August 23–29, 2021
Hannah Seo is a Korean-Canadian writer, journalist and poet based in Brooklyn. She spends her days writing prose with facts and straight lines, and her nights unraveling every rule she’s learned, collaging the fragments into poetry. Her poetry has been published in Barzakh, Portland Review and New Limestone Review, among others. You can find her journalism in places like Discover Magazine, WIRED and Scientific American. This past spring, Seo was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Ariel Francisco’s Portals into Language workshop on poetry in translation.
In the winter of my nineteenth year I learned cycles
are not created equal (the snake keeps its head as the tail
goes down). Every name I pull out of my hair is a soft
blow to the spine, decibels for Newtons.
The probability of two stars colliding is approximately one in 250
quadrillion, about 1000 times
less likely than being hit by lightning thrice. In 250 quadrillion realities,
just one contains the perfect cataclysm
(not to be confused with catechism [when I lie prone and
open to the strike]). Everything else I can survive.
I love the silence of dawn more than the
silence of hallways—in this Escherine world,
what could I know of ego? A word, after all, is a measurement.
The hard and soft of knowing, the hard and soft of tongues.
—Originally published in New Limestone Review, September 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
The first iteration of this poem was born in the winter of 2015. I had just turned nineteen and was going through multiple parallel transformations—cycles of different sizes, years of different weight. I had also just finished the experimental poem/essay/book Syzygy, Beauty by T Fleischmann and was obsessed with the way they created scenes that were so emotionally charged and yet so still and listless and full of ennui.
I became pretty obsessed with the idea of cycles, their implied sameness. Sameness is delicate—it requires that everything go right at every instance. Sameness is anomaly. I started thinking of odds, probabilities, and how close we are to disaster (or how far we are from perfection) at all times.
Scientific language also features in quite a bit of my work, and I like having numbers in my poetry. I knew that if I talked of odds, I’d want to have literal, actual statistics in there. And if I was going to talk about sameness and of things being “equal,” I knew I’d want to talk about force, and transformed energy. Because everything is everything else.
What are you working on right now?
Moving—I’m moving apartments this week and that’s taking up about ninety-three percent of my mental real estate.
As far as writing, I always have at least ten half-finished poems slowly stewing in a very messy Word doc. I’m also a journalist by day, and so I have several articles in the works in tandem.
What’s a good day for you?
Any day when I get adequate rest and talk to someone I love is a good day. Bonus points if I exercise, read or actually write anything (as opposed to procrastinating).
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I came to New York to do a master’s degree in science journalism and just stayed.
Tell us about your neighborhood. 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 live in Bushwick. Technically it’s Ridgewood, but just a block or so in, and I feel like Bushwick has more name recognition. I’ve lived here for two years. I love how detached it feels from the city. During peak pandemic times things didn’t feel so eerie for me because the neighborhood has always been pretty quiet. Plus it’s a short jog away from some vital green spaces—parks and cemeteries. But in the two years I’ve been here, I can definitely feel the small quakes of gentrification (and I know I’m absolutely a part of that problem). It’s a bit alarming for sure, and I’m always grappling with that.
But I’m literally on the verge of moving to Crown Heights. Official thoughts and opinions are TBD!
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Elaborating off the previous prompt: I don’t know if this is “defining,” but a quintessential Brooklyn experience that always sticks out to me is when you walk through a neighborhood and see small, local restaurants serving whiting fish and goat curry—they’re filled with local families. And then you walk two blocks and there’s a block of “trendy” cafés selling $7 turmeric chai lattes and lavender scones. It’s jarring and sad and inescapable, and very Brooklyn.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I’ve never been really entrenched in any sort of poetry community. I started writing when I was an undergrad, but was too embarrassed really to seek community. I started publishing during a gap year I had in Seoul, Korea. When I moved to New York I definitely thought about finding some sort of poetry community, but then the pandemic happened. Brooklyn Poets has been my one and only way of connecting with other poets, so I’m grateful. But if some small group or club wants to swoop me under their wing, I’d be down.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I’m not sure what the criteria are to be considered a “Brooklyn poet.” I love Marianne Moore and Frank O’Hara. In “Mayakovsky,” O’Hara writes:
That’s funny! there’s blood on my chest
oh yes, I’ve been carrying bricks
what a funny place to rupture!
… and I just adore that. Also, very apt for pandemic times—the semi-manic but overly rationalized recognition of your frailty.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve honestly not had any poetry mentors—for all the same reasons that I never really found a poetry community. Because I’ve never been fully immersed in that world, I definitely have some imposter syndrome happening. And I do sometimes feel like I don’t have some of that poet insider knowledge that might be helpful when publishing. Like I said, if a community wants to swoop me up and help me out I’d love it.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’ve been reading (and rereading) a lot of Franz Wright lately. I find his work really calming (in a sweet yet melancholy way)—I especially love “To Myself” and “Our Conversation.” I’ve also been thinking about Emily Dickinson’s “I have never seen ‘Volcanoes.’” I love how the language is dynamic but not loud, with elements of humor and side-eyeing. I want my poetry to be surprising like hers is.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I am ashamed to say I have not read much Louise Glück. I’ve been meaning to, and I will, but I have not yet.
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 am always reading two to three books of different genres at any given time. Variety is the spice of life! Physical books are also a must. I support my local library and always have a bunch of holds; I read whatever comes through the soonest. I am not a note-taker—I’ve tried but it gets unwieldy.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Uhh … I think I should get a better hang of the things I’m already doing.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
My favorite places to write lately have been the roof of my apartment building and Marsha P. Johnson State Park in Williamsburg—specifically the tiny stretch of pebbly beach by the East River. Any setting where I can gaze out over vast distances is great for my creative engine.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I already mentioned my love for Marsha P. Johnson park. Of course, Prospect Park is always a winner, as is anyplace else where I can roller skate. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t been able to visit many establishments, but I’m hoping to go to more bookstores and cafés in the future.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate doggedly, insistently,
And what I surrender to you, momentum withered and quieted, is cherished nonetheless,
For every whisper escaped from me as good returns to you.
Why not Brooklyn?