In the Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Su Hwang
1. Tell us about your poem in Volume 21, “The Price of Rice.” How did it come to be?
Back when I was putting my manuscript together, I wanted to write a poem honoring my mother’s sacrifices and hardships to balance out (tonally) the other poems highlighting our somewhat complex relationship (like so many mother-daughters)––while acknowledging my own complicity in the dynamic. She rarely talks about her difficult childhood (losing her father during the Korean War, displacement, homelessness, etc.), but one of the snippets I’ve never forgotten is how just handfuls of rice fed my great-grandmother, grandmother, two aunts, and an uncle for a substantial period of time during and after the war.
Our generation takes so much for granted; I take so much for granted. This poem brings to light the enormous chasm between my mother’s upbringing in war-torn Korea and my life here in America––where abundance is the norm, not the exception. As a child of immigrants, I’m always negotiating that emotional space between gratitude and guilt. The poem came to me when I put my iPhone in some rice after dropping it in water and I remembered my mother once using the word “catastrophe.” One of the major themes in the book is about the difficulties of communication. “The Price of Rice” is one of those rare “gift poems”––once the first line came to me, I basically wrote the entire poem in one sitting.
2. What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
It’s still hard for me to believe I’m here answering these questions for such an amazing literary journal. Six years ago when I was in my late thirties, I packed up my jalopy and drove to the Midwest from SF/Oakland after years of waitressing and moving around aimlessly. Somehow I landed a spot at the University of Minnesota’s MFA Program from what I like to call a Hail Mary application process. So I guess the fact that I can call myself a writer in my early forties after decades of self-doubt/fear of failure/imposter syndrome/whatever you want to call it is exciting, plus I love that new communities can be built through my creative practice. I think point-of-view is really important and if a piece of writing lacks a strong voice, I tend to get bored fairly easily.
3. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
I can’t really pinpoint one experience––it’s been a circuitous and oftentimes random journey. I knew about my paternal family’s literary legacy in Korea, but it wasn’t something I thought about as a child (of immigrants)––art is normally seen as a distraction or luxury. I’m pretty sure my parents would’ve preferred I become a doctor or the wife of one at the very least. Friends of my parents and other random adults would say writing had to be in my blood because of my grandfather, Hwang Sun-won, and my uncle Hwang Tong-gyu, who is a renowned Korean poet and scholar. My father was a sports journalist before we immigrated to the U.S., so maybe writing is in my blood. I didn’t find poetry (or did poetry fine me?) until I was 36 years old.
4. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
BODEGA explores issues of identity, race, im/migration, and marginalization within marginalized communities. Most of the themes are political in nature because my existence and body have been politicized. Social justice issues are paramount in my writing, and my involvement with the MN Prison Writing Workshop and Poetry Asylum brings abolition to the forefront. My next poetry collection will examine madness, mass incarceration, and other metaphors of containment. I’m also dabbling in witchery––from learning about astrology and crystals to reading tarot.
5. What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
My creative process is a hot mess if I’m being perfectly frank. There’s really no rhyme or reason to the “process.” I count daydreaming as part of my writing process, so I guess it means I write all the time? I really wish I could be more disciplined, but alas, I’m not that kind of writer. Sometimes I write in bed but most of the time I’m at my dining table (which doubles as a desk) in pajama pants. Is there such a thing as osmotic writing? Hmm.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Su Hwang was raised in New York then called the Bay Area home before transplanting to the Midwest. A recipient of the inaugural Jerome Hill Fellowship in Literature, the Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize, writer-in-residence fellowships at Dickinson House and Hedgebrook, among others––her debut poetry collection BODEGA is forthcoming with Milkweed Editions in October 2019. She teaches creative writing with the MN Prison Writing Workshop and is the co-founder of Poetry Asylum. Su currently lives in Minneapolis.