Friday, June 13, 2008

on the literary scholar's question about how my adoption informs my poetry

When I was in Korea recently, a scholar/philosopher asked me some direct and excellent questions, one of which has been on my mind since. He wanted to know how my adoption (he was adopted as well) informs the structural and/or technical qualities of my poetry. He was interested in this more than the content's relationship to my adoption, which might be more easily discerned. He is writing a book on transnational adoptee writers, and mine is one of five books he is using in his analysis.

We talked at length about this, but I was unable to clearly (or concisely, at least) explain it. I don't know that I ever will be. But I can start with this: I operate out of the understanding that transnational adoption can be (or is) a traumatic experience. In my own case, the circumstances of my adoption are almost entirely unknown. I came to the United States on October 12, 1971, arriving at the San Francisco International Airport. For the first twenty-five years of my life, I did not consciously consider a birth family search, and I did not visit Korea until I was thirty years old.

The scholar's questions centered around the first poem in my book. "Ars Poetica," the title of the poem, is in some sense a nod to the historical form and the Western literary tradition in which I was educated. It also was born out of my fascination with Francesco Petrarcha's poetic discipline, writing over 300 sonnets for one woman. During the time I was studying the Petrarchan sonnet, I wrote about ten or twelve sonnets (two of which appear in my book) and "Ars Poetica" seemed like a good way to open the collection. I also like the sonnet because of its precision and shape, how it might give order to disorder. In "Ars Poetica," my poem he was asking about, there are images of water and movement, voice, sound, and silence---themes that echo my life, as an adoptee. As a poet, I was not conscious of this when writing the poem, but thematically the book contains recurring moments of these ideas. There is also a spiritual element in the poem, beginning with the claim early in the poem that "the ocean is Buddhist" and later this is negated or at least subverted by the line "perhaps then the trees should believe in God." Might this shifting of truths relate to the transnational adoptee's sense of shifting or elusive truths as they pertain to facts basic to others but often unclear to the adoptee? Perhaps. These shifting truths, one's reality, include unknown birth dates, unknown birth parents, facts and then new facts about birth cities. Perhaps the order of the sonnet was important as I sought to write about my adoption, which is based to some degree in disorder or potentially unanswerable questions.

And so for poetic inspiration, is it a surprise that I am drawn to books such as Pablo Neruda's The Book of Questions or Ch'on Sang Pyong's Back to Heaven? Maybe. And I still do not know exactly how my adoption informs the form of my poems, but in the case of "Ars Poetica," my own bending of the Western form and the infusion of my own truths, I believe the scholar was on the right track in his questions. I may or may not be getting closer to understanding how to answer it, but I am glad to be considering it, at least.

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