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.
His poems “Flower” and “Informant” appear in the thirtieth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Flower” and “Informant.”
A: When I was working on “Flower” I was trying to fight my tendency to simply write out whatever imagery that came to my mind – I only wanted to hold on to one single aspect of it, its color like the flower's color, and stay true to it against the constant stream of imagery that wanted to make it anything more than a yellow flower. I was also thinking of William Carlos Williams’ poem “To a Solitary Disciple” and how that poem refuses to go along with beautification of an object with flowery language and, well, try to present clarity of the thing itself. As for “Informant”, the poem came out of my uneasiness about being a translator – and I think I was trying to express my uncertainty about the morality of translating literature from people who were oppressed into a language of immense political, economical, and cultural power. I wondered, as a translator, am I part of the equation that continues to help sustain a certain hierarchy in the world? “Informant” wasn’t trying to answer that question, but perhaps a way of expressing that question.
Q: Do you often attempt to engage with questions or concerns with your poems?
A: I think what usually happens for me is that I would start with an image or a music of certain phrase (or both), and start writing until I realize there is some question or concern that emerges out of it. That is certainly what happened with both “Flower” and “Informant” – I wasn’t thinking that I will write about a flower being nothing else but being yellow, but the lines “You are yellow/ Yellow is not a flower” did start that poem because I simply liked putting those two statements together, and when I continued, I began to see the question or concern I was chasing. Same with “Informant” – I like wearing heavy boots everywhere, and sometimes you get this wonderful sense of lightness when you take them off – how the whole question of translation spurned out of that – I am not sure, but perhaps the lightness I felt was something I desire as a writer – to be free of it, all the while knowing that isn’t possible.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other writing you’ve been doing lately?
A: Interestingly enough, “Flower” and “Informant” seem now like bookends of a phase I was going through with my writing. I wrote “Flower” around 2018, and “Informant” was in 2020. In between, I started a series of poems in which I pushed myself to radically change my style. I am still working on those, but “Flower” and “Informant” seem to come from a different place than these other poems I am working on. The difference is that these two poems are much calmer and tend to be reflective about the subject. I think in the ones that I am working on now I try harder to be ‘in-the-moment’ with them, and they are very extravagant in how they use the language – decadent even. In these two poems and my older poems, I guess I am being almost ascetic in how I write, while more recent work I wanted to be as over-the-top as I can possibly be.
Q: How do you mean by “over-the-top”?
A: Well, let’s see...I guess I was so used to reading and writing poems that valued plain-spokenness for a long time. It struck me one day that I was writing as if I was allergic to the musicality of language. Rhyming, alliteration, assonance, and even chant like repetitions – all those devices that are very up front about the incredible range of sound that exist in the language – you hardly ever see them. I wanted to be exuberant in my use of them and see where that leads me. Perhaps I am practicing some type of necromancy.
Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What writers or works are in the back of your head as you write?
A: Despite never really thinking about this consciously, I think Yi Sang has been and will be a huge part of my influence. I hesitated to admit this part about my writing before because, well, for a Korean poet to say that Yi Sang is their influence would be like saying I am influenced by part of my landscape or by one of the constellations. It is already there and not exactly something you have discovered for yourself. However, as his translator and as a Korean American writer, I think I am beginning to see that his influence is manifesting in a different way through me. How they manifest, I think, is what my poetry will show.
Q: What is it, specifically, that attracts you? And which came first: your work translating his writing, or his influence upon the ways in which you approach your own work?
A: I started translating Yi Sang in college, when I was taking a poetry workshop led by Jorie Graham. She had recommended to us that if we know another language, one of the best ways to learn composition was to translate poetry. I asked my mother about Korean poetry, about which I knew basically nothing at the time. (I came to America when I was 12 years old, right out of elementary school). Of all the poets she showed me, Yi Sang was the one who caught my imagination – simply because I had never seen anything like his poetry – I didn’t even know what he did could be called poetry then. I think I started to translate him almost immediately. At the same time, I was learning about many of the American poets for the first time, too: William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Wright, John Ashbery and others. I think out of all of them Hart Crane and Yi Sang share a certain vision – though what that vision is I will have to think more deeply about – but right now I could say that it has something to do with a poet of cosmic sensibility (or spirituality) living in modernity’s alienation. I think they both deal with this by pushing the rules of their language to their limit until something pulls through from that cosmic side of things, and I think that’s what I would like to approach as well.
Q: And finally, I know you’ve answered a bit of this, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Other than Yi Sang and Hart Crane, and some of the other poets I have listed, Don Mee Choi’s translations and original poetry have constantly inspired me since I first started reading them. The work she started in Hardly War and continues in DMZ Colony that showcases this virtuosic presentation of docu-poetry is astounding. My friend Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species shares this sense of docu-poetry and contending with the legacies of one's identity as a member of Korean Diaspora. Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution was another book of poetry that opened my eyes on how brilliant use of language and investigation of one’s past and future can expand poetry’s horizons. I recently had a pleasure to listen to Monica Youn read her poem “Detail of the Rice Chest” that was recently published on Harper’s, and I have been obsessed with it ever since.