Somewhere Between the Two: The Extracurricular Education of Poet Hannah Sanghee Park




BORN IN 1986, Hannah Sanghee Park grew up in Federal Way, Washington, the child of two Korean United States Postal Service workers who didn’t meet through work: “My uncle introduced them, and then, I’d like to think, they decided to join the USPS together.” She attended the University of Washington, where she discovered and wrote poetry under the mentorship of poet Richard Kenney.

I first encountered Park in Iowa City in the fall of 2010. She had just graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was serving as a Provost Visiting Writer in the University of Iowa’s English Department. She was teaching poems to undergraduates, and writing her own — or, at least, that’s how she interpreted the job description: “There’s a line in there about ‘advancing your own work’ or maybe it’s ‘everyone’s work.’”

Once, in Iowa City, I saw her read from her Catenary Press chapbook Ode Days Ode. One of her poems repeated, elided, and erased words, until what had started out as, “You love what doesn’t love you back,” became, “You love back.” As a poet, I felt called to task by her words. I heard in her poems a marriage of clear feeling to clear speech, with no way to tell which came first. I recognized that her emotional straightforwardness derived from the strictness of the self-imposed, self-discovered forms in which she wrote, strict even in their dissolution. Park’s poems accelerate by breaking down. When her words break, they generate others. When a word won’t break, “it will become a line.”

From Iowa City, Park moved to Seoul, Korea, as a Fulbright Fellow on a creative writing research grant. There, she began the work that would go on to win her a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and the 2014 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. Chosen by Rae Armantrout, Park’s collection, The Same-Different, was published by Louisiana State University Press this past April.

Park currently lives in Los Angeles, where she recently earned an MFA in Writing for Screen and Television from the University of Southern California. When we spoke, she was between the two years of that program.

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JESSICA LASER: Growing up, were you a good student?

HANNAH SANGHEE PARK: No, I was not a good student. I was middling. There were things I was passionate about but generally I was more interested in doing other things. I liked doing activities more than being in class. I was a bit of a dilettante, dabbling here and there, mediocre at a lot of things. I did competitive dance, if you can believe it. I played some instruments. I did gymnastics for a little bit. Some volleyball, cross country.

What kind of dance did you do?

We competed in lyrical dancing, which is a combination of jazz and ballet.

Did you say “lyrical dancing”?

Yes. I know, right? Can you see me with soft shoes on, doing pirouettes? I can’t do that anymore, obviously, and I don’t even know if at the time I could do it.

Now that I think about it, if I were to write a book of essays on your poems, maybe I would call it “Lyrical Dancing.”

That would be a very nice title. Or how about “Slightly Off-Meter, Somewhere-in-the-Back Dancing”? You danced too, right?

I did theater. I don’t like to feel that I have to let go of my other interests in order to focus on poetry, but it feels true sometimes, that you can’t do anything else. Do you ever feel that way?

That poetry is this all-consuming, pervasive thing? Yes. Once you’re in it, it’s hard to move out of it, or even around it. I thought I could handle both poetry and screenwriting but it’s harder than I thought. It’s a juggling act, and more things are being added to it. Heavier things. The time constraints of being in school are starting to get to me. Also the question of what’s next. I have all these ideas but they’re starting to mold more to a screenwriting form as opposed to a poem. And it’s good that they inform each other. A screenplay allows room for the poetry to manifest in the description (obviously not in a florid way). It’s a wonderful feeling being a poet in Hollywood. People are very excited to talk about poetry.

Really? What are they talking about when they talk about poetry?

It can be a catchall descriptor — like if anything is remotely pretty or if an image is presented, it’s so easy to say, “That’s so poetic.” I think of the positive connotations of poetry — it being deep or insightful or just beautiful — and I think that’s what people in Hollywood are looking for. In recent years there has been more of an overlap between the literary world and the entertainment world. It may be more natural for, say, a novelist or a short story writer to transition over into the form, but I do feel — or I may just be surrounded by extremely nice people — that poetry has a place here. Poetry is all about precision and concision, and a good piece of screenwriting hits on both of those things: how do you convey an image in as few words as possible, as sharply and starkly as possible?

Wow. So it’s like your preference for extracurricular activities in high school. You’ve moved toward a place where the poetry has become extracurricular. When you watch a film, you’re not looking at words. You’re looking at actual images. So the poetry is no longer central — it’s in the history of the image but it isn’t the image itself.

Screenwriting is the perfect marriage of everything. Everything written for it becomes visual. The description I’m talking about is for the people behind the scenes. For the viewer, or the person experiencing the piece, it’s just going to be what you hear and see. One would hope that the description comes across in as vivid a way as the entire team wanted it to.

Do you think a poem is for everybody or do you think that a good poem is really written to one person or a group of friends?

It would be ideal if a poem can be both widely accessible and intimate. If you’re writing with someone in mind, and this person gravitates toward a certain form or sound, I guess you’d have that in the back of your mind, but overall it’s to really make a connection with someone who doesn’t know you. Do you think about that when you write?

I tend to go by the way that says, as long as you’re hitting up against as much specificity as possible, your tiny little grain of sand will explode into the universal.

“See the world in a grain of sand …”

So your program at USC lasts two years?

Yes. The first year is for experimenting, and the second year your focus is more honed. Our theses are either in Feature Writing, TV Drama, or TV Comedy.

Do you know which genre you’ll choose?

I had my heart set on TV Drama, but in the past months I’ve been leaning toward TV Comedy. As of now, I’m somewhere between the two. Being a poet, I understand I’ll probably be hard to sell. You know, “The poet who wants to do comedy.” Thus far, everything I’ve written has aimed — I always quote this Auden line — to “strike for the heart and have me there.” I’ve done a lot of, to put it reductively, or even crudely, milking of that muscle, and not really going for comedy. It’s weird to suddenly switch, but I thought it would be nice to find a home for all those bad puns I’ve been stockpiling over the years.

Don’t you think that some of the funniest people you know are poets?

I do think that! Poets — you know, “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy” — poets are really looking at the world and then looking beyond it, almost like a kind of dissection. They see something, and then they want to get to the heart or the meat of it. With comedy, it’s that same unforgiving, all-seeing eye, which is why a lot of the poets I know are hilarious people, and I’m sure they all have their own store of puns somewhere.

Yeah, skeletons in their closets. Like, “Here I have this amazing poem, but if you knew what it started out as, you would never speak to me again!”

Exactly! Amazing how we can dress something up from the dust it came from.

Do you think the process of making a poem is that it starts out dressed and you undress it, or that it starts out undressed and you dress it?

That’s a good question. When I think of dressing, I think of styling and polishing, turning something into this product that you want to present to the world. But at the same time, to undress something is to get down to the bare bones, no pun intended. So this is a terrible thing I do — it’s this rapacious desire to have a little bit of both, and argue for either. But if I had to choose, I’d say undressing. What about you?

I would also say undressing.

I think words are more interesting when you undress them, or break them down into their shirts and their socks.

Yes. It’s almost like your poems are the floor after somebody has undressed or been undressed. But the “somebody” is maybe a few words, not a body. Your poems undress words down to their various syllables.

I follow the element of surprise. I see a word like a Russian nesting doll. How can I strip it to what its imagined core would be? That’s what I’m trying to go to.

You have a very natural relationship with form in that sense, as if the dissection of words is the way you approach the task of “striking to the heart.”

It’s interesting because up until this moment I had never thought about “striking to the heart” as a way of literally mining into it. But I think you’re right that … [Long pause.]

Hannah?

Sorry, this is epiphanic for me. To rephrase it, I had pictured the Auden couplet as one swift blow to the heart, something immediately felt, versus what you’re bringing up — this image of, instead of an arrow, a pickax, and then moving to a finer, thinner tool, and going all the way down to a microscope — like an archaeologist, the closer you get the more careful you are, as you try to find the bone in it. That’s what I’m thinking of right now — finding the bones of the words. I do a lot of that because it’s interesting to see a word’s imagined history, and with that, you can see its future.

When I read your poems I feel like I’m reading a document of your ear hearing, and it makes me wonder if the process of writing, for you, is like an echo chamber.

An echo chamber is a great analogy for it. I think of words and, if we keep that chamber in mind, the way a word or sound is repeated. It has slight mutations as it goes along, so at the end it might just be a shadow of the word it originally was, but it’s still recognizable. I write for the ear. I start with sounds. If it’s not a word that can be broken down into other words, sometimes it will become a line. Do you ever do that thing where you wake up and you have something resounding through your head? And perhaps it’s something that you caught from a conversation, or something in your past, or a barely observed experience, which for some reason sticks with you. Do you do that?

Yes.

That’s a fine starting point, because it obviously has some kind of resonance — and by that, I mean, emotional — for you to begin.

What about the role of stories in your poems?

When you think of a sonnet, there is a kind of resolution or twist in the volta, or in a sestina’s envoi pulling it all together in the end, or in an ode, in the epode, the third part of it. You can see those forms as telling stories in very compressed spaces. It’s fun to challenge yourself to see what you do within a story structure. How many possibilities can you tease out of it? Which way can it go? Is it satisfying for the reader?

One manifestation of “The Same-Different” might be that the poems aren’t so interested in telling a new story. They want to tell the story that they like to tell. They’re not afraid to say the same thing twice. It seems like that takes courage.

There are so many retellings or modern adaptations of all these old stories. The implied question is: What makes you think that you’re going to make this any better than it was before? For me, the feelings in these stories are very universal. I believe a good story always needs to be told. This is my take or twist or spin on “The Same-Different” — “Different yet the same as before,” those are the HD lines. I like to think of these stories or feelings or subjects as optical illusions: now you see it, now you don’t. It could have been something different, but it was the same thing, or vice-versa. Déjà vu is a better way to put it. “I’ve heard this before” — but have you? It makes a poem feel very intimate when it’s familiar but also a little bit unfamiliar at the same time, when it leaves you in a state of wonder at the end.

In an interview you recently gave for the University of Washington’s newspaper, you were talking about wanting to go to Iowa to work with Jim Galvin because you had been so moved by his poem, “Cherry Blossoms Blowing in Wet, Blowing Snow,” which definitely makes me wonder at the end.

It was the very first poem handed out in Beginning Verse Writing, my freshman year. That was 2005, but I got a new read on the poem in 2011. The last line is, “Among cherry blossoms blowing in wet, blowing snow, weren’t we something?” At the time, I read that as pleading, as heartbreaking honesty and desperation, like, “Weren’t we?” But reading it again in recent years, I heard it as something more wistful or reminiscent. For some reason, that’s more devastating to me than my original take on it.

When I first read it a couple of days ago, your second reading was my first reading. But then last night I got this other reading, a third, that was much more sinister and mean — “Weren’t we something? Wasn’t there anything there? As opposed to nothing?” — It seemed that there was anger in that.

I like that read a lot! It seems like if we looked at all of those readings in the order we discussed them, it would be a narrative structure in and of itself. I like the little bitterness tingeing it.

Let’s talk about a poem of yours I’m particularly moved by, “Nommo in September.

The poem is one in a series. It comes toward the end. Kind of like our reads on Jim’s last line, there’s a lot of fluidity and possibility that coagulate toward the end of the series, and this poem is maybe the last one where it’s still a little searching, a little reaching. Like the spirits it’s named after, it’s supposed to be hard to pin down, a lot like the nature of love. Love. I told myself I wouldn’t use that word. I was hoping not to talk about love. Even though I talk about love a lot. It’s interesting, though, to speak about it not in a poem. I’m a lot more hesitant to speak about it.

I have this image of you writing the poem in Korea, maybe because before I learned that Nommo were spirits, I thought the word might refer to a place. What did you apply to do on Fulbright in Korea?

I grew up with mythology and fairy tales — and it was very much based on that. I have this elusive database of primarily European fairy tales, folklore, and mythology at the ready. I opened my personal statement for Fulbright with a quote from a Star Trek episode, a recent one. Spock’s father says, “You’re always going to be a child of two worlds.” The proposal was that I wanted to learn about Korean music and folklore and bring that back to an English-speaking audience. That way I’d have a marriage of the two things, a duality.

As creative types, people assume we’re very free and flowing, but I’m a lot more rigid than that. I really like structure, and I like that folklore falls under a taxonomy: animal stories, hero stories, etc. When things are structured that way, it’s a lot more fun to see what you can do outside of it. Marina Tsvetaeva has a great quote in her diaries. She says, “Given my boundlessness, I need a vise.” V-i-s-e, not v-i-c-e, though I think that having a v-i-c-e wouldn’t be so bad at all.

Did you feel that by going to Korea you achieved whatever kind of connection to your own heritage you sought?

Yes. It was a very transformative and formative year, and that was in large part due to the community of other Fulbright fellows. That was actually what pushed me toward television and screenwriting. My poetry comes from a personal place. The orbit is contained around my heart specifically. It’s not centered on my childhood or upbringing. Talking about what it is to be Korean-American, my natural impulse is to lean toward comedy. I felt that screenwriting would be a better place to explore and dissect that than a poem would. Better poets can do it. I don’t think I have the finesse to approach that in a poem in a way that would be engaging.

Is that what you went to TV school to find a form for? The story of that — an ethnicity or a nationality?

I’d say ethnicity — and there’s a specificity to that. I had very encouraging parents who let my freak flag fly. We’re a family of pranksters. But I wasn’t seeing my upbringing reflected onscreen. There are these stock characters a lot of Asian-American and other minorities fall into. But I thought it would be fun to explore a side people hadn’t seen before, in a visual medium.

Did you feel that in some way this was not a story that you were compelled to tell until you spent that time in Korea?

It was definitely the moment it all seemed possible. Being with the others fellows, many of whom were Korean-American, and bouncing ideas off of them, was really helpful in trying to imagine a more nuanced portrayal of Korean-Americans. I feel incredibly grateful for that time in Korea.

Let’s turn to the Whitman Award. What happened, did they call you?

Yes, and I was so at a loss for words that I was reduced to vowels. You should have seen me that day. I’m still shocked. I’m very, very grateful, and humbled by it. I tend to overuse superlatives. I get excited about very minute things, like the best sandwich I ever ate, but I mean it when I say that was probably the happiest moment of my life.

Was it a manuscript you had been sending out for a while, long completed? Or was it very fresh and you were questioning whether it was done?

That manuscript was something new. The first poem came at the end of my time in Korea. My Iowa thesis was going through this yo-yo diet, you know, a little more a little less, since I graduated, but after I was working through all that stuff in Korea, I wrote “Bang,” and that was the first step toward this manuscript. The short lyric form had always intimidated me, so the impetus was to try to contain as much as possible. I wrote a little then, in Korea, and then, in the beginning of 2013, I was at the Macdowell Colony. I wrote the bulk of the book there. Then, in my first semester at USC, I finished the rest. It really did come in three disparate parts. And when I finished it, there was a clean feeling about it. I said, “This feels clean,” and I sent it out.

Are you surprised that you wrote a book in a year?

Yes. It was freak luck. I really owe a lot of that to MacDowell, because you’re in your studio and you’re given this freedom to write. I realized that was such a rare, rich opportunity, so I gave it my all. Maybe it’s too early to tell if this made any difference, but I also started drinking coffee that year.

Do you think poetry is something one can do all the time? I wondered if you went into screenwriting because the amount of white space required in a life of poetry means you also have to be doing something else.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Amiri Baraka. Have you ever seen Dutchman?

I haven’t.

It’s a film, pretty short, based on his play. He started off as a poet but he became a playwright, and he wrote Dutchman in a really short span. He was talking about how he could see the dramatic form beginning to interest him. He did both. As I’m figuring things out, I like the idea that there are different shapes to different stories or feelings, that there’s a best way to convey something. That’s why I love forms — the world of possibility. I don’t want to sound like I’m going back to the dilettante thing. It would be a wonderful thing if I could sustain both of these. I’ve just been feeling this sense of wonder. It might be the perpetual sunshine.

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Originally from Chicago, Jessica Laser holds degrees from Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She teaches at The New School and SUNY Purchase.


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