July 5–11, 2021
Chiwan Choi is a poet, writer, publisher and lifelong seer of ghosts. He is the author of four full-length books of poetry: The Flood (Tia Chucha Press, 2010) and the Daughter Trilogy, three books that explore his lost daughter as ghost: Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), The Yellow House (CCM, 2017) and the forthcoming my name is wolf (summer 2021). He is also the author of multiple poetry chapbooks, including Time Out of Space and lo/fidelity lovesongs. He wrote, presented and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015, as part of his ongoing examination on the meaning of a book, of conjuring and nurturing of ghosts. Choi has published his poetry, fiction and essays in numerous journals and magazines, including the New York Times Magazine, ONTHEBUS, Poem-A-Day and many other publications. He currently splits his time between Los Angeles and Pittsburgh with his wife. On Sunday, July 18, Choi will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at Basik in Williamsburg along with Desiree C. Bailey and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor.
my name is wolf (your voice is the storm)
when the cold came / I walked into the forest to die / because winter was always the season / I knew how to love // there was once a tribe / that was turned into a river / of blood, the current soaking my feet / until i chose to walk away again hidden from the sun. // it seems like so many years ago / that my father told me / one day i would learn to accept / loneliness and that there was a place for me where fruits ripen / on the branches that also hold up the sky / in anger. // there comes a day / when your eyes can no longer / stare at your brother at your sister / burying teeth into their own skin / to find a chance to escape the curse / of their bodies // maybe we don’t realize we have / walked away from our lives until / we are standing in snow falling / like childhood and front yards and your / first broken bone / learning that white was always the color of death.
remembering is / screaming is / writing is / living is / losing is / feeling is / knowing is / existing is / ending is / claiming is / holding is / wanting is / longing is / hurting is / breaking is / the line is / the truth is / my skin is / your touch is / what saves me is / this snow is / what kills me is / this empty house is / your absence is / graceless is / your leaving is / what haunts me is / moving is / forgetting is / impossible is / your hand is / salvation is / your voice is / the storm is / unbearable is / this space is / empty is / my heart is / your shadow is / the night is / a scar is / your name is / this poem is / the outline of / your childhood / my fatherhood / mom’s prayers / this day / letting go of / its light
we will pause a little longer before the next touch, my hand on your swollen knee, until this space is vast enough to cradle those things we were trying to wish into existence—our child growing up on the streets in new york, running to subway stations a few yards ahead of us ready to show us how big she was getting, how she could travel through our world alone now, introducing her to every shop owner and doorman and fruit vendor so she’d feel all of this was hers even if it was never ours. we will pause another day, another week between pittsburgh mornings staring out our windows at the falling snow in a city that was never meant for us, a city that left us unmoored and broken until there was nothing left but the warm skin of your palms on my face. it is a bright cold and i stand in the sun and tell myself that i have destroyed so many things and people in this unremarkable life and called it love or art or unrelenting grief. sometimes like today and this winter that is too bright i tell myself it was for the best that she is in outer space, floating eternally, away from me and my hands that break everyone they touch. i will drink until there is no more hope of remembering her name, i will tell mother and father that this longest of years will be a little longer, tell my love i’m coming home soon, coming home soon, soon.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Well, these are three pieces from my name is wolf, my new book available in July. It’s the third and final book of my Daughter Trilogy, after Abductions and The Yellow House. The starting point, the impetus, for my name is wolf is multiple. One place is—I was thinking about wolves as I often do, and thinking about what was done to them by colonizers, and that one day I wondered if the wolves believed, knew, they would be wiped off the face of the earth, made extinct, and if they did (which I believe to be true), would they do anything to change, become something other than what they are to try and save themselves? That question made think of the narrative of the book: a wolf enters a winter forest to die, only to be confronted by a voice that promises to teach him all the names of the things that matter in life, ultimately including his own name. He still dies, but with knowledge of what he has been. The other spark was the amazing paintings of Melora Walters. She made me both T-shirts and a hoodie with hand-painted wolves over the years. And it became part of me and always inspired me.
This particular set of three was selected because I thought it made a nice arc about the circle that fuels my life and my fears: the circle of love and fear and loss and release.
What are you working on right now?
Currently working on finishing my book my name is wolf, which I’m set to release by the end of July. It will be free in both digital and audio formats. It will also be as free of copyright as possible, so anyone can do whatever they want with it as long as it’s attributed. Publishers are free to publish physical versions of it if they want, as they would, say, Jane Eyre or something, with no need to sign me or pay me.
Also working on a paranormal podcast called Are You There, Ghost? It’s Me, Chiwan, where I interview writers I love and respect about their paranormal experiences.
What’s a good day for you?
Watching The Dead Files with my wife. Drinking whiskey alone or with others. Eating good food. Not humid.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I was invited by you! Also I love coming back to New York, where I used to live from 2002 to 2004 (Bushwick back in the day). Also to laugh at Nets fans.
Tell us about where you live now. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I’ve been living in Pittsburgh the last few years because my wife has been working on her PhD in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon. She moved there in 2014. I moved there in like 2016. I hate it, other than the cheap rent. Trash weather. Trash white people. Trash food. Trash allergies. My heart will always be in LA.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Brooklyn will always be the place my wife was living when I met her (we were both attending Tisch when we met). So sleeping over at her place the first time, staring out her window at downtown Manhattan, seeing the dust from the fallen towers on her window sill. Then Bushwick was where we first moved in together back in 2003. Willoughby and Wilson. Carrying used furniture down the street together with her. I remember coming back to Bushwick to read like in 2011 or something and all these whites in their twenties were coming up from the subway stop and I yelled, “ … the FUCK?”
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
To me, a poetry community is not a community if it can’t be a community without poetry. Because that’s not a community at all. It’s just networking. I’ve got friends here whom I love and are poets, but I never really appreciated the hierarchy of shit in the NY arts scenes.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I actually don’t know which poets are from Brooklyn, I mean other than Walt Whitman (whom I like ok, but have learned a lot from studying) and Marianne Moore (whom I like a lot, but haven’t studied as much). Guru? GZA?
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My biggest mentor is the only person I’ve ever studied poetry with: Jack Grapes, an LA-based poet and teacher. I studied with him for over twenty years, starting in high school when he let me take his class at UCLA without paying. His biggest influence on me was through the lists of books he kept giving me, including Aimé Césaire when I was eighteen. Césaire to this day is the one I put at the top of them all, and whom I blatantly and badly copied in my first long poem, “The Flood.”
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
As far as books that came out recently, (the other house) by Rocío Carlos because I love her and I love LA and she presents both her personal history and LA so beautifully. Her work has made me think a lot about writing as mapping. As far as old books I revisit all the time, Human Shrapnel by Bill Shields, because you don’t need fancy line breaks, geometric stanzas or more than five lines to kill a reader.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I usually have five books going, a few pages from each at a time. I think a lot of my reading schedule is based on 1) which friends have put out new books; 2) what the writing I’m working on made me think of; and 3) did I run out of TV shows to watch?
I don’t ever take notes while I read. If there’s a line that catches me, I’ll just write that down, not as a note, but as part of whatever it is I’m writing. Sample it. I like buying physical books from friends. I don’t like having a lot of physical books in the house, though. You kind of get sick of it if you move thirty times over the course of forty years.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Nothing really. I wanted to write a sci-fi poetry collection, so I wrote Abductions. I wanted to write a book-length poem, so I wrote The Yellow House. I don’t know. Maybe write poems back and forth to a friend up the river like Li Po and Du Fu?
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love writing on buses and airplanes and trains. About ninety percent of both The Yellow House and my name is wolf were written on the Notes app on my iPhone before the pandemic.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The bridges. I love bridges (oh, I guess that’s another thing I like about Pittsburgh). I miss our old shit apartment in Bushwick. Our super OD’d. Used to watch the ten-on-ten volleyball matches happening across the street.
Brooklyn was a home among many homes and something incredibly important happened in my life in the short time I lived there.