May 12 in Korea was a national holiday, Buddha's birthday. There were elegant and colorful parades, lanterns and soju, and a lot of pictures taken. A week prior was Children's Day.
The natural beauty in Seoul is truly breathtaking. Water meets temple, flower meets stone, and tradition is everywhere amidst one of the most modern and high-tech cities in the world. One aspect of travel in Asia is the palpable history and its impact on all walks of life, including poetry. A country once annexed and now occupied, Korea's contemporary poetry reflects this sense of calm and longing, as in the poems of Ch'on Sang Pyong, who was imprisoned for being friends with a suspected (and later exonerated) spy, and later disappeared for four years. One of his books, Back to Heaven, catalogues the joy that somehow he never abandoned. He died in 1993. These days, when I think of water, I think of exile and poetry.
My kind friend, Professor Hee Won Lee (above, author of many books on Irish and European playwrights and writers) from Seoul National University of Technology, took us to lunch one day and invited me to speak at her university, where over 100 students came to hear a few poems and my take on political and media representations of Korean Americans. It was a pleasure meeting the wonderful students and Hee Won's student, Sonia, who gave me a wonderful introduction.
At my poetry reading a couple of weeks later, there was a wonderful audience of perhaps twenty people---adoptees and scholars, professors from a few universities (one of whom is writing an article comparing my work to that of Li-Young Lee), a friend I met in China whom I had not seen in seven years, and the incredible Jane Jeong Trenka. I was also deeply honored to meet and be introduced by Reverend Kim, whose commitment to the Korean adoptee community is nearly unsurpassed. One person I can think of who parallels his commitment, albeit in a different forum, is Dae Won Wenger, who came to the reading as well. After the reading, a group of about ten of us went for drinks and great conversation.
Author Kim Sunée and I were on similar paths, both of us doing some birth family search work as well as some writing related things. I just gave a reading, but she was on a large press tour. Her memoir, Trail of Crumbs, which you should read if you haven't already, was translated into Korean, and there was major press involved, including a press conference with over 30 journalists and more photographers from every publication in the city. In the U.S. her book has been written about in places ranging from People to the New York Times. Kim (above) was adopted at 3, raised in New Orleans, and spent ten years in France. Her book is a wonderful exploration of love, loss, food and its relationships to our lives, and a longing for home and identity. She was also the feature of a wonderful documentary by KBS, the largest television network in Korea. I appear in the documentary for a brief moment or two. Watch it here.
So many writers and scholars I admire have talked about Jane Jeong Trenka, so it was great to meet her. We shared food, stories of writing and publishing (you should read her memoir if you haven't already. We also shared the hours where we learned of Julia's dire health situation. By the time Julia had passed, I was back in California, but in the days before I left, I sat in Jane's home as we scoured her blog for quotes to send to the Yeonhap News Agency (like AP in the U.S.) for the article they ran on her before her death. Needless to say, Julia will always be a part of the trip and in everyone's hearts. There is a memorial service in her memory this Friday at KoRoot in Seoul. Rest in peace, Julia.
On May 10 I went to the 3rd Annual GOA'L dinner for adoptees and birth families and heard one of the most amazing classical guitar performances I have heard. It was in the courtyard at KoRoot, and I was blown away---Denis Sung Ho (above)---the agility and the fierceness, the space he inhabits when playing. His credentials are world-class---he has appeared on the main stages of the world, including Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Musikverein in Vienna, Mozarteum in Salzburg, Symphony Hall in Birmingham, Konserthuset in Stockholm, Megaron in Athenes, Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, Cite de la Musique in Paris, and the Cologne Philharmonie, and New York City's Carnegie Hall. I enourage you to buy his music---but he says I can burn it all I want, so if you want a copy, let me know or drop me an e-mail with your mailing address and I'll send you a copy of "Fuga Libra," (one of his five CDs) which he recorded with a full orchestra.