An Interview with E.J. Koh

by Kylie Jacks

KohCoverFinalMediumE. J. KOH’s poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Boston Review, Columbia Review, Southeast Review, World Literature Today, TriQuarterly, Narrative, The Margins, PEN America, and elsewhere. She accepted fellowships at The MacDowell Colony, Kundiman, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and the Jack Straw Writers Program. She earned her MFA at Columbia University in New York for Creative Writing Poetry & Literary Translation in Korean and Japanese. She is completing her PhD at the University of Washington for English Language and Literature in Seattle.

In an article on your website, written when you were thinking of halting your writing, you mention feeling as if one “must dream of a lesser love.” Was this the inspiration for the title of your book? How does this line of thinking relate to your choice for a title?

Thank you for picking up that little line. It may be unusual that I have a blog, but it frees me to combine subjects across my mind, whether it’s my craft, my personal life, or how writing has been changing me.

The post was written after the book. The original meaning of the title holds the concept that lesser forms of love can still be love—a look at glimpses of love in what may not be easily identifiable as love. There is a nexus between what we know and what we experience when it comes to love, whether among environments of the body, the family, or the country in war.

For the post, I took the title and relocated it. I meant that, in my state when writing at the time seemed impossible, I would look for another study that provides me a smaller version of love (than what writing provides), so I may keep some of that love. There were years when I picked apart my intentions and I took an important hiatus from writing. When I returned, I felt rooted, ready.

A Lesser Love is divided into three sections: “Heaven,” “War,” and “Love.” What role do the names of these sections play in the way the poems are divided up? How did you decide which poems would go where?

Heaven is about home. The address poems are the different houses I’d lived in and dared to open again. These are moments I remembered from the places I called home. But I didn’t know at the time if I would have a home again. I think separation made me humble and alone, it made me bored and creative, and it made me daring.

War invites the reader to work through han, or the irresolvable gap left from trauma. My grandmother was raised as a Korean Japanese refugee in Ueno, Japan. Japanese occupation, colonialism and the systemic destruction of Korea’s culture, language, and the erasure of their names—these things are not a distant memory. My great grandfather was murdered, stoned to death, during the Jeju Island Massacre before the outbreak of the Korean War. My mother’s heroines were Korean women who threw themselves into fires, jumped off cliffs, and withstood torture until their deaths. There is a history to the language, a culture-specific emotion from a specific trauma that is present everywhere—a gap that is humanly immediate but cannot close, heal.

Love is…love.

How did you intend for the poem “Blurb” to be interpreted? It is a bold yet sometimes funny poem that includes lines like “My words are the most unenticing choices of our century’s literature. / My words punish the reader. / My words do not convey sincerity.” Readers have said that each time they read it they experience a different tone. Sometimes, it feels like a manifesto while sometimes it feels more playful and mocking the form of a book review.

The language is transposed from book reviews, language like “the best…from the Bible to Faulkner…” which are real words. The implications of such reviews, of the ever-intensifying pressures of writing as a business, these things were fascinating to me. My father and my brother are both businessmen. My father left for South Korea to pursue his career. Business was held at such a high priority in my family. I think it made me see that, made me see what I was trying to escape only to realize that I have come directly…face-to-face with it. I wanted to confront it, and understand, my constraints, my hesitations, my assumptions. There are elements here that I am certainly playing with, but I am also trying to dig down into my own reverence for such words.

Your book explores cultural identity in different ways. What do you want your readers to learn from this book?

Readers and I do the meaning-making together. We make sense of the book, through both its writing and reading. But the reading is so essential. It builds a network, a connection between us. The work can be seen as collaborative, dialogic in this way. We both come away feeling broader.

One thing might be that I want readers to feel like they know themselves more through me, and they know me through themselves. I want this connection to come alive in their minds until the separation between us is no longer significant.

What is your next project and in what way is it different from A Lesser Love?

If presence and absence were the riggings of my first book, my second would take the task of tearing them down.