Talking with EJ Koh about translation and what it means to be a Seattle poet

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As a translator, EJ Koh told me at her book launch party at the Hugo House last month, “there are many ways to use one word. In that sense, the words feel heavier to me” as a translator than they do as ‘just’ a poet. “They weigh heavier on my heart and in my mind.” She continued, “when I'm writing poetry in English, I think, ‘how can I make this word in English mean so many things? How can I manipulate it in that way?’”

Koh is a genius at manipulating the meanings of words: the poems in her debut collection, A Lesser Love are happy and sad and funny all at the same time. In some ways, her poems are a little like those plastic layers you used to find in old anatomy textbooks to illustrate the varied systems of the human body. Peel back a single layer and you’ll find something new underneath — a system that’s just as essential to the life of the organism as everything else.

Koh and I spoke briefly at the end of her reading. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. (Many thanks to Hugo House programs assistant Kelsey Lacanilao for sharing her audio recording of the event.)

You've written a little bit about the act of translating poems from Korean to English with your parents. I was wondering if you could talk a about that.

So I'm not super, super fluent in Korean — I can do karaoke, but I'm not super fluent.

But I do translate Korean poetry, and I use the help of my father, who's been great. My dad gets the literal translation for me. I get to sit next to him and ask him the context because the literal is not enough. I also want to know for him being born at that time — let's say post-occupation or so — and so during the war, what was going on? What was the pop culture? What did that word mean then, not what does it mean now? So that's been really great.

It's also a sly way to get your dad to start reading poetry.

Also, the poet I translated is my mom's best friend from high school. Her name's Kim Myung Won. I found out about her because me and my mom and Kim Myung went to karaoke once. We got hammered. Then Kim Myung looks at me and she goes, ‘You know, I'm a poet.’

And I said, ‘What? Me too.’

My mom's hammered and she's like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You're both poets.’

And I'm saying, ‘Mom, why didn't you tell us sooner?’

Kim Myung was like, ‘Do you want some of my poems? Do you want to translate them?’

And I said, ‘Yeah. I do.’

It turns out some of her poems are pretty raunchy. And having to get the literal raunchy translation of them through my father was sometimes awkward because I'd be like, ‘Dad, this word means many things but does it mean this?’

And he's like, ‘It does, yeah, but more... it's dirtier."

And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’

So it's been great.

So you didn't do so many historical poems tonight, but you do write a lot about history.

I do. Yeah.

Do you ever find the past to be a confining subject? Or is it more of a liberating subject? Do you find your inspiration there?

I do talk about historical events, and I rewrite those poems again and again because there are so many different colors to the events themselves, and there's so many different perspectives, that I can go over them again and again.

It's not limiting. It’s just the opposite — almost like going back to revise and see a new sheen or, I guess in the Instagram culture it's like a new filter, to look at the things that happened.

I think it's such a wonderful well, and an abundant well. Every time you go back to an event, there is something we didn't know at the time that we do now. Rarely do we go back to apply what we know now to those events and say, ‘That's why. That's why these people felt this way. That's why they left their country, or that's why this has all happened and it has now accumulated to this.’

I think it's part of history to go back and revise, to revisit, to listen to the ghosts, to do your work. It’s part of culture.

Do you consider yourself to be a Seattle poet?

Yes. Oh my gosh! Yes.

How does Seattle represent itself in your work?

The last poem in my book is called, "Alki the Town of Dreams." I also have a poem called "Madrona." I have poems about places all over Seattle.

I've lived in San Jose. I've lived in Davis, and in Irvine, which is near L.A., and New York. I would travel here and there for fellowships and scholarships, but it didn't feel like home until I came to Seattle.

Seattle was sort of a pivotal moment where everything came together. Everything I could have wanted — the time to write, the space, the community, the creativity, the energy, the people. I am so happy to be a Seattle poet.