- Bringing Sijo to a New World
My daughter grew up like most second-generation Asians: learning an instrument. Given the cultural diversity of a large city like Chicago, it was no wonder then that she—and, by proxy, I—eventually participated in a local music competition hosted by a Chinese cultural organization. Inspired by the Chinese-themed pieces my daughter was required to perform and the hundreds of young students I saw at the competition—the majority of whom were not even Chinese—I wondered why the same couldn't be done for Korea.
I pitched my idea to other first-generation Koreans: an organization that would introduce Korean culture to young Americans through contemporary fine arts. My idea grew more concrete, and finally, in 2004, the Sejong Cultural Society was created. Taking our name from Sejong the Great, a highly influential fifteenth-century king known for being a patron and advocate of the arts and science, we started our Chicago-based nonprofit as a simple music competition similar to the one my daughter had participated in. After several years of success and increased enthusiasm from the Korean-American community, we continued to expand our program—first a competition for music composition and then another for essay writing.1 [End Page 97]
Several years after beginning our writing competition, our planning committee chair, Professor Heinz Insu Fenkl, asked us if we were interested in adding a sijo competition as suggested by his friend Professor David McCann.
We were surprised at the thought of writing sijo in English. To us, sijo was an esoteric form of poetry, an old cultural remnant only a handful of poets—not laypeople—dabbled in; our exposure to sijo was limited to those great poems written by highly respected traditional scholars. It had never occurred to us to attempt writing them ourselves. But after speaking with Professor McCann, who was already teaching sijo at Harvard University, and investigating on the internet, we discovered that sijo had already been enthusiastically embraced by a small community of Americans.
Upon mentioning our findings to my now-teenage daughter, I learned that American students were taught various forms of poetry as early as grade school—and that one of the most ubiquitous poetry forms known by children was the Japanese haiku. If one form of Asian poetry could manage such widespread dissemination among Americans, we wondered, why couldn't another?
After further discussion with and encouragement from Professors McCann and Fenkl, in 2008 we launched the sijo category of our writing competition in collaboration with the Korea Institute at Harvard University.2 Our competition asked students to write a single sijo in English on any subject, and it quickly became a success: our second year saw nearly triple our first year's entries, and the numbers continued to increase from there, up to 1300 sijo from 41 states in 2013.
During the first several years, we noticed that entire classes of students were submitting entries together—in other words, teachers were using our competition in their curricula, much to our surprise and delight. This was perfectly in keeping with our main [End Page 98] goal of seeing the sijo taught in classrooms, and we began looking for ways in which we could expand upon this. At the same time, we started to notice certain teachers who were "regulars" in our competition, submitting the poems of anywhere from three or four to as many as one hundred students year after year, and we reached out to them.
During this time, Mr. Duane Johansen, a high school English teacher from Indiana, sent us this remark:
"Brandon was a student in my creative writing class the first semester of this school year. Coming into the class, Brandon didn't consider himself a significantly accomplished writer and certainly not a good poet. As he said, 'I hated poetry. I didn't understand it and didn't take the time to learn how to comprehend it.' He was, after all, a good-ole-boy: a starter on the football team and an avid outdoorsman. However, when we started the poetry unit, Brandon started to show some promise. He really started to shine...