and written a lot about hybrid art, both within the books themselves but also in essays outside of them. I was hoping maybe we could start with the form for you, if you consider it a form, if you could speak to hybridity and why you’re drawn to creating works that either are sitting in between a space or in a space of dialogue between different things.
MA: I think of myself as a hybrid creature in many ways. Even in my professional life, I’ve often sat at the interstitial places between institutions and organizations. In terms of the work itself, I often think that the categories are not so much about the way the work or the creative impulse arises but a way to talk about it after it’s done, and most often, that’s in a certain way to market it or describe it. I often talk with my students about that it’s maybe not as important to think about those things in the creation of it but to follow the impulse and to leave it open to experiment. I think the other piece of it in terms of my own practice is that I find that I will deal with a lot of the same subject matter or a lot of related subject matter in different forms, mostly as a way to constantly test it to get at something maybe that’s truer, different, more nuanced, or more complicated. I think of the practice as just a series of experiments and I’m really interested in seeing what changes between and among forms.
DN: In your essay, Leave The Bodies On The Ground notes on form where you write about different notions of hybridity, you talk about how it was when the writer, Carol Mesa, who was your teacher that it was when she gave you Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée that your interest in hybridity found a name. I was hoping maybe you could talk to us a little bit about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée and her as a figure and artist in general but also in the ways in which you feel like you found a whether a lineage or a way to orient yourself to history of the work that yourself felt compelled to do.
MA: Sure. I guess I should say too that when I was doing the program in fiction, creative nonfiction or nonfiction the way we think about it now, the essay the way we think about it now wasn’t really a genre in the way it is named now, at least, not in institutional settings. Fiction seemed like an appropriate home for what I was doing because it seemed it could accommodate a lot of experimentation and particularly, at Brown, and the teachers that I had worked with. I was writing a lot of fragments and having a lot of trouble developing an overarching narrative telling a straightforward story and when I saw Dictée—first of all, just the book itself, the way it looked as a book, it was so revelatory because it seemed to capture some of the energy that I was trying to get at in my own work that these stops and starts, these bits of information that were brought together from different sources. I think Dictée was the first work by a Korean-American woman that I had encountered in my entire career and this was in graduate school. That, in itself, I think is telling about my own exposure and it made a lot seem possible. It made addressing the gaps and silences in Korean-ness in my own experience of Korean-ness and my own understanding of Korean-ness seem like it was possible to include in a work. It made fragments seem possible. It made certain kinds of juxtapositions and resistances, rejecting of closure, keeping something open-ended, that was all incredibly compelling to me. Then, of course, Cha’s own story as a Korean-American immigrant who her family first settled in the Bay Area and she went to a Catholic school and learned French dictation, all of which had resonance for my own experience, my high school French classes and my Catholic school upbringing. There seemed to be these resonances as well and, of course, I think many of us who are familiar with the work know now that she had just moved to New York. Her career was at a point of momentum when she moved to New York and she was raped and murdered by a security guard in the building where her husband was working and that story, of course, spoke to a lot of things about being a woman, being an Asian woman, being vulnerable in those ways and also is a story about a life ruptured and a woman who’s not able to narrate her own story ultimately.
DN: One of the other echoes that I see between Dictée and The Fish & the Dove is that Dictée engages with Greek mythology as a way. It organizes itself. Here in your poetry collection, we have a figure from both Assyrian mythology and history, Semiramis. Her story is something that informs the title of the book and also the way you open the book and it reappears throughout the book, not as the only element but certainly as one of the several primary elements. Semiramis also, herself, has a hybrid origin. I was hoping maybe before we start going into the poems and into the collection, you’ve oriented us a little bit to Dictée, if you could orient us to Semiramis and why you felt attracted to bring this Assyrian figure into the book as one of its major influences.
MA: I think I first came across the figure of Semiramis, I was looking for ancient mythologies and Korean mythologies, and in the way that the internet pops up all sorts of things, I came across Semiramis. I was taken by the fact that she was also an orphan. The first element of it was just as an orphan, and then as you point out, this hybridity, the mythology around her is that her mother was a fish goddess and she was the product of a goddess and a mortal man. I should back up by saying that she is a historical figure who lived, but there has also been a great deal of mythologizing around her. Part of what interested me about that and the mythologies that arose around her was that as a woman leader of the Assyrian empire, there are accounts that she was very successful and she ruled at the height of the empire’s power. It seemed to me in the reading that I did that the fact of her being so successful was so challenging for historians to contextualize or to understand that, at least, in my mind, the writing about her dissolved into this mythology because the mental gymnastics of actually having a successful woman leader was so difficult and so problematic. That was part of what drew me to this story. Then, of course, when she takes on this orphan hybrid character and that figure too, seemed very compelling as a starting point for some of the things that I was already thinking about.
DN: The hybridity isn’t just the fish goddess with a mortal man but her biological mother in the mythology is the fish goddess but then she’s raised by doves.
MA: Right. Yes.
DN: So we have another level of hybrid identity there too. I was hoping we could hear Self-Portrait as Semiramis, and then if you’re open to it, follow that with a Legacy.
[Mary-Kim Arnold reads a poem called Self-Portrait as Semiramis]
[Mary-Kim Arnold reads a poem called Legacy]
DN: We’ve been listening to Mary-Kim Arnold read from The Fish & the Dove. Is this second poem, Legacy, inspired by the short story by Kanai Mieko, Rabbits?
DN: Can you tell us about that story and how it’s finding its place in the collection?
MA: It’s a story that I read as a student, as an undergrad, and it haunted me. They’re just these moments that stay with me from art and literature and this was just one of those moments, I couldn’t shake this idea of this girl whose father is a hunter and he hunts rabbits and the rest of the family is really discussed and repulsed by his hunting rituals and then he cooks the rabbits. But, this girl, this daughter, develops this real fondness for their rituals and so these eating rituals become more and more elaborate over time and more excessive in the way they prepare and the number of rabbits they kill. She decides one day that she wants to understand what it’s like to be a rabbit and wants to have this empathy. In this distorted enactment, it starts becoming this sensory erotic experience that she has in killing and preparing these rabbits to the point where she stitches a full-size rabbit costume out of these rabbit skins. It’s just very horrifying, the whole thing. [laughter]
DN: The way the girl in the story creates a human-sized rabbit suit for herself to seduce her father, it made me think of a couple things from the Semiramis myth, or maybe not even the myth, it sounds mythological but I read that when she wanted to conquer India, she built an army of false elephants by draping these manipulated skins of dark-skinned buffaloes over her camels. She had buffalo skins over her camels to give the impression that she was invading with elephants. Then also Semiramis rises to power in the first place—when her husband, the king, dies—by disguising herself as her own son to trick her husband’s army that she’s the rightful leader of the army. She ultimately becomes the leader of the army in history and in mythology. This first move is one adopting the skin of another. You have this line in silence: all the girls wore men’s clothes because they didn’t want to get raped. I just wondered if any of this was informing the juxtaposition between Self-Portrait as Semiramis and Legacy opening the book that positionally, these women and girls are having to try on other skins to either obtain a power or to avoid a loss of power.
MA: Yeah. I love that reading of it. I think that is definitely part of what underpins it. Also, I was thinking about that taking on the role or the skins which is related as a performative idea, performing both, I think, for me, that arises from the notion of transnational adoptee so there’s a certain way that I’m performing American-ness, I’m performing the role of this daughter. I definitely was thinking about the distance, the emotional and psychic distance required for that performance. I guess the other thing that maybe I was thinking about as well in each of those examples was inheritance and legacy, obviously, and the ways that we take on these roles because of what came before, whether or not, in most cases, we don’t have any control over it but we’re left with and so “what do you do with what you’re left with” was also an idea at play I think.
DN: In your book, Litany for the Long Moment, which is also very deeply engaged with the question of Korean-ness for you, it nevertheless also has an organizing figure that isn’t Korean or Korean-American. The American white photographer, Francesca Woodman whose work I also adore. You’ve said that her presence sits a little awkwardly in the book given the book’s primary concerns. But you could also say the same about the presence of an Assyrian queen in The Fish & the Dove or the Greek mythology and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée. All those books are very deeply engaged with this question of Koreanness. All of that made me wonder if what you called awkwardness in one interview, if something about this awkwardness is in and of itself important. If having something break, what would have been a possibly more hermetic or more symmetrical approach, if something about, maybe, a seeming disjunction or interruption is beneficial to that investigation of Korean-ness for you or how you would see the way she brings in French language and Greek mythology into Dictée.
MA: I think, in a way, this comes back to your earlier question about hybridity and your invoking of that essay, Leave The Bodies on The Ground. There’s something about revealing one’s influences in their diversity and complexity and perhaps, even misinterpretation or mis-contextualization. That seems really important and valuable to me. There seems to be something very true about me with my own flawed subjectivity pulling on all of these things to try to either claim them, juxtapose them, or make meaning from disparate elements. As I say that, of course, I’m brought back to the fact of the reality of my life which is always trying to make meaning. The impulse to try to make meaning out of disparate elements out of things that don’t make sense. But I think there’s something very, at least, to my mind there’s something maybe generous about revealing all of one’s false starts, all of one’s influences even if they don’t give the influence full rendering but that they come together in this way and maybe inspire or form new attempts at meaning or new collisions that can somehow be productive.
DN: I’d love it if you would talk a little bit about the stories embedded within the Korean language itself which you’ve also written about because in the little I know about it, it feels like there’s both a sense of having to try on the skins of others and the sense of an awkward foreign presence. The presence of both erasure and occupation in the language to contend with. I think of this both for Korea in relationship to other nations and in relationship to other languages but also within Korean culture the way Korean women find access and agency through the way the Korean alphabet is developed. I was hoping maybe you could talk a little bit about some of the ways you engaged with or some of the things you discovered and then wrote around the evolution of Korean.
MA: Maybe the most notable thing that was really interesting to me in the writing of Litany was this idea that it was called women’s script because there was something more intuitive about or easier to use in the Korean alphabet than the Chinese characters that had been used by the literate. So this ease of use meant that women, I think, I mentioned that it was referred to as a women’s script. In the first context of that it was said dismissively as only women will use it, but what I read was that how women often ended up using it to pass on stories of domestic life to their daughters which I thought was just this really beautiful idea that a way they could share their own experience of what it means to be a woman was through this language and that this was a generosity passing along and another form of legacy and inheritance. I’ve lost the train of the question.
DN: I was just thinking about what you say specifically that prior to the “women’s script”, before that, it was mostly men using Korean that employed Chinese letters but then I was also thinking about the way Korean was outlawed by the Japanese not only the speaking of Korean but even having your own name in Korean, you adopted a Japanese name. I don’t know if you saw the Alexander Chee article recently in The New York Times as part of the World War II recollection.
MA: I haven’t seen it yet.
DN: It’s really good. One of the things he talks about is how his grandfather still dreams in Japanese to think about the way the colonization has gone so deeply that it’s in your dreams many decades later. It just feels somehow like all of these layerings, the fact that at one point, Korean are using Chinese letters and then when it moves to create its own written script, it creates an entry point for women and then the erasure of spoken Korean after that somehow that felt very connected to the skins. I might be stretching it too much.
MA: What it makes me think about—and maybe this is a continuation of the thought that you’re starting—is when I was reading about language loss and acquisition in the context of adoptees, there was a study that suggested that when, if I’m recalling this correctly, it was specifically in adoptees, that young children will tend to learn the dominant language of the culture into which they’re adopted very quickly. This is related, of course, to survival. They need to be able to communicate in this language. Because their native language is so infrequently maintained in the adoptive family that they lose it very quickly, they lose all recollection of it, all traces of it very quickly, that seems to be related to what you’re raising about the power of relationship between languages. I know that the Poet and Translator Don Mee Choi talks about the relationship of Korean to English and I think about that sometimes, the obliteration of Korean in these different contexts. I don’t know if maybe this is a stretch for me but I have often thought that the silencing of a language for Koreans who lived through the occupation and the loss of Korean in my experience, there’s some resonance there and that’s an element, perhaps, of Korean-ness that in my attempt to claim Korean-ness, that might be some echo of a shared experience.
DN: Could you introduce us to the Demilitarized Zone and read it for us? You brought up some questions around the power and language that I want to connect to this poem.
MA: Yeah. It started with a trip that I actually made to the DMZ on that trip that I talked about in Litany for the Long Moment and it came from this form that we were required to fill out that is basically like, “We won’t protect you. These are all the rules. You’re taking your life in your hands.” It just struck me as an artifact in a lot of ways but then it became this home.
[Mary-Kim Arnold reads a poem called Demilitarized Zone]
DN: We’ve been listening to Mary-Kim Arnold read from The Fish & The Dove from Noemi Press. Obviously, the Demilitarized Zone is specifically referring to the zone between North and South Korea—the way Korea, the peninsula remains divided and that ill-defined space between them—But it also feels like there’s a demilitarized zone between the two aspects of your identity, the two sides of the hyphen Korean-American, between your two mothers, between English and Korean as languages. When you say the line, “in the battle of Wales, the backs of shrimp are broken,” I think of probably the same thing you were referencing when you spoke right before the poem, of something that the poet and translator Don Mee Choi said where she suggests, you can’t look at the two sides of the hyphen as existing in a simple way, side by side. This is what she said, “Korean is subordinate to English. South Korea has been a neo-colony of the US since 1945. Hence, English is not my second language, it is my colonial language like Japanese was my father’s. South Korea and the US are not equal. I am not transnationally equal.” This feels important to me, or your projects, that you can’t talk about Korean-ness without acknowledging how it’s entangled with American intervention.
MA: There are two threads that I’m thinking of, and because one is more along the lines of the imagery of the poem and the comment that you made about the demilitarized zone in my own experience of hybridity, something that I’m thinking about a lot in this book and in my experience of identity is loyalty, this idea of choosing sides. Where this might intersect with what you just read of Don Mee Choi is around the power differential of the experience of being Korean in the United States, of being Korean in a white American family, the sense that one has to choose in that there’s no critiquing, there’s no questioning of American-ness by a person of color, by a Korean-American that isn’t met with this idea of, “Well, then go back.” That was something that I experienced very early on at a very young age, that you are expected in a visibly othered body. You’re expected to affirm your loyalty in order to be considered American and that hinges on this power differential. It also makes me think about just the adoption situation and that the power differential between the United States and Korea is then reenacted and reinscribed in a white American family that adopts a Korean child. Circling back to this idea of the language not being maintained, the identity of Korean-ness is completely denied and obliterated, or at least it was in my family. That’s not an uncommon experience for Korean adoptees adopted into white families. The maintenance of this power dynamic is carried out in the parent-child dynamic and accounts for a lot of that silencing, of descent of any kind—both in terms of the experience of being a child, and being confused, and being taken out of a cultural context, and then descent in the larger sense of objecting to American policy.
DN: That’s what I so love about this collection is first, we get the brilliant Don Mee Choi quote where she’s taking what’s going on in a political scenario and bringing it into language and into Korean-American identity because of that. You’re doing that as well but you’re taking that into this power dynamic around adoption and orphanhood. I just wondered if you had any thoughts because I did a lot of reading about Korean adoption that there are up to 200,000 Korean adoptees worldwide. In a country that is only 50 million people, that up to 10% of Korean-Americans are adopted. What is your thought on, if you have any, about why that is? I can infer or I can fill in my gaps of knowledge with ideas based on the ways the countries are positioned but America is also positioned with other countries and with similar power dynamics. Did you have any thoughts on why that’s the case?
MA: The book that I came across—and that I would reference so that I don’t get too far afield from my own speculation—is Eleana J. Kim’s Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging. One of the things that she says—it’s been a while since I’ve read it— but one of the things that I took from it was the particular American notions around family, fulfillment, and happiness that arose in the 50s, and 60s, and post-World War II. That set the stage for this idea of having children as being about personal fulfillment and a right. Then coupled with this missionary impulse to save these children when images of war orphans were coming into the United States. You have these things among many other factors, but you have these things converging so that this notion of personal fulfillment and family life and what an ideal family is and then this opportunity to be white saviors and go in and fix this problem became a very powerful draw. This is something that I can’t speak too knowledgeably to or too specifically to, but there’s also a lot of money changing hands. One of the other things that were revelatory in Eleana Kim’s book was the fact that the result of these adoptions and the ease of this phenomenon of exporting children was that the Korean social service infrastructure didn’t have to develop. There was this other way of just removing this problem. There are so many ways to go in that, but that seems important to call out, too, that there was economic benefit and economic arrangements between the countries that just all of these different factors facilitated this system that had nothing to do with the welfare of individual children or Korean families, but everything to do with fulfilling desires of white American families. I say that with some delicacy because I’m not talking about individual decisions to adopt or individual families, I’m talking about the systems that facilitated and made it appealing for this to be the result.
DN: Yeah. Because of the age in which you specifically were adopted, at two years old instead of say six years old, you don’t have memories to recollect, having not found your birth mother in your search. I was wondering if you could talk about art-making in the absence of those memories, in the absence of the people you were searching to encounter. Also, you’ve talked about the absence of having someone tell you what you were like when you were that age, even more than remembering it yourself because, obviously, most two-year-olds, you’re not remembering a lot from when you’re two, but you are remembering a lot of what people say about you when you were two. But could you talk about one or more of your projects, (Re-)Dress, or Guidelines for Arrival and Transfer in relationship to this question of absence, and disjunction, and art-making?
MA: The (Re-)Dress project that you’re referring to is when I came, somebody had dressed me in many layers, it was probably all of the clothing that I had. One of the articles of clothing was this little simple dress and at a certain point in the writing of Litany for the Long Moment, I realized that I had lost this dress. After a while of being distressed about that, I thought, well, what if I tried to remake it? So much of what I’m trying to do in my writing or was trying to do in that book was claiming a lineage or claiming something where it didn’t fully exist. That idea that, well, I can make this myself, and see through an art practice, and see what that feels like—and you mentioned before 200,000 Korean adoptees, and this was a number that it’s just really hard to get your head around—so I tried to imagine. A lot of what I’m trying to do in my writing and my artwork is just trying to foreground individual lives because it’s easy to talk about numbers but underneath all those numbers and abstract language, they’re individual lives and so I was trying to get a sense of how one might represent those individual lives. I settled on one dress for every 1000 to represent Korean adoptees and I handmade these dresses, these 200 dresses, for a specific installation a couple of years ago. The memory that you’re referring to, the memory tag, each dress had a memory tag on it because, as you said, there was something about not just the fact that I didn’t have memories, but that as I was raising my own children, a real intimacy was being able to share with them what they were like, what we treasured about those early years. That was something that felt like a real loss for adoptees. I had this idea that I wanted this installation to have some points of entry for people viewing it. What I came up with was, would people be willing to share a cherished memory that we could symbolically gift, symbolically redress these adoptees with some memory? This would be a way for viewers to make a personal connection with these individual lives as well.
DN: In this line of thought, I also wondered that in one of your essays about hybridity you say, “Hybridity is a formal response to the threat of annihilation as an erasure silencing abnegation.” And later in the same essay, “Hybridity in the face of uncertainty bears it, holds it up to the light.” I don’t think you were speaking specifically to the irresolvable gap due to adoption but it certainly feels like these aspects of hybrid work like these projects you just mentioned but also just how you approach orphanhood and adoption from many different vantage points—poetry, prose, image, fabric, visiting Korea, taking classes in Korean—feels like a way of holding up uncertainty to the light bearing the uncertainty, illuminating the uncertainty. I didn’t know if that felt true to you, if there’s something useful about multiple modes—shifting and crossing forms—as a way to get as many angles as possible on something.
MA: Yeah, for sure. I really appreciate that reference to holding it up to the light and the context of the dresses because there is something about making the difficulty explicit and also inviting others in. Part of what bearing it in that reference, to me, means is naming it, showing it, and maybe asking others to help bear it. That was something that could happen in the installation that couldn’t happen in the same way in the text, in the book which was more closed off and ended. There was a different way that I could bear it. The different ways that these challenges, difficulties, these ruptures could be held up to the light in the physical form and in the space that people moved through—it was moving and helpful in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. I hesitate to use the word healing, but there was a shared sense of holding complexity as a result of that installation. People shared joyful memories of their children and of their own childhood but also difficult ones. This one woman had written that the dresses reminded her of losing her first child as an infant and there was something about seeing the little white dress that gave her a sense of peace and a sense of connection. That was completely unexpected but that bearing it in a physical space, in a physical way took it somewhere that perhaps it couldn’t have been in the text itself, in the text alone.
DN: There’s this one part of Dictée where Cha addresses her own mother who lived through Japanese occupation. She says, “The national song forbidden to be sung. Birth less. And orphan. They take from you your tongue.” I was thinking about that in relation to this project you’ve been discussing. Also, I don’t know if it was the Alexander Chee article or elsewhere, that being forbidden to speak your own name in Korean cuts you off from your ancestors and your ancestral line. Even though Cha wasn’t herself an orphan, it does feel that line about orphanhood or about rupture, and then when we think about that in terms of this preponderance of adoption between the two countries, America and South Korea—I don’t want to go too far with this—but it almost feels like you intimated something about this earlier that in a weird way, your rupture is both a rupture from Korean-ness and a rupture that is Korean-ness, that something about that rupture is within the story. Maybe that was something I was trying to reach towards around the story within the Korean language. But does that strike you as true or paradoxically true?
MA: Yeah, absolutely. To hear that quote from Dictée—this is just my experience of it—but there does seem to be something Korean about this idea of orphanhood in the sense that orphanhood is this existential, ontological problem. Orphanhood is terrifying ontologically and that has a resonance with one’s culture, one’s language, with everything that makes Korean-ness Korean being suppressed, being denied, being obliterated. That is the little thread that I’m pulling through.
DN: We’ve been talking about rupture and disjunction and gaps and absences, but I also wanted to touch on something that might be more counter-intuitive on how the erasure that occurs with adoption or certain stories of migration could lead to story-making or myth-making. Because you have, at the end of the book, a quote by Monica Uszerowicz that says, “Of all the crimes committed by colonizers and their ilk, this is, perhaps, one of the most insidious: condemning the descendants of their victims to a strange reality, one in which they must employ magical thinking—a personal and collective mythos—to better understand their forcibly eradicated histories.” Then you have this conversation with the writer, Nicole Chung, who was also adopted by white parents, and she suggests that adoptees are natural storytellers because you grow up telling your own origin story over and over again. Telling it, considering its gaps, wondering whether it’s true sometimes. But often, also all of this happening under the spell of the story-making of the parents, of the white parents, who are comforting their child by making them feel like it was all for the best and simplifying the story in a way so that you can grow up feeling like there was a sense of the best made out of a difficult situation, and that everyone was doing it out of concern for the child on all sides. I wondered about this notion that feels, not the same notion between Nicole and Monica’s statements, but some maybe kindred notions around erasure, and the ground as being a one ground for story-making or myth-making.
MA: Absolutely, that seems very resonant for me. The thing that it makes me think about is imagination and imagining something into being. I talk about it a lot as claiming, but there’s a different nuance to it as well, that it can be a starting point or an impulse for voice, for imaginative inquiry, for possibility. The site of the wound can also be a site of imaginative creation. You had asked the question about gaps, silences, and art making. One of the things that I’m working on right now is also still inspired by Cha and about Korean-ness, but it’s around creating a fake archive of a Korean-American artist, woman artist, who would have had the same contemporary of Cha’s, who also could have been the life span of my Korean birth mother, and locating her in New York, and giving her a life there. Imagining an alternative narrative for a Korean birth mother that isn’t only one of destitution, desperation, this caricature of a birth mother. But it asks questions about what choices a woman can make in her life and for what purposes. In doing some thinking around that project, I’ve been led to the artist, Zoe Leonard. She creates this archive of photographs for fictionalized black entertainers from the 40s for a film and in so doing creates something that is plausible but fictional to represent those stories that were not told, that haven’t been part of the official record of the time. This idea of allowing—you refer to it as storytelling, and I’m thinking storytelling, and this imaginative creation—allowing the official story not to end with what’s silenced but to have that be a generative space as well. In addition to the photographic archive that I talked about, this is informed by some of the work of Saidiya Hartman and her term is critical fabulation. She’s speaking very specifically to the narratives and stories that are erased by slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. But what I’m thinking about is adjacent to some of her frameworks as well.
DN: That sounds amazing. Does it have a title?
MA: The overall project is called Artist Unknown, Korean and this little book project that exists within it is the song, Healy Archives, for now that’s the working title.
DN: I’m going to ask you my one over long question for this interview. I ask for your patience as I ask this one but I want to read something you’ve quoted from the poet, Myung Mi Kim and then ask you a question about something that I stumbled upon as I was researching the phenomenon of adoption between South Korea and the United States. Myung Mi Kim said, “I could be (and am often) variously hyphenated as a Korean-American poet, a Korean-American woman poet, an immigrant Korean-American woman poet, a Korean-American woman poet of the diaspora, a bilingual Korean-American woman poet, and so on. These markers of ethnicity, gender, displacement, migration, and linguistic affiliation, however, they tend to reiterate the “purity” of languages, the inviolability of nation boundaries, and fixity of categories that elied the complex geopolitical and historical forces that produce these hyphenations.” I love this quote. It also enriches the Don Mee Choi quote we read earlier around not being transnationally equal, these two languages. I want to take this idea that these hyphenated identities, despite seeming hybrid and nuanced, actually treat each side of the hyphen as something pure and fixed. I wanted to ask about something I discovered as I read about adoption and why there’s been so many South Korean adoptions over the last century. This is going to be a superficial sharing of information I discovered to see whether you have information or thoughts, or have encountered it in your own reading. Part of what informs this dynamic as we’ve discussed is the American intervention on the Korean Peninsula. But another part seems to be the Korean notion of Korean-ness which seems to have at least partially arisen as a response to Japanese occupation, when the Japanese asserted that Koreans and Japanese were ethnically the same people while at the same time suppressing their ability to speak their own language or even use their own names. During that time, Koreans began to assert that they were ethnically distinct along with a notion of being of pure blood and that Korean-ness was passed down by blood patrilineally. Because of this belief in culture being passed down through bloodlines, there was a bias within Korea against adoption. I was reading of an anthropologist who wrote that in Korean patrilineal blood culture, Korean-ness is passed from parent to child as long as the parents have pure Korean blood and this transference of Korean-ness is especially notable when the Korean father gives his pure Korean blood to his Korean child. That’s what makes reunions along the patrilineal line of adoptees with their birth families smoother, apparently, than along the matrilineal line. But also there’s historically been a hesitancy for South Koreans to adopt Korean babies who wouldn’t be part of passing down the culture through blood. I don’t know if this was something in your own exploration around Korean-ness, your own Korean-ness, if this was something that you encountered. And so, in what way? Is this familiar to you?
MA: Not that last bit about reunion, that’s really interesting. It was not something that I had encountered. I did have some sense of the importance of patrilineal lineage and these books that I reference in Litany, these lineage books called Chokbo that trace generation after generation and keep these records as among the most important records of a family. That, I had encountered and in encountering that as an adoptee, there was a sense of insult to injury that the orphan child is completely erased from any lineage recording as well so that seemed to be doubly wounding. But I hadn’t encountered that and I don’t know that I can speak to too many reunions for which I would know whether that had carried out, unfortunately. I’m sorry to say.
DN: No, but I was also just more broadly curious about the assertion of being an ethnically distinct group of people that informs their way of viewing the phenomenon of adoption at all.
MA: It does make me think about some of what we were talking about earlier in the social infrastructure. I don’t know which cause or effect there but a reluctance to facilitate those adoptions within Korea, whether it was in terms of institutional infrastructure based on some of the characteristics that you’re pointing out. But it does make me think about the social conditions in a different way as well.
DN: The other thing that I discovered along this question around gender also is that—and I don’t think this isn’t unique to Korea—but a stigma around unwed mothers. That if you were an unwed mother in South Korea, somehow that was connected in these discussions around patrilineal Korean-ness, that was an extra stigma against you.
MA: I do think that misogyny in Korea, in traditional Korean culture, is real. I don’t question that in terms of the conditions under which women felt like they had no choice.
DN: Yeah. I was hoping maybe you’d read one page for us from Litany for the Long Moment to set up maybe a transition to talking more about the American side of this book.
[Mary-Kim Arnold reads an excerpt from Litany for the Long Moment]
DN: We’ve been listening to Mary-Kim Arnold read from Litany for the Long Moment. I wanted partly to have you read this to move us to the American part of the Korean-American equation. But also I just want to mention that I love how you frame this question in terms of linguistics, wondering if your American mother saying, “I am your mother” destroys something in the process. But especially, also in light of your discussion of how quickly adoptees lose their primary language on average. Also, in light of the notion that Don Mee brought up about the uneven power dynamic between the two languages. Then the power dynamic between your Korean birth mother and your American adoptive mother. But I wanted to take that as a segway to talk about a different erasure which is that of the Korean War in the American imaginary, because unlike the Vietnam War which is repeatedly invisibly grappled with, even though mostly in a problematic way, is it’s grappled within the imagination in some way. With the Korean War, it feels like there’s a certain amnesia or absence of any moral reckoning. There were four million people killed, and up to a million people displaced. I feel like we could call it a giant silence and an ignorance, but it feels like an ignorance of a different scale. Ignorance just feels like it’s pervasive in the United States, it’s like yes, Americans know who Harriet Tubman is, and yes Americans know some things about the Vietnam War, but very few white Americans know much of black history or much about the Vietnam War or Vietnam in a nuanced way, but there are these markers. But the Korean War feels like, as you mentioned in the title of your poem, Forgotten War, it’s called the Forgotten War, in Don Mee Choi’s book, Hardly War, also, is engaging with this notion of what seems to me to be almost complete annihilation of the Korean War from the American imagination. I didn’t know if you had some thoughts on that. I was also curious in light of any thoughts you might have, your American father was a vet, if there were discussions that happened with you and him or in your family about the Korean Wars simply because he fought in an American War, not the Korean War, but what are your thoughts on this aspect of erasure and inequality between the two parts of the hyphen and the Korean War?
MA: I’ll start with the easiest part first which is, there were no conversations in my family about the Korean War, about my father, his time in the war or even decisively, what war—I think I have learned from my aunt in more recent years that it was World War II that he fought in. I don’t know whether he actually saw combat. But mostly, anything about Korea, anything about war was a huge and aggressive silence I think, in my family. So I had no context or capacities to grapple with that, at least, as a younger person. As I was trying to situate myself in the phenomenon of adoption, I kept returning to the Korean War, because it is a point of origin. It was really this idea of forgotten war as a term to keep coming up, and of course that is in a particular point of view. It’s only forgotten to those who haven’t had direct experience with it. So even the naming of it or the way that it’s talked about, suggests this power dynamic, suggests this silence gap rupture and attempts at erasure. I’m not really sure how to talk about this, except to say that in the films that I was watching about it, in the reading that I was doing about it, most of what I had of course was stories of American Veterans, of perspectives of military engagement, these maps, diagrams, descriptions of battles, strategy, discussions of strategy, all of which really just obliterated the impact on civilians. This is a war in which the majority of the deaths were of civilians. That in itself seems particularly American, to want to forget. The quote that’s rattling around in my head at the moment, I think it was in relation to the battle of No Gun Ri, it’s something all Koreans, North and South look the same to the Americans. [laughs] I’m not even sure where to go with that, but I think that speaks to the American desire to want to forget, to focus on a few key battles, to focus on the military strategy of the Inchon landing of MacArthur, of MASH, which I haven’t actually seen. But I think, all of that speaks to the desire to tell a simplistic story, to pick up on the thread that you were talking about this simplistic story of this limited police action.
DN: I don’t even think that story is being told. Well, I’m guessing that most people are hearing even that for the first time. If you look obviously, there’s story making around the Korean War if you look for it. But if you walk around, you’re going to know about the movie Platoon and the new Spike Lee movie, Da 5 Bloods. You’re going to have these however problematic cultural markers for Vietnam, and what it meant for the American psyche. But I wonder about whether anyone has any markers, even the claim that it was a limited police action rather than a war. If that’s news to the average American.
MA: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I guess having done the reading I’ve done, I assume that many– [laughs] But yeah, there was something about my reading about the Korean war that I came away with reaffirmation of that American overconfidence. We’re going to go in with a limited police action, Truman called it. This was in the invasion by the North Koreans into the South in June of 1950. I think the thought then was we’ll be home by Christmas or something, that it was a very short term intervention. Of course, it went on for three years, and it’s still not officially ended. The other notable thing that I came away with—I’m hesitant to say this again, you can maybe, fill in if there are things that I’m missing that you know of—but in what I understand of it in the military strategies that I’ve been able to glean and follow of what happened, all of the major cities of the Korean Peninsula were basically destroyed. Seoul was captured and recaptured three or four times I think. The battles took place all up and down the peninsula, and really just decimated the cities. All of the civilians, of course, had to flee and were often trapped behind these battle lines which really resulted in these horrifying killings of civilians. I’m just going to pause there, because I feel like I’m getting into territory that’s a little over my head. I’m not quite sure how to pull out complete thought.
DN: Yeah. Well, I was hoping in light of this discussion about war and the legacy of war, you could talk about cento for trust and reconciliation, then the final piece, In the Permanent Collection, which feels like they’re dealing with the legacy of war, particularly the latter poem which is the most formally adventurous poem in the book. I would love to hear your thoughts on it, and what seems like the ways in which it is looking at museums as an extension or somehow an extension of the legacy of war themselves.
MA: There are a couple of things coming together I think in those last pieces that you referenced. I guess I have to start with a little bit of a story. I was at the Seattle Art Museum in the early 90s and I came across this exhibition of East Asian Lacquers. For some reason I saved the exhibition catalog and have referred to it, because there were a lot of beautiful photographs in it. But the thing that I want to mention is that, it went through with a couple of pages describing each of the different lacquer production traditions in Japan and China. When it came to Korea, there was only a very brief paragraph, maybe less than a page of images from this particular exhibition. The text was something like “Much of Korean Art has been destroyed as a result of centuries of invasion and warfare,” and that was it. It really struck me—and I guess I should back up by saying, if this wasn’t already clear, that I grew up with a real hunger for Korean-ness, to see anything Korean, to read Korean authors, any markers of Korean culture. In the time that I was growing up, Chinese was known, Japanese was known through restaurants and through Pearl Harbor, respectively. But Korean wasn’t even known, like the word Korea sometimes would bring people up short. There was this sense of general absence of Koreanness—So I had this hunger for representations of Koreanness, then to come across this exhibition where I thought there would be something to hold on to, then to be confronted with this relatively dismissive brief description of what Korean art was or wasn’t has really stayed with me. More recently, I was working with someone at the RISD Museum and had requested, I had asked a question about the Korean collection of which I had heard that they had quite an extensive one. This very kind staff person printed me pages and pages of these Korean objects that they had in the collection. There were maybe like 1,100 objects documented with the exception of maybe, the most recent, 20. They were all these more ancient artifacts like a spoon or a shoe or something, they were all listed as of unknown provenance. This was resonant for me for lots of reasons, some of which you can probably surmise about adoption and being taken out of cultural context, all of which is to say it made me really think about how does a museum have what it has. What is the process by which objects are brought into a museum? If a museum is—and it is—a legitimizing institution, what do we then know about the way its collected items are framed and described? This language of Korean art is not available centuries of warfare which of course represents just centuries, lives, and loss, the use of that language really struck me. Then the use of the way these objects are talked about out of their cultural context like unknown provenance or many of the objects were described as Artist Unknown, Korean. There was this very compelling set of questions about, what does a museum actually do? And what is its role? Of course, a lot of this in the last several years, so much of community response to various museum exhibitions that present work in a particular way that don’t really engage the community that it’s representing in ways of talking about work calls for repatriation of objects, all of these is in the background of my thinking as well. There’s a certain way that I would wander into museums which are these sacred spaces. We know how they’re presented and positioned, and the way we’re supposed to feel about the preservation and presentation of these objects. There was a certain point where it just all seemed like it was a glorified tomb, one that we were not really facing in any real way. An earlier version of this poem had somebody writing a grant proposal. The proposal was to dig up the ground underneath the gallery and find the bodies buried there which is a little overblown, but that was the way I started feeling about museums [laughs] which was very difficult for me, because I love seeing art.
DN: Well, the poem is incredible. In the foreground, you have these “adopted items” lifted out of context, given this inscrutable non-specificity to them, not demanding us to engage with anything about history as we view them really, except in the most simple way. But in the background, you have the opposite, you have an enormous amount of specificity, a lot of words from documents, what are we reading when we move our eyes away from the centered object in these poems, and look at the words that are behind the object.
MA: That is all text from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. It’s a very long report, this is just a section from it around the exhumations of these massacre sites. The objects are objects that have been exhumed from these sites. These were atrocities that the South Korean State perpetrated against their own citizens who were suspected of communist sympathies. So I wanted to just bring both the scale, you described it as lots of words, it’s just the scale and the relentlessness of these objects, of these massacres. There was something that I wanted to put up against the sterility of an object talked about and framed in this very particular way. That to just call into question, how institutional language, how and what it obscures?
DN: You’ve said before that The Fish & the Dove is about war in the literal sense. We see that both with poems that engage with “Forgotten War, ”with specific battles, with the legacy of war in the museum setting, and with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But you’ve also said about how, being in all male spaces, as a woman, has felt like a battle requiring constant vigilance and preparation, and that feels like a big part of this book too, at the beginning, literally the battle of Semiramis to become queen and lead her army. But that battle coming in this book also to growing up as a woman in the United States. The book opens with two epigraphs, both about war, and perhaps not coincidentally both by men. So we start in an all-male space of engagement with war. I was hoping we could talk about women in both of these contexts, women in war, but also the battle women fight in everyday life since both of those are threads in The Fish & the Dove. But before we do, I was hoping you could introduce and read for us, In the City of Men, and Comfort.
[Mary-Kim Arnold reads a poem called In the City of Men]
There was something that was actually fun about writing it. To just capture the absurdity of this idea of men everywhere, [laughs] I tried to go cornering and lingering in these entryways. I think that it was really a poem of rage, frustration, and as is perhaps, Comfort, which is the other poem you suggested.
[Mary-Kim Arnold reads a poem called Comfort]
That poem is really, I was thinking about Korean comfort women. In some of the oral histories, I had read of these women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army, I think leading up to and through World War II, that in some of these oral histories, women would describe the rooms that they were confined in as barely large enough to lay one to tatami mat down, that felt like just a bit of homage to those women.
DN: I had the honor of reading an early draft of a book coming out I think in January, called Body of Empire by Mariko Nagai, which is about the slavery of women in Imperial Japan, of Japanese women, of Korean women, of Burmese women, of many women. It’s probably the most haunting book I’ve ever read in my life. A lot of it is alternating testimony between women, comfort women, and men. But one of the things that I think that leapt out to me about that book too, is because you move between the space of being a woman in Korea and being a woman in America, is that in that book, she also documents how, when the Americans come and occupy Japan after the defeat of the Japanese, the American men just slot into the position that the Japanese men had with these women. The Japanese men in a sense are demoted from using the women as slaves. It’s almost like the men can be of any providence essentially, then in this machinery, the Body of Empire.
MA: Right. It’s one thing that crosses Cultural Misogyny. [laughs]
DN: The other thing I was thinking also is around your dual investigation in Korean-American Misogyny was also that if we think about the lives of Francesca Woodman and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who both died very young, one of suicide, and the other being raped and murdered, then think of Semiramis’ mother who kills herself. But I also think of a quote from Litany for the Long Moment, from the Poet Myung Mi Kim, which I thought was really great, “If Korean history is missing from the master narratives of the West, and women are absent from recorded Korean history, the Korean-American woman is invisible in both discourses.” I don’t know if that brings up any thoughts for you, but one thought I would love to hear about that it brings up for me as I read it now is some of the writing you’ve done around one of the earliest Korean woman writers who wrote a memoir that breaks form for the tradition of Korean writing. But if you had any thoughts about just hearing that quote read back to you also, I’d love to hear those two.
MA: I think I wanted to include, within this context of talking about war, the role of women for a couple of different reasons. I think, not only because in most accounts of wars as we’ve talked about, women are absent except when they’re being used, raped or used as sexual slaves or used as this currency, a lever of power between men. That for me hearkened back to Semiramis who, in the mythology, there’s this way that she’s talked about as being the most lascivious of the oriental queens. I think that’s a quote that I encountered somewhere. It comes from a male imaginary, that you’re only there as a body to be used in these ways. I was thinking about that and the way it intersects with the vulnerability of women. Of course, I don’t think we’ve touched on this yet, but of course, some of this was written in the lead-up to the 2016 Election when not only are we seeing the way a powerful woman is represented and talked about in Hillary Clinton, but also the recordings that are leaked of what Trump says about women, then a couple of years later, the Kavanaugh testimony. So all of these things too contribute to this question of, “How are women talked about? How are women used? How is girlhood and womanhood, the American aspect of it, how is that just this constant battle for personhood?” To circle back to the mythology around, women can either be invisible or used sexually. Obviously, there’s something so flattening about that, but in the case of Semiramis, it was just funny to me that there was no allowance for the complexity of a woman leader, a woman warrior in all of that nuance but that she also had to titillate the imaginations of men by being the cruelest, by being the most sexualized. There was something that felt resonant about that too just in terms of thinking about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America.
DN: I want to bring this back to form again with the hybrid form, because it feels like there’s a paradox also there that maybe, relates to this question of invisibility and hypervisibility. That it’s both a way to break form or to refuse a received form and to create form, perhaps the way we were discussing how the erasure of orphanhood is a place of absence and fragments, but it’s also a place of storytelling and myth-making. I think of the notion of the long moment in your book The Litany for the Long Moment. How, in Francesca Woodman’s photography, the longer that the shutter is open, the more it takes in. So the longer you’re looking, in some ways, the less one sees the person blurs and becomes transparent until they disappear if you leave the shutter open long enough. Yet something about what she is capturing in the disappearance or the transparency is so deeply evocative that maybe, it feels like it’s capturing something more real. This notion touches on so many different things you’ve said over the years. For instance, in describing the hypervisibility of growing up Korean with white parents in a white neighborhood, you say, “Being visible is not the same as being seen,” and the Long Moment also feels connected to something you’ve said about the word orphanhood, how it is defined by something that is lacking, and how the word adoptee is entirely passive. You become an adoptee due to the actions of others and you ask the question, “Can something defined by lack be knowable or speakable?” You also wonder what actions, what agency, and adoptee can take. But I feel like the way you create, then inhabit, and embody a new form is the answer to these questions. But how do you feel about this question? Do you feel it can be knowable or speakable, something that’s defined by lack?
MA: Yeah. I think for me, writing and art making is as close to knowability as I can get. It’s the way that I try making explicit what is unknowable or unsayable, break something open a little bit, meaning that it allows a little bit of light and allows space for other kinds of telling or other kinds of knowing. I think that there are other ways of knowing something too. To go back to your early question about moving across forms, I think bodily knowing and claiming as valuable knowledge what isn’t embodied is a different kind of knowing from narrative knowing. So for me, it’s been really important to move across those ways of knowing. I’m not sure if that gets at your question.
DN: It does. But I want to stay with this question of the difference between embodied knowing and narrative knowing, because in a way, it feels like what I’m reaching for around this idea of hybrid form breaking things, but maybe, also making a new body or a new vessel, one that more reflects the person who’s doing the breaking and making. I guess I wanted to hear your thoughts about linguistic embodiment, but also, why you think there’s this distinct focus in the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, also to some extent, Myung Mi Kim, of not only the physicality of the Korean language, but the physical and anatomical requirements of making the sounds that form Korean speech. You say in Litany two things that leap out to me; One, “I am struck by the difficulty of saying one thing, but wanting to say something else,” and two, that korean is a physical language modeled around the mouth and its anatomy. In Dictée, we see that a lot, the mouth and its anatomy, but not just in Dictée, Cha has a video installation called Mouth to Mouth. The mouths abstracted from everything else become very uncanny, strange, and sometimes, frighteningly other. She has a performance piece called Aveugle Voix which means blind voice. She blindfolds herself with a blindfold that says voice, so the word voice is over her eyes blinding her, she gags herself with one that says blind. To return to the beginning, I think of the girl in the story Rabbits, who gouges her eyes out of all the rabbits before she puts on their skins. So what are your thoughts about this focus on the tongue, the palate, the lips, the throat, the eyes, and the mouth being troubled by putting the “wrong words on the wrong orifices” or this video of making the mouth not seem like a mouth? Do you have any thoughts on what this investigation is, that you also seem captivated by and engaged with in your own way?
MA: I think for me, part of the bringing back to the physical body and the sensory experience is foregrounded because of womanness and Koreanness in white spaces, generally speaking, the vulnerability of the body. In terms of the language question, that difficulty of actually pronouncing unfamiliar sounds, something that seems abstract becomes physically enacted and embodied. That attention to that physicality speaks to or leads to the idea of what is maybe, literally unspeakable. I know I’m thinking of a Myung Mi Kim poem in which there are two consonants, there’s a page of two consonants put together that is quite literally unsayable. I think that part of what your question is leading me to is the relationship between a foreign language being difficult to learn, not only for vocabulary and pronunciation, but there is a way that the body, the mouth, there are things that are just sounds that are difficult to pronounce in different languages and certainly in Korean that we’re talking about now, Korean to English. Then I guess otherwise, just also thinking about the visibility of the body of a woman, of a Korean-American woman, of a young woman. I was thinking a lot about that too, just about the way a woman’s body is marked. I know you’re asking something about form that I’m trying to find my way back to–
DN: Let me ask you about one of the things I quoted of yours where you say that Korean is a physical language modeled around the mouth and its anatomy. You’ve talked about how, of course, the unfamiliar sounds in any language, but is there something particularly about Korean that makes it more modeled around the anatomy of the mouth than the average language?
MA: Well, I think this was something that I came across in a Korean language workbook that there were these images of how the shape of the letters were actually meant to mimic or reference the shape that the mouth took or the organs, the way the tongue hit the teeth. I think there’s an image in Dictée and an image from a language workbook in Litany that shows that the shape of the letters correspond to something the way the mouth has to form to make the sound.
DN: Yeah, that’s amazing. I love that. Sofia Samatar has an essay about the short story, Rabbits, that we talked about at the beginning where she says that the story is about becoming a writer. She quotes a line from it that goes, “So long as writing, including the act of not writing, is writing, then perhaps inevitably, writing is my fate,” which I just love that line. I wanted to end with your writing across books, because your books in a way feel like they’re part of the same body or if not, that they birth each other into being in some way. For instance, you said that a lot of the war reading you did for Litany for the Long Moment became the soil from which The Fish & the Dove arose, and that your chapbook Between Night & Night were once love poems meant to be in The Fish & the Dove that you removed and collected in a separate project. I just wanted to hear any thoughts you had about the inter-book connection, if you could talk to us about that. Also, perhaps what you’re working on now a little bit more, you’ve tipped your hand a little bit on that, but what are the questions that are animating your work at the moment too?
MA: One way to talk about that chapbook, just to circle back to the poetry collection for a minute, is that the initial impulse to include it was around asking or trying to imagine women being allowed to be known in all of their roles and complexities. I always worry that there’s a danger when talking about violence inflicted on women whether directly or obliquely referencing that you’re doing harm again. So part of the impulse to include this series of love poems was around what if a woman was allowed to be in all fullness, in all aspects of that experience. I do think of all of my work as speaking to each other. I love what you said about books birthing each other, and really all the things that I’m working on right now have Korean-ness, have identity, have womanhood. The legacy of war, intergenerational trauma, all of that is the soil from which everything that I’m interested in arises brokenness, hybridity, creating new forms. I think it took me a while to want to be able to acknowledge that, but it is my experience. I think Mary Ruefle talks about the lifelong sentence which the way she talks about it, I take to mean that you’re working with the same thing in various ways over the course of a creative life, and that really resonates for me in that everything that I’m working on is connected to other projects. I mentioned the archive project, the book will come out of writing about these archival objects that I’m creating, it will be fabric collages, and paper collages as if they were these artists. But I’m also working on a novel. [laughs] I always have to laugh because everybody’s working on a novel, but I am actually been working on this novel for a long time that is about war reenactors and about trying to reconnect with a missing father. So to get back to maybe where we started, the idea of war reenactors is so fascinating to me, because it’s this attempt to perform, it’s this performance of memory and so complicated, like relationships with my family, the way they have carried the traumas that they’ve both inherited and inflicted, and the way we, as Americans, grapple with our own reckoning of the legacy of war and with this paradox between wanting to hold close to a pure sense of identity while also reckoning with the past, all of those feel like life’s work questions. I want to keep circling them for as long as I’m doing anything creative I guess.
DN: Yeah. Well, I can’t wait for that novel. [laughs]
MA: Me too. [laughs]
DN: There wasn’t one poem that seemed like the obvious poem to end with, so I was going to suggest Self-Portrait as praying-mantis-abandoned Korean daughter, but I didn’t know if that was a strange place to end. Do you have any thoughts on a last poem to read?
MA: I would be happy to read that. I’ll just explain that it came from this, I don’t even remember like the years, you just collect these little bits of glint in your head, and I had read something about praying mantis, “nymphs” they’re called. That when they’re born, they resemble adults. Not all creatures, when they’re born, resembled adults. This was really interesting to me in the context, again, of adoption. I was writing a series of Self-Portrait poems and this is what came from that.
[Mary-Kim Arnold reads a poem called Self-Portrait]
DN: Thank you so much for being on the show, Mary-Kim.
MA: Thank you so much, David. It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you.
DN: We’re talking today to Poet Mary-Kim Arnold, about her latest book The Fish & the Dove from Noemi Press. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.