Essay Press’s EP series showcases authors currently developing new book-length projects. EP 24, Notes from a Missing Person, by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, is part of this digital series.
Maria Anderson: In the introduction to Notes from a Missing Person, you talk about this chapbook as a “tentative doorway” you’ve “cut from all the fissures and fractures” you accumulated, a way of putting new life into these family connections you’ve been investigating. You write, “whether one reunites or not, one transgresses by way of the dream.” Can you talk about this dream, and about how you access it?
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs: The dream is for a language that can summon intimacies blocked by power structures—namely, U.S. militarism, forced family separation, and gendered and class violence against single mothers—which configured my imagination to see my Korean relatives as dead. I suppose this is the dream of anyone who, unlike the immigrant pursuing a better life in another country, did not choose to remove herself or himself from home and who recognizes retrieving an intact past is impossible. Instead, there’s the possibility of injecting fresh language to enliven and so challenge fictions of death and distance. This language begins in the body to re-animate areas of feeling in order to create. For example, for me, learning Korean has meant dismantling a silence built by decades of assimilation where I did not know myself as a Korean diasporic woman, and understanding how that silence was made while my mouth tingled and ached, trying to wrap around Korean words I never knew in the first place.
MA: How did you go about learning Korean? Did you find yourself stopping to write as you studied the language? Were there certain words or types of words that lent themselves more to this reanimation?
JKD: There’s always the feeling that you as a diasporic person should know this language. After all, it’s the one that dreamed up and fed you before you became a you, but you can’t articulate it even though it spoke you into being. There’s an uncanny intimacy to this loss that is felt on the cellular level despite the fact that the mind observes from a distance from an English-language shore your skin responding to Korean words that sound like gibberish to your ear bent by English.
So the result is a dissonance that artist Dana Weiser captures in her sculpture “Parasitic Twin.” One body made of two bodies conjoined together, the sculpture enacts the affective and linguistic state that I’m often times writing from, except in my case there would be more than two bodies conjoined, instead perhaps three, even four. All of them vying for care and recognition. Each one a name recognized by a nation or a family that has laid claim to my infant body—to the power to build a person named Kwon Young Mee, Lee Sujin, Jennifer Synobia Dobbs—and the affective and linguistic limbs are still intact, even if they’re missing heads, hands, or feet. So Korean words trigger those limbs to twitch and influence the writing of poems.
MA: In an interview you mentioned Milton was one of your early influences. Did you have others? Who are you reading now?
JKD: A poet whom I love very much and who guided me throughout the writing of my first book was Larry Levis. His elegies were particularly instructive for how they showed me the powers of syntax to layer planes of time looping back and forth to form a dialogic space. I see his influence indirectly in Notes from a Missing Person, even though I’m writing paragraphs and sentences. Another writer who matters to my work is Kim Ki-Taek, whose work I’m currently translating with the assistance of doctoral student Soo Hyun Lee. I admire this poet’s ability to write of violence with a detached, surgical eye, which in turn enables him to delve indirectly into ethical questions. I just finished reading Joyelle McSweeney’s “Necropastoral,” a brilliant set of essays about degradation and contamination and a galley copy of Lynn Emanuel’s forthcoming “The Nerve of It: New and Selected.”
MA: What do you mean by using syntax to layer planes of time? How would you define a dialogic space?
JKD: While reading Levis’s elegies, I noticed how he used long, discursive lines to thread back and forth between moments in time, states of feeling, and directions of inquiry or speculation, and I recognized in his seamless, slight of hand a possibility for my own work. Instead of thinking of time as linear whereby I had been cut off from a past, I revised my notion of time to be more multi-directional. My imagination could lace swathes of time together such that everything is occurring simultaneously within the overall moment of a poem at once, creating a poly-vocal effect.
For example, consider how right now Korea is 14 hours ahead of central time in the U.S., and in this regard, always dwelling in a future relative to my position in space. In a poem, I can bend time by re-positioning the compass. I can collapse distance, re-border, re-instate. Form, in other words, can be reinvented for transgressive acts of presence.
MA: How has your experience translating been? How does the way Kim Ki-Taek writes about violence compare to the way you do so?
JKD: Translating has been a slow, careful process. Working with a native speaker, I’m able to develop a translation that has greater integrity than if I approached the work as an art piece on a mantle, bracketed from its community context.
Kim Ki-Taek depicts violence as a force that leaves its imprint on our bodies and so enables us to change and to survive it. Violence can’t destroy us. Instead, the struggle to eat, dwell, live is eternal. So how does one make sense of that tension between violence and the body without sentiment or giving into nihilism? For Kim Ki-Taek, it’s an endlessly generative space because of the unending change it produces. By comparison, I look at the origins of violence often times with the aim of developing an alternative narrative about its causes. Sometimes that means reading against state-authorized versions about national division and forced separation of families or piercing blind spots enforced by the South Korean National Security Law. That’s work that a Korean diasporic poet can do because of the privilege of positioning outside of the reach of South Korean law. Yet, at the same time, I think Kim Ki-Taek’s study of violence is kindred to my own in that he’s pursuing a similar question—how do we survive the shattering oppressions that have remade us into something barely recognizable? Where his work is at times totemic or scientific, mine is conscious of its social investments and historical uprooting.
MA: What was (or is) the most significant challenge for you in writing about your adoption?
JKD: For a long time, I struggled to avoid this subject. I didn’t want to be read as an adoptee who wasn’t serious about poetry, but who instead wrote only about identity to further an agenda. But at the same time, I know that some readers do come to my work with questions about their own identities and feel kinship with my writing, and if something I’ve said supports their own language making, then there is no greater gift for me as a poet. Still, perhaps the tendency to read adoption into everything I write is a way for the reader to approach my questions about militarism, violence against women’s bodies, cultural erasure, reunification of family and country, race, etc.? Maybe it’s just shorthand?
MA: Notes from a Missing Person moves forward paragraph by paragraph. Some paragraphs consist of only a sentence. How does structure function in this work? Did you know this was the kind of structure you’d adopt for this chapbook?
JKD: The chapbook’s structure developed organically. It was not pre-planned. In fact, the chapbook began as a hot mess in my desk drawer and computer desktop and languished as such for five years, haunting me. As you note, the text depends on the sentence and paragraph, even as it stretches both and at other times contracts them into darts with which to pierce through received rhetoric. Once I gave in and accepted the messiness of the text as the work’s élan vitale, I let go of linearity and narrative and instead embraced the lyrical aspects of the paragraphs, which recursively loop and overlap enacting an intense, peripatetic experience.
MA: In the section titled “[Aperture],” you write: “I’m not supposed to say this because the author has no intentions; the text writes itself as the reader activates the page with her eyes. Can we dispose of these ceremonies and be honest with each other?” Can you discuss these ceremonies, and how you attempt to set them aside? What does honesty mean for you, and how does honesty play a role in Notes?
JKD: In the moment you cite, I’m resisting a way of reading that cleaves the author from the text as a stakeholder in how the text is received—and in the case of “[Aperture]” also translated—by the reader. I’m also speaking to the stakes involved in my experimentation with form, which were out of necessity to give clear shape to the content, not for the sake of adding interest. I’m not sure about honesty. After all, I’m a poet working somewhere between creative nonfiction and the poem. I’m chasing after language that keeps moving between Korean and English, so whatever I write has a provisional, tentative quality to it. It’s impossible to be honest about the truth. The facts keep changing depending on who says them and who is translating them. So being transparent about pursuing language alongside stakeholders, including myself, is a way to show integrity with regard to artistic process.
MA: “Fetish Mothers” was a section I particularly enjoyed—particularly the last paragraph, where you talk about intimate speech, another name for adoption, and “the rattle of bones to bones.” Can you talk about how this section came about, and how it operates in this chapbook?
JKD: I realized—I can’t quite say when—that even if I never reunited with my mother, I had the power to speak her absence by making it present through metaphor, speculation, feeling. I could refocus my resources of language to humanize her shadow, drawing out of my body hers. This process had a facticity about it, even if it lacked verifiable facts. What was true was the desire to see the moment in which we were erased, and in the absence of knowing exactly how, there was still the desire to name one possibility given what few documents I had. In this way, I wrote around our erasure, giving it shape and image.
Despite learning that I was kidnapped by a great aunt (I mention this later in the chapbook), not surrendered by my mother to a social worker, this moment in “Fetish Mothers” is still true, representing the process that I had developed based on what information I possessed at the time. The narrative continues to move as a living story because of secrets, lies, translation, uncertainties, rumors, etc.—all of which is intimate speech. I don’t think it will click shut in my lifetime. Relatives who might know the definitive version are dying or too old to recall significant details.
MA: Kit Myers, whom you mention in “Fetish Mothers”, wrote an article talking about adoption as an inescapably violent process. He suggests that adoption is stigmatized as “non-normative and “less-than” in comparison to blood kinship, and surmises that “any form of adoption is a transgressive act.” “While this goal of destigmatizing adoption is important,” he says, “the work to “normalize” the adoptive family produces violent symbolic consequences for those outside of the narrowly defined ‘real’ adoptive family.” Do you agree with this definition of adoption as transgressive?
JKD: I don’t know. I admire Kit’s work from a critical standpoint. He’s deconstructing assumptions that are often times off limits in conversations about intercountry adoption, and by doing so he’s taking risks that might unsettle others who hold those assumptions as precious. But as a poet, I’m doing a different kind of task—to make art. I cite Kit’s presentation at a conference, not his article in a for-profit company’s magazine, in a poly-vocal moment to grapple with biopolitical violence against women’s bodies that an industry has renamed “love,” and in this moment, I’m putting pressure on that “love” to ask how it works, why it works, what work it does on women’s bodies, and what happens to women’s bodies as a consequence of that work.
MA: In terms of day-to-day life, what sustains you? Do you have a guilty pleasure?
JKD: I’m a new mother and take frequent daily walks with my son in his carrier. It’s often times during those moments that a line will come to me. Maybe it’s the movement of my body breathing against my son’s? While he sleeps, I’m able to read and to write (this interview, for example!), and to sneak in a chocolate truffle or a small glass of wine. It’s interesting how my solitude has actually increased as a consequence of my son’s daily rhythms.
MA: What are things you’ve had to give up, if any, to have a writing life you enjoy?
JKD: During my 20s in particular, I had to give up any notion of stability or security. I was nomadic, moving to cities for graduate school programs and studying with an overwhelming sense of urgency. As a first-generation college student from a working-class family, I constantly felt the need to justify to myself why I’d pursue something as frivolous as poetry rather than a more “useful” profession such as—I don’t know—law or business. So it was difficult to give myself permission to enjoy a writing life. I see this same anxiety in some of my students at St. Olaf College who possess far greater literary gifts than I ever had at their age, but who are fearful of the debt, poverty and uncertainty that pursuing writing with all of their resources would thrust them into. Yet at the same time, they’re miserable for not responding to the call of their talent. It would be easy to dispense precious chestnuts like “You only live once …” but there are the realities of crushing student loan debt and shocking class disparity. A writing life should not be a luxury afforded by a privileged few. And even though I understand and agree with the notion that a MFA is not the only way to pursue a writing life, I also know that education ought to be universally accessible for those who desire its life-changing benefits.
MA: Which literary journals do you read?
JKD: There are so many journals both online and in print that it’s difficult to keep up with them all, but standbys for me include Asian American Literary Review, Cimarron Review, Literature Translation Institute of Korea’s List, Brevity, and Words Without Borders Magazine.
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is a poet, critic, essayist, and teacher. She has presented her work at colleges and conferences in Canada, China, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Maria Anderson is from Montana. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Two Serious Ladies, the Atlas Review, Squalorly, Metazen, and other print and online publications. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming, where she is an editor at Essay Press.