Thursday, March 11, 2021

Talking Poetics #40 : Jack Jung


How does a poem get started for you, and is that something that has changed over time?

When I first started writing poetry, I wrote lines to capture images in my mind. I cannot say for certain, but I think those images have always been there, and I do not know why they are haunting me. After a while, I wrote lines that were pleasing to my ears to draw out those images.

And then, I started to translate Korean poetry into English. I came to America when I was twelve years old. I spoke Korean at home and learned English in school. However, I still do not know what language I dream in, and when I wake up from my dreams, I am left with afterglow of visions that transpired in my sleep. Translating poetry taught me how to translate those images into my languages.

I do not think my two languages take turns inside my head. They are always at play or at odds with each other. I also find it difficult to tell the difference between when I am translating and when I am writing my own poetry.

Do you begin with a loose structure, a phrase or a word, or the kernel of an idea?

I have learned that when I am translating those images from my head into my languages, the best way is to start with an assortment of sounds that are unlikely to happen naturally in everyday speech. For me, this usually means snatching an aggressive rhythmic effect whenever I hear it. This might turn into some random hums, or I might try to fit it into some well-known syllabic meter in Korean or accentual-syllabic meter in English. I keep at it until something get caught in the net of those sounds, and what I catch is one of those images that have been floating inside of me. I believe it is a fragment of the whole thing itself that is still buried deep somewhere in the soul.

Are you prompted by the work of other poets, or, say, something you read in a newspaper?

I am not sure, and I do not mean that I somehow standalone. I only mean that at least when I am in the moment of writing these days, I start with humming. Some internal music is the prompt, and the words or phrases that give shape of language, or the form of sense, to this music have roots in things that I have read or heard or seen.

Do you start at the beginning, somewhere in the middle, or work from a scattering of notebook entries?

I start working on what I think will be my first line, and then I write until I forget what I thought was my first line. I am terrible at making titles for my poems, even though that is often the true first line of the poem.

Do you utilize notebooks, and how does that help?

I keep a small notebook around to write down anything that pops in my head. But, for some reason, I never go back and use what I wrote down and start working from there. When I start a new poem, I always start with blank page. I think the act of writing something down may be more important than what I wrote down when it comes to keeping a notebook.

How are line-breaks (or the choice to ignore them) chosen? Etcetera.

I tell myself there needs to be a good reason for a sentence to not end when the line ends on a page. Having said that, I have translated many prose poems, such as the poems of Yi Sang (1910-1937), I have always felt that each of his prose poems are in fact an exceptionally long single line. When I read them, I can see he had no reason to end them with any breaks. He also does not use the breaks between words that is one of the rules in Korean grammar. He hardly uses any punctuations. There is an unrelenting force pouring out from his sequence of syllables. That force gives shape to his images. His images are dark as shards of obsidian cooled in the aftermath volcanic eruption. And the shards are sharp enough to pierce through the false reality that was imposed on him and his people in the wake of colonialism and fascism. 

Maybe even focusing on recent threads in your work, or even a recent (and/or recently published) poem?

My poem Code, which was published by Afternoon Visitor on their first issue, is one of the first poems I was ever proud of. I no longer write poems like it, but I learned a lot about caesura, which is a type of line break, when I was working on that poem’s last stanza. I learned that repeating a word after many pauses could create a whole new sensation for the repeated word:





Inside the teacher’s office

is a slab of stone, roughly chiseled

with shapes we have no key for.


It is wide enough for me to lie down

and stretch until my extremities

touch the jagged edge.


He demands I see a dolphin

where he sees one. As his favorite, I must

find the white that swims in black.


The teacher asks I think on the dolphin,

how it floats in the ocean

filled with other life.


I fail. I tell him I have found it.

He believes me. I fail again.

I lie on the stone and swim.




Jack Jung is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States. He received his BA in English from Harvard, and an MA in Korean Language and Literature from Seoul National University. His translations of Korean poet Yi Sang’s poetry and prose are published in Yi Sang: Selected Works by Wave Books. He is the American Literary Translation Association’s 2021 Emerging Translator Mentorship Program Mentor for Korean poetry. He currently teaches Korean poetry translation at Literature Translation Institute of Korea.


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