Interview: Emily Jungmin Yoon on her debut poetry collection “A Cruelty Special to our Species”

Emily Jungmin Yoon is a PhD student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University. She sits down with The Maroon to talk about her debut poetry collection “A Cruelty Special to Our Species”.

By Atman Mehta, Contributor

Emily Jungmin Yoon sat down with The Maroon to talk about her debut poetry collection, trends in contemporary poetry and more. The interview has been transcribed below.

On writing across cultures

I am of the camp that every poem is political, even if it’s not directly or explicitly about ideological convictions, even if it doesn’t have those. I think if it intentionally turns away from the world, denies the world, then it is a political movement.

I like to think that there is creative potential in existing in that realm, that in-between. Or maybe it’s not an in between but possessing both worlds. I think that comes in the form of translation oftentimes. I think translation is a rife ground for creativity. For example, there are words or phrases or idioms in Korean that don’t exist in English and trying to transfer that into English can produce a lot of new ideas or help with increasing the sensitivity of your observational skills. And I think you can work the other way, there are some things in English that don’t exist in Korean, so trying to express the idea that exists in English but not in Korean can also be a very creative exercise.

A lot of the poems I write are about history and it’s not really, I think, a matter of culture. I am kind of wary of saying that American culture is like this and Korean culture is like this, especially because the United States is an amalgamation of many cultures. A lot of people of different races and ethnicities are in this country. So, I look at more what histories are on the surface in this country and when we’re talking about the Korean War or the Second World War, most people in the United States don’t know much about them except for the fact that the United States dropped H-bombs in Japan so I try to grapple with that differing levels of awareness and what histories are prioritized in each country.

On the contemporary role of society

I think that poetry has so much potential for movement and activism because of its generic qualities. Because in a poem, many, many perspectives can speak. For example, it doesn’t have to be from one person’s point of view but it can be from many people. Or sometimes it doesn’t have to have a narrator at all. So, freedom is one of the key ingredients of poetry. And the fact that it allows so many voices to speak all at once. Or so many voices to speak in one collection, it is very powerful and can lend itself to movements and speaking for or representing many people.

A lot more people are reading poetry, and some of these poems are not ones that have been categorized as poems before. For example, Rupi Kaur’s Instagram poems, or spoken word poetry, which is sometimes right in opposition to page poetry of academia or institutions and Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature for poetry. I think a lot of people engaging in the genre of poetry now and it is going in the right direction.

On the motivations to write

I think that I also use poetry to grapple with my own personal experiences, things that have happened in the past. And recently I found myself leaning into softness or tenderness on memories that have been painful to me. Memories that have made me angry or frustrated before. And poetry is a way to ask myself what are some productive ways to grapple with them.

When I was writing A Cruelty Special to our Species, my first full length collection. I was using poetry as a way to ask questions about the issues that are unresolved, or that have stuck in my mind. For example, the Comfort Women’s history, it is still an ongoing problem. The women haven’t seen appropriate reparations and a lot of them have passed away. There are twenty-four former Comfort Women in South Korea now, they are all ninety or over. I use poetry as a way to ask questions about that history, that issue. What else can we do to increase awareness? What else can we do to support these women? What can we do to make people have more historical consciousness?

On reading poetry

I think reading poetry means that you learn to approach the world with wonder, that expands your world a little bit. That you learn how to describe what you observe with more fluidity, with more imagination. This is not to say that fiction, and non-fiction, other genres don’t encourage that. But because poetry is a genre in which linguistic experimentation is especially welcome and celebrated and encouraged, it allows me to think of ways to describe something in very many different ways. It allows me to look at something in many different ways. It allows me to think again about what are some things that are worthy of noticing? What other things do I notice and what other things do I not? I think poetry is an opening to those questions.