Interview with Hannah Sanghee Park on The Same-Different —
January 6, 2015
Hannah Sanghee Park is the author of the book The Same-Different, the 2014 winner of The Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award. The book is forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press in April 2015. Park is currently a fellow in the CBS Writers Program, and an MFA candidate in the Writing for Screen & Television program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Christopher Nelson: Many poets of the past century-plus have downplayed or renounced rhyme, yet you have embraced it, made it central to your aesthetic. Would you tell us about that decision?
Hannah Sanghee Park: There’s a close kinship and intimacy, I think, that arises from moving through similar sounds and similar words. When I use rhyme or see/hear rhyme, it makes the poem feel like it moves in shifts and tremors—a very slow transformation. My hope is that the reader and listener feels close to the poem in some way, or that they can experience it uninterrupted.
Working with rhyme both propels and slows me through a line. One of the first poems I ever remember writing—a narrative for my best friend—was finished during the entirety of a language arts period. I was nine. And I went through this, couplet by couplet, in an instinctual, fill-in-the-blank way. It’s easy to see or say that this instinct made it a swift write, and I hope it was that, and not my eternal desire to go to lunch or recess faster. But it’s great when a word fits the end of a line both sonically and semantically.
The first couplet of this poem was “My friend and I walk across the shore / Flowers bloom less or more.” It made little sense, was very obvious, but above all, it was a pleasure to write. The only reason I remember this and some other couplets is that a performance troupe came to our school and put a melody to the words. My teacher submitted the poem to them as a surprise, and almost two decades later, I can still remember the underlying music, and the initial feeling of wanting to disappear into the cafeteria linoleum.
Nelson: But your sonic interests are certainly more complex than rhyming; sometimes whole poems are a dance between homophonics and semantics—a delightful dance, I should say—:“field of flowers” becomes “filled of followers,” for example.
Park: Richard Kenney is my mentor, and a poet who strongly influenced my work, along with a long lineage of poets in love with the language. I think these poems are trying to find meaning in the world and the word, so they do end up in a dance, or begin to denature and reform.
Here’s an example from a fairytale I love: The Black Bull of Norroway. The protagonist condemns herself to seven years of separation because she slightly moved her foot, when she was asked not to move neither hand nor foot. That twitch made a world of difference. But what a difficult request—so I think about these constraints, and how one could break a rule or word almost impalpably. Trick of the eye, sleight of hand, slight foot. “Field” is “filled” in; “flowers” fill out to “followers.” The tools and materials are given in a word: letters can be rearranged, added, and removed in little ways, making a word and its iterations/evolutions the same and different.
I like this quote by Richard Wilbur: “I have no interest at all, really, in meter, per se, or in rhyme patterns, or in received forms. It’s all in what you do with them, or indeed against them.”
Nelson: Your poems renew my sense of the mystery of language, and they coax me out of my certainties that I know what a word means and how it will “behave.” What do you do, as a writer, to keep that sense of mystery fresh, alive?
Park: Thank you so much for this. I think this sense of mystery you speak of is also some surprise and serendipity on my part. I may see a word, or write a line, and then I’ll think where it could go from there based on the utterance alone. These small shifts make writing so pleasurable. I like the idea of false etymologies, reimagined definitions—to break down a word and reverse-engineer it from that point. These new possibilities and “discoveries” help keep that mystery going. Having their basis and emphasis in music helps as well—to write for the ear is energizing.
Nelson: Congratulations on winning the Walt Whitman Award! Your manuscript, The Same-Different, will be published in April. Has this success affected your writing?
Park: Thank you, Chris! It was a wonderful surprise, and I am grateful every day for The Academy of American Poets and Rae Armantrout (and the people who helped me along the way). Being an author was my childhood dream, so I am very excited for April. As for affecting my writing, the prize gave me actual time, space, and resources to keep writing, and that’s manna.
Nelson: Tell us about the evocative cover image. Did you select it? How do you see it in relation to the poems?
Park: I sent the book designers some ideas for what I thought would be nice as a cover—in short, dualities and metamorphoses. That’s what it boiled down to. And they interpreted my clumped tea leaves in a lovely, subtle way. My artist friend saw the cover as going from heating to cooling, fire to ice. I also see it as a hungered branching or rooting. Either way, there’s a direction to it—this stage, to that. And the image relates wonderfully to the poems, as these poems have their words and forms going from one stage to another. They want to take root or branch out. And now that I think about it, the book does begin in a kind of fire, and ends in an icy world.
Nelson: Where did you draw your inspiration for the manuscript?
Park: A huge debt is owed, always, to H.D. and Marina Tsvetaeva, who influenced the new direction this manuscript went in, and were the primary colors. Hopkins, because he has settled permanently in my ear. I kept Heather McHugh’s Hinge & Sign, Beckett’s Three Novels, and Merrill’s Collected very close when writing this, as was Mark Levine’s essay in Poetry Magazine (“How Difficult It is To Live”).
There’s quite a bit about things true and false, because the ideas of things true and false began to overlap: I was fascinated by how related words comprised and compromised these extremes.
The month sonnets are hybrids from a myriad of cultures, something that began in a year I spent doing mythological and folkloric research in Korea. I grew up reading and loving fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and this is my primary allusive database. To see it in a broader scale—to encounter these Korean stories and remember something I had read earlier—was a kind of bridge. The Aarne-Thompson index breaks these cross-cultural tales down into types. And these similarities and differences in storytelling really make the world seem smaller and closer.
I do write from love. I’ve had the great fortune to be in several different cities in the time I wrote the manuscript, and in these communities of brilliant, generous people who inspired and encouraged me with their own passion and work. The MacDowell Colony—the environs, and the artists, writers, and staff I met there had a huge hand in this. The bulk of the book was written there. The other inspiration came from the Fulbright researchers I met in my time in Korea, in conversations about identity and history. There were other Korean Americans who galvanized me: this was the love.
Nelson: I understand that you’re also a screenwriter. I’ve found poetry and screenwriting to be similar in their emphasis on the image and their demand for brevity. How do you find the two arts? Are they uneasy roommates, so to speak, or do they live rather harmoniously together?
Park: You’re absolutely right in their similarities. There’s a harmony to them, and I’m lucky to have executives, professors, and readers who hear and encourage that. Hone and pare the image and the emotions to the finest point.
Yet I like the idea of “uneasy roommates,”and personally speaking, there’s truth in that for my current situation—screenwriting is eating all the food poetry buys and slowly filling a jar with IOUs. Screenwriting is dating someone poetry was involved with for years, and doesn’t have the decency to come clean. It’s been an intense, intensive year and I’m loving what I’ve learned. Now it’s learning how to sustain both of them.