Srikanth Reddy in Conversation with Don Mee Choi
The Poetry Magazine Podcast: Srikanth Reddy in Conversation with Don Mee Choi
Don Mee Choi:
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Bridges Of =”)
O beautiful! The gate the library the TV tower O marvelous!
Srikanth Reddy: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m guest editor, Srikanth Reddy. Today, we’ll be talking with the Korean American poet, translator, and MacArthur Genius, Don Mee Choi. The more time I’ve spent with Don Mee’s work, the more complex her poetic world has become to me. I first knew her as a translator of avant-garde Korean poetry. I was on a jury that awarded the Griffin Prize to her translation of Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death. Then I got to know her poetry better. It reconstructs her family history, which is also deeply complex. She’s a poet whose personal history is also the history of the Cold War, and the images that have shaped how those wars are pictured internationally. Because even if you haven’t read Don Mee’s poetry, you’ve probably seen the work of her father, a photojournalist who filmed much of the news footage that Americans saw of the Vietnam War and the Cold War era in general. Now, Don Mee is at work on a new book.
Don Mee Choi: This new book, I’m calling it, Wings of Utopia. And I think I’m basically orbiting around my father’s memory, war and violence.
Srikanth Reddy: Wings of Utopia is the final book in a trilogy, a sort of unintentional trilogy. Don Mee set out to explore the dictatorship era of South Korea in her book, Hardly War. But to understand Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship, she felt she also needed to delve into the 1945 national division of Korea. So she wrote a second book, DMZ Colony, in what would become a literary trilogy.
Don Mee Choi: I first had to deal with the historical, you know, division, the national division, the ideological division. I had to understand that to understand what really took place during the dictatorship.
Srikanth Reddy: Today, we’ll hear poems from Wings of Utopia, which Don Mee is still in the process of writing.
Don Mee Choi: I wanted to sort of delve into what took place during the Gwangju massacre. But from my father’s memory, as I have also explored the Korean War through my father’s memory.
Srikanth Reddy: Don Mee’s father, Injip Choi, was born in 1928, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. After Korea was liberated in 1945, he trained to be a photojournalist.
Don Mee Choi: You know, he distributed newspaper as a boy, when he was in high school. And that’s how he saved his money to buy his first camera. And I think he was really obsessed with photography. So he said he read everything about photography, even before he actually had a camera. So, he used to refer to himself as a photographer without a camera for a while. And then once he had a camera, he started taking some photos. And his first photograph that he actually published, he took a photograph of a Japanese mother and her children in a hurry to leave a Seoul. And this was right after the liberation. And he said, just because Korea was liberated didn’t mean that Japanese went there. I mean, it took a while for everybody to leave Korea.
Srikanth Reddy: When Don Mee was 10 years old, her father started working for ABC News, and switched to filming newsreels, because it paid better than photojournalism. He was able to relocate the family to Hong Kong, while ABC News sent him on assignment across Asia.
Don Mee Choi: So many of the news clips that you saw on TV about the Vietnam War, they were my father’s.
Srikanth Reddy: Moving to Hong Kong was the first step in her father’s effort to get the family out of South Korea.
Don Mee Choi: Because it was very politically oppressive. And you couldn’t speak anything against the government, you couldn’t criticize the government. And also, you know, after the war, South Korea was extremely poor. So, in the ’60s, I, you know, I grew up seeing a lot of poverty around us. I didn’t think that we were poor, because we had a small house and we could eat. But, you know, I grew up seeing beggars all around me. Also, there were a lot of war orphans at that time, too. So, of course, I was always reminded how lucky we were not to be orphans. And also my father knew a lot about what the dictatorial government was doing. And he didn’t want us to grow up in that oppressive environment. So, we first landed in Hong Kong. And I lived there till I was 19.
Srikanth Reddy: Then the situation in South Korea dramatically changed again. In 1979. the dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his own director of intelligence.
Don Mee Choi: So when he was assassinated, you know, people really thought that this could be the end of the dictatorship, that we could finally have democracy and more economic equality. But Park Chung-hee’s general Chun Doo-hwan came into power. And of course, he was very close to Reagan at that time, and he was supported, definitely backed by the US again. And then there was protests all over, that broke out all over South Korea.
Srikanth Reddy: The South Korean military was sent to suppress the student-led protests that started in Seoul, and then spread to more impoverished regions of the country. This led to the infamous Gwangju massacre in 1980.
Don Mee Choi: You know, the South Korean military cannot operate without the consent of the US military command in South Korea. So, without the US consent, that massacre could not have happened. It’s just civilians were just brutally beaten to death and they were tortured. And what took place in Gwangju was, it was severely censored. Koreans in Korea did not know what took place in Gwangju for about, I would say, five years or six years.
Srikanth Reddy: Don Mee’s father was working for ABC News in South Korea, filming the student protests in Seoul at the time. When he heard about the unrest in Gwangju, he traveled down there to cover what would become known as the Gwangju massacre.
Don Mee Choi: He told me he saw many corpses. He knew that, by then, many had been killed. At that time, it was announced as about 200 were killed. But he said that wasn’t true at all. There were mass graves.
Srikanth Reddy: That was the turning point, when her father felt the family could not return to South Korea.
Don Mee Choi: We had to sort of find places to go to.
Srikanth Reddy: He encouraged Don Mee to apply for schools in the US.
Don Mee Choi: My geography teacher wanted me to go to UK and study geography. I loved geography, but I just loved art. And that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be an artist,
Srikanth Reddy: Don Mee applied to schools across the US, from the East Coast to Chicago to California.
Don Mee Choi: And I chose CalArts because he was in the desert, and I’ve never seen the desert, and I thought, “Well, I think that would be an interesting place.” And it was also the most kind of experimental school. And my art teacher said it wasn’t the right school for me. So, of course, then I knew it was the right school for me. So, I chose that school.
Srikanth Reddy: What kind of work were you making at the time when you were in Hong Kong and then in the US?
Don Mee Choi: Well, I think in Hong Kong, I was just sort of learning the skills of drawing and painting. So, they were mostly sort of, kind of, I don’t know, technical. I also enjoyed copying drawings by Van Gogh, and—(LAUGHS)
Srikanth Reddy: (LAUGHS)
Don Mee Choi: I loved his drawings of clouds. And, you know, Hong Kong has really great, incredible cumulus clouds. So, that was very fitting at that place.
Srikanth Reddy: At CalArts. Don Mee first made sculptures and installations. And after finishing her BA, she went on to complete an MFA in visual art there as well.
Don Mee Choi: For my MFA, I sort of switched to super 8 film, and then also to 16 millimeter film. And that’s when I actually started writing poems.
Don Mee Choi: Of course, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted some kind of narration with my films. And so, I just sort of wrote without really thinking too much.
Srikanth Reddy: One of her professors at CalArts told Don Mee, “You have to keep writing.”
Don Mee Choi: I always remember that in the back of my mind.
Srikanth Reddy: In 1983, after Don Mee’s father witnessed the Gwangju massacre, the family scattered. Her older brother went to Australia, her sister stayed in Hong Kong to finish university, and her father got relocated to the ABC News bureau in Frankfurt, West Germany. Germany was still split into East and West Germany then. By that time, Don Mee was already studying at CalArts in the US. She returned briefly to Hong Kong, and helped her parents and youngest brother moved to Frankfurt.
Don Mee Choi: I never imagined that I would ever go back to Germany. You know, I always thought of Germany as a kind of a temporary place for my parents.
Srikanth Reddy: Don Mee said she had actually forgotten about that chapter of their lives until she was invited, many years later, to give a reading in Berlin. That’s when she started writing Wings of Utopia.
Don Mee Choi: These poems that I started writing while I was in Berlin, and what triggered it was the Glienicke Bridge between Berlin and Potsdam. And my father happened to just mention it to me. When I arrived in Berlin, and he said, “You know, I’ve been to Berlin, and I was on that bridge.”
Srikanth Reddy: Bridges became a way to map her father’s memories in the new book.
Don Mee Choi: He remembered being extremely cold. He just couldn’t warm up. And I said, “What did you do?” And he said, “I was on that Glienicke Bridge, filming the spy swap.”
Srikanth Reddy: The bridge acted as something of an in between zone, or a demilitarized zone, a place between East and West Berlin, where Americans and Soviets exchanged captured spies during the Cold War.
Don Mee Choi: So I just sort of happened to look up on YouTube, I just typed in, you know, “Glienicke Bridge,” “spy swap.” Then I saw a newsreel of German TV station, RBB.
(NEWS CLIP PLAYS)
February 1986, Glienicke Bridge between West Berlin and Potsdam, journalists are camping out with their vans and broadcast equipment.
Don Mee Choi: And then I spotted my father.
(NEWS CLIP CONTINUES)
This is the third and last exchange to take place on Glienicke Bridge, and the first to happen in public, a sign of thawing relations.
Don Mee Choi: It was the last spy swap that took place. But it was also the very first public one.
(NEWS CLIP CONTINUES)
... sent the stories around the world and Glienicke Bridge goes down in history as the Bridge of Spies.
Don Mee Choi: So that’s how I found him in Berlin. And that’s how this whole project began. I knew it was a signal. It was a signal from my father’s sort of a memory zone, signaling me that, you did come to the right place and this will be part of my next book.
Srikanth Reddy: She began mapping the appearance of bridges throughout her life history. The Glienicke Bridge brought memories of the bridge next to her childhood home in South Korea. Here’s Don me reading one of the poems from the new book.
Don Mee Choi:
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Bridges Of=”)
The house I was born in was near the Hangang Bridge. On June 28, 1950, the bridge was blasted by the South Korean Army to deter the advancing North Korean troops. Many refugees fleeing the city fell to their death as the bridge collapsed. Our house is no longer there, but it persists in my memory. It speaks to me in a language only the homesick understand. My mother tells me that, as soon as I could walk, I reveled, walking on the bridge. I grew up listening to the rippling laments of the bridge. As children, my sister and I believed that angels flew down from the sky to bathe inside the hollow legs of the bridge. The angels sang as they bathed. That’s how we knew they were inside the legs. Sometimes, we waited till dusk on the sandbank, where we played, to catch a glimpse of the departing angels.
Srikanth Reddy: Thank you, Don Mee. That’s beautiful and makes me think about bridges in a different way than I had in my little symbolic universe. You know? We’re kind of, you know, instructed to think of bridges as something that unites people across divisions or borders. But your poem makes me recognize that bridges are also military targets and can be scenes of destruction and loss of life, or of very complex negotiations, like a spy swap, right? Where the bridge is kind of like a demilitarized zone where two different cultures or politics can enter into negotiations. And I also hear you thinking about angels in this work. What brings you to angels, and is it a similarly complex kind of negotiation for you?
Don Mee Choi: I associate angels with bridges, because that’s where, you know, that was the first time I thought about angels, because we would hear this sort of echoing sound, and I didn’t know what that sound was. So, somehow, my sister and I came up with that story that there were angels singing inside, you know, during the sunset, you know, they will go back up to the sky again. And you know, there are Korean angels and they look very different from Western angels. They don’t have wings, but they have these, they have these beautiful dresses that you wear. And you can fly. That sort of enables you to move up and down, you know, these two grounds. And my sister was, of course, older and she was taller than me. So she said she was that kind of an angel, you know, with this very beautiful dress. And I was so jealous. And I said, no, I just don’t want to be that chubby Western angel, you know, like, sort of those baby-looking, you know?
Don Mee Choi: Those were the angels that I had in my mind. So we used to argue quite a bit about it. You know, angels appear in Wings of Desire.
(CLIP PLAYS IN BACKGROUND)
Don Mee Choi: You know, there’s a scene where there’s actually a bridge in the film, and somebody dies from a motorcycle accident. And Angel Damiel appears and helps him calm down. And then he also, at the same time, he releases his memory.
(CLIP PLAYS IN BACKGROUND)
And so, then the dying man recites all the significant events or people or places that he remembers as he’s dying.
Don Mee Choi: And that bridge was only, was very close to my apartment. So, that’s how another bridge in this film comes about in the book, too.
Srikanth Reddy: So, angels and bridges. And these are both powerful elements in the new work that we were fortunate enough to publish in the magazine. And I wonder if you would read a little bit more, because there’s a poem that follows the bridges poem that speaks to these concerns about angels.
Don Mee Choi:
Before I was born, when my mother was pregnant with my older brother, she dipped into the Han River and floated about. She was not exactly a swan, but she might as well have been because she looked so happy then, her eyebrows drawn so far apart. I must repeat that swans have nothing to do with S or T, for that matter. I think of Taedong Bridge in Pyongyang, North Korea, as my father’s bridge. He stood on it sometime in the late fall of 1950, during the Korean War. When my father was dispatched to Pyongyang to photograph the city, he walked up to the old Angel’s pagoda, which gave him an angel’s eye view of the city. Angel’s panorama O beautiful! The gate the river the bridge O marvelous! Angels are waving to us. My father couldn’t help being overwhelmed by the beauty of the panorama of Pyongyang despite the fact that the whole city had been bombed to the ground. Craters are formed, and the impression of traveling on the moon is born. An aerial view reveals that the angels are, in fact, gooks in white pajamas, normal for the daytime.
Srikanth Reddy: That’s unsettling and incredible final image, where the angels are transformed to Korean, possibly bombing targets. I mean, the journey that I’m feeling that we’ve taken from Seoul, for your family, to Hong Kong, to a kind of scattering of your family, you going to the US, your father going to Germany, kind of returns here in this image that you find in Germany for the angels looking like Koreans. Is that—am I reading that correctly?
Don Mee Choi: Most Koreans were in white, but that was sort of our, you know, that’s how people dressed. They were in white sort of baggy pants or white dresses and tops. And that’s how Koreans were described by the US military during the Korean War. Right, gooks in white pajamas. You know, thinking about angels, I remembered what my father told me about this Taedong Bridge in Pyongyang. There is a pagoda there, and it’s called the Angel’s pagoda because it’s that area, looking over this the city of Pyongyang and also the river, Taedong River that flows through it is exceptionally beautiful. It’s so beautiful that the angels actually descend and visit that area. That’s why it’s called Angel’s pagoda. So then I sort of, you know, thinking about angels, I remembered what my father told me about the Angel’s pagoda.
Srikanth Reddy: Halfway into writing Wings of Utopia, Don Mee realized that one of the important aspects of the project was to understand violence through linking different places, moments of history, and memories together into what Walter Benjamin called “temporal magic.”
Don Mee Choi: He talks about this idea in his very short piece called “The Mark.” And that mark is like, for instance, he’s referring to like a birthmark or Christ’s stigmata. And that mark is often found in a living thing, therefore, is usually, for him, is associated with guilt. He says, like blushing, right, or innocence, which he associates with Christ’s stigmata. And that, that there is this temporal magic that appears in the mark, he says, in the sense that the present and the past and the future, sort of, the differences are eliminated, and that there is the sense of magically fused thing that appears in the mark. So I just sort of love that idea.
Srikanth Reddy: Another influence on the work was the German writer, W.G. Sebald, especially his books, Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn.
Don Mee Choi: I was extremely moved by them, how, what he was doing with memory and what he was doing with time, how he was really connecting all these very disparate places and people and events, and—but what was really at the core of his, I think, in his writing is sort of dealing with that trauma of the history of the he was born into. What took place with the Holocaust, and what Germany did, and how he sort of constantly digresses around that, this core. And that was really interesting to me.
Srikanth Reddy: When Don Mee first started writing Wings of Utopia, her father shared his memories of being on the Glienicke Bridge in 1986. And he also reminded her of another moment in history that was integral to her research. Decades before, in 1945, it was near the Glienicke Bridge that the famous Potsdam Conference changed the world.
Don Mee Choi: Where the three players, Stalin, and Churchill, and Truman, they were all there, and they sort of made the decisions, you know, which countries will be divided, and so forth. So that’s how Germany was divided. And they decided that Korea will be divided. So then my father reminded me of that meeting. And then, for him to be on the bridge again, you know, that was sort of a demilitarized zone as sort of a no man’s land, sort of in between space between two divided countries.
Srikanth Reddy: So what the book feels to me, I mean, it’s not written yet fully, but from what we’re, you’re telling me about it, it feels like it’s a kind of circling back or return to a place that was never really home for you, Germany. And following your father’s tracks, or almost like a spy, kind of trying to piece together the mystery or the story of your father’s life there. Is that what it felt like to be in Germany writing this work?
Don Mee Choi: Actually, what it felt like to me, being in Berlin for the first time was that I was actually in the future of two Koreas. So, it felt very crucial to me, because I could see all these remnants of the wall between East and West Berlin. You know, when you walk around, you can see those sort of bricks. They’ve kept those bricks, that division. So then, that made me think about, if two Koreas were to be unified, you know, what would be our markers of that former division? You know, we have barbed wire fences across the whole peninsula. We also have land mines, you know, a million, more than a million landmines. And they say, the experts say it may take up to 500 years to totally demine that area.
So I was sort of thinking about, you know, the contrast between, you know, what was able to take place in Germany, the two Germanys being able to reunify, and then also sort of thinking of Berlin as kind of, maybe a kind of a utopic space for being able to imagine what two Koreas coming together, you know what that might be.
Don Mee Choi:
Langenscheidtbrücke is above the rail tracks, legless, yet the angels still bathed in evening dew, singing and crying, perched on nearby trees as if they had been waiting for me. Sparrow, what took you so long? How was it that they could speak the rippling language of my childhood? How did they know to wave? That I would return? Spree O beautiful! The gate the library the TV tower O marvelous! The overwhelming beauty of Berlin’s panorama. I owe it entirely to wings of utopia.
Srikanth Reddy: Don Mee Choi is the author of DMZ Colony, out from Wave Books in 2020, which won the National Book Award, and Hardly War, published in 2016. She’s a MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellow. You can read a series of poems called “Bridges Of =” in the April 2022 issue of Poetry, in print and online. If you’re not yet a subscriber to Poetry magazine, there’s a special rate for podcast listeners. For a limited time, you can get a full year of the magazine for $20. That’s 11 book-length issues for just $20. Visit poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer to subscribe. That’s poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer. This show was produced by Rachel James. The music in this episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and thanks for listening.
(MUSIC FADES OUT)
Srikanth Reddy first encountered the complex poetic world of Don Mee Choi as a translator of avant-garde Korean poetry before reading Choi’s own poetry. As a poet, Choi invites readers into her personal history—which is also the history of her father and of war. Even if you haven’t read Choi’s poetry, you’ve probably seen the work of her father—a photojournalist who filmed much of the news footage that Americans saw of the Vietnam War and the Cold War era. Choi is at work on a new book, Wings of Utopia, which is the final book in what unintentionally became a trilogy. In Hardly War, Choi set out to explore the dictatorship era of South Korea, but to understand Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship, she felt she also needed to delve into the 1945 national division of Korea, so she wrote a second book, DMZ Colony. Today you’ll hear three poems from the final book, where Choi orbits around her father’s memories as a way to explore the Gwangju Massacre, and what Walter Benjamin called “temporal magic.”