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  • An Interview with Myung Mi Kim
  • Lynn Keller (bio)

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Myung Mi Kim

By writing in English, Myung Mi Kim composes in what is technically her second language. Her first language was Korean, and she did not learn English until she immigrated to the United States at the age of nine. She writes, then, from the perspective of one who is at once an insider and an outsider to the language and culture in which she is situated, and this is key to both the aesthetic freshness and the political interest of her work. In "Anacrusis," a condensed prose statement of her poetics from 1999 (a poetics being for Kim "that activity of tending the speculative"), she refers to herself "as a poet arrived at an uncanny familiarity with another language—or more precisely, as a poet transcribing the interstices of the abbreviated, the oddly conjoined, the amalgamated—recognizing that language occurs under continual construction."

Far more than a mere poststructuralist abstraction, Kim's hard-earned knowledge of language being under continual construction renders language particularly malleable in her hands. In her poems, it is subject to fracture and disruption, excision and rearrangement. It functions not as a means of gaining an illusory stability but rather as a register of the often jarring instability of human experience in time, and of the stumblings, the incoherencies, the polyphonic complexity of the immigrant's experience in and between several cultures. The space of the page is equally subject to disruption and improvisation: Kim plays sometimes with textual arrangements reminiscent of traditional stanzaic structures and more often with forms that register visually her dislocation of words and fracturing [End Page 335] of syntax, her shifts from one language or one kind of linguistic transcription into another, her consciousness of the forced displacement of populations around the globe. Even marks of punctuation are often deployed unconventionally, so as to challenge the ways in which authority and convention suppress potential for change. To quote Kim again from "Anacrusis," her poetry is "A valence of first and further tongues. Afluctuating topography, a ringing of verve or nerve—transpiring. Elements of the lyric and its mediations. The duration of the now, the now occurring, that is necessarily expressive of a time before. Differentiation as it negotiates complications of temporality." As Kim's mention of a "now" expressive of a past time suggests, her work often alludes to history. Yet its primary direction is toward the future, its ultimate aim being to contribute to developing a future society with a more ethical relation to the planet's biological and human diversity.

Of her four volumes to date, Myung Mi Kim's first collection, Under Flag (Kelsey Street, winner of the 1991 Multicultural Publishers Book Award), is most clearly focused on immigrant experience. Perhaps alluding grimly to the Pledge of Allegiance's "one nation, under God," its title sets the stage for poems that address the suffering of the deracinated—especially evacuees displaced by war—the struggles of those who have to cross linguistic as well as national borders, who must deal with the losses inherent in diaspora and the uncertainties of "who is mother tongue, who is father country?" In her subsequent books—The Bounty (Chax, 1996), Dura (Sun & Moon, 1998), and Commons (University of California, 2002)—the poems grow longer, while the linguistic units within them are often shorter, their references more elusive. The preoccupations of the poems within each collection interweave as Kim continues to explore in very different textual formats and through different lenses the effects of colonialism and war, the dynamics of families and communities under duress, the movement between and among languages, cultures, and nations. Only weeks before the following conversation took place, Michael Cross's Atticus Finch Press, located in Buffalo, New York, released Kim's elegant chapbook, River Antes, printed with distinctive foldout triptych pages. "River Antes" will be part of her forthcoming book, Penury. [End Page 336]

The powerful combination in Kim's work of startling motion with a highly principled focus of concern—its creation of a coherent structure that is nonetheless always shifting, always provisional—is more readily experienced than described...


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