In your book Into the Cyclorama you weave together threads of cultural identity, history, and personal experience to examine your family's immigration experience to and from South Korea. Can you tell us how you brought these threads together in your work?
As I started writing this book I found myself drawn to collaging together fragments of my personal history with facts I’d researched about the larger historical backdrops to my narratives. Occasionally I invented historical texts, as in “The Bronze Helmet (a Retrospective),” or combined personal material with larger historical backdrops, as in “Post-colonial Album: 1980.” There were a few stories I’d heard growing up that I felt compelled to tell—how my grandmother fled North Korea with my father as an infant, how my grandfather disappeared after World War II. These found their way into narrative poems called “The Fall, Rehearsed” and “Prelude and Fugue.”
What is the significance of the book's title?
A cyclorama is a kind of large-scale painting that became popular in 19th century America years before the advent of movie theaters. Whole teams of artists painted cycloramas on huge canvases that stretched along the walls of cylindrical buildings created just for these paintings. Viewers entering the cyclorama felt that they were seeing realistic recreations of famous battles or religious scenes. In “Cyclorama,” which was inspired in part by the Gettysburg Cyclorama, I explore some of the tensions that arise when we create works of art exploring acts of extreme violence. Art, history, and war—these subjects intersect in the cyclorama and also crop up throughout my book.
I love the way you swallow the speaker's experience as a 911 operator inside the story of Jonah and the whale in "Dispatcher.” How did you come up with this structure?
Mostly by accident! I’d drafted a poem with a few lines about Jonah and the whale, probably inspired by a recent class on Orthodox iconography. In another poem I’d started writing about my experience as a litigator—listening to 911 calls, piecing stories together for depositions and trials. So I played around with fragments from these two poems to see if they’d work together and, strangely enough, they did.
You recently participated in a Writers Resist event in Washington. Can you tell us about that experience?
Writers Resist is a grassroots movement that encouraged writers across the country to hold resistance events on January 15, a week before the Inauguration. I was one of two featured readers slated for Split This Rock’s monthly reading series on that date, so I had the good fortune to take part in this historic event. It was a humbling experience. On stage in the Langston Hughes room at Busboys & Poets, I read to a packed house full of people from all different walks of life who wanted to come together in their outrage, longings, loves, and fears. Listening to them read during the open mic afterwards, I was struck by how poetry lets us communicate in a way that’s at once both incredibly intimate and public.
What role do you believe poetry plays in enacting change?
Auden famously wrote “poetry makes nothing happen” toward the end of his elegy for Yeats, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” That’s true in the everyday sense of political action. A poem can’t burn an executive order or force Steve Bannon to rethink his opinions. And, as Auden wrote elsewhere, the role of poetry isn’t to tell people what to do, but to “extend[ ] our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear. . . .”
My own, evolving view about the transformative role of poetry comes down to its unique relationship to truth and empathy. Poetry bears indelible witness to cruelty, suffering, and overcoming, both private and public. Poetry seeks out the big, thorny questions, knowing that the process matters more than claiming sure and simple answers. Add to this what I believe is the most immediate impact of poetry: creating empathy. Whether a poem puts you in the shoes of a new Muslim immigrant or a serial killer, it enacts the experience of thinking and feeling as another consciousness, another voice. And empathy is the foundation for any lasting change.
What advice do you have for poets interested in using their experiences to engage in the larger political and social conversations happening in this country?
This is really tough. I’m feeling my way through this question myself, as I figure out how I can best use my time and skills to be both a good citizen and a good citizen-writer. One thing I’m doing is letting myself take time away from my planned projects to write poems outside my usual subjects, and to share them quickly, rather than waiting months for them to be published. Publications like Rattle and journals that publish themed issues can be options for getting your work out there. Talking to other writers struggling with the same issues can also be enormously helpful.
Last thought: if you’re a poet, you’re probably pretty good at using words. Whether it’s in a tweet, a letter to a representative, or a conversation with your neighbor, you can use your talent for language to advocate for what you believe is just.
Annie Kim’s first poetry collection, Into the Cyclorama, won the 2015 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Mudlark, Asian American Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, Kim is the recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Hambidge Center, and serves as an editor for DMQ Review. Annie will teach The Poetry of Resistance for WriterHouse on Sunday, April 2nd.
WHAT WRITERHOUSE STUDENTS ARE SAYING ABOUT ANNIE
Annie is a new WriterHouse instructor. Check her page after the Spring 2017 term to find out all of the great things WriterHouse students have to say about Annie.