Illustrating Pain Artfully: Chiwan Choi
By Devin R Hendricks
I was trying to skim through another assigned reading for my coursework when something caught my eye and dipped into my perfectly-budgeted time. The word “spontaneous” loses the youthful feeling of wanderlust when linked to the word “abortion.” It threw me to see it again. I had encountered it in Chiwan Choi’s poem “her journey” from his second collection, Abductions, which confronts loss, including that of an unborn child. Reading this piece brought me out of my overstimulated, material life and transported me to that fluorescent-lit hospital room where strangers in scrubs keep telling you things that you don’t want to hear.
One of the most uncompromising voices of our current poetic moment, Choi is able to implant emotion, even to the unwilling, in order to tell his truths. His published books include The Flood (2010), Abductions (2012), The Yellow House (2017), and also Ghostmaker (2015), which was read aloud at public events and then burned. He is a founding partner and editor at Writ Large Press; he publishes regularly in Cultural Weekly; and he has fast become a cultural voice for his Downtown Los Angeles community, as well as for his Korean roots.
I was first introduced to Choi when I was eighteen and hungry. My stomach growled in the back of the Riverside, California, conference room around 8pm, as I sipped coffee and waited for the reading to begin. Choi arrived and then announced that he had quit poetry and was done with readings . . . unexpected first words at an actual poetry reading. He said that we would be doing something different. He started reading posts from his Facebook wall and invited us to talk to him.
I asked where he liked to write. He told me on the bus.
When I came across “her journey,” it took me a beat to register how I recognized the name Chiwan Choi. In a rather profound moment of realization, I thought, wait one minute–this is the man who declared to me (and publicly) he had quit poetry. Yet here he is with new published work, work that spoke to me in ways I never imagined possible. Work that is now published in the New York Times. I had to find out what made him come back.
Lucky for me Choi is reading on my campus, Woodbury University, April 16th, and I was able to ask him a few questions beforehand . . . such as, what made him come back?
“I actually got back to doing readings (and writing, because I’d given up on reading AND writing at the time) in the summer of 2014, when one of my poetry heroes, Douglas Kearney, asked me if I’d read with him. So I couldn’t say no to that.” I suppose heroes do have some pull when it comes to bringing people out of their early retirements.
Choi was called “the Jay-Z of poetry” by LA Weekly after he publicly quit the game because of a bus-ride epiphany. He left a reading, a successful one, and then realized on the ride home that traditional poetry and readings were not the way to reach a larger audience. “If poetry is about getting to the reader and the world, then doesn’t that defeat the point to write poetry and put it in a book that no one would read?“ But much like the rapper, he couldn’t stay away. And we are thankful for that.
Choi has more in common with Jay-Z than just the failed retirement. His poetry often sounds like song lyrics and contains themes drawn from urban life and culture that read like smooth R&B. In this excerpt from The Yellow House, the lines move to a beat that makes me sway with the invisible song he creates:
in a stranger’s music,
i heard my own voice.
in my voice, i heard my brother
giving me the keys to his Camaro.
in that night on that twisty part of Sunset
i heard my mother asking me to come home.
in that home i heard my father
falling asleep on the couch.
in his dream i heard
a girl’s hair flutter in the breeze.
in the breeze i saw my sister
i saw my sister in the breeze.
Choi laughed when I asked him about the comparison between his work and R&B. He told me he thinks it mostly comes out of that LA Weekly article that labeled him the Jay-Z of poetry. “Having said that, yeah, music definitely is a major influence. Because I mostly write on my phone now (because I’m traveling a lot, I just use my Notes app on my phone to write on). I do have music on when I’m writing.” Perhaps I, like others, have been misled by his Jay-Z title into forcing a comparison to the rhythmic beats of R&B. Or maybe their influence on Choi is more like a subtle background track than an obvious sampling.
During his leave of absence, he turned to Facebook and has remained active on social media throughout his subsequent career. Instagram seems to be a popular outlet for young poets, and most recently there has been talk surrounding Rupi Kaur and whether or not her poetry counts as poetry. This buzz has been present on campus, and I couldn’t help but ask Choi, who has spoken out about elitism within the poetry world, his view on the topic:
“My take on Rupi Kaur: (1) Whether poetry is on Instagram, or Facebook, or in a chapbook, or on the side of a building, or published by Penguin, what does it matter? Attacking it because of what we deem as a frivolous medium (like Instagram) is really old-man-shaking-fist-at-clouds stupid; (2) I personally don’t like Kaur’s work at all, but so what? Millions of people do; (3) But I would rather read a poem of hers on Instagram than another one of WRDSMTH’s dumbass wheat-paste poems on some gentrified wall; (4) HOWEVER, this is where it’s important to separate the medium/technique/quality of Kaur’s (or anybody’s) work with who they are. Her ridiculous (and dangerous, since the mainstream WILL point to her as ‘representing’ a POC voice) ideas about what should or shouldn’t be poetry is ridiculous and should be criticized/slammed, just like anybody else’s.”
Speaking for myself, I’d rather read an Instagram poem than listen to people criticize the younger generation of poets who have helped massively in bringing poetry into the mainstream. Just because someone (and, by someone, I mean a traditional-poetry elitist) doesn’t like a type of poetry does not mean that it is not poetry. Shall we walk up to an artist’s painting and point and say, “no, sir, that is not art”? I suppose people can, and do, and will, but Rupi Kaur is still cashing a bigger check than those elitist poets at the end of the day, so she probably doesn’t care about their opinions much.
The points about Kaur’s impact culturally are beyond my realm or ability to tackle. My California-born-and-raised-by-a-white-ass-family-dominant-culture doesn’t always give me a visible understanding of the multicultural implications around me. However, Choi reveals his fluency in the conversation of culture, both politically and creatively.
The Yellow House, Choi’s recent, book-length poem, deals with culture in a way that opened my eyes and helped me see differently. He is able to communicate culture clearly though his expression of feeling. The vulnerability, the simplicity, and the precision deliver a specific flavor that can’t be replicated:
is spelled like
like the one my father
put in my hand
while i stood shaking
on redondo pier
as he showed me how to filet
a mackerel without crying
where are the lessons of past nights this morning
when the tears come through the bones
like the sun through the trees
because it is my skin
that slices open.
that’s how hope is:
your father’s hand on your shoulder
when he tells you god
The role of parents in one’s life is a recurring theme in The Yellow House. At some points, they are godlike; while at others, they are fragile and a constant reminder of the brevity of human existence. The question of existence is one we all dare to ponder, but Choi is able to take it further, to have you visualize the unknown and reach out to feel it.
Apart from parents, culture, and Los Angeles, The Yellow House also confronts the loss of an unborn child. In recent months, I have become more familiar with this type of loss than I’d ever wished to be; I have become paralyzed with fears of existence and the afterlife; and I have found myself wishing for a heaven I never before believed in.
The way Choi is able to communicate his loss through his poetry gives a sense of both desperation and deliverance. He tackles a difficult topic without inflicting pain on the reader. He keeps the pain as his own and shares what comes closest, I think, to something resembling hope:
but memory has replaced the letters with blank spaces—
how many syllables were
going to bring happiness?
alone in an unwelcome light
standing among the boxes that we are carrying
to another home.
you whose name i have lost:
i have for so long
believed i was the monster
at the center of my family
of my love
of everything that breaks
but i am tired
i want to put this anger down
and the hope too
that keeps returning unwanted
and run through the forest
toward the echo
that sounds like my name
from the yellow house
in a field of lavender.
The line “i want to put this anger down” reads to me as acceptance–perhaps, forgiveness. But then the next line, “and the hope too,” brings me back to desperation. Total loss. Unattachment. For me, the hope in this excerpt lays in the forgetting. The mind’s ability to let go of what pains us.
I asked Choi, again, now five years into the future from our first meeting, where his favorite place to write is: “Buses probably. “
There is something poetic about hearing this same, familiar answer in such a seemingly inauthentic and fleeting world. It is a joy to come across something real. Something that remains throughout a whirlwind of new experiences–the sustainability of habit and personality.
For some reason, Choi makes me feel as though I have time-traveled, from the Riverside conference room to my computer screen now. From his yellow house to my hospital room. And, in a few short days, to Woodbury University. If given the opportunity, I would thank Douglas Kearney personally for bringing Choi back to writing, and to readings, and to creating content for me to overindulge in. For now, I will take another journey through The Yellow House, and patiently wait for Choi’s reading on the 16th.