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An Interview with Sun Yung Shin


Brett Hanley



A photo of the author in which she wear dangling red snakey earrings

 

신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin was born in Seoul, Korea, and was raised in the Chicago area. She is a poet, writer, and cultural worker. She is the editor of What We Hunger For: Refugee and Immigrant Stories on Food and Family (2021) and A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota; the author of the poetry collections The Wet Hex (2022), Unbearable Splendor (finalist for the 2017 PEN USA Literary Award for Poetry, winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for poetry), Rough, and Savage, and Skirt Full of Black (winner of the 2007 Asian American Literary Award for poetry); the co-editor of Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption; and the author of the bilingual illustrated book for children Cooper’s Lesson. She lives in Minneapolis where she co-directs the community organization Poetry Asylum with poet Su Hwang.

“Sun Yung Shin calls her readers into the unknown now-future of the human species, an underworld museum of births, deaths, evolutions, and extinctions.


Personal and environmental violations form the backdrop against which Sun Yung Shin examines questions of grievability, violence, and responsibility in The Wet Hex. Incorporating sources such as her own archival immigration documents, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Christopher Columbus’s journals, and traditional Korean burial rituals, Shin explores the ways that lives are weighed and bartered. Smashing the hierarchies of god and humanity, heaven and hell, in favor of indigenous Korean shamanism and animism, The Wet Hex layers an apocalyptic revision of nineteenth-century imagery of the sublime over the present, conjuring a reality at once beautiful and terrible.”

-Coffee House Press


The Wet Hex is available for purchase from Coffee House Press here.

 

Brett Hanley: The destruction and violence of whiteness and forefathers feel pervasive in my reading of The Wet Hex, but there’s also a powerful undercurrent of hope from the foremothers, castaways, and seventh children. Do you see foremothers and castaways as a solution to the major issues that come up in the book?


Sun Yung Shin: I do think that if we put vulnerable children first in our society, which would mean also centering their caregivers, many other things could follow rather organically. I think in general a world that would be good for children would be good for everyone. Borrowing from The Combahee River Collective statement: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” A world that is good for children would mean a world that was good for the global majority, Indigenous people, people of color, etc. If, in the U.S., we were able to turn our attention from celebrities (or at least more of our attention) and put it toward the castaway, abandoned, missing, and disappeared among us, we could move toward more wholeness and safety.


BH: Oh, absolutely. The Wet Hex powerfully seeks to destroy systems of oppression in each of its poems. It feels like such an important book in that way to me. Related to forefathers, how did you choose the source texts you subvert in the book, specifically Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Moby Dick, and Columbus: The Four Voyages 1492-1504?


. . . as a naturalized U.S. citizen, I see it as my obligation to understand the origins and workings of empire.

SYS: I’ve quoted from Ovid and Melville in previous poetry books; those are texts that have been with me since I was an adolescent, and the Greek myths in general since I learned to read at an early age. So they feel like a part of me. The Columbus journals are newer to me as a source text; I started The Wet Hex with the working title Utopias of Descent, and I wanted to bring in more language from Charles Darwin about race and evolution and human skulls as well as its complicity in colonialism. Asians and Asian Americans are often portrayed differently in journalism, with “of Asian descent” being a popular descriptor, when of course white people are never described “of European descent,” and I started thinking of the Descent of Man and other ways the term or ideas of descent circulate in our culture.

I can’t remember why I started looking at the journal of Columbus, other than I am always trying to get closer to events of the past, and I wanted to read what he wrote (or reconstructions of what he wrote). I see part of my job as an (involuntary) immigrant and settler as working to understand the mechanisms of colonialism; as a naturalized U.S. citizen, I see it as my obligation to understand the origins and workings of empire.

BH: It’s interesting to learn Utopias of Descent was the original title, and the subject of descent is still significant in the work. I’m thinking specifically of poems like “An Orphan Receives Her Commercial DNA Test Results from Two Companies: An Abecedarian,” “A Black Box Theory of Descent,” “Lullaby | Goodnight,” and numerous others. It’s difficult to imagine a different title than The Wet Hex, though. It works exceptionally well! I’m curious. What led you to changing the title?

SYS: I started to think that Utopias of Descent was too abstract. I usually like to have something tangible in my titles. I also realized that every time I said “descent” it would sound like “dissent,” which isn’t bad, but it wasn’t an idea that I wanted to have in the title.


BH: I’m enamored with “Gaze _ Observatory _ Threshold: A 바리데기 Baridegi Reimagining,” and I’m really interested in poetry (and art) as correspondence. I’m thinking right now of the letter-poems of Emily Dickinson and those between Natalie Diaz and Ada Limón. My understanding is that the Baridegi project was ekphrasis as correspondence, that the artist Jinny Yu sent you each of the drawings in the sequence and that you replied to each with a poem. Can you speak to this process of correspondence and collaboration and how it shaped the work?

SYS: Thank you for those kind words! Actually I wrote a poem and then sent it to Jinny Yu and she made an illustration, and then I would work on the next poem. I’ve always been fascinated with doors and boxes and portals, and when I saw Jinny’s work, introduced to me by curator Godfre Leung, I was entranced.

BH: Jinny Yu’s artwork is entrancing, and it’s perfectly in conversation with the poetry in that section. I noticed doors, boxes, and portals are significant in Section 4 as well, particularly the concept of the black box. Would you be interested in elaborating on your fascination with doors, boxes, and portals and how it informs your work?


. . . there are many boxes in Catholic life: the ark, the communion box, the confessional, caskets. . . It also seems that the body has many containers and portals, openings and passages.

SYS: I don’t totally understand it, but I’ve been drawing 3-D boxes ever since I was taught how to draw them in grade school art class. I do think that we are just surrounded by boxes and many of us live in what are boxes. On a personal level, I had a very small bedroom growing up, but the closet was big enough for a twin mattress, and I eventually put my mattress in there. I think I felt safe inside a box within a box. I also grew up Catholic and there are many boxes in Catholic life: the ark, the communion box, the confessional, caskets. . . It also seems that the body has many containers and portals, openings and passages. I also have recurring dreams in which I’m trying to find rooms that are missing or rooms within rooms, or rooms that have doors that are too small for adults to fit through. This may also be from listening to a record of Alice in Wonderland hundreds of times on a kid-sized record player! I could probably write a whole book on the poetics of boxes and rectangles. Cribs, hospital beds, gifts, graves.

BH: There’s so much magic in The Wet Hex, and the language and images are rife with it in exciting ways. One of the ways magic manifests is in assertions that things and people are both one thing and additionally another thing (or multiple things). In the book, “A tiger is a poet,” and trenches are future museums, for instance. These are metaphors, but I feel like they’re “hexed” metaphors. They sometimes seem to take bigger, more magical leaps than typical metaphors. I understand that you consider spelling and grammar to be a sort of magic, but what are your thoughts on metaphors?

SYS: I love the idea of hexed metaphors! Yes, I think we could say that a tiger is literally a poet, and perhaps her gait is the “writing” of the poem. We could say a trench is literally a future museum in that certain things may be preserved or written there, perhaps never to be read, but regardless. I think this must come from the hundreds of trench scenes I’ve seen in white-made movies about World War I. I think there’s a fetishization of the young male (white) soldier in the trench.

I think metaphors are magic, too, because good ones can allow us to touch the world or our psyches more deeply, or at least slow down to feel the commonality between a cup of coffee and a lake or between petals and someone’s sigh. They allow us to meditate on elements—water, air—and experience a kind of oneness that we’re encouraged to bypass in the “ordinary world” so that we can be objects of someone else’s utility, where the owning class would like us to stay in our designated spaces and not think too much about anything, and certainly not feel anything that’s not pre-permitted by them. It’s not because they care, but because if we’re awake it’s harder to exploit us. We might refuse, because we know there’s something more real, or at least more important, more nourishing.

BH: As I was reading the book’s first section, I wrote down the word “transubstantiation,” and I was delighted to find that you mentioned that concept in another interview. It meant I wasn’t totally off-base with what I interpreted about the alchemy of your metaphors. Can you speak to how your Catholic background influenced your conception of magic in the book?


Spelling is doing spells. A spell is a recipe to make something happen and the recipe has a certain order of operations.

SYS: I love that you wrote that down! I think I might be writing a whole book about the influence of Catholicism on my poetics, not sure who would read that, lol, but for here I’ll say that for me, my family’s and thus my practice of Roman Catholicism was shaped by a number of structures, including patriarchy, a gender binary, and a reverence for language and books (βιβλίο / biblion / book aka the Bible) as sacred, holy, and powerful. If “God” created light with a command in language, and He said, “Let there be light,” then mortals must need words even more.

Also, I was a spelling bee nerd. I loved spelling. I still love spelling. Spelling is doing spells. A spell is a recipe to make something happen and the recipe has a certain order of operations. The word “horse” is different than “shore,” which uses the same letters but in a different order and means something completely different. I love how “horse” and “house” mean entirely different things even though they’re just one symbol different (a “u” instead of an “r”). Magic! The word “horse” is a spell that conjures images, etc. And each person receiving the image will receive a slightly different one according to their experiences. Each of us is a library and librarian and library patron of our own libraries of images. How do we find these images? If we work in written language, we need the word as a medium to help us go fetch the image.

I may be getting into the weeds here!

BH: I would be thrilled to read that book! I grew up Catholic too, and I feel like it seeps into everything and especially poetry, often unexpectedly. Related to that, God feels like a forefather in the book, especially in Section 4. Can you elaborate on what you were trying to convey about the Judeo-Christian God?

. . . I think that “God” lives inside me as a pack of wolves, a swarm of bees, a punishment, a city, a labyrinth, a black box like the human brain.

SYS: I’m not quite sure, but I think that “God” lives inside me as a pack of wolves, a swarm of bees, a punishment, a city, a labyrinth, a black box like the human brain. Full of inputs and mysterious outputs, and the process within is opaque. I don’t “believe” in “God,” and who cares whether I do or not, but I see authority and force and indifference everywhere.


BH: Wow. Yes, I think I know exactly what you mean, and those are truly striking ways to describe the experience/image of God. In contrast to God, death looms as a complicated and reclaimed figure in The Wet Hex. I love how you describe death as “my jester my wigmaker my piano player my fast horse” in “Botany of Death.” If God is a forefather of authority, force, and indifference, what’s death?


SYS: Death seems like a trickster? A force of transformation, metamorphoses, and transfer of energy. Also, hopefully, a release from suffering, from individuality, from regrets, from grasping.


 

BRETT HANLEY is a Poetry Editor for Southeast Review. She holds an MFA from McNeese State and is a PhD candidate at Florida State. Their work is forthcoming or has recently been published in West Branch, Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Puerto del Sol, THE BOILER, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. She was a semifinalist for the 2022 92Y Discovery Contest and has received support from The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. American Poetry Journal recently published their debut chapbook, Defeat the Rest.





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