Conversation on “An abridged medical family history and multiverse of selves” and the inaugural Jane Kenyon Prize with Monica Kim, Carlina Duan, and Daniel Neff

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The Jane Kenyon Prize for UM undergraduates serves two primary purposes: to create a space for UM undergrads to publish their work to a larger audience and to facilitate dialogue between the different spheres of writers in Ann Arbor. This year’s prize is the inaugural prize. More information can be found here. This conversation is between Daniel Neff, founder of the prize project, Carlina Duan, this year’s judge, and Monica Kim, this year’s winner. A poem from the winning manuscript can be found here.


Daniel Neff: I’d love to start by hearing about how An abridged medical family history and multiverse of selves came to be. Were there poems that were written first, or influences/concepts that initiated your writing of this chapbook, Monica?

Monica Kim: This project first started (as many of my writing projects are) with the idea forming as I was trying to fall asleep. I kept thinking about, of all things, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which I’d just watched, and this idea of multiple universes and multiple Spidermans. It wasn’t just that there were multiple, but that there were different trajectories, too. So, I started thinking, as I always do, about my identity as a Korean American. There’s a lot of guilt that I have over actively pushing away my Korean culture and heritage while I was in middle school and high school, and for me that manifests most acutely in language. Korean was my first language, but my fluency is essentially the level of a third grader’s, which was also the same year my parents enrolled me in Korean school and the year I stopped going. I would ask myself a lot of questions like, What if I’d just gone for a few more years? Or what if I took Korean in college? Would my Korean be any better? Would I feel less like an imposter or that something’s missing? I took those questions and decided to express them in poetry; my professor, Sarah Messer, gave me the idea of using footnotes after showing me some poems with them. And then from there the project bloomed into more questions: there are certain actions that we see as monumental (like quitting Korean school), and actions that we see as small (like playing a game of Duck Duck Goose) but that can result in large consequences. What if that action hadn’t been taken? How would that universe look different? Or similar? Do we ever really know what a universe will look like? Can we ever say for certain that, had I gone to Korean school up until high school, I’d be much more fluent and be able to talk to my grandfather for more than five minutes? Or would we still only talk for five minutes?

DN: What about your process as the contest judge of reading the manuscript, Carlina? What were some of the significant moments in the collection or conceptual interlocutors you found as you read these poems for the first time?

Carlina Duan: I was immediately struck by the experimentation with form in this collection. So many of the multiverse poems were compelling in their re-imaginings of histories—geographical, personal, political, national, and familial. Simultaneous “multiverses” — that question of what if? — permeate these poems, and allowed me, as a reader, to constantly grapple with the idea of inhabiting multiple truths at the same time. (Thinking, here, of what Elizabeth Alexander writes: “Many things are true at once.”) The “multiverse” poems reminded me of text-based ‘tessellations’ of sorts…constantly rewinding, unwinding, folding in on themselves to create something surprising, sharp, and new. Reading Monica’s work, I was reminded of Cathy Park Hong’s first book, Translating Mo’um, and Hong’s similar attention to and subversion of traditional form. Hong toys with reader expectations and creates poems that contract and expand their understandings of language, the power of language, and language as action in the world. Both Hong’s and Monica’s work draw me to questions of accountability: Who are you accountable to, and what are you accountable to, while writing? I thought Monica’s toggle and tension between tongues in understanding diasporic selfhood was really poignant and well-rendered.

DN: This is a pretty metaphysical book, so I think we should let ourselves get a little heady for a moment at least. I’ve been revisiting some science fiction favorites in quarantine, and Ursula le Guin writes in The Left Hand of Darkness that “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” That quote resonated with how the multiverse appears in An abridged medical family history and multiverse of selves, and how we engage these strands of varied and unknown versions of reality. Throughout the chapbook, there is an acute awareness of causation and of the fragile geographies of individual decisions and societal consequences and luck that make up life. In terms of craft, how did you put these multiverse poems together?

MK: At first, each multiverse “topic” (i.e. name, Korean school, piano, etc.) had only two universes, but then when I was revisiting and revising them, I decided to expand each to have three or four universes – to allow for more overlap or more dissonances. I thought about moments in my life that I wish I had done differently, or moments where I wondered if I’d done something differently, how it would look differently. Obviously, I have no way of knowing exactly what kind of universe this would look like; it was a kind of experimentation, so I wanted to experiment with form as well, which is also how I decided to use footnotes. Rather than putting each multiverse on a separate page, I thought –– what if, with one single action or word, this universe branched off into a parallel universe immediately? What if this parallel universe existed on the same plane (page) but just looked slightly differently? I also often started with a personal moment –– for example, in “An abridged medical family history” the fact that my family didn’t have healthcare for a very long time –– and thought about how a personal stake of mine was affected by a political stake (in this case, 1990s immigration laws). From there I thought about how politics could affect other communities that I’m not a part of –– which I think the last poem in the multiverse section, about the 2016 election, tries to meditate on. In terms of our current pandemic moment, I think the sheer amount of possibilities that come out of reading and writing help us cope in this moment where we don’t know what’s going to happen in a day or a week or a month. It feels daunting and intimidating but in a weird way also feels reassuring.

CD: I’m curious if you could speak to the afterlife of this chapbook, Monica. Are there any formal and thematic strands that you’re taking from writing this book and developing into new (future) projects?

MK: I want to write more multiverse poems for sure –– I have an idea for one so far but won’t force writing for this project –– but there’s a formal strand that I’m thinking of for a future project. It’s related to fiction, not poetry, but I think sort of has similar themes of national identity and memory. I really loved experimenting with the footnotes while writing these poems, and I’ve been trying to think of ways to incorporate that experimentation into my fiction somehow. For a creative non-fiction class, we had to read this article about a journalist who interviews kids who have really vivid dreams about real, historical people. In their dreams, it’s like they’re living these people’s lives –– they have details down to a T that are backed up by actual records. It’s like they’re these people reincarnated in their dreams. I want to write a short story about a Korean American girl who is one of these kids, who has dreams where she’s a different person –– and this person happens to be a comfort woman. I want to incorporate footnotes into this story somehow, kind of inspired by how Junot Diaz does it in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao –– meditating on history, narration, challenging the authority of the narrator and what is presented on the page.

DN: A theme of An abridged medical family history and multiverse of selves is exploring how much of life is dictated by school and education, and we see how lives become these offshoots of what we choose to study and dedicate our time to learning. For me, academia has been an odd journey from being a homeschooler to studying creative writing at Western Michigan University, so I often wonder how different decisions would have set me up for different careers. But, ultimately, I’ve always wanted storytelling to be a part of whatever I do. You’ve both been through undergrad in writing at UM at different points, Carlina is now a graduate student here, and I just finished my MFA here (and of course Jane Kenyon was both an undergrad and a grad student at UM), so we’ve all sort of got these narrative lines traveling through the university. What’s been the trajectory, coming to writing and participating in this academic community, for both of you?

MK: I’ve been pursuing an English major since freshman year, and initially I had no plans to make creative writing (and even more so, poetry) a huge part of my education and time at U-M. Even though I loved writing, I just never really believed that I could make it a career of mine. But the first time I wrote poetry in a college course was my sophomore year, when I took English 440 (Modern Poetry) with Aaron Van Jordan, and that really opened up a world of poetry for me –– before, I hadn’t really been the hugest fan of it, and I rarely wrote it (I’m more of a fiction writer). I had to take a poetry class for the English major, and I’m glad I did, because that got me interested in taking more creative writing courses at the university in general. My junior year, I took English 223 and a RC-PCAP course with Sarah Messer, where I was part of a group of students who volunteered and co-facilitated poetry workshops with incarcerated youth. For Sarah’s class, we had to turn in at least one poem every week, which was the most I’d ever written poetry. Reading other people’s poems and helping facilitate poetry workshops piqued my interest in poetry even more, and after that class, I decided to do a year-long poetry tutorial with Sarah. My multiverse poems were largely written for our one-on-one sessions.

CD: I have a unique experience with poetry at U-M because Ann Arbor is my hometown, so I consider the literary arts community here to have raised me, in a sense. I grew up going to weekly poetry workshops at the Ann Arbor Neutral Zone as a high schooler, and I was fortunate to encounter so many youth writers and artists in my community early on, who shaped my understanding of who –– and what ––a poem could be. There were and continue to be some true Ann Arbor youth literary arts scene heroes, who are doing immense work in building a generation of youth writers in this city; Molly Raynor and Jeff Kass are game-changers, and I likely would not have chosen to major in English, with a Creative Writing subconcentration, at U-M if I hadn’t met them. My teachers here at Michigan were all incredibly nurturing and wonderful, and many of their courses were transformative for me, opening up new possibilities of thought re: language and linguistic activism. In college, I also tapped into a lot of rich literary arts spaces outside of classrooms ––PCAP, NELP, The Daily, Xylem, Fortnight Press–– that encouraged me to grow my craft, learn how to critique and pay attention to the world around me, and, more importantly, come to love my locality. My experiences with poetry at and beyond U-M cemented my faith and allegiance to literary arts community in the Midwest. After I moved away from Michigan, I always thought it was funny how folks from coastal cities would assume there wasn’t a big arts or writing scene in the Midwest. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. now in a Joint program at U-M through the School of Education and the English Department, and witnessing the evolution and the sustained creative lineage on this campus –– as well as in this town––reminds me that poetry in Michigan is alive, has always been alive, and is growing!

MK: Since I’ve never encountered this prize before, what was the process of establishing the Jane Kenyon Prize. Did this contest grow from a specific idea or goal in mind?

DN: The primary aim of this Jane Kenyon Chapbook Prize has been to create new opportunities for young and emerging writers. A friend told me about a chapbook prize at U. of Massachusetts-Amherst—associated with the jubilant literary journal, I believe—where undergraduates had a short collection of poems published with community support. I thought a prize for undergraduates at UM would similarly create a larger platform for young writers considering embarking on a creative career, especially when the MFA program and the literary scene is oriented around encouraging us to write projects and books of thoughtful and moving creative work. I’m grateful to have received wonderful guidance as an MFA here at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program on how to build a literary career (i.e., putting together a poetry collection, submitting work to journals, sending query letters to publishers.) However, as a former undergrad, I knew this information was valuable to writers of all ages and levels, so why not widen that scope and create a new opportunity for undergraduates to learn more about publishing a more significant collection of work? And I knew undergraduates at UM were writing long-form projects with care, intellect, and vulnerability, about subjects weighing heavy in literary conversations about identity, environment, education, mental health, etc. My hope was that this prize opened some gates to allow access and support for undergraduates at Michigan to experience publishing and sharing their writing, at the chapbook-level, with a wider audience. Of course this prize exists because we were able to collaborate with local organizations with similar commitments to supporting emerging writers. Your manuscript, Monica, will be available this summer at Literati Bookstore, and they have been so generous in supporting this prize. Likewise, Michigan Quarterly Review and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. And then, of course, having Carlina, as a wonderful judge I knew I could rely on to read submissions with care and thoughtfulness. And readers, Sierra Brown and Wolverine Press for broadsides and guidance—it’s just been nice to get help from so many arteries of this literary network here in Ann Arbor.

DN: I’m was hoping we could end by saying a little about what being an emerging writer means to you specifically. Are there resources you wish more people knew about, opportunities you wished existed, words of wisdom you’d offer for other writers embarking on getting their work read and published?

MK: I’m really grateful that the Jane Kenyon Chapbook Prize exists and that I get to have a chapbook published through it! It’s not something I thought would even be possible now, because I’m still so new to the world of writing. It’s both exciting and daunting. I definitely wish people knew more about this prize (I only came across it on accident when I was walking through Angell Hall, on my way to office hours) and about other prizes and opportunities for publication for emerging writers. Obviously there are the Hopwoods at U-M, which are amazing, but if there was a monthly newsletter of some sort with a list of resources for emerging writers, I think that would be very helpful (it’s also a likely possibility that one exists and I’m just not aware of it). I also think there needs to be more support for writers of color –– I have so many friends who have been frustrated by the workshop process in class (I’ve also experienced this too). Having a mentor and a group of writer friends is also really important for that sense of community and encouragement and mutual support. I’m lucky to have found those circles of people this year. As for words of wisdom: I’ll repeat something that mentors and writer friends have told me –– shoot for the stars, and if you get rejected, remember that the judging is subjective, and there’s someone out there who will fall in love with your writing and see your potential and want to publish it.

CD: I would add, too, that if you are an “emerging” writer –– believe that you are your own fountain of knowledge and that you are capable of ushering your work into the world! To emerge is also to hatch is also to be alive! What a gift. You are a living poet at a time where there is so much good writing happening. So read a lot. Read everything! Even stuff you ordinarily wouldn’t try, or think you dislike. Visit Rebecca Mannery in the Hopwood Room and have her recommend a novel or a poetry journal. Attend readings –– this town is full of them, and the University’s Visiting Zell Writers series (and other departments on campus!) bring in some of the best contemporary writers. Take advantage of this! Listen and pay attention to what you like and what you don’t like in a poem. Know how to articulate this beyond “It’s just not my aesthetic.” Experiment and take risks. Your knowledge is also never just limited to this campus.

There are some great resources in Ann Arbor if you want to attend readings: Skazat Poetry Series, One Pause Poetry, Literati Bookstore, Nicola’s Bookstore and more.

If you want to mentor and work with youth poets, check out the Neutral Zone and/or 826michigan in Ann Arbor. Visit Kalamazoo and see how you can get involved with Fire Arts Collective. Visit Room Project in Detroit and InsideOut Literary Arts. Befriend your public librarians –– what amazing community resources and people. Check out the Ann Arbor District Library’s programming or Ypsilanti Library.

Read online literary magazines, such as MQR, and figure out who they’re following or “in conversation” with in the contemporary literary world, and follow those magazines, too. Follow the work(s) of your favorite writers and see where they’re getting published and read those publications. 

Bios:

Monica Kim was born in Seoul, South Korea and moved to New Jersey with her parents when she was two and a half years old. She has been an avid writer and reader since middle school and graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English in May 2020. She hopes to continue writing even more universes of possibility.

Carlina Duan is a poet and an educator from Michigan. She is the author of I WORE MY BLACKEST HAIR (Little A, 2017), and the chapbook Here I Go, Torching (National Federation of State Poetry Societies, 2015). Carlina has received residencies and awards from Tin House, the Academy of American Poets, the Fulbright Program, Sundress Academy for the Arts, Narrative Magazine, the Hopwood Program, Signal Fire Arts, & more. She received her M.F.A. in Poetry from Vanderbilt University, where she served as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Nashville Review. Her poems can be found in Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, The Margins, & elsewhere. Carlina is currently a Ph.D. student in the Joint Ph.D. Program in English & Education at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include creative writing pedagogies and linguistic activism in storytelling.

Daniel Neff is a teacher, writer, and editor currently located in Ann Arbor, MI. Daniel has taught with InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit and with the English Department at the University of Michigan. Daniel’s writing has won an American Academy of Poets Prize and has been published or is forthcoming in Narrative, DIAGRAM, Zyzzyva, Ninth Letter, and Phoebe, among others. As managing editor of the Jane Kenyon Prize, Daniel established the contest while an MFA candidate in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program.