Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 3—E. J. Koh

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? Who would you love to collaborate with?

While abroad, I’ve snuck reading in with The Future of Silence: Fiction by Korean Women translated by Ju-Chan and Bruce Fulton. Among the stories, So Yong-un’s “Dear Distant Love” had me twisted, a good thing. Reminds me of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” but with the impervious han, or deep, accumulated sorrow. The translations themselves are wonderous.

A writer I adore is Joseph Han. I often face the question of how to let my writing unravel bit by bit, more so than the day before. Joseph seems to have already accomplished this, a fearless writer. It shows in his unapologetic work “Terms and Conditions for Meeting My Korean Parents at Their Place for Dinner” published in McSweeney’s.

When asked the question about emerging writers, I recall those writers in dim coffee shops, in classrooms many years ago. Those writers whose work circulated in groups as we learned together at the beginning, our discovery for poetry and stories. Today, many have chosen other paths, or had no choice at all, and so, they may never be called emerging writers. Don’t be fooled. We are surrounded by ingenious writers. They’re only letting us continue to believe we have emerged. I want to say: they are writers to me. They were then, and now. There is no protocol necessary. I feel an immense gratitude towards those I’ve been privileged to edit, write, or speak with on the subject of writing. Our work is to leave the door open as wide as possible.

hoto of poet, EJ Koh, sitting at white tableHow do you practice self-care when writing about a difficult subject matter? What brings you joy?

Joy comes from climbing indoors, on rainy days, at Seattle Bouldering Project or Stone Gardens. While, during a rainless forecast, I’ll take a winding scenic two-hour drive to Leavenworth. There’s a magical place there called Mad Meadows, a short hike up the road from Icicle Creek. Lugging up a crash pad, I’ll hop onto those gritty boulders as my husband spots me from below.

Going outside, I experience silence as it occurs naturally, not as a force of silencing, but as a reassuring sense of peace; as a deep feeling that emanates from a mountain, a creek. In a short time, I’m reminded of the purpose of my work and it sustains me to continue, keep on.

I wonder whether it is self-care or a process of growth in writing. At one point of desperation, and then relief, I understood powerfully that I cannot improve my writing and remain the same person. It was never the writing, it was me. Are we not vases? Do we not hold our writing? Then what shape must we take to hold the words that seem too great, too terrifying to utter?A close up photo of poet, EJ Koh.

How do you feel about recent conversations about “literary success,” prize culture, personal brands, and the idea of “poetry business?” What are the best ways to support poets and poetry?

One of the nicest things we can do is be happy for each other. When another poet receives recognition, it’s easier to source this recognition from curation or exclusion, which may be important subjects of discussion. Yet, we must be happy for each other. Poets and poetry can be the loneliest work. Taking care of each other, giving the comfort of love strengthens and lengthens our lives. In the end, we share the weight so neither success nor failure shakes the spirit and health of another.

Success after all isn’t assigned, is it? This sort of material definition of success must pass, float down the river so-to-speak. Success burgeons, becomes active from within. Success allows us to be clearsighted of others’ pains, and rather than surmount it, become for them a source of love.


Photo of poet, EJ Koh, with a white backgroundE. J. KOH  is the author of A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize (Louisiana State U. Press). Her poems and translations have appeared in Boston Review, Columbia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry Society of America, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. Koh accepted fellowships from The American Literary Translators Association, Kundiman, The MacDowell Colony, Napa Valley Writersí Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and The Jack Straw Writers Program. Her memoir is forthcoming.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 3. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for this anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.