Interview with Jennifer Kwon Dobbs




What are you reading currently?

I’m currently reading Stacey Waite’s The Lake Has No Saint (Tupelo Press 2010), some classic criticism on poetry and painting via J.D. McClatchy’s edited Poets and Painters (UC Press 1998) and sundry articles on globalization. Waite is a master of the sensual detail and an old acquaintance from our days at Pitt’s MFA Program, so it’s lovely to see her poems finally receiving a wider audience, which they’ve richly deserved!

Reading Douglas Kearney’s Black Automaton (Fence Books 2009) and his online interviews about visual poetics and Russian Futurism has encouraged me to return to that old question — poetry’s relationship with painting — in order to think about the movement of a central idea through distortion (e.g. writing on top of writing) and the page as a canvas of restless action.

And I’m slowly making my way through Negri and Hardt in order to grapple with my own deeply personal questions about identity as a feature of global capital, the self penetrated by networked services and the good enclosures of poetry to bring feeling to bodies where feeling has been drained and rerouted for other markets. In short, I am trying to write away from identity (that old argument) toward notions of the self that might disrupt hegemonic sentiments (e.g. orphan rescue).

What were some of your most alternative days jobs as an aspiring writer?

While living in Stillwater, OK, I worked in a gas station cleaning pumps and ringing up sales. My father was a steelworker before a heart attack forced him into early retirement. Opening up the Get N Go at 5:15 a.m. reminded me of his daylight schedule: warming up the truck; packing a lunch of bologna between Bilo white bread; wearing the same uniform everyday, yet alternating between two pairs of “work pants” (one pair always in the wash).

I learned from my father and from this job how a body makes due despite strain, but in the end, any job entails gifts of the body that no job can adequately pay back. A worker wants respect in the moment of transaction — the work of her/his body in exchange for currency — not pity nor pittance, and pride in one’s work goes a long way toward getting from one shift to another. I think of the work I currently do with my hands — typing, flipping pages, etc. I’m not behind a register, but still, I keep regular hours.

Do you have any special projects in the works?

Currently, I’m working on a collection of essays with the Korean Unwed Moms and Families Association, focusing on their life stories and realities with generous assistance from the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network. It’s a book that I’ve researched for the past 2 years in the U.S. and Korea. 89 percent of Korean children available for domestic and overseas adoption come from unwed mothers who want to keep their children but who suffer cultural stigma and who are caught up in a institutionalized system privileging adoption over family preservation.

While it might be uncomfortable to hear these mothers’ stories as they challenge deeply cherished sentiments (e.g. unwed mothers as victims, adoption as best option), it’s necessary to humanize and to hear from the mothers, themselves, to end cultural stigma against them rather than to enable it further.

At the same time, I’m working on a second book of poetry provisionally titled Three-Legged Bird and extending from my chapbook, Song of a Mirror, which was a finalist for the Tupelo Snowbound Chapbook Award. The second book’s poems are so much darker than those in Paper Pavilion (White Pine Press 2007) in which I explored questions of origins, separation, distance, loss, and erasure. The second one goes to the center of violence — the DMZ — while locating the body at the center as a direction of search through border transgressions of feeling.

It’s a distressing privilege to be able to go to North Korea as an adopted Korean, whose identity formation emerges partially in response to the U.S. Cold War containment strategy (I’m thinking of Klein’s work on Cold War domesticity.), and so I’m stunned by how my erasure is at the same time my map for reunion through routes of feeling. So search becomes quest becomes epistemology and resistance rather than identity. Toward these questions, I find myself rethinking the page (here’s also where my reading of ekphrasis comes in) in order to make erasure more spectral, more active and writing on top of words rather than occurring thematically or as tone.

The language of documents — typographical errors, blacked out, whited out, abbreviated and faded, non-translated and such — as a syntax of power never meant to contain memory but rather to expedite a foregone conclusion PERIOD strikes me as a language of ironic possibility. A search always misuses that language to work backward through deduction and inference, to read negative spaces or to read against progress (the child moved from mother to agency to foster mother to airport and across the border) not necessarily for reversals of fortune, but for humanizing potential infusing blood and bone into the moment that cannot be witnessed, only imagined. The work of seeing across the DMZ — across the bomb seeded darkness falling over land, family, body, heart and mind — and through speculation to a couple walking near the river, holding hands. Juche Tower in the background, the only flame lighting the city at night. The couple whispering to each other and doing the business of human living– falling in love, making promises, and enjoying the cool wind off the river. I remember talking with a professor in Pyongyang and asking him, “What do North Koreans want?” (a ridiculous question for me to have asked in the first place), and he took me seriously in that moment, “We want to be regarded as human.”

I think such humanizing occurs during moments of forgetfulness rather than memory, where we suddenly forget ourselves and are completely in our bodies and aware of the bodies around us focused on the work of living. My conversation with my colleague was naive on many levels, and yet we were both purposefully naive. I suppose some of these new poems turn to this strategy in order to suspend the moment to create a forgetting– the way rust flakes off a carousel’s paint while grandfathers sit under a tree’s shade arguing with each other– of language meant to divert hearts and minds away from fully being present.

What’s your favorite writing snack? Drink?

In Korea, I love lunch box delivery: pork bulgolgi and rice with soup and side dishes. I love makkolli as well. But in general, when I write, I don’t have such rituals. I just sit down and write. When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m tired, I take a break. When I have another burst, I sit down and scribble a note to myself to come back to it later.

What is a word you think you would never use in your writing?

I try to avoid adverbs in particular “very.” After all, “very” is just so very

Have you made any writing resolutions for 2011 and are you keeping them?

My friend, Lisa Marie Rollins, avoids resolutions in favor of words to focus her energies. I’ve adopted the same ritual. My word for 2011 is “Completion.” So far so good.

Have you visited the Mission Inn, the pride of Riverside, CA?

The Mission Inn was many things at once for me — a cornucopia of styles and influences all passing through California and congealing through stucco and tile. So it was a sprawling record of nostalgia, whether for a genteel Spanish casa or an Italian villa inflected with Far Eastern relics. It’s so unique to California, where one can become anyone through grit and ingenuity, as reflected in the Inn’s added on re-inventions that also seek to preserve a western romance. The kind of beauty that emerges shows its seams while radiating an aura of fame (e.g. the portraits of the presidents who had slept there– all conservatives except for Kennedy).

I didn’t have time to take the docent-led tour, but I meandered through the hallways and wings radiating from the original mission enjoying the light, a characteristic of California that I took for granted when I lived there, penetrating and equalizing the suites from the singles. What held the entire Inn together was the light, although I realize that many attempts were built into the Inn to provide refuge from it, from stained glass protecting priceless paintings to heavy curtains and bolted doors preventing entrance to balconies in disrepair. But after traveling from Minnesota during peak (or rather plummeting) winter temperatures, I appreciated the oasis in all its verdant color!


Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is the author of Paper Pavilion, which received The White Pine Poetry Prize and The New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award. She is assistant professor of Creative Writing and American Race and Multicultural Studies at St. Olaf College and lives in Minneapolis.


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1 Response to Interview with Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

  1. Pingback: Writer’s Week Interviews | cratelit

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