I spoke with Caroline Miller and Logan Newby about literary lineage and formal experimentation for Essay Press.
About my influences, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Myung Mi Kim, and Don Mee Choi:
There is a recognition in all these women’s lives and work that there is no personal without political, that the Korean American woman exists in a politicized body, politicized state. To proceed as if otherwise is a kind of self-denial, self-abnegation. I was trying to resist this impulse toward self-erasure, too.
The full interview is at Essay Press.
From the introduction:
In 1974, a two-year old Korean girl named Mi Jin Kim was sent from the country and culture of her birth to the United States, where she was adopted by a man and woman who would become her American parents and where she would become the artist and writer Mary-Kim Arnold. Her new book, Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2018), is her attempt to grapple with that history and its aftermath, to understand the experience of that girl she once was and how that girl shaped the woman she would become. Arnold writes:
“I will never know for certain what transpired in those first two years of my life. I only know that I am continually drawn back, tethered to the whispy, blurred possibilities of the mother I will never know, a language I do not speak, the life I will never have.”
Through a dazzling range of literary strategies, from the use of archival documents and family photographs to primers on the Korean language and the work of her fellow Korean-American artists, Arnold explores these wispy, blurred possibilities. She takes us into her need to know this never-realized self and this life she never lived. By stunning and poignant turns, her book reveals the complexities of the lives we do end up living, the hauntings that make us who we are, and the unexpected way in which great art and artists pull us apart and pieces us back together.
And the book has an excellent trailer, which you can find here.
You can listen to the whole interview here.
Spent a lovely Sunday afternoon at 9 1/2 Main Gallery in Nyack, New York to read with Suzanne Parker for River River.
Anu and Donna are founders of River River, a literary journal, writing community, and more. It's been such a pleasure to reconnect with Donna, an old college friend. We lost touch after our children were born, but then found each other again when she and I were both published in the same journal.
Days remaining: 123
Start time: 3:15 pm
End time: 5:15 pm
Working slowly today. Pricked my thumb with a long straight pin and had to stop to bandage. Can't hide blood on white dress.
Pinned and stitched interfacing to dresses at collars and armholes. Armholes are tricky!
Turned one inside out, pressed down the interfacing. I have to learn how to move more quickly.
To date, I have 12 dresses complete.
In about an hour, I cut and pressed the interfacing for five dresses, and started pinning.
I am working in little blocks of time intermittently. It’s a busy time and sometimes I panic. I’m overcommitted and this won’t change until after the end of the semester. But the cutting and sewing often feels like relief.
It’s impossible not to be thinking about sexual assault and rape. I have not wanted to write about it, post about it, although I understand that others need to. It’s exhausting. To bear witness to the relentlessness of sexual trauma. To be reminded constantly of how deep misogyny runs. To be reminded constantly of how little I am valued as a woman. To be reminded constantly, of every instance in my own life where my body has felt not my own.
As part of the Rumpus community, I’ve been asked to write something about my own experience, and I will. I’ll write about the time I was raped in college. I won’t write about the dozens of other times when I have felt harassed, bullied, made uncomfortable, pressured, coerced. I won’t write about how just last week, a former colleague, as part of a birthday message to which I replied with a heart emoji, said, “I am glad you are not here now because I would kiss you for that pretty heart.” This message on a tiny pop-up window on my screen while alongside, in my facebook feed, that ubiquitous smiling photo of the serial rapist again.
There are still unformed thoughts about women’s work. About these dresses on the small bodies of children who will grow to be girls who will grow to be women. That is for another time.
I was two and a half years old when I made the 18-hour trip from Seoul to New York on an early spring night in 1974. I don’t know who helped me dress that morning, but what they chose for me – a simple, a-line dress – has been the only tangible link I have to the country of my birth.
Two years ago, when I discovered that I had misplaced this dress, I decided to re-make it, using fabric my adoptive mother had left to me when she died. The act of re-creating this object prompted meditation on lineage and legacy – what has been left to me, what has been lost. The dress has become an organizing motif for my writing and art practices.
I made a series of dresses for an exhibit to accompany my graduate thesis work at Vermont College of Fine Arts in early 2016.
Since then, I’ve made dozens of dresses – in fabric and in paper.
“(Re-)Dress, One for Every Thousand,” which will be part of a spring 2018 exhibition curated by Brooke Goldstein for the Jamestown Arts Center, is an installation that uses 200 hand-made white dresses in a symbolic attempt to re-dress the estimated 200,000 Korean children adopted abroad. The color white is traditionally associated with mourning in Korea, and this piece shifts the adoption narrative from the “happy ending” for the lucky orphan to a more complicated meditation on what is lost – for the child, for the culture, for the nation.
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be documenting the making of these dresses. I can’t possibly comprehend the number 200,000 in any meaningful way, but I think I can understand 200. Between my birthday (October 12, which is an estimated date assigned to me by the Orphans’ Home of Korea) and the end of February, when the exhibition is to be installed, there are about 20 weeks. To stay on track, I’ll have to complete 10 dresses per week.
When I’ve talked to people about this project, several have offered to help me with cutting and sewing. I am grateful for the offers, but part of what I am attempting to do requires me to spend the time with each dress, to recognize – in a bodily way, through the work of my hands – that each garment represents a full human life in all its complexities – wishes, dreams, losses, and fears.
We are exposed to so many data points that stand in for human lives. Every day, I see the numbers of the dead – from the disastrous effects of climate change, from gun violence, from the endless wars in which we now participate. The numbers of stories of sexual assault and violence. The relentless stream of numbers can be deadening. It is too easy to gloss over, to lose track.
I don’t know what 200,000 Korean adoptees really means. There are ways I attempt to understand my own life, but I am only one in 200,000. This is my attempt to remind myself that each number is a life. This is my attempt to recognize the lives of the children whose earliest experience was one of rupture. To make space for them, even if only briefly.
Earlier this spring, the great Hilary Jones, Founder of Girls Rock! RI invited me to be part of a panel for Ladies Rock Camp to talk about “integrating arts into your daily life.” I recently found my notes from this and thought I’d put them into a more coherent form, as a way of documenting my thinking for myself, and maybe it might be interesting to others, too. I welcome your comments and insights.
1) Can you tell us a little about your daily life and your arts life in under 2 minutes?
My full-time job is as Director of Evaluation and Learning at the Rhode Island Foundation. I consider myself a poet, mostly. I am currently nearing the end of a low-residency MFA program in Poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I am Essays Editor at The Rumpus, Poetry Editor at Cargo Literary. I play bass in the band WORKING. I am married. I have a daughter who is about to leave for her first year at Bard College later this summer, and a son finishing the third grade.
2) Why do you think it’s important to have arts as a part of your daily life?
I guess I think of art practice less as a part of my life and more as a way of living. It is a practice of attention. A practice of resistance against complacency. A practice of focus – little bits of time in my day when I am not thinking about a hundred different things. It’s a practice of focus. A practice of solitude. My creative practice keeps me curious, alert. And I like to think that because there is so much frustration and so much failure built into the process, that it maybe keeps me patient, and a bit humble, too.
3) What are your tools or strategies do you use to integrating arts into your daily life? Do you set goals for yourself and how do you stick to them? How do you create the physical and mental space to be creative? i.e. do you have a separate music or art studio / do you have “rituals” that you do to clear your mind before working on music/art?
I often do set goals, but I find that for the long-term, the practice is more important. Over the years, I have started several projects and abandoned them, picked them up again, only to discard them again. I have school deadlines that I have had to meet, and (mostly) I have. Occasionally, I’ll commit to submitting for a few deadlines to keep me focused too. But mostly right now, I’m in a generative space and so I try to follow where the work leads me.
I have little office nook – right off our living room, so it’s not private, but I only really work at my desk early in the morning or late at night, when no one else is around. I often will start a writing session with a 10-minute freewrite. Just to warm up a little. To get into the right space.
4) What are the major challenges that you’ve found in integrating arts into your daily life? How do you try to overcome those challenges?
In certain ways, I find it less challenging as I have gotten older, as my kids have gotten older. Although it doesn’t always feel this way, I have some control over my time – my early mornings, my evenings, weekends, and I like to think I’ve gotten a little better at prioritizing the things that are most important to me, including my art practice.
The overarching challenge though is that much of the way my life is set up – with my job, family responsibilities, trying to take care of a house, trying to maintain some semblance of social life – any single part of which could expand to fill all available space – carving out time to do something that might not have any real, visible, concrete “payoff” (to use a crass term), is sometimes difficult to justify. To myself, to others.
I struggle sometimes with trying to define “success.” This is something I worry about less now, since for me, my creative practices are not directly tied to any possible financial rewards. But that may not always be true.
I try to overcome these stumbling blocks through community. It’s an overused word, I know, but it’s been very important to me to have a lot of people around who share interests, challenges, doubts, etc. I have friends who are writers and artists and they are very important to me, to my ability to keep working, to keep challenging myself. And my husband is a writer and musician, too, and we talk about these issues a lot as well. Our creative practices are a core part of of our lives – as individuals, but as a couple, as well.
6) For those of you with children, how has your practice changed (or stayed the same) since you became a parent?
When my children were small, I didn’t really have much of a creative practice – for many reasons, of which parenting was only one small part. Now, whenever possible, I try to integrate my son (who is still young) into my practice. Sometimes, I will read my poems aloud to him as part of the revising process. Or if I have printed out sections, which I often do, I will let him help me move pages around. I guess I want a creative practice to be a normalized part of our lives. Not to be this precious, isolated thing, but as a way to live.
7) Do you think this art/life/work balance is different for men and women?
It’s hard to answer a question like this without relying on some overgeneralizations. That having been said, an important requirement of a creative practice is to take up space – physical, literal space (“a room of one’s own”) but also the time, and intellectual and emotional resources a creative practice demands. I think sometimes it can be more difficult for women to do this – to take up space, to demand these resources – amid all the various roles and responsibilities they are often juggling.
8) Can you share your most important tips for integrating arts into your daily life?
Work through the discomfort – of taking up space, of demanding time, of letting other things go. It can be uncomfortable to prioritize creative practice. But working through it, consistently, makes it easier.
Make art for your friends. Your audience might be quite small, quite specific, and that can be a very sustaining thing. Focus on the process and the ways in which it feeds you. Try to separate out commercial success, if at all possible.
Participate in a creative community as much as your time and energy allows. Write reviews. Send fan mail. Engage in conversation with other artists. Collaborate. Support each other.
Thanks to Hilary and Girls Rock! RI.
It’s like a literary-meme chain letter and it’s called “The Next Big Thing.” I’ve been tagged by Eric Raymond, whose book CONFESSIONS FROM A DARK WOOD, is just out from Sator Press. He talks about it here.
Growing up, I would never pass on an opportunity to participate in such things. I would painstakingly copy the letter with its promises of good fortune and the catalog of ills that might befall the indifferent.
Blind faith in some unknowable future thing? Swift consequences for failure to act? This good Catholic girl says: BRING IT ON.
In this particular instance, I have not been informed of any punishment for noncompliance and although I have long since moved on from my Catholic school days, I am a cautious, anxious woman and why take undue risk?
1. What is the working title of your next book?
Well, it is the current book, the only book and I don’t have a title yet, really, but I have a few words and images I’ve been carrying around. This morning, the phrase I have been turning over in my head is: Hungry, Netted Birds.
2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
There have been many false starts.
The book comes from wanting. From the chasm between what might be and what is.
From learning to mourn what will never be. And learning to love what is.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction? Prose poetry? Lyrical fiction? Collage? Ugh.
Can I pass on this?
4. What actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie rendition?
Oh. Oh. Oh. I’ve got this.
Much of the action, at least so far, revolves around the rather terrible and self-destructive liaisons of the protagonist, a woman who has spent some time struggling, searching.
Which is to say that there would be a rather extensive ensemble cast of rakish, brooding, unsuitable men. It would probably be necessary to bring many, many actors in for screen tests.
I can’t say I have given a great deal of thought to the actors themselves (or to their wardrobes for that matter), but here's a short call-list, in no particular order:
Joaquin Phoenix (plaid flannel shirt, torn in places, top three buttons left open)
Christian Bale (gaunt please, black turtleneck)
Steven Yeun (shirtless, dirt-smeared)
Ryan Gosling (but only with gold scorpion from the jacket he wears in Drive tattooed on chest)
Ralph Fiennes (bandaged)
Djimon Hounsou (contractually obligated to appear only in Calvin Klein underwear?)
Heath Ledger (yes, I understand, but since there is zero likelihood of my ever having to cast this, dream with me. Would need him in that Joker make-up)
Daniel Day-Lewis (cape, cane, one glass eye)
What is Ben Kingsley up to these days?
Also, it would be important – for reasons of artistic integrity – for the author to spend a lot of time on set during the filming. For artistic reasons.
Oh, and there’s this dude who sometimes waits for the bus across the street from my house. He has crazy eyes. I think he’s probably an undiscovered talent just waiting for his big break. Don’t tell me his name. We will just call him bus stop dude.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Yikes. Where were we? What was I saying?
6. Is your book represented by an agency?
Noooo. It is barely even a book yet.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It is still in process. I wrote the first two-thirds of it (terrible, terrible) in four weeks. It will take me at least another four, I am certain, to finish this (terrible) draft.
8. What other books would you compare this to within your genre?
I don’t know that I would compare it with others, but I can tell you my influences: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon; Marguerite Duras (The Lover, Blue Eyes, Black Hair); Carole Maso (Ghost Dance, The Art Lover, Ava, The American Woman in the Chinese Hat); Elizabeth Smart (By Grand Central Station, I Sat Down and Wept); and more recently: Maggie Nelson (Bluets); Renata Adler (Speedboat).
I just started re-reading The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Rilke) and that will have influence too, I expect.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The recognition, upon turning forty, that time is passing more swiftly than I could possibly have understood at any earlier point in my life. The realization that if there are things I still want to do in my brief time on this earth, I will need to undertake them now with focus and with seriousness of purpose.
Turning forty was like cresting a roller coaster’s highest peak. For the first time, you can see clearly what the drop looks like and you know you where you are headed, and you are struck by the speed with which you will inevitably arrive there.
It is breathtaking. This vista. The sky is blue and the sun is bight and you hover there for just a moment. You are high, light-headed. Your heart races.
You are fearful but it is a delicious, life-affirming fear. A sharp intake of breath and then the thrill. The exhilaration of leaning into it. Letting go.
10. What else about this book might pique the reader’s interest?
Did I mention sex? There are many instances – real, imagined, and implied – of sad, disappointing, alienating sex.
If you are into that sort of thing.
So very honored to have been included in Ed Park’s list. Thank you for reading.