Interview: Korean-American poet Sun Yung Shin


Sun Yung Shin is a profoundly accomplished poet. She’s the author of the collection Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press); co-editor of Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption (South End Press); and author of Cooper’s Lesson (Children’s Book Press), a bilingual (Korean/English) illustrated book for children. She was a 2007 Bush Fellow for Literature and has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Jerome Foundation. Shin teaches at the Perpich Center for Arts Education and presently is completing a prose-poem auto-ethnography (that is, a memoir) titled HARNESS. Skirt Full of Black assumes such command of language, rich with imagery, to put you in mind of, say, LeRoi Jones long before he became Amiri Baraka, challenging your eye and mind to realize an altogether ground-breaking sensibility.

It is not easy to have an original style—which you’ve certainly created. What inspired your style?
Actually the use of collage is a poetic and visual avant-garde convention from the second half of the 20th century. So you could call the style in some of the poems retro—or in a lineage of experimental, fragmented poetry.

You’re concerned with bridging Korean and American culture. Why?
That relationship is the essence of my geographic and cultural condition.

How did come you come to chose poetry as the vehicle for your voice?
There are probably two major reasons. First, like all other poets, I have an innate obsession and fascination with language. Like a musician, whose medium is sound, the medium that draws me is language—which includes sound, rhythm, repetition, and other sonic and structural musical elements. Second, poetry can do what no other language-based form can do, which is evoke dense and complex multivalences in a very small space or short period of time. The multiple meanings available through word play—sounds, images—are nearly infinite.

Skirt Full Of Black—why that title?
It’s a line from one of the poems. For me it echoes some of the themes of the book: gender performance, orthography, and grief.

“Investigative poetry.” Exactly what is it?
Poetry that is looking into form as meaning.

Readers who are accustomed to writing more along the lines of, say, moon, June, spoon rhyming can get thrown by your free-form verse. Do you get impatient with people who have a hard time understanding your work?
Not at all. My work can be difficult on a few different levels. It’s difficult not to stymie people but because I have found being an immigrant woman difficult. There is a lot to navigate, and it’s always changing. Poetry can be different for many of the same reasons a work of fiction can be difficult or challenging: vocabulary, setting, character, verb tense, point-of-view, temporal shifts and other narrative structures. I do hope, though, that my work is worth the engagement, that encountering it will yield some reward that is worth the challenge. Most of us in the U.S. have not had much exposure to a wide variety of poetry. A lot of Americans have had bad experiences with poetry, although I think that’s changing with the generation who are now in grade school, at least here in the Twin Cities. This is thanks to poet-in-the-schools programs, which we should all support wholeheartedly. Poetry is basically like music; the more exposure people have to different kinds of it, the more there is to enjoy. As in classical music, there’s more than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven and as in contemporary music, there’s far more than Top 40. But in truth, I’m pretty thrilled when anyone likes any kind of poetry. It’s a marginalized art form in the U.S. right now, but I think everyone would benefit from having some poetry in their lives. It can be very sustaining in hard times. It’s a very nutritious form of free speech.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.