Mordecai Martin sits down with Joan Kwon Glass to discuss her wonderful collections, How to Make Pancakes for a Dead Boy, and If Rust Can Grow On The Moon.
Mordecai Martin: So at the heart of each of these collections is a very real pain, a deep ache. In How To Make Pancakes For A Dead Boy, we might call that pain “grief” or “loss” and in If Rust Can Grow On The Moon it’s much harder to name pains, both physical and emotional, that drive substance abuse and addiction. The pain of each collection is real, it’s something you’ve experienced. The question I found myself returning to is, what weight does that reality have in the poems? What would a more abstract or fictionalized approach have done to these poems, or to you as a poet? Or put less hypothetically, what did it cost you to put so much real experience into poetry?
Joan Kwon Glass: What an interesting question! You are absolutely right, both chaps are about pain in different contexts. And I experienced both times in my life—loss to suicide and active addiction—as so completely different. Both chaps do include some surrealism—in PANCAKES, the poems “Line” imagines a line at my nephew’s wake as moving backwards into an abyss. In RUST, I have three almost hallucinations around Triton that are woven throughout.
The thing about pain and grief is this: at times what we imagine becomes real. I’m not sure to this day what was real and what I imagined in the acute stages of grief and in acute withdrawal. What it cost…it cost me the ability to hide or disappear. I had to face every raw emotion. Some of The poems in Rust made me physically sick to write. But I’m so glad I did. Truth is always worth telling.
Mordecai Martin: I’m interested in your use of a higher concept like “Truth” just now because there’s a cynicism and a resistance to neat moralizing in the poems. I’m thinking of “Versions of My Higher Power: A Retrospective” in IF RUST and “Questions for my mother” in PANCAKES. Is it easier to believe in Truth in poetry, than the overarching ideals of forgiveness or grace or benevolence that seem to be in doubt in those poems?
Joan Kwon Glass: The truth for me is always in flux. The Higher Power poem is a perfect example of that—each version of my Higher Power was my truth at the time. But to your point, yes—forgiveness has been extremely difficult for me, as you may see in Questions for my Mother. The desire to find blame is a very human thing, right? What I have just begun to understand is that grace is acceptance that who is to blame is not relevant spiritually. I want to be a Spiritual Being having a human experience, but I am mostly still a human, struggling to recover.
Mordecai Martin: That pesky bundle of nerves and chemicals and mud that we call a body, always inserting itself into the conversation. One of the things I admired about the collections is the way we see these painful experiences reflected through different aspects of your being. Mourning your nephew as your mother’s daughter and as your daughter’s mother. Addiction as a parent and as a teacher. Do you feel that refraction, that filtering through each role you play, does that ever take away from the wholeness? Or does it, in fact, make the wholeness?
Joan Kwon Glass: This universe is truly a crazy place. The year after I lost my nephew I was transferred from eight to six grade in my teaching role. I sobbed at the end of the first day—all of these students were my nephew’s age when he died. It was overwhelming but also helped to bring some comfort as time went on.
When my own child faces a mental health crisis, I had to find a way to be her mother—not a traumatized woman in mourning. That has been one of the hardest challenges I’ve faced. But it has also taught me that there’s so much I can’t control. My kids have their own journeys. Their own Higher Powers.
As an addict, I’ve faced devastation and wonder why I survived against the odds when so many have not. It is all connected.
Mordecai Martin: Shifting subjects, do you mind if I ask a few questions about your light touches of Korean concepts and Hangul in the collections?
Joan Kwon Glass: Sure!
Mordecai Martin: There are at least two poems in PANCAKES that explicitly touch upon Korean customs and ideas: “Chuseok 추석”, and “I Ask the Pearl Diver to Bring You Back from the Dead”. In IF RUST, there’s very little mention of your cultural background. Why do you feel that is? Was addiction and recovery, unlike family loss, something that you felt took place away from your “Koreanness” as it is?
Or maybe the better question is: Why does family loss end up forefronting that bilingualism and biculturalism, and addiction less so?
Joan Kwon Glass: You know…I have never considered why. But I can tell you that addiction was both the loneliest, most insular experience of my life and the most dissociative. I didn’t consciously experience addiction as a Korean American other than feeling even more deeply isolated. My mother once said, “there are no Korean addicts.” It reminded me of Margaret Cho’s old bit about her mother saying “gays are everywhere…but NOT KOREA! NOT KOREA!”
Grief is a very familiar experience for Koreans. My family lost their home, all of their photos, even their last name during the Japanese occupation of Korea. I lost my aunt in the Sampoong department store collapse. There are other losses I won’t go into out of respect for my family. Koreans are expected to move through grief and carry on.
Mordecai Martin: I think the collection shows a beautiful resistance to that last idea, of “carrying on”. Grief is clearly something that is now part of your life, and will remain so. There is no “through this” in the collection. Just the loss and the quiet and you and your nephew.
Piggybacking on that last question about Bilingual poems: There are several cultural competencies that might make the work richer to any given audience. Korean language and Korean culture. Personal experience with suicide. Personal experience with addiction. As a poet, how does it feel to put out work that might be misinterpreted or at least be seen as less multidimensional without those backgrounds? In short, who do you feel you’re writing for and why?
Joan Kwon Glass: When I wrote these manuscripts, I had no idea if they would ever be published—the content is so difficult. I had accepted that they might NOT be published. So in writing them, I don’t think I ever considered who my audience would be.
When they were both accepted for publication relatively quickly, I panicked. Especially about RUST. As a teacher, it’s very scary to put myself out there like this. I hope that people will read with an open mind and see the recovery and not just the suffering. Being biracial and bilingual, having lived in two countries, and having two very different sides of my family, I sometimes feel like I can’t fully represent any group. But maybe that’s a vehicle for art in and of itself: not to be boxed in, not to follow any prescribed norms for one culture.
Mordecai Martin: There is definitely a lot of vulnerability in these poems, and I want to acknowledge the courage that takes, while also asking: what protects you? What is there in putting these feelings in poems that keeps you safe?
Joan Kwon Glass: I’ve learned that being vulnerable in my work actually protects me—it protects me from hiding from fear, from the expectations of others, and from having to grieve later instead of right now. I feel that the courage to be vulnerable has fortified me. Now I’m working on softening. If that makes sense.
Mordecai Martin: It does! What might that softening look like in poetry?
Joan Kwon Glass: I am asking myself the SAME question these days! I want to know the answer. I have learned a lot from the writing of Rachel McKibbens whose poem “The First Time” provides the epigraph for PANCAKES. She is my literary hero and I admire her vulnerability and seeking of personal truths so much.
I want to write those soft poems. For now, I am inviting the softness in.
Mordecai Martin: First steps, first.
Joan Kwon Glass: Exactly.
Mordecai Martin: Okay, well, I need to wrap up here, but I usually like to end by inviting you to ask me a question that I’ll answer and then turn over to our readers. What would you like to ask?
Joan Kwon Glass: Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m finding interviews to be such a gift. Your questions were poems in and of themselves.
My question for you: whose writing has helped to soften you, made you open to light after periods of despair?
Mordecai Martin: After reading Isaac Babel the first time, I was in a very particular literary despair. Specifically, I felt that I couldn’t observe anything as closely and sharply as he could, that I would never be able to be as vivid and incisive in my prose. Then I read Grace Paley. Paley also has that vividness and incision, don’t get me wrong. And I’m still not sure I can live up to that. But she also has a tenderness, a genuine affection for her subjects. Now I strive for that warm tenderness as much as I strive for Babel’s glittering clarity, and it helps me be softer with myself as a writer and with my subjects.
But I wonder what our readers will say!
Joan Kwon Glass (she/her) is the biracial, Korean American author of NIGHT SWIM, winner of the 2021 Diode Editions Book Contest, & is author of three chapbooks (Harbor Editions & Milk & Cake Press). Joan is a Brooklyn Poets mentor, poet laureate of Milford, CT & poetry co-editor of West Trestle Review. She is a proud Smith College graduate & has been a public school educator for 20 years. Her poems have appeared in Diode, Rattle, The Rupture, South Florida Poetry Journal & many others & have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize & Sundress Anthology Best of the Net. She grew up in Michigan & South Korea & lives in Connecticut with her family.
A moving and interesting interview. A conversation between two poets which is indeed a poem itself.