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“you can write what you want, but let us live a little more beautifully the second time": Jihyun Yun in conversation with Nicole Lachat

Our Book Prize Coordinator Nicole Lachat recently spoke with Jihyun Yun about her Raz Shumaker Book Prize-winning poetry collection. Please enjoy this excellent conversation!

Jihyun Yun’s debut collection, Some Are Always Hungry, was the winning manuscript of the Raz Shumaker Prize in Poetry in 2019 and was published through University of Nebraska Press in 2020.

NICOLE LACHAT: Hello, Jihyun! I have the good fortune of calling you a friend. But for those who don’t know you, can you tell us how you came to poetry? 

JIHYUN YUN: This isn’t the most romantic story, but I tripped and fell into poetry in my junior year at UC Davis. I was having a science heavy quarter and wanted to round it out with a creative class. Fiction was full, so I enrolled in the poetry workshop knowing absolutely nothing about it. 

I ended up falling in love when I was assigned Li Young Lee’s poem, “Persimmons”As someone who grew up in a liminal space between languages— my first language blotted out by English and feeling not quite at home in either—the poem really spoke to me. In poetry, I think I came into the freedom to fully explore disruption, tension and rupture in language. I remember it feeling like magic back then, and even now when I have the right book in my hands, it still does. 

LACHAT: Can you tell us a little bit about your poetic practice? Do you have any poetic rituals you do to start writing? 

YUN: This is something I’ve started only in the last couple of years, but I love to build atmosphere in my writing space before I sit down. I take it really seriously: I light candles with scents I associate with whatever project I’m working on; I dim any harsh fluorescence and plug in twinkle lights and salt lamps. I turn on an ambient playlist and steep myself nice tea. Part of it is a Pavlovian dog response: when my office looks and smells like this, it means its writing time. But also, this sensorial pampering gives me the sense of taking my own work seriously which I find important because it’s so easy to start feeling invalidated as an emerging writer. It particularly helps when I’m feeling down about my writing or am feeling writers block; I went through such efforts to curate an inviting mood for myself, so my words must be worthy of something. 

LACHAT: What do you look for in your own-poem making? Do you have any steadfast rules regarding the craft of poetry? 

YUN: I like to look for opportunities in my poems to engage the somatic senses. Of course, a beautiful image, a nice metaphor is always welcome, but if my poems can engage phantom taste or accurately invoke smell, that is always a goal. (Whether or not I’m successful in this, who knows. But I hope so!)

As for craft… I feel like I’m awfully wishy washy about it. I don’t like to impose any hard and fast rules on myself since, at least for me, a fixation on craft mores has always made me love the process of writing a little less in that it feels more mathematical than like conjuring. 

Oh, but there is one thing I always abide by. I write most of my first drafts into a prose block and break it into lines during revision. That way, it feels like the poem itself is guiding me towards its rightful shape rather than my own will squeezing it into a plaster mold.

LACHAT: Our lives always contribute to our poetic outlook. I would argue that this can be seen from the largest of our pains to the smallest of our pleasures. For the sake of whimsy and to test my argument— if you could have a lifetime supply of one thing, what would it be?

YUN: Plane tickets, without a doubt! Most of my family live far away from me, and because the prohibitive cost of flights, I only see my loved ones a few times a year. I’d love to pop over easily to Seoul and California to see my family, the coasts to see my friends. Perhaps even spirit myself away to some remote corner of the country for a solo writing retreat. The dream! 

LACHAT: The process of editing and publication can be arduous, and often a longer process than many understand. Can you talk to us about the writing and editorial process for how long it took for you between working on this manuscript and choosing to send it out to contests? How did you know the manuscript was ready?

YUN: Nobody should do as I did, but for me it was trial by fire with Some Are Always Hungry. I wrote it over the course of my MFA at NYU, and I spent perhaps a few months post-graduation to tinker with it before beginning to send it out to contests. I limited how many contests I allowed myself to apply to each year since fees rack up so fast, but submitting the manuscript so soon after drafting it was a mistake. It wasn’t done yet, even though at the time I couldn’t fathom what else could be done with it. 

That first year (2017), I received unanimous form rejections and used that as cue to rework the manuscript. The next round, I started placing in finalist/ semi-finalist positions, so I knew I was getting closer. This was not a good process, and if I could go back, I wouldn’t do it again this way. Of course, because it wasn’t ideal on my bank account, but also if by some fluke the manuscript had been picked up back then (and there were a handful of very near misses), it would have been disastrous. I wouldn’t be able to look at the book now, and still be satisfied with what I put out into the world. 

I wish I would have had that frank conversation with myself back then: Do you truly believe in your book, or are you just desperate to have something to show to your family? As a relic, will you be happy with it is published as it is? My book deserved that rigorous consideration from me, and I never gave it. I was just very fortunate it wasn’t picked up in these early stages. By the time it was picked up in 2019, I had come to an understanding that though I would always feel the impulse to tinker at a line level, I would not make any dramatic changes to the manuscript and that’s how I knew it was as ready as it would ever be. 

LACHAT: In your poems you write a lot about your mother and the matrilineal line. At times entering into the voice of a loved one. How do you approach writing about family and the inheritance of trauma? Can you talk to us about the challenge of that? How does permission work into that process, or does it?

YUN: I am fortunate enough to have a relationship with my family where I am able to directly ask for permission to write about them, which I did. I received permission from both my grandmother and mother directly. My grandma has even started journaling about her early life so I can have something to draw from should it become necessary in future projects, which I am incredibly grateful for. 

When I first asked my grandma if I could write and publish about her, she gave me an instruction that has stuck with me over the years and I try to always keep it in mind when I write about family. She said, roughly translated from Korean: “you can write what you want, but let us live a little more beautifully the second time.” I took this as permission with a condition that I would fictionalize where necessary, to protect them and myself. The women I write about are both us and not us. Maintaining that fictionalized barrier in important to me. 

LACHAT: Food, nourishment, and lack thereof, is sewn throughout your collection. I would be remiss not to ask you this essential question: What is your comfort meal? And what is one food everyone should try at least once in their life?

YUN: My comfort meal is not really a set dish, but more of a genre of meal in Korean cuisine called baekban. Baek means hundred, and ban stands for banchan or side dishes. A Baekban is any meal with an assortment of side dishes and rice, but it will usually also include a simple soup and a protein dish such as spicy pork or fried flounder. It’s hard to get sick of it, since the permutations of the meal are endless. It’s homey and nourishing, and most importantly, very affordable. It reminds me of the childhood breakfasts I used to have with my grandmother. 

LACHAT: When choosing places to submit the manuscript, were there specific qualities/ objectives you were looking for in a Press to have before submitting?  What drew you to Prairie Schooner’s book prize?

YUN: I only submitted to presses that have previously published collections I love. Prairie Schooner’s book prize was a longshot dream for me, ever since I read Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal. So many books I love came out of this prize series so I knew if I was lucky enough to win, my book would be well taken care of. 

LACHAT: The book jacket is quite beautiful. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship to the cover art and how important it was for you to have some say over the cover of your collection?

YUN: Thank you! Having a say over the cover of my collection was immensely important to me, and I really appreciated the way UNP let me send in sample images to fashion the cover after. The covers for the previous winners of the Prairie Schooner Prize were all beautiful, so I knew I was in good hands. 

The piece that ended up being used is a photograph called Nightscape by a Korean artist named JeeYoung Lee. She has this beautifully whimsical series of self-portraits where she physically transforms her studio into dreamscapes. I’ve admired her for a long time and was over the moon when University of Nebraska Press received permission to use the piece for the cover. There was one particular poem in my collection I had in mind when I submitted this piece to UNP for consideration as a cover: “The Leaving Season”.  I was drawn to this image for the way the woman is turned away from the camera, thus rendering her anonymous as she leaves into the landscape.

LACHAT: Can you talk to us about what it meant for you to win this prize? What are some the doors that have opened for you since the book’s publication?

YUN: It meant the world to me, and it changed my life—I say that without an ounce of exaggeration. I’d been working as a waitress during the publication process, and once the pandemic hit, I was out of work. Someone read the collection and reached out to me with a job offer to write for an app. I’ve been freelancing with that company ever since. But beyond the regular freelance jobs, the collection continuously opens doors for me in unexpected ways. Invitations to readings and book events, of course, but also two solicitations from literary agents. None have panned out so far, but I’m hopeful that the book will continue to pave new paths.  

LACHAT: Can you share a little bit about what you are working on?

YUN: I’m currently writing two novels. The first, which I’m working on with the support of Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Book Project Fellowship—  is a young adult retelling of a Korean ghost story set in an American resort town. The second is an upmarket novel about nightlife workers in Seoul. 

LACHAT: Can you give us a book recommendation? 

YUN: Bluest Nude by Ama Codjoe is a recent release I think everyone should be reading. It is a marvel. 

LACHAT: Finally, if you had to describe your collection in 3 words, what would those be?

YUN: Tenderness, body, bowl