The ghosts that these moments have made: In conversation with Arhm Choi Wild
Michal “MJ” Jones, Associate Poetry Editor, spoke with Arhm Choi Wild about their collection, Cut to Bloom.
Michal MJ Jones: So, you feeling ready to talk about this beautiful book with me?
Arhm Choi Wild: Yeah, let’s do it!
MJ: Awesome. So happy that we can feature you with Foglifter. But yeah, I sent you the questions, just wanting to start with hearing about what your relationship to poetry has been, you know, and sort of how this book came into formation. Did the poems spill out of you for a number of years or was there a concentrated time? I’m just really curious about that.
ACW: Yeah, I am curious what your day job is, but I have been—I taught in the classroom for five years before I started this role as a diversity coordinator. I wish I could say the poems flew out of me, but, you know, the first poem I wrote for this book, I wrote when I was eighteen. A bunch I wrote during my MFA, you know, which was ten years ago at this point. So this has definitely been a project that’s been a long time in the making.
I really liked your question about why poetry as a vehicle to speak. I think I’ve always been amazed by how poetry can point to both tenderness as well as violence. And that poems can really hold a complexity of what it’s like to be loved or to love people without diminishing either the beauty or the struggle of it. It’s definitely been a long journey to give myself permission to write about the violences my family has experienced. And because poetry can be both a vehicle to praise and also hold accountable, it’s been the form I’ve definitely turned to most. And I will never forget the first time I heard someone at a poetry slam. I was so blown away by their honesty and rawness, and it was such a relief to see someone share with such fearlessness. And I think in that way, poetry has felt wide enough to hold the multiple truths of an experience, and while my father was indeed abusive, there’s still a lot of love that I feel for him, or the desire for a connection. And while my mother has had to work through her homophobia, there’s also a lot of tenderness and tender moments in that journey. And I think poetry is a way to let all sides be alive and present.
MJ: That is a really beautiful answer, and yeah, I think the thing about this book—I was like, weeping reading it, it’s so good!—just cause it does hold that sort of visceral violence that’s felt in the body upon reading and being, of course, able to empathize with the speaker. So—and then we move into the love poems, are gorgeous. I’m a Libra so I’m a sucker for all the romance and beauty. And just sort of the complications of holding all that in the physical body and the body of the book. It’s gorgeous and really well done.
And I’m curious—the way the book is ordered seems, of course, really intentional, so I’m curious about if there was a natural order that you put this together in, moving through some of the violences and trauma and collective history, then back to love and reconciliation, and holding all of those nuances?
ACW: Yeah, I must have re-ordered this book a dozen times, at least. I’m thinking back to all these Instagram posts I see of people printing out their poems and moving them around. I’ve definitely done that a bunch. One of the only things that felt really clear was that the start of this collection were the poems about violence, because it is such a central aspect of what is being grappled with as well as learning how to speak up against it. I felt like putting the love poems at the end could speak to how—the ways that we are raised are, for better or worse, a part of how we love. Choosing to love despite the dangers of it, seeing the abuse that comes out of it, feels like a political act. And the ordering of the poems speaks to agency. First, the powerlessness of a kid, and then moving to the palette of choices an adult can make—there’s such power in choosing to be vulnerable, even though you understand the ways that love can hold power over you.
And I wanted to end the book with possibility despite what statistics say about what becomes of adults who experience abuse and addiction, and what becomes of adults who experience homophobia. And I think this ordering, in some ways, helped me be braver in writing the more challenging poems, knowing that they are also poems of celebration, of resilience, and the joy of being loved.
MJ: Yeah, beautiful, definitely. I love the idea of ordering as agency. I’m just obsessed with the question because I’m ordering my own manuscript and re-ordering it over and over again, so was definitely curious about your process and I love that about agency.
ACW: Does your ordering, does any part of it feel clear yet, or are you still in…
MJ: I’m just having fun at the moment! I think it’s become more clear as I’ve done it more, but yeah, I’m gonna think about that ordering as agency for a while, and sort of chew on that, I think, after this. Appreciate that as a… I could go into a whole thing about that!
ACW: We made it sound so much cooler. Ordering as agency.
MJ: I’m gonna tweet that later! I tweet too much, I need to… taper that back a little bit. So you spoke to this earlier in terms of bravery and witnessing folks tell their own stories at slams and open mics and the bearing of truth. So I’m curious, of course, one of the great fears of writers and poets is how to approach writing about family and humans in their humanness, and the harms that we’ve experienced with nuance while speaking our truth. So I’m curious about what process you had to go through in order to be able to write, and to sharing these poems?
ACW: Yeah, I struggled with how I would tell our family story. Especially because I’m making no attempts here to be—I’m making no attempts here to be like, “there’s a speaker in this poem that is different than me.” I think in the acknowledgements section I make it very clear that these poems are autobiographical. You know, and as a Korean and someone socialized as a woman, despite that not being the way I identify now, I’ve been taught that the comfort of others is way more important than truth. That you hide the struggles that you’re experiencing and, you know—these are of course symptoms of misogyny, the silence is crucial to keeping these cycles of violence going.
And believing that a right to break silences around domestic violence, around other abuse, around homophobia, wouldn’t have been possible without countless conversations, and books and experiences of other people being brave. In that way, a book feels like a community project. ‘Cause of the way that other people have affected you and helped you grow. And when I faltered and asked myself why I was willing to put my family’s story out there, I tried to remember that talking about violence was a way to interrupt its future, in the ways it becomes a part of you and the ways you think and react. I try to remember that other books have helped me to speak up, to be brave, and to claim my own narrative. That is so much of it—to not let it be told by other people. And I hope that my book can also do the same for someone else.
MJ: Beautiful. What were some of those authors or writers that you turn to in terms of their breaking of silence or cycles of violence?
ACW: Yeah, for sure. Jeanann Verlee, Racing Hummingbirds is a huge one. I think, like in the vein of Rachel McKibbens, reading women who are talking about violence felt so huge. It was such a show of permission, I think. I think Danez Smith in the way that they talk about queerness and how fearless they are was also a huge door for me, and also helped me be braver. Ah, gosh, there’s so many people who have been such a role model. Patrick Rosal in the way he talks about family and his Asian American identity; and Cathy Park Hong, her essays on race and being Asian American I think were also huge.
It’s funny cause so many of these poets I didn’t learn about in my MFA. Unless they were white, or cis, or you know, all of the above. So much of POC or queer poets I became connected with through the slam community. And, you know, Angel Nafis is a huge person. Yeah, just wonder what it would have been like to only digest a canon that someone gave me. It definitely required a lot of my own exploration and investigation to find POC and queer poets.
MJ: Yeah. Yeah, I hear that. I am in my second year of my MFA coming up, and very very blessed to have a great, diverse canon and a lot of Black students in the program. So I am feeling like the program is a unicorn based on other folks’ experiences that I’ve heard in MFA programs. But yeah, I definitely will check out some of those titles that I hadn’t heard of, as well that you mentioned.
ACW: Is this your last year in the MFA program?
MJ: Yeah, so it’ll be my final year here, coming up. It goes by really quickly, as I’m in a 2-year program. Enjoying it so far.
ACW: Good, I’m glad, despite there being a pandemic, I’m glad to hear it feels fruitful.
MJ: Yeah, I know. I was considering low-res programs in my search, and I was like, “I think I wanna be in the classroom!” It’s just like… okay, well you know. No one predicted that this was happening, so. It’s all good. You know, I’ll just be grateful to be here at this point!
So, sort of in the vein of silences and breaking them, I’m thinking about the role of—is it han?
MJ: As a role or grouping principle in this book’s work and moving from the first section of the book, where we’re encountering violences and the silences that that can create, or the cultural expectation of holding that—into the blooming of the second part of the book. Um, you know, finding oneself, understanding oneself, and how to sort of come out in the various ways of coming out. So I’m curious about how that principle guided this work, how you have come to understand that overtime and how it might have shifted for you?
ACW: Yeah, the word han is a fascinating one. I think I should also say that it took me a really long time to claim my Koreanness. I think, you know, as everyone else, raised in this super white supremacy, I tried to assimilate as hard as I could. And growing up without not a lot of other Asian American folks, that was really easy to do. And han—I think being able to claim that word took a lot of acceptance and celebration of identity. I thought that it would be really fitting for this book because it is a contested word. Some people think that it is a word that really defines the core of the Korean people—to persevere, to be resilient through struggle. It also speaks to a deep sadness that comes from having to survive through so many things repeatedly.
And there’s also theorists who say that han is a word that the Japanese colonizers enforced onto the Korean people to help them accept their oppression, which is fascinating. And I think of similar words like grit, that feel very loaded at this point in history. And I think it—I really appreciated the way that it could ground my book because through the language barriers between my mom and I, between my family and I, between my culture and country of origin and I—a lot of words are contested. And I’m really struggling to find common ground with other Korean folks and other Korean American folks.
I think that also survival can be really coded in a lot of ways, and it means—in Korean culture it means silence, right? In American culture it means speaking up. And I will always be grateful for parts of my American identity that encouraged me to believe that I have a right to say something. Probably something I wouldn’t have gotten being raised in Korea if that had happened to be the case. And it was a word that I came to much later, because a part of not accepting my Korean identity—it took me a really long time to also learn about my culture and history. And it wasn’t until, you know, one of my good friends, who’s actually not Korean—they started reading all these books on Korean history and started sharing with me, like “did you know this?” And I was like, “oh my gosh, no I didn’t!”
But I also like the way that han kind of speaks to the pressure of assimilation and this force that I feel to be American enough. And then this force to be Korean enough. And it does speak to the history of colonization in Korea, and it complicates my relationship to the U.S. because of its role in the Korean War. But it also felt like a stance to be like, alright, I was never taught my history in the curriculum, I never saw myself reflected in school growing up, and like here’s away for me to claim the ways that my Korean culture has affected me.
And—I think too, like, while the poems at the beginning of the book talk about a lot of the abuse that we encountered, it also talks about the ability to survive through them. And I felt like that was a really appropriate word for all of those reasons.
MJ: Yeah, yeah. Phew. So many—I’m just really excited to transcribe this cause you’re giving me so much to think about! It’s, yeah—I think definitely about what you said about violence that is inflicted upon body and the spirit, and yeah, the ability to survive or even persevere through that. And one of the things that I was noticing—which I think is true through most of this book—is your really beautiful images. Really, really gorgeous lines that I was like, “I’m stealing this to make into a prompt later!”
But it made me sort of think about—you know, I’ve done workshops in writing memoir and writing from memory, and one of the things I remember is about, how do you either construct memory or go back—especially in traumatizing memory, you know, or things that either have been repressed, or are so vivid because we remember exactly what it was like to embody that experience. So I’m curious, for you, what was the process of either recalling that, and was it something that was right there for you, or did you need to retrieve it in some way? And then, what was the process of you caring for yourself in the retelling, I guess?
ACW: Yeah. This is such a fascinating questions because we know that trauma effects memory. The moments that turned into poems are memories I’ve carried with me probably my whole life. And I didn’t know what else to do with them besides turn them into poems. It felt like a way to gain agency over the weight and gravity that they hold, and I think in that way, it feels like exorcism. A way to extract these moments from my body and have them live on the page instead. And it’s surreal to hold my book and be like, “hey, so, here’s a collection of the hardest moments of my life, dear colleague/dear boss/dear person I don’t know.” And, you know, here are the ghosts that these moments have made.
And it was hard to go back to those moments and remember them with as much detail as possible and to conjure back as much as I could about them. Forgetting is a way to survive. And I most certainly tried it at different points of my life. But I could always feel the ghosts of these experiences. I most certainly needed a lot of support to go back to these memories, to write about them. My therapist helped me see patterns and stop brushing off moments as, you know, “oh, that wasn’t a big deal,” or, “that wasn’t really as traumatic as I think it is.” And I think it can be a survival tactic to downplay the trauma of experience.
ACW: Yeah, but I most certainly couldn’t have gone back to these memories, to agree to see them so clearly without the love and support of my family, both chosen and biological. Cause you do have to, like, step back into yourself at that age, and as you said, to embody those memories again. So how can we do that with the new supports that we’ve created in our life, and with these supports that we probably didn’t have when we first experienced those moments?
MJ: Yeah, that’s really, yeah… just what you said about, the feeling of something being caught or trapped and needing to like, pull it out in this way, in this vehicle of writing, and then come back into yourself is so powerful. And I think, just speaks to coming into this terrible, beautiful thing of adulting, and being either the person we didn’t have, or you know, making sense of things that happened. And it’s just really beautiful and speaks to the—I think, yeah, maybe the word for this book is the agency of it—is gorgeous.
So, I’m loving it! It’s just beautiful. I—let me see, I feel like I wanted to ask a question that I came up with just now in my head. I guess in thinking about the canon, the white literary canon and, you know, having had some influences from the slam community, I’m not sure if that’s where you came into being as a poet, but just curious. Because the two are often dichotomized, right? Like, page poetry and stage poetry, and you know, slam poets being sort of looked down upon in this way—yet there’s a great range of craft and beauty in these poems. I noted some that were—not my favorite, cause it’s just a beautiful book—but I think about “Circle Talk” and the way you’re using threads, and whatever the formal word for that is, concatenation or whatever the poetic devices is there—just the weaving of that.
So I’m curious about, where your threads of are influence in writing this book sort of come together? I know you said you wrote a lot in your MFA, and also have influences in slam. So, just curious about, when you’re in the act of writing, are you’re thinking about, you know, the sound and how I can read this out loud, or yes—just, what’s your process in weaving all of those influences together?
ACW: Yeah, that dichotomy has definitely been something I’ve pushed up against a lot. When I was going to Sarah Lawrence, I would sneak away as often as I could to Bar 13 and other poetry slams in the city because I felt so suffocated in a lot of ways by all these conversations like, “This is what poetry is,” and, “This is the kind of craft that poetry should have,” and, “Read this really obscure and abstract poem and let’s talk about the beautiful craft choices in it.” I just wasn’t interested. Like, if it wasn’t going to hit me, if it wasn’t going to make me feel something upon the first read—
I’ve never been a reader who gets excited about sitting down, and like excavating the core of a poem through all these very formal gestures that it’s making. It’s most certainly probably cause I come from the slam community, where it is so much about emotion and connection. And I think in many ways, it’s like the lay person’s form of poetry. And you know, poems are […] reminds me of like, studying Coleridge and Wordsworth, and like all these poets that had no resonance for me at all, but were still lauded as like, the top poets of our time. And of course, all of them were white, cis men. And, yeah—
I am so grateful for the slam community. That’s the poetry that’s changed my life. It’s very rare that I’ll read a poem on paper and be like, “wow, that changed me.” You know? And for better or for worse. But I did see value to an MFA. My—Cathy Park Hong was actually my advisor because she was the only Korean American professor I could find in an MFA program anywhere when I was applying to school. And she asked me this question that I’ll never forget of, why I’m writing for white people.
And I think—I try to do that thing where I also make my poetry like veiled and abstract and much more about formal craft choices, and I hated them. And people were very confused, they were like, “we don’t know what you’re trying to say.” Because it wasn’t a method and a way of writing that connected and felt true to who I was. So a lot of what I had to do to those poems after I graduated was to like, bring them kind of back to the middle. They got very MFA-ized while I was there. But then—I was like, what actually feels true to me and the kind of poetry that I want to be writing.
Again, I don’t wanna, you know, talk badly about page poetry cause there’s obviously a lot of beautiful page poetry out there. And I definitely had to struggle with like, how do these poems make sense, feel cohesive, feel whole on the page, despite knowing that I will probably read them a little bit differently out loud?
ACW: And it was hard, because you know, that meant that some line breaks, I had to make choices about the way they lived in the page that I definitely wouldn’t make those choices when I’m reading. And I think I had to accept that like, alright, the book is gonna be its own thing, and my performances of it are gonna be a separate thing. And it’s gotta be okay.
MJ: Yeah, I think you’ve accomplished it beautifully here, so props to that! I think it’s beautifully balanced, so was curious about your thoughts on that one. Um, so I think we’ve touched on most of the questions, I’m curious if there’s things that you wanted to add generally about either your writing of this book, or just like, I don’t know, how you’re surviving quarantine, like… anything that feels relevant to share.
ACW: Yeah. Launching a book during a pandemic has definitely been interesting. Um, I did run a virtual reading series for a couple months, and it was a great opportunity to read with people I really admire and probably wouldn’t have had a chance to read with otherwise. And it was great just to celebrate BIPOC and queer voices. Everyone who was on the series was BIPOC or queer, and that was great. I think it was definitely a point of joy for me.
You did have another question about what was the most challenging to write—
MJ: Oh, I did! I skipped it! I got excited about the page versus stage question.
ACW: Yeah, no for sure, that’s always such an interesting conversation. Um, yeah, so—I would say that the poems about forgiving my father were probably the most challenging for me to write. Knowing that forgiveness is a continual process and that there’s so many different aspects of it. I had to decide what exactly I was forgiving him for and what that meant for me. I saw him for the last time ten years ago. And I’d gone to Korea to learn more Korean to better communicate with my mom but to also see if I could build a different relationship with my dad.
I wrote the title poem ‘Cut to Bloom’ a few years after the visit, when it became clear that I couldn’t have a healthy relationship with him. It took many drafts to even realize that it was a poem about forgiveness, and um, one of the poems near the end of the book called ‘Ode to Unlearning’ was one of the last poems I wrote, and I think it wasn’t until I had written all the other poems that name all the hard things that have happened, after claiming my queerness, after falling in love multiple times, that I was really reading to write that poem. And yeah, I think cause of the long journey that forgiveness can be, in that I couldn’t write these poems until I was truly ready, these two poems were probably some of the hardest for me to write.
MJ: Yeah, definitely. It is, yeah, the Cut to Bloom: “flowers are the only things / we can cut from a body / put in water / and watch open.” I was like ahhh! Who are they? I must know them immediately.
ACW: What poems have been the hardest for you to write?
MJ: Um, yeah, I think… similar to some of the questions I asked there’s—relationships with my family that I’m like, I don’t wanna damage my relationship, but like… that was some fuck shit that happened! So, yeah, I think about experiences of sexual trauma and inherited… yeah! Like, silence, and how I’m expected to be silent about that, or how the people in my life have been expected to be silent about their pain around that and how that can sort of run in families or be handed down. You know, I think, yeah probably some of the things about recalling memory and really going there.
Yeah, this question around memory for me came up around—I was just like how do I access that child part of myself that is vulnerable? And so, in the writing of the poems, thought about scents that were familiar to me and sort of, put them in the air and what that did to trigger my memory of a specific thing. You know, but it was very, I think, powerful in the ways that you’ve named about either processing through something to be able to just lay it down, lay down the burden and heal. It’s hard! Yeah, I’m just like, I don’t wanna think about this shit.
You know, and surprisingly love poems are really like, not easy for me to write either. I’m just not—it’s interesting because I’m definitely a hopeless romantic but the embodiment of love and romance—I just end up sounding like a Hallmark card. So definitely admiring and appreciating that section of the book, too, and stealing some craft ideas.
ACW: Yeah, of course. I wonder what would end up unlocking those for you.
MJ: What’d you say?
ACW: I wonder what would end up unlocking those love poems for you.
MJ: I don’t know, I just need to fall in love again, but we’re, you know, in a pandemic, so I don’t know how I’m gonna find my next boo, but! Just pressed against the window!
ACW: Sending notes and putting them up on the window.
MJ: Right? Like “somebody!” Yeah. Beautiful experience reading this book, I’m really happy to have chatted with you. Um, is there anything else you want to add before I stop recording and then we can just keep chatting for a second?
ACW: No, I don’t think so.
MJ: Awesome. Well, thanks for joining me! Okay, I’m gonna stop now.
Cut to Bloom is available for purchase through Write Bloody Publishing.
Arhm Choi Wild is a queer, Korean-American poet who grew up in the slam community of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went on to perform across the country, including at Brave New Voices, the New York City Poetry Festival, and Asheville Wordfest. Arhm is a Kundiman fellow with an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and was a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize in 2019. Their debut collection of poetry, “Cut to Bloom,” was the 2019 winner of the Write Bloody Book Contest. Their work has been anthologized in Daring to Repair by Wising Up Press and The Queer Movement Anthology of Literatures, and appears in Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, Split this Rock, Foglifter, Lantern Review, F(r)iction, and other publications. They work as the Director of the Progressive Teaching Institute and as a Diversity Coordinator at a school in New York City. More on them HERE.
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