July 4–10, 2022
Dabin Jeong (she/they) is a poet, translator and art historian who explores East Asian representation, Asian/American identity and the immigrant experience through creative and academic praxis. Her poem “My Mother’s Sisters – III” was selected by Dorothy Chan as the winner of the 2021 Stubborn Writers Contest and was published in the Chestnut Review. Their work also appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Perhappened and chogwa. She is a poetry editor at the Hanok Review and will attend the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop beginning this fall. Last year, Jeong was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Natalie Eilbert’s MFA Application Bootcamp.
at this emergency exit, I am thinking of Frank
a man who most wanted to be loved. at 12:20 on a night
after Friday, you’re everything I wanted to be: not
the name of a poet, too neurotic for my taste.
at 12:20, I watch a nightly lover, a man who most wanted
not to be alone. once this apartment held future in its seams,
named poets spilled inflammables on the hardwood, neurotic
but tastefully ignited slender cylinders. the orange sirens
now blast through the apartments’ seams as I sit here alone
watching people run out—doors revolving, cramped inside
the glass cylinder. slender bodies sway away from the orange
warmth while I inhabit the behemoth at this exit. of fire
island where the wheels revolved and people ran around,
being the second poet, for you, was the main event.
now you inhabit the warmth: can we say you died in New York?
buried upside down in the sand, are you spitting Soul, still?
in emergent times, I dreamt of being that second poet. the main
exit is now blocked with firewall for this ball of everlasting fire.
outside, they are trying to bury my soul with sand, but I’m still here.
climbing down the fickle ladder-like stairs is this city’s staple,
when all the exits are blocked and the walls are strolling.
this city leaves us no option than to sweat, but I’d rather
staple each of my toenails to these inflammable walls
and stop breathing. I thought you died of first aids
kit malfunction, sweating, left without an option
after Friday, after being everything you wanted to be,
whispering a song along and stopping breathing. I will die
on fire at this emergency exit, thinking, we have always been here
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote the initial version of this poem in free verse as an elegy for a class. I had lived in New York the year prior to this poem, and I kept thinking about all the sirens at midnight juxtaposed with Frank O’Hara’s poetry of New York. From this came the concept of a double elegy for Frank O’Hara and for the poem’s persona (myself), but when I finished the poem, the form didn’t feel right for the concept or the material. The class I was taking at the time was Genres and Forms of Poetry, and it introduced me to many different poetic forms including pantoums. The idea of the start and the end connected to each other as well as the alternating, intertwined lines felt perfect for this poem, so I started revising it—or writing it again, as it changed so much from its original form.
What are you working on right now?
Between my full-time job and preparing for grad school, I do not have much time to write, sadly. But I am planning for multiple projects at once, which I will be working on throughout my MFA. I have come up with a conceptual framework for my poetry collection so I am brainstorming for the content. I am also a translator, so I am searching for contemporary Korean poetry to translate into English, as well as organizing materials for my translation project which will be centered around modern Korean poets. I also need to finish my three-quarters-baked poetry collection—it will be my first one!
What’s a good day for you?
When I wake up without a fuss, and when I go to sleep without two hours of tossing and turning.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I got a fellowship during my third year as an undergraduate to live in New York, work at one of the museums (I worked at the Rubin) and take courses on museum studies and the contemporary art world. It was such a great opportunity for me, as I wanted to pursue a career in an art institution as a student of art history. I was supposed to live in New York from January to June before it was disrupted by COVID, and I had to leave the city.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I lived right on the brink of Bed-Stuy, across from a Home Depot. I stayed there for about four months, and I left in April 2020. It had a fairly good grocery store right around the corner, and pretty good delis, which I loved. I was also near the Asian grocery stores and restaurants, which made me very happy since I missed cooking and having Korean food so much. I haven’t been able to return to the neighborhood, so I don’t know how it’s changed, but I was grateful for its convenient location and cultural diversity as I had just moved there from a small town in Vermont!
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I do not know if I lived in Brooklyn long enough to define a “Brooklyn experience,” but the doughnut shop I’d been meaning to visit got shut down because of a health code violation. Good or bad, I can’t tell! What I definitely think of as a defining Brooklyn—or NYC?—experience are the never-ending ambulance sirens running through the streets all night. When I first came to New York, I couldn’t sleep because of them, but I got used to them fast.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
When I lived in Brooklyn, I did not consider myself a poet. I was also more involved in the art scene than the literary scene, so I did not have a chance to find a community. I had a nice community of ideal and passionate readers at my college, and that continued even after we graduated—over the internet and messenger, of course. I found most of my community online, which has led me to be part of a few poetry journals including the Hanok Review, but it’s always a delight to meet fellow poets in person and discuss poetry in general. I think having a dedicated reader and someone with whom I can exchange opinions on poetry is very important to my craft, as I develop my poems from these exchanges and it grounds me. A lot of my poems include concepts specific to Korean culture, so it helps me a lot to get another perspective, outside my culture.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Now I wish I had taken the New York School of Poetry course with Michael Dumanis! I think it’s hard to overlook Walt Whitman in any way. But to name a few contemporary poets, Tyehimba Jess and his poetry collection Olio have been very important to me in terms of learning how to rewrite and challenge history with poetry and incorporating a postcolonial framework within my craft. I remember his reading at Bennington, and I was mesmerized by the fluidity of his language and form as well as the underlying adamance that runs through his poems. I thought, “Wow, he is doing everything I want to do in my poetry!”
A lot of my poems are inspired by the stories of my family I collected over the years, so I have been prompted to read poems that center around familial topics: Aracelis Girmay’s “The Dream” and Kimiko Hahn’s “Reckless Sonnet No. 8” are two representative examples. I especially love how language shifts shapes so smoothly in Kimiko Hahn’s poetry, specifically in “A Bowl of Spaghetti” and “Foreign Body,” which is also what I have been attempting. To mention another poem by Hahn, “The Dream of a Fire Engine” is one of my favorites for its distinctive imagery, and for the same reason I love Wendy Xu’s “And Then It Was Less Bleak Because We Said So” and Tina Chang’s “Empress Dowager Boogies.” I love poems driven by images and these poets have been inspiring for me to challenge my poetry.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Anna Maria Hong has been a foundational mentor to me. I started writing poetry in her course Korean American Feminist Poetry, which helped me find the language that I most needed to amplify my voice. The poets she introduced to me—from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha to Emily Jungmin Yoon—as well as the numerous conversations we shared about life, writing and culture while walking her dog Brodie absolutely shaped my poetic world, which I continue to pursue. The perspective she brings into the literary world inspires me endlessly, and the great insight she offers to my practice has guided me ever since.
Taking Genres and Forms of Poetry with Michael Dumanis was a game-changer for me, as I learned how to write in form and also how to challenge the preexisting forms, not to accept them plainly. I will say, many attempted to make me understand how sonnets and iambic pentameter work, but Michael was the only one who succeeded and even made me write a sonnet! He has also been such an enthusiastic reader of mine as well as guiding me through the whole revision process, which I cherish so much. I was also able to take my first step into the publishing world by working as a poetry editorial assistant at Bennington Review alongside Michael, which taught me everything from knowing what to look for in a submission to establishing the aesthetics of a magazine (now I am a staff member at three different journals!).
With Jenny Boully, I was able to really push myself to experiment and challenge the formal notion of poetry. For one project, I started with three different lists and a sonnet. Then I mixed up and intertwined the lists by cutting them in the middle and removing the titles. I also disassembled the sonnet into seven sections, and basically upset the order by placing images and dialogue between the sections, resulting in a twelve-page microchap. At the time, I was taking Michael’s class as well as Jenny’s Refusals and Mythic Transformation, and taking a class focusing heavily on writing in form along with a class that seeks transformation of the poetic notion helped me greatly in expanding my horizons.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I am always intrigued by poetry collections that are thematically coherent. But when I read OBIT by Victoria Chang, I was struck by the mastery of her language in tackling something so personal and difficult: death. In the form of obituary, she was able to bring the most insightful and philosophical thoughts into a short block of text. It was formally consistent, but linguistically so diverse—same, but not same. My heart broke several times while reading this book, but I am still grateful that I did.
I attended Sawako Nakayasu’s reading, where she read a few poems from her collection The Ants. I was especially mind-blown by the poems in which she incorporates the Japanese alphabet to mimic the sounds of things and actions. The letters endowed the poem with such great rhythm and at the same time, it was a completely unexpected use of a foreign language and I was mesmerized by her genius. I would say, reading it on the page is not the same as Nakayasu reading it out loud—you just need to hear her read!
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Definitely Susan Sontag, especially On Photography. I have studied art history since high school and throughout my undergraduate years so I have always wanted to read Sontag, but kept putting it off. As for poetry, I’ve been meaning to read W. H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety since maybe my freshman year, but still haven’t even gotten a copy! I read his The Sea and the Mirror and found it very interesting, to say the least—not to mention I love all his ekphrastic poems—so that book has been on my radar for a while now.
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?
At the beginning of every year, on the very first page of my diary I make a list of books I would like to read that year. Though I don’t always stick to the list, and I definitely read more books unplanned, that list gives a good guideline of things I was looking for in the beginning. I prefer physical books, but with lots of transpacific moving, I am leaning towards digital texts—which allow me to take extensive notes as well! I love writing in the margins, and keep fresh ideas there until I am ready to make them into a full poem. That said, my reading is quite hectic as I dip in and out of multiple books at a time. Normally, I would balance my reading with prose, art writing and poetry, reading a few parts or sections a day. For example, I am reading Camus’s The Stranger, Peter Schjeldahl’s Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988–2018 and Choi Seung-ja’s Written on Water (물 위에 씌어진) in Korean. It helps me to pursue my diverse interests as well as maintain different writing styles across genres.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
There are more things I haven’t tried in a poem than the things I have already tried in a poem. But I have been attempting to write an Eileen Myles–style poem with very narrow lines for just over a year and a half, so I would love to make that happen soon (it’s about a ghost I met on the street). In the long run, I want to write a long and sequenced book-length poem. I have written a micro version with only twelve pages, but it was still a huge challenge for me. Someday, I am hoping to write an eighty-page poem that can stand alone.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I always start my poems on my phone’s notes app on my commute. These are refined later, but I found out that the crowded bus may be the most creative space for me, as I take inspiration from random images. I like to read during a long subway ride—it helps me focus more on specific words in poems rather than just reading through them. Generally, I think I read and write well in a crowded public space like a café or a bar, but I must be alone for the magic to happen.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
There is this deli right outside the Classon station, Gourmet Bites, which has the best halal bowl and loaded fries I have ever had. I would get their food every time I wanted to treat myself, not cook after a long day, or wanted a late-night snack for overnight homework. I also enjoyed my visit to the Bishop Gallery, where I saw an exhibition on Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was a small space, which allowed for the viewers to have a more intimate experience with Basquiat, which was so fitting for the works exhibited there. And of course, I love Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party installed at the Brooklyn Museum—it always inspires me to think about the long history that came before me.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate burials and the 49th day of the passing,
And what I left with you in that abyss where we were both laid,
For every strand of your hair left to me, as good has left with you on that day.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
Bring me a jack
coke, a pint, a glass; Rob
would have been my name if I were a pen-
chewer or a Brooklyn
Bridge runner. But I am a dodger
of a bullet. Whoosh—no biggie:
it’s just that my father
raised me to sin
never with hatred, but only with love.
The sheer vibrancy of Brooklyn is just incomparable. The train ride, eating doughnuts on the street, even the fire escape—it was the best four months I’ve ever had and I wish to relive it one day!