Poet in the Mirror: Jihyun Yun
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Jihyun Yun—author of the new Some Are Always Hungry (winner of the 2019 Prairie Schooner Prize Book Prize)—shares the years-long journey of submitting a manuscript, the new ways of seeing yourself once a book is out in the world, and a great bit of advice: “Debuting is meaningful and a triumph no matter what timeline it happens on.”
On Rejection & Revision
Jihyun Yun: I finished the first version of SOME ARE ALWAYS HUNGRY towards the tail end of 2016 and began submitting it well before it was ready. That first version received plenty of form rejections but also many extremely encouraging personal ones as well. After that first wave of responses, I realized that there were too many poems that were hitting the same chords and diluting each other as a result, so I pulled many poems, reordered my manuscript and began resubmitting in late 2017.
Over the first two years of submissions, the book was placing in numerous contests at presses I really admire. Of course, I was always grateful for each and every time my manuscript placed in a book prize but I can’t deny that I also hit submission burnout. I intended 2019 to be my last submission cycle before taking a hiatus on sending out SOME ARE ALWAYS HUNGRY because it was all just getting to be too expensive. When my collection won the 2019 Prairie Schooner Prize, I honestly couldn’t believe it. I’d submitted individual poems to Prairie Schooner magazine so many times over the years and never made the cut, so to win the book prize seemed outside the realm of possibility to me. I’m still bewildered and very grateful.
On Becoming “Professional”
The word professional in relation to poetry is interesting. Even as I worked through my MFA, the possibility of a book felt like an unlikely dream. I was there to learn more about a craft I love and was new to, but I never thought of poetry as a viable career possibility. In a lot of ways, I still don’t, even with a forthcoming book. I know I will always write, and I hope that more books enter the world down the road, but I’m not sure if I will ever stop feeling like a bewildered student, a feeling I am totally happy with. I say this fully knowing that I can’t speak for my future post-publication self. Maybe the book actually being in the world will change everything about how I view my own relationship to poetry, what I demand of myself. I’ll have to check in on myself with this same question in a few months.
On the Surprising Moments of Some Are Always Hungry
So far the most surprising thing has been just how quickly everything is moving. Before I got my own book deal, I would look at the sometimes three year+ timelines books have from acquisition to publication and would think, Oh wow, what a long time. The author must be so antsy. Boy was I wrong. The timeline for my book is one year, and while I’m definitely in great hands, I feel disoriented by the velocity at which things feel like they are happening. The sheer amount of people at the press who I am introduced to, work with for one task, and then never speak to again. It’s an exhilarating process, but I also feel tiny and confused.
I read! Naturally I read lots of poetry to re-energize, but I also find reading outside of my genre really helps me creatively as well. Outside of poetry, I read mostly short stories but I flipped through a lot of cookbooks and online recipes while writing Some Are Always Hungry as well. I love the inherent warmth and familiarity of recipe books, particularly the ones that ruminate on personal memories and emotional ties to the foods we are then taught to recreate. Recipes are, I think, the most tender vehicles of language.
Merely going outside and people watching always helps too. In every new city that I live in, I seek out the nearest body of water. In NYC, it was the Hudson. Now in Ann Arbor, I like to head to the Huron river that cuts through the local arboretum.
On What a Poet’s Family Finds Surprising
I think most of my family and friends would be surprised by how little time I actually spend writing. Most of them assume I come to the desk every day but I don’t. I do go through periods where I write fervently, finishing several poems at once, but I take months of hiatus too where I write nothing and read voraciously. These long periods of recharge are important to me, and I think it aids in my process overall. If I pressure myself too harshly to produce, I find that it stymies not only the quality of my work, but the love for the work. I want to still find enjoyment and wonder in poetry, and to that end, rest is perennially productive.
Some Advice for Emerging Poets
Work hard towards your goals, but don’t harm yourself in the name of productivity or in the pursuit of publishing young. If your career takes off quickly, that is wonderful. If your book is in submissions for many years before it finds its home, that is also wonderful. Debuting is meaningful and a triumph no matter what timeline it happens on.
Jihyun Yunis a Korean American poet from California who now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A Fulbright research grant recipient, she has received degrees from the University of California–Davis and New York University. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Poetry Northwest, Adroit Journal, and other publications.