Poet Of The Week

Joan Kwon Glass

     September 5–11, 2022

Joan Kwon GlassAuthor website opens in a new window is the mixed-race, Korean-American author of NIGHT SWIMBook link opens in a new window (Diode Editions, 2022) and two chapbooks (Harbor Editions and Milk & Cake Press). Editor-in-chief of Harbor Review and a Brooklyn Poets Bridge mentor, she is a proud Smith College graduate and has been a public school educator for twenty years. Joan will be teaching poetry craft / generative workshops this fall through Sundress, the Fine Arts Work Center and Hudson Valley Writers Center. Her work has won or been finalist for several prizes (including the Subnivean Award and the Lumiere Review Poetry Award) and her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthologies. Joan’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Rhino, Rattle, the Rupture, Dialogist, Nelle and elsewhere. She lives in Connecticut with her family. On Saturday, September 10, she will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with D. Nurkse and Nadia Owusu.

Dear Sister

 

Do you remember roller-skating in the basement on snow days?

We stumbled and soared as outside the tiny window,

the Michigan sky confessed its sins,

a basket turned over and shook, covering everything.

Or how about that summer at halmani’s house in Korea?

We perched on the highest stair and swung

our sandaled feet through the gap, nibbling jelly sandwiches

with chopsticks and giggling at halabuji’s toupee.

Remember how pissed you were the year I went to rehab?

How after that, you looked at me with uncertainty,

like I was still your sister, but less?

You probably don’t remember the day we buried you,

but man was it a shitshow.

Missionaries sang all five stanzas of Jesus Loves Me.

People kept asking me how you did it.

I held your friend’s Xanax so she wouldn’t take too much.

An addict holding pills for mourners. Hilarious, right?

All I wanted to do was make bad jokes, but you

were the only one who would have laughed at them.

What no one tells you about losing your sister,

about losing her to suicide, is that in one crushing hour,

your childhood becomes a moonless well.

You try to pull the bucket back up and remember the good times

but since your death, the good times feel just like the bad times.

Do you remember how hard it rained at your funeral?

How your friend Liz sang the Largo from Xerxes

after we’d lowered you into the ground?

On rainy days I still hear that song.

Are you still there in the basement where we skated

so fast that after a while, all we recognized

through the spinning was each other?

Do you remember your last breath?

Did you feel me take it with you?

If I lowered the bucket and sent down my lungs,

would you gasp with relief and tug on the line?

 

—From NIGHT SWIMBook link opens in a new window, Diode Editions, 2022.

Brooklyn Poets · Joan Kwon Glass, "Dear Sister"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“Dear Sister” is an epistolary poem that started as an actual letter that I wrote to my sister Julia, about a year after her death. In my full-length collection NIGHT SWIM, in which “Dear Sister” is included, there are many poems that express anger in the early grieving process. Grieving due to loss through suicide can be complicated—often it is a unique grief experience. At her funeral, I spoke mostly of Julia as a child, because I was too angry at the adult version of her. This poem emerged as I tried to articulate how difficult, how confusing it was, to grieve for someone that you loved so much, but with whom you were enraged. I wrote it as I remembered the beautiful moments of our childhood together, while also reckoning with the complexities of my own feelings toward her. The old adage “we don’t speak ill of the dead” is one that I could not follow if I was going to survive the suicide of my sister. I needed to find a way to feel and express both anger and love.

What are you working on right now?

I started a chapbook of poems about teaching (I am a middle school teacher), and I am toying with another manuscript on family. I haven’t written much since publishing my last chapbook (I published three books in 2022). I am teaching fall classes at the Hudson Valley Writers Center and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and I worked with twelve poets as a manuscript consultant this summer, and absolutely loved it!

What’s a good day for you?

Getting up around 5 AM (which is sleeping in for me!), taking a long walk at the local beach boardwalk, having coffee at my favorite bakery, then spending the day writing or reading. These days are rare for me as I work full-time, have three kids and am the editor-in-chief of Harbor Review. But when they happen, they’re heavenly. In the summer, I love taking day trips to NYC, Northampton, MA, and Mystic, CT.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

I live in Milford, CT, near New Haven. I lived here in my twenties, then moved to a different CT town. Now, I live in a house built in 1780 that was a cider mill and apple orchard in the first half of the twentieth century. It is also a rumored Underground Railroad site, according to neighbors and the local historical society. I’ve lived in this house for five years and I love living in a historical home in a shoreline town. There is a state park with a beach where I can watch egrets; egrets always remind me of South Korea, where I spent part of my childhood and where I still have family. I went to Smith College in western Massachusetts, and when I took that first shuttle from the airport to the college, I saw the enormous, green hills, and immediately felt at home because they reminded me of Korea. So much that I stayed and lived in nearby Easthampton, MA, for several years after that. I guess I compare everything to Korea! I also lived in Provincetown, MA, for a while. Which is nothing at all like Korea!

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I am obsessed with St. Ann’s Warehouse. I think it’s a perfect venue; from its views of the Brooklyn Bridge to the surrounding shops, bookstores and restaurants. I saw A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois about ten years ago, then a few years ago I saw Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, an incredible one-man show with Cillian Murphy. Other than that, my Brooklyn experiences are pretty limited.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

Community has been the unexpected gift of writing and publishing! A poetry community is a safe space in which you feel simultaneously nurtured and challenged. I have been buoyed and valued by my writing community in ways that I’ve longed for my entire life. I have never experienced an invitation to the table quite as meaningful and important as the one that is extended to me by other poets. For example, the publisher of my first chapbook is now a dear friend who invited me to work with her on her magazine, and we exchange one poem per week for feedback. Attending AWP in Philadelphia was among the most grounding and amazing experiences of my life; I have never felt so immediately connected to a group of people! In the women’s writing group that I’ve participated in via Zoom for the past two years, we all support one another’s writing through manuscript exchange, feedback and generative practice. And other poets of color have made me feel completely at ease in spite of the fact that I am half-White, a fact which has often made me feel like I don’t belong. I have people I trust implicitly, who advise and guide me and offer me a seat at their (our) table. I live in Milford, CT, which has the Milford Arts Council and as the city’s poet laureate and recipient of a Connecticut Office of the Arts grant, I’ve designed and run several virtual and in-person panels and poetry readings. This has helped me to feel more a part of the local arts community, and it is my small contribution to community. I also feel a deep kinship with the editors at Harbor Review and West Trestle Review.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

In 2018, the year after my sister and nephew both died by suicide, I read Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows by Eugenia Leigh. Here was a Korean American woman—a mother, daughter, sister, graduate of a women’s college, who had grown up in a Christian household with an absent father, like me—writing artfully and brilliantly about such difficult themes. I remember reading her book and thinking—maybe I can write the book that my grief is calling on me to write. Maybe it’s okay for me to write the poems that terrify me. Eugenia has become a mentor and friend to me over the years, and she wrote a blurb for NIGHT SWIM. Meeting her in person at AWP last year was one of my happiest memories from the conference! I also adore Nicole Hefner Callihan, who is running drop-in Lunch Poems sessions at the Brooklyn Poets space. She is a member of the Zoom writing group I mentioned earlier, and she writes ethereal, gorgeous poems. I often wish I could write like her. Her poems are like breath and petals.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I was granted a scholarship to a weeklong workshop with Ellen Bass, one of my poetry heroes. Her support of my work (she also wrote a blurb for NIGHT SWIM), and her particular style of poems, are anchors for me. At various times in my life, I have read the following poets very intensively and intently: Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong, Rachel McKibbens, Raych Jackson, Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton and Franny Choi.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

These recent poems come to mind as particularly memorable: “Unlove Poem” by Franny Choi in American Poetry Review, “Organica” by Haolun Xu in Poetry Northwest and pretty much every published poem going into Eugenia Leigh’s forthcoming collection Bianca (Four Way Books). I am also a huge fan of new writing by K. Iver. The last poetry collections I read that really blew me away were Constellation Route by Matthew Olzmann, Blinded Birds by B. Fulton Jennes, Jane Almost Always Smiles by H.E. Fisher, Handbook for the Newly Disabled by Allison Blevins and SOFIAS (forthcoming from Knights Library) by Jeni De La O. All of these poems/collections showcase extraordinary craft and approach complex, difficult themes in ways that made me say, “Damn, I wish I had written that!” or “How did they DO that?!”

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney and The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop.

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 try to read poetry collections all the way through before starting another, but I am also usually reading a work of literary fiction simultaneously. I read mostly at night, before bed, so I will pick up either poetry or literary fiction, whichever I’m feeling that night. I am definitely chaotic in how I choose books! Sometimes I peruse lists online, but oftentimes I will buy a book because someone has recommended it, or I know the author. We need to read and support living authors! I prefer physical books and listen to audiobooks sometimes. Right now I am about halfway through The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. I take notes and underline when I can find a pen, haha!

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I really want to write a tritina and/or a burning haibun. I struggle with form and would like that to change. I also really admire call and response poems and have never tried one.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I absolutely love reading in coffeeshops, bookstores and libraries. These are calming spaces for me. My favorite bookstore is the Montague Bookmill in Montague, MA—an enormous old mill turned into a sprawling used bookshop and café. Such gorgeous, inspiring spaces.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I’ve only ever spent time in DUMBO, and I mean, what’s not to love about it?!

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the version of you I can manage

And what I manage to celebrate, you might discount.

For every mercy that soothes me even as they escaped you.