The Magnetic Pull of Place: An Interview with Rosanna Young Oh

Jane satterfield headshot Headshot of Rosanna young oh

JANE SATTERFIELD and ROSANNA YOUNG OH—poets who met at the 2023 Poetry by the Sea Global conference in Madison, CT—connected via email between Baltimore and New York City, and reflected on the power of inherited narratives, their shared fandom of Jane Eyre, sustaining creativity, and Rosanna’s newest collection, The Corrected Version.

Jane Satterfield: Rosanna, I was struck by the lyric precision of your poems and the commitment to truth-telling they reflect. The Corrected Version is such a compelling poetic narrative of taking in the world and making your way in the world. Whether you’re looking at identity, memory, myth, visual art, relationships familial and romantic—there’s a sense of dismantling illusion but there’s an equal desire to hold on to tenderness. In “Feeding the Koi,” an adult speaker moving back to her hometown confronts her fears of the future and finds solace in the natural world. And “How Carelessly the Snow Falls,” meditates on the bonds of maternal love displayed by mourning snow monkeys who carry the corpses of their infants with them for months. I’m wondering if you could talk about the process of writing The Corrected Version and the preoccupations that brought these powerful and haunting poems into being.

Rosanna Young Oh: I built this collection poem by poem over the course of fourteen years. I spent five of those years away from Poetryland, writing very little as I focused on my career in Corporate America. My writing process kept evolving as I did, as I moved cities for school, returned to New York for work, and then to Long Island during the pandemic, when I finally finished the book.

I have always been interested in writing about family, art, and labor—all of which run through the collection. This collection is also about solitude, love, the tension between a self and community, and the limits of imagination and, perhaps, of poetry. I like to think that the book is about survival, too.

JS: That makes a lot of sense—the collection is filled with descriptions of shared experiences that link generations. And I see a strong documentary impulse, too—autobiographical experiences are viewed against the currents of history. From the book’s opening sonnet through creation myths, ekphrases, and prose poems, I notice you move fluently between poetic styles and genres. Were there any specific formal challenges you set for the book?

RYO: Thank you for this question! No, I did not set any specific formal challenges for the book itself, though I did choose certain forms for specific poems. For example, the sonnets were written in that form because it adds to the meaning of each poem.

The biggest challenge of writing this collection was making it cohesive. There had to be a reason that these poems belonged in a collection together. I spent a long time ordering and reordering these poems and added new poems until the book intuited an arc.

JS: “The Gift” is one of several poems where the world is glimpsed through the eyes of a child—in this case, a young girl who clutches Jane Eyre while observing a tense confrontation in her father’s grocery store. It can’t be an accident that this is the book your narrator latches onto: Charlotte Brontë and her sisters were deeply attentive to power dynamics and the way that labor—domestic and otherwise—enforces gender, racial, and economic inequalities. But they also celebrate the power of reading and writing as a means of personal agency…could you say more about the way that Jane Eyre still resonates for you as a poet?

RYO: I was hoping that you’d notice Jane Eyre in that poem, especially since your beautiful book, The Badass Brontës, just came out.

I still love Jane Eyre for what you observed: its nuanced observations of socioeconomic inequality; the freedom that one experiences only from reading and writing. A schoolteacher gifted me a Barnes & Noble edition of Jane Eyre when I was in the seventh grade. To overcome moments of self-doubt in my childhood, I kept thinking back to Jane’s outburst to Rochester: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless?” I was not a penniless orphan and there was no Rochester figure, but my version of this speech was, “I am not pretty or wealthy but I can work harder than everyone else.” It’s something that I still tell myself, and that keeps me motivated as a writer.

JS: I love what you’re saying about the power of reading. It’s amazing how Jane’s outburst leaps off the page and into the hearts and minds of so many readers in so many different contexts beyond the Victorian era in which the novel was written. Your observations also reminded me of Adrienne Rich’s essay “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of the Motherless Woman” which looks at the power of Jane’s resistance to the social forces that threaten to undermine personal fulfillment and autonomy.

And of course, one of your book’s recurring themes is the tension between duty and autonomy—the need to make a living and maintain a certain freedom of mind. I wondered how—if at all—the demands of your current job in the corporate world shape your poetry or writing practice.

RYO: I’m a marketing executive at a Fortune 300 corporation that counts pharma companies among its clients. You can imagine how busy the entire pharma industry has been since the pandemic started. My corporate job doesn’t shape my poetry or writing practice that much at all, simply because my day-to-day is so removed from poetry. Sometimes the job can be demanding and finding time to write is tough. (I was waking up at 5:30 am and writing late into the night after work to finish my book.) But overall, I’m proud of my work at the company, which has helped me grow as a person and leader.

I still grapple with this tension between duty and autonomy. I worshipped my literature and writing professors in college, and wanted so terribly to follow in their footsteps by teaching poetry workshops and 19th-century American poetry. I still do.

But I simply couldn’t ignore the horror stories I heard about the job market as a Ph.D. student in 2013 and 2014. I have two younger brothers, too. At the time, one was serving in the Marines and the other was an art student in college. My mind kept picturing my parents aging in their little store, and I just could not—I would NOT be another reason to make them worry. They did not suffer to watch all three of us struggle. And I will make sure that they live the rest of their days in dignity, too. America can be an expensive place to live and die in.

Sometimes I grieve who I was and who I could have been had I stayed in academia. I remember what my professors said in classes that happened more than a decade ago.  But I’ve decided that my life is an adventure and that every experience will help me write better poems. One day, I will be the writer that I want to be.

JS: You seem to be speaking of these perplexing questions in “Your Lonely Dream.” Here, the speaker’s sleeping mind has successfully conjured “a studio/in the woods, miles and miles away from the city” and a life of art that’s magically maintained: she can “pay the rent/without having to teach.” And yet, her dream is disrupted—she’s haunted by the voices of parents whose cultural expectations she struggles to resist. In waking life, though, it looks like you’re carving out your path and finding productive ways to negotiate the tensions you’ve faced and seeing the power in connectedness.

Speaking of connections, I wondered how you think about poetic influences. Whose work—across the centuries—do you see yourself in conversation with? Are there voices—past or present—who seem like artistic kin?

RYO: Thank you for your thoughtful reading of that poem, and for your question. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be an artist-in-residence at the Queens Historical Society in Flushing, Queens. I had the chance to feature my work as part of a solo exhibition, which included a room featuring the poets who have impacted my life and poems. Among them are Walt Whitman, Wordsworth, Seamus Heaney, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Louise Glück, Sandra Lim, Cavafy, and Wallace Stevens.

 

“the work is hard and often mundane, but it is also honest and, therefore, worthy of praise and attention.”

 

From the timeless world of Korean myth to the complexities of urban life in the 21st century, The Corrected Version speaks to the magnetic pull of place. There are moments in your poems that are painterly and arresting in their imagery. How do the places you inhabit—in literature or in life—shape your poems?

RYO: Thank you for asking this question. It was important to me, as someone who has been told to go back to my country throughout my life, that the speaker’s home is literally on Long Island. Often in immigrant narratives, home is the motherland one returns or looks back to. Almost all of The Corrected Version is situated in America because America is my home.

Asian Americans are also accused of not contributing to their communities. I wanted to be concrete in my rendering of my family’s grocery store to show that they do in ways both big and small—even at the risk of working themselves to death, as “Hard Labor” suggests. And yes, the work is hard and often mundane, but it is also honest and, therefore, worthy of praise and attention.

JS: When we had the chance to chat recently at a conference, you mentioned that you wanted the book to honor family and inherited rituals. In poems like “Hard Labor,” which revisits your father’s battle with COVID in the early days of the pandemic, you pay tribute to the intimate struggles of loved ones. What ethics do you bring to the process of writing about family? Do you share your work or keep it private? How has your work been received by (or not) by family?

RYO: With very personal subjects such as family, my goal is to write towards complexity. For me, this requires an emotional detachment which in turn entails maturity, time, and distance. For example, I wrote the first draft of “Hard Labor” two years after the events captured in the poem happened. I also ask myself whether a poem like “Hard Labor” had to be written in such detail, and to what end. The answer was yes in this case. People need to know how COVID impacted essential businesses that remained open for their communities in those early, scary days.

My ethics are pretty simple when it comes to writing about family: how would I feel if someone wrote a poem about me? At the end of the day, I love my family. Is it worth upsetting or embarrassing them over a poem that will appear in print forever? For me, the answer is no.

I walked my parents through the poems in which they appear. They have been supportive. My father, who was a real bookworm in his previous life, perhaps understands more than anyone else what this first book means to me. He has been handing out copies of my book to his customers at work. (High praise, since he is a difficult man to impress.) And some of those customers, who watched me grow up at the store, reached out to express support and share their own stories. My mother is also proud, but she has been encouraging me to write happy poems—a challenge for my next book.

 

Rosanna Young Oh’s debut collection, The Corrected Version (2023) was a winner of the Diode Editions Book Prize. Oh’s writing has appeared in publications such as Best New PoetsHarvard Review OnlineBlackbirdThe Hopkins Review, and 32 Poems. Her honors include scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and New York State Writers Institute. Her poetry was also the subject of a solo exhibition at the Queens Historical Society, where she was an artist-in-residence. She lives and writes on Long Island, New York.

Jane Satterfield is the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Maryland Arts Council, Bellingham Review, Ledbury Poetry Festival, Mslexia, and more. Her essays have received awards from the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, Massachusetts Review, Florida Review, and the Heekin Foundation, among others. Her books of poetry are The Badass Brontës (a winner of the Diode Editions Book Prize), Her Familiars, Assignation at Vanishing Point, Shepherdess with an Automatic and Apocalypse Mix, winner of the 2016 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond. Born in England, she is a professor in the Writing Department at Loyola University Maryland and lives in Baltimore with her partner, poet Ned Balbo.

The Magnetic Pull of Place: An Interview with Rosanna Young Oh

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