By Kari Ann Ebert
Named one of the “100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture” by Brooklyn Magazine, Jason Koo adds connective energy to his city with his work, professionally as well as personally. The work he does is poetry, though he wouldn’t call it work. Whether teaching undergrads at Quinnipiac University; directing the non-profit he founded; designing and organizing workshops; establishing a mentoring network; or (oh yeah) writing poetry, Koo is not driven to produce but leans in to notice the details of living. It is this patient intention that serves to quicken his poetry, fully engaging his readers, colleagues, and community. Koo is a force majeure, and he has the team jersey to prove it.
Broadkill Review: To begin, can you talk a little bit about how you divide your time between writing poetry, directing Brooklyn Poets, organizing events & retreats, teaching, mentoring, and finding a spare moment to enjoy life as a human being? Do you have a consistent practice when it comes to writing?
Jason Koo: The answer to this question has changed since the pandemic began, of course, as I have more time at my disposal than I did before, which is my privilege, though I’m certainly not “enjoying” this time. But I hear the question asking about busy-ness, so I’ll try to speak to that—how one manages different hats as a writer, something that most writers, especially poets, have to do if they want to subsist in this world. I would say that there’s always more time to do things than you think. Which is to say, we waste a lot of time, even when we’re busy, and if you can get into the practice of converting wasted time into useful time, even just a little bit, you’re going to get a lot done—so much so that you’ll look back and wonder just how the f you had time for all that. So, for example, to answer the last question, I don’t have a “consistent” writing practice in the sense of writing every day, or a certain number of times a week, or something like that. I don’t realistically have time to do that when things get really busy at school or with Brooklyn Poets; there are days when I’d be exhausting myself if I tried to make time to write, too, as just an hour or two doesn’t work for me—I need at least a three- or four-hour stretch to get my mind moving in the way that I like. I do write in my notebook every day, but that doesn’t count—because a lot of days that’s just a to-do list or something. But I still get the writing done, incrementally, over time, and quite a bit of it; I mean, the majority of the year I’m not actually writing poems, but here I’ve gone and put together a new manuscript of long poems over the past four years that’s 202 pages long. So how the hell did I get all that writing done? In windows of time here and there, usually during my winter and summer breaks from teaching, when I have weeks in a row that I can devote to working on something every day. So I suppose I could say my writing practice is “consistent” in the sense that when I set my mind to working on something, I work on that every day, or close to every day, for about the same amount of time every day (at least three or four hours), usually in the morning; and also in the sense that, over the long haul, looked at by the year, I’m always working on something, whether it be poems or prose; and also in the sense that I know what my practice is, how I go about reading, letting things come to me, generating ideas, drafting, revising, editing, how much time I’ll need every day to do good work, etc. I feel like my answer to the last question is pushing me away from the question overall, which is typical. But I suppose what I should say, finally, to get us back on track, is that you have to be organized and flexible and patient to manage all these different hats the world is asking you to wear as a poet. I maybe wear a few more hats than other folks, but that doesn’t mean I’m superhuman; it just means I attack every day with organization and gusto, and I’m also flexible and patient in letting certain things take priority at certain times that I might not want to let take priority. And perhaps the most important thing: you have to love the work. I enjoy wearing all these different hats; there’s no separation between doing these things and “enjoying life as a human being”—writing and teaching and mentoring and running Brooklyn Poets are all part of my enjoyment of life. When I first started Brooklyn Poets, I worried that I was taking advantage of myself, as people like to say, because I was doing tons of unpaid labor—I wasn’t able to pay myself a wage for the first four years of our existence. But soon enough I realized that not only did I like the work of putting on events and meeting people; it was making me happier. Much happier. And I was growing as a person because of it.
BKR: In 2012, you founded Brooklyn Poets, a non-profit dedicated to “celebrating and cultivating the poets, poetry and literary heritage of Brooklyn.” The organization offers workshops, mentor/mentee pairing through The Bridge network, events such as the monthly Yawp, Brooklyn Poets Reading Series, and intensive retreats. You’ve also put out a Brooklyn Poets anthology and feature a Poet of the Week. Can you talk a little bit about the need for a community like this, what you’ve learned along the way, and what you hope is in the future of Brooklyn Poets?
JK: When I first conceived of Brooklyn Poets, community, ironically, was not the objective. This was in January of 2012 when I thought I was going to be without a teaching job that fall, because the temporary full-time position I had at Lehman College was ending and I hadn’t gotten any campus visits after the two interviews I had at MLA. Because I was doing so much work at Lehman—teaching a 4/4 load while directing the English MA program—I’d started to dream of what an ideal teaching job would be like; because teaching several writing classes with 24–25 students each that met for a fourteen-week semester was not it. I asked myself a very naïve question that unwittingly ended up being the start of Brooklyn Poets: why can’t I just design and teach my own workshops at home and get students to pay me directly? I say “naïve” because I had no idea back then how difficult it is to get students to pay you directly for this kind of thing; you have to be a lot more famous than I was (i.e. actually famous). But I figured why not try to design my ideal poetry curriculum and see if I can teach students privately and make ends meet that way, rather than getting paid next to nothing as an adjunct teaching composition? So I constructed a ten-month syllabus of five-week workshops, all built around some kind of formal focus, from blank verse and the sonnet through different permutations of free verse. My sense after being in the university semester system for so many years was that students and teachers always had good energy for the first five weeks of a class, then hit a wall. Why did a class need to be fourteen weeks long? Why not teach in five-week bursts, shifting the focus so that the energy always stayed fresh? Anyway, I could go on and on about this, but that’s how the idea of Brooklyn Poets started—first, as me thinking of ways to provide for myself by teaching poetry workshops privately. But as I developed the idea, I thought about what to call it. Brooklyn Poetry Workshops? Brooklyn Poetry Society? Eh. I don’t know why I thought “Brooklyn” had to be in the name, but it did. Then I thought about shortening it: “Brooklyn Poets.” That sounded like something. Maybe because of my passion for sports, I liked it—it sounded like a team name. And I think out of that name, the community aspect of the organization was born, because something called “Brooklyn Poets” could never just be one guy teaching workshops in his home.
Then, unexpectedly, I landed a full-time teaching job at Quinnipiac (the ad for this job came out much later than the others), which was a lucky stroke of fate pushing Brooklyn Poets even more in a community direction, because now I did not need this thing, whatever it was, to provide for me. I had done so much work conceiving of the idea and drafting the workshop model—I’m talking hundreds of hours—that I didn’t want to give up on Brooklyn Poets now that I’d gotten a job; because it seemed like a great idea and I had been screwed enough times by academia that I thought I should cultivate this idea as a safety net should I get screwed again. The job at Quinnipiac was full-time, but not tenure-track, just like every other full-time job I’d had previously. I knew there was no security there.
I guess you can see I’m on quarantine time because I’m taking a long-ass time to answer these questions. But I provided all this background because when I think about the need for a community like this—well, it was born out of my own need. Maybe there was a time when poets and poetry were at home in academia, but that has not been the case for a while—definitely not since I first went on the job market in 2007. I never explicitly set out to make Brooklyn Poets an alternative to poetry in the academy, and many of our students go on to get MFAs and most of our teachers have graduate degrees; but when I think about all the decisions I’ve made regarding the structure of Brooklyn Poets, the mission, the programs—all of them were driven by the need to create the kind of community I wanted to have but never did. A community, to begin with, in the classroom—where the classes are small enough so that the teacher can devote enough time to every student, so that students and teachers can really engage with each other as human beings, where there’s no institutional interface distorting the relationship in the form of grades, curricular requirements, etc. This is going to sound self-serving and sentimental, but every Brooklyn Poets workshop I’ve ever taught has been an absolute joy, and that’s because the teaching is pure: the students are there because they want to be there, because they’re passionate and curious about poetry and committed to working, not because they think it’ll be easy or because they’d rather take a writing class than a literature class to fulfill an English curricular requirement. And they’re not worried about grades—there are no grades. And the classes are small, can fit in my living room; they feel like poetry dinner parties. And the students write amazing poems! Every time I hear some university professor complaining about how poetry can’t be taught or how students don’t read enough or work hard enough, how bad their students’ poems are, etc., I hear the institution talking; because I often feel that way too teaching my undergrads at Quinnipiac. But I will see these sparkles of energy among those students, and I know if I were able to teach them in groups of 8–10 students without the interference of grades and all the related institutional stress they deal with, we would have much better classes and they would write much stronger poems. And be happier.
I could go on and on—and I’m aware I already have—about the need for real community, not corporate-speak community, which requires, as a starting point, visible diversity and difference among the people present, and by people present I mean bodies actually together in a room; but I’ll (try to) finish by saying maybe the most important thing I’ve learned along the way is how much people need to feel included, and how many people out there don’t, especially people trying to write poetry as adults, which is an inherently weird and isolating activity in American culture. I’ve met so many people wanting, on some level, just to be accepted as a poet, seen as a poet, by other people they respect who write poetry, and grateful to have found this through our workshops or readings or retreats; and there have been enough of them to tell me that the existing institutions and organizations meant to serve them are not serving them. And I know this to be true from my own experience because when I think about the institutions and orgs that have made me feel genuinely seen and included, it is a painfully short list.
BKR: You are committed to helping mentor younger poets (in age or experience) as well as creating opportunities for them to be an active part in the poetry community. Did you have a mentor early on or was this a hole you identified in your formation as a poet?
JK: I’ve had a lot of good teacher-mentors over the years, from high school through college through grad school. My teachers in high school didn’t mentor me in poetry specifically—I didn’t start writing poetry with any seriousness until college—but they taught me to value the life of the mind and encouraged my interest in literature and took me seriously as a writer, all of which I needed during an anxious, unformed time. I didn’t feel I had an identity until I discovered my passion for literature; I thought I was going to become a doctor like my father, which was a predetermined career path.
Mentoring is perhaps more important in the arts, especially for young people, because an interest in the arts is so fragile; the world we inhabit makes a life in the arts seem impossible. You need someone making you feel like this is possible, whether by recognizing your talent or passion or by modeling that life for you or by showing you the practical, specific steps you can take towards it—or all of the above. Among my poetry teachers specifically, first Sandy McClatchy and then Ed Hirsch did the first two things for me, and I’m not sure I’d be a poet today without having met them. I think after the second or third day of class with McClatchy in college, he chased me down on the sidewalk outside and asked if I liked John Ashbery, because the poem I’d read in class reminded him of Ashbery. I said yes (I was just mildly obsessed with him at the time). Then he proceeded to quiz me on everyone else I was reading as we walked down the block together; I’d give him a name and he’d nod and say, Mmhmm—who else? I can’t remember the other names I gave him, but he kept asking me who else? who else? The conversation was only stopped short when a car pulled up on the corner and the driver asked for directions; Sandy said, Okay, I’m going to help this guy, but I like the work. And that was it. He did much more for me than that, but that was probably all the mentoring he needed to do—just that intense, serious interest he took in my direction as a poet for two or three minutes.
I had a similar moment with Ed Hirsch. I applied to the University of Houston’s MFA program because Ed was one of the first contemporary poets I read that I liked, and I thought he’d be the perfect teacher for me. I had great teachers in college, McClatchy and then John Hollander, but there was a coldness to them, at least towards me; I thought Ed had the same seriousness as both of them but seemed warmer and more inclusive, at least from what I could tell from his poems and essays. But I didn’t really know until I visited UH after I got accepted. I walked into one of his workshops to observe, and he stood up to shake my hand and said, I really enjoyed your poems! That first moment was everything. Then, during the break in the middle of class, Ed walked with me down the hall and told me how simpatico he felt with my work, how much promise it had. He used those words, simpatico, and promise, which effectively changed my life. The guy had read just five of my poems.
I’ve always remembered these moments, so as a teacher I try to provide that same feeling of recognition for my students, especially the ones I feel can go on to write books, should they choose to do so. With every student curious about poetry, I feel the pedagogical objective is basically the same: you need to convince them that they can do this. For me, the practical side of mentorship was always missing from what my teachers gave me—I got more of this from older students in grad school who’d tell me how to send work out for publication, where to send it, what contests and fellowships to apply to, etc.—so I’m conscious of trying to give that in particular to my students. Because that, especially today, when education is so geared toward financial outcomes, seems to be what they need more than anything else. And I would just add that I look out in particular for any Asian American male students I have because there are so few of us in the poetry world and I never had an older Asian American male mentor in my life, which would have been so helpful. There were a lot of things I was dealing with growing up, even through my 20s, that I had no one to reach out to about because they didn’t understand my experience—things that Asian American males understand instantly about each other.
BKR: In your essay, “‘That One Was the Oddest One’: Weirdness in Contemporary Poetry” (The Missouri Review 34.4 , Winter 2011) you say, “What makes a poet truly different, I wish to argue, stems much more from the idiosyncratic ways in which his or her mind works—what occurs to that mind as poetry—than from how different the poet's work is formally from any established conventions.” What are some of the idiosyncrasies of your working mind, and how do they manifest themselves in your poetry?
JK: Wow, I can’t believe you’ve read this essay! You’ve done your research. My idiosyncrasies—um, where do I start? I think my obsession with Cleveland sports makes me pretty freaking different from most other poets. And how I feel that sports are material for poetry as much as anything else. I’m guessing no other poet has written more about LeBron James than I have; I have a poem addressed “To LeBron James’s Elbow,” for fuck sake. But it’s more the mixing of this obsession with other obsessions that makes me idiosyncratic (which I would say is true for anybody). I’m this diehard Cleveland sports fan, but I’m also a romantic and an aesthete and a sensualist (to call myself a sensualist is pretty fucking weird) whose favorite writer is Proust, whose favorite filmmaker is Wong Kar Wai, who loves the jazz ballads of Ben Webster and Stan Getz, who loves tango and salsa and swing (I was obsessed with all three of those dances at different times of my life), who’s passionate about men’s style and has an absurdly well-organized closet. I think there’s a lot about me that you wouldn’t expect—especially if you read Asian American men the way that most people do. And what delights me the most about other people are the things about them that I wouldn’t expect. When I meet or read other poets and all they seem interested in is poetry, I lose interest pretty quickly.
BKR: You’re known for long poems, though you also write shorter ones. Your most recent book More Than Mere Light is a collection of long poems, one of which spans over 50 pages. What draws you into the universe of the long poem? What do they “do” that shorter poems do not? What would you say to readers who typically shy away from them?
JK: Ha I love that “though you also write shorter ones.” A good epitaph for me might be Known for long poems, though he also wrote shorter ones. I can’t even remember the last time I wrote a short poem. I doubled-down on the long poem after More Than Mere Light; my new manuscript, as I said earlier, is all long poems. I think the shortest is 2 ½ pages long and the longest is 20; the average is 10–12. I think of them as essays in couplets. Deciding not what to read but what I can read at readings these days is fun. What long poems do that shorter poems do not is give you a truer sense of life, by which I mean life in all its strange, changing, contradictory, nonsensical, thrilling, maddening, joyful, disillusioning and ultimately unknowable mystery and multiplicity. Even that last sentence with all its adjectives is a snapshot of the long poem at work: how do you describe what life is really like in just a few words? Spare me the haiku, or the sonnet; I’ll take Whitman’s “Song of Myself” or Byron’s Don Juan or Ashbery’s Flow Chart or A. R. Ammons’s Garbage any day of the week over those forms. No short poem I’ve ever read has ever captured for me what it feels like to be alive, what it feels like to inhabit this body and mind through time and space, in the way that these long poems have. I like working on long poems because time (and all the changes it brings) is inherently built into them—you can’t write a long poem in a day. Or a few days. It takes weeks, or months, or years. And writing over all that time is going to capture all that unfolding. I have to say, I’ve kind of lost my patience with readers who shy away from long poems, because here they are reading all these books of prose that are over 250 pages long. I get it; there are a lot of long poems that are insufferably boring. But the ones that work are just as thrilling and more unique than the best novels. I mean, what else is like Byron’s Don Juan? Or Whitman’s “Song of Myself”? Those are world events that will never happen again. But sure, go on thinking that all poems have to fit on one page so they can be in the New Yorker.
BKR: What approach do you use after you’ve gotten the bones of a poem down?
JK: I don’t think of a poem as having “bones”—it’s more fluid than that, to me. Probably because of my interest in long poems and the process I go about writing these over weeks of time. I say “fluid,” but at the same time my writing process has always been incremental, and linear; I build a poem slowly, from beginning to middle to end, and I revise and edit as I work on it every day. I never just draft it all at once and go back and fill out certain parts, or draft the ending and go back and write the beginning. I never collage stuff together. I always liked the way Hemingway talked about his process; he’d work on a story in the morning, get to a certain place from which he felt he could continue the next day, then stop and not look at what he wrote until the next morning. Then he’d read again from the beginning the next morning, revising and editing what he wrote, and pick up where he left off, getting to another place from which he felt he could continue. Then he’d continue the process the next morning, reading through from the beginning and revising and editing. That’s what I do with these long poems. The irony is that as my poems have gotten longer, I’ve started drafting them in a notebook first, which I almost never did before; you’d think I would just use a computer. But typing words on a computer feels too final to me now—it prevents me from pushing the long poem forward. I work on the poem incrementally over several weeks, revising and editing as I go, while knowing all the time that once I have what I feel is the whole of the poem’s movement down, I will type it up and automatically revise and shape it as I go. If you’ve never tried this, I highly recommend it: the automatic revision that happens when you type up something you’ve worked on for a long time in a notebook. For me, revision is always built into the drafting process; so once I’m “done,” I’m pretty much done, except for the editing passes I have to take through the poem. I’m never moving stuff around after I’ve finished drafting something and typing it up; all I’m doing is cutting and tweaking and shaping, and this process could take years. An “editing pass” means reading the whole poem through from beginning to end, exactingly, making quick, instinctive changes, which is most effective after you haven’t looked at it for a while. I’ve probably taken at least 30–40 editing passes through each of the long poems in this new manuscript. So while the long poems I write might seem like they’re written off the cuff or as “stream of consciousness,” I’m putting a lot of obsessive work into making them seem that way.
BKR: You said in an interview with Matthew Thorburn, “The whole point of America, or what should be the whole point, is that it is inclusive, that we are free and open to everything—and as a poet I want to reflect this and celebrate it.” You were talking about not being bound to certain forms in poetry. Does this freedom have limits? How much does craft play into this?
JK: Well, sure, yes, freedom always has limits—I don’t think you can have a true sense of freedom without limits. I can’t remember what I was talking about with Matthew, but any time I’m thinking about form, I’m thinking about the interplay between freedom and constraint. I was getting at this idea toward the end of my last answer; in order to create the feeling of long poems being loose and effortless, you have to exercise constraint; you have to be incredibly precise and efficient with your syntax and lineation to keep the reader engaged and moving forward; if anything you have to work harder to create a feeling of tension and momentum for the reader—that feeling of something pulling them through—than you would in a short poem. If you try to write truly off the cuff, whatever that means, you might create that feeling of freedom for a little while but soon it’ll dissipate, because the reader will get bogged down in confusion or lose interest because the poem doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I think as a poet you have to find the right set of constraints that works for you—that creates the tension that springs your feeling of freedom to life. To me, at least right now, something like a sonnet doesn’t give me the kind of constraints that feel conducive to creating the openness and inclusivity I want in a poem—and in life. But who knows, that might change one day.
BKR: In Luna Luna Magazine’s blog (2015), Joanne C. Valente lists your poem “No Longer See” as one of five poems that spoke to her the most that year and were must-reads for readers. Since the year is just about halfway over, what are some poems you’ve been coming back to so far in 2020? Why are they must-reads? Along that same vein, what contemporary poet(s) do you feel has their finger on the pulse of the world today? Are there any poet(s) you feel to be under-read?
JK: One poem I’ve been coming back to a lot lately because of the pandemic is Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living.” I’d read this poem many years ago and kind of forgotten about it, but when all the social distancing began and I could no longer do many of the daily things I liked to do, I thought of Hikmet’s beloved poem “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” and looked it up online because I didn’t have a copy of Hikmet’s poems with me. I found the poem on the Academy of American Poets site, which was linked to “On Living” and led me back to it. The whole poem is amazing, but the beginning in particular just kills me:
That “like a squirrel, for example” has to be the most hilarious turn in the history of poetry, especially as Hikmet has just said that living “is no laughing matter.” And the poem, ultimately, is a poem of “great seriousness”—he is serious as fucking hell about that squirrel! A few days after discovering this poem again, I got a newsletter from the Poetry Society of America with a note by Ed Hirsch on this poem—this was clearly a sign. I’d been thinking about teaching the poem for the virtual Brooklyn Poets Yawp we were planning for April, but after getting that newsletter I reached out to Ed to see if he wanted to teach it for us. And he did, which was great. One of the things he focused on was the interesting pronoun switching in the poem, between “you” and “I” and “we.” The use of “we” in the second section, in particular, seems odd, because Hikmet is talking about very particular experiences, like being “seriously ill” and needing surgery, or being “in prison / and close to fifty” with “eighteen more years” left—which was exactly his situation when he wrote the poem. Sébastien Bernard, a Turkish poet who works for Brooklyn Poets from Istanbul as one of our Bridge editors, joined us for the workshop and pointed out that in Turkish, certain verb conjugations can take on this first-person-plural form while still being understood as indicating an “I.” And this seemed perfect for the second section of Hikmet’s poem because it allows him to write about intensely personal, isolating experiences, like being seriously ill or fighting on the front lines of a war or serving a long prison sentence, as if they’re collective experiences—like we all go through these things together. It allows him to persuade us of his perspective, that even if we’re seriously ill, “we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told, / we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining, / or still wait anxiously.” Imagine if he’d said “you’ll still laugh” there; you might disagree. But because he uses that collectively personal “we,” we arrive at the end of that section wanting to agree with this dictum: “we must live as if we will never die.”
During this time when we’re all going through something incredibly isolating while also collective on a global scale, thinking so intensely about the question of how to live, Hikmet’s poem is a must-read. It seems to have its “finger on the pulse of the world today,” though it was written more than seventy years ago in a Turkish prison. And not, of course, because Hikmet was prophetic and could see this pandemic coming, but simply because he was so desperately attentive to life—I think that kind of attention always feels contemporary.
Another poem that has this quality is Rick Barot’s “Ode with Interruptions,” the closing poem of his new book, The Galleons, which just came out this year. So far this is my favorite poetry collection of 2020—I’ve read it twice, both times almost all in one sitting. It’s the ending of “Ode with Interruptions” that stuns me:
To end a poem, a whole book, with this admission! And to admit you were wrong about how to make art. Nowhere along the way of this 2-page+ poem can you see this ending coming. Using an approach that reminds me of what Carolyn Forché calls Hikmet’s “synchronic imagination,” Barot constructs the poem as a list of synchronous prosaic actions:
Twice he interrupts this list with more lyrical, epiphanic moments—interestingly, like Hikmet’s poem, switching between “you” and “I” perspectives—drawn from his own experience: visiting churches in Italy and paying a small fee to see paintings briefly illuminated, coming across an “immense aquarium” of brightly colored fish while walking around a hospital waiting for someone’s surgery to end. But the interruptions are interrupted themselves by the resumption of the list, so there’s some ambiguity about what part of the poem composes the “ode” and what part the “interruptions”; do the lyrical, epiphanic moments interrupt the prosaic norm, or vice versa? Because of the way the poem ends, and because the bulk of the poem consists of the prosaic list, my sense is that Barot is writing an ode to the prosaic stuff, as a new way of writing that does not try to “transcend the prosaic elements / of the self”; and that the ode is being interrupted by moments of transcendence that recall his customary mode. Barot has long been one of the most lyrical poets we have in American poetry, though I’m not sure how many people know this because he is still—to answer one of your questions—a poet who seems under-read today. His natural element is in that aquarium with all the brightly colored fish, noting the “cellophane / glints of their quick turns,” so it is all the more moving when he turns his attention to actions that seem boring: someone doing homework, someone sleeping on a couch, someone looking into a bathroom mirror. Those actions taken singly aren’t that interesting but taken collectively, they comprise the world, and lead us to more isolated interiors: “Someone is talking to the gray wall. / Someone is talking to the gray wall.” It’s no surprise that this last action comes shortly before Barot’s closing admission because the imagination that’s only in love with illuminated paintings in Italian churches and brightly colored fish is not going to see someone talking repeatedly to that “gray wall.” And that kind of imagination is not going to be enough.
This poem has taken on even more resonance for me during the pandemic, because the prosaic actions the poem documents are all domestic, interior actions that people around the world are engaged in right now as they quarantine at home. And Barot’s “I was wrong” has taken on even more power because our lack of knowledge and imagination—our inability to see how we were wrong—is primarily what’s gotten us into this catastrophe. If only everyone around the world, especially Americans, would repeat the last four lines of Barot’s poem as a kind of mantra, beginning “I used to think” and ending “I was wrong,” filling the in-between with whatever folly most suited them, the world might just become a better place.
BKR: It’s no surprise that Walt Whitman holds a special place in your heart: the Brooklyn Poets’ logo bears his semblance and you even launched Brooklyn Poets on his birthday. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published in Brooklyn and established him as one of the most influential American poets. If you could choose one poem, what would you consider Jason Koo’s “Song of Myself”?
JK: Let’s be real: there’s no poem I’ve written that comes even close to “Song of Myself.” You’re talking about the great poem in the world’s history, in my mind—one that seems uttered by creation itself. But if you’re asking me which one of my own poems seems most representative of my work or central, I might say “No Longer See,” simply because it’s so capacious and captures more of me unfiltered than anything else I’ve written. And the impulse behind that poem is Whitmanian. But the self inhabiting that poem already feels foreign to me—which is, ironically, the poem’s central subject—so I might gravitate toward one of the poems in my new manuscript, perhaps the opening poem, “After the Election.”
BKR: Finally, in this strange and uncertain time, when many people have lost loved ones, been laid off, forced into quarantine, swim in daily anxiety, and may even find themselves exposed or infected with the Coronavirus, is poetry still relevant and if so, what is its job?
JK: Yes. Of course. I’m not going to say “now more than ever” (though I recognize I just did) because I can’t stand it when people say that—as if all the problems exposed by the crisis didn’t exist before! Morgan Parker has a great poem about this. Poetry will always be relevant because—or maybe I should say if—it is desperately attentive to life, as I said about Hikmet’s work. I’m uncomfortable with saying poetry has a “job,” but if it has one, it is simply that: to pay attention to life. Which of course is not simple at all. To “live with great seriousness / like a squirrel”—how does one do that?? Paying attention to life means paying attention to the truth, and that truth is often going to be an unhappy one. I was watching that “One World: Together at Home” show last night, and while some of it was moving—the parts showing the actual caregivers out there at work—a lot of it just filled me with revulsion, so many wealthy celebrities safely ensconced in their lines exuding all this care and gratitude, repeating that corporate “we’re all in this together” message ad nauseum—when we are so obviously not all in this together! The disparity between those celebrities—and our celebrity-obsessed culture—and the caregivers is a big part of what’s gotten us here. I understand that they can’t very well put on a show in which all the celebrities are talking about how much privilege they enjoy and how income inequality is tearing us apart—but if they can’t do it, then poets need to do it. Because that whole show seemed like a big fat lie. And if we’re going to emerge from this crisis with any semblance of a livable world intact, we cannot continue to tell these lies.
Jason Koo is the author of the poetry collections More Than Mere Light, America's Favorite Poem and Man on Extremely Small Island and coeditor of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology. He has published his poetry and prose in the American Scholar, Missouri Review, Village Voice and Yale Review, among other places, and won fellowships for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and New York State Writers Institute. An associate teaching professor of English at Quinnipiac University, Koo is the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets and creator of the Bridge. He lives in Brooklyn.
Much gratitude to Jason Koo for agreeing to be interviewed and generating such thought-provoking answers. This interview was conducted by Kari Ann Ebert, interview editor. She was recently awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship by the Delaware Division of the Arts (2020). She was selected to attend the BOAAT Press Writer’s Retreat (2020), and awarded a fellowship by Brooklyn Poets (2019). Winner of the 2020 Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry, her work has appeared in journals such as Mojave River Review, Philadelphia Stories, Gigantic Sequins, and Gargoyle. She lives and writes in Dover, DE.