Marci Cancio-Bello: You grew up in the slam community, and your debut poetry collection Cut to Bloom is an artifact of text. Can you talk about the process of writing these poems and then shaping them into a book?
Arhm Choi Wild: Yeah, I love this question because I've definitely grappled with it a lot. Going to my MFA, there are a lot of things I was resentful of or resistant to after growing up in the slam community. Line breaks are definitely one of the hardest parts for me; how do I stay true to how it sounds when I read out loud, but how do I also let it be successful on the page and allow it to be its own separate entity? In the end, I decided to let the page version be its own thing, so then I wasn’t constantly struggling between which version I want to be the most loyal to. It was definitely hard because I wanted the reader to be able to hear the way I would perform the piece, but I also wanted it to live successfully on the page. But in the end, the duality felt fitting in some ways because the book itself grapples with duality. I have to trust that when I read it out loud, it can be its own thing, and then it can also be its own thing on the page as well.
MCB: Is there going to be an audiobook?
ACW: That’s an interesting question. I think that would depend on the publisher, but I think because we are in the times that we are, I’ll definitely put up different recordings of poems online. I’ve definitely felt more connected reading my poems out loud. I really love [my publisher] Write Bloody because part of their submission process was that you had to submit a video of yourself reading. I was like, “Okay, finally, here's a book contest where I can really submit something that encapsulates more of who I am as a poet and how my poems live out in the world.”
MCB: Did you write these poems as a recent project, or have you been working on some of these for a while?
ACW: The oldest poem in this book I wrote when I was 18. The newest poem I wrote six months ago. The bulk of the book, though, I've been working on for the last 12 years. A lot of them are in their 30th draft.
I think it’s taken me a really long time to realize I had permission to talk about violence, and that [talking about] it wasn't shaming my family or being untrue. There are a lot of cultural expectations of Korean-ness, that you don't talk about your dirty laundry in order to maintain a sense of propriety. But I think also that being socialized as a woman, being socialized as the child of an immigrant, being socialized as a survivor of sexual assault, you’re told to not talk about these things. It took me that long because I had to go through my own journey of feeling like I actually could talk about it, and actually fit into who I wanted to be in the world, my philosophy about how I contribute, and to really believe that that was a worthwhile endeavor.
MCB: Was there a specific moment that you realized this was a book you wanted to put out in the world?
ACW: It was shaped during my MFA program. If you go in the slam community, it's all about instinct and intuition, and the MFA is about form, the canon and history. When I got out of the MFA, the manuscript had the “MFA lens” on it. Working on that manuscript over the next decade really helped feel like it was more mine, more pure and more a melding of the formal and informal poetry worlds I come from.
MCB: When did you feel like the book was “done?”
I was definitely putting in edits after the deadline. The publisher was like, “That was the last one?” And I was like, “Oh, but there's two or three more things I want to do. I think I'm probably going to keep working on this book.” There's little tweaks and things I would have made. But I think I finally felt done when I wrote “The Forgotten War,” because the Korean War is something that I've been wanting to write about and grapple with. It's also a poem I couldn’t write until I was 33. I've had the experiences I've had, and the veil of white supremacy has been lifted in some ways. Being able to understand myself as a Korean American in the context of America in the 21st century really allowed me to feel like it was finished because I was finally able to write that poem.
MCB: That’s one of the longest poems in the book.
ACW: Yeah, definitely. One of the hardest poems for me to write, because it's the one that really questioned what does loyalty to my American-ness look like? What does it mean to criticize this culture, the country that I'm really grateful for because it has given me so many opportunities? It has allowed me to be queer and out and gender nonconforming and to be raised by a single mom who actually had a chance of being successful. What does it mean to criticize that? That’s part of what took me so long to write it.
I had to undo all the training that I've been told about the Korean War, that the Americans saved us and Koreans cannot save themselves. So many people have come up to me like, “Hey, I fought in the Korean War,” expecting a moment of connection or gratitude. I've never really known what to felt in those moments, and it required too much undoing on my part of what I've been told about the Korean War. I was scared to write my own narrative about it.
MCB: Can you talk about the form for “The Forgotten War”?
ACW: I broke it up into different sections because it was hard for me to trust the slim narratives I've been handed about the Korean War. And it's the only poem in the book that doesn't follow conventions of capitalization and grammar. How do we center the Korean perspective of this war in a way that it hasn’t been, at least for me? How do I center the comfort women who've often been erased, who are still fighting to get reparations and to have their experience fully recognized? Their names are some of the only ones capitalized in that poem. Even though there aren't many spaces in which comfort women get to take center stage, I wanted this to be a space where they could.
Something else I want to talk about is the spaces in that poem itself. With that, I hope to examine what was being left out of the story and how U.S. involvement shaped the narrative of the people who are the most affected by that war. We know that the conquerors get to write the history. And there are a lot of holes, but what parts of the narratives do we not have access to because of who has control of the narrative? But what does my American-ness allow me to speak about that perhaps my Korean-ness doesn’t?
I'm a foreign-born Korean, so there's obviously an abyss between me and the narrative because I don't speak the same language as the Koreans who have experienced that war, but that language barrier also allows me to speak about this in a way that I wouldn't be able to if I was born and raised in Korea. I was hoping that the spacing between words conveyed the spaces in the narrative because of the politics and power dynamics at play, but also how that split has also allowed me to speak about this and to name the ways that the trauma of the war has been passed on through generations.
MCB: You include both Korean and English in some poems. Some lines you translate, but others aren’t translated until the glossary in the back of the book. It seems to tie with this theme of who gets to tell the story and how.
ACW: Yeah, definitely. In one of my MFA workshops with her, Cathy Park Hong asked me, why am I writing for a white audience? That has really stuck with me. I was like, “Oh my God, I completely am writing for a white audience, that’s who I'm imagining reading this book.” But that's not who I'm writing it for. Why would I want to make sure that it is digestible through a white lens? I'm writing this book because I wanted it to be the book that I could read when I was younger. So the glossary at the end was to mimic the effort that non-native English speakers have to go to through to engage with the world on an everyday basis. It's also centered Korean-ness in a way that I don't really often see it centered. I've had to go through my own un-learning of white supremacy and had to get to my own pride of being Korean American. Including Korean without direct translations was a way to be unapologetic about my differences. I'm not always successful at doing that in my everyday life, but I wanted to write a book in which I could center my Korean-ness and not be ashamed of it in a way that I'm not always able to be.
MCB: A recurring image in many of your poems is the mouth or the tongue. Can you talk about that in light of this idea of translation and native vs. non-native speakership?
ACW: There are so many forces that demand my silence, being a supposed “model minority” and being a queer person whose marriage is never talked about amongst my Korean relatives. Writing this book was some way for me to combat that lifelong training that I'm not supposed to burden other people with the challenges I’ve faced, or that I'm not being a good Korean by being honest about the violence that my family went through, but also speaking back to misogyny that says that we don't talk about sexual violence, that it's just something that we leave behind. The mouth is the instrument that I'm using to speak up about violence which has been silenced for generations. My obsession with the mouth has to do with the fact that it's an object of resistance, but it's also an object of desire, and while it’s an object of separation, it's also an object of communion.
I am also grappling with what it means to have a mouth that requires translation in order to speak with my mother. At my last Kundiman retreat, my mom had sent me a card congratulating me on my wedding, and I needed my poetry teacher to translate it for me. In many ways, I feel betrayed by my own mouth and its inability to speak freely with my mom. I see so many people who share a language with their moms, and I envy them every time, the ways that they're able to talk without thinking.
MCB: I admire how unflinching you are when talking about the violence, but also how tender you are when writing about love. There’s that line, “How I yearn to love like rain, falling without measure.” It was powerful to think that, after all this, you’re still choosing love and forgiveness and redemption.
ACW: The book was a way for me to craft a path toward forgiving my father. The last time I saw him, I was 23. I finally felt old enough to have my own ground to stand on. I think a lot of kids who grow up in abused households create an overwhelming sense of self-responsibility, that they somehow could have done something to change what happened to their family. Part of why I wanted to forgive my father was because, by naming his demons, by being able to name his addiction, by being able to name his depression, I was able to take off that responsibility that I, as a child, could have actually done something to change the actions of my father. I was tired of carrying around the narrative of abuse and neglect, and forgiving him felt like the only way to change how the weight of it felt in my life. While the book itself was a way to craft what forgiveness looked like and what it wanted to look like after, there is no one point of forgiveness; forgiveness has to happen multiple times, over and over again.
The timing of finishing the book was actually very odd because I found out that my father passed away three days before my final edits were due for the book. While that journey is never fully over, it did put an end point on it, like, “Okay, now whatever my thoughts or feelings are around this man are now completely things that I'm creating on my own.” I cannot wait for someone else to do something to make the narrative feel better, I cannot wait for someone to make active choices around what they hear tons of trauma and violence looks like. It's completely up to me how I shape this going forward.
MCB: You’re really intentional in presenting the idea of active forgiveness to the reader from the beginning. You named the book Cut to Bloom, and the title poem encapsulates the whole book arc. Can you talk about choosing your title?
ACW: I didn't want this book just to be about sitting in all the hurt, especially because I've realized that is something I had to make an active choice around. I like different ways that the title could be interpreted. Just as the language barrier or cultural differences refract the meaning of things differently, I wanted the title to also encapsulate that. I like that it could refer to the need to prune away dead branches in order to make way for new growth. It can refer to the violence of being separated from your mother tongue, your family, your culture and then making your own version of community, or the journey one takes in order get from a wound to something someone can be proud of. The title also referred to how blooms require careful cultivation and the active choice to outgrow or take away what doesn't serve you anymore in order to become the best version of yourself. For me, it speaks to the possibilities inherent in taking your own growth into your hands and deciding that you aren't going to wait for the people to do better in order to create a life that you can be proud of.
MCB: That’s so empowering. Can you talk about the cover art too? It ties in so well.
ACW: Zoe Norvell made the cover. I am obsessed with Joseph Cornell, who created a lot of shadowboxes. He was a collector of objects, and I'm also a collector of objects. I've collected feathers and spoons and keys and compasses for a really long time as a way to surround myself with talismans or reminders of the possibility of choice and the possibility to arm myself with the tools that I need. Zoe went off my obsession with Joseph Cornell to create a shadowbox and then asked what kind of objects I would want. I love the crow feather because everyone thinks the crow is a symbol of darkness, but crows to me are a sign of everyday magic or being able to transform darkness into light. There's also that myth about the crow that they're responsible for bringing fire down to earth, and their feathers are black because they were burned in the process. I think that myth is a really great reminder of what it means to be transformed by the choices that you make. The iris is there because my mom owned a dry cleaner for a long time, and that is in many ways why we were able to change our narrative from one of family on welfare to my mom being able to pay for our college tuitions on our own, which I'm still baffled and amazed by. In Korean culture, the three petals of the iris stand for wisdom, bravery and hope. She named her dry cleaner “Iris Drycleaners” as a reminder for herself about the power of hope. The book is in many ways an homage to my mom, so it feels appropriate for that to be on the cover.
MCB: That’s really beautiful. Not many people get to have their cover custom-made for their book. Aside from collecting objects, are there any specific self-care techniques or ways you’ve kept yourself grounded while writing?
ACW: In order to write hard poems, you have to go to hard places to be honest and true. I interrupted my wife a lot in whatever she was doing to ask her questions or demand hugs or just bother her. I also read a lot of poems of people who I felt were doing exactly what I wanted this book to do, which was to be unafraid to talk about the things that have happened. The first versions of this book were really vague and abstract and refused to talk with the violence specifically. So I've really turned to poets who help me remember my manifesto. Jeanann Verlee, Claudia Rankine, Ocean Vuong. The Vagina Monologues was a huge guiding light for me because they do such an amazing job of charting out language, of how we could talk about violence and love in the same breath. I relied on brave poets who are able to say the truth out loud. Definitely was self-care for me to be like, “Okay, I'm not just being selfish or not making the world a worse place in bringing these stories of violence into the world.” I'm actually trying to do what these amazing poets are doing, which is to break the silence in order to break the cycles of violence.