The story of poet Yearn Hong Choi, who is also a retired university professor and top-level bureaucrat, has a universal appeal. Asked about the title of his memoir, he mentioned Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself,” with an important message to him: “In all people, I see myself.”
“I wanted to convey this message: Let us all be from somewhere. Let us tell each other everything we can. Peace on Earth,” he said. “My story could be the first-generation Korean immigrant’s as well as any immigrant from all corners of the world.”
Area African American poet E. Ethelbert Miller said in a phone interview, “Choi, indeed, has shown that poetry can serve as a bridge between communities. He introduced me to Korean American poetry, and has expanded my own horizon.” He also praised Choi for publishing the works of Korean American poets “who would otherwise have no outlet for their poems.”
Choi, 69, has written his memoir, “Song of Myself: A Korean-American Life,” published by Poetic Matrix Press (www.poeticmatrix.com). He dedicated his latest book “To My Wife, Bong Hee Kim, who has been sharing my life, both ups and downs.” The couple has two grown-up children, William Jay and Joyce.
Choi arrived in Seattle, Washington from Seoul in the 1960s, the turbulent, exciting decade that was America at a turning-point. Think Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib and Beatlemania. His memoir reflects this.
Ame Ai reported that a bilingual book signing event was recently held in the popular Woo Lae Oak area restaurant. Guests were entertained by harmonica and harp players, and with a traditional Korean fan dance.
Writer Ai wrote that Choi often traveled to South Korea, and stayed when his mother was dying. She noted it is this back-and-forth journey that many American immigrants can relate to: “No matter where immigrants come from, they all have a lifetime feeling of intransigency and being between worlds with one foot in each.”
Martha Vickery, editor of Korean Quarterly, has written a rave review at the back of Choi’s memoir. She wrote: “Yearn Hong Choi chronicles how he traversed geography and culture in the post-war era, becoming an academic and poet with an international perspective…His poetic reflections, with one foot in each culture, flavor the memoir. He is a realist, and at the same time, an artist. He can describe in broad strokes how government could serve people better; he can also reflect in verse on precious personal moments.
“After more than 40 years of life in the U.S., his writings show a freshness in their enthusiasm to engage anew as both an immigrant and an insider. Choi’s memoir is a unique journey from Korean to Korean-American from the perspective of one skilled cultural and political observer.”
In phone and email interviews, by turns cheery and reflective, Choi recounted his journey in 1968 from Seoul to this country. “I came here with $70 in my pocket,” he said, and worked at odd jobs, including at a pizza restaurant. It is a familiar story of an immigrant who overcame all odds and achieved the American Dream.
To this day, Choi regrets one thing, and it is in his memoir’s first chapter. “When I came to this country, I spent the first night with a young couple who welcomed me into their home near the University of Washington,” he recalled. “I had breakfast with them, and left for school. I was fortunate to rent a room in the university.”
After summer, he moved to Indiana and wrote the couple. “They wrote back and sent me their best wishes, and then I lost contact with them,” he said. He has vainly tried to meet that couple again. He even wrote to a newspaper in Seattle to generate publicity in his search. He hopes it will happen one day. He has tried to repay that kindness to others through the years.
Choi also recalled his parents, who inspired him in their belief in him. “My parents wanted me to be the first Korean to win a Nobel Prize in literature. That honor, however, was already taken. Anyway, in the early 80s, I got an article published in the Washington Post about my week-long diary in the area, and it carried a big photo of me. I sent that article to my parents, and they were so happy that their son got published in a major American newspaper.”
“Well, at my age, I’m still ambitious and aiming for a Pulitzer,” he said, laughing.
Choi received his undergraduate degree in public administration from Yonsei University and master’s and doctorate degree in political science (public administration) from Indiana University. He taught at the University of Wisconsin and Old Dominion University, University of the District of Columbia. He worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (1981-1983) as an assistant for environmental quality.
His scholarly articles have appeared in the Environmental Management, Environmental Conservation, Journal of Environmental Education, Journal of Environmental Sciences, Nuclear Plant Safety, Environmental Engineering, Water Environment and Technology, World Affairs, and Asian Thought and Society, World Literature Today (University of Oklahoma).
His articles have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Japan Times, Virginian Pilot, Indianapolis Star, Korea Herald and Korea Times.
He is the author of “Introduction to Public Administration: Essays and Research Notes” (Norfolk: Donning) and “Readings in Public and Environmental Affairs” (Lexington, Ginn Press), and two books on environmental politics and administration in Korean, and five poetry books.
Q & A
Any book signing in the future? I plan a book-signing party in October in Seoul, Korea.
Are you working on another book? My poetry book, “Copenhagen’s Bicycle,” has been accepted by one publisher. I am refining my poems right now.
What are your favorite books? Authors? Ernest Hemingway’s stories, Hemingway. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Do you still have other dreams you want to achieve? I aim at a Pulitzer.
Please share any anecdotes about Allen Ginsberg and other poets you’ve met. I arranged Ginsberg to come to the World Congress of Poets in Seoul in 1990. I invited him and interpreted for him during his stay in Seoul. He read my first poetry book, “Autumn Vocabularies,” and he liked my poems, a series of New York, New York. Reed Whittemore introduced me to him. Reed told me that Ginsberg was the poet comparable to Whitman. Ginsberg asked me to stay at his apartment whenever I visited New York. I did not. But I met and dined with him in New York.
Ethelbert is my friend in town. He wrote the Introduction to my anthology, “Fragrance of Poetry: Korean-American Literature.” He also compared me to Whitman. Gwendolyn Brooks was most unforgettable to me. She encouraged me constantly while she was the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. She told me, “Yearn, you are a very good poet. You should be proud of yourself and of your poetry.”
How have your helped other Korean American writers? I edited a couple of Korean-American poetry books, “Fragrance of Poetry and An Empty House” and “Surfacing Sadness: A Centennial of Korean-American Literature.” I am the founding president of the Korean Poets and Writers Group in the Washington Area and the Korean-American Poets Group.