By Marian Kaufman
Myung Mi Kim, the judge for our annual Kay Murphy Prize for Poetry, spoke with us about how her writing interrogates language, incorporates research, and realizes form. She also describes her current writing project.
Myung immigrated with her family to the United States from Seoul, Korea, at the age of nine. She earned a BA from Oberlin College, an MA from The Johns Hopkins University, and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Her collection of poems Under Flag (1991) won the Multicultural Publishers Exchange Award of Merit; subsequent collections include The Bounty (1996), DURA (1999), Commons (2002), River Antes (2006), and Penury (2009). She has taught at San Francisco State University and in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo.
I was intrigued to learn you immigrated to the United States from Korea when you were just nine years old and learned English as a second language. Could you us tell about how your relationship with the English language, something you have described as under continual construction, has evolved over time?
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to start by saying that my on-going relationship to the English language has engendered a relationship to the question of language itself. Language acquisition, underpinned as it is with mastery, regimentation, and the attendant valence of indoctrination, has put on alert for me the way practices of language may contribute to producing hegemonic, normative cultural practices. As a poet I am constantly thinking about this intrinsic problem and exploring modes of relating to and generating language that pluralize sense-making. Over the years, I’ve become keenly aware of the constitutive elements of language, how even one phoneme might contribute to/reorient perception. I listen for the event of language– every element, component, scrap, particle— whether graphic, sonic, rhythmic, kinetic– that may be said to contribute to the unfurling of language.
You have explored a lot of territory in your poetry, including the intersections of capitalism, militarism and imperialism, for example. Do you feel your interests and obsessions have changed over time, or do you feel you have continued to explore the same territories in different ways?
There aren’t changes in my obsessions, but rather, there are shifts, reiterations, loops, intensifications, and reconfigurations in how/why to think a constellation such as “capitalism, militarism, and imperialism.” This palimpsestic site of work embeds one of my foundational concerns: conceptualizing time as linear, unidirectional, sequential, and stable produces allied modes of totalizing history as ordered, coherent, transparent, unconflicted, and unhindered, which overdetermines, preempts, or otherwise delimits being and becoming.
Your work features various textual formats and spatial arrangements. Can you elaborate on how or what you view as the relationship between form and content in poetry?
The question of form is quite possibly the most urgent question in my writing. I believe form and content are profoundly intertwined. I’m drawn to what form might be able to presence that content alone cannot articulate. I’m thinking here not of form as a given, something a priori to the process of writing, but something that emerges out of the very contours of the intellective/affective/historical particulars that undergird the poet at work. Tracking, notating, and rendering the possibilities of form unveils the occluded/marginalized/liminal and cues new durations for perceiving, knowing, saying, feeling.
How has research played into your writing process? Have you had a specific research or reading project that led you to write or poetry that called for certain research?
I have not worked on solely research based projects. But yes, research plays a crucial role in my writing process. Recently, I’ve been working on a research node related to two mid-late 19th century American events/actions: the first, surveys/debates around U.S. involvement in the construction of the Panama Canal (1870-1901), and the second, the establishment of Boarding Schools for Indian children (1860). These loci embody the ways in which imperialist ideologies unfold under a humanitarian cloak, i.e., the Panama Canal will bring unparalleled prosperity; the Boarding Schools will launch educated citizens. Logics of domination, whether by expansion (the construction of the Panama Canal) or excision (removal of Indian children from familial and cultural contexts) claim a benefit for all while diminishing the human and civil life.