My Mother’s Letters to My Younger Self

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Digging through my old things, I came upon fifty of my mother’s letters to me.

The letters are eight years old. And old enough to argue for themselves.

During the time we’d lived apart, my mother had written me each week from Korea while I waited for her in the States. She also wrote in kiddie Korean since my Korean was poor.

What devastates me is finding the empty envelopes. My younger self, who wore cut-offs and boys jeans, would crouch under a desk to read the letters in private, but reading slower than the speed at which the pain of loneliness would lessen. I must have thrown a hundred other letters away.

What reminds me to be kinder to others is discovering the watermarks on the ink. The times my younger self must have wept, and wiping my eyes, touched the paper again.

 

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More poignantly, the letters have evidence of her mothering. Can you put mothering into words? Could you physically look at what mothering looks like? My mother achieves both by verbalizing each act she would’ve carried out in person — out of necessity from a long distance relationship between parent and child. She writes with a desperation to create a bond so strong and genuine you cannot question it.

But my mother projects her desires. While she describes her daily life – “At 8AM, I cleaned the house. I had to cook but cooking is not the same” – these moments contrast her high-energy demands of “Live, always, independently!” Inside the confinement of her routine life, she yearns for her own independence. What she wants for her daughter is what she desires for herself. The letters appear, at times, escapist, desperate, mundane, humble, but always vulnerable.

My instinct is to translate her letters. I’ve translated a handful, but I’m unsure about whether to proceed. What would I call the translations side-by-side with her letters? Long Distance Mother, How I Learned Korean, or Maybe It Didn’t Happen the Way I Remember, or Did She Hurt As Much As She Said? I wonder if the translations would capture anyone else to its pages. I wonder if I’m reading too much into the letters because they hold a personal space in my heart.

 

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Maybe I’m looking to feel as powerful a bond to her as I did then.

Now that my mother has moved to Seattle, she’s close to me. But I feel farther removed from her than before. We eat together every two weeks, but in tired silence. Life has become tiring now that everything else is more urgent than what we are to each other.

I’m used to being told I am loved in exchange for an embrace, a meal, or a smile. My ability to accept love lies in words, and when there is no distance, there are no words to exchange.

Now, I confess that I’d once asked myself: If a mother truly loved her child, could she stay away for eight years? I’ve asked this question inside my work and relationships. But the answer exists in the letters, and it’s an argument that my mother’s letters take up against my younger self. As I read them now, they argue against the woman I’ve chosen to become.

As with all my projects, I stake my commitment, honesty, and labor. Without the three, and all three, there is no writing to be done. But here, like an archaeologist, I have discovered a fossil of a memory that I had believed was long gone, and I can only proceed with utmost caution and awe.

 

Photography by @anrizzy

Other News:

[Poems] “Tiger Balm and Other Poems” published in Narrative Magazine

[Poems] “Giving Up, A Man” and “Confession Time” in Pif Magazine

[Translations] “Death” and “Jebu Island, And Also Rain” in Lunch Ticket

[Reading] “South Korean Ferry Accident” at the Hugo House

[Music] “EJ Koh Remix” (House) for Lexer’s Red Balloon

[Translation] “Cried” in Hayden’s Ferry Review

Everyone Should Write Poetry

EJ Single Portrait copyportrait by Angela Hardy

In my own Utopia, every man and woman would write a poem. They would write it with intent and care, re-write it several times, read it in a whisper, place it under the pillow before bed, and then tear it up.

For me, I became a grown-up with zero exposure to poetry. I felt love without having to write it down, or pain without trying to find a measure. Now, I write couplets to feel love, entire poems to remember pain. It’s all backwards ever since I have decided to let poetry into the center of my life.

The truth is I want to stop. Not only stop writing, but also, speaking. I want language to end for me because I’m sick of saying the same thing about my mother, about my grandmother, about my inconsiderate childhood—for years. When I’m sick of hearing myself, I turn to the craft of the poem, and even then, the rhythms sound like me. I become sick of me. No one is sick of me more than me.

Despite the lows between manuscripts, rejections, and joblessness, it’s an honor to be a poet. That’s my unpopular opinion—that a poet must remain humble, changing, and sincere. In exchange, I will opt for the shorter life, and potentially destructive, because few things in occupation depend on sincerity.

I recall this piece of information I had tucked away: There is an ancient Chinese belief that if a carp swims up a waterfall, the carp will turn into a dragon. To me, the waterfall is the life that I watched from a distance. When I read poetry, I am standing under that waterfall. I am experiencing the brunt of every droplet—of incident, memory, and dialogue. So what is it like to write poetry? There is a shift much like swimming upwards and reaching wisdom outside of my normal self.

Somehow, the image of a carp swimming up a waterfall sums up poetry for me. Standing under the water, you live more than your share of one life. Sometimes it’s hard because the things that are painful are amplified, but so are the things that are beautiful. Going up the water, you become more than you could in one life. And that is worth something to every man and woman—enough to write a poem, to re-write it, to read it, to sleep against it, and to shred it into pieces again and again.

 appeared on NPM Daily for National Poetry Month

 

Other News:

Published poem “Kaleidoscope” in Phantom Limb Issue 10

Published Korean translations “Cried,” “Dabi” in Hayden’s Ferry Review

Published Korean translations “49th Day,” “On the Road” in Blue Lyra Review

Featured in Mipoesias for 4 poems — My first cover, a portrait by Angela H.

Great Love of a Poet

EJ Koh Lakeph. by LT

 

Oftentimes, the worst thing to ask a poet is: “Can you write about love?”

Death is a preferable subject, or disease, suicide, war, religion, but never quite love. Why?  Because Shakespeare wrote all the love poems. Love turns good writing into hallmark cards. Love is never as powerful as pain. And other tepid warnings were drilled into me since I could remember.

The truth is I’d been having a hard time in Seattle. Resurrecting myself after what I felt was the failure of a first novel, an MFA with surmounting debt, the wreckage of reuniting with my parents, and an end to a defining relationship, I could not bring myself to write. I’d lost all confidence, and with it, my creativity.

Worse than unhappy, I became indifferent.

Then a friend of mine, Sean, said we only recall times of pain, never reflecting on times we feel loved. It allows us to adapt from our mistakes, sure, but when we feel loved, we are not processing. Rather, we are alive. What if, Sean asked me, if we created such environments for others and inside the work we love to do? Would it affect our project, health, family, friendships — would we then come alive?

For the sake of the exercise, I summoned a single moment I felt loved. I must have been twelve, sitting on the floor of my grandma’s apartment, looking past her screen door at the morning sun that came shining through her home like an effervescent tunnel, and hearing my grandma fidget with the garden hose beyond the screen. Her shadow came in and out of the light. I was wrapped in the glow of what I believed, and now know, was love. After years, I still miss her and the world she created for me.

In my career, I avoided the subject of love. I look at my mother praying, and though I’m not religious, I see love welling up inside her small body. I wonder if I could be a vessel for what is selfless, patient, exuberant. Would it make me more of a writer, a woman, a human being?

I started a manuscript titled, “The Great Love of a Poet.” I’m 30K words in, and though it took me 6 months, I’ll need at least another year. Perhaps the manuscript may not be as powerful as one that devastates, but I like how I am writing while writing about love. Love neither necessitates pain nor expectation; love can be just as it is, and in it, one can live. Knowing that I risk failure, again, I am also trying to change.

 

Other News:

Published “My Father in His Old Age” in No, Dear

Featured on Jackfroot: Who is EJ Koh?

Reading “You’re in Good Hands” at Da Poetry Lounge, LA

Instagram @ThisisEJKoh

 

With My Father in Seattle

 photo(2)Just got these contraptions that act as standing desks, saving me the neck pain.

 

In Korea, there is a saying: you are born the parent of the one you’re most indebted to from your previous life. This is why parents must give endlessly – as a form of repayment. Spending the week with my father, I picked up this little gem of an idea. I learned that his father started the first insurance company of Korea. His father was like Geico and drunk, busy, unloved. But his father treasured him, the youngest son. My father said to me, But I was resentful towards him for losing our inheritance, for leaving us vulnerable and poor. My father said that’s the first thing you regret as you get older: all the times you’ve felt anger, especially towards your parents. After chatting, we went to the gym where we tried the weights. My father is getting old. I’m getting sorry. While sitting side-by-side, I looked at my father and asked him if he thought, maybe my brother or I might be the reincarnation of his father. Maybe that we’re here to receive from our father what he couldn’t give to his father? It seemed to soothe him, as if it were the perfect answer. My father wanted so much for the opportunity to pay his father’s soul back with the love that he may or may not have earned, but deserved.

 

I never wholeheartedly believed in the after life. Recently, after speaking with my father, the after life provides for me hope then steals it away by taunting the subtle, trouble-free life that I’ve created for myself. You see, I’m afraid that I have discovered a wonderful relationship with my father in Seattle, and because of this, I’ll never meet him again. Perhaps there is no need for him to be born as my child, or for me to be born as his, again. After life or not, I’m afraid that what I see of him now is really it.

 

Other News:

Reading my poem “Ingredients For Memories”

My first podcast with Asian American host Brenda Wong

In-depth review of my novel Red by writer/critic Arthur Seefahrt

Poem “The Blurb” published in Berfrois

Candid Interview with Gumship, NY

2 Poems “To My Mother Kneeling” and “Good Hands” in Nostrovia Press