When I bought the ‘97 gold Saturn sedan with a busted air conditioner and roll-up windows from a dusty used-car lot somewhere in the East Bay to get me to and from my restaurant job in San Francisco at the start of 2012, never could I have predicted that, just a year later, I’d be packing up the jalopy to drive solo across the country to start the MFA Program in poetry at the University of Minnesota at the age of 38. And when I graduated in 2016 as the quintessential late bloomer, there was no way to foresee that I’d end up publishing my debut collection Bodega with Milkweed Editions, then be awarded the 2020 Minnesota Book Awards in poetry! It’s as if the stars truly aligned during this part of my life, and now I can see why the roads, with their many bumps and detours, have all led to where I am today – and I’m truly grateful.

As a daughter of Korean immigrants who eked out a living as small-time merchants in New York City after we immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s, I grew up witnessing the turbulent socio-political climate surrounding ethnic minorities, while balancing personal and cultural chasms within my own family. My poetry collection explores issues of race, identity, class, assimilation, immigrant labor, among other themes conjured by the metaphor of this communal, urban space. Bodega interrogates tension, fear, miscommunication, but ultimately the shared redemptive qualities between marginalized individuals, families and cultures through the lens of a coming-of-age story. I don’t try to resolve anything in my poems per se, but rather shine a light on stories that have been overlooked, erased, or dismissed. I hope the book continues to challenge current conversations about our society’s hegemonic structures and, given the seismic calls for social change toward people of color, immigrants and refugees around the world, I hope Bodega can help initiate more productive dialogue and reflection by a diverse readership. I am starting work on my second collection titled Roost, which I liken to a feminist rant in verse, which will probe themes of madness, misogyny, mass incarceration, environmental ruin and other metaphors of containment.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, given that the paternal side of my family takes pride in its literary legacy in Korea: My grandfather, Hwang Sun-won, was a renowned writer and professor; and my uncle, Hwang Tong-gyu, is a prominent poet and scholar. Friends of the family used to muse that writing was “in my blood.” But as part of the 1.5 immigrant generation, I’ve had to constantly battle my inner critic while trying to mitigate the guilt of choosing art over a more “serious” and stable career like many of my peers. I’ve always been restless and a bit aimless, so I spent a better part of my 20s and 30s bouncing between NYC and the west coast, working what seemed like an endless series of odd jobs while fancying myself a wannabe “failed fiction writer.” But a lot of that was smoke and mirrors because I never really committed to the practice – starting many “chapter one” folders on my computer in pockets of inspired moments, then summarily abandoning them when I couldn’t get past a certain point in my next great American novel. I lacked discipline; I’m also really terrible with plot. I thought writing fiction would somehow legitimize me as a writer, and poetry never seemed like a viable path because I never believed someone like me could be a poet. Now I realize I was working with the wrong form all along, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, and it wasn’t until poetry found me that I began to realize the full potential of my voice.

When I first arrived in Minnesota, I was an insufferable bi-coastal snob. I complained a lot about polar vortexes, and to be fair, that winter in 2013 was no joke. I used to say that I’d get the hell out of dodge (a.k.a. the tundra) as soon as I was done with grad school, but fast forward nearly seven years, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’ve come to love and respect the vibrant literary and arts culture here, as well as the many organizations dedicated to social justice and environmental activism throughout the state. I didn’t think I could live anywhere as progressive as the Bay Area, but I’ve been proven wrong many times, to my great surprise and delight. Since graduating from the MFA Program, I’ve been blessed with financial support from the Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota Arts Board, MRAC and the Jerome Foundation. But most notably, I’ve had the immense honor and privilege to work alongside so many incredible writers at the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, where I teach creative writing, volunteer doing some social media stuff, and assist the Stillwater Writers Collective put together their reading series. Our MPWW students are a constant source of inspiration for me, not only for their stunning talent and curiosity, but for their heart, humor and fortitude. I also co-founded a feminist poetryship with poet and educator Sun Yung Shin in late 2017 to help create diverse platforms to bring poetry to marginalized communities, or in some cases, bring marginalized voices into privileged, white spaces through collaboration and advocacy. I’m thrilled to be a part of this community-driven ecosystem of brilliant creatives and activists.

See more stories from our multi-media series Art Is…

Production Team: Ryan Klabunde, Kate McDonald, Jim Kron, Eric Pagel, Terry Gray.

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“As I made it to the final bell, I pulled out my box of eight crayons and recited the eight colors. I held the crayons in one hand and turned to Benny. He stared at me as I said, ‘red, blue, green, purple, brown, black, yellow and orange.’ They were my first words in English. Poet Ray Gonzalez shares “The Language of Sunlight, 1956,” about his early introduction to “the necessity of English while growing up in the desert southwest.

Trained at the foot of the great song poets of his time, song poet Bee Yang has lived his life as a refugee of war, toiling away in the factories of America. He shared his art as part of his daughter, Kao Kalia Yang’s, Art Is…Our Call for Peace cohort in 2019. No matter the primary language you speak, prepare to be amazed by his craft. 

When you think of spoken-word artist Tish Jones, know that she is somewhere dismantling age-old systems of oppression, putting on for Hip-Hop culture and creating new art to move the conversations forward. Jones was the curating artist for the April 2019 event, Art Is…My OriginArt Is… My Origin is a sneak peek into the most sacred of creative spaces – home.